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Prisoners of War

II: Prisoners in Germany

II: Prisoners in Germany

While the campaign had been raging in the Western Desert, those captured in Greece and Crete had been making the best of their first winter in Germany. In October 1941 nearly all the New Zealand Army officer prisoners, and a good number from the Air Force as well, had gone to Oflag VIB. This camp at Dössel, near Warburg, Bavaria, had been previously occupied by civilian workers but vacated so that all British officers in Germany could be brought together. It was soon crowded out with 2500 British officers and 450 orderlies, and although the commandant was sympathetic and tried to make improvements from time to time, some of his subordinates were uncooperative, and living conditions remained unsatisfactory during the whole of the camp's existence. International Red Cross Committee delegates described it as ‘the worst camp we have seen in Germany’.

It was situated on a high, desolate, and exposed area—a space of about twenty acres containing a number of old wooden hutments, haphazardly arranged and in a bad state of repair through leaking roofs and walls. There were no proper paths, with the exception of one central roadway, and wet weather turned the remainder of the camp area into a quagmire. The hutments were alive with rats and mice, and beds and bedding were dirty and flea-infested. As rooms held from 16 to 52 officers in two-tier beds—12 to 16 in a space of about 21 feet by 12 feet—it is not surprising that ‘It was literally impossible to remain in one spot for more than a few seconds without being in someone's road.’1 Most prisoners experienced something similar to this in the course of their captivity, but the other defects of Warburg made it especially hard to bear. Water supply was inadequate and uncertain in operation, ablutions and showers were far too few, and latrines discharged into three open cesspools inside the camp which flooded and overflowed in bad weather and never ceased to spread an overpowering stench. All were locked in the crowded huts from dusk till daylight, the entrance space and passages to each hut containing buckets for use

1 Quoted from a New Zealand officer's diary.

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Black and white photograph of guard tower

The guard tower of Stalag 383

Black and white photograph of prisoners


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Black and white phtograph of men marching with trucks

British prisoners of war marching back from Sfakia to Galatas, in Crete

Black and white photograph of tents

'Shellfire Wadi', near Sidi Rezegh, where New Zealand Medical units and wounded were held captive for eight days, 1941

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Black and white photograph of men in compound


Black and white photograph of group of men posed for a group photograph in front of tents


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Black and white photograph of men hanging up washing outside hut


Black and white photograph of men lined up outside camp building


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black and white photograph of men outside tents


black and white photograph of two men dressed up as female characters for a play

Two characters from 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

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Black and white sketch of men inside a cabin


black and white pencil sketch of camp

CAMPO PG 57, GRUPPIGNANO, IN APRIL 1943—from a sketch by A.G.Douglas

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Black and white photograph of men standing in a group


Black and white photograph of men in a truck


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Black and white photograph of men standing in group


black and white photograph of men wheeling a cart


page 127 as night latrines. Only half the huts had electric light; the remainder were lit by carbide hurricane lamps for which there was always difficulty in getting fuel. Each room had a stove but insufficient fuel. The blanket allowance was at first only one for each man, and rigid German control allowed too little clothing from Red Cross sources to be distributed to the orderlies. The prospect for the winter was not encouraging.

The camp was visited soon after its establishment by International Red Cross delegates and representatives of the American Embassy, who recommended to the German Foreign Office that a thousand officers should be immediately moved away. As a result, the German authorities began the construction of ten new brick buildings and promised to move some hundreds of officers in the new year. The German rations were on the same meagre scale allotted to other camps, but fortunately for the health of the prisoners Red Cross food parcels poured in, the camp reserve in December standing at 18,000. Although the camp infirmary held 84 in December, including some cases of diphtheria, an International Red Cross inspector remarked in the same month how fit most of the prisoners looked, even the jaundice and beriberi cases from Greece and Crete being much improved. There was at least plenty of space for outdoor recreation: three netball courts and a football ground were soon in operation when the mud had been treated with clinker, and the winter saw an ice-skating rink in use. Books and other recreational material had been brought from other camps, and the library soon had 4000 books. An orchestra playing during meals ‘helped to drown the noise of 500 men consuming soup’. The theatre enthusiasts produced a hilarious Christmas pantomime ‘Citronella’, which one man described as a ‘riot of fun and forgetfulness’. As winter set in with very low temperatures, ice and snow alternating with longer periods of rain and slush, organised recreation was almost essential to men who had to spend long periods indoors, especially as ‘practically all subjects of conversation (had by then) been well thrashed out’.

