Surviving History


ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

EDWIN DARLING’S NIGHTMARE: THE GREAT NAZI PRISON ESCAPE OF 1945


Defiant German prisoners on the march
Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Darling was confident that he ran the most secure prisoner-of-war camp in Britain.
Camp 198 near Bridgend in South Wales, known locally as Island Farm, was surrounded by a high-wire fence and equipped with searchlights and guard dogs. At night, sentries made frequent patrols around the site.
There was good reason for the security. By the spring of 1945, the camp housed more than 2,000 German POWs. These included several elite SS commanders and half a dozen Luftwaffe fighter pilots. When these hardened Nazis had been brought to the camp, they arrived in defiant mood, singing ‘we are marching to England’.
Darling: the man in
charge
Lieutenant-Colonel Darling knew that any successful escape would be a propaganda disaster. The last thing he wanted was a German equivalent of the Allied break-out from Stalag Luft III. The men involved in that escape were already being feted as heroes and their courage would later be immortalised in the Hollywood movie, The Great Escape.
Hut 9: site of the great escape
On the evening of 10 March, 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel Darling retired to bed unaware of anything untoward in the offing. The evening roll-call had brought no unwelcome surprises and the prisoners had returned to their dormitories without trouble.
The only clue that something was afoot came later that night, when Darling’s sleep was interrupted by the sound of prisoners singing. But this was not unusual, for the inmates of Camp 198 often sang until late into the night.
Their rousing choruses were for a purpose. For many months, they had been secretly digging a huge underground tunnel that led from Hut 9 to the outside world. By the second week of March, it was complete and scores of prisoners were now hoping to make their escape.
Escape tunnel: brilliant German engineering
The 70-foot tunnel was a consummate work of German engineering. It descended deep into the clay sub-soil before rising towards a small opening in a newly-ploughed field on the far side of the perimeter fence.
The prisoners had excavated it using knives and cooking utensils stolen from the camp kitchens.
The soil was disposed of in novel fashion. The POWs had managed to construct a fake wall at the end of Hut 9, using old tiles and bricks. They then pushed the excavated soil through a false air vent and into the cavity behind the wall.
German POWs: good reason to be cheerful
The tunnel’s roof was supported with wood stolen from oak benches in the canteen and the floor was lined with old clothes to ensure that the escaping prisoners would not get dirty. There was even electric lighting, which could be used as a warning system whenever a guard was approaching.
Most extraordinary of all was the tunnel’s air supply. Dozens of milk tins had been linked together to form a tube and air was pumped through this tube by means of a four-bladed fan.
The night of the great escape was meticulously planned. Each prisoner was given an allotted time to pass through the tunnel and many of the men were equipped with maps of the local area. Some planned to steal cars and drive to Cardiff in the hope of smuggling themselves aboard ships heading to the continent. Others, emboldened by their SS training, hoped to steal planes and fly back to Germany.
