Prisoners of War
II: Transit and Permanent Camps in Germany and Austria
Such a mass transfer was bound to set a difficult problem for the German Prisoner of War Division to find sufficient suitable accommodation in the Greater Reich. The transit camps—Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau and Stalag XVIIIA/Z at Spittal-on-the-Drau, both in Austria, and Stalag VIIA at Moosburg in Bavaria—were soon crowded with men from Italy, but most prisoners were kept there only for a week or two. Some of the trainloads went right through to Görlitz (Stalag VIIIA) or to Lamsdorf (Stalag VIIIB), which were to be for many of the other ranks their permanent base camps. A large number of officers were moved to Strasbourg: some to Fort Bismarck, others to Stalag VC at Offenberg, where they were kept for some weeks and a few days respectively before going to their permanent camps—Oflag VA at Weinsberg, Oflag XIIB at Hadamar, and Oflag IXA/Z at Rotenburg. Most Air Force officers and other ranks went eventually to Stalag Luft III at Sagan.2
2 See map facing p. 355.
Those from Campo 57 were the first large party from Italy to reach Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau, which then held some 1000 prisoners of several other European nationalities. Though in a beautiful alpine setting on the left bank of the Salzach, roughly 25 miles south of Salzburg, the camp was very dirty and the barracks infested with vermin. Many prisoners, to avoid the bedbugs, preferred to sleep on the floor wrapped in their great-coats; a number would have had to in any case as there were not enough beds to go round, nor any blankets. For the first time they tasted the typical German stalag fare—vegetable soup and ‘black’ bread, boiled potatoes and mint tea. There, too, they went through the registration, searching, and delousing routine already described elsewhere, but had all their spare clothing, boots, and blankets confiscated. After a fortnight or so most went north to Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz in Silesia. Several thousand British and American prisoners passed through this camp, and by mid-November only 450-odd remained.
As Görlitz rapidly filled, later drafts went from Markt Pongau to Stalag XVIIIA/Z at Spittal-on-the-Drau, and some trainloads went to this camp direct. Something has already been told of its history;1 at this period men pronounced it ‘a really good camp’ especially if they had just come from Markt Pongau. From here many of our men went out to working camps in Austria, but those exempt because of rank remained in spite of German persuasion and were eventually sent back to Markt Pongau. It was here, too, that a number of the transferred officers were able to pose as other ranks and make a break after joining one of the French working parties. One New Zealand officer exchanged identities with a gunner and succeeded in making his way from a French working party over the border into Italy, and eventually to Allied territory through Yugoslavia.2
1 see pp. 243–4.
2 Capt D. J. Riddiford (6 Fd Regt), awarded MC for his efforts to escape. Most of those who thus changed their identities at Spittal were caught, as they all applied to go to a working camp near the Italian frontier. Riddiford, having carefully learnt the personal details and history of the man he was impersonating and by playing both dumb and sick at his interrogation, half convinced the German commandant that he was genuine. On discharge from hospital he wasted no time in leaving the camp in a working party dressed as a Frenchman, and with two companions was in Italy in four days.
3 See p. 138.
The bulk of the New Zealand officers—the more junior ones—went from Moosburg with a thousand or more others, mostly from Campo PG 19 and Campo PG 47, to Fort Bismarck at Strasbourg. This was a large, depressing old fortress, sunk into the slope of a hill, so that air and light reached the windows of the sleeping quarters behind it only by virtue of a deep moat. It was damp and comfortless, though the shortage of fuel for the stoves was soon made good by the prisoners from spare wooden beds and fittings. Several daring escapes were made up the moat wall and through the wire under the noses of German sentries, and one or two were able to hide up when the prisoners were later evacuated.