Fortunately a large camp of officers provided ‘a galaxy of talent in all fields from church to vaudeville, from football to poker’;1 and the exchange of ideas among several thousands of men from the Commonwealth and from many European countries was a lively stimulus to mental activity in general. There was an orchestra which gave regular symphony concerts; three dance bands—‘hot’, ‘sweet’, and ‘gypsy’; educational courses on a variety of subjects (including even lessons in Maori), and a scheme for advice on postwar careers; a theatre company which produced everything from

1 Quoted from an officer's diary.

page 128 revues to straight plays, with woman-impersonators such that an oldish major ‘could hardly restrain himself from going to the stagedoor after the show’. A few enthusiasts experimented at New Year with an alcoholic beverage made from sugar and dried fruit, the effects of which possibly surprised the brewers for several ended up in the cells. To compensate for the very cold weather there was ice-hockey. When something was in short supply there was always a chance that it might be bartered for at Foodacco Ltd., the camp exchange market which dealt in everything from cigarettes and food to old clothes. And when the news was bad from the Eastern Front there were often long and heavy RAF raids to listen to—a reassurance that Britain was not yet beaten. The winter might have been an uncomfortable one, but no one could have called it dull.

By February vermin had been more or less eliminated, extra heating stoves had been installed, and each man had two blankets, one a Red Cross issue. Two hundred and fifty senior officers and some orderlies had been transferred to Spangenburg, reopened to receive them, and the Germans had stated that no further British officers were to come to Warburg. In mid-April the new buildings were still not completed, little or no improvement had been made in lighting, washing and sanitary arrangements, and the coal issue had been stopped. The meat ration had been cut from 300 to 230 grammes weekly on the pretext that prisoners received too many food parcels, although the issue fell in winter to about half a parcel a week. Later the camp dental officer reported a deterioration of teeth in the camp owing to lack of fresh vegetables and animal fats in the diet. There had been delays in the censorship of mail, and parcels had arrived at the camp rifled.

None of these things were allowed by the administrative officers of the camp to go unnoticed, and there was continuous pressure on the German staff as well as complaints to neutral observers. Morale was very high and junior officers lost no opportunity of baiting the German staff, especially the Abwehr personnel, and especially on appel when there was delay in being dismissed. There was at these times a certain carefree schoolboy hilarity which irritated the serious-minded German beyond self-control, as it was usually intended to. The cells were nearly always full of officers charged with offences ranging from an ‘insult to the German Reich’ on the Christmas menu card to ‘blowing slowly the nose’ or ‘shouting an undisciplined remark’1 at a German sentry on parade. There

1 The quotations are from the German promulgation notices of sentences awarded by the commandant.

page 129 was little or no brutality and sentences were of comparatively short duration, though some officers were constantly being crimed.

From the first days of the camp there were numerous attempts at escape. Many got out through tunnels, which included one from a punishment cell; others on transport going out the gate or by crawling under the wire. But though two officers almost reached the Swiss border, nobody was completely successful. The guards were kept continually on the alert: searches of barracks were continually being carried out, often with ruthless disregard for personal property, while prisoners were made to stand about outside; and minor collective punishments were imposed, such as slowing up the delivery of mail or parcels and closing the theatre. Sometimes the commandant was probably justified,1 if, for instance, attempts to escape had created so much extra work that he had not enough fresh guards to supervise the activities in question. In the last month or two of the camp's existence escape activity was on an unprecedented scale, culminating on the night of 31 August in the ‘evacuation’ of 20 officers by scaling ladders, after the fusing of the camp lights. It must have been with some relief that the German camp staff saw the last of the British officers go in September.

The control of some 2500 British officers and orderlies bent on demanding their full rights and giving as much trouble as possible was a great deal for the OKW to expect of any one camp commandant. The theory has been advanced that the Germans expected at this stage that the winning of the war would soon be an accomplished fact, which would obviate the necessity for any further moves of prisoners. At all events it was only in August 1942, when the chance of victory in the Middle East seemed to have vanished, that they began to disband Warburg. Senior officers had already been transferred to Spangenburg in January. They were divided between the Schloss (Upper camp) and Elbersdorf (Lower camp), where they carried on most of the activities that the stimulating community at Warburg had brought to life, though on a smaller and more limited scale.

In an established camp like Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf there had been little change. The British camp population had risen to between five and six thousand in the stalag and upwards of thirteen thousand out at work in the Arbeitskommandos, and of all these nearly two thousand were New Zealanders. The German policy of expending as little as possible on the maintenance of prisoners

1 This is not to be taken as condoning collective punishment as such, which was clearly a breach of the 1929 Geneva Convention, but merely as giving a practical reason why the Germans were sometimes forced to take action whose results could be construed as collective punishment.

page 130 continued. There were still overcrowded barracks, the interior of which, as one sergeant wrote, ‘put[s] you in mind of a laundry and a second-hand shop in one.’ Broken windows were not repaired and had to be boarded up to keep out the weather; expended light-globes were not replaced; taps that got out of order remained so indefinitely. There never had been an issue of eating utensils to the prisoners at Lamsdorf; in fact table knives in their possession on arrival had been confiscated. Most had made their own from pieces of wood or empty tins. Though the outbreak of typhus in December 1941 should have been a warning, there was still irregularity in the provision of hot showers, some men having to wait as long as three months for their turn; and it was not until the spring of 1942 that a ten-day roster was established.

