The Long March

Winston Churchill Parker

RCAF

RCAF
Rank: F/O
Position: WAG
Squadron: 101/419
Aircraft: VR10K3 Wellington
Date: April 8, 1942
Target: Hamburg

Motto: Mens agitat molem – "Mind over matter"

101 Crest: The crest is 101 squadron RAF where I did most of my operational flying. When my Pilot Dick Laing was killed, Jimmy Paton and I were sent to 419 squadron RCAF at Mildenhall. My crest shows the battlements of a tower, a demi lion rampant guardant - approved by King George VI in February 1938. The battlements symbolize the Squadron's pioneering role in the development of power-operated gun turrets, while the lion indicates the unit's fighting power and spirit.

Meeting Winston Churchill

When I first got overseas, the Battle of Britain had been over a while, but all aircrew were heroes to the British peoples. London had been bombed badly and there were hundreds and hundreds of people who went to the underground to their bomb shelters every night and some of them stayed down there because they had lost their homes. We fellows who had never done any ops or anything would walk by a bunch of people who would clap and give us a hand because we were aircrew. But I guess we earned it later on. But it was almost embarrassing then, to us. We had just arrived overseas and were treated as if we were heroes and we had done nothing.

One of my highlights overseas, was going to visit my Uncle, Reginald Parker, my Dad's brother, who was Winston Churchill's personal driver. By the way, my mother whose maiden name was Churchill was a distant member of the Churchill family. Anyways, I went to see my uncle when I got my first leave but when I went down to the house where his address was, a lady came to the door and told me they had moved him to Scotland Yard.

I went to Scotland Yard to see if I could trace my uncle. The sergeant at the desk gave me a car number to look up and told me where to find it inside of a barb-wired entanglement that was guarded. So I went down there. I sure didn't see any guard and I was busily looking for this car number when a London Bobby stopped me. I told him I was looking for this car number which I acknowledged belonged to the Prime Minister.

He marched me back to Scotland Yard. When it was verified that the sergeant there had given me the car number, there was another bobby there who took me to Number 10 Downing Street, which, of course, is the British House of Parliament. We knocked on the door and a guard opened the door. Just inside the door, my Uncle and Inspector Thompson, who was Churchill's personal bodyguard, had a little office.

Mr. Churchill came along and so my uncle stepped out and said, "Sir, I'd like you to meet the boy that my brother named after you". So I met Mr. Churchill. It happened that the Hood had been sunk just before I went overseas. I was one of the very first through the Air Training Plan, so Mr. Churchill spent fifteen to twenty minutes asking me questions about the Air Training Plan.

Then Mr. Churchill gave me the great honor of seeing the War Room which was highly secret. The War Room was set up for a banquet and there were large maps on the walls. And on all the maps were pins here and there in different colors for the war. Mr. Churchill then suggested that my uncle drive him in to work, and then take the day off, and use his limousine to show me London. All day long the Bobbies would see this car coming and they would stop all the other traffic and it was just me and my uncle! That was one of the more pleasurable highlights of being overseas.

I often think of the speeches that Mr. Churchill made. When I first got over to England, the Home Guard was training with pitchforks. They were just so short of equipment. They lost everything at Dunkirk. Yet Churchill was firing defiance back at Hitler. He picked that nation up by its bootstraps and everybody was willing to die for their country. It's pretty hard to beat a country that is like that. It was great to see the supplies finally getting in so that the equipment we had was equal and then more than equal to the task that we had to do.

Crew Memories

On my first mission, we dropped propaganda pamphlets or leaflets. I had a few leaflets, which I brought home and gave to the Nanton Lancaster Museum. I can remember one leaflet was the shape of an oak leaf. Those were the ones we dropped up in the Ruhr Valley.

Our 101 ground crew posing with our pilot, Dick Laing, centre. The four were a loyal and conscientious maintenance crew but after 64 years, the names are gone.
This picture was taken in late 1941. W.P.

You nearly always dropped leaflets when you went on a bombing raid. You had a pack of leaflets to drop out, which was propaganda. But this oak leaf was dropped over the Ruhr Valley and it told the German people that, "It is now autumn and your soldiers are dropping as fast in Russia as leaves are falling off trees." This is the type of thing they did. Different messages like that were sent out.