From Fort Bismarck junior officers and other ranks—men from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—went to Oflag VA at Weinsberg, a small village amid the woods and healthy, fruit-growing countryside near Heilbron, in Wurtemburg. Previously occupied by French officers, it contained wooden barracks of the usual German type, divided into small rooms. The thousand or more officers1 and 130-odd other ranks were crowded at first and the camp suffered from numerous other defects: the Germans issued only one blanket, there was such an uncertain water supply that no hot showers were available for some time, and there was insufficient fuel for the kitchen so that one meal a day had to be served cold. For a week or two until Red Cross supplies began to arrive, the camp had to exist on the German rations and what cigarettes and books men had been able to carry on their persons from Italy. The worst permanent lack of the camp was space for recreation, the only outdoor area available being a sloping and totally inadequate one between the two rows of barracks where check parades were held. The use of any open space outside the camp for sport or other recreation was forbidden by the Gauleiter of Heilbron, who also for some time prevented the prisoners from having walks on parole. In the first weeks of the camp it was not unfair to say, as the Protecting Power representative did in his report, that recreational and exercise facilities were almost non-existent.
1 New Zealanders in the camp were roughly 140 officers and 10 other ranks.
Censoring of letters was carried out in a ‘rather narrow-minded’1 fashion. When Red Cross supplies arrived, as they soon did, all the material in which food parcels were packed was carefully collected by the German staff, on the ground that in the hands of prisoners it might be used to assist an escape. So might almost any other article in the prisoners' possession; sets of drawing instruments, a gramophone, and sports equipment were withheld for the same reason. Not only was there at first no space for indoor recreation and only a small unsuitable area outside, but the Germans declined to supply any writing materials or wood for the construction of a theatre or even the erection of goal posts. Under these conditions the recreation essential for the wellbeing of those in a non-working camp was at first very difficult to organise. But what was felt to be the worst restriction was the packing of all prisoners inside the barracks after evening check parade—at first at 5.15 p.m. and later as early as 4.30 p.m. With strict enforcement of the blackout against air raids, this meant each night a period of five to six hours in crowded, smoke-laden, ill-lit rooms before going to bed, and a total of thirteen to fourteen hours in the barracks.
1 Reports of Protecting Power on Oflag VA.
The older and more senior and some of the sick officers from Campo PG 19 and Campo PG 47 went in October to Oflag XIIB at Hadamar, near Limburg in the Lahn valley of Nassau. About 250 such officers (including some thirty New Zealanders) and 35 other ranks made up the camp complement. French officers had previously occupied this camp, too, which comprised a large, castle-like building with very thick walls, on a hill overlooking the town. Here, by contrast, there was a good deal of space both in the bedrooms and dining room, chapel and study rooms—the best officers' camp in this respect which the Swiss inspector had seen in Germany. In addition there was central heating throughout the the whole building, adequate sanitary arrangements, and a reasonably well-equipped kitchen. The officers could use a small sports field inside the camp and could go for walks on parole. Although the German staff had the same concern about possible escapes, the officer prisoners at the camp gave the Swiss delegate who inspected it the impression of being ‘quite comfortable’. In the first few weeks, however, there was an absence of Red Cross supplies of food, cigarettes, books and games, which cast a gloom similar to that which had at first prevailed at Weinsberg. When the position at Hadamar was known to the senior British officer of Oflag IXA/H he sent 600 food parcels, together with invalid parcels, cigarettes, books, games, and some clothing. This tided the camp over until its own supplies arrived from Geneva.
Later drafts of officers from Italy, including most of the sick and disabled who had been in camp infirmaries, went straight through to Lamsdorf, and after a short spell at Stalag VIIIB, formed a new officers' camp just outside Märisch-Trübau, in the eastern Sudetenland bordering on Silesia. To this camp went other officers from Stalag IVB at Mühlberg to make a total of about 1500, including some forty New Zealanders. They were housed in a pleasantly situated four-storied building (a former Czech officers' training school), which was centrally heated and reasonably well appointed in most other respects, and in some small stone barracks. There were ample reserves of Red Cross food, and apart from three mental cases the health of prisoners was good. Facilities for recreation were particularly good and included a sports ground, a gymnasium, a library and a theatre.
The New Zealand other ranks from Italy went direct or through transit camps to the industrial areas of central Germany north of the old Czechoslovakian border. Many went to Stalag VIIIA at Görlitz in Saxony, 50 miles east of Dresden, or to its working page 296 camps. A number of these were later moved to working camps attached to Stalag 344, to which others had already gone direct. A few hundred, mainly from Campo PG 103/6 and Campo PG 103/7, went from Moosburg to Stalag XIA at Altengrabow, near Magdeburg, and after a short time there moved on to Arbeitskommando 7001 at Halendorf, attached to Stalag XIB. Some went to Stalag IVB at Mühlberg on the Elbe, 40 miles east of Leipzig, and worked in various kommandos attached to the camps in Wehrkreis IV. Others, after having gone to Spittal-on-the-Drau, remained in Wehrkreis XVIII at one of the stalags or worked in one of the attached kommandos. A few small groups found their way to other established camps such as Stalag 383.
