Sgt. Robert Otterson received a Christmas present from his friend Ted Hunt at the end of 1944, when the two of them were still incarcerated at Stalag IVB POW camp. It was a hard-cover wartime log book of well over a hundred pages, printed in Geneva and distributed by the Red Cross. On the inside cover, Hunt wrote: “To Bob - with best wishes for Christmas and 1945 - from Ted.” Robert Otterson promptly wrapped it in a thick brown paper protective cover.
07.30 23 April 1945. Stalag IVB, Mühlberg on Elbe, Germany
“The Germans abandoned the camp shortly after midnight. During the night we heard artillery fire not very distant, and machine gun fire just outside the camp. Russian cavalry rode into camp at 0745 hrs. The red flag was hoisted on the highest building, and flags of all other nationals were also flown. Russian and Serbian X-POWs marched out at 1000 hrs.”
Above: Soviet soldiers place their flag on top of the Reichstag - the German government buildings in Berlin - on 2 May 1945. This iconic photograph by Yevgeny Khaldei symbolizing the end of World War II in Europe was reprinted in thousands of publications at the end of the war. However, the photograph itself became controversial after it was learned that elements were enhanced and edited for propaganda effect.
Above: Flags of the various nations represented by prisoners at Stalag IVB fly at the entrance to the main gate after liberation. Copyright: Ann Jans.
Below: Pre-war picture of the German town of Riesa, 15 miles from the camp, where soldiers were first moved by Russian authorities after liberation. But Riesa itself soon became a place of confinement.
The war in Europe ends
He had written only a few pages - thoughts of Christmas present and past, together with his record of army service and a few details about the camp - when events much bigger than two prisoners in a single POW camp caught up and then swept them along on a rushing tide.
Soviet troops had been advancing steadily from the east since the beginning of the year, and both the US Air Force and the RAF had been bombing the German capital by day and night for a month before the Red Army reached the city on April 21. After bitter house-to-house fighting and huge losses of life, Berlin fell to Russian troops on May 2, 1945. The German High Command unconditionally surrendered to the Allies on May 8, but pockets of resistance continued elsewhere.
On 23 April, Sgt. Robert Otterson wrote at the top of page 17 of his new journal, in capital letters and underlined, the word “Release!” along with a paragraph of description of the moment of liberation. But if the POWs had expected instant repatriation, they were soon disappointed. The American lines were still 25 miles to the west, and the British and American POWs were now in Soviet-occupied territory. The frustration with the bureaucratic Russians, and the sense that games of politics were being played, would mount over the next few days. After two weeks, the men were marched to the town of Riesa on the west bank of the River Elbe, 15 miles away, and allowed some freedom in the ruined town. But then the Russians began to impose restrictions, and sentries followed. Finally, some of the soldiers - Robert Otterson among them - decided to take matters into their own hands.
6 May 1945, 1400 hrs
Marched to Riesa on W. bank of Elbe 25 kms away. Billeted in German officers quarters. This is at least a move nearer home and away from confinement of barbed wire.
For the first few days at Riesa we were given liberty to walk about the town and help ourselves to whatever took our fancy in deserted houses and warehouses. Then gradually restrictions began to be made. Russian sentries were put on guard at the gates and we were forbidden to leave the camp. After a fortnight the rations of pea soup and bread without any variation became monotonous.
Result – men began to leave camp in ever increasing numbers daily in order to make their own way to American lines W. of the River Malder, 45 kms. distant. Any man found walking outside the camp with a pack, or heading west, was sent back by Russian patrols. Hardly a day passed but some notice was posted on orders advising us to stay in camp as, “Evacuation will commence in a few days time,” British and Russian Staff officers are expected in three days time,” “The whole camp should be evacuated by …” Or else there were warnings such as, “Four men were brought back to camp by the Russians and have been awarded ? days solitary confinement.” “Men who leave camp and make their way towards Leipzig are running into typhus.” “No men are reaching the Americans; they are being picked up by the Russians and put into lagers. They will have to be re-registered and will probably delay their departure by some months.”
Despite all the lukewarm efforts of Lt Jessup, the British officer i/c, men left with and without packs and nothing more was heard of them. I had been wanting to leave for some time but was dissuaded day after day by friends who thought that the best policy was to stay put.
On Friday, 18 May, I decided to leave on the following morning, and Paul Kruger said he would accompany me. We packed our valises that night with food and minimum kit, souvenirs etc. and smuggled them outside to where some friends were staying in a nearby house.
19 May 1945, 0545 hrs - Decision
Walked boldly out of a side gate of the camp unchallenged by the sentry. Picked up our packs from where we had left them, and set off by map to avoid villages and reach the railway a few kms. distant.
Arrived tired but exultant four kms. outside Wurzon on the bank of the River Malder at about 1900 hrs having walked just over 40 kms. Slept in a barn that night with Russian and German refugees.