The Express records the great escape
It was shortly before midnight when two of the men, an SS officer named Karl Ludwig and his colleague Heinz Herzler, slipped through the tunnel. They successfully emerged in the field beyond the perimeter fence and followed their fellow escapees into the surrounding woodland.
As they crept along the road towards Cardiff, they encountered a drunken man returning home. They hid themselves in a hedge and waited for him to pass.
It was an unfortunate hiding place. The man staggered over to where Karl Ludwig was crouched in the undergrowth and answered a call of nature, unaware that he was urinating on an SS officer.
Most escapees fled from the camp in small groups. One band of four men made their get-away in a stolen car. Others went on foot, trying to reach nearby train stations before dawn.
Recaptured POWs
Back at Camp 198, Lieutenant-Colonel Darling slept on through the night, ignorant of what was taking place. It was not until 2.15am, fully four hours after the first batch of prisoners had escaped, that the camp guards realized something was afoot. They immediately awoke Darling and then raised the general alarm. A roll-call of prisoners revealed that almost 90 had gone missing.
By daybreak a massive nationwide manhunt was underway. According to The Daily Express, ‘spotter planes flew over the Vale of Glamorgan while troops, Home Guards and police, all armed with tommy guns, searched the woods, fields and ditches.’
Though highly trained, the German prisoners were at a huge disadvantage. They were highly conspicuous and ill-equipped. Karl Ludwig and Heinz Herzler redoubled their efforts to reach Cardiff after their unfortunate incident in the hedge, but it was not long before they were spotted by a local policeman, Philip Baverstock, who promptly arrested them.
Interior of Hut 9
Other prisoners were even less successful: most were captured within a few miles of the camp and it was not long before all of them were soon safely back inside their huts.
At least that was the official version of the story. But how many really escaped? And how many were recaptured?
Unofficial accounts suggest that 84 prisoners got out of the camp, eight more than the Allied POWs who escaped from Stalag Luft III. But because 14 were quickly recaptured, officials claimed (for propaganda purposes) that only 70 Germans escaped.
When the issue was discussed in parliament, Minister of War Arthur Henderson assured the country that the actual number was 67 men.
Allied great escape: the movie version
There was good reason for him being economical with the truth. Several days after the break-out, three suspicious looking Germans – escaped prisoners - were spotted near Canterbury in Kent. They managed to evade capture and were never seen again.
What happened to them remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that they stole a boat and tried to make it back to Germany. Whether or not they were successful remains unclear.
But their empty beds at Camp 198 must have been a thorn in the side of Lieutenant-Colonel Edwin Darling and a constant reminder that he had presided over one of the greatest prison breakouts of the Second World War. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

