Prisoners of War
I: Prisoners of War captured in Europe in 1940
I: Prisoners of War captured in Europe in 1940
THE lull that followed the first air raids and naval actions of the autumn of 1939 gave way in the spring of 1940 to the unforeseen series of events in Europe which changed the whole aspect of the war. In April, after the leaflet raids over north-west Germany, came the ill-fated Allied expedition to Norway. In May the German land offensive through the Low Countries ended with the fall of France and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. In August and September the British air victory over the Luftwaffe narrowly averted a land Battle of Britain. The respite thus afforded gave Britain a chance to reorganise her forces, and in the months that followed she began the strategic bombing of Germany which was to continue until the end of the war.
Small numbers of New Zealanders in the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force took part in all these operations. Some were members of the crews of naval vessels or Fleet Air Arm planes. Others were with British Army units in the land operations on the Continent. New Zealand airmen took part in the Norway expedition; in the fighter patrols and close-support bombing of the land battle for France and in the fighter screen over Dunkirk; in the fighter defence of Britain and the bombing of the German invasion ports; and later in the long-range bombing of Germany itself. The heavy fighting and the Allied withdrawals brought a new flood of prisoners into German hands. It was almost inevitable that a proportion of the New Zealanders in action should be among them, and by the end of 1940 the number of our servicemen prisoners in Europe had risen to fifty or more, the majority of them airmen.
Some airmen who crashed or baled out on to enemy territory were able to evade immediate capture. A few of these made their way back to England, usually with the help of local inhabitants in enemy-occupied countries. The rest, after dodging about in a game of hide-and-seek with the occupation forces, usually fell into page 21 the hands of German troops, collaborators, or the Gestapo. A good many airmen were however picked up by enemy troops where they landed,1 or in the immediate neighbourhood. German military personnel had detailed instructions for dealing with crashed Allied aircraft. They were to ‘remove’ the airman from the wreck, if necessary ‘rescue’ them and extinguish fires, prevent them destroying equipment and documents, segregate them one from the other, put a guard on the aircraft and the prisoners, and finally inform the nearest German Air Field command so that the latter could take over. All Wehrmacht units and police in the vicinity of the crashed aircraft were to maintain increased vigilance in order to round up any of the crew who might have evaded capture. As soon as possible the Air Field command staff took over guard duties on both prisoners and all captured equipment, and then sent on particulars of the prisoners by teleprinter to Dulag Luft at Oberursel. It was forbidden, under pain of court martial for ‘sabotage of the Defence of the Reich’, for members of the Wehrmacht to take away the personal property of prisoners of war. This was less out of respect for the right of a prisoners to his possessions than because of their possible value to the interrogation centre. After a search for escape materials, the entire personal property of each prisoner was taken over by the German Air Field Headquarters, which kept it in a separate envelope and issued a receipt.
Within twenty-four hours fit prisoners were supposed to be despatched in third-class train accommodation to the interrogation centre at Oberursel.2 On the journey they were to be prevented as far as possible from communicating with each other, an adequate scale of guards being laid down to ensure this. If immediate despatch was not possible, prisoners were to be accommodated overnight at the local military headquarters, where there could be better surveillance than at a local police station. Thus, on paper, security was very high. In practice, however, human weakness and sympathy defeated many of the aims behind these strict and detailed orders. A New Zealand officer records that he was ‘well treated by an Austrian officer who knew English—he went as far as to [advise us] not to be forced to say anything as the Germans could not [force us to speak], and if bullied or shouted at to stand on one's dignity as a British officer.’
1 After the arrival of German forces in North Africa, some of the British airmen shot down in that theatre of war who fell into the hands of German troops were flown to Germany. A New Zealand warrant officer had this experience in March 1941.
2 From these and similar journeys from Dulag Luft to permanent camps attempts at escape were made from time to time, though no ultimately successful escape of this type is recorded.