Whit Sunday, 20 May 1945, 0900 hrs - Success
Crossed over the Malder Bridge unopposed by Russian sentries, and shook hands with the Yanks on the far side. At last we felt really free.
An American truck picked us up in the afternoon and conveyed us to Halle about 60 kms. further west. Here were good quarters, Red X comforts and three meals a day. Planes leave this place almost daily to fly men home. We are waiting.
25 May 1945 - Freedom
“Three minutes to pack up, and parade outside ready to march to the aerodrome.”
This order, for which we had been waiting for five days, gave us about 2 minutes 50 seconds more time than was necessary. Our kit, such as we had was already packed and we were out of the door like a flash.
American transport planes, C- 47s, were awaiting us. Within a few minutes we had enplaned. Seven planes were in the air when we left the ground to follow them. Twice that number were still on the ground awaiting their turn to take off as we headed due west for Brussels.
Above: C-47 Dakota transports in flight.
Above: The last letters and telegrams. The official telegram didn't arrive until after Robert had arrived home. It says simply: "Arrived safely. See you soon."
Two hours forty minutes later our plane tipped over on one wing and went into a dive which brought our stomachs into our mouths and gave us a terrific ear ache for a few seconds. We came out of the dive below the clouds and circled round to land at an aerodrome about 30 kms. south of Brussels. This was the historic site of the battle of Waterloo.
Red Cross personnel met us with refreshments and cigarettes. Within a few minutes we were in trucks bound for the reception centre in Brussels.
We found everything well organized for dealing with us in the city. First we signed an identification certificate, any who needed new clothes were given them. We were thoroughly sprayed with delousing powder, and then given a ticket for the hotel where we were to stay. On arrival at the hotel, we found every necessity for our interior and exterior maintenance in the form of a jolly good meal, hot showers and comfortable beds with clean sheets.
Having fed and cleansed ourselves, we went next door to a Red Cross centre and were given anything we required in the way of articles of toilet, handkerchiefs, chocolate, and cigarettes. From there we went a few yards further up the street where we received Belgian francs up to the value of 5 pounds and a 10/- note for use on our arrival in England. Later we spent a few hours looking round the city and found everything very expensive.
26 May 1945
At about 1000 hrs we received word to be prepared to move by trucks to the aerodrome. Before enplaning on the awaiting Lancasters we received more refreshments, and sandwiches and cigarettes to take with us.
The Lancasters were not so comfortable as the C-47s as they had not been converted for troop carrying. However, we did not mind a bit of discomfort at this period. The sky was very cloudy so we didn’t see much on the way over. As we got over the Channel, we flew at only two or three feet above the sea. Just as we reached England we ran into thick clouds, and for a few minutes our passage was pretty bumpy. Shortly afterwards however we emerged into clearer weather and landed at an aerodrome near Oxford. The journey had taken about one hour forty minutes.
Again we had a grand welcome. The hangars were decorated with flags and in one half were long tables where we had tea served by WAAFs and ATS. After tea we were sorted into nationalities and taken off in trucks to our various reception camps. My particular camp was near Amersham.
We stayed at the reception camp from Saturday to Monday during which time we were medically inspected, received a complete change of clothing, and were given pay and documents for leave.
28 May 1945 - Last lap – Home
At 0845 trucks conveyed us to the railway station where we entrained for London. Other trucks were waiting to take us to the various metropolitan stations. I was taken to Waterloo, where my “nurses” forsook me and I was left to my own devices.
From Waterloo to Aldershot, and then into a bus for Mytchett. At about 1245 I was walking up Hamesmoor Road – feeling on top of the world.
Who is this little girl in the red coat and tartan kilt coming out of number three? Before I had spoken a word or fully recognized her, she had run and put her arms around my neck and said “Welcome home Daddy.”
Those few words from my darling Ruth, together with the equally affectionate welcome of Doris and little Ann, filled me with a joy well nigh inexpressible. The day for which I had been longing, planning and dreaming during the past three years had arrived.
I was home!
Above: Hamesmoor Road in in Mytchett, Surrey, the Otterson home in May 1945 when "Daddy" arrived home to greet his wife and children. He describes walking up this road and feeling "on top of the world" as he headed to the house at 3 Primrose Villas. This photograph was taken more than 70 years later, in 2019, when the houses were long gone. Robert's daughter, Ruth, is pictured. She was the "little girl in the red coat" in 1945.
The following handwritten message from Koos Kloeg, a fellow POW, is written in Dutch and English in Robert Otterson’s wartime log. It recalls some unnamed service or support for his Dutch friend. Later, at a time of great crisis for Robert Otterson’s wife and family, Koos Kloeg would return the goodwill mentioned here.
A cordial, soon and safe return to your family. May God on this special day fulfill your wishes that are prayers for your eldest little darling. And for yourself, Bob, a little word of thanks. In the difficult months of interior conflicts, which are now behind me, you were a ray of light and a moral support. Thanks be to God!
Koos (Jacobus Johannes) Kloeg