When you dropped these leaflets, you had this chute that you extended out about two and a half or three feet. There was a pipe that you pushed out and anything you put in the pipe would be sucked out of the plane. But if you didn't have the pipe out far enough, the wind would be in reverse. I can remember a chap one time pushing a bunch of those leaflets in and they went all over the aircraft because the wind was going the wrong way! We had to gather them up and try to save most of them and put them out again.

I only did thirteen trips. My buddy Jimmy and I got shot down on our thirteenth trip. It is ironic that my pilot got killed striking those ships and yet, we had twice gone to Brest to attack those battleships when they were holed up in Brest. That was one of the real hot targets. Those ships were very highly defended. With the armaments they had, and the bombs that we dropped, we weren't very effective. The armor-piercing bombs that we had in those early days could only cause superstructure damage to the armour plated ships.

In the early part of the war, twelve trips were the average life of an airman because of the preponderance of German fighters and defenses against us was in their favor and not ours. I got shot down on my 13th mission. The night we were shot down, there were about 290 bombers and that was a maximum effort that night, with three different targets. It wasn't that long after that when they got so many bombers being manufactured and they started 1,000 bomber raids and more. That made it quite a bit better.

The other twelve missions included two to Brest and that one to Ostend, and then we did Wilhelmshaven and up in the Ruhr Valley, Dussoldorf, and Essen. They were known as hot targets- they were the ones on which so many were attacked and shot down. The Ruhr Valley was always very highly defended. The searchlights that they had up and down there, they must have had thousands of them. They had their ack ack guns coordinated so when you got coned in the searchlight, they could pump the flak into this cone and hit the aircraft.

Winston Parker (left), Jimmy Paton (right)

Jimmy Paton (left), Winston Parker (right)

One time at Wilhelmshaven we got coned like that. We took evasive action- we dove and turned to get out of it. We got out of it all right and they lost us. But then they picked up another aircraft from our squadron and coned it. We weren't very far away from it when we saw them get shot down. Our own squadron. It was just the luck of the draw, because it could have been us that night.

Our trips were always at night and you were always loners. A squadron would take off and there would be two or three minutes between each aircraft taking off. You had an allotted time when you went over a target because another squadron would have an allotted time later. You were given a preferred height to bomb from. So you took off and lots of times you would leave England and go all the way over to the Ruhr Valley and back and except for over the targets, sometimes you would not see another aircraft or bomber; we didn't see many. Of course, the time I was flying there weren't that many aircraft going to Germany

Stalag VIII B: A Reprisal Camp

I was in the camp just over three years .When I was in prison camp, I can remember one time aircrew weren't allowed out of camp. The Air Force wasn't allowed out of the camp for anything because before we got there, a couple of fellows had made an escape. They had stolen an aircraft and made it to Sweden, so it was taboo for airmen to go outside of the camp. We used to go down to the lazarette, which was their hospital, and switchover with Army chaps there, using their identification so we could go out on the work detail sometimes just to break the monotony and get out of camp.

This one day, we had a guard take us out. There were three airmen, including a chap named Bernie Spence, and myself, plus an Irish corporal, who was in one of the Army regiments. We were pushing a big wagon and cleaning up the forest, cleaning up the ground where they had been making mine props. We stole two or three mine props and covered them over with brush because we could bring the wagon full of trash back to use as fuel for our camp. One of the forest inspectors came along and looked in the wagon and found those stolen props. He was the real Hitler-type of guy with green uniform on. He had a big Lugar, and he lined us up and told us he was going to shoot us all for stealing. This Irish corporal could speak German. He stepped forward and he said it's forbidden, Verboten, to shoot unarmed prisoners. He threatened to report him to the officers. The bluff worked and we figured that the fellow might have saved our lives that day because life was so cheap in Germany.

I had been in the prison camp about three months, when I got pleurisy and was sent down to the lazarette. It was overseen by a German doctor, but all the orderlies were British medical personnel who had been taken at Dunkirk. I was put in a bed next to a chap who was very, very sick with malaria. Lo and behold, I picked up malaria. I sometimes wonder if mosquitoes didn't bite him and then bite me. They said I could have gotten it when I was down near the Mediterranean but I didn't go to the Middle East. The closest I was to the Mediterranean was Southern Germany, but I got it!