Wounded prisoners were sent immediately to the nearest German Air Force hospital if hospital treatment was necessary; otherwise their wounds were usually quite adequately treated by the nearest unit medical officer. Sometimes in cases of urgency it was necessary to place a captured airman in the nearest German Navy or Army hospital, but the Luftwaffe saw to it that he was transferred to one of its own hospitals as soon as his physical condition permitted. At all types of military hospital the treatment seems to have been as good and as expert as that given to the German wounded there. A New Zealand warrant officer writes:
Taken to Zuiderziekenhuis Luftwaffe hospital in Rotterdam and X-rayed. Found to have broken vertebra, and received good treatment for over a month, especially from Dutch staff who had been taken over with the hospital. German doctors applied treatment prescribed by Dutch (civilian) doctor who arrived before them at the crash….
Medical service [was] indifferent, but only slight or convalescent cases were taken. Food and quarters excellent, walks every day for those able…. [Staff] augmented by volunteer R.A.F. personnel with some experience obtained good results.
Medical skill was, it appears, not necessarily the main recommendation for appointment to the staff of Hohemark. At one period the administration tried German nurses who could speak good English, the idea being that they could extract military information from a prisoner while nursing him. His reserve was apparently to be broken down by a combination of comfortable and relaxing surroundings, services demanding his gratitude, and feminine appeal. The experiment was not a success. It was abandoned for want of sufficient results, the official explanation being that the nurses used were not of a ‘suitable’ type. It is not clear whether this referred to their inability to make the required impression on their patients or to their being themselves susceptible and sympathetic enough to forget about interrogating them. After a short time they were all replaced by elderly male medical orderlies.
1 The hospital attached to the interrogation centre and transit camp at Oberursel. See p. 4.
Though now housed in a separate building at the Oberursel camp and building up extensive records, the interrogation centre had not yet attained the machine-like efficiency of its later periods.1 The staff was still small—five interrogators only—and the ‘pressure’ does not seem to have been applied anything like as seriously as it was in the middle and later years of the war. On their arrival prisoners were certainly placed in solitary confinement, but in what are described by various prisoners of this period as ‘good quarters’ or ‘a quite comfortable small room’. And the treatment there seems to have been reasonable, at all events by comparison with the experiences of those who passed through in subsequent periods. The whole atmosphere seems to have been in complete contrast to that which was later to earn the Oberursel ‘cooler’ such a sinister reputation.
The first step in the interrogation was the presentation of a long list of questions on a form marked with a Red Cross.2 This the prisoner was asked to fill in ‘in order to facilitate sending particulars regarding his capture through the Red Cross to his relatives.’ In some such vein the interrogator endeavoured by friendly chat over a cigarette (for which purpose he received a special daily allowance) to persuade the prisoner to give the required answers. It seems that the idea of the ‘Red Cross form’ was derived from Article 77 of the 1929 Geneva Prisoners of War Convention. This charges all belligerents with prompt notification of captures together with ‘all particulars of identity’, and gives a list of the latter which should be noted down (‘as far as possible and subject to the provisions of Article 5’):
… the regimental number, names and surnames, date and place of birth, rank and unit of the prisoner, the surname of the father and name of the mother, the address of the person to be notified in the case of accident, wounds, dates and places of capture, of internment, of wounds, of death, together with all other important particulars.3
1 Interrogation of the former German commandant and other staff of the interrogation centre showed that ‘business-like’ methods were not introduced until November 1941.
3 Italics are the author's.
4 The additions were: Service; profession; religion; whether married; number of children; pay; when, where, and by whom shot down; squadron; group; command station and its number; letters and number of aircraft; state of health; particulars of crew.
After the business of the Red Cross form there followed the interrogation proper a day or so later. Armed with all the details of the prisoner's private and service background which the interrogation centre Documents and Records Section had been able to piece together, the interrogator attempted to engage the prisoner in apparently innocent conversation, and at the same time to impress him with a display of the information already possessed by German Intelligence. An officer prisoner who was interrogated by the camp commandant describes him as ‘most charming’, and goes on to say that he ‘talked mainly of the East Indies, told me who I was and where I came from in England, target, etc.’ The next step was to surprise the prisoner into making comments on operational matters and possibly also on those relating to politics and morale. For this the German interrogation officers adopted a friendly approach, especially in the early part of the war, as it gave the lie to the picture of the ‘brutal Hun’ built up by Allied publicity in the mind of the young airman. Moreover this method was invariably used with officers, as they sometimes felt bound to converse out of courtesy after treatment which was most hospitable even by ordinary standards, let alone those of an enemy in time of war. Another officer who was also interrogated by the camp commandant mentions that he ‘chatted amiably for half an hour, producing cigarettes and liqueurs’, and that ‘towards the end of the conversation he briefly commiserated my sad fate and then casually asked’ questions on operations. Apparently the ‘friendly approach’ in this form did not always achieve the expected results, for it underwent considerable modification later.