Rations continued to be on the same exiguous scale,1 and the breakdown in the supplies of Red Cross food parcels during the bitter winter of 1941–42 was keenly felt,2 more especially as all tins were punctured at issue and nothing could therefore be saved. Even when Red Cross food was on hand there were difficulties in cooking it. The camp cookhouse produced only hot soup and cooked potatoes, and for a while cooking inside the barracks on the heating stoves was forbidden. But ‘kriegie’3 ingenuity produced the jam-tin stove and the blower, and though officious guards at first kicked them over, prisoners' persistence won this argument as it did many others. Over the control of Red Cross clothing they were not so successful. At first the Germans had decided that an issue should only be made to those going out to a working camp; and for those already in working camps there were varying interpretations by German NCOs in charge, including one according to which no new garment was issued except in return for an old one, even though many of the men coming straight from capture had only the few garments they stood up in. The quashing of this absurdity and also of a German attempt to charge prisoners for the new garments issued were among the points gained by the British NCO in charge of Red Cross supplies at the stalag, who succeeded by the end of 1941 in getting a new outfit for every man in the camp. Nevertheless, as in other camps at this period of the war, the Germans retained a strict control over all issues of clothing and blankets, and were reluctant to allow a prisoner of war to retain his old clothes as a working suit.

1 Those doing heavy work were entitled to between 400 and 600 grammes of extra meat, but the IRCC delegation noticed that from 1942 onwards ‘PW were only given part of the extra rations allowed to civilians engaged in similar work.’—IRCC Report on Activities, Vol. I, p. 335.

2 The camp doctors estimated an average loss of weight of 8 per cent over this period.

3 Corruption in prisoner-of-war slang of the German Kriegsgefangener, prisoner of war.

page 131

Most of the annoying controls in camps, including this one, were aimed at the prevention of escape. And though there were some German commandants who liberally interpreted the regulations governing such matters, the latter were usually applied in every pinpricking detail. Several senior New Zealand NCOs at Lamsdorf said that the difference between German discipline and ours was that they had more rules to break, and that they were more sensitive concerning their rank and the ‘honour of the Reich’. These considerations and the existence of a few brutal and martinet types in their forces, as in our own, explain most of the ‘incidents’ that occurred with camp guards. The German reverence for higher orders, too, caused many of the German camp staff to reject openly the provisions of the Geneva Convention, where these might be taken to conflict with their instructions from ‘above’.

There was at Lamsdorf1 a large number of NCOs of the rank of corporal and over and therefore exempt under the Convention from work. Much argument took place over German efforts to get these prisoners out to work. The German authorities suspected, not without good reason, that some of those claiming NCO rank had merely assumed it for the duration of their captivity, giving themselves ‘stalag promotion’ in order to avoid having to work; and it was not easy to distinguish these from genuine NCOs. Pressure on the whole group took various forms: threats, long parades out in the cold, restriction of clothing issue to those going out on working parties. Finally it was decided that if NCOs were not to work they must exercise instead; they were therefore marched round the sports field and drilled for two hours each morning and made to play games each afternoon. There were not of course enough German guards to supervise the scheme adequately, and the whole thing became rather farcical. It was discontinued for three months when the winter weather forbade it, and thereafter NCOs were excused drill provided they attended educational classes. The latter, which had begun in September 1941, were now receiving German encouragement. They were developed to embrace 63 subjects, with a team of 41 trained instructors and nearly a thousand men attending daily. Plans were also in hand to extend the scheme to the working camps. The German was realising that by giving prisoners the opportunity to study he could avoid much of the extra work which arose from their seeking other more troublesome outlets for their energies.

As many as could be got out to work were sent to coal mines, sugar-beet factories, aerodrome construction jobs, and other work

1 The same problem arose at most other stalags.

page 132 in the neighbourhood.1 In early April a party of Australians and New Zealanders were sent to a coal mine at Oerhingen, near Gleiwitz. The living quarters were right at the mine-shaft and conditions were very primitive. Prisoners were made to work three shifts, so that with men in the same barrack coming in from or going out to the mine through the night, barrack lights were never off during the night. At first the German civilian ‘bosses’ were apt to shout at the prisoners and to make free with pick-handles, and the civilian miners who worked alongside the prisoners were inclined to adopt bullying tactics as well. There were a number of fights down in the mine and resultant complaints to the commandant, but the civilians came quickly to realise that British prisoners were not to be trifled with. The latter soon developed a technique to cope with the situation. A civilian ‘boss’ shouting at a prisoner was dealt with by the prisoners' throwing down all tools and giving an answering storm of words if not physical violence; a civilian miner who was objectionable was given a thrashing; and in the end there was rather friendly admiration for the prisoners who could defy the hectoring overseers, of whom everyone else stood in dread. Nevertheless, an appreciable number of prisoners were going sick in order to avoid the dangerous and unpleasant conditions below, which resulted from German haste to extract coal quickly at all costs. A few prisoners refused flatly to go down the mine, preferring a term in jail.