THE GREATEST MARCH IN HISTORY: HOW SIMON BOLIVAR VANQUISHED THE SPANISH


They were a motley band of men.
Some were hardened veterans of war. Many more were thugs and drunkards who’d sailed from British shores in the hope of profiting from the spoils of battle. None of them realised that they were about to take part in possibly the most remarkable march in military history.
Bolivar's men on the march
The self-styled British Legion was part of Simon Bolivar’s Patriot Army. Bolivar - the would-be liberator of South America - had conceived of a brilliant but highly dangerous strategy to outwit the hated Spanish.
His idea was to lead his troops over the icy heights of the Andes and then swoop down on the unsuspecting enemy and drive them into the sea. It was a plan that was fraught with danger and difficulty.
The long march began in March 1819. It was undertaken by some 2,000 infantry and cavalry, including the 250-strong British Legion. The troops were accompanied by medics and engineers, as well as wives, children and cattle.
The Liberator
The journey became an ordeal long before the army reached the mountains. As they traversed the plains into what is now Colombia, they faced torrential tropical rain and severe flooding. They had to wade through the water, floating their weaponry on makeshift rafts. When the floodwaters grew too high, they were forced to swim.
Half starved, exhausted and suffering from dysentery, they struggled through the swampland towards the distant mountains. Here, at least, they would be spared the vicious gnats and malarial mosquitoes that had plagued the first stage of their journey.
At the beginning of July, they finally reached the foot of the mountains, weaker, depleted in numbers, but still inspired by Bolivar’s extraordinary leadership.
They staggered up the rocky slopes dreaming of Spanish booty. As they climbed higher and higher, the air thinned and the weather became increasingly hostile.
Bolivar's army in action
The cavalry had already led their horses through swamps and marshes. Now, they had to urge them across the vertiginous heights of the Paramo de Pisba.
The rain and sleet tipped down in a ceaseless torrent and many succumbed to hypothermia. It was not long before all the livestock was dead. Weakened by the mountain air, the cattle collapsed and died on the upper slopes of the mountains.
Men of the British Legion
 ‘The harshness of the peaks we have crossed would be staggering to anyone who hasn't experienced it,’ wrote Bolivar. ‘There's hardly a day or night it doesn't rain… Our only comfort is the thought that we've seen the worst and that we are nearing the end of the journey.’
But there was worse to come: mighty ravines and yawning fissures that could only be traversed by stringing leather ropes across the void.
By the time the troops had scaled the peaks of the Paramo de Pisba, their shoes had fallen apart and their clothes were in tatters. Even the officers were in a terrible state: ‘[they] had no trousers, and were glad to cover themselves with pieces of blanket.’ More than a quarter of the British contingent lay dead on the mountains.
The army crosses the Paramo de Pisba
Those that eventually staggered into the town of Socha, on the far side of the Andes were given a rousing welcome from the native population. They were given food, shelter and new clothes.
Bolivar was heartened to learn that the Spanish were entirely ignorant that his army had crossed the mountains. Indeed, their senior commanders had dismissed the very idea as impossible. Bolivar knew that he had to strike now, while he still had the advantage of surprise.
The liberation of New Granada began just days after the last of the soldiers descended from the peaks. At dawn on 25 July, Bolivar swept his troops into a dramatic attack on the Spanish at Pantano de Vargas, some 120 miles northeast of Bogota.
The Spanish general, José María Barreiro, held all the advantages. His troops were well trained and equipped with the latest weaponry. They also commanded the high ground. But Barreiro was caught completely off-guard by Bolivar’s surprise appearance in New Grenada.
The Patriot Army fought with distinction, leading an uphill cavalry charge against the entrenched Spanish. After a furious battle, the Spaniards fled from the field. It was the first in a string of victories orchestrated and led by Simon Bolivar.
Paramo de Pisba: forbidding terrain
The key battle took place at Boyaca a fortnight later. Bolivar led his troops in a surprise charge on the Spanish positions, tearing into their tidy formations and dispersing them across the hillside.
The British Legion fought with great bravery, butchering Spaniards wherever they could. Many sustained terrible wounds. One, the renowned Irish soldier, Daniel O’Leary, sustained a deep gash to the skull. Another, Colonel James Rooke, had to have his left arm amputated on the battlefield.
He seized the severed limb in his right hand and shouted ‘Viva la patria.’ When he was asked which to country he was referring - England or Ireland - he responded: ‘the one that will bury me.’
He died three days later.
By the time he succumbed to his wounds, victory belonged to Bolivar. His band of soldiers had utterly routed the Spanish, who now found themselves in headlong retreat.
Bolivar’s desperate march across the Andes had paid off. The road to Bogota - and glory -  was now open.