Stalag VIII B was a reprisal camp. It was one of the very toughest camps, not compared with the concentration camps, but was known as one of the very toughest prisoner of war camps. We were manacled for eleven months. They did take them off for Christmas Day but it was eleven months before that order was rescinded. The first five or six months, it was tough because they guarded us closely. Then the Germans got so that the guards were as disgusted with it as we were. We learned how to pick the locks and we would take our greatcoat off and put our handcuffs back on by ourselves. We just made sure the guards didn't see us do it. I got arthritis in my hands from wearing those things because no matter if you had a decent pair of gloves and a decent coat to wear, you always had that airspace with metal around it in cold weather. Your hands got pretty cold

When we first went into the camp, it wasn't too crowded. Then when they started bringing more prisoners in before we were all marched out, we got to be a 135 in a billet, and the billets weren't that big. So the prisoners were sleeping on the table and under the table. The ordinary sleeping quarters were twelve men to section and there would be four on the floor. Three was just a bed board keeping you a couple inches off the floor, then one about waist high and then one as high as your head. There were four per billet, three tiers high. The billets were jammed full of prisoners. Lost of times, we were very short of water to wash or clean our clothes. It was pretty crude living in the camp.

They had a big main kitchen in a separate compound from which we got our ration of potatoes every day. We got a tea made out of some kind of mint in the morning. Then we got soup, whatever happened to be around, I guess. Sometimes the soup wasn't too bad, sometimes it was terrible. We got that once a day. We got a small slice an inch and a quarter thick of black bread. That was our German ration, but it wasn't enough to keep us going.

When the Red Cross parcels came in, fortified with vitamin food, we were fairly happy and felt fairly good. When the Red Cross parcels didn't come in, which was quite often in our camp because the bombings would take out the railroads, we didn't feel good. If we went six or eight weeks without a Red Cross parcel, you'd see everybody failing in their health. Then the Red Cross parcels would start again and we'd all pick up.

A lot of men, they can find a way to kill time. In our billet we had an Australian airline pilot and he said, "I'm really a very good bridge player. If you fellows want to learn to play bridge, I'll teach you." So he taught a bunch of us to play bridge and we spent hours and hours and hours playing bridge seven days a week. We passed a lot of good time that way. I still appreciate that because I play a little bridge today.

The other highlight when you were in the prison camp was getting parcels in the mail. You were allowed four parcels a year of what they called clothing parcels and your family could send you that. It was always great to get a pair of socks and a clean shirt to wear. It was pretty nice to have.

Due to the cement floors that we were on, the leather boots we wore would freeze your feet. We got issued clogs, a wooden shoe that with rags wrapped around it was twice as warm as a leather boot. It was as if they were insulated, so you always wore clogs around the camp.

Cigarettes were the medium for money and the Canadians used to get a lot of cigarettes sent to them. I didn't smoke but the cigarettes were great to have because they were barter. You could get some guards to barter for pretty near anything. Some of the chaps in the camp were real radio technicians, so we had the where-with-all and we had a radio in the camp that picked up the BBC news. But the news was never read in the compound that the radio was in, it would be copied down in shorthand and then read in a different compound. So we had the BBC news quite often.

It's funny how we could read between the lines what the Germans were telling you, too. You got so you were pretty good at that. But when we were marching out we didn't know anything that was happening except we knew the war was coming this way and that Germany some day just couldn't survive it.

One fellow who I had made a friend of in the camp had been taken at Dunkirk and marched a good way into Germany. He was one of the Rear Guard that was told to hold the fort as long as they could while they were getting the chaps off the beaches in Dunkirk. Those who survived were taken prisoner. He helped build that camp. He used to say to me, "You know Win, one of these days, we're liable to march out, so when you get a good pair of boots, get them broken in and save them."

Over the years they had cobblers in the camp and every once in a while we'd get an issue of boots from Britain or whenever, to the Allied prisoners. I got a good pair of boots and had metal studs put of them so they'd have a good long life. I saved them and when we stared marching out, I had these real good boots.

