Prisoners of War
I: The Events of 1944 and German Camps from late 1943 onwards
I: The Events of 1944 and German Camps from late 1943 onwards
ALTHOUGH the beginning of 1944 saw a stalemate in Italy, there was much on the Eastern Front to indicate to prisoners of war that Germany's fortunes were on the wane and that liberation might come that year. Before March was out Germany was pulling back in Estonia and the north, had lost an army in the Kanyev ‘pocket’, and was desperately fending off an attack in the Ukraine. She occupied Hungary and Roumania just before the Russian drive into the latter that month, and by the spring she was withdrawing on the whole front. Prisoners following the course of the war had long expected the Second Front to come in the spring, and the news of the landing on 6 June was received with great jubilation.
For most prisoners in Germany the landing was the most significant event of the war; for as it became clear that it had been consolidated, they felt for the first time that they could see the end of their captivity. But the frustration of the plot against Hitler on 20 July, and the attempts of the propaganda machine to urge the German people, through fear, to greater efforts, precluded any thought of an early armistice. And though there were great advances on both the Eastern and Western fronts, and city after city was liberated from German occupation, the Allied forces in the West did not enter German territory until 12 September. After the setback at Arnhem, with the summer gone and the German leaders determined to fight on, nothing decisive seemed likely to happen by the ‘fall of the leaves’ (as had once been confidently expected)1 and prisoners resigned themselves to another winter in Germany.
1 Many prisoners drew this conclusion from a guarded reference in a speech by Mr Churchill to what might happen in the autumn of 1944.
Oflag VIIB had a very fine sports ground, sufficient for most of the usual outdoor sports—football, cricket, tennis, athletics—and a large vegetable garden as well. Besides the temporary relief of overcrowding,1 there had been some attempt by the German authorities to effect improvements in living quarters. Although the water supply still remained inadequate, it was arranged for the officers to have hot showers every fortnight instead of every month. The lighting was somewhat improved and by the middle of the year all barracks had electric light, though it was still weak enough to be a source of eye-strain to those trying to read at night. The camp had a fine library of upwards of 15,000 books, and all kinds of intellectual activity were highly organised. In the spring of 1944 parole walks became regular, there were occasional visits to cinema shows in Eichstaett, and in May there was a visit to a travelling circus. Apart from three mental cases in August 1943, the health of the camp remained good until the end of 1944 despite cuts in the German rations. By 1944 the supply of Red Cross food was regular enough to cover the deficiencies of the German diet, and Red Cross consignments and private parcels had built up adequate supplies of clothing, blankets, and the other more minor comforts that it was possible to send.
1 The numbers fluctuated between 1650 and 1850, of whom between 1400 and 1600 were officers; between 90 and 100 of the total were New Zealanders.
2 The numbers at Rotenburg during this period were upwards of 400 officers and 50 other ranks; some 40 of the total were New Zealanders.
The camp population at Oflag VA at Weinsberg remained more constant, for from the camp's beginning in late 1943 it had been of a higher density than that usual for officer prisoners.1 As in most camps overcrowding was felt less in summer, when much time could be spent in the open air, than at any other time of the year. In the early part of 1944 the Germans had carried out a number of improvements. The water supply had been increased so that hot showers were available weekly, sanitation was better, the lighting had been made somewhat stronger, and facilities for sports were greatly increased. Parties of 120 prisoners at a time were allowed the use of a fine sports field amid the woods about half an hour's walk from the camp; and a generous supply of sports material from the World Alliance of YMCAs made it possible to use every yard of ground inside the small barbed-wire enclosure of the camp. Supplies of books and stationery from the same source had enabled the organisation of a wide variety of educational courses, and by early June more than 200 had applied to sit for recognised examinations. While many of the improvements in the camp amenities had been made possible by generous material aid from Allied sources, the appointment of a new German camp officer had resulted in much more reasonable relations with the German authorities and, in the opinion of the Swiss delegate, had caused the whole atmosphere to change for the better.
A matter which gave the prisoners in Oflag VA considerable apprehension, and about which it took a long time to persuade the Germans to take action, was the provision of adequate air-raid shelters. The trenches at first provided for this purpose were insufficient to accommodate all the prisoners and were inadequate in design to afford proper protection. As it transpired that there were in the immediate neighbourhood a factory for making aircraft wings and another for machine-gun parts, the necessity for protecting the camp from air raids was a real one. In 1944 the trenches were improved, and during a raid prisoners could use them or remain inside their barracks, whichever they preferred.
1 The average camp population for 1944 was about 1130, of whom about 150 were other ranks. About 140 officers and ten other ranks were New Zealanders.
Relations between the 300-odd senior, elderly, and sick officers assembled in Oflag XIIB at Hadamar and the German staff of this camp also improved. By January 1944 the interior accommodation was satisfactory in almost all respects; and though the area for sport in the camp was too small, walks on parole did much to mitigate this. The transfer to this camp of all those of the rank of brigadier and above from other British officers' camps in May caused some crowding together, and it was soon obvious that officers of whatever rank at Hadamar would have to be prepared to share rooms.1 Up till the time of the invasion they had had adequate supplies of Red Cross food and other materials, but there were the same troubles with German rations as in other camps. The potato ration was depleted through rotting, and there was the same difficulty as elsewhere in obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables, although, as the senior British officer pointed out, the German countryside was bursting with them. Ample sport, theatricals, and music were organised to keep everyone occupied and entertained. Apart from the conditions resulting from the Allied invasion, the camp remained satisfactory throughout the year.
1 After this transfer the camp strength of 314 included: one major-general, ten brigadiers, 23 lieutenant-colonels, 80 majors, 93 captains, 53 lieutenants and 54 other ranks. The New Zealanders comprised 32 officers and five other ranks.
2 At that date it contained a total of 1747 (1581 officers and 166 other ranks), of whom 39 were New Zealanders.
The new camp at Querum (Oflag 79), on the outskirts of Brunswick, was situated only two kilometres from an airfield and was surrounded by military targets such as anti-aircraft batteries and factories. Two buildings inside the camp area had suffered in a previous air raid, and the location of the camp was considered by the Swiss representative so dangerous that a request was made to the German High Command on 9 May for its transfer elsewhere. Apart from this consideration, the accommodation, which was in four two-storied brick barracks, was quite insufficient for 1900-odd prisoners;1 the same could be said of the modern bathing, toilet, and kitchen facilities, and provision for recreation both indoor and outdoor was practically non-existent. Although arrangements were in hand to increase the camp's accommodation in all these respects, the commandant of the new camp was described by the Swiss representative as ‘petty and narrow-minded’ and ‘not at all fitted for his present post’. By the prisoners he was regarded as an obstructionist ‘refusing all reasonable requests’.
1 These included 43 New Zealanders.
During 1944 New Zealand Army other ranks held prisoner in Germany numbered something over 6000. The majority of them were in Silesia, some 3000 in Stalags 344, VIIIA, VIIIB and VIIIC and their attached Arbeitskommandos. About half this number were in southern Austria at the farms and other satellite camps of Stalag XVIIIA. The remainder were in Poland, in central Germany, or in Bavaria.
By February 1944 the newly-established camp at Teschen (now Stalag VIIIB) was acting as an administrative base for many of the Silesian Arbeitskommandos, including 53 containing some 11,500 British prisoners, about a thousand of them New Zealanders. During the year the camp strength was gradually increased by another 2000 British, 200 of them New Zealanders. Teschen itself held only 250-odd of the British prisoners, together with about two or three times that number of prisoners of other nationalities. As in other British camps the prisoners' camp leader and his staff arranged all work parties, and the camp leader at Teschen was allowed frequent visits to all dependent Arbeitskommandos. Though the barracks and sanitary conveniences were very old and primitive, there was no overcrowding at this stage. Lighting, heating, bathing, and cooking facilities were all adequate, but there was little space for outdoor recreation.
Lamsdorf (now Stalag 344), on the other hand, remained very overcrowded in spite of the exodus to the new Stalag VIIIB and to Stalag VIIIC. At the beginning of 1944 the British prisoners alone numbered 10,000 in the base camp, with another 9000 spread among the 235 Arbeitskommandos attached to it. The sleeping accommodation, water supply, washing facilities, and latrines at Lamsdorf were all inadequate to cope with such numbers, and the German authorities planned to reduce the camp strength to about 6000 by transferring all Air Force, Canadian, and United States prisoners elsewhere. But in the first half of the year only some 500 were moved. This was enough to obviate the necessity of using the lowest of the three tiers of wooden bunks, but had no appreciable effect on the adequacy of the water supply and sanitary facilities. Shortage of water caused considerable discomfort, but pit latrines not emptied frequently enough to cope with the numbers using them caused an intolerable situation. Fortunately, the medical services of the camp were excellent. And the German authorities, perhaps realising the value of plenty of recreation in distracting prisoners' attention from physical discomfort and in compensating to some extent for their failure to provide a camp conforming to page 370 proper standards, began to openly encourage sport and theatrical entertainments. The latter, as well as special open-air carnivals, reached a standard hitherto unattained. For the rest Lamsdorf remained a huge, sprawling, changing prisoner-of-war community, ably but not too rigidly administered by the British staff, where a profusion of the world's languages was spoken and where prisoners seemed to be able to get away with almost anything provided they did not make it too blatant. It seems to have had something of the atmosphere of a European seaport city, with a good deal of the spit-and-polish of the regular British Army superimposed.
The other base camp for Silesia, Stalag VIIIC at Kunau, near Sagan, was much smaller than the two just mentioned. Here the British numbered about two to three thousand, with fewer than a hundred New Zealanders. Except for about 500, they were spread over some twenty Arbeitskommandos, most of them industrial.