As soon as the interrogation process was completed the prisoner was released from his cell, given back his personal possessions, and sent into the transit camp or ‘overflow’ across the road to await despatch to a permanent camp. Here his creature comforts were lavishly attended to—showers, clothes, good meals—his stay varying from a few days to three months according to whether or not it was thought that any further information might be extracted from him. For in the compound the Germans endeavoured by means of stool-pigeons and microphones concealed in some of the rooms to glean further scraps of intelligence. In the early stages of the war page 25 a good many Allied prisoners were caught off their guard by the set-up at Oberursel and unwittingly gave away much valuable information.
The number of Allied prisoners who yielded to the blandishments of the Germans and agreed to spy on their comrades was happily small, and their success was in the German view very limited. There were a few who belonged to the Mosley Party or held other political views which made them susceptible to German propaganda, but most were ordinary men of ‘commonplace’ background. They were used mainly in the early days as camp staff in the Oberursel ‘overflow’ and in the Hohemark hospital. Their main assignments were to check up on identifications of units, to gather information on politics or morale, and to give warning of any impending attempt at escape. Although the Germans paid them for their services, they admit that their neglect of stool-pigeons caused the latter to be less effective and often led to their discovery. Once it became known that the compound contained these ‘stooges’, their value was largely gone, for security measures were taken by the prisoners against careless talk, and most of the few traitors were forced to desist through fear of discovery and consequent retribution.
A New Zealand officer describes the Dulag Luft of this period as a ‘German show camp’. Another calls it ‘a model camp’ and goes on to say that ‘after six months’ previous experience in rather bad conditions as a prisoner of war this was absolute luxury.' Huts containing separate rooms for two or three beds with sheets and pillowcases, plenty of space, and even sports fields seemed indeed palatial after the makeshift accommodation experienced by many prisoners while being escorted back.
The fall of France in the summer of 1940 brought such a large influx of prisoners to Dulag Luft that the thousands of French were segregated in a separate compound for the first time. In the British compound the Germans interfered with the prisoners' daily life as little as possible, two roll-calls a day by a Luftwaffe officer being almost their only intrusions. The internal organisation of the camp was left to the senior British officer, who was also the official channel for communication with the German camp commandant, the International Red Cross Committee and the Protecting Power. The various camp activities—canteen, clothing, entertainments, sports—were run by officers or NCOs whom he appointed. Every officer contributed to a camp fund which financed the purchase of food for the messes, the orderlies' pay, and the pocket-money issued to new prisoners to buy toilet necessities from the canteen on their arrival. The sick were treated by a German medical orderly in a medical page 26 inspection room, the nearby Hohemark hospital being available for anything serious. A civilian dentist in Oberursel did the dental work.
Red Cross food parcels had been available from the opening of the camp, but were in short supply during the period following the fall of France until new supply routes were established. This break in supplies unfortunately coincided with the cutting down of prisoner-of-war rations to the scale allowed to German civilians. All Red Cross food was pooled to ensure that new arrivals should share equally with those who had been in the camp some time. The Germans, although bound by the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention to supply prisoners with clothing and footwear,1 would issue no clothing except to those whose uniforms were lost or in rags. Moreover they insisted on rigid control of the issue of Air Force uniforms sent by the Air Ministry through the International Red Cross Committee, on the grounds that surplus clothing might be used to assist escape. Nevertheless the camp clothing officer was able to see that each newly-arrived prisoner did not have to go about dressed in a manner damaging to his self-respect and to the prestige of the Royal Air Force.
1 Article 12 states:
Clothing, underwear and footwear shall be supplied to prisoners of war by the Detaining Power. The regular replacement and repair of such articles shall be assured….
This camp is the best of its kind visited in Germany. A well regulated, clean and nice camp. In addition to the physical comforts provided, an endeavour is made to alleviate the mental depression present in persons in confinement.
