My father, Robbie Clark, who has died aged 98, was a survivor of the Long March, or Death March, at the end of the second world war.
Robbie, a gunner in the Royal Artillery, had been taken prisoner in Tobruk, Libya, in June 1942 with 30,000 allied prisoners. He spent the next three years in prisoner of war camps in German-occupied Poland, including Stalag VIII-B Lamsdorf.
In January 1945, as the Russian armies resumed their offensive and advanced into Germany, the Nazis evacuated the PoW camps to prevent the liberation of prisoners by the Russians. In one of the coldest winters of the 20th century, groups of 200-300 were forced to march west with no food, and little clothing.
Many thousands died. The lucky ones got far enough west to be liberated by the American army in April 1945. Robbie kept a secret diary of his experiences, walking under duress for nearly 1,000 miles. He lost half his body weight and survived with the willpower and determination that endured a lifetime.
Born in South Shields, he was one of three children of a first world war veteran, also Robert, who mined at Whitburn colliery, and Dorothy Young. On leaving Mortimer Road school at 14, Robbie joined his father at the coal face before becoming an apprentice joiner and winning a scholarship to attend Hebburn Technical College. He qualified as a joiner in September 1939 and was conscripted the following day.
His trade skills proved useful to his captors, who sent him out to repair buildings, roads and rail tracks damaged by allied bombing.
On his return to Britain, in May 1945, Robbie married Rita Springall, whom he had met in Carlisle five years earlier: he was stationed there, and Rita, who was from Kentish Town, north London, was on a family visit to the town. They set up home in Burnt Oak, north-west London, where Robbie’s skills were in demand in the rebuilding of the capital after the war; they celebrated their diamond wedding in 2005. Rita died aged 91 in 2009.
When Robbie needed round-the-clock help, a dedicated live-in carer looked after him at his home of 50 years. But as his savings ran out, he faced being moved by the local authority into residential care. This, he thought, would be like being a prisoner again.
After media attention in 2015, 180,000 people signed a petition to keep Robbie in his own home: and with the help of charities such as ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and Blind Veterans UK and Honour our Forces , Robbie was able to continue to live in his family home. Robbie’s story highlighted the issues of funding and health and social care before it became so apparent during this year’s general election campaign.
He is survived by his daughter, Susan, and Son Mike, and four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.