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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

I: Conditions at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf

page 127

I: Conditions at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf

ARRIVING in Germany by cattle truck from Greece, the prisoners of war were taken to a large camp or stalag. There were separate camps for the different nationalities, British, French, Poles and Russians, and they usually had a capacity for 6000 to 10,000 men. Many New Zealanders went first to Lamsdorf to Stalag VIIIB (later called Stalag 344). Here the numbers varied from 8000 to 15,000. In each of the several compounds there was a medical inspection room with a British medical officer in charge, and there was a camp hospital of 200 beds also with a British staff. Near the camp was a prisoner-of-war hospital, Lazarett Lamsdorf, with 450 beds.

In the base camp at Stalag VIIIB there were five barracks to each compound, each barrack being in two divisions and each division holding 200 men. The bunks used were of three tiers, the lowest being six inches above the ground and the highest about seven feet from the ground. Between the two divisions was a room containing a washing trough and a copper to boil water for tea.

Bathing facilities: On arrival at base camps in Germany all prisoners were put into a reception compound and not permitted to mingle with the others in the camp until they had been deloused. That process included a hot shower.

Bathing facilities in Stalag VIIIB were bad. At first the troughs between the two divisions of the concrete barracks were all that existed, and in the bitterly cold winter of 1941–42 there was frequently a thick coating of ice on the bathroom floor.

In March 1942 a bathhouse was built. It had twenty showers and 600–800 men could be showered each day. Each man then had a shower every ten days.

In the hospital at Lamsdorf each patient was bathed on admission and issued with clean pyjamas and blankets before entering the wards, and all walking patients and staff had a bath weekly. The artesian water supply was inadequate and at times the water was cut off for some hours.

Drainage: In the main, drainage from bathrooms, showers and taps was satisfactory in Germany, but washing-up facilities were page 128 more limited and dish-water was often tipped on the ground, thus adding to the problem of disposal of surface water. In a large camp inadequacy of surface drainage was accentuated by the spring thaw, when the camp would be converted into a quagmire for some six weeks.

Latrines: In Stalag VIIIB the latrines were in concrete buildings built over deep pits which were emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tanks. Lids covered most of the forty seats in each latrine until they were stolen by the men for firewood.

Rubbish: In time most camps obtained large concrete rubbish bins which were emptied about once every three weeks. It usually took considerable urging on the part of the camp leader or medical officer to persuade the German authorities to remove rubbish regularly. All British camps had accumulations of empty tins, which were hammered flat to conserve space and were periodically carted away for the Reich's metal salvage.

Fly control: It was difficult to keep flies under control in the summer-time. They appeared in June and lingered until late November. Rubbish in the form of Red Cross tins encouraged fly breeding. Sometimes it was possible to purchase flypapers or flit guns for use in camp hospital wards. Windows of wards were covered with British Red Cross gauze, and later with mosquito netting which was available from the Red Cross in 1943.

Bedbugs: In the prisoner-of-war camps in Greece bedbugs abounded. In Greek barracks every crossing of every piece of metal in the iron bedsteads housed one or two bugs. These were best attacked by burning them off with the flame of a primus stove. In Germany bedbugs were also seen but to a lesser extent. They frequented the wooden bunks of working parties. The men were ‘bug conscious’ and, when any bugs were reported, they usually dismantled all beds, which were meticulously scrubbed with antiseptic before being reassembled.

Lice: On arrival in Germany in the autumn of 1941 all prisoners of war from Greece were deloused by the Germans.

The German delouser in Stalag VIIIB was situated in a German military training barracks. It was used for Germans, Russians and British. Most of the staff were British. For delousing cyanide gas chambers were used, all materials being aired afterwards before use. This was not without danger. Those being deloused were stripped of everything and passed through a shower-room, then on to a dressing room where they waited until their kit was ready.

In February 1942, when one of the last convoys arrived from Greece, the men were taken to the delouser. Their blankets were afterwards imperfectly aired and the men returned with them to page 129 the barracks; and, as the day was bitterly cold (– 20 degrees C.), they lay down under their blankets on their bunks. Three died, and seventeen were affected to a lesser extent, from the cyanide gas retained in the blankets.

Russian convoys arriving from the eastern front were very lousy, and it is therefore not surprising that, at the end of November 1941, typhus fever broke out. The British handling their affected clothing in the delouser also fell victims.

The British took immediate measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic, all 10,000 prisoners in Stalag VIIIB and all patients of the Lazarett being completely shaven and deloused; arrangements were made with the German authorities by Lieutenant-Colonel Bull for isolation, disinfection and improved facilities for personal hygiene. In all, only eighteen British at Lamsdorf developed typhus, three, including one medical officer, succumbing.

Annual Typhoid Inoculation: Almost all British prisoners of war had had TAB inoculation before entering Germany. Those passing through the prisoner-of-war hospital in Athens in 1941 were all re-inoculated. Thereafter, each summer, in May, most large camps were given the German standard 1 cc. injection of TAB.