Well, Jimmy and I finished up in the prison camp together spending over three years there. There were 26,000 men were attached to this camp. Through November, December and January, they kept bringing them all in from the working parties. The Air Force in this camp was just one small compound of roughly a thousand airmen when the camp filled up and the rest was Army camp. A lot of those boys had been taken in Dunkirk and Crete, and had been in prison camp a year and a half, two years when we got there.

The Long March

Then the Russians chased us out of camp on a forced march. The Germans divided the men into columns of 1,500 approximately each. Our group hit the road on the 22 of January 1945 and we never saw billets again until General Patton released us on April 11, 1945. We started to march and they marched us thirty-five kilometers at a pretty fast pace. We had kept souvenirs of one thing and another, and boy, we soon learned that you can't pack that. We threw everything away except for the bare necessities. We had our Air Force greatcoats and our uniforms. We kept one blanket each, a change of socks and a change of underwear. That was it.

We spent nearly three months on the road and our clothing was in pretty poor shape by the end. Jimmy Paton and another fellow named Dave Moran decided that they had had enough, and they were going to go back to the Russians. So one day we're walking along by a fairly step bank and two or three fellows up ahead created a little diversion to catch the guard's attention. Jimmy and Dave slid down the bank and waited until the column had gone by. They did get picked up by the Russians, but they had a mighty rough trip too. They came out at Odessa and then came home on a boat via the Mediterranean. They actually were a little longer getting home than we were!

When we started the march, the weather wasn't too bad but two days later we hit a blizzard and we marched through snow ten inches deep. The night of the blizzard, we slept in a gravel pit out in the open.

Four of us, including chaps by the name of Hawkins, Mayho, and Thornhill, decided that we would stick together and share everything. Well, Hawkins, when he had been shot down, got shrapnel in his spine, in his back. After we had been marching four or five days, a piece of this shrapnel came loose and he couldn't walk anymore, so we dropped him off with a French working party. They said they would look after him and he eventually got back to England a few weeks after we did. Happily they saw that he got home. Mayho, Thornhill and myself all hung on to make it out alive.

The first night, we did thirty-five kilometers and that pretty near killed us. Then they gave us a shorter march. After that we would do fifteen kilometers some days. A long day would be a little over fifteen kilometers. Some days we'd do ten kilometers. But once in a while, we'd get a day's rest.

But at nights, the three of us would huddle together. The first night that we had it was real cold, and us guys who were used to being in the West camping knew enough to take their boots off. We'd put them inside our jacket so as they wouldn't freeze. But some of the boys took their boots off and didn't put them inside their jackets. The next morning their boots were absolutely frozen solid. They couldn't get them on. They had to walk barefoot because there was no slacking. Some of them had a poor time that way.

We got so very little to eat. Sometimes we get a soup at night. Sometimes they would give us some black bread. The odd day we missed marching altogether, we'd scrounge out in the fields as there were leeks in the field. If we got put up in a village where there was a barn, sometimes they would put us in a big shed. If there was wheat or beans or anything, we stole some and being famished, ate it.

Just how the Germans had arranged the feeding of us I don't know. Sometimes we'd go into a camp and it would be two or three hours just hanging around and then a bunch of big tubs of soup would come in---they called them keebles. Some nights there would be a ration of bread that would come to us. Some nights we were out of luck, we got nothing.

When we started out from the camp we had a medical officer march with us. When the dysentery got going pretty bad, he taught us all how we could burn wood and then eat the charcoal. That was the only medicine that we had. But we didn't realize that was available until he told us to eat the ashes after we burnt the wood. That helped some. That was our medicine.

Of a couple of things I particularly remember, the first is one day we were marching and we were fairly close to Dresden and we saw more aircraft than I've ever seen in my life coming over, flying fairly low. The planes went to Dresden and flew on. There didn't seem to be much happening other than they flew over Dresden. I guess a lot of these were delayed action bombs because that was the biggest single raid of the war. If I remember right, it was 4,000 aircraft that hit Dresden and just about wiped Dresden out. They threw us in a field and we just lay in the field while all this was happening under guards with guns on us all the time. Dresden was given an awful beating and for days after, we could see the glow of the city burning as we're marching away. Dresden started to blow up for several days after we marched by.