Stalag VIIIA, to which went a trainload of prisoners from Campo PG 57, covered over 70 acres of sloping countryside on the eastern outskirts of the town of Görlitz. One of the oldest prisoner-of-war camps in Germany, it had barracks of the same type as those at Lamsdorf and had held prisoners of several Allied European countries. When our men arrived from Italy it contained French, Belgians and Serbs, together with a number of Russians in an adjacent but carefully segregated compound. The portion of the camp allotted to the newcomers was in bad repair, with many missing doors and windows and a bad shortage of beds and palliasses. It was also infested with lice and bedbugs, and though the former were soon overcome the latter persisted. There was a very poor water supply and the usual rather primitive latrine system. But under good leadership the camp soon began to show improvement. Generous gifts of food and tobacco from the French and Belgians tided the British prisoners over a lean period until copious Red Cross supplies of all kinds began to arrive in October. In time it became possible to organise all the amenities common in other, longer-established British camp communities.
The stalag very quickly became overcrowded, and remained so until sufficient working parties were moved out to work-camps. All those below the rank of corporal underwent a rather cursory medical examination by a German doctor and were graded according to the heaviness of the work he considered they were fit to undertake. Before the end of the year hundreds of men had gone to work in coal mines or stone quarries, at sugar, glass or paper factories, on railway construction or other building work, in Arbeitskommandos attached to Stalag VIIIA.
Many of these had been in operation for some time, and the new arrivals from Italy went out as replacements; but some new Arbeitskommandos were also formed. For the most part quarters page 297 were spacious, well-heated and clean, though primitive sanitation remained a main drawback. Those who occupied large rooms in German inns were usually well off. The German rations were often cooked by women at an inn or at a factory, but more satisfactory results were usually obtained when the task was given to one or more of the prisoners. In addition to the larger portion of bread and other workers' rations which the prisoners received, eggs, vegetables, and other produce could often be obtained by bartering. Hours of work were still long and many employers refused to acknowledge the prisoner's right to a day off each week. But in late 1943 guards and civilian overseers were more reasonable in their treatment of British prisoners than they had been a year or so previously. The newcomers were agreeably surprised to be able to attend a cinema on a free Sunday morning and in the afternoon play football on a local sports field or go swimming at a bathing pool.
Some of the working parties went to camps which were sufficiently far away from Görlitz to come under the jurisdiction of another stalag. A party of 200 Australians and New Zealanders went in November to such a camp just outside Oderburg, on the Czechoslovakian border not far from Ratibor. Here there was a small, not very well appointed camp alongside three main railway lines, and the prisoners were set to work on line maintenance and alterations and also on the building of a large embankment. The work was under contract to a large German firm, whose overseers kept the prisoners at it for eleven and a half hours a day,1 unloading and spreading spoil and levering the tip-lines into place. The German authorities saw to it that plenty of Red Cross food parcels reached the camp, as few prisoners would have stood up to the heavy work on the diet of mainly bread, potatoes, and vegetable soup which their German rations gave them.
1 Saturday afternoon and Sunday were free, however, which was not always so at other German work-camps.
By December the German authorities, to cope with the over-crowding at Lamsdorf and at the same time divide the work of administering its numerous Arbeitskommandos, transferred administrative staff to form new base camps at Teschen and Sagan. These became known as Stalag VIIIB and Stalag VIIIC respectively, the original camp at Lamsdorf being renumbered Stalag 344. The Silesian working camps were now conveniently divided between Stalag 344 and Stalags VIIIA, B, and C, all coalmining Arbeitskommandos coming under Stalag VIIIB at Teschen. The latter very soon had a strength of 11,000 British Commonwealth prisoners (including nearly 1000 New Zealanders); but only a little over 200 of these were at the base camp, the remainder being spread over fifty or more Arbeitskommandos.