Without Red Cross food parcels and camp concerts, boxing tournaments and other sports, this unpleasant existence would have been hard to bear. Boils, a common complaint among prisoners of war, became particularly prevalent. Sickness gave several an opportunity to get back to stalag, though many others who were sick were ordered out to work by the German doctor or the commandant, whose decision as to whether a prisoner was fit enough to work was final. One man comments in his diary that, despite what is laid down in the Geneva Convention, ‘they make their own rules’. At many of the Arbeitskommandos remote from stalag and infrequently visited by neutral inspectors, treatment of prisoners depended very largely on the type and disposition of the local German commandant, often merely of corporal's rank.

While the British section of the stalag at Lamsdorf was already a large, properly organised camp at the time of the influx of prisoners from Greece and Crete, it will be remembered that for those who went to camps in Austria the accommodation was make-shift in the extreme. Conditions in Stalag XVIIID at Marburg at the end of October, as described by visitors from the United States

1 There were in March 1942 more than 260 Arbeitskommandos dependent on Stalag VIIIB.

page 133 Embassy and the International Red Cross Committee, were deplorable. The inspectors found dilapidated barracks with most of the rooms unheatable, primitive wash-places and latrines in an open yard exposed to the weather, the usual insufficiency of food (made good by Red Cross parcels) and refusal by the Germans to make a full distribution of clothing that had arrived from Geneva. Factors like these, with ‘everything in disorder and badly organised’, led them to report that the camp was a real danger to the health of prisoners.

Some improvement had been made in the sick-bay, where in July British doctors had found patients of all types lying on bare beds without blankets. Palliasses and two blankets were secured for them, treatment was properly organised with the help of medicines from Geneva, and by August the ordinary scale of rations on which the sick had to exist was supplemented by Red Cross food and parcels of medical comforts. Fortunately those whose condition warranted sending them to the civilian hospital in Marburg received good treatment there at the hands of the Yugoslav doctors and nurses.

By the end of the year men were starting to receive both letters and clothing parcels from next-of-kin. Music and theatre productions, which had received some encouragement from the Germans, and an increasing supply of books were providing prisoners with some of the necessary mental distraction. Outdoor recreation was limited, for there was room in the cramped camp area for a basketball court only. In spite of these improvements, however, the stalag remained a bad one. There was an outbreak of typhus in early 1942 similar to that which occurred in other large camps. As in the other camps, Russians were the chief victims, but compounds of other nationalities were in quarantine for some time to prevent the spread of the disease. By the beginning of June all remaining British prisoners1 had been moved from Marburg, those liable for work to working detachments, and non-working NCOs, medical personnel, and those unfit for work to Stalag XVIIIB at Spittal-on-the-Drau. So far as British prisoners were concerned, the stalag had been ‘dissolved, because it did not reach the standard of other main camps in the Salzburg district.’2

Many of the men coming from Greece had been in the stalag only a day or so before being sent out to a working detachment, and those who had a longer stay were not sorry when they were finally moved out to work. The farming or Landwirtschaft3

1 At this stage about 400. The stalag had under its control about 3550 British prisoners, including about 400 New Zealanders.

2 Quoted from the Swiss representatives' report of 1 June 1942.

3 Designated by the letter L and the number of the detachment.

page 134 Arbeitskommandos were preferable to most others, and there seems to have been a tendency to transfer British and especially Dominion prisoners from industrial work-camps1 to the farms. Though the hours of work on farms were much longer—sometimes fifteen or sixteen as against eight to ten hours daily—quarters were often warmer and more comfortable, and there was invariably more food to eat. Prisoners were in fact usually given the same as the civilian workers. They had in addition their Red Cross food, and were often able to acquire eggs and other farm produce. It was a life where New Zealanders at any rate felt at home, though many from New Zealand towns made their first close acquaintance with cows and other farm animals; and those from New Zealand farms encountered unfamiliar traditional European methods. Though hours were very long, they were no longer than those worked by the Austrian men and women, the work could be as strenuous as one liked to make it, and the outdoor life kept the men tanned and fit. There was, moreover, a certain amount of freedom to move about, and the civilian farm people were on the whole quite friendly after the first barriers had been broken down.
Although the great majority were on farms, other New Zealanders worked with picks and shovels on roads or canals and in quarries. Most of these small working parties2 had reasonably comfortable sleeping accommodation but primitive washing and sanitary arrangements. They did not have the recreational facilities of the stalag but their day was on the whole more interesting. At some of the working camps the guards insisted on impounding the prisoners' trousers and boots each night to prevent attempts to escape. In spite of this and the lock-up and guarding precautions, numbers of prisoners were able to make a break from their camps, though most were recaptured after a short period of liberty and few thought it was possible to reach Allied territory. The nearest neutral state was Hungary, and in early December 1941 a New Zealander and an Australian who had got away from a farm succeeded in crossing the border next day. They were picked up by the Hungarian police, who placed them in an internment camp. There they met other escaped British prisoners and were later to be joined by more. The only other escape procedure regarded as practical was to cross into Yugoslavia and join one of the bands of partisans which had been formed since the country was overrun by the German forces in April 1941. A New Zealand corporal,3