Besides the Arbeitskommandos at the Silesian coal mines, there were others in factories of various kinds, on construction work, on lumber work in the pine forests, and on railway and general maintenance work. Most of the men at the factories were making their first acquaintance with the industries at which they had to work: cotton, sugar, cement, linseed cake, machinery and paper, to name a few. Occasionally an engineer might find himself operating a concrete mixer, his professional interest almost recaptured, until he remembered it would be better, in the interests of damaging the German war effort, to leave it to a fellow-worker completely unfamiliar with such work. For the majority of the prisoners there was at first a certain rather pleasant novelty about the jobs, and one man even said of coalmining that it was ‘good experience’. At most jobs prisoners were working alongside civilian men and women of various nationalities. Not only was there interest in talking to civilians and finding out their views on the war, but the keener prisoners seized every opportunity to make good the lack of female society they had experienced over the previous years, sometimes with an astonishing disregard for conventional modesty.
Prisoners working at factories lived on the premises or in barracks close by, which were usually well heated in the winter. Their midday rations were normally supplied by the factory owner and cooked for them on the job. In any party of fifty or more the British stalag staff responsible for its organisation would include a medical orderly and an interpreter, so that its immediate medical and administrative needs were more easily looked after. All relied on consignments from the stalag of food, clothing, tobacco, and recreational material. Factory work was usually not too strenuous, and most men had plenty of energy for recreation in the evenings. page 371 Often in summer the men would be taken to a nearby river to swim; in winter there were the usual card games, darts, and reading. A prisoner working in a coal mine writes of spending the evening ‘talking, reading, arguing and eating in patches’. At the larger Arbeitskommandos there were games of football and cricket, concerts and theatrical shows.
Those on outdoor work, such as driving wedges in tree trunks or shovelling shingle, kept fit without the need of outdoor sports. The men from E588, a forestry party, left by train each morning at six o'clock, worked out of doors all day, and were back in camp by four in the afternoon. A party of three to four hundred, including 40-odd New Zealanders, at Mechtal were engaged in preparing excavations for a building which formed part of an electricity scheme. Another party of the same size, half of them New Zealanders, were doing similar work at Laband in preparation for the erection of a factory. In the spring of 1944 a prisoner wrote that he was the ‘heaviest ever’ due to his getting plenty of physical exercise and Red Cross food.
Some of the most pleasant work must have been that in the forest at a lumber camp. Even though it was sometimes loading heavy logs on bogies, the open air combined with Red Cross food and heavy workers' rations kept the prisoners in a camp such as this very fit. They were far enough away from military headquarters not to be forced to work too hard; and sitting round a roaring fire toasting bread at lunchtime almost gave the illusion of a camp holiday. Because of their remoteness the prisoners' living quarters, in old but snug farm buildings, were loosely guarded, especially in winter when it would have been very difficult for an escaper to get far without being detected. Prisoners often wandered alone to and from the work in the forest, and some were able in the evenings to visit Polish and German women living in the neighbourhood. A sympathetic German guard is even said to have been seen in the early mornings filling in the prisoners' return tracks in the snow.
The New Zealander was able to send back word to his companions of previous attempts that in his case the plan they had worked out together had succeeded. Two of these companions, New Zealanders,1 and a British Army man got away on 23 December 1943 from the working party billets in a cement works at Oppeln. One cut the wire surrounding the latrines and the other two scaled over the main gate. All were experienced escapers, who knew the German language fairly well and had made careful plans and secured the necessary equipment before leaving the stalag. They all travelled by train to Breslau and to Berlin, showing false identity cards as Belgian workers. They went across Berlin by underground to a main station, but had to wait there for an Allied air raid to finish. Eventually they reached Stettin, where they stayed in a boarding house and managed to make contact with some Swedish sailors by going into a brothel. The latter agreed to smuggle them on board a Swedish vessel, which sailed on New Year's Day 1944. After five days crouched in a rope locker, they made their presence known as the vessel neared Sweden and were handed over to the police at Oselsund. They spent a month at Stockholm under British protection and were flown out to Scotland in early February.
1 Dvrs E. J. A. Phelan and E. R. Silverwood (both 4 Res MT Coy). Both received the MM for their efforts to escape.
In mid-summer waves of Allied planes began to pass overhead and bomb the nearby industrial cities, and soon an air-raid alert became a daily occurrence. Oderburg was a railway junction of some size through which passed supplies to the Eastern Front, and it was too important to be missed. On 29 September the railway station, the yards, and main lines were heavily bombed. Five New Zealanders, together with a guard and a number of civilians, were killed when an air-raid shelter received a direct hit. The German authorities allowed them a full military funeral, with a guard of New Zealanders from the neighbourhood and the senior New Zealand chaplain1 from Teschen.
Large numbers of prisoners had been employed since 1940 in the flat forest area south-east of Breslau, around Heydebreck and Blechammer, on the construction of a huge industrial centre. The scheme was under the control of the I.G. Farben group and was planned to realise the extraction of motor spirit and other by-products from coal. In late 1943 some 25,000 prisoners and other foreign workers of both sexes and of many different nationalities were being used there. British prisoners were organised into large construction groups of about a thousand men (known as Bau battalions), Arbeitskommandos of about the same size from which gangs could be drawn for work where required, and smaller Arbeitskommandos for more permanent tasks scattered about the area. By mid-1944 the stage of clearing and preliminary construction was over, and the demand was for skilled workmen to complete the detail of the giant project, and for more and more of the unskilled to go down the mines and hack out coal to feed into it.
1 Rev. J. S. Hiddlestone, awarded MBE for his ‘constant and untiring efforts’ for ‘the welfare of his fellow prisoners of war’, particularly those in ‘many and widely scattered work camps’.
The working camp at the Gleiwitz aerodrome of some 300 British Commonwealth prisoners was typical of those Arbeitskommandos which acted as maintenance unit and light labour force for the surrounding district. The duties of the men in this camp varied from digging water-mains in the town and building barracks on the aerodrome to unloading and stacking on the nearby canal and carting loads of bricks or sand. They often travelled by train to work in Tost, Quellengrund, and other neighbouring towns. The change of scene and the variety of jobs, many of them in the open air, gave them a great advantage over prisoners not so fortunately placed. The German NCO in charge seems to have done his best to protect them against exploitation by civilian overseers, to help them in the organisation of recreation, and generally to see that they were reasonably treated. They were able to visit other camps for football matches, to go swimming, to run a band, to set up a ‘beer bar’, to give quite elaborate concerts. The festivities for Christmas 1943 included a mock court and a ‘grand’ concert, and the year 1944 came in with the band playing and the ‘beer bar awash.’ To offset the numerous searches, the locking up of trousers and boots, and other security measures in the new year, there was news of Allied success everywhere; and even before the spring brought its sunshine and wine-like air, the prisoners felt a certain elation for, as one man wrote, ‘the days seem to fly when the griff is good’.2
All the men in this camp had been X-rayed in February, and about the middle of June some of the New Zealanders were transferred to E535, a coal mine at Milowitz, just over the border from Gleiwitz in south-western Poland. Here they were joined by small parties of other New Zealanders from various Arbeitskommandos in eastern Germany. They took the place of most of the British, Cypriots, French, and Spanish who had been there for some years. Milowitz may be taken as typical of a good number of the mining camps, though not all of them had such bad conditions.
2 The quotations are from the diary of a New Zealand private at the camp.
Both on and off work conditions were rough and crude. The old mine shafts were in disrepair, the machinery was old, and there was a shortage of essential mining equipment such as lamps. The place lacked washing facilities capable of coping with coaldust and there was a totally inadequate soap ration. Near the mine shaft were the barracks—dirty, leaking, insanitary, bug-infested—on a piece of ground where every blade of grass had long since given up the unequal struggle against scoria. Discipline was in the hands of a German NCO of low mentality who was always threatening collective punishment and occasionally manhandling the prisoners. Their diet consisted mainly of swill soup, potatoes and bread, and the quantity would have been quite insufficient had it not been for regular supplies of Red Cross food parcels in the early stages. Fortunately they were able to trade regularly with Polish civilians for eggs and other fresh food, and occasionally for liquor of a kind. Fresh farm produce compensated for the unpalatability of the German rations, and occasional schnapps provided an escape from the ugliness and semi-animal atmosphere of the mine. This illicit trading the German guards tried to circumvent by searches at the camp gates.
As in many other camps, the arrival of newcomers with new ideas was resented by some of the old hands, and some clashes occurred. Gradually, however, most of the original occupants were transferred elsewhere, and more New Zealanders kept arriving until there were more than 500 of them. Old comrades who had not seen each other since the days of Crete met again and compared experiences.
Hours of actual work at the mine were long, usually eight and a half hours in the coal seam, preparations beforehand and cleaning up afterwards added another hour or two, and for a long time only one Sunday in four was a free day. This was later the subject of an official complaint when the International Red Cross Committee investigated all the German mining camps. Falls of stone and coal caused crushed and broken bones, and there were many cases of ‘gassing’ during work below the ground. Down in the mine prisoners were employed in pushing or shovel-loading trucks, working alongside Polish men and boys, sometimes ankle-deep in water. Above the surface they worked with Polish women ‘separating’, loading scrap-iron, coal and rations, and doing camp fatigues.
There was much threatening with pistols by both Polish-born overseers and German guards in order to keep the prisoners working. But constant bullying of this kind failed to make much impression on men who by this time had several years of prisoner-of-war experience behind them, had been screamed at by guards, snarled at by Alsatian police dogs, and threatened with firearms too often page 376 to be worried. They shovelled the required minimum of wagonloads, less if they could deceive the overseer, and quickly learnt all the ways in which they could loaf on the job and get away with it. But work below was unpleasant and anyone who fell foul of a German guard was kept there for a long period.