One mixed party of British Commonwealth prisoners, which included a number of New Zealanders, went to a coalmining camp (E596) at Jaworzno, just inside the Polish border. They were billeted with a reasonable amount of space at an old boarding school and were regularly supplied with Red Cross food parcels. By 5 October they were below the surface pushing trucks of coal and in a month or so were working at the coal-face. The hours were long, the mine was worked for the whole twenty-four hours by three shifts, and there was only one Sunday in four free for the prisoners. Almost all were inexperienced in mining and there were numerous accidents: fingers crushed between trucks, arms broken by falls of coal. Fortunately for the men, reports on the mines were closely studied by the various authorities responsible for the welfare of our prisoners, and a careful check was kept on them by neutral inspectors. Conditions might otherwise have been much worse.
Several groups of transferred prisoners, among them some New Zealand officers and other ranks, were sent farther north to page 299 Wehrkreis IV. Stalag IVB at Mühlberg, which was used as an assembly centre for repatriables and as a general transit camp for Allied prisoners, also became overcrowded1 with prisoners from Italy. Life at such a camp could be very trying, even for a short period, and prisoners' letters indicate their relief on being moved elsewhere. One man was out working at a cement works by 12 October, but others, including the officers, had longer to wait before going to a permanent camp. Other ranks went to working camps in Wehrkreis IV: to farm work at an Arbeitskommando dependent on Stalag IVA, for example, or to railway maintenance at one dependent on Stalag IVD. The stalags themselves were for the most part merely administrative headquarters for the working camps dependent on them. The New Zealand officers, with the exception of medical officers sent to working camps in Wehrkreis IV, went in December to Oflag VIIIF at Märisch-Trübau, which has already been described.
Some of the later trainloads, which included most of the New Zealanders from Campo PG 103/6 and Campo PG 103/7, as well as men who had been at large for a time in Italy but had been later recaptured by German troops or Fascist militia, were sent to Altengrabow, north of Magdeburg. There in Stalag XIA they remained for several weeks while waiting to go to working camps. The camp had been used for prisoners of other nationalities and was overcrowded with them when the first British troops arrived on 6 November. One result of this was interminable queues for food and everything else. The British quarters were converted stables, and the bedding was straw and two light blankets; other camp amenities were of a similarly primitive kind, and there was no provision for recreation. One man speaks in a letter of ‘nothing to do or read for five weeks’, and others were glad to leave such depressing conditions.
From there a large number of the New Zealanders went to Arbeitskommando 7001 at Halendorf, which for administrative purposes came under Wehrkreis XI. Here they were set to doing railway maintenance work in and around the Herman Goering Steel Works. They had good huts and conveniences and could supplement their food with extra potatoes and sugarbeet. Recreation was amply provided for by a library, a concert room, and a sports field.
In July 1943, in view of the possible transfer of prisoners from Italy to Germany, it had been suggested at a meeting of the War Office Repatriation Committee that another exchange of repatriable prisoners should be arranged as soon as possible, preferably in August. This date proved impracticable, but by 6 September the Italian Government confirmed that all necessary arrangements had been made. Over 550 Italians and a few German civilians sailed for Lisbon in the Atlantis from England on 8 September, and over a hundred British prisoners left for the same destination by a train on the same morning. The train, however, fell into the hands of German forces and was not allowed to proceed; some of those on board were sent back to camps and others to a hospital at Treviglio. By 15 September it was realised at Lisbon that the British party was detained, and the Italians were sent to Sicily or North-West Africa until it was practicable for them to reach the Italian mainland.
In spite of British Government requests to allow our sick and wounded to reach Lisbon, or alternatively to be accommodated in Switzerland, the German authorities remained adamant. Although their Government had raised no objection to the exchange at the time it was arranged, they now refused to recognise the findings of the Italian Mixed Medical Commission, and finally stated that the men would have to be medically boarded again in Germany. Amputees and sick within sight of the homeward journey had to resign themselves to going by train to Germany, with the gloomy prospect of further years of captivity, this time in the hands of the Nazi authorities. On some men the disappointment had a depressing effect which might well have prejudiced their recovery. They were the victims of a turn of events which for many months had been the dread of all prisoners in Italy, and from which it seemed that these few had been saved at the last moment by their departure for repatriation.
1 See p. 236.