1 Designated by GW (Gewerbe) and the number of the detachment.

2 The commonest size for Arbeitskommandos was about 30–40; there were sometimes a dozen or less on a group of small farms and sometimes several hundred on a large construction job.

3 Cpl J. Denvir (20 Bn), awarded DCM and Soviet Medal for Valour. A fuller account of his work with the partisans is given later.

page 135 who had already been free for a while in September, succeeded in getting away with two companions during a heavy fall of snow. Later in the month he was in the hills near Ljubliana, armed and being trained as a guerrilla.

In the other Austrian camp containing a large number of New Zealanders—Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg—the Germans made little improvement in this period. At the end of 1941 the British compound still contained only the original three converted stables, which were still too crowded to allow any space for indoor recreation. There were too few tables and seats to accommodate all the occupants.1 Stoves were fitted in time to provide winter heating; but for some time only a certain proportion of the prisoners had more than one blanket, and although a large reserve of clothing had arrived from Geneva, the Germans placed every obstacle in the way of its issue, so that everyone was short of warm underclothing and socks. The lighting was bad enough to make reading virtually impossible, and even the few ineffectual lamps installed were switched off at dark because there were no blackout fittings for the stable windows. There was no interference with the issue of one Red Cross food parcel a week, but an International Red Cross visitor reported that the commandant thought the British prisoners received too many parcels and had therefore decided to cut down their rations. The general impression recorded at this time was that British prisoners were not being treated as well as prisoners of other nationalities.

In December and January the camp had an outbreak of typhus, which was then epidemic in prisoner-of-war camps throughout Germany, having broken out among Russian prisoners and spread to camps containing other nationalities.2 The British compound was placed in quarantine, which made conditions still more difficult. One of the occupants wrote: ‘850 of us cooped up in a run a hundred yards by a hundred yards for nearly two months … a horrible nightmare.’ Another mentioned the foul, insanitary conditions and the lack of any water supply for two days. But the period of quarantine had the advantage that the camp population was practically fixed and undisturbed by the German camp staff; it could thus devote itself unreservedly to organising recreation and

1 There were under the camp's control about 22,500 prisoners, of whom 5000 were British, including 800 New Zealanders. In the stalag there were about 4300, of whom 800–900 were British. The camp held also French, Belgians, and Russians.

2 The first cases in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany were noticed in November 1941. It was thought to have been brought from Russia, where it was apparently endemic, and to have been encouraged by the ravages of war, movements of population, and disorganisation of sanitary services. According to a report by a medical officer working on behalf of the International Red Cross Committee, it ‘accompanies tragically all the great upsets of human history’ and finds especially fertile ground among the dirty, half-starved, lousy populations of prisoner-of-war camps.

page 136 other activities. Outdoor sports in the restricted space, card tournaments and other indoor games, lectures and educational courses, and even a camp newspaper were all well started. The early improvised concerts were developed into a Christmas Cinderella pantomime, which seems to have been the first choice for an end-of-year entertainment in many camps. Two months of freedom from searches also proved an invaluable opportunity to form an escape committee, to work out possible plans for the spring, and to collect and make all sorts of escape aids.

By March prophylactic measures had the typhus under control and the quarantine was off. But the British prisoners' accommodation had become more overcrowded than ever. One stable had been given up to Russians, of whom great numbers1 were at this time being freighted back to Germany under appalling conditions to become virtually slave workers. There was no change in the washing facilities, which had always been insufficient and exposed to the weather; the number of hot showers was restricted to one every three weeks; and the latrines were little better than when the first complaints had been made. There was still the shortage of underclothing and boots, though numbers of personal parcels had reached the camp. In spite of the arrival of books, the organised recreation already mentioned, and the provision of a small recreation room, the ‘spirit of the prisoners’ according to a Swiss visitor was ‘certainly not as high as in other camps’. The German loudspeakers daily blared forth their special news bulletins of further successes on the Eastern Front, sandwiched between full-throated renderings of Wir fahren gegen England and other martial music. It is not surprising that many prisoners, despite their outward unconcern, felt sick at heart and wondered what the outcome would be.