My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the USA. Available at amazonbarnes&noble and all good independent publishers.  


With this marvellous, meticulously researched and truly ground-breaking account of British spies working in Lenin's stripling Soviet Union, Giles Milton - with his best book so far - reminds us of a time when the spying game was dangerous, fun and - dare one say it - even cool.' Simon Winchester, author of The Men who United the States and The Professor and the Madman




Tuesday, September 17, 2013

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD: THE STORY OF PAUL DUKES


Paul Dukes knew that he was being hunted by the Soviet secret police. He also knew he would be executed if caught. After all, he was a British spy in an enemy land. The only way to avoid capture was to constantly switch identities.
Dukes in disguise as a Russian
But by the summer of 1919, his undercover life had become so dangerous that he needed to get out of Russia immediately. He contacted Mansfield Cumming, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and asked for help. 
Cumming proved only too obliging. He employed an intrepid young naval officer, Augustus Agar, equipping him with two state-of-the-art speedboats that could be used to cross the mine-strewn Gulf of Finland. The idea was to pluck Dukes out of Petrograd, from under the noses of the Bolsheviks.
In the greatest secrecy, Agar crossed from Finland to Russia in his speedboat and landed a courier by the name of Gefter.
Gefter was to make contact with Dukes and tell him of the planned rendezvous with Agar on the night of 14 August. The two of them would meet with Agar’s speedboat in the Gulf of Finland.
Dukes as himself
At around 10 o’clock on the night in question, under a sky still streaked with light, the two men rowed out into the gulf. They glanced anxiously at the skyline: both had noticed the banks of threatening storm clouds.
‘After a while the sky blackened, the wind freshened, the wavelets became waves, their caressing grew into lashings,’ wrote Dukes.
Dukes loved switching identities
Seawater soon began to drag the boat deep into the water. A waterlogged boat would have presented major difficulties in any weather conditions, but it was disastrous in the teeth of an advancing storm. Before long, Dukes and Gefter were up to their waists in water.
Agar, meanwhile, was steering his speedboat through the Gulf of Finland’s minefields. He reached the Lissy Nos Point and then cut the engines. He’d made it to the rendezvous on time.
He scanned the water in the hope of sighting Dukes’ flashlight signal. But there was no sign of life in the darkness.
Home, but dangerous: St Petersburg
After a long wait, he flashed a signal to the shore. Still no sign of Dukes. Ten minutes passed - then twenty. Eventually the first rays of light began to streak across the eastern sky and they were obliged to restart the speedboat’s engines and head back to Finland.
Agar was depressed by his failure to rescue Dukes and Gefter, fearing that they’d been caught by the Cheka. In fact, their plight had been even more dramatic.
The two men had been in sight of Agar’s skimmer when their rowing boat slipped beneath the waves. With a strong current against them, they had no option but to swim for the shore.
The water was icy and the spray made rapid progress impossible. Dukes was a strong swimmer and eventually reached the shore close to collapse. Gefter was washed up in an even more critical condition. His skin was white and he was suffering from acute hypothermia.
Lenin: the enemy
The two men attempted to walk to safety. Gefter was barefoot for he’d kicked off his boots in the water. Now, the rocks lacerated his feet and they were soon bleeding badly. Dukes attempted to carry him, but he was too heavy and the two men sat down exhausted. As they shivered in the chill air, Gefter slumped forwards and collapsed. He’d stopped breathing.
‘In sudden terror I began to rub him with great energy,’ wrote Dukes. ‘I lay down beside him, covered his mouth with mine and blew down his throat. Alternately, I filled his lungs and pressed on his belly.’
Mansfield Cumming
After a terrifying few minutes, the lifeless Gefter vomited a bucketful of seawater. His eyes flickered and his hands stirred. He eventually managed to sit himself upright and a little colour returned to his face. Dukes carried him to a fisherman’s cottage and left him there to be nursed.
He then made his return to Petrograd and went back into hiding. But with no money at his disposal, he had no option but to make a second escape attempt almost immediately.
Augustus Agar to the rescue
Agar had meanwhile returned to London in order to report to Mansfield Cumming. When he arrived at the Whitehall office, he was told that Cumming had asked him to wait in the corridor outside. The door soon opened and a tall, dark-haired man emerged from the room.
‘Something about him and his manner arrested my attention and seemed to me to be familiar,’ wrote Agar, ‘but whether it was the eager look in his eyes, or a certain tense expression in his face, I cannot say.’
Agar hesitated for a moment: he could not take his eyes off the man.
‘Then, in a flash of intuition, a thought came to my mind. I was the first to speak.
“Are you Dukes?”
‘“Yes,” he replied.
Agar introduced himself, bringing a smile to Dukes’s face.
‘“C has a habit of arranging these little matters like this.” At which point we both laughed and shook hands and entered C’s office together.’
Two more of Cumming's agents were safely home after a highly dangerous undercover mission.

UK hardback
An edited extract from my new book, Russian Roulette, now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014 

'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

CHURCHILL’S CHEMICAL WEAPONS: THE ATTACK ON RUSSIA, 1919.


