Aerial reconnaissance photo of Stalag XVII B
In April, 1945, as Soviet forces approached from the east, the Germans forced all non-Russian prisoners who were able to walk to evacuate Stalag XVII B and march west along the Danube River toward the German border and the approaching American army. The prisoners on the forced march were divided into groups of 500 men each, each group guarded only by a handful of Volksturm soldiers (mostly old and unfit local conscripts). The Americans left first, followed by the French, and then the rest of the non-Russian prisoners. About 300 prisoners who were too sick to move stayed in the camp with a few German guards. The thousands of other prisoners in work details (Arbeitskommandos) outside the camp were simply set free and given the choice to stay or go with the others to the west. Several thousand chose to stay. The evacuation routes generally went west along the north side of the Danube River, crossed to the south side at Linz and ended in the Weilhart forest west of Braunau (Hitler's birthplace).
Here is a detailed listing of the route taken by one of the American POWs. The 300 kilometer (187 mile) march took 18 days to complete; the malnourished and exhausted POWs were forced to walk from 16-32 km (10-20 miles) each day. Here is a detailed chronology of another American POW's forced march across Austria in April, 1945.
The weather along the way was cold and miserable. It was one othe worst winters in decades. POWs often had to sleep outside without cover. The malnourished prisoners had little to eat along the way, and some risked their lives at night to sneak away and look for food. Prisoners caught trying to escape or those who could not keep up with their groups were sometimes shot by the guards and left where they fell.
In April, 1945, American ground forces were advancing quickly into Austria. On 2 May 1945, the prisoners of Stalag XVII B who had survived the forced march were liberated by the American army, on its way to Berlin. Meanwhile, Soviet forces were moving west to Berlin. The German guards who had forced their prisoners to walk across Austria now became prisoners themselves. Some of the guards -- especially those who had treated the POWs badly -- were beaten or killed. Most of the American prisoners stayed in the Weilhart forest area until 12 May 1945, when they were transported back to France.
The end of Stalag 17B
With Russian forces just a few miles east of Stalag XVII B, the remaining German guards left the camp on 8 May 1945 and headed west toward the American lines. The Russians entered the camp the next day. At first, the prisoners left behind were overjoyed to see the Russian troops, but their pleasure quickly turned to disappointment. At gunpoint, the prisoners were forced to hand over everything they had to the Russians, then they were held captive and not allowed to leave the area until 29 May 1945, when the Russians finally allowed the first group of prisoners from what was left of Stalag XVII B return to their respective countries. Sadly, of all the prisoners, the fates of the Russians held at Stalag XVII B were by far the worst. Instead of a hero's welcome, the Russian POWs were considered traitors by their fellow countrymen and were sent to Russian "Gulag" work camps for the rest of their lives.
No one knows how many prisoners died at Stalag XVII B, but exhumation of Russian mass graves near the camp in late 1945 yielded 1,640 corpses -- most of whom died in 1941 during a typhus epidemic.
After all the prisoners had left Stalag XVII B, the Russians occupied the area until mid-1946 with a force of nearly 10,000 soldiers. After that, the area was handed back to the Austrians and work began to demolish the camp. Properties taken by the Germans were given back to their original owners and any building materials salvaged from the camp were used to rebuild the surrounding civilian homes and businesses damaged during the war. When I visited the site in 1969, there was just a single pile of rubble about 8 feet tall. Today, nothing remains of Stalag XVII B -- only a monument stands in the general area to mark the place where thousands of men were imprisoned. The area that once was Stalag XVII B is now a garbage dump, a regional airport, a few vineyards and some farmland.