The large numbers of prisoners in the working camps attached to Stalag XVIIIA did not have so much time to think. By the time they had done their nine and a half or ten and a half hours' work (even longer on the farms), got back to their camps and done their chores, they had little time or energy left for anything but food and sleep. There were nearly two hundred New Zealanders among the hundreds working on the large dam at Lavamünd, some fifty at Klagenfurt on building work, other parties on road-making, railway maintenance, or at sawmills, and dozens of small parties on the many farms in the Stiermark-Kärnten area within the stalag's control.

Living quarters were usually situated on the outskirts of a town—wooden huts with crude washing and latrine arrangements,

1 Estimated in December 1941 at 500,000.

page 137 though in the winter of 1941 and the spring of 1942 something was done to improve them. Rations were those of a civilian heavy worker and there were no difficulties about getting Red Cross food parcels. In the autumn of 1941 the men's clothing had been in a bad state, many still having only the old French uniform issued on their arrival from Greece; and though, after pressure, the clothing from Geneva was issued in the following months, spring still saw a shortage of underclothing and boots. A large camp like Lavamünd was fortunate enough to have a British medical officer attached to it, but many others had to rely on local German doctors, often unwilling or perhaps unable to make regular and frequent visits, and sometimes quite unfeeling in the application of such medical skill as they possessed.

Until November or December 1941 many of these small camps had no books or games at all; a few had a pack or two of cards or a football, or a few musical instruments they had saved for and bought. Almost everyone took a keen interest in his mail: the two letters and two cards1 he wrote each month, the cigarette parcels from New Zealand House, and especially the letters and personal parcels from next-of-kin in New Zealand, which were beginning to arrive by the end of the year. In a few Arbeitskommandos almost all free time was occupied in camp fatigues, and in the winter at any rate the bad light precluded much reading. By the spring, however, the Arbeitskommandos were receiving parcels of books on loan from stalag, several had their own orchestras and concert parties, and many were given facilities for outdoor games and river swimming. The adjustment to strenuous physical labour seems to have been achieved, and surplus energy was finding its outlet for some in serious reading and plans for study in the coming winter.

For others there was an absorbing outlet in escape. Few made the attempt from the stalag, but there were many attempted escapes from working camps during what was known to prisoners as the ‘spring handicap’. It was not very difficult to get away from a working party, pick up a cache of food and civilian clothing, and make across country. The objectives at this period were Switzerland or Hungary, or the partisan-held hill territory in Yugoslavia. In spite of the sparseness of frontier guards at this stage of the war, there were few successes. For those caught the punishment was usually three weeks in solitary confinement on bread and water, followed by a period at one of the ‘disciplinaire’ Arbeitskommandos, which had been created to discourage prisoners who broke the rules. At these there was usually heavy pick-and-shovel work,

1 Increased by the end of 1941 to two letters and four cards monthly. Most belligerents had agreed on this figure by December 1940.

page 138 living conditions were often inferior to those at other working camps, and guards were encouraged to be ‘tougher’. The result was that many would-be escapers resolved to try again at the first opportunity, and those at the ‘disciplinaire’ camps gave so much trouble to the guards that the latter sometimes bribed them with concessions or even black-market goods in order to make things easier for themselves.

Although the bulk of New Zealand prisoners in Germany were in the Silesian or Austrian camps just described, there were always a hundred or two scattered about in a number of other camps in both Germany and Poland. At Moosburg, in Bavaria, there were in Stalag VIIA a few New Zealand Army prisoners from Greece and a few Air Force NCOs, adding yet another to the collection of Allied nationalities at this huge camp. Mention has already been made of the Air Force prisoners in Stalag IXC at Badsulza; and apart from them there were Army prisoners who were continually being discharged from the hospitals in Wehrkreis IX.1 There were New Zealanders working at farm Arbeitskommandos attached to Stalag XIIIC at Hammelburg, 50 miles east of Frankfurt-on-Main.

A rather larger number of prisoners from Greece had gone to Thorn, in Poland, and were housed in one of the series of forts making up Stalag XXA, where in February 1941 some British officers had been sent as a reprisal. Conditions at these camps did not differ materially from those already described, except that in Poland there was evidence of harsher treatment by guards, including a number of fatal shooting incidents. As a result of British representations through neutral channels, Germany agreed later in the year to notify immediately by telegraph all such violent deaths and also to discontinue the use of fortresses and penal establishments as quarters for British prisoners.

Besides the groups already mentioned, there were sick and disabled men in various hospitals, and medical and dental personnel who were still more scattered. There was a New Zealand dental officer in Ilag VIII at Tost, where over a thousand British civilian men were interned, only a handful of whom were New Zealanders. And sometimes transferred medical or dental staff found themselves the only New Zealanders in their new camp, like the two doctors and the medical orderly2 who volunteered to go and treat an outbreak of typhus at a Russian camp at Neuhammer, near Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf.

1 Hospitals in this military area containing New Zealanders included Obermasfeld (attached to Stalag IXC), Stadroda (attached to Stalag IXC), Dieburg (attached to Stalag IXB).