The only accepted excuse for not working was incapacity through illness or injury, verified by medical examination. It is perhaps not surprising that there were a good many broken bones, ‘rashes’, burns, and sores self-inflicted by some of these forced miners in order to secure a spell from work. A few men became specialists in the infliction of these ‘krankers’1 as they were called, and some prisoners were able to avoid mining work for weeks or even months by this means. It seemed justified on the grounds of keeping men from working for the German war effort. But only five per cent of the camp strength was normally allowed off work at a time, and sometimes genuinely sick persons were forced down the mine to make up the work quota. The lot of the genuinely sick was made more difficult in any case if the Germans became suspicious of a succession of similar injuries. The British medical officer and many of the men felt, moreover, that the spells from work should have been shared evenly among those in the camp. The whole matter gave rise to some bitter arguments.
Among men working under such conditions and on various shifts throughout the whole day and night, it was unlikely that artistic and intellectual recreations would flourish as they did in other camps. There were almost no facilities for reading, and even letters were short in mid-1944. Football and boxing matches held on the rare free days and an occasional concert were the only light relief from the weariness and monotony of a life of continual dirt, hunger, and oppression.
Against this drab background there was the brightness of the war news—consistently good throughout this period on all fronts. To back it up there were increasingly severe air raids, and evidence of the approach of the Russian forces in the digging of tank traps in the neighbourhood and the evacuation of prisoner-of-war camps to the north and east. These things kept morale high, even when Red Cross food and cigarettes ran out and when the last quarter of the year brought rain and snow to add their share of discomfort. It was possibly through the inspiration of the good war news that the camp weekly newspaper Tiki Times2 came into being in August and ran through 24 issues. It became the camp's chief artistic outlet and an enthusiastic meeting voted to publish it after the war, a resolution that has since been carried out.
1 Derived from German krank, sick.
There was no lack of incentive to attempt an escape from Milowitz, but only two New Zealanders1 were successful. They were in a party of four who got out in September through an old escape tunnel cut from a disused mine working. The break was made late on the night of the 12th, and the four men lost no time crossing into Slovakia. Here two of them were recaptured, but the two New Zealanders had the good fortune to meet in the hills near Mesto Slovakian partisans, who passed them on to the Allied military mission operating there. They were flown to Bari on 5 October.
As in other camps, the end of the year at Milowitz saw the Germans tightening up security measures for fear of concerted action by prisoners under the influence of the good war news. There were stricter searches at the gate to detect illicit trading, and searches of the camp by guards or Gestapo, in one of which a prisoner was caught with earphones listening on a secret radio. Some timely Red Cross food, a concert, and a pictorial issue of the Tiki Times helped to bring some cheer into Christmas, and some illicit schnapps contributed to a noisy New Year's Eve.
The prisoners began the new year with a strong complaint about the shortage of proper miners' boots, and many were allowed to remain above ground on this account. They followed it up by a concerted condemnation of the camp on letter-cards, in which almost everybody took part. The immediate result was the return of all the cards to the camp by the commandant in a fit of rage. Nevertheless, a film was shown shortly afterwards in the newly-built concert hall for the first time, and half the day shift were allowed to remain on surface work.
As the snow fell deeper in the first days of January 1945 the news became steadily better, and rumours of the close proximity of the Russians were confirmed by the feverish digging of defences nearby. On the 18th a pitiful rabble of Jews from the adjacent Auschwitz concentration camp was herded past on the road. Next day E535 was on the march, the first stage of a gruelling 1000-kilometre trek which in the next three months took them across Czechoslovakia and into Bavaria almost to Munich.
1 Ptes W. S. Gilmour (27 MG Bn) and R. J. McKinney (26 Bn), both mentioned in despatches for their escape.
At camps for non-working prisoners a full programme of recreational activities was essential if men were to have sufficient interests to occupy their time. A democratically constituted camp committee at Görlitz co-ordinated the work of a number of subcommittees for sports, education, theatre and the rest. While a large proportion of men engaged in outdoor sports as a means of keeping fit, the theatre was probably outstanding among indoor recreations in providing the most satisfying form of escape for the greatest number of prisoners. For at least the hour or two of the performance men could forget bedbugs, barbed wire, searches, police dogs, evening curfew, and the other annoyances that were all too insistent at other times. Towards the end of the year the theatre at Görlitz was closed by the Germans after a Gestapo search which disclosed, among other things, a radio set in full operation. But if they prevented a Christmas show, the Gestapo did little to eliminate traffic between prisoners and the outside world. For a few thousand cigarettes a group of New Zealanders bought a live sheep, which was in due course smuggled into the camp, slaughtered, and added to the Christmas menu.
The Arbeitskommandos attached to Görlitz were engaged in types of work similar to those already described: coalmining, quarrying, forestry, brick making, work in various kinds of factories, construction and maintenance work. Only a few, notably those at coal mines, had more than a hundred British prisoners; but they were kept up to strength by the German doctor, who ruthlessly drafted out prisoners from the stalag whether or not they were pronounced fit by the British medical officers. A group of about fifty were quartered in three rooms of an inn in the centre of Weisswasser, where they had to manhandle electrical equipment destined for German airfields. Such work was monotonous, and so was the stone-breaking done by another party at Greiffenberg. But in addition to outdoor sports at a village sports field, these men had page 379 opportunities of swimming and visiting the cinema already noted at other German Arbeitskommandos. Their surroundings both at work and at other times were freer and more pleasant than those of their fellow prisoners in stalags. A congenial party supplied with musical instruments, darts, and other equipment could pass their leisure hours pleasantly enough, and one man rates his time at a Silesian Arbeitskommando as the happiest of his prisoner-of-war days. But the disadvantages of a restricted community were accentuated in a small Arbeitskommando, and there were times when almost every prisoner of war could say, ‘The monotony of the same faces, stagnant conversation, simulated cheerfulness and the deep longing for those we love make any conditions difficult, and the only really pleasant hours are those of sleep.’1
As in other parts of Germany, many men from these Arbeitskommandos made breaks from billets to attempt an escape. Such men had usually received information and equipment from the escape committee of the stalags they previously had been at. The only New Zealander2 to succeed from a camp in this area left his billet at Munsterberg in the early morning of 14 July 1944. He made for the railway station wearing a civilian suit acquired from a Frenchman, and travelled by train to Breslau and on to Stettin. Here he met a Swedish sailor, who guided him while he swam out to his ship and boarded it by a rope ladder. He hid in the airshaft of the ship's main funnel until he could safely disclose his presence and was landed at Kalmar, in Sweden, at the beginning of August. Like most successful escapes from Germany, this was the last of a long series of attempts.
1 From an article contributed to Interlude, an illustrated account of Stalag VIIIA edited by ex-prisoners from the camp and published in England in 1946.
There had been little change in the buildings of the stalag itself since the erection of a new barrack for ‘disciplinaires’,1 a previous one on the same site having been burned to the ground just after its completion. The installation of a new drainage system had made sanitation much easier. The fittest of the German guards had been sent in late 1943 to one of the battle zones and their replacements were found to be susceptible to offers of cigarettes, soap, and chocolate. As a result, it gradually became possible to obtain almost anything desired in the way of fresh food or articles such as cameras, films, and radio valves, which had a special value in prisoner-of-war camps. Discipline became the easiest it had ever been, until a morning check parade mustered only about eighty prisoners and the guards had to be called out to clear the barracks.
If the discipline still continued fairly easy in 1944, the German security was considerably tightened. Representatives of working parties were restricted in their movements, chaplains were for a while prohibited from visiting work-camps except on entirely unacceptable terms,2 and both the stalag and its Arbeitskommandos experienced more thorough searches than in any previous year. It still remained possible, however, for British prisoners liable to heavy sentences of imprisonment to be concealed in the stalag,3 just as they were on a larger scale at Lamsdorf. It was possible also to maintain radio reception of BBC news bulletins and so continue the daily camp news service, which became of increasing interest to prisoners as they felt that their time of liberation was approaching.
1 Disciplinaire, a prisoner who had escaped or committed some other offence warranting a jail sentence. He was usually sent to a special Arbeitskommando (See p. 137).
2 The terms were that the chaplain would confine himself to the reading of one sermon previously vetted by the German censorship and one prayer; and that he would go immediately the religious service was completed without having spoken to the men before or after.
3 Altogether some 27 such prisoners of war were concealed at various times in Stalag XVIIIA.
A majority of the men in the Arbeitskommandos in southern Austria had hitherto been engaged on farm work, but in 1944 the number used on industrial undertakings rose to 60 per cent: hydro-electric construction at Lavamünd and Unterdrauberg, quarrying at Trofaiac, road construction at Waldenstein and Egydi, railway work at St. Veit, Gross Reifling and Selzstal. Most men knew better than to refuse to do work permitted under the Geneva Convention. Such refusals had in the past produced savage sentences of three or four years at a military prison. A whole working party which refused to parade because an overseer had broken his promise of an extra day off was cleared out of its billet with rifle butts and police dogs. On the other hand, a party which made a firm stand against loading a tank onto a railway truck had its appeal upheld by a German officer. In general men found it better, where there was no legitimate ground for refusing to work, to loaf on the job, though this also was sometimes punished.
A good number of men attempted minor sabotage: breaking picks and shovels, putting sand in the oil-wells of railway trucks, inserting lighted cigarettes in truck-loads of hay. It was possible to get away with these. But anything more serious, such as throwing a hammer into a stone-crusher, was severely repressed by a heavy prison sentence; and one man who was caught jumping on a shovel handle received three years' imprisonment. It is impossible not to respect the spirit and courage of the men who thus defied their captors. But many prisoners held the same view as a successful escaper, who wrote that destroying picks and shovels was ‘not worth the candle’. There certainly does not seem to be evidence that such minor, unorganised acts of sabotage as could be carried out by most prisoners of war had a sufficient effect on the German war effort to warrant their consideration as a duty incumbent on all. Oddly enough, sexual intercourse with German women was punished just as severely. It may have been regarded as an attempt at temporary sabotage of the German female labour force, or as permanent sabotage of the Nazi plan for a nation of pure ‘Nordic’ strain.
