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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Non-Commissioned Officers’ Camp

Non-Commissioned Officers’ Camp

ACAMP for non-working non-commissioned officers, Stalag 383, at Hohenfels in Bavaria, was well run, largely because the Germans left the prisoners a good deal to themselves, and because the camp man-of-confidence, a British warrant officer captured in 1940, was through long experience expert at handling the Germans. The prisoners lived in small, 12-man wooden huts with low, flattened roofs. Originally the camp had been divided into three compounds, but the posts in these fences had one by one been removed for firewood until the internal divisions had disappeared. As the stalag grew to 7000 men, of whom about 350 were New Zealanders, the huts became more crowded until fourteen men lived in each.

Few were without occupation. A prisoner in this camp remarked that the men who were worst affected by their captivity were those who did nothing but lie apathetically all day in their bunks or sit in the sun. The higher ranks had plenty to do administering the camp: the prisoners themselves ran the kitchen, the parcel store, the sorting of mail, and the sanitation services. A school flourished in a big stable which the prisoners had fitted out for themselves. It was open twelve hours a day, sixty different classes being conducted every day for its 3500 students. A good reference library, as well as a fiction lending library (together over 13,000 volumes), supplied the needs of the camp’s readers. In addition, two theatres regularly put on plays, musical shows, or revues, and a symphony orchestra, a piano-accordion band, a pipe band, swing orchestras, and three choirs gave expression to different types of musical accomplishment. Many men kept gardens page 9 which supplied the fresh vegetables not otherwise obtainable, and some fattened rabbits, pigeons, and roosters.

Yet the great resource of the prisoners in this camp was sport. The keenest rivalry grew between the twelve ‘companies’ into which the camp was divided or between the nations of the British Commonwealth. Tournaments were held in football, cricket, tennis, basketball, wrestling, boxing, hockey, softball, and deck tennis. In summer the fire-fighting reservoir was used for swimming and for international water polo matches, and a model yacht club also held races there; in winter it became an open-air ice-skating rink. Gymnastics and athletic sports were also carried on at this camp, whose area, if not ample, was adequate. Stalag 383 might be arctic in winter, but in summer it was a pleasant place with its view of nearby wooded hills, while even in winter the neighbouring pinewoods, loaded with snow, took on a new beauty. In the dreary winter evenings nearly everyone played contract bridge or other card games; many played chess.

The amenities of this camp were mainly the work of the prisoners themselves who ‘made their own fun’. They were helped also by outside agencies, the International Red Cross or the Swedish YMCA, which supplied sports gear and educational material; little credit was due to the Germans, although the guards were corruptible and the commandant himself ‘not a bad chap’. During two distinct periods, largely because of Allied air attacks on the German railway system, rations at this camp suffered because of the failure of Red Cross supplies. The first occasion was for three months in the early part of 1943, when the deprivation was uncomfortable rather than serious. In November 1944 the failure of Red Cross food parcels to arrive coincided with progressive cuts in the rations issued by the Germans. Eventually men were living on not much more than a little bread and two potatoes a day. Some small relief was given later by the Red Cross ‘white angels’ (white-painted motor-waggons with consignments of parcels for prison camps), which twice brought parcels. ‘Apart from the morning check parade, the majority of the men remained in bed all day to escape the blistering cold outside.’ At the end of the war everyone was much weakened by this four-month period on starvation rations.

The greatest hardship at Stalag 383 was the shortage of fuel. The German issue of coal and wood was not enough either to cook meals from Red Cross parcels or to keep the huts warm. ‘Blowers’* eked out the scanty supplies. Occasionally one representative from each hut was allowed to join a party gathering dead wood in the forest: but this was two miles away, and the amount one man could carry was limited. As no working parties went out, the wood supply was virtually restricted to what could be found inside the camp itself. Here the prisoners waged a ruthless war of attrition against the Germans, a war which went in their favour but in which time was on the side of the enemy. ‘An army of “destructional engineers” sprang up overnight’ which reduced the eight beams in the roof of each hut to four or even three, did the same for the beams under the floors, and absorbed any other pieces of wood anywhere in the camp which could be taken without obvious harm or without drawing too rapid vengeance on the takers. In December 1944 the destructional engineers of Hut 171 planned and executed ‘one of the greatest fuel drives ever conceived in the Stalag. The target was a large striped sentry box standing just outside the main gate of the camp … in which the half-frozen sentry was wont to retire from time to time.’ This page 10 sentry box measured 9ft by 3ft 6ins by 4ft and weighed, as its ravishers were pained to discover, over 3cwt. While the hut’s best German speaker lured the sentry some way down the wire to discuss an attractive barter transaction, eight of the men opened the gate and grabbed the box, carrying it into their hut under cover of the dusk. They had to take the hut door off its hinges to get the box in; it was then hastily broken up into small pieces. Next day the Germans made an intensive search for the lost sentry box, lifting the floors of every hut, but without result as the broken fragments had been hidden in an underground darkroom, whose existence had never been suspected by the guards, the trap-door replaced and covered with earth. The prisoners waited a few days and then brought up the fragments a few pieces at a time: ‘it proved the best fuel we had ever had.’

* ‘Blowers’ were ingenious stoves designed to make the most of scraps of fuel by using the forced-draught principle.