2 Capt H. M. Foreman, Capt E. Stevenson-Wright and Pte J. Butler, all NZMC. The two officers were both awarded the MBE, and Butler the BEM, for this and for outstanding services to their fellow prisoners of war during captivity. Foreman and Butler both developed typhus fever but recovered.

page 139

All the Army prisoners referred to in the foregoing account of German camps had been prisoners since the middle of 1941, with the exception of recaptured escapers and a few who had evaded capture for some months. There was no fresh intake of prisoners for Germany as a result of the Libyan campaign, since British Commonwealth troops taken there, though nearly all captured by German forces, were placed in the custody of the Italian Government and by 1942 were in camps in Italy.1 It was otherwise with airmen prisoners, of whom there had been a steady intake since the outbreak of war, consistent with Britain's continual harassing of Germany from the air. The last months of 1941 saw the Royal Air Force bombing German-occupied ports and bases on the Atlantic coast; and in 1942 the stepping up of the bombing offensive on Germany's communications and factories was carried out. For the first time raids took place involving more than a thousand planes. This intensification of the air war by the RAF brought about a rapid increase in the number of airmen prisoners in Germany.2

In November 1941 the Luftwaffe appointed a new commandant for the interrogation centre and transit camp at Oberursel. This may reasonably be attributed to a renewed effort to protect Germany from air attacks, and possibly also to dissatisfaction with the results of interrogation so far achieved. The centre was supplied with all the necessary materials and manpower and underwent a business-like reorganisation. Evaluation of documents, preparation of RAF squadron histories, interpretation of photographs, compilation of technical data, and a number of other adjuncts of interrogation were delegated to small sections of specialists. The number of interrogators was increased, and they were classified into mere ‘receptionists’, who were discouraged from going beyond the ‘Red Cross’ form, and those versed in what the commandant referred to as the ‘fine art of interrogation’. Even the latter specialised—on bombers, fighters, or flak for example. About this time the centre assumed the name Auswertestelle West (Evaluation Centre for the West), a new block of 50 solitary confinement cells was built—the ‘cooler’—and there was a toughening up in methods.

On reaching Oberursel railway station prisoners had a short journey by tram or a thirty minutes' march to the camp, where they were lined up outside the reception hut—the old ‘Stone-house’. The escorting guard then handed them over, together with their personal effects, and the ‘reception’ staff got to work verifying

1 A few airmen prisoners captured by Germans in Libya were flown to Germany. Others taken by the Italians went to Italy, where their experiences were almost identical with those of captured Army personnel.

2 New Zealand airmen prisoners rose by 105 in the period November 1941 to May 1942.

page 140 the details of each prisoner previously notified over the teleprinter. Officers were asked to step forward and their crews to take their places alongside them, ‘to ensure that they would not be separated, and to allow them to go to the same camp’.1 They were all given a ‘strip’ search for weapons, escape aids, and personal property; they were photographed and fingerprinted. Finally they were escorted away to solitary confinement in wooden, soundproof cells fitted with microphones2 and containing nothing but a bare minimum of furniture. The introduction to prison-camp life was as severe as the Germans could make it within the limits allowed by the Geneva Convention, and perhaps slightly beyond.

Within the next twenty-four hours each prisoner was visited by a German ‘receptionist’, whose task it was to persuade him to complete the so-called ‘Red Cross form’. At the same time he tried to assess from a psychological viewpoint the suitability of the newly-arrived prisoner for further interrogation. On the back of the ‘Red Cross form’ he might note, ‘heavy smoker’, or ‘very secure’, or ‘susceptible to flattery’, so that the interrogation officer who dealt with this prisoner would have some guide as to the best kind of approach. To soften the prisoner's resistance he might point out that as soon as his interrogation was over he would be free to go to a comfortable permanent camp—the sooner the better for everybody.

Living conditions at this stage of the prisoner's progress were bad enough to amount almost to inhumane treatment. The cells, though bigger certainly than those in a German military prison, were no more than 13 ft by 10 ft by 6 ft 6 in; they contained nothing but a bed, a wooden stool, and two blankets; they were grimy, ill-ventilated, and always evil-smelling; they had no facilities for washing or shaving; they contained no reading or writing materials; and they were sometimes heated to an unbearable degree if it was felt necessary to add to the inmate's discomfort. The only breaks in the monotony and loneliness were meals brought three times a day: bread, jam, and coffee; soup; bread and water. Living conditions were in fact designed to lower morale and to produce acute mental depression.

At first interrogations were made in these cells, but it was soon found that better results came from transferring the prisoner to a comfortable, sometimes opulently furnished, room complete with maps and diagrams, the contrast in surroundings helping to throw him off his balance. Previously primed with all relevant

1 This ruse, which often caught men unawares, obviously simplified the checking of information obtained in later interrogations.