1 From a prisoner's letter home.
Some of the Arbeitskommandos were large enough to be organised as sub-centres for the smaller parties in their neighbourhood; there were 400 in Klagenfurt and about the same number in the small camps for which it acted as base. By 1944 most Austrian working parties were fairly comfortably housed in barracks or farmhouses, though usually overcrowded. One party which was lucky enough to be billeted in a tourist guesthouse had mattresses, sheets and pillowslips, and three hot baths a week, but it is perhaps unnecessary to say that this was exceptional. Prisoners' rations were the same as those of the civilians who did the same work, but Red Cross supplies and fresh food exchanged for them made up any deficiencies. Though they received no working clothes (except wooden clogs) from their employers, nearly every prisoner had two suits of battle dress towards the end of 1944. Some camps, such as A945GW at Selzstal, were assured of recreation by having their own sports ground, musical instruments and library. But few men were able to concentrate sufficiently in the crowded after-work atmosphere of the billets to do any serious study. One man wrote bitterly that ‘after numerous attempts over two years’ he had had to give it up.
One of the members of the escape committee at Stalag XVIIIA estimated the number of known attempts to escape from the stalag and its work-camps at three thousand. Many were helped by this committee, which collected information, advised men on escape routes and methods, and where possible and needful provided maps, compasses, money and clothes. Many dozens of others made their own arrangements. Of the routes out—Switzerland, Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia—the last proved the most fruitful.
Some reference has been made in earlier chapters to the escapes of one or two prisoners of war from camps in southern Austria and to their subsequent movements south into Yugoslavia. In the spring of 1944 the British military mission in Slovenia reported that there was a ‘steady, slow trickle’ of escapers from these camps. They were being assisted by friendly Austrians in Graz and Marburg and outlying villages, and on contacting Yugoslav partisans on the general line of the River Drau, they were able to make their way with partisan guides to Slovene headquarters.
1 Pte E. L. Baty (4 Fd Amb), awarded DCM for his attempted escapes. These included three attempts from Stalag XVIIIA: the first through a tunnel, another by climbing over the perimeter wire during a failure of the electric lighting, and a third by crawling through a drain under the perimeter wire. He subsequently walked away from two working camps in Austria before his final successful attempt.
In June 1944 the Allied escape organisation began to take an active interest in assisting escapers from camps in southern Austria and evacuating them through Yugoslavia. A post of the Allied mission in northern Slovenia had found that at St. Lorenzen, about 30 miles from Marburg, there was a working camp not well guarded from which a raid by Slovene partisans could free all the prisoners. About a hundred of the latter were transported from Marburg to St. Lorenzen each morning to do railway maintenance work, and returned to their quarters at Marburg in the evening. A British other rank, whose job it was to make hot drinks for the party, made contact with Tito agents in the neighbourhood, with whom he arranged for a small party of prisoners to leave the working party and meet Yugoslav partisans in a nearby wood. At the end of August a party of seven1 was able to walk away past a sleeping guard at three o'clock in the afternoon, and at nine o'clock the men were eating and dancing with Tito partisans in a newly-captured village, five miles away.
Two British officers in the village arranged with the partisans for the rest of the camp to be abducted on the following day. Next morning the seven escapers returned with some twenty partisans to await the arrival of the work-party by the usual train from Marburg. As soon as work had begun the partisans, to use the phrase of a New Zealand eye-witness, ‘swooped down the hillside and disarmed the eighteen guards’. In a short time prisoners, guards, and civilian overseers were being escorted along the route used by the seven escapers the previous evening.
At the first headquarters camp reached particulars were taken of the 132 escaped prisoners2 for transmission by wireless to England. Progress along the evacuation route south was by no means uneventful, since German patrols were still very active. A night ambush by one such patrol caused the loss of two prisoners and two of the escort. Eventually they reached Semic, which had become a kind of advanced base depot catering for escapers. They were flown across to Bari on 21 September 1944.
1 Including two New Zealanders, Ptes R. C. McKenzie (26 Bn) and G. M. Rendell (24 Bn).
2 New Zealanders in the party were the two mentioned in the previous footnote and Gnr J. Hoffman (7 A-Tk Regt), Ptes L. W. C. Anderson (24 Bn), P. Hoffman (18 Bn), A. G. Lloyd (25 Bn), C. J. Ratcliffe (19 Bn), P. G. Tapping (25 Bn) and H. Turangi (28 Bn).
Besides those in the party from Marburg, one or two other New Zealanders from camps in Austria reached the Allied lines through Yugoslavia in the summer and autumn of 1944. From an Arbeitskommando at Radkersburg attached to Stalag XVIIIA, a New Zealand sapper1 who had persistently tried to rejoin the Allied forces since his capture in April 1941 finally succeeded. When first rounded up at Kalamata he had managed to get clear, but after being in and out of enemy hands in Greece several times, he was recaptured with a party in a motor boat trying to reach Turkey. He was taken to Italy and was one of the few who escaped through a tunnel from Campo PG 57 in October 1942. Shortly after his transfer to Austria he escaped on 26 October 1943 from a working camp at Graz, and with others made his way into Hungary to join the group of escapers there, of whom some mention has been made elsewhere. Recaptured after the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, he was injured while jumping from a train and was taken to Breslau hospital. He was later transferred to Austria again, and on 5 September 1944 walked off the farm at Radkersburg on which he was working. Having made contact with some friendly Austrians according to a prearranged plan, he reached a band of partisans north-west of Marburg. He and other escaped prisoners were taken south to reach Semic on 9 October and to Italy a fortnight later.
Two more New Zealanders left their Austrian working camps in September, to reach Ancona in Italy on the same day in late November. One2 jumped, with two companions, on to a passing train while on the way to work at Graz. In this way the three escapers reached the outskirts of the city and walked on after dark, following the River Mur, which runs almost due south. After four nights' travel they met a Yugoslav who put them in touch with partisan forces. They were taken across the Drau and escorted by partisans to Metlika, whence their evacuation was arranged by the Allied military mission. The other New Zealander3 to get away in September escaped a week later with six companions from Arbeitskommando 88HV near Marburg. After reaching Yugoslavia his evacuation was similarly arranged, and both parties travelled from Zara to Ancona on the same British naval vessel.
Another party containing two New Zealanders1 got away from Kühnsdorf on 5 November. Shortly after six o'clock in the evening the camp lights were fused and the escapers were able to cut their way through the perimeter wire. An eye-witness account describes how the German camp police dog, well fed for some days before the break, was thrown a bone as the escapers left ‘to keep it busy’. An Austrian-Yugoslav girl who worked in the same factory as the prisoners was waiting half a mile from the camp, and she led them to a rendezvous in the woods with two Yugoslav partisan officers. They were guided south to the Allied military mission at Metlika and finally evacuated from Zara in mid-December. These were the last New Zealanders from Austria to reach Allied lines before the end of the year; though several more broke camp in December, they were not able to get through until April of the next year.2
There was in Hungary only one British officer escaper (a South African lieutenant-colonel), who was quartered in Budapest, where he was able to maintain contact with the British authorities. But a New Zealand sapper,1 who had assumed the rank of captain to assist him in his escape plans, was on his arrival in Budapest sent down to the Szigetvar estate, as it was felt that his assumed rank would assist in maintaining discipline and preventing the occurrence of any incident likely to give the Germans an excuse for interfering. In early 1944 those at Szigetvar were warned that there were German officers in civilian clothes in the neighbourhood, and there is evidence that the Germans did their best to have the privileges accorded to British escapers restricted. In point of fact the Germans had good reasons to be suspicious, for two or three of the escapers had in late January 1944, by arrangement with British military authorities, prepared a landing strip and were ready to operate a system of ground signals for the reception of a British military mission. But its arrival was postponed, and before an attempt to land it could be made the German authorities had decided on the military occupation of Hungary.
1 Spr Natusch. See p. 384.
2 He went to Budapest and, after being helped by an English woman living there, posed as a Dutch officer, but was later arrested by the Gestapo and closely questioned in both Budapest and Vienna. He was then sent as a Dutchman to Stalag XVIIA. While being transferred from there to Oflag 67 he jumped from the train, but injured his knee on a piece of iron. When recaptured he claimed his real name, rank and status, was taken to Breslau hospital and later to Stalag XVIIIA, from an Arbeitskommando of which he made his final escape.
3 Including four New Zealanders.
The other New Zealander1 who escaped from the round-up at Szigetvar headed for southern Hungary, but was caught after a few days and put in a camp at Zemun, near Belgrade in Yugoslavia. On 17 April 1944 heavy Allied bombing practically destroyed the camp and he was able to escape through the wire. He was taken by farm-workers to a village held by Yugoslav partisans, and shortly afterwards met an officer of one of the British military missions. He was moved with others through Yugoslav territory to a landing strip and flown to Bari in July.
Many of those escapers who were picked up in Austria as a result of border patrol activity or the suspicions of civilians spent some time, after their interrogation at Landek, at Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau. The camp had on its strength between six and nine hundred British prisoners, mostly men from Italy and including about a hundred New Zealanders. They were not allowed to share the excellent theatre and sports ground of the French, and in spite of the Red Cross relief supplies, the general conditions and atmosphere of their section of the camp remained bad. One recaptured New Zealander records that it was a ‘depressing place’ and that the guards were ‘tough’. A New Zealand medical officer observes that the huts were ‘big, dark and damp’, that the atmosphere ‘got the men down’, and that the camp ‘stank always’. Some two to three hundred NCOs from Spittal who had refused to work were brought there in June 1944 in an effort to make them change their minds. They were crowded into one hut, segregated from the rest of the camp, and kept there under most unhealthy conditions. Though it was over seven months before any improvements were made, these men were reported as ‘very cheerful’ and they stuck it out to the end of the war. It was not surprising that most of the other ranks who were liable for work were only too keen to get out from such a camp to a working party. The first of them left in January 1944 and their conditions were reported as infinitely better. A Red Cross inspector reporting on Markt Pongau in October 1944 wrote that the camp made an ‘extremely unfavourable impression.’