It is said that the morale of prisoners at Dulag Luft was very high, partly as a result of the spirit of comradeship and solidarity established by some of its earliest inmates. Doubtless an adequate supply of material goods fairly distributed must share the credit, as it did in most prisoner-of-war camps. There can be little doubt that the sensible policy adopted by the senior British officer at an early stage did much to obviate possible later causes of grievance. His aim was to create among those in the camp a cohesion based on mutual confidence, which if not quite that of a service unit, would at least present a solid front in the presence of the enemy. Thus there was a common mess for senior and junior officers; a communal pool of all camp food supplies from which all ranks received the same food; a communal pool of clothing from which only those in real need of it were supplied. The minimising of the privileges of rank, a scrupulously fair distribution of available goods, a friendly welcome to new prisoners coupled with a few words of advice, all helped to weld the prisoners into a community united against the enemy outside the wire. When it came to a question of escape or any other action, co-operation might then be assured.
It was sometimes imagined that discipline and co-operation inside a prisoner-of-war camp could be taken for granted, since prisoners of war were still servicemen and would give, even after capture, unquestioning obedience to their senior officers. But capture often produced a considerable loosening of the bonds that gave a service unit its discipline and morale. In the first place it was only too obvious that those really in command were no longer the senior officers but the enemy guards, since they were the only ones with the means of enforcing their authority. Secondly, senior officer prisoners might not always have the qualities necessary to make a successful prisoner-of-war camp leader. To inspire confidence a leader had to show that he was completely unselfish about food and personal comfort. He had to ensure that everyone in the camp always received a fair share of everything, taking a firm line if necessary with those of no matter what rank who tried to get more than their share. He had to be indefatigable in negotiating with the enemy to improve conditions in the camp and to protect its inmates from ill-treatment. Finally he had to bear hunger, cold, and other discomforts cheerfully, and by this example and other means help maintain the morale of his fellow prisoners.page 28
In the maintenance of morale news of the war and of the outside world was a considerable factor. In Dulag Luft this was made easy when early in 1941 the Germans installed a radio receiver. All the European and American programmes could be heard, and the senior British officer saw to it that news bulletins were made available to the camp at large. In this period of disasters there was nothing in the German news bulletins that might have given logical grounds for belief in a final Allied victory. In spite of this, most officers and men maintained in their speech and attitude the proposition that Britain always wins the last battle; and apparently such illogical stubbornness usually left the German guards in baffled amazement.
By virtue of its role as an information-collecting agency and as part of the security organisation of the Luftwaffe Intelligence Branch, Dulag Luft was in this period saddled with the censorship of the incoming and outgoing mail for all Air Force prisoners in Germany. It was not until later, when numbers increased and this additional burden proved too great to cope with, that the duties were placed elsewhere. Besides this the transit camp had to look after its own security by ensuring that nobody escaped. From the first, the German security system attached importance to the examination of parcels entering a camp. But the volume of parcels received by British prisoners made through searching of them impossible without the employment of enormous staffs. Conscientious as some of the searchers were, the sheer necessity for clearing space to admit new deliveries prevented the strict examination of everything; and the searchers, especially Wehrmacht personnel not belonging to the security branch, were by no means all conscientious. Thus food and tobacco tins were at first all opened and often emptied, but later those from Red Cross sources received no examination1 and many others but a cursory one. Clothing parcels were usually checked for civilian shirts, ties, and other garments, but the German examiner could often be persuaded to let some pass. Games parcels were searched for escape aids, and all books had to be read for anti-Nazi views as well as for possible assistance to would-be escapers. While much was found by the German censorship staff, a good deal got past them.
1 Red Cross societies, the British Red Cross, the Joint Council, and the International Red Cross Committee were scrupulous in seeing that safe delivery of their consignments was not prejudiced by any breach of censorship regulations. They never used them to convey contraband articles.
Although the German High Command had decided at the end of 1939 to construct special permanent camps for Air Force prisoners, none had been completed up to the middle of 1940. From Dulag Luft, therefore, prisoners were still being sent on to camps where there was a mixture both of arms of the service and also of nationalities, although the latter were by now usually in separate compounds. Officers went to Oflag IXA at Spangenburg, already described, and other ranks to Stalag XIIA at Limburg, not far north-west of Oberursel, or to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf in Silesia.