Another of the other things I remember on the march was coming out to an intersection where there was a fairly long column of German tanks and armored cars. There were two or three officers standing at this intersection, reading a map, apparently figuring out where they would go. Three of the twin-boomed American Lockhead Lightnings flew overhead. I'm trying to think of the name of them now. Anyway, these aircraft peeled off one behind the other and they started machine gunning with cannons and bombing this column. The Germans ran from their equipment and took off into the fields. We were lying in the fields not very far away. By the time those aircraft had made four or five passes, there wasn't a vehicle left standing…the planes had taken out all of them. That column was just under half a mile long.

Another thing I remember is that we prisoners felt as though we were the lowest form of animal life in Germany. Whenever anything else came along on the road, we were kicked off the road to let whatever it was pass. This one day we were surprised to see some people being kicked off the road to let us pass. When we got close enough up to them, we saw that it was about 300 Jewish girls and woman and they just had gunny sacks for clothing. After, we wondered if they were being taken for extermination. Some of them spoke English and they were going the opposite way from where we were going. They were kicked off the road to let us pass. The Jewish people in Germany had a horrendous time.

We had covered roughly a thousand kilometers. We marched from Lamsdorf, which was the same station they used for Auschwitz, the famous extermination camp that the Germans had. We were a few miles from Auschwitz. We heard about the gas chambers and extermination, but we didn't believe it. It turned out it was true.

Just a note: Toward the end of the march, they threw three hundred American prisoners in with us that had been taken in Runstedt's Push, also known as the Battle of the Bulge. Those chaps were a lot worse off than us because they had ridden in rubber-tired wagons, and they had been on white bread and good rations. To get thrown into those conditions we were gradually conditioned into, hit them really hard. The worst thing for everybody was dysentery on the march. We would eat frozen leeks and those made everybody suffer.

We had zigzagged and zigzagged until we got south and west of Hanover, which was a very long way. Then they turned us around and marched us back for two days because the Americans were coming. Just before we got relieved by General Patton, we stopped in April and it got nice and warm and we were by this brook. The Germans told us that we didn't have to march that day, and we could all go swimming in the brook if we wanted. The brook was only two feet deep. It was a canal, I think. But boy, that clean water felt good.

Then this one morning, suddenly we had no guards. The next thing you knew some American jeeps and a tank or two came rolling in. And those fellows said we were now relieved. They said, "We've cleared out several blocks, which we're going to use for billets." A little while later, this American sergeant came along and told us that they had orders to move on but that they would leave a tank at each entrance to the town to guard us, and that we could have the town. A lot of the fellows went into these houses that the Americans had cleared out for billets and they got some clothing and in some places there was some food. I went to look and see what I could find. It was midmorning and apparently the farmers had done their chores and I found a three-gallon can of milk waiting to be picked up. That was a great find, but I wasn't strong enough to carry it. So I went back and got one of my friends and the two of us could carry it. That tells you how weak we were. But that milk sure was great. The Americans gave us K-rations. We had been so long without eating anything that the K-rations wiped us out. It was pretty tough after all that time to eat. But I guess we were much better off than some of them.

Finally we got picked up by General Patton's supply planes and were flown to Nice. They took us up into an airfield and put 26 men of the same nationality together, for instance 26 Canadians, 26 Aussies, 26 New Zealanders etc. They were flying ammunition in Dakotas up to the front, and we watched as forty aircraft came in, one behind the other, and landed. Just as soon as the planes landed, each group had to get aboard and leave again quickly because they didn't want to be strafed or bombed.

In Nice the Americans processed us- that was a big American camp! There they had Red Cross girls help us and they gave us soap and a toothbrush and one thing and another. The Americans had this big tent with six or eight inches of white powder all over the floor and we had to strip and go through there. They had power blowers and they blew this powder into us everywhere. That was to delouse us. After we had that, we had a shower. Just having the toothbrush and some soap to get clean was great.

Following this, the British came in and picked us up and flew us to Southern England. Here they segregated the ones who were in pretty poor shape like me, and put us in ambulances and sent us to different hospitals.