Further north in Bavaria, the non-working British NCOs in Stalag 383 at Hohenfels were launched on a programme of educational and recreational activity which became one of the most extensive in Germany. In this they were greatly helped by material supplied under the scheme carried out by the World Alliance of YMCAs, and in particular by the interest taken in the camp by the delegate of the Swedish YMCA.1 Among the 5000 or so NCOs there at the beginning of 1944, 330 of them New Zealanders, there was sufficient variety of talent and sufficient manpower to initiate and keep going almost every possible kind of camp activity. The 400 huts of the camp were organised into blocks and companies, each with its representative. The quartermastering and disciplinary side of the camp was run by the senior warrant officer, the welfare and other activities by an elected man-of-confidence. The German commandant was described as a ‘very fair man’, and there is ample evidence that the prisoners were given every opportunity to employ their leisure time profitably and pleasantly. Apart from the sports, theatricals, and other amenities common to many camps, there was a swimming pool in which over 200 men qualified for Royal Life-saving Society certificates. In winter it became ice-bound, and with a hundred pairs of skates from the Swedish Red Cross the prisoners turned it into a skating rink. There were bee colonies and practical instruction in apiculture, one New Zealander passing the diplomas for the British Bee-keeping Society. An old stable was converted by the prisoners into a school to accommodate 2000, with separate classrooms and a reading room.
1 Mr Erik Berg.
Two to three hundred New Zealanders remained during 1944 at camps in Saxony and on the northern fringe of Sudetenland. Most of them were prisoners who had come north from Italy; some were escapers who had been recaptured there after months in the hills or plains. They found well organised camps with ample supplies of Red Cross material, comfortable indeed after a miserable winter loose in Italy. Some described the conditions as the best they had experienced since their capture. There were vast numbers of men at these camps in Wehrkreis IV; during 1944 it was common for a stalag and its attached Arbeitskommandos to have a strength of 25,000 or more. The great majority of the men were at working parties in mines, on roads and railways, in the sugar industry or in a hundred and one different kinds of factories. There was always sufficient labour required in the crowded industrial districts around Leipzig and Dresden to keep this large additional prisoner-of-war population occupied. The mining camps as usual seemed to have page 390 worse conditions than the others, and a New Zealand doctor expressed his relief at leaving behind the ‘gloom’ of such a camp for the task of treating mental cases at a prisoner-of-war hospital. Many of the other working camps were out in the countryside, some ‘in wooded hills’, and though the hours of work were long, most men at these camps kept very fit and some were the ‘heaviest ever’. The majority preferred the environment of the open country to that of a city such as Leipzig, where some were employed clearing up air-raid debris. One New Zealander obtained from Geneva a set of paints to record the landscapes and village churches he saw.
North-west in the region of Hanover, Brunswick, and Magdeburg were the camps attached to Stalags XIA and XIB, which still retained about 300 of the New Zealand prisoners sent north from Italy. Some of these too were recaptured escapers. Like those in Wehrkreis IV, these stalags had enormous numbers on their rolls, most of them out at working parties. Arbeitskommando 7001 at the steelworks in Halendorf has already been noted as one to which New Zealanders were sent. A prisoner records the work he did there: in winter ‘standing in driving snow with a brush broom keeping electric points free of snow all day’; in summer ‘pushing a railway line nearer to the edge of a slag heap’. This sounds very monotonous work, but the camp had a library, a concert hall where films were shown, and a sports field. There was less pleasant relief from monotony on the several occasions when the camp was bombed.
Not all the working parties in Wehrkreis XI had such dreary tasks. A few score New Zealanders were at Arbeitskommando 7005 at Salzgitter, felling trees, building a dam, and keeping roads in order. The hours were long, but as one man points out, it was nearly all pick-and-shovel work and ‘mostly leaning’. There were others working in joinery and other kinds of factories, in quarries, and in sawmills. One of those at a rubber factory records how in August they were in ‘very high spirits’ and that their ‘cheery faces and singing at work [had] become infectious’. There was usually some delay in the arrival of Red Cross supplies after a new working camp was established, but once the men received these regularly they were much happier there than in the stalags.
1 Fort VIII contained working other ranks and NCOs. Fort XIV was the camp infirmary. Fort XV contained over 400 non-working NCOs. Fort XVI held 40-odd prisoners undergoing punishment. New Zealanders were nearly all in Fort VIII.
He had been recaptured after a previous attempt from Stalag XVIIIA/Z at Spittal-on-the-Drau only a fortnight earlier. On his transfer to Stalag XXA he and another British officer were given priority to escape, civilian clothes were arranged for them, and they were smuggled out as other ranks on 9 October 1943 to a working party at a rabbit farm. From there they and two other ranks were driven in a lorry to Bromberg, where a Polish factory manager put them up for the night and arranged their onward journey. They travelled by a closed van to Danzig and were each escorted by a Polish helper to a safe house in Gdynia. There they were smuggled onto a Swedish ship while she was loading coal. When she reached Sweden on 20 October they were handed over to the police, and were later looked after by the British Consul at Stockholm.
A New Zealander2 escaped from a working party about two miles from Thorn in June 1944. He was able to walk past the guards in civilian clothes unnoticed. Moving mostly at night he made for Kutno, having given up the idea of making for Gdynia, where he had been recaptured on a previous attempt. After two weeks in Kutno and a longer wait outside it until the Polish rebellion in Warsaw was over, he entered the ruined city in October. He then moved south across the frozen Vistula, dodging German patrols, and met up with Russian forces in December not far from Praga. He was sent on to Lublin and eventually got out through Odessa four months later. His experiences are similar to those of a number of prisoners who made their escape to the Russian lines.
For a while the camp held a thousand or so, but at the beginning of July it was enlarged by the formation of a further compound made necessary by the arrival of 3000 Air Force NCOs from Heydekrug. Some old army barracks were taken over, but they were insufficiently lit and had no heating, and the water supply in the new compound was bad. The camp was not adequate for the large numbers it now contained, but shortage of building materials slowed up the erection of the new barracks necessary to complete the accommodation. It was never completed, for the following month the whole camp was moved west to Oerbke, near Falling-bostel, where quarters previously occupied by Stalag 355 were taken over.
The German move to establish better camps for non-working British NCOs seems to have been part of a policy agreed on by the Wehrmacht and the German Foreign Office. Contented prisoners were far less likely to try to escape or give trouble than those for whom captivity involved continual hunger and boredom. Moreover it might be useful in the post-war world for Germany to have the friendship of these thousands of British who had the opportunity of seeing her at first hand. It was not practicable to feed them properly, but their own people were clearly too soft-hearted to allow them to starve. What could be done was to see that camp commandants gave them facilities for using their leisure so that they did not have time to think out trouble, and to appoint ‘welfare’ officers to some of the camps to encourage and assist such recreational activities. Several welfare officers were appointed to oflags in the autumn of 1943. Often they were secondary school masters given the rank of Sonderführer in the Wehrmacht; but later in 1944 they were civilian appointees of the German Foreign Office attached to the Wehrmacht staff of the camp. They obtained improvements in the amenities of the camps they were at: better walks, outdoor sketching parties, cinema shows, including some visits to town cinemas, costumes for dramatic shows, facilities for getting photographs of camp groups or theatre shows. The specific requests to which they gave effect do not appear to have amounted to very much, but they may have had a considerable influence on the general attitude of camp commandants.
German propaganda could obviously no longer dwell on British defeats, and it turned from a vain effort to make British prisoners see the faults of their own countries to a plea for British co-operation with Germany (that is, ‘Europe’), more especially against the page 393 menace of Russian Communism. In 1944 The Camp still contained an occasional article designed to show that Britain's divorce rate was high and her birthrate low, but more to show that Britain was backing a wrong horse in fighting against Germany. From early 1942 a series of articles in this paper entitled ‘The German Point of View’ had endeavoured to prove what reasonable and civilised people the Germans were, in contrast to the British and other peoples they were fighting. But in 1944 the editorial staff seemed to be coming round more and more to the opinion that in their better moments the British were not so much impossible as misguided. In December there appeared an article on the British Navy, in January 1945 a description of how a mayor in Britain shook hands with a German prisoner, and in February 1945 a statement by repatriated German prisoners of war that ‘the attitude of British camp officers and guards left nothing to be desired’. But if all this was clumsy enough not to deceive anybody, how much more so was the attempt in May 1944, and afterwards, to form a ‘Free British Corps’ to fight against the Russians? The circular1 sent to prisoner-of-war camps, though patently false, was in unusually good English, but the time of launching the appeal could scarcely have been worse judged and the response was deservedly negligible.
1 The circular read as follows:
As a result of repeated applications from British subjects from all parts of the world wishing to take part in the common European struggle against Bolshevism, authorisation has recently been given for the creation of a British Volunteer unit. The British Free Corps publishes herewith the following short statement of the aims and principles of the unit.
The British Free Corps is a thoroughly British volunteer unit conceived and created by British subjects from all parts of the Empire who have taken up arms and pledged their lives in the common European struggle against Soviet Russia.
The British Free Corps condemns the war with Germany and the sacrifice of British blood in the interests of Jewry and International Finance, and regards this conflict as a fundamental betrayal of the British people and British Imperial interests.