The attacks began shortly after midday on 27 August, 1919.
A British plane could be seen descending rapidly towards the village of Emtsa in northern Russia. As it passed over the Bolshevik military positions, it dropped dozens of exploding metal canisters.
Attacks using chemical weapons took place from the air
The entrenched soldiers had been attacked from the air on several occasions, but they quickly discovered that this new offensive was a wholly different affair. As the canisters exploded, they emitted clouds of highly toxic green gas. Those unfortunate enough to inhale it immediately began vomiting blood.
Churchill: a supporter of chemical weapons
Fully 94 years before the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad used chemical gas against his own people, Winston Churchill planned and executed a prolonged chemical attack on Bolshevik-controlled Northern Russia.
As Secretary of State for War, Churchill had long been arguing for military action against Lenin’s Bolsheviks, much to Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s annoyance. ‘He has Bolshevism on the brain,’ he said, ‘[and] he is mad for operations in Russia.’
In the aftermath of the First World War there was no appetite for putting troops on the ground. But Churchill knew that scientists at the governmental laboratories at Porton in Wiltshire had only recently developed a devastating weapon.
British soldiers assemble the M Device
The top secret ‘M Device’ was an exploding shell containing a highly toxic gas. The man in charge of researching and building the M Device, Major General Charles Foukes, called it ‘the most effective chemical weapon ever devised.’
Trials at Porton suggested that it was indeed a terrible weapon. Uncontrollable vomiting, coughing up blood and instant, crippling fatigue were the most common symptoms.
The overall head of chemical warfare production, Sir Keith Price, was convinced their use would lead to the rapid collapse of the Bolshevik regime. ‘If you got home only once with the Gas you would find no more Bolshies this side of Vologda.’
The Cabinet was deeply hostile to the use of chemical weapons against the Bolsheviks. But Churchill argued his corner with customary ebullience. Indeed he surprised his colleagues by advocating using the M Device against the rebellious tribes of northern India.
'Bolshies' - the Red Army
‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…’ he declared in one secret memorandum. He criticised his colleagues for their ‘squeamishness’, declaring that ‘the objections of the India Office to the use of gas against natives are unreasonable. Gas is a more merciful weapon than [the] high explosive shell, and compels an enemy to accept a decision with less loss of life than any other agency of war.’
He ended his memo on a note of ill-placed black humour: ‘Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?’ he asked. ‘It is really too silly.’
British aerial attacks using chemical weapons began with the aerial attack on the village of Emtsa, 120 miles to the south of Archangel. Fifty-three M Devices were dropped at lunchtime and a further 62 in the evening. The Bolshevik soldiers on the ground were seen fleeing in panic as thick green clouds of toxic chemical gas drifted towards them.
The British were keen to study the effects of this gas. To this end, they sent a small team of scientists to Russia in order to examine the victims of the chemical attacks.
Rare picture of an M Device
exploding
Among them was a Russian soldier named Private Boctroff of the 49 Regiment. He escaped from the looming gas cloud, but not before inhaling some of its poison. Captured by the British, Boctroff described the instantaneous effect that the gas had on him.
According to British medical notes, he was ‘affected with giddiness in head, running from ears, bled from nose and cough with blood, eyes watered and difficulty in breathing.’
Private Boctroff reported that some of his comrades had been close to the spot where the M Device had landed. ‘[They] were overpowered in the cloud and died there; the others staggered about for a short time and then fell down and died.’
The chemical attacks continued throughout the month of September, with strikes on the Bolshevik-held villages of Chunova, Vikhtova, Pocha, Chorga, Tavoigor and Zapolki. Some of these attacks use large quantities of M Devices: 183 canisters were dropped on Vikhtova.
Once the gas had dissipated, British and White Russian troops (equipped with gas masks) were sent in to attack any remaining Bolshevik soldiers. One British lieutenant, Donald Grantham, later questioned Bolshevik prisoners about the attacks. They described their gassed comrades as ‘lying practically helpless on the ground and the usual symptoms of bleeding from the nose and mouth.’ In extreme cases, the men coughed up large quantities of blood.
British soldier with M Device
The use of chemical weapons caused widespread demoralisation on the battlefield, even amongst those who had not inhaled the gas. Yet they proved less effective than Churchill had hoped. They did not lead to the collapse of the Red Army, as he believed they would. The weather was primarily to blame. Toxic gas proved ineffectual in the damp conditions of an early Russian autumn.
By September, as British forces prepared to withdraw from Archangel and Murmansk, the chemical attacks were permanently stopped. According to a report written for the War Office, a total of 2,718 M Devices had been dropped on Bolshevik positions; 47,282 remained unused.
Villages like this were targeted
It was too dangerous to ship these remaining devices back to England. In mid-September, the decision was taken to dump them in the White Sea. A military tug took them to a position 30 miles north of the Dvina Estuary and they were tipped overboard.
They remain on the seabed to this day in 40 fathoms of water.
Now published in UK
An edited extract from my new book, Russian Roulette, now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014 

'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD: THE STORY OF GEORGE DONNER AND FAMILY