In this period the accommodation at Spangenburg2 had been increased by the addition of a group of half-timbered buildings in the village below the castle, these being known as the Unterlager (Lower camp) and the castle as the Oberlager (Upper camp). Before this expansion the Upper camp had become very over-crowded—a phase which usually preceded any addition to living space for prisoners of war. British other ranks acting as orderlies for the camp were particularly cramped. To make matters worse the plumbing in the old castle, having deteriorated badly during the winter, was still being repaired well on into the summer. This meant having tub baths instead of showers, carrying buckets of water instead of turning on taps, and other inconveniences which brought life in the castle to some extent back to its medieval pattern. Partly because of this and partly because of the defective ventilation from small windows through which there penetrated only narrow shafts of sunshine, the whole place had become damp. And the dark, grey stone walls, the concrete floors, and the clammy air combined to create a depressing atmosphere except on very sunny days.
2 In this period its designation changed from Oflag IXA to Oflag IXA/H.
The amenities of the castle were improving with the passage of time. The Germans had been persuaded to allow the use of a small piece of ground near the castle as a football ‘kick-about’ area. A gymnasium attached to the castle had been made available. Two plots of ground had been set aside for the prisoners to cultivate. A pleasant, medieval-style room served as library, which by numerous consignments of books from England and Geneva soon possessed an excellent stock. German daily newspapers and illustrated periodicals were delivered to the camp regularly. Musical instruments could also be bought, and an orchestra had been built up. Walks in the neighbourhood for officers on parole not to escape1 were permitted twice a week, but the commandant insisted on guards ‘to protect prisoners against possible insults from German civilians’. Some officers protested that they were prepared to take the risk of anything the German population might do; others complained that the imposition of guards under such circumstances was a slur on the honour of the officer who had given his parole. But no amount of argument was of any avail. ‘No guard—no walks’ was the German standpoint, and it remained so in most German camps throughout the war.
The camp at Limburg, Stalag XIIA, was a convenient dumping-ground for other ranks from Dulag Luft, being no more than 25 miles away. As far as can be ascertained, however, most Dominion personnel found their way to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, not far from Breslau in Silesia, a two-day journey by cattle-truck. It is described by a visitor as a ‘classically’ typical prisoner-of war camp.
1 The giving of parole by British officers had been forbidden by an Army Council Instruction of 15 February 1940 and similar Navy and Air Force instructions. But the practice of giving a temporary parole for exercise, recreation, and medical treatment was recognised when a new order was promulgated in early 1942.
It is apparent that without relief supplies from Red Cross and other sources it would be difficult for such a camp to be bearable over a length of time. Even when food parcels arrived there were no facilities for cooking the contents, other than crude stoves made by the prisoners themselves. Nevertheless there seems little doubt that neither the discomfort of the camp nor the arrogant harshness of the guards after the Dunkirk evacuation quenched the spirit of the inmates. Their resiliency and adaptability in those first dark months were something on which in later years, with the aid of all the relief supplies poured in from outside, the camp population was able to build up a position of moral superiority over its guards.
1 70 pfennigs a day, at pre-war rates of exchange about 11d. (1 Reichsmark = 100 pfennigs) ‘In the industries and trades prisoners of war received 60 per cent of the rate paid to civilian workers. In agriculture prisoners of war received a very small daily wage, but they were fed and lodged by their employer.’—IRCC Report on Activities during Second World War, Vol. I, p. 287. (See also note 3 on p. 85.)
