1226 – ‘Long March’ – Poland

Introduction

1. A party of cadets from Middlesex Wing (ATC) joined members of 90 Signals Unit, RAF Leeming for expedition training over the period 22-28 Jan 12. The exercise was designated Exercise LONG MARCH 2012 and combined a physically challenging march across Poland with ethos and values training. The latter was primarily based on lessons learned through the experiences of RAF Prisoners of War in WW2.

Aims of the Expedition

2. To learn about WW2 prisoner of war experiences and particularly the “Long March” by re-tracing the original route between Stalag Luff 3 and the railhead at Spremberg. To lend authenticity, the expedition was to take place in winter-time and the team were to live in the same over-night accommodation used by the POWs in 1945. Further, cadets were to find out how these events have helped shape RAF ethos for the current generation.

Overview

3. The LONG MARCH experience can be summed up as follows: bitterly cold, some periods of warmth, but largely numbing.

4. Cold. From the time of our arrival, the weather was cold and was to become progressively colder. Though we were well equipped, getting good sleep was well-nigh impossible. How the POWs managed we could not imagine, particularly in the barns at Lipna. In fact, the veterans who talked to us made it clear that many of their colleagues fell by the wayside and died of exposure or hypothermia. At least four were left behind at the Barns, having become frozen to the ground. A salutary lesson indeed.

5. Warmth. In contrast to the weather, it was a very pleasant surprise to encounter genuinely friendly local people as we progressed through the March. Perhaps more surprising, we were very pleased to find that the Airmen and Airwomen we were sharing the experience with made us feel welcome and were ready to accept us as equals. This is not always the case when cadets combine with RAF personnel and it made a huge difference to our attitude to the expedition. Though our contact with local Polish people was rather limited, we were always impressed with their kindness and warmth. For example, leaders of the Sagan Scout Group came to meet us at Stalag Luff 3 on our first night. They expressed admiration for the achievements of the POWs and were obviously very familiar with the story of the “Great Escape”. They said they would like to participate in future LONG MARCH expeditions. Next day, we stopped for a break at a small Primary School in Ilowa. The Head welcomed us and explained why, following the fall of Communism, they decided to re-name the school to become, “School of the Allied Airmen”. Several of the staff spoke English and showed us some projects their pupils had undertaken. All of these were based on the Great Escape and it was clear they were proud to be associated with the Royal Air Force. However, for me, the most striking gesture of kindness was at a small hamlet where our group stopped for a much-needed rest. Here, one of the residents confronted our Flight Commander and made it clear he wanted to offer us some hot water. When we entered his home, we watched as he filled three large saucepans and placed them on his rather puny gas stove. His humble surroundings made it obvious that catering for such numbers was well beyond his means, yet he was determined to provide hospitality – it was a most touching gesture. By contrast, the Veterans told us that they had been stoned as they passed through the same village in 1945. However, at that stage in the War, there was an understandable hatred of the “Flying Terrorists” who rained destruction across all parts of Germany at that time.

6. The only other “warm” part of the March was the sensation our feet experienced as they pounded across uneven forest paths and cobbled village roads. Even after Day One, several of us had serious blisters and we were grateful that RAF Medics were on hand to lance the worst of these and bandage others. Both were to become major worries as the mileage increased. The smallest abrasion could develop rapidly into a major issue (certainly in one’s mind) as the drudgery of the apparently endless journey impacted on our tired bodies. Even when we met a stretch of tarmac’d road, its very straightness and interminable length only added to the agony.

7. Numbing. After three days, the March was finally over and we were all relieved to have use of a proper bed. The respite was short-lived however. The weather was still grim as we made our weary way to Berlin and thence to Sachsenhausen, the infamous Nazi concentration camp just 30 miles south of the capitol. It was here two of the Great Escapers who survived the massacre were to spend the final months of the War. Squadron Leader Jimmy James and Richard Churchill even escaped from this hell hole but after being re-captured had to endure 6-months in solitary confinement before finally being liberated. Looking at the remains of their tiny cells and the vile torture machinery was truly mind-numbing. Whether it was such chilly reminders of man’s inhumanity, or just the icy wind, all of us were visibly shaking by the time our visit was over. Our final encounter with this grim part of the War was at the Commonwealth War Graves on the West side of the city. Here we took part in a short Remembrance Service. Surrounded by serried ranks of headstones, many with names of young airmen barely older than ourselves, the profound message of sacrifice was not lost on me and my fellow cadets. As a conclusion to a very personal journey, we could not have finished on a more poignant note : it was with a special sense of gratitude that we prayed together “We will remember them”.

Lessons Learned

8. No doubt each cadet will have his/her own feelings about the Expedition. However, the following lessons were clearly evident to us all:

9. Communication. For good team work, there must be good communication across the team. We witnessed a lot of banter amongst the RAF personnel. Initially, this appeared to disregard rank. However, as we listened more, we were able to see a subtly in the exchanges that disguised rank whilst effectively conveying a message. The Veterans’ experience confirmed that in their experience, humour was an important ingredient in maintaining discipline when the normal command structure was absent. It appears that this lesson has been assimilated into today’s RAF.

10. Hardship. Don’t duck hardship, accept that life is not always fair and treat difficulties as a challenge to be overcome. Such an attitude was what helped to keep the Veterans alive (quote from ex-WO Andy Wiseman).

11. Be ambitious. Set your targets and fight to achieve them. “”Aim for the Moon, if you miss, you will still be among the Stars !” – motto of the School of the Allied Airmen).

Conclusion

12. Speaking personally, this was without question the hardest thing I have ever done. Completing the Long March itself gave me the greatest sense of achievement in all my 18 years. But that is only part of the experience. Contact with the Veterans and exposure to some of their wartime situations in a tangible way, has given me a new understanding of what it took for their generation to win the War. Finally, I can honestly say that it was a privilege to share this fantastic experience with 90 Signals Unit. I have gained a deep respect for the modern RAF and the young people who are part of this special organisation.

13. I know I speak on behalf of the whole team when I say “Thank You Very Much” to the Ulysses Trust and the RAF Charitable Trust for their generosity in supporting our participation in LONG MARCH 2012. I hope future generations of cadets will be given the opportunity to have the same experience. It has certainly changed my life.

Stephanie Gullon, Cadet Sergeant, 1373 (East Barnet) Squadron

With thanks to:

Ulysses Trust

In partnership with:

RAF Charitable Trust