The rescuers couldn’t believe their eyes.
Dozens of emaciated men, women and children lay huddled in the snow, suffering from disease and acute hypothermia. Around them lay the remains of dismembered human bodies - their former companions - that had been partially consumed.
Nearing the summit of the mountains
It was the spring of 1847 and relief had at last reached the most doomed voyage ever undertaken by American pioneers. The so-called Donner Party was a wagon train of 81 adventurers heading westwards to California. Their hope was to build new lives in the Sacramento Valley. Instead, their journey met with disaster in the freezing mountains of Sierra Nevada.
The voyage was led by George Donner, patriarch of the Donner family and a 62-year-old farmer from Springfield, Illinois. He was heading west with his wife, Tamsen, and their five young daughters. He was also accompanied by his younger brother, Jacob, along with his wife, two stepsons and five children.
It was quite so cosy
Other families also signed up for the adventure, among them the Reed family, the Murphys, the Wolfingers and a number of unmarried men.
The wagons set off from Independence, Missouri in April 1846, on a voyage that should have taken them five months.
George Donner’s first mistake was to take a new route to California, known as the Hastings Cutoff. Although shorter than the more popular trail, it was unmarked and required the traversing of two major obstacles, the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Desert.
The Donner party survived both of these, but it took a severe toll on their health. More than 100 oxen and cattle were also lost and the pioneers themselves were seriously malnourished.
They pressed on regardless, aware of the need to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountains before the first of the winter snows arrived.
The families set out one by one, with the Donners bringing up the rear. At one point the axle on their wagon broke and George had to fashion a new one. He cut his hand badly with a chisel but believed the wound would heal by itself. He had no idea that it would soon be badly infected.
The children were the first to suffer
Within days of entering the mountains the skies turned cloudy and it began to snow. The terrain was arduous even in good weather. Driving snow and sub zero temperatures made it even more difficult.
One by one the families struggled up a ‘massive, nearly vertical slope’ that brought them to Truckee Lake, some three miles from the summit.
They found ruined cabins built by previous pioneers and decided to shelter from the storm. Their idea was to push on over the summit as soon as the blizzard had blown over.
But as the snow continued to accumulate, their hopes began to fade. The drifts were soon ten feet deep and the mountains impassable. The families had no option but to survive the winter on this lonely and inhospitable mountaintop.
The Donners found themselves stranded five miles down the trail at Alder Creek. Aware that they could not continue in such deep snow, they constructed makeshift tents to house the 21 people in their party, among them 12 children.
Truckee (now Donner) Lake
On 4 November, it began to snow even harder and it was to continue for eight days - a blizzard that left them fatally exposed. For the next four months, the family was to endure unbelievable hardship and suffering.
A small group of men from the Truckee Lake party tried to break out of the mountains and search for help. A few of them eventually made it to safety and alerted the authorities in California as to what had happened. Finally, in February 1847, the first search party reached Truckee Lake.
They were appalled by what they found. Thirteen people were dead and the rest were severely malnourished. A number of the survivors were led to safety, but many more were simply too weak or sick to be moved. These included 12 members of the Donner clan, still stranded at Alder Creek.
The route they took
A second relief party made it back to the mountains in March. They found an even more horrifying spectacle than before, especially at Alder Creek.
One of the survivors, Jean Baptiste Trudeau, was spotted carrying a severed human leg. When he realised he’d been seen, he threw the leg into a hole in the snow. When the rescuers investigated further, they found it contained the dismembered body of Jacob Donner.
Inside one of the tents, they found Elizabeth Donner’s children eating the organs of their dead father.
Stumps of trees cut by Donners: the height of the cut
trunks indicated the depth of the snow
They also found the remains of three other bodies that had already been consumed.
Tamsen Donner was still in reasonable shape, but her husband George was now gravely ill, his wounded hand and arm infected with gangrene. Tamsen elected to remain with him, along with one of his nephews, watching with a heavy heart as seventeen others were helped off the mountain.
By the time the final rescue mission was sent, it was too late to help George Donner. His corpse was found in one of the tents at Alder Creek. 
As the rescuers made their way back down the mountain they stumbled across Lewis Keseberg, one of the survivors, who recounted a rambling tale of how Tamsen Donner had pitched up at his cabin at Truckee Lake just a few days previously.
Keseberg told them that she had died shortly after arriving but the rescuers were suspicious, especially when they found a pot of human flesh in the cabin, as well as George Donner's pistols, jewellery, and $250 in gold.
The accused Keseberg of having murdered her: he would later spend a great deal of time and money trying to clear his name.
Keseberg was the last member of the doomed voyage to leave the mountain. He finally reached safety in late spring, more than a year after the party had first embarked on their fateful voyage.
Happier times before reaching the mountains
It was now time to count the cost. The journey had claimed the lives of 48 people and left deep scars on all who survived. Their tales of cannibalism and human suffering - which soon found their way into the newspapers - were as gripping as they were appalling.
One of the surviving children wrote to her father-in-law, Levi Fosdick, who was thinking of joining her in California.
‘I will now give you some good and friendly advice. Stay at home.’
She spoke from experience.

Coming soon! 
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now available for pre-order here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. Murder, deception, disguise: you couldn't make it up. 

Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester