Caplan further characterized the march "[as one] of great hardship. We marched long distances in bitter weather and on starvation rations. We lived in filth and slept in open fields or barns. Clothing, medical facilities and sanitary facilities were utterly inadequate. Hundreds of men suffered from malnutrition, dysentery, tuberculosis, and other diseases."
Soviet T-34 tanks . . .
A week after arriving at Fallingbostel, Don and the other men in his lager were force to make yet another evacuation--back into the swirling chaos of the war now raging throughout central Europe. The experience was crushing, and Don, along with many of the POWs in his column, experienced mounting anxiety about their fate as they continued moving east, away from advancing Allied forces. For some men, this anxiety was becoming unbearable as the looming anticipation of crossing back over the Elbe River became symbolic of death itself. In response to these mounting fears, small groups of men started to think of escape while they still had the opportunity.
On 6 February 1945, 2,503 ambulatory prisoners of war interned in C-lager were marched out of Stalag Luft IV amid much haste and confusion. Under an overcast sky, the airmen were pressed four abreast and departed in column formation, which extended some two kilometers in length . . . moving across a snow covered countryside, in a northwest direction toward Belgard, and away from the sounds of Russian artillery and the relentless approach of the Red Army. By mid-March 1945, the American and British airmen who evacuated Stalag Luft IV, some 40 days earlier, had marched approximately 375–400 kilometers across northern Germany. This arduous trek, according to Flight Surgeon Leslie Caplan, was marked by a "trail of slime" as the extended column moved toward their final destination, Fallingbostel.
German refugees, 1945
The Russian Winter Offensive was launched 12 January 1945. Striking with unrelenting fury, Soviet armies of the First Ukrainian Front breached German defensive positions 175 kilometers south of Warsaw. By nightfall, the lead elements of several Red armies had advanced some 35 kilometers toward Breslau, and threatened the industrial regions of Silesia. Days later, terror had swept through all East Prussia and the eastern provinces of Pomerania and Silesia. The savagery and barbarism unleashed by the arrival of the Red Army in East Prussia alone caused unspeakable "misery, terror, and degradation" for millions of Germans, and became appropriately known as the "East German Passion." Within a matter of days, "800 years of German settlement in the East . . . ended as [millions of refugees] left . . . farms, villages, and towns in a frantic trek" of unprecedented tragedy.
Allied airmen, Spring 1945