Although New Zealanders had experienced snow in Athens during the second week of March 1941, and later in March on the slopes of Mount Olympus in northern Greece, by the time they were taken prisoner in Greece and Crete the weather was already mild. Thereafter, from May until the September equinox there was an endless succession of hot, sunny days, punctuated only with the high winds of the sirocco season.

By October, however, and during the trek to Germany, the temperature was rapidly falling, and already khaki drill was giving way to battle dress amongst the fortunate few who had salvaged their own. Heavy falls of snow were encountered in the second week of October 1941 in upper Yugoslavia, and again at the end of October in Silesia, Germany. The eastern German winter usually set in with heavy frost and fog in November, followed by sporadic falls of snow until Christmas time. Thereafter, snow would fall in earnest and would continue falling through January, February and even much of March. All the snow had usually melted by the beginning of April.

In winter the temperatures were consistently – 20 degrees C. to – 25 degrees C. In January 1945 British Air Force men who baled out at 20,000 feet over Stalag 344 and came down slowly by parachute were frozen to death before they landed.

page 130

During summer drill shirts, shorts, stockings and shoes were worn by most prisoners. In winter, what with woollen underclothing and shirts provided by the British Red Cross, together with overcoat and battle dress, and with any supplementary clothing which might have come in the 10-pound personal clothing parcels—which usually arrived every three months—most prisoners were warm. It is worth recording that most prisoners of war whose people sent these personal clothing parcels found themselves after two years overburdened with clothing which they were unable to wear out. The result was that excess was either exchanged with less fortunate men or ‘flogged’ to the Germans for foodstuffs. Many also asked their people to send fewer such parcels, to increase the bulk of chocolate, or to send only specific articles, e.g., a pair of shoes and light-weight pyjamas.

It was an offence for Russians to be taken prisoner and they never received anything from Russia.

Working Clothing: Under the Geneva Convention, the detaining power is required to issue working clothing for the men. This the Germans refused to do. There were many bitter verbal wars between German paymasters and British men of confidence over the supply of working clothing. As extra supplies of British Red Cross Society clothing became available from May 1942, fresh clothing was issued, the old being retained for work. Only in 1943, with continued pressure from the British and from the protecting power, did the German industrialists issue working overalls to those engaged in dirty occupations such as iron or cement transportation.

Footwear: The Germans provided clogs – which were used as slippers. By 1942 a reasonable supply of new British boots became available; cobblers were always kept busy.


Throughout, in Greece and in Germany, lighting in prisoner-of-war camps was by electricity. To save electricity, 25-watt globes were installed, making a dim light. On some working parties, where men were engaged in electrical work, globes could be acquired and transported to other places of need. A wise prisoner of war always carried his 100-watt globe with him, the surgeon his 200-watt globe. Tinsmiths were adept at making reflecting shades and X-ray viewing boxes. At Arbeitskommando E/3, Blechhammer, the small minor operating theatre had a 500-watt globe surrounded by reflecting mirrors.

When power failed, as at times it did, or during a blackout airraid alarm, kerosene lanterns or candles were used. In the last days page 131 of the war even candle supplies failed, use being made of improvised Roman lanterns—a wick floating in a pool of fat or kerosene.

Though torches were contraband, many carried them. Batteries for optical and medical instruments and torches could be ‘wangled’ from German pharmacy departments.


In Germany prisoners of war were introduced to the Central European stove. There were two varieties: (a) The large tiled stove, and (b) the small iron stove. The former consisted of a large tiled box, 6 ft by 3 ft by 2 ft, at the bottom of which was a small draft-box and fireplace. This stove stood either in the corner or in the centre of a room – air was free to circulate around all six surfaces. The ration of coal per stove per day was one Red Cross box full, i.e., the amount which would fill a box 14 in by 8 in by 6 in. After the fire had been started with paper and kindling, the coal was put on, the fire ‘roared’ until all was a glowing mass and then firmly shut down for the rest of the day. The stoves provided good heat and a good surface for drying washing in winter and for baking food. They were installed in all the concrete barracks at Lamsdorf, the Lazarett and Stalag 344. Too few, however, were available.

Following a cooking roster, the various syndicates with Red Cross parcels would queue up for cooking space; whilst this worked satisfactorily in 1940–42, with the overcrowding from autumn 1943 onwards new methods had to be found. The ‘blower’ was evolved: a large wheel turned by hand drove a small wheel coupled to a metal fan, which in turn forced a draft up a small fireplace, in reality a small forge, and made of Red Cross tins. Blowers were portable and, due to the intense heat they created, solved the problem of both time and grate-fuel shortage.

