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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Rackets and Resistance

page 26

Rackets and Resistance

THE GERMAN administration was efficient. The regulations for the control of prisoners of war, in general consonant with the Geneva Convention, were well devised and had few loopholes. How then did men acquire such articles as secret radios, genuine personal documents as models for the forger, cameras and photographic material, as well as the thousand and one other contraband items which helped to alleviate the rigours of prison life? The answer is simple: the German guards were corrupt. Using such commodities as cigarettes, cocoa, tea, coffee, chocolate, and soap, which came to them in their Red Cross parcels, prisoners of war by a process of attrition combined with judicious blackmail wore down the never over-strong resistance of most of their captors. Once a guard had yielded he was hopelessly compromised. Taking a bribe from a prisoner exposed him afterwards to being reported to his superiors by the prisoner if he did not ‘behave’. This was used deliberately as a means of ‘fixing’ unpopular guards. Guards were so much in the prisoners’ confidence that they would warn them of stool-pigeons being planted in the camp or of approaching searches by the Gestapo: here, of course, the guards had the personal motive that the discovery of contraband by the secret police would bring punishment upon them. Naturally, no guard could be induced to do more than a certain amount for prisoners.

It was usual for ‘rackets’, as these ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ between prisoners and guards were called, to be exploited for the benefit of all prisoners. Extra food was the normal fruit of barter transactions, but in one camp a dentist obtained his materials and also rented a drill illicitly. In at least two oflags the Senior British Officer would only permit barter transactions by selected officers for the purpose of obtaining security and intelligence information or escape equipment. Sometimes individuals ran their own rackets for their own benefit, quite often to the disadvantage of fellow-prisoners. Men who expended cigarettes in the right quarter could avoid leaving stalags on working parties or could wait for the working party they preferred. In most stalags anything could be bought for cigarettes. These conditions occasionally led to a breakdown of the discipline imposed by the prisoners’ own nationality; in Lamsdorf, for instance, a razor gang (not New Zealanders) at one time intimidated the prisoners’ own officials until strenuous action was taken to break it up.

The elaborate secret organisations built up by prisoners of war to forward escapes or for general resistance to the enemy could have existed without benefit of rackets, but they were usually greatly helped by materials acquired by bribery. Some organisations were highly successful, others were little more than wish-fulfilling hobbies. One officer felt that ‘tactical organisations’ in camp were a menace in the hands of ‘impractical and talkative’ officers. Another officer found the organisation in his camp very good with efficient security: no one who could not be vouched for ‘ever received any information of a confidential nature’.

The exploit of one camp’s secret committee while in transit between camps in April 1944 is too good to pass unrecorded. Before the move 2000 pamphlets were printed: they told, in German, of the good conditions in England, the favourable state of the war for the Allies, and the uselessness of continuing resistance, and to the bewilderment of the Gestapo were distributed from the train all along the route.*

* It had been found that the stone lining the latrine walls was suitable for lithography; using this stone, maps, in three colours, were printed for escapers.