Reservists based at RAF Leeming put on their walking boots to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the ‘Long March’ in Poland and Germany.
Personnel from 607 (County of Durham) and 609 (West Riding) Squadrons, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, walked the 60 mile historic route as part of Force Development – Exercise Long March. They joined a team which included personnel from Number 22 (Training) Group and Servicemen Awaiting Trade Training.
The route retraced footsteps of the 10,000 allied prisoners who were forced to march across Northern Germany in 1945 during WWII.
The walk began at the infamous prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III, Zágan, which is now part of Poland. This was the scene of The Great Escape, where 76 airmen escaped in 1944. The last man to set foot out of the escape tunnel was, Skeets Ogilvie, who was a pilot with 609 Squadron. At least two other members of the ‘escape committee’ were pilots from 607 Squadron.
The team stayed overnight in Hut 104, a replica of where The Great Escape tunnel entrance was located.
They were joined by president of the RAF POW Association and WWII veteran, Air Commodore Charles Clarke Ret’d, at the various points during the walk. Charles was shot down over Germany and imprisoned at Stalag Luft III in 1944 and actually endured the Long March in January 1945. Personnel were given the opportunity to speak with him about his WWII experiences.
Photographer SAC Emma Walker said: “It was an absolute honour to take part in the Long March and to have one of the veterans with us was something that I cannot put into words and will never forget. To listen to his experiences first hand will stay with me. He told stories of the Germans saying “escaping is no longer a sport” after the numerous escape attempts but stated “the digging went on” with regards to the great escape – I could have listened to his stories for hours. I would say that the Long March has been one of the most interesting exercises I have been involved in”
Three days of walking included visits to various historical points of interest along the way and overnight stays in the Luszcyka Barns, Poland, and Bad Muskau, Germany. The walk finished at Spremberg, where during the war, the prisoners were sent across Germany via rail and road.
Sqn Ldr Alfie Hall, 607 Sqn Executive Officer said: “We completed the 60 miles following the same route as the wartime PoWs in reasonable weather. When you consider that our predecessors covered that distance in chest-high snow, temperatures of -25 and colder in poor clothing and a poor diet it is incredible how any of them survived. To walk in their footsteps, especially with a Veteran who was actually there, was very humbling.
“Air Commodore Clarke recalls the wartime PoW camp and the Long March very clearly. We were extremely fortunate that he was willing to discuss those times with us and to have him march us over the finish line left few dry eyes in the marching troops. It is one of the best things I have ever undertaken with the RAF as a Reservist and my proudest achievement.”
The exercise finished with a formal dinner and discussions about past, present and future air power at Kliczkow Castle, Poland.
Editor: Jon Sibley
Photograph: SAC Emma Walker
© MOD Crown Copyright 2016