2 There were two microphones in each cell, linked to a listening post next to the commandant's office.

page 141 information about the prisoner, the interrogation officer met him with a smile and an invitation to sit down (invariably facing the light), and began a friendly conversation on some innocent topic—sport or home and family—to prove he was a human being.

The ice once broken, he led on to the question of proof that the prisoner was in fact an Allied airman and not a saboteur or spy. The answers to a few queries, he would point out, could settle the thing and facilitate his transfer to a permanent camp; on the other hand failure to satisfy the interrogator might cause the latter reluctantly to hand him on to the Gestapo as a suspect. If recalcitrant, the prisoner was after a time transferred back to the squalor of his cell ‘to think it over’. On his return after a few days he was often ‘at least willing to start a conversation’.

The more the prisoner talked the longer he was retained for interrogation, though he might be occasionally granted small privileges (such as a wash or a shave) by way of reward; and although the average stay was two to three days, solitary confinement with intermittent questioning might if necessary go on for a month. During this period he might receive treatment ranging from simple neglect to mild third degree, involving minimal rations, the withholding of facilities for keeping clean and tidy, refusal of tobacco and books and of Red Cross supplies of any kind, overheating of the cell—‘sweat-box’ tactics—and constant switching on and off of the light to prevent sleep. At the same time no opportunity was lost of pointing out that all this would cease as soon as the interrogation had been satisfactorily concluded. Thus, although the Germans were korrekt to the extent that physical violence was rare and never employed as a policy, to quote the commandant, ‘no amount of solitary confinement, privation, and psychological blackmail was considered excessive’. Only when the prisoner was given up as ‘stubborn’ or ‘exhausted of information’ was he released from his cell to the transit camp.

Slightly wounded prisoners were treated in the same way as those who were unharmed. Severely wounded were put into single rooms at Hohemark hospital and interrogated there, but the same tactics could not be applied. The commandant complained: … the Interrogation Officer could not carry out the interrogation as forcibly because of his own feelings towards the state of the P/W's health, added to which the prisoner had no desire to be moved from the hospital where he felt he was particularly comfortable. He had everything he needed: care, medical treatment, a decent bed and good food.

On one occasion a German interrogation officer, who had been sick, was put while convalescent in the same room with a prisoner of war and was thus able to achieve ‘good results’, but chance did not allow the employment of such a ruse very frequently. It was page 142 found better practice, if the prisoner's wounds were not too serious and he had recovered in a day or two, to transfer him to a cell at the interrogation centre, where the contrast in his surroundings ‘in most cases brought quick results’. Hohemark was thus enabled to continue its propaganda role of showing ‘a contented group living under model conditions’ capable of impressing new-comers with the German ‘comradeship of Knights of the Air’.1

The transit camp, Dulag Luft, also maintained its former standard of comfort and the stool-pigeons used by the Germans continued in residence, though RAF crews were now being thoroughly warned about the enemy's methods of interrogation, and the traps of Dulag Luft were being explained to them in England by escapers who had got home.

As a contrast to the semi-luxury of Oberursel, conditions at the small camp at Kirchhain had, since the escape already mentioned, become more grimly uncomfortable than ever. The wooden clogs issued to replace confiscated boots were the only footwear allowed, even after a Red Cross consignment of clothing had arrived in December 1941. Rigid control was exercised by a large camp guard over the amount of clothing in each man's possession and the issue of Red Cross food. In spite of this all the prisoners co-operated in the digging of a tunnel begun in January 1942, and 52 of them got out on the night of 11 May—just before the final evacuation of the camp to Sagan. They were all recaptured within ten days, but they raised a considerable hue and cry in the area.

In mid-1941 Stalag Luft I at Barth had had a new commandant, who had been responsible for many of the improvements mentioned in the last chapter, and who (in the words of a New Zealand warrant officer) was ‘ever ready to help making life in the camp a bit more bearable’. On the other hand he was well aware of the need for security, and prisoners were locked inside their barracks from dusk until morning. Fortunately, before the onset in the Baltic of the bitter winter of 1941–42, many had received parcels of warm clothing from New Zealand House, and there was on hand a plentiful supply of food parcels. Sports gear had arrived, the stock of books was increasing, and mail, though irregular, was sometimes coming in fairly quick time. In the winter an ice-skating rink gave a great deal of amusement and helped everyone to keep fit, and in the spring regular football matches were held. The spring, too, with the rumour of a

1 The quotations in this section are from a captured report on Auswertestelle West by the German commandant.

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Black and white photograph of camp


Black and white sketch of men in a camp bunk room

Living quarters for a working camp from a sketch by A.G.Douglas

black and white photograph of a valley with village

A village in the Sudetenland where a British working party was quartered

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Black and white cartoon of two men walking alongside a barbed wire fence

'I dunno George—sometimes I wonder if this life isn't leaving its