Upminster veteran, 93, tells how he survived the Nazis’ 1,000-mile death march for new Commonwealth War Graves Commission project

Upminster veteran Ken Hay. Picture: CWGC

Upminster veteran Ken Hay. Picture: CWGC - Credit: Archant

A 93-year-old Second World War veteran from Upminster has had his memories of that fateful conflict preserved for posterity by taking part in a new online audio archive founded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Veteran Ken Hay with CWGC's assistant historian Max Dutton. Picture: CWGC

Veteran Ken Hay with CWGC's assistant historian Max Dutton. Picture: CWGC - Credit: Archant

Ken Hay, of River Drive, - who survived an encounter with the Waffen SS and a forced 1,000-mile march across Europe after being captured by the Nazis during the invasion of Normandy - is taking part int he CWGC's Voices of Liberation Project.

Ken was just 14 when war broke out in 1939.

When he turned 17, he volunteered for service in the same unit as his older brother.

Ken fought in Normandy as a Private in the Essex Regiment for just a few days before being captured by the Nazis.

Telling his story, Ken said: "I was wandering up this road by myself, and there was this line of chaps all laying on the side of the road - all asleep!

"And I called out 'what are you doing?'

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"And then I realised the one at the front only had half a body... It was quite vicious… That was a battlefield."

Ken was captured by 12th SS Panzer Division.

He was sent to Poland and put to work in a coal mine.

During the final months of the war, as the Allies closed in on Nazi-held territories, Ken was forced to march through the winter snow by his captors.

On January 23 in 1945 Ken was involved in the Long March to Freedom, in which 80,000 prisoners from Nazi camps were forced to walk over 1,000 miles.

They marched in freezing temperatures until they were liberated just south of Berlin by the Russian army on April 20 1945.

Tens of thousands of Allied PoWs were force-marched westward across Poland and Germany in appalling winter conditions, lasting about four months.

Ken was lucky to survive.

Recalling that awful time, he said: "I was having trouble with my leg and … I fell out in the snow and just laid down.

"All I wanted to do was sleep. I was too past caring and just laid down in the snow.

"It's no exaggeration to say I would have frozen to death but my pal Jimmy Jarvy - who was a Canadian - found me and lifted me up and away we went… talking about strawberry shortcake, maple syrup on waffles.

"In the army, you talk about women, you know… In Stalag, you talk about food…

"So anyway, they carried me until I realised I was being a burden.

"And I said 'it's okay, I'll carry on,' and 'thanks' and away we went."

Max Dutton, CWGC assistant historian, had the privilege of interviewing Ken for the project.

He said: "The chance to interview and record Ken's story was a huge honour, he showed great courage in the face of adversity.

"His story is just one of the many remarkable stories we have captured which have been captured for the online audio archive.

"I urge the public to record their stories and feelings, relating to the Second World War and its sites of remembrance."

In October 2012, Ken was asked to present medals to troops from his old Essex regiment on their return from Afghanistan.

He described the experience as "a true honour".

Alongside the archive, CWGC has launched its new podcast series "Legacy of Liberation", the six-part series explores the key moments of the Second World war conflict, and the historic cemeteries and memorials which commemorate those who fought and died.

CWGC historian Dr Glyn Prysor and Interpretation Officer Dr Lucy Kellett explore the unique experience of visiting these sites of memory and mourning, taking a fresh look at events which have become almost legendary, and examining the artistic, architectural and social legacies of these iconic places.

You can contribute to Voices of Liberation and listen to the podcast here: liberation.cwgc.org