Memoirs of Des Matthews



Memoirs of Des Matthews


The author was shot down over Linz, Austria whilst bombing a Panzer works. The other six in his crew perished. He was taken to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt then Stalag Luft VII. In January his camp was evacuated and he joined the Long March to the west, ending up at Luckenwalde (Stalag 3A). In April the camp was overrun by Russians but they were kept as prisoners. An American convoy arrived to take them west but the Russians refused to release them. Together with three friends they escaped and worked their way west until stopped by a river. On VE day they were refused access across a bridge, held by the Russians at one end and the Americans at the other. After being fed and liquored by friendly Russians they met up with Americans in Zerbst. They were then smuggled across the bridge and freedom.


Temporal Coverage



Nine typed sheets


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On V.E. Day 1945 I and my three companions were unaware the war was over. We were forty miles south of Berlin, fleeing to freedom through a countryside littered with thousands of unburied German and Russian corpses. In retrospect it is hard to believe the world celebrated while this mass of grey, dead men lay there neglected. It is probable that because they had been killed during the last two weeks of the war, their wives, parents and children also celebrated, unaware of their loss.
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During the previous summer on Sunday, August 20th, 1944 at 2300 hours, from a height of 11,000 ft., an Italian-based Liberator Bomber of the RAF was shot down bombing the Herman Goering Panzer works at Linz in Austria. Out of a crew of seven, only I, jumping through a manually-operated bomb door, survived.
The aircraft, A for Apple, of 178 Squadron based near Foggia, was the sole aircraft the squadron could muster as a contribution to the combined RAF raid on Linz. This was because the previous Sunday 178 Squadron of Liberators, in the company of other RAF, Polish and South African Squadrons, flew from Brindisi in Southern Italy to Warsaw. The Warsaw uprising was in a desperate phase and from a height of 400 ft. we endeavoured to sustain the gallant Poles with parachuted supplies of guns and ammunition.
The operation was a disaster. Only five aircraft of 178 Squadron returned safely. Our Liberator had forty holes in it from the attacks of the ground-based German guns. At such a low altitude we had been an easy target. Other squadrons, including Polish and South African, had been completely wiped out. The pitiful remainder of 205 Group was grounded. Three days later the surviving aircrews assembled at Group Headquarters to hear the reasons.
Winston Churchill had personally ordered the operation to bolster the courage and determination of the Poles in Warsaw fighting the German army. Although it must be said the operation failed, nevertheless, messages of praise were read out from Winston Churchill, the free Polish Leader in London and many other wartime leaders and top brass. The Polish Leader even promised us Polish decorations. I never got mine and I don’t suppose any one else did. The meeting was quiet and broody. Somehow the acclamation did not compensate for the dreadful loss of aircrew lives.
That is why 178 Squadron could only supply one Liberator aircraft to join the attack at Linz. It was shot down, my six companions were killed and only I parachuted through the fire and came to rest in a tree.
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I was captured at around six o’clock the next morning, making my way to the Swiss border. I was burnt, two ribs broken and wearing only one flying boot, as the other one had been lost during my descent. I don’t think my captors considered me a great threat.
Like all captured aircrews, I was sent to the central aircrew interrogation centre at Frankfurt am Mainz. I spent twenty-six days there in solitary confinement with no exercise, no washing, a starvation diet and threats. It was more difficult for the German Interrogators to milk information from a single prisoner with no fellow crewmen and not even a Squadron companion. I was in a position to be stubborn and had a long stay at Frankfurt, before they decided to turn me over to a prison camp.
Sometime in October I arrived at Stalag Luft VII in a place called Bankau in Poland, not far from the Czechoslovak border. It was good to be among other RAF prisoners, many of which I knew from previous training in Britain and South Africa.
During the next three months the Russian war machine rolled nearer and we could hear the fire of guns. One night the Russian airforce scattered a few light bombs on the camp, hurting no-one. During my war I was bombed and straffed by the German, Italian, British, American and Russian airforces. I must say, the one that scared me most was the RAF who dropped a twenty-thousand pound bomb near our prison camp at Potsdam. However, that was later.
On January 16th, 1945, fourteen hundred POWs left Bankau on a forced march to ‘safety’. More accurately, it was a forced trudge. The Russians were never far behind us. We crossed the Oder river and the German army blew up the bridge behind us.
We detoured, we zig-zagged through the snow and ice of the Silesian winter. The German guards ceased guarding, they were just part of a line of refugees from the Russian advance. The only difference was they ate and we starved.
Seven weeks later less than a thousand of the original force of fourteen hundred crawled into the international POW camp at Luckenwalde near Potsdam. At least four hundred had died of starvation, frostbite and sheer exhaustion, some had even wandered off to wait for the Russians and the winter to kill them. The Germans had not ill-treated us on the march, they had survival problems too. We were a skinny, weak and ill bunch of POWs when we reached Luckenwalde, having each lost, on average, about thirty pounds in weight.
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Luckenwalde camp was situated about 20 kilometres from Potsdam. Here the Germans had assembled prisoners of all nations who had marched away from the Russian advance. There were French, Croats, Serbs, Norwegians, Poles, British, Americans and Russians. A good number of the guards were Russians who had changed sides and were in German uniforms. I think it should be realised before we condemn the Russians who changed sides, that by far the majority of so-called Russians had no knowledge of belonging to the great power we know as the USSR. They knew they were Ukrainians, Georgians or Mongols, but they didn’t know that they were Russians. Most of them were illiterate with no idea of national identity as we have in the West. A Ukrainian was just as foreign to a Mongol as, say, a German.
The conditions in Luckenwalde were appalling. With the thousands of prisoners held there they couldn’t be anything else. There was very little food and we existed in a state of semi-starvation. The Red Cross did manage to get in some parcels and one time sent five tons of Swiss cheese. God bless the Red Cross.
When I said we existed, I mean the Western POWs survived but not the Russian POWs. The USSR was not a party to the Geneva Convention, which lays down basic conditions for war prisoners. So the Russian POWs received no extras. They starved to death in hundreds on a diet of watery cabbage soup and an odd slice of hard black bread. They hid their dead so their German captors would not cut their rations. They were too weak to maintain cleanliness standards and the Russian compound stank of death decay.
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It happened on a sunny Sunday morning in April. It just happened. There were no shots, no drums, no bugles, no sounds of warning. A red-starred line of tanks and armoured cars bedecked with hard-bitten Russian soldiers, and even a few camp followers, drove into the camp. They just drove in! It took minutes to sink in. We were free. Our splendid Russian allies were here. The gallant liberators had arrived! We climbed all over their tanks, we shook their hands, we hugged them, we cried over them and we thought the war was over.
It must be said that the emotion was all on our side. These very tough, brave, very determined Russian tankmen did not waste time on back slapping. Maybe there was the odd smile, but they had a job to do. Taking no notice even to look for Germans, they made a quick search for arms. They found the Russian POW compound and their tanks battered the wire down. Shouting “On to Berlin” they distributed guns and ammunition to the Russian POWs and drove out of the camp. The newly-armed Russian prisoners scattered to the countryside to murder and loot. I don’t suppose they had the strength to rape.
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The whole incident had lasted about half an hour, and when they had gone an unbelievable anti-climax set in. There were no Russians and no German guards, the flak towers were unmanned. No guns pointing, there was just us.
Well-trained minds recovered, meetings were held, a senior officer took charge of the camp. He happened to be British and a quick chain of command was established.
Around lunchtime a queue started to form at the camp gates and quickly grew into hundreds. They were a motely collection of German soldiers and civilians asking to be taken prisoner by the British and Americans. They did not want to fall into Russian hands, but we, wisely, did not let them in.
Three hours later a line of four German staff cars arrived carrying high-ranking German officers. With confident authority they announced that this was German territory, even though a Russian panzer spearhead had gone through. This would soon be dealt with. Meanwhile, we had broken the Geneva Convention by taking up arms as prisoners. In two hours the German army would return and for every weapon found, even a bayonet, fifty men would be shot. They left and we hurriedly buried the few weapons we had. The German army did not return.
As the evening drew in we returned to our huts. We were a mixture of elation, perplexity and a little down spirited. However, we had the luxury of a radio tuned into an American military station. The war news was good. The American advance was to stop at the Elbe. Nothing definite was known about the position of the Russians. One thing was clear to us – we were a long way east of the River Elbe.
We heard the first heavy gunfire at four o’clock that morning and the firing grew in crescendo and ferocity for four days and nights. Towards the end, shells were screaming over our camp. We just kept our heads down and waited. Despite being in the centre (or so it seemed) of a heavy battle, we had no casualties. The sound of battle passed to the north and when it became quieter the main Russian army came into view.
Somehow I was surprised at my first view of the all-conquering Red Army, they were more like a column from the first world war than an up-to-date fighting machine. There were armoured vehicles and a lot of American-manufactured trucks but much of it was horse-drawn. They came in slowly and rather scruffily, but there was a lot of them and these were the men who had fought from Stalingrad to within sight of Berlin.
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Later, Russian officers and soldiers took charge of our prison camp. They made it clear that we were now under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Union and proved it by manning the flak towers and armed sentries patrolled the boundary wire.
We had a little more to eat, and more freedom within the camp. Our radios were confiscated and we were virtually prisoners again. We really had not expected to be treated this way by our gallant allies. All questions about our release received one answer: “We await orders from Moscow.”
Our depression and frustration was dramatically lifted on the third of May. Two American war correspondents drove into our camp. Somehow they were like the war correspondents one sees in the movies, full of easy confidence and not giving a fig for the Russian officers in charge. They spent two hours listening to our plight and with a cheery “So long guys, the army will soon get you out” they left. We had become accustomed to disappointment and I don’t think we were as confident as they were. Still it was good to know that the Americans would soon be aware of our existence.
Five days later, at ten o’clock in the morning, a great cheer went up as a convoy of American trucks drove into the camp. While the US officers conferred with the Russians, the drivers invited us to get aboard. Our particular driver was black, with a real southern accent; “Now pack up good and tight fellas. We gonna take you all and jest don’t bring a thing, we got plenty over there.”
We packed tight and we didn’t take a thing: Who wanted to take two blankets and a home-made frypan. And we waited. We waited for at least two hours until the US and Russian officers emerged, and it was obvious they were not on friendly terms. The American convoy commandant was very annoyed and was waving papers in front of the Red Army officer’s face. The argument, difficult with language differences, seemed to consist of American “What the Hells!” and impassive Russian “Niets”. After half an hour of this, matters took a serious turn and armed Russian soldiers began to surround the convoy. The American officers and drivers held a meeting and our driver came back and said we should get off the trucks. Nobody moved in our truck or any of the others. The officers argued again, the American throwing his arms up in frustration. An order from the Russian brought two soldiers to each vehicle with rifles at the ready, and they meant business.
The Americans told us that if the trucks did not return empty to the American lines the whole convoy would be interned. We nearly wept as we watched them drive out of the camp. Obviously, there had been no orders from Moscow.
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Jock Nicol, Norman Capar, Pete Notton and I walked disconsolately back to our hut. Spurred by our deep disappointment, we decided to ‘go under the wire’ and we circled the camp boundary to find the weakest point. On one side the woods were only two-hundred yards from the fence and we found a spot where we could squirm under the barbed wire. Surreptitiously we examined the length of the patrol of the Russian perimeter guard. It was a much longer stretch than his German predecessor’s. The afternoon was warm and the guard looked less than alert. When he was fifty yards away with his back to us, we ducked under and ran for the woods. Shots were fired but we ran, and ran, and ran. After half an hour we stopped, weak legged and exhausted. We lay listening for sounds of pursuit, and the woods were quiet.
Jock Nicol and Norman Capar were the sort of men, that had one been fortunate enough to pick companions in adversity, one could not have picked better. Jock, a navigator from number five Bomber Command, was a fine man, he was physically strong and an absolutely dependable Scot. Norman Capar was a navigator in the Royal Canadian Airforce. He was six feet two inches in height, quiet, thoughtful and a stoic. I had first met Peter Notton three years earlier during our first aircrew training at Stratford on Avon. He was different from Jock and Norman. He was more mercurial, reckless, with a wide smile under blue eyes.
When we four recovered our breath we used the position of the sun to make our way westward through the narrow paths of the forest. Miles of firtrees glinted in the sunshine, covered with tons of window. Window was the name given to the small strips of foil dropped by allied airmen to confuse the German radar defence system. After the war, packets of window could be purchased to decorate the domestic Christmas tree. We had settled down to a steady pace when suddenly we saw three figures coming down the path to us, and we quickly ducked into the woods. So did they. We cautiously peered out again. So did they, and we advanced to each other. They were three German soldiers keeping clear of the Russians, and we were doing the same. We gave them a piece of chocolate and a cigarette each from our small store, shook their hands and wished them luck. None of us knew that the West were celebrating VE Day, but we had made our little peace,
We continued westwards through the firtrees, still listening for pursuit from the back, and alert for any movements ahead. The forest gradually gave way to heathland.
I cannot describe the first shock of seeing the crater of a dozen dead soldiers. It was so sudden we nearly stepped on them. They were so grey and so still. For a full minute we stared silently at them, almost expecting one of them to reach for a gun. I had seen corpses before, but somehow these, scattered in various immobile positions, appeared more dead than dead.
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We pushed on wordlessly through corpses, some Russian, some German. The shock wore off and soon we didn’t even glance at the hundreds of dead bodies, as we trudged towards the evening sun, heading west.
By nightfall we calculated we were in the area of Belzig. We had not crossed a road or seen a building since leaving Luckenwalde. We took our night’s rest under some sheltering bushes and ate some chocolate and thirstily wished we had brought some water with us.
In the chilly dawn we were four cold, stiff and doleful men. The elation of escape had flopped. We walked on, but somehow we were more desperate and more careless than we had been the day before. In fact, we were almost pleased to hit a road, that yesterday we would have avoided. At five o’clock in the morning it was deserted and we made our way on it, heading west. Two hours later a battered old truck carrying vegetables stopped and our hearts sank as we saw it was driven by two Russian soldiers. They were both expressionless, as with signs pointing to the RAF insignia on our battledresses, we pointed westwards. We repeated the only Russian word we know. “Angliski, Angliski, Angliski.” Stabbing a thumb, one of them indicated the back of the truck. We sat among the swedes and cabbages and about an hour later we alighted in the town of Zerbst.
I speak German fairly well as a result of the efforts of a good teacher at the Riley High School in Hull. His name was Newton, and he knew how to make lazy boys learn. So I soon ascertained that the bridge over the River Elbe was some six kilometres from Zerbst. Nobody seemed concerned with us, and the nearness of our target put an extra spring in our steps as we made our way.
There it was, an iron bridge over a wide smooth river. There were a few buildings and some Russian soldiers walking around. Four guards were at our side of the bridge and we could see their American counterparts on the other side.
Walking unimpeded up to the sentries, we repeated our approach to the Red-Army truck drivers, pointing over the bridge and doing the “Angliski” bit. They watched us patiently but unmoved. At length, one making a sign for us to follow, led us to the Guard House. A young, tall Russian officer came, he could speak German and understood our predicament. He also made it quite clear that we were not crossing his bridge, and ordered us back to Zerbst where we would find a displaced-persons’ camp. Our pleadings were of no avail. I then told him we were hundgry [sic] and thirsty and this seemed to please him. He led us to a farm house that sounded like bedlam. In fact, it sounded like a dangerous bedlam with shouting and singing interrupted by rifle shots.
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The officer spoke to a scruffy, fat man, dressed in jack boots, army trousers and a dirty, greasy vest, and left. We had found a friend, he put his very large arms around us and for a moment I thought I was going to get my first Russian kiss. Leading us into the farmyard, in Russian, he introduced us to fifteen or sixteen other scruffy men, dressed in trousers and vests. They seemed delighted that we had joined their party and proved it by thrusting bottles at us and firing shots in the air. It dawned on us that we had joined a bunch of drunken Russians having one hell of a celebration. Our fat friend, who spoke about a dozen words of English, and some German, frequently left us to stir a massive iron couldron [sic] in which floated several chickens cooking in a bubbling brown stock. We couldn’t take our starving eyes off it.
It didn’t take long for our weakened bodies to become as drunk as our hosts were. The cauldron stirrer became our particular chum and through him I learnt that the war was over and that this was a Red Army NCO’s party celebrating Russian VE Day. I learned later that the Russian VE Day is the day after the British and American VE Day.
Amid more drinking, more rifle fire, and the eating of chicken stew, our friend described, with difficulty, the good times the US and Russian soldiers had together before the bridge closed some days previously. I took the opportunity to raise our difficulty in crossing the bridge. He made a sign that our problem was solved, taking a rather soiled piece of notepaper, he wrote a message on it to give to the bridge guards. After more drinks, more hugs and handshakes we left the party to a loud fusillade of rifle shots.
Confidently we approached the bridge and handed our ‘pass’ to the guard, who looked rather puzzled as he read it, or maybe he couldn’t read. He led us to the same guard house and the same officer. As he read the piece of paper his face grew red with rage. I thought he was going to order our execution, but he pointed to the Zerbst road and we fled, and I really mean fled.
The trudge back to Zerbst was the most miserable of journeys and it was not made any better by two of us being violently sick on the way. Reaching the town we wandered around, lost and uncaring, but we were determined not to go back to Luckenwalde or any other Russian camp.
As we came to a large square in the City centre, we could believe in the sight of the large ornamental wrought-iron gates in front of us. We could believe in the four smartest Red Army soldiers we had ever seen, guarding the gate with fixed bayonets. We could believe the palace lying two-hundred yards along the drive from the gate. What we couldn’t believe was the line of about thirty armoured cars outside the palatial building. We couldn’t believe it because they were all wearing big American white stars.
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We moved towards the gates and the guards made threatening moves with their bayonets. We stood respectfully ten feet away watching the US Army convoy, two khaki-clad figures moved around the armoured cars and we shouted “Yank, Yank, Yank” at the top of our voices. They heard us and even we could see from a distance they looked puzzled. However, they decided to investigate and walked uncertainly down the drive towards us. When they arrived at the gates the guards snapped to attention and we could see they were both US Army Majors. We still kept our distance, telling them our story through the gates.
They listened and then signalled to the guards that it was okay to let us in. The sentries looked very doubtful but they opened the gates. On the way to the cars the Americans explained that this was Marshal Koniev’s headquarters and that the American Commander from across the Elbe and his staff were here to celebrate Russian VE Day with the victorious Red Army Marshal.
We were told to get into two armoured cars, “Lie down, keep quiet; and for Chrissake [sic] keep your heads down.” We didn’t need to be told twice. After an hour one Major returned, leant over the car and dropped a bottle of whisky in our laps. Whisky was what we did not want, but the gesture was a thoughtful one. Time passed by and we heard a lot of movement. Peering through a crack in the armoured car we saw what appeared to be half the top brass of the Red and US Armies, lined up with Marshal Koniev in the centre. Cameras clicked and many photographs were taken. I have never seen one and would very much like to do so.
After more toasts, handshakes and back slapping, the Americans moved to their vehicles. The Major whom we knew, and a Colonel whom we didn’t know, climbed in with the driver. The senior officer, face flushed with either good drink or vexation, looked down at us; “What the hell?” The Major hurriedly explained, and this time the Colonel told us “for Chrissake [sic] keep your heads down.”
The convoy started up and we did as we were told. Sometime later we could hear that we were crossing a bridge, and after a few seconds a voice said, “You’re okay now.” We stood up and looked back at the Russian guards at the other end of the bridge. We gave them the ‘V’ sign and I am quite sure those impassive Ruskies could not understand the English colloquialism ‘up yours’.
A week later we were back in England. The other prisoners who had remained at Luckenwalde arrived in England eight weeks after us. They had returned via Odessa and the Middle East. I often wonder what would have happened to us had we gone to that displaced-persons’ camp in Zerbst, and when I hear “God Bless America”, I join in the singing.



Des Matthews, “Memoirs of Des Matthews,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 16, 2024,

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