The British Free Corps desires the establishment of peace in Europe, the development of close friendly relations between England and Germany, and the encouragement of mutual understanding and collaboration between the two great Germanic peoples.
The British Free Corps will neither make war against Britain or the British Crown, nor support any action or policy detrimental to the interests of the British.
Published by the British Free Corps.
2 Quoted from an article which appeared in The Camp for 20 February 1944.
A similar camp for officers was set up in Berlin about the same time, and officers were detailed by the Germans to go to it. In 1944 the camp was moved to a schloss at Steinburg in Bavaria, near Straubing on the Danube, and though the Germans still insisted that a certain quota from each camp should attend, its selection was left to the senior British officer in consultation with the camp medical officer. In some oflags the choice was made from among those whose health would benefit from the change, or those whose long hours of work at some camp administrative task had earned them a rest. Almost every camp quota included one officer primed with information, for Steinburg became of great value to camps as a clearing house for news, intelligence, and ideas.
The camp at Steinburg was on the fringe of the Bavarian forest, a region of pine-clad hills and rich valleys dotted with neat, half-timbered villages clustered round onion-shaped church steeples. Ideal walks were easily accessible in this area, and inmates could stroll at any time in the forest meadows adjacent to the Schloss. There was accommodation for about forty, ten to a large bedroom, together with a large dining room and a comfortable reading room. An officer sums up the atmosphere thus:
… no wire, pleasant rooms, spring beds, soft mattresses, no petty restrictions, all the walks you want with small parties led by guides rather than surrounded by guards….2
It goes without saying that the camp was amply supplied with Red Cross food, and that the cooking staff was efficient. The interpreters were men of university education. There was a good library, in which the Germans had however been unable to resist the temptation of sprinkling a few propaganda volumes for the gullible. More subtle was the inclusion in the staff of first-class photographers, from whom photographs were readily available to send home, and the plying of the prisoners with a liberal supply of letter forms.
1 The Camp, 20 February 1944.
Fort Zinna at Torgau, near Leipzig, was for the first years of the war the detention barracks to which British prisoners were sent after court-martial sentence for what the Germans considered serious offences: refusal to work, sabotage, assaulting a guard, sexual intercourse with a German woman. In this group of forbidding buildings prisoners of all nationalities served their sentences along with German soldiers, but anything up to a hundred British were kept in a separate building. Work gangs went from the prison to do navvying, harvesting, unloading railway trucks, and the other tasks of normal working parties. The food was insufficient and of poor quality and no Red Cross supplies of any kind were permitted. There were no books or any other kind of recreational material. The slightest breach of the prison regulations or timetable was punished with the utmost severity, on occasions by beating up and shackling. Prisoners under ‘arrest’ were crowded several into a small cell, where they lived on bread and water, with two blankets each and no beds or other bedding. A New Zealander who was there for several months mentions that everyone was ‘under great nervous strain’.
At the end of 1942 British prisoners were transferred from Torgau to another detention barracks at Graudenz, near Thorn. A high outer wall enclosed four stone buildings surrounding a large centre courtyard. Here in the winter of 1942–43 men were sometimes rushed out on parade without boots and with insufficient clothing. Between two and three hundred British prisoners were housed in small cells with bad ventilation and only the meagre light from a small high window. In the early stages many of the cells appear to have been allowed to remain verminous, and there were no proper latrines for the prisoners. Some officers were kept in solitary confinement. There was some brutal treatment of a similar kind to that at Torgau, and the same poor soup and bread diet. A New Zealand medical officer stated that after three months at Torgau, followed by another three and a half at Graudenz, he had lost four stone in weight and developed scurvy. As a result of representations to the German authorities conditions gradually improved, and by March 1944 the prisoners were permitted some Red Cross food, which was cooked by one of their number under German supervision. By the middle of the year many of the prisoners were digging air-raid shelters, and the allowance of Red Cross parcels was raised to four a month. Though discipline at the camp remained severe, the menace of serious malnutrition was thus removed.
Recaptured escapers were not usually sent to a military prison unless some other charge could be brought against them, such as sabotage or assault. But many of those officers who had come to be regarded by the Germans as ‘habitual’ escapers or as a source of continual trouble were sent to Oflag IVC at Colditz, not far from Leipzig in Saxony. This was not supposed to be a punishment camp, but merely one that differed from others only in being escape-proof. In point of fact conditions were extremely bad and, in spite of the heavy guard, there were no fewer than 21 successful escapes, eleven by British prisoners, to Allied or neutral territory, besides numerous other breaks from the camp. Several hundred prisoners of all three services of various Allied countries were housed in this ugly, old, castle-like group of stone buildings situated on a hill overlooking the River Mulde. These buildings were said to date back four centuries and to have been once used by a king of Poland as a hunting lodge. The camp was cold and ill-lit, had a poor water supply, primitive lavatories, and only a small cobbled courtyard for exercise. It had originally held French, Belgians, and Dutch and had been grossly overcrowded; but by the end of 1943 the camp population was mainly British.page 397
In 1944 there were roughly 200 British, including half a dozen or so New Zealanders at various times.1 In that year the German authorities collected at Colditz a number of prisoner relatives of highly placed persons in both Britain and the United States, presumably as a valuable bargaining counter if the German situation became desperate. They received the same treatment as the others; throughout the history of the camp this treatment had varied, even in the moderate phrasing of inspectors, from ‘strict’ to ‘harsh’. By 1944 the camp had a library and a small orchestra, and the privilege of using a small nearby sports field; but on the slightest excuse all privileges and facilities for recreation were suspended. There was no let-up on attempts to escape, nor on the pressure brought by the senior officer of the camp on the German commandant. But such conditions are wearing; by October 1944 it was reported that sickness had increased and that men were suffering from ‘nerves’, insomnia, and dyspepsia.
In the latter half of 1943 and early 1944, the softening up of Germany by strategic bombing was well under way and Berlin was receiving some of its heaviest raids. Of the armadas of massed aircraft that attacked their cities, the Germans' flak and fighters were still able to exact a considerable toll. Among those who were able to able out safely but fell into enemy hands were another 60-odd New Zealanders. There is almost no limit to the fantastic variations in circumstances under which airmen made their landings and were captured. Those of a New Zealand warrant officer shot down over Berlin are quoted as being less exceptional than some:
I landed on a rooftop in Berlin. I climbed down through the skylight and found the building apparently empty and the doors all locked. I sat on the stairs. One half of the building was blazing from incendiaries. At the finish of the raid, which was about half an hour after I landed, I went to the front door which was not locked. At that moment, the police arrived in company with a civilian and I was marched off to the police station where I spent the rest of the night.2
As the raids became more severe in the early autumn, civilian loss of life and property made captured airmen an object of hatred among the population. German newspapers fostered it by headlines and articles on the Terrorflieger and Luftgangster who ‘murdered’ their relatives and destroyed their possessions. There were cases of savage ill-treatment of airmen by civilians half-crazed with grief and shock, and it became necessary for them to be protected by police or troops.
2 From his interrogation report.
In early 1944 the bombing of strategic centres built up to a climax at the time of the intense pounding of the Atlantic defences before the Normandy invasion. New Zealanders took part in the preparation for the landing, as well as in the support of land operations that followed, and had a share of the resulting casualties. At the end of the year another 90 had become prisoners and the total of our airmen in German hands was some five hundred. The difference in the type of aircraft and crew used in close co-operation with a land offensive is reflected in these casualties. Whereas total losses in prisoners had hitherto been in the rough proportion of one officer to two other ranks, in those for 1944 the proportion was reversed; from August to the end of that year the losses were 29 officers and only two other ranks. During 1944 the extension of the strategic bombing to Eastern Europe was responsible for the internment of a number of Commonwealth airmen in Roumania. But they were all liberated at the end of August by the Russian advance and immediately evacuated by air.
Auswertestelle West remained solely responsible for the interrogation of the additional thousands of Allied airmen taken prisoner in Europe, as well as those flown north from the Italian front. It was located at Oberursel until the end of the war, taking over the old quarters of the transit camp Dulag Luft when the latter was transferred in 1943 to a Palmengarten1 in Frankfurt-on-Main Modern listening equipment was installed in 50 of the 200 small cells it then contained, which enabled even whispered conversation to be heard if necessary and recorded on magnetic strip. By 1944 it had a staff of over 300, including 70 officers, which dealt every month with an average of 2000 prisoners and a peak of 3000 mixed airmen and paratroops in July. There were 55 full-time interrogators, carefully selected as native Germans of liberal background who had spent part of their lives in Britain or the United States, for violent Nazis were not a success at interrogation. Even so it became necessary to open branch offices in Holland, in western and northern France, and in Verona in Italy for the interrogation of the great majority of the airmen captured in these areas, only prisoners of special technical interest being sent to Oberursel.
1 Public garden.
Interrogation methods reached a high standard of efficiency. On the one hand, in order to wrest information from a prisoner, his physical discomforts were studiously increased: ‘lack of movement in his cell, of fresh air, of facilities for personal hygiene, of something of smoke, of adequate meals’. This was backed up over a period of some days by ‘threats … sternness … sarcasm … even cynicism’, and his ‘resistance forced down by exhaustive interrogation.’ On the other hand, in order to get the prisoner ‘off his guard’, he was encouraged to relax over a ‘fully laden tea or supper table’, ‘in soft, deep club chairs’, with cigarettes and even some alcohol, or on ‘a short walk along a pleasant countryside’. ‘A free conversation is started’, ‘friendly but not too friendly’, and there are introduced ‘jokes and humour’, a ‘sympathetic inquiry after his wounds’ or his family, together with some apparent flattery.1 In early 1944 Auswertestelle West had by virtue of its efficient organisation and its disregard of the Geneva Convention become a matter of serious concern to the Allied cause. The ‘sweat-box’ methods of overheating cells was the subject of strong protest through the Protecting Power to the German Government; and though cells were still being overheated (apparently deliberately) in June 1944, from then on it was usually stopped as soon as a prisoner protested.
