The longer I study World War II, the more I realize what I don’t know. In a war of this size and scope, there is always a new story, each one seemingly more unlikely than the last. I recently had a chat with a bright young friend who told me a new one. I like to think of myself as an expert, but this tale still brought me up short:
You’re part of a group of American POWs being held at Stalag III-C, a camp at Alt Drewitz, about 50 miles east of Berlin in what today is Poland. It’s mid-January 1945, and the Soviets have just landed one of their patented late-war blows, slashing out of their bridgeheads across the Vistula River and driving hard across the featureless plains of the Warthe district toward the Oder. The German guards at the camp follow standard operating procedure and prepare to evacuate, intending to force-march you and your fellow POWs to the west. But it’s freezing and snow lies deep on the ground. You know all this, and you also know that an evacuation under current conditions will be a death march. So you drag your feet, moving as slowly as you can in obeying your increasingly trigger-happy German guards. After all, if the Soviet army overruns the prison, the Germans get shot and you get freed. The Red Army is your friend!
But the Russians don’t come—not yet. And in the last week of January you find yourself on the road after all, grouped into trudging columns of 500 men apiece. The march is no thing of beauty and within hours your friends and comrades in arms—exhausted, sick, and underfed—are already falling out.
The date is January 31, 1945. The columns are barely out of camp when Soviet units come on the scene. They pause and spy the long line of marching men in the distance, some in dirty rags, some in overcoats.
Thinking they have caught yet another Wehrmacht unit in retreat, the Soviets target one of the columns and open up on it. Within minutes, dozens of your fellow Americans are dead and dying. In the distance, you can see leading elements of the column rush toward the Soviets, identifying themselves as Americans. Perhaps one or two of them have memorized a key Russian phrase: Amerikansky tovarishch—“American comrade!” But you’re in the rear, too far away to make a rush to the Soviets and too close to your German guards. Instead you and the others hit the dirt, trapped between attacking Soviets and German defenders. You take shelter in the nearby fields, but the prognosis is grim: you’re unarmed, disoriented, and a long, long way from home. Bullets from both sides are whizzing over your head.
It gets worse. In the course of the day, German tank units arrive and launch a counterstroke to extricate their comrades from the mess they’re in. You? You’re an afterthought.
And so it goes over the next few days. The Germans force back the Soviets, the Soviets turn the tables, and then back again. But this engagement—one small battle in a war filled with big ones—kills 22 Americans and wounds more than 50.
Miraculously, you survive. As the Soviets eventually prevail and renew their drive to the west, you and a few dozen of your friends filter away one by one, trekking off into the vast spaces of the East, living off the generosity of local peasants or meeting rear-echelon Soviet forces.
Since then, what happened outside of Alt Drewitz has been all but forgotten. But in the swirling chaos of World War II, this bizarre story is probably not as unusual as we think.
And that’s why I’ll never stop studying World War II. We’re more than 70 years on, but who knows what else is out there? ✯