Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE WORK CAMPS dependent on each stalag were known as arbeits-kommandos, often shortened to kommandos. A stalag might have on its strength 5000 to 7000 prisoners of war with another 10,000 to 30,000 men distributed through the farms, factories, railway yards, quarries, and mines of the neighbourhood. Kommandos fell into three main classes—farming, industrial work, and work for the commissariat of the German Army (for instance, unloading stores from trains). They consisted of groups of from six to 500 men, although the usual strength of a kommando was between fifty and 100, as this was an economical administrative unit for a guard of from six to ten to handle with the aid of an interpreter and was also suited to the needs of most industries. Men on kommandos usually went back to the stalag only for disciplinary reasons or for medical treatment. A medical orderly was attached to most kommandos, each of which was administered by the usual man-of-confidence. This man-of-confidence (or Vertrauensmann) was elected by the prisoners themselves from their own numbers. He was in charge of the issue of Red Cross parcels and clothing and was responsible for all matters concerning the welfare of his fellow-prisoners. As one prisoner remarked, the principle of the elected man-of-confidence was ‘rather ironic in a dictatorship country’.
Work on the land offered the greatest freedom and the best food, but the advantages were ‘to a large extent offset by the arduous nature of the work and the long hours’. The usual practice was for the prisoners to be lodged at some central point from which they marched out every morning under guard to the scene of their labours, returning in the same way to their quarters in the evening. During the day the farmer they were working for was responsible for them to the German authorities, and he also fed them. One prisoner amusedly described the arrival of fourteen prisoners of war at a new village, where the local farmers immediately engaged in a ‘rather obvious wrangle over who should have the big men and who the small’. These farmers had been strictly briefed by the German authorities in the correct demeanour towards prisoners of war: the general principle was the avoidance of fraternising. When they had got to know each other better, this elaborate structure of restrictive regulations (which had even forbidden the farm children to speak to the prisoners) was regarded by both farmers and prisoners as the ‘joke of the century’. Work was hard and the hours long, partly because the implements were generally very primitive, but the food and exercise built up the men’s strength to normal. Every Sunday was spent in camp: in winter, resting, reading, or playing games; in summer, swimming, or climbing the neighbouring hills. Towards the end of the war prisoners were made to work on Sundays.
The German policy was to force prisoners to work under threat of punishment. Many guards found in practice that more conciliatory methods produced better results for both sides. The prisoners were determined not to help the enemy by working hard, and the only occasions when men put their best into the job was when it was on a contract basis and they could, when finished, go home early. Some guards tricked prisoners by beginning the day on contract and, when the allotted task was nearly finished, returning to day labour for set hours. This was not likely to succeed more than once or twice. For their part the prisoners were willing to trick their guards. On one occasion a group greatly reduced the labour of filling in a deep trench carrying power cables by putting boards over it near the surface and throwing earth on top; an Allied bomb exposed the deception to the Germans many months later. Prisoners were able to engage in a good deal of quiet sabotage in the course of their work. On a dam-construction job the concrete mixture was tampered with, tools were lost in the mould with the concrete, and sand was thrown into the bearings of railway trucks.
Men on kommandos were paid anything from 70 pfennigs (IId) to 3 marks (4s) a day, the highest earnings being in the coal mines. They had very limited opportunities for spending this money; local German wartime beer, greatly despised, was practically the only thing they could page 8 buy with their lagergeld, notes specially printed by the Germans for the use of prisoners of war. It was possible to remit savings home through the International Red Cross. The real currency with which prisoners corrupted guards, overseers, and any of the civil population with whom they came in contact was provided by the luxury items in their Red Cross parcels—tea, coffee, cocoa, cigarettes, and soap. Men had qualms sometimes whether they were not in fact helping their enemies by giving them things denied them by the Allied blockade. But nearly all felt that the advantages to themselves from successful barter were so great that the Red Cross authorities would certainly have considered their gifts were being well used, and the effect on the Germans’ morale of having to depend on their prisoners for goods they could not otherwise obtain outweighed any mitigation of the enemy’s wartime hardships which might result. Barter with Red Cross commodities enabled the prisoners to add eggs, white bread, flour, fresh fruit, milk, and cream to their diet, to acquire contraband articles, and generally to soften the rigours of captivity.
Naturally a small group of men at a distance from the authorities had better opportunities than those who remained in a large camp for coming to terms with their captors. But this relaxation worked both ways. It sometimes happened that living accommodation and conditions on kommandos, which were rarely visited by the International Red Cross, were appalling, the guards offensive and unjust, and the local population hostile and unyielding. The opportunities for sport, recreation, and education were generally smaller and less rewarding than in the main camps. But to most men the kommando was welcome for its closer approximation to the conditions of ordinary civilian life.