British Red Cross Food

Few Red Cross parcels reached Greece before October 1941 and none reached Crete. New Zealanders first received them on arrival in Germany; thus, those men captured in April and May 1941 did not receive a Red Cross parcel until October 1941. With wonder they were opened; and with wonder did new prisoners comprehend that the days of acute hunger were virtually over. No one can deny that most British prisoners owe their life and their health to the untiring efforts of the British Red Cross to feed them regularly. Little, too, did the British Red Cross realise what a superb piece of propaganda it kept pouring into Germany each week by way of the British Red Cross parcel. Die Rotenkreuz Pakete became a household word in Germany, and many a family partook of British coffee, cocoa, tea, chocolate, smoked British cigarettes or washed with British page 132 soap. Such were the articles of normal trade being used to barter for bread, eggs, flour, matches, electric light fittings and theatrical costumes.

The men rightly believed that these parcels were theirs and demanded their weekly issue. As most Germans insisted on stabbing all issued tins to prevent hoarding of food for escape purposes, most men prepared their Red Cross food in groups of two, and would receive a full parcel between two every Tuesday and Saturday. If times were bad their issue would fall to a parcel between two every seven, ten or fourteen days.

Owing to a Red Cross parcel bottleneck at Lisbon there was a complete parcel failure from January 1942 until May 1942.

The year 1943 was relatively full, except for three months following the German occupation of Italy, and at the time of the great transportation of prisoners of war from Italy to Germany, when, with the sudden influx of large numbers of hungry mouths, adequate supplies failed for approximately three months.

During early 1944 Red Cross supplies were adequate, and, in fact, most camps, both large and small, endeavoured to build up a three months' reserve of their Red Cross food. Unfortunately, on Arnhem Sunday (17 September 1944), at approximately 7 a.m. in most Wehrkreise (war districts) came an order from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht: ‘All prisoner of war tinned food must be destroyed forthwith.’ This order was ruthlessly enforced, particularly on the many (over 600) working parties of Stalag 344, with the result that, whilst there was a week's feasting on salmon, sardines and meat roll, lean and hungry months followed. Even in the Lazarett at Lamsdorf, where the patients and staff enjoyed community messing, much of their tinned food was destroyed, with the resulting onset of semi-starvation, which did not abate till the end of the war.

The Russian prisoners had no Red Cross food and they were starved on bread and turnip soup. In vain did the British medical officers at Cosel plead with the German medical authorities for food, rather than drugs, to treat their Russian patients. Only after a change of senior German medical officers and the start of the Russian offensive towards the Reich in March 1943 did the German attitude change and the health of those miserable Russians improve.

The French, with their own Red Cross active in sending parcels, were in much the same position as the British. So, too, were the Belgians and Serbs.

German Rations

In all German-designed kitchens food was basically prepared in the same way; most had the equivalent of four large Kessel, cookers page 133 with a capacity of 50 gallons. They were used for the daily soup, for hot water for tea or ersatz coffee, for vegetables and for potatoes. In the main ersatz coffee was scorned; with sugar and condensed milk, however, it was quite a palatable drink, even though it was not coffee. Mint tea was sickly.

map showing movements of prisoners of war


The basis of the German diet was carbohydrate, particularly bread and potatoes. The bread was issued as a dry ration each day, between 4 and 5 p.m., and a loaf was distributed to each six men. On certain days of the week a little margarine or jam, and occasionally, cheese, was issued. The cheese was either the white ‘Bauer Kase’, or peasants' cheese, or a particularly obnoxious ersatz form of cheese which was alleged to be nutritious, but which few had the courage to put to the test until the hungrier days of late 1944 and early 1945.

Approximately once a week there was also a small issue, approximately 30 grammes per man, of German sausage, which is almost 100 per cent meat and fat, either bacon, ham, liver or offal. As such it is both tasty and nutritious. The ration was always too small.

To the German cook ‘the soup’ was the pièGce de réGsistance, and into this soup, with loving care, was put water, turnip, potato, salt, gravy powder and, on certain days of the week, either chopped-up meat or dried fish. Soup was never popular with the British, who in time managed to curtail the efforts and enthusiasm of their German cooks and persuade them into cooking potatoes separately, making a lesser quantity of gravy soup and saving the meat ration for one or two days of the week, when it would be served as a ‘roast’.

In the following table is set out the German ration at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, for the week 12–18 April 1942 in grammes and calories:

Grammes Calories
Bread 2300 4789
Potatoes 3600 3130
Tea 13
Sugar 175 716
Oatmeal 70 289
Cheese 78 325
Jam 25 75
Margarine 55 510
Fat 130 1002
Barley 30 110
Sauerkraut 135 12
Honey 150 438
Sausage 80 217
Meat 134 345
Fish 50 208
Peas 70 70
Turnips 2700 324
9795 12,560
page 134

This gave a daily ration of only 1794 calories, but the content of Red Cross parcels when in normal supply brought the total up to 3000 calories. Likewise the Red Cross parcels supplied what was lacking in mineral or vitamin content of the diet. It was found that from the two sources of diet there were adequate amounts of protein, calcium, iron, vitamins A, B1 and C, and nicotinic acid, but a slight deficiency in the normal bodily requirements of riboflavin.