1 Quoted from the report on Auswertestelle West by the German commandant in 1944.
As for the gleaning of information on the political and economic situation, the commandant of Auswertestelle West deplored the complete ignorance of most airmen on these subjects. In his experience airmen prisoners did not have any ‘political knowledge superior to that of an interested newspaper reader’. Moreover, their reading of the newspapers was, he found, in the following order: ‘… First the puzzle corner, then the sports news, then the home news, and finally, if at all, the news from the various theatres of war and the news on international politics’. Whether it was due to the ignorance or the good security of airmen prisoners, the interrogators at Auswertestelle West do not seem to have extracted much political or economic information of value. If the regular staff had only very limited success, it is doubtful whether the Gestapo achieved anything at all. But their reputation for torture and brutality was such that most prisoners took care not to give them any excuse for using their well-known methods or for further delaying their being ‘dumped’ into the dulag.
In 1943 it was found that the compound at Oberursel was too small to act as a holding centre for prisoners after interrogation. Dulag Luft was therefore transferred in September from Oberursel to a new site adjacent to the Palmengarten in the centre of Frankfurt-on-Main. When the transfer took place the construction of a new camp was not complete, but those barracks that were finished were well heated and lit and reasonably comfortable. In some respects the camp was considered excellent; it had good washing and toilet facilities, a good kitchen, enough Red Cross food on hand for 20 months, extra ‘fortifying’ German rations, and good medical treatment. But, whereas Oberursel was in a safe location 15 miles page 401 out in the countryside, the new camp was considered by the International Red Cross Committee sufficiently liable to danger from air attack to contravene part of Article 9 of the Geneva Convention.1 In spite of the air-raid shelter trenches with which the camp was provided, the British Government made an official complaint through the Protecting Power in December 1943 against the holding of prisoners in this camp.
A few months later, in the spring of 1944, a heavy bombing attack on Frankfurt destroyed the camp at the Palmengarten, and the prisoners had to be transferred to a location north of Frankfurt at Wetzlar-Klostenwald, the site of a former German Army camp in process of reconstruction. While awaiting new barracks prisoners were accommodated in tents. There was space in these for over 300, but as men seldom remained longer than eight days the new camp was rarely overcrowded. The only prisoners who had beds, however, were the permanent staff of the camp, those in transit sleeping on palliasses on the ground. By the middle of the year barracks had been completed to hold nearly 800 and most of the normal camp facilities were available. A library and other recreational amenities took longer to build up.
From late 1943 onwards officers went from Dulag Luft to Stalag Luft I at Barth or to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, and NCOs went to Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf, to Stalag IVB at Mühlberg, or to a new camp (Stalag Luft VI) at Heydekrug in East Prussia. In the latter half of 1944 some NCOs went to Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel, where some of the personnel from Heydekrug had been evacuated, and others to the newly formed Stalag Luft VII at Bankau, in Silesia.
Stalag Luft III had become the main prisoner-of-war camp for Air Force officers in Germany. Its East and North compounds continued to hold British officers, and by July 1943 United States officers had occupied the Centre compound, from which the NCOs had been transferred to Heydekrug. A few of the NCOs who had volunteered to remain as orderlies were moved in October to a newly-opened British compound at Belaria, three miles away, which had been established as an overflow from the main camp. This had been a training camp for German troops and was situated in the same pine forest near the town of Sagan as the other compounds of Stalag Luft III. By the end of the summer of 1944 there were some 3000 British officers in Stalag Luft III, including 152 New Zealanders, and the intake of the Belaria compound had risen to 300 prisoners a week.
1 ‘No prisoner may at any time be sent to an area where he would be exposed to the fire of the fighting zone….’
Besides a number of individual attempts to escape, tunnelling operations continued in both the east and north compounds. In the former a tunnel dug under cover of the German check parades was completed by mid-March, but its use was temporarily postponed on account of shootings which followed a mass break from the north compound, and indefinitely postponed following the invasion a month or so later. In the north compound three tunnels were begun not long after its occupation by British officers, the work involving a large proportion of those in the compound.1 One of the tunnels was discovered and one abandoned as a dumping ground for spoil from the other; but the third, undetected owing to the German listening apparatus having been disconnected on 19 December 1943 pending modifications, was completed by 14 March. A detailed plan had been worked out for a mass break of 200 through the tunnel. But on the night of 24–25 March, when it was put into operation, owing to falls of earth only 76 got out before the exit was discovered by one of the German perimeter sentries.
1 Six hundred were involved in the building of ‘Harry’, the tunnel 336 feet long, through which a successful break was made.
Three of the escapers reached England, a few got to Danzig, the Czech, the Swiss and the Danish borders, but the majority of them were caught within 50 miles of Sagan. After recapture they were put in civilian jails, on the grounds that they were found in civilian-type clothing. They were taken out and interrogated singly. Orders were signed by Himmler and Kaltenbrunner for 50 of them to be shot, and by the middle of April the executions had been carried out by the Gestapo. In every case the victims had been driven to a lonely piece of country, ordered to walk away from the vehicles, and then shot as though in a further attempted escape. A German note to the Protecting Power on 12 June 1944 stated that mass escapes were a danger to public security in Germany, and that therefore special orders to guards were necessary in such cases; and also that weapons had to be used against 50 prisoners who had escaped from Stalag Luft III.3
The escape brought a swarm of Gestapo and Wehrmacht to the camp to investigate. As a result the commandant and several officers were relieved of their posts and later court-martialled. A new commandant had the unenviable task of informing the senior British officer of the shootings. The news came as a profound shock to the prisoners. There was considerable anxiety lest the Germans, once their military position became desperate, might decide to abandon any pretence of conformity to the international laws of war. If the punishment for attempted escape was to be shooting, the prisoners' policy in this matter would have to be reconsidered. In the summer of 1944, however, another tunnel was built, but like that in the east compound it was decided not to use it except for emergencies arising out of a sudden ending to the war.
1 Oflag VIIIF was moved from its location near the Czechoslovak border for the same reason. See p. 367.
At the end of April 1943 batches of NCOs from the centre compound at Sagan were being moved to a new camp, Stalag Luft VI, at Heydekrug. These and others from Dulag Luft were joined in October by the NCOs from Barth, and by November 1943 there were 3000 British NCOs in the camp. By March 1944 it had four compounds, with a strength of 5000-odd, including airmen from most Allied countries and over a hundred New Zealanders. The camp was two miles south-east of Heydekrug, a town half-way between Tilsit and Memel in East Prussia. Its single-storied brick barracks were built on a sandy site amid flat, swampy country swept by strong winds. Like most other Air Force camps it became badly overcrowded during 1944, and marquees were being used for supplementary accommodation. Prisoners with records of escaping or other misdemeanours were segregated to a special barrack known as the ‘black room’. During the year outdoor sports and educational classes became well organised, and several men refer to Heydekrug as the camp where they experienced the best recreational facilities of their captivity.
A committee controlled all attempts at escape, of which a considerable number were successful in getting out of the camp. But only those who followed the ‘escape route’ specially organised by the committee were able to reach Allied territory. A warrant officer made his way out of the camp in January 1944, established the necessary contacts and got word back to the camp through a Pole and a friendly German guard. Two RAF warrant officers reached Sweden, one in February and the other in April, before an investigation brought the whole affair to light. In the reprisals which followed two recaptured airmen were executed, as well as those Germans involved in the escapes.page 405
In June 1944 word was received in the camp that all personnel were to be evacuated west, taking with them only what they could carry. One party of 2000 were transported under very bad conditions to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow in Eastern Pomerania. They were taken by train to Liban and there jammed in the holds of a small tramp steamer bound for Sweinemunde. The journey took four days, during which the lack of air, water, and sanitation produced in the holds conditions comparable to those of the ships in which prisoners were transported by the Italians across the Mediterranean or by the Japanese across the seas of the Far East. Another journey in railway cattle-trucks brought them to the Kiefheide railway station, where they were awaited by a heavy escort and police dogs. The guard officer harangued the guard on the subject of Allied ‘terror airmen’ who had destroyed their towns and killed their wives and children. The last three miles to the camp had to be covered on foot, each man carrying his baggage, and the excited German guards drove the prisoners along at the run. Many straggled or fell exhausted, and some of these were stabbed with bayonets, clubbed with rifle butts, or bitten by dogs.
The second party from Heydekrug, consisting of the remaining 3000, had by comparison an uneventful journey by train to Stalag 357 at Thorn, where they occupied a separate compound in a camp already containing 7000 Army NCOs. The transfer of the whole camp six weeks later to Fallingbostel has already been mentioned. About the same time as the move to Gross Tychow and Thorn, another new camp (Stalag Luft VII) was established at Bankau, near Kreuzberg in Silesia, by the transfer of some NCOs from Dulag Luft. Soon afterwards all those from Stalag VIIA at Moosburg were moved to this camp, and it continued to receive further parties until January 1945.
In the autumn of 1943 the Air Force barracks in Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf contained about 2000 NCOs. Although not permitted to volunteer for working parties, many exchanged identities with Army prisoners and reached an Arbeitskommando in order to attempt a break. There were more successful escapes by airmen from Stalag VIIIB than from any other Air Force camp in Germany.1 In June 1943 two Polish RAF sergeants from Lamsdorf had reached France and joined two other escapes to cross the Pyrenees. One of the latter, a New Zealander2 who had also escaped from Lamsdorf, died of exhaustion in the crossing, but the others reached safety and eventually Allied territory.page 406
In August 1944 a New Zealand warrant officer1 made a successful escape to Sweden. He had exchanged identities with an Australian private at Stalag Luft III in July 1942 and had been returned to Lamsdorf with a party of orderlies. After several unsuccessful attempts, he made his final break from an Arbeitskommando at Olbersdorf on 17 August 1944 and travelled by train to Wismar. He hid aboard a Swedish ship and reached Stockholm at the end of the month.