By that time, you see, a lot of the boys were in terrible shape. Quite a few hadn't made it. The last week or two, quite a lot of chaps died on route coming out. I weighed less than a hundred pounds when I got to England. I spent six weeks in hospital in Leavesdon, which is outside of London. The nurse took me down and ran a hot bath. She said, "You have your bath and then you report to bed" and she left me. I had a hot bath and that was the last straw. I was so weak that I couldn't get out of the bath. I had to wait until I got lifted out. I wouldn't have made it many more days. I am so lucky to have survived.

You know, by the time I was released by General Patton, I was walking on my bare feet. I had worn the boots right through until there was nothing left for soles. When I got to England though I still had these boots on! The nurse at the hospital I was sent to asked if she could have those boots for a souvenir, so I let her have my boots.

The march we were on was one of the longest marches of them all. Different chaps who were on other marches got sent into billets for three or four days and then got put back on the road again. While they were in billets, they had the facilities to clean up and we never had that once.

I had a friend once, Bruce Hutchinson, who was a Scottish boy. He spent quite a bit of his time in the prison camp writing a book. Of course, he lost all of his notes. On the march Bruce got sick and couldn't manage t march one day. After he recovered a couple of days on his own, he walked long and hard and caught up to us. He was determined to get out. I lost track of Bruce because when there's that many men, you do lose track.

Later my friend Dave Moran got hold of me and told me not to try to see Bruce. Dave had made the mistake of going up to see him and had walked in quite happily and told the parents that he had come to visit Bruce. The poor bereaved parents had just received word that Bruce had died on the march out. So my friend Bruce never made it out after all, even with the fight he put up to get out.

It would be hard to tell statistics of how many of us survived. When we first started marching out, the odd fellow would drop by the wayside. Whether he was going to make an escape or he just couldn't go on anymore, there would be the odd one disappear. During the latter part of the march, there were sometimes six or eight fellows in the morning who just didn't get up. That was it. They couldn't make it. The march we had been on was the longest march of all.

A replica of the statue in England commemorating the march was donated to Nanton Lancaster Museum by Winston Parker

My plane at 101 squadron. "T" is for Tommy 1942. Courtesy Winston Parker collection

Our Losses

I mentioned that we had a pilot we thought the world of, a chap by the name of Dick Laing. One day our crew was given a stand down, except for Dick. He was to take a green crew on their first trip. So we weren't even on the base when the alarm came through that the German battleships that were holed up in Brest were making a run through the Channel. Orders were to strike immediately for the crews that were already ready. And our aircraft, which I wasn't in, received a direct hit, and all the crew were killed. We lost our great pilot that night.

Jimmy Paton and myself were the two Canadians, along with Dick Laing, in the aircrew. They were just forming the first Canadian bomber squadron in Britain, and Jimmy and I got posted to it. It became very famous squadron. Moose Fulton was the commanding Officer. He came from Kamloops country. At Kamloops there is an airfield named Fulton field, in his memory. I got shot down on a trip to Hamburg in April 1942, and Moose got killed on a trip to Hamburg in July 1942. We were still on the old Wellington aircraft.

I would like to mention one op with Dick Laing, the pilot we had such great love for. We were attacking the ships in Brest and we were making a turn. The Germans had converted their navy guns to ack ack guns. Real heavy stuff.

One of these Ak Ak explosions came under our wing. We were turning and it flipped us over. We didn't get hit, but the concussion was something. We were going down hard and I was going to bail out but I couldn't because the pressure was so strong.

Then our aircraft did what I saw an American aircraft do another time- the helpless aircraft levels out on it's own somehow. When it did that, dick got it going and we flew out to sea. He checked with us all, saying, "Are you all right ,boys? Ok, we'll get our height back and go back in." He saved us that night; it was superb flying.

We didn't get a hit that night, and we didn't get hurt or anything. But that was the closest we came to not getting back until we did get shot down. I've often thought that he should have gotten a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for that. Instead he got killed striking those same ships when they went up through the channel.

Looking back on the war, it is an experience we can look back on with pride. There is a great camaraderie and fellowship amongst our Calgary group. That's one of the bonuses we got from all our years in the war.

Left to right: 1941, Canadians Lloyd Willigar (KIA), James Paton (POW) Richard Laing (KIA), CN Stanley, T.E. Pilkington, Winston Parker POW). Courtesy Winston Parker Collection

We Will Remember

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