A senior prisoner in each compound became responsible for internal organisation and for dealing with the German camp administration. On the whole prisoners were allowed to administer their own affairs, the Germans conducting an occasional search or inspection of barracks and holding two roll-calls daily. The latter were at first rather perfunctory counts, but in November 1940, following several escapes, they became individual roll-calls and remained so for nearly eighteen months. The prisoners' organisation was similar to that already described for Dulag Luft. To pay for fresh vegetables and other communal purchases made through the canteen for both officers and NCOs, and to provide the latter with funds for minor expenses, all officers paid a levy proportionate to their rank into a camp fund. Such a practice became almost universal in camps containing both officers and other ranks, and was later extended to provide for other ranks of the same country or unit in another camp. In Barth financial assistance of this type was provided for merchant seamen's camps. The Geneva Prisoners of War Convention provides for a percentage of canteen receipts to be set aside for the establishment of a camp welfare fund. The German camp administration took 10 per cent of the value of all canteen sales, but it does not appear to have been used on behalf of the prisoners. Sick prisoners were cared for reasonably well, in spite of meagre medical supplies, by a German medical officer and German orderlies in a sick-bay situated in a Vorlager1 outside the compounds. Serious cases were sent to nearby hospitals, and dental work was done by a Luftwaffe dentist who visited the camp weekly.
1 A fenced-off area between the prisoners' compounds and the camp entrance, containing German administrative and living quarters.
3 Estimated at the time as about 1500 calories a head daily.
It was not until about six months after capture that a prisoner's first quarterly clothing parcel arrived. Up to the time when bulk supplies of British uniform began to arrive in May 1941, the Germans issued captured French, Belgian, and Polish uniforms and other clothing to any prisoner who needed it. This captured uniform was naturally not a satisfactory substitute, and the arrival of RAF battle dress enabled those temporarily without proper uniforms to take pride once again in their personal appearance.
Although there was a sports field in an adjacent compound, shortages of guards forced the Germans to curtail its use to about twice a week. With this restriction, the shortage of food and the lack of equipment, not much sport was played in the first year, except a little soccer and some ice-hockey on a home-made rink. Autumn 1940 brought a great demand for books, and a small library was formed from private contributions. As time went on this was supplemented by parcels sent through the International Red Cross Committee and by the purchase through the canteen of continental editions in English. In the winter one or two educational classes were started in spite of a lack of books and writing materials, there having been practically none at all in the first six months. An RAF staff duties course petered out through lack of interest. Such a fate befell most prisoner-of-war courses on service matters and was probably due to the remoteness, for a serviceman behind enemy barbed wire, of any opportunity to apply them. Courses in escape work, practical techniques, languages, or contract bridge were by comparison consistently attended. A pantomime for Christmas 1940 set going a series of theatrical and, later on, musical performances with instruments bought out of camp funds. A German padre held regular church services for the NCOs, officers taking their own services, until the arrival in mid-1941 of an officer of the New Zealand Church Army who thereafter acted as padre.
1 Stalag Luft was the original name of the camp, but the number I was added later to distinguish it from other Air Force camps. The title Stalag Luft I is used here to avoid confusion.
The anti-escape defences of Stalag Luft I consisted of a double barbed-wire fence eight feet high with concertina wire in the six-foot space between, corner sentry-towers with searchlights and machine guns, a sentry patrol outside the fence, which was lit at 20-yard intervals, a warning wire 15 feet inside the fence, a dog patrol in the compound at night, and some attempt at control of persons and vehicles passing through the gate. The pattern was typical of German prisoner-of-war camps. In February 1941 the security (Abwehr) officer was given two assistants to keep an eye on the compounds and to control searches. Their nickname of ‘ferrets’, given as a result of their frequent crawling under the barracks, stuck to Abwehr personnel for the rest of the war. The Abwehr were also mainly responsible for the examination of parcels entering the camp as they were at Dulag Luft, and were often similarly swamped into inefficiency by the magnitude of that task. For the same reason they were often dilatory about the searching of new arrivals and of the barracks. But the first discovery of a tunnel at Barth in January 1941 brought a thorough ransack of the offending barrack, lasting a week and involving the evacuation of the occupants, the tearing down of wallpaper, and the emptying of mattresses. Then began a kind of search blitz culminating in searches on 28 successive days in May 1941, but gradually petering out in the summer.
1 Oflag IVC, Colditz, was a camp for troublesome prisoners (later for prospective hostages too), officially no different from any other except for being more difficult to escape from. In fact it was a comfortless old fortress, and the staff was less ‘correct’ and the treatment considerably harsher than at other camps.
1 Articles 50 and 54 of the 1929 Geneva Convention made escape by a prisoner of war punishable only by ‘disciplinary punishment’, limited to 30 days' imprisonment.