In 1944 some of the newly captured or recaptured Allied airmen were taken for short periods to one or other of the horrible German concentration camps. Four of those recaptured after the mass break from Stalag Luft III were sent to the Sachsenhausen camp. A group of Commonwealth airmen shot down in June 1944 evaded capture and spent some time with the French resistance movement in an endeavour to get back. They fell into Gestapo hands and were taken to Buchenwald. There they stayed for two months before being transferred to Stalag Luft III.
Conditions in Marlag Nord, the camp for naval prisoners at Westertimke, 33 miles north-east of Bremen, had continually improved since its establishment. A great deal of what had once been a sandy piece of waste had been converted by the prisoners into turf and garden, planted with trees in appropriate places. The bombing of the interrogation centre at Wilhelmshaven in 1942 had caused it to be transferred to Westertimke, where a special building equipped with solitary confinement cells catered for new arrivals in a similar fashion to the Luftwaffe centre at Oberursel. Once clear of the interrogation building, naval men went into a well organised camp where, provided Red Cross supplies were coming in and provided there were no German restrictions on mail and movement consequent on an attempt to escape, treatment was said to be better than in most Army camps. Naval prisoners had a long record of escape activity,2 and the searches of the camp by German security personnel were always severe. Naval ratings were used by the Germans in the construction of the camps and for a while in farming and forestry work in the neighbourhood. But gradually they were all transferred to Lamsdorf and other stalags.3 In September 1944 400 civilians from Ilag Giromagny in the south of France took over a number of unoccupied huts adjacent to those of the remaining ratings.
2 As early as January 1942 a tunnel at Sandbostel equipped with trolleys, lighting, and ventilation had enabled eleven officers and three CPOs to escape.
3 Only five or six New Zealanders remained in Marlag Nord.
Milag, the Merchant Navy compound half a mile from the Marlag at Westertimke, became very crowded in late 1944.1 By 1944 Milag contained nationals of 26 different countries, of all ranks from captains of ships to stokers, as well as a few passengers from sunken vessels. Beds and bedding became short and the huts dilapidated; the lighting and fuel supply, which had both always been poor, deteriorated still further. When the pumps for the camp water supply broke down, water had to be carried over half a mile. As one officer in the camp suggested, it demanded unfailing patience and tact on the part of the camp leader to make such a community run smoothly.
A detailed account of the part played by those members of the New Zealand Medical and Dental Corps who were detained in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany belongs properly to the histories of these two corps. It is sufficient to record here that there were in Germany 27 New Zealand medical officers and 359 medical orderlies, 11 New Zealand dental officers and 8 dental orderlies, and to note that their total effort towards the physical care of prisoners of war, spread over various main camps, Arbeitskommandos, and hospitals must have been very considerable. There is indeed ample evidence in reports, both by prisoners outside the medical and dental corps and by neutral inspectors, that very many of these men did outstanding work for their fellow captives. Their task was always difficult in that a compromise had to be made between being tactful and being firm with the German authorities, since the latter nearly always removed those who proved unceasingly ‘difficult’ to a camp or prison where they could no longer professionally help their prisoner comrades. Brief references have already been made to the medical and dental attention available in the sick-bay of a stalag or oflag and to the work of solitary medical officers or orderlies in larger and smaller Arbeitskommandos. A number of our prisoners had spells also in German military and civilian hospitals, and some of our protected personnel worked for a time in the prisoner-of-war sections of these hospitals.
1 There were 17 to 19 New Zealand Merchant Navy prisoners there.
The Lazarett at Cosel, in Silesia, catered for prisoners of several nationalities and the staff contained French and Serbs as well as British. Among the last were several New Zealanders, and a number of our men working at various Silesian Arbeitskommandos were treated there. In 1943 it opened a new operating theatre equipped for major surgery, and most of the cases which had formerly to be sent to a nearby German hospital were operated on at the Lazarett. To cope with the increasing numbers in the mining camps of south-east Silesia, a prisoner-of-war hospital was opened at Tost in 1944 in the buildings just vacated by civilian internees. Many of the patients had to sleep on two-tier beds in large wards and, as in many other prisoner-of-war hospitals and sick-bays, had to help with the sweeping, bedmaking, and other light duties.
In the early stages of the war prisoners needing specialist treatment were sent to German hospitals, where they were segregated from the other patients. But the delay in organising repatriation exchanges of sick and wounded men necessitated the transfer of chronic cases elsewhere. For some types of treatment, where the numbers warranted it, specialist prisoner-of-war hospitals were organised. During 1943 the Lazarett at Elsterhorst, near the Elbe north-east of Leipzig, began to collect British tubercular cases from Königswartha and other hospitals. In 1944 it contained about 500 such cases. The hospital was well equipped and staffed and the diet was often enriched by a variety of supplementary delicacies obtained by trading with guards and civilians. Several batches left Elsterhorst for repatriation.
Reference has already been made to the orthopaedic work at Obermasfeld for limbless prisoners; the same hospital also set up a school for the blind. Later both types of patient were removed to Kloster Haina, near Hammelburg, which became the orthopaedic as well as the eye centre for British prisoners of war. A British eye specialist took charge of the eye centre, and a braille school was established at the hospital. Men learned to read and to write braille shorthand, as well as to type and play musical instruments. Many of those in Kloster Haina were repatriated, and the eye centre and school moved to Bad Soden in 1944.
A proposal for a second exchange of sick and wounded and protected personnel had been made to the German Government on page 409 10 December 1943 by the United States and Commonwealth countries. The proposal was to include those from Italy passed there by a Mixed Medical Commission, those omitted from the October 1943 exchange, and all those since selected for repatriation. Although it was learned informally that the Germans were anxious for the exchange to be made, many of their services were disorganised by bombing, and it was not until the end of March that they notified their acceptance. Great care was taken to persuade the Germans to accept a Mediterranean port and not to insist on Gothenburg, without giving a hint of any strategical considerations. By late April an exchange at Barcelona on 17 May had been agreed upon. A number of administrative problems between the United States and Commonwealth governments had to be worked out before the operation took place.
Orders for repatriation came to those in German prisoner-of-war camps in the spring of 1944, when an atmosphere of intense expectation of forthcoming major events prevailed. The prisoners who had missed the exchange of the previous October, a number of others just examined, and some who were brought from Venice on the Gradisca made up the four trainloads which left Germany for Marseilles, to go on to Barcelona by sea. The Gripsholm, which brought 450-odd Germans from America, collected another 350 at Algiers and reached Barcelona on 17 May. She left two days later with a thousand-odd United States and British repatriates, of whom most of the New Zealanders were disembarked at Algiers. They comprised 52 sick and wounded, among them men of the Navy and Air Force, and 15 medical personnel, including a Merchant Navy doctor. One or two with next-of-kin in the United Kingdom went to Belfast on the Gripsholm, and then transhipped to the Borenquin, bound for Liverpool.
A little over a month after the invasion an approach was made to the German Government for a further exchange of seriously sick and wounded, surplus protected personnel, and civilians. The last alone were to be exchanged on a numerical basis, but though general agreement had been reached by the middle of August, by the end of the month the Germans were harking back to the idea of numerical equality for the prisoner-of-war exchange also. They declined to give any formal acceptance until they knew the approximate numbers of Germans to be repatriated, and they did not supply the figures of Allied nationals until 2 September.
They had, however, allowed Mixed Medical Commissions to examine prisoners of war and civilians in Germany, and had sent many of the approved cases to collecting centres such as Stalag IVD/Z at Annaburg. There they remained several weeks awaiting the final stages of their journey home. At the beginning of page 410 September they were taken by hospital trains to Sassnitz on the Baltic, and on the 7th in Swedish ferry boats across to Trelleborg. A pleasant two days were spent in transit camps in Gothenburg, where the British Consul and the Swedish Red Cross did everything possible for their comfort. Our own men were looked after by a New Zealand medical officer supplied with gift parcels and other comforts for distribution.
The Arundel Castle and the Drottningholm had sailed for Gothenburg from the United Kingdom with German repatriates assembled there, and the Gripsholm brought others from the United States and Canada, to make a total of some 2100. The exchange took place on 8 September, and the three ships brought back some 2500 Allied prisoners and civilians. Among them were 129 New Zealanders, mostly 2 NZEF personnel, but a few of them RNZAF, Merchant Navy, and civilians. The repatriates received a special welcome at Liverpool. The Arundel Castle and the two ‘mercy ships’ docked to the sound of a military band, and a speech of welcome greeted the men after they had disembarked. A New Zealand party representing the recently formed 2 NZEF Reception Group and various welfare bodies was there to look after the interests of New Zealanders. A large number of our sick and disabled were admitted to English hospitals, and the remainder went to the headquarters of the Reception Group at Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire, before being sent on 28 days' leave. Various New Zealand welfare bodies in England looked after the comfort and other interests of those in hospital. On their discharge they went on to Hartwell House, and later to Dover after the Reception Group moved there on 3 October.
For some of those who took leave in England hospitality was arranged through various Empire societies, but many preferred to be left to their own devices. The majority were found to be in better physical condition than might have been expected in view of the fact that they had been prisoners for some considerable time and that each had some proved disability. From the psychological standpoint it was noticed that their reactions to freedom were in general favourable. Most of them are reported as taking things quietly, content to feel their way and realising that a return to health was the necessary first step towards rehabilitation. Amputees expressed anxiety to get artificial limbs quickly so that they could ‘walk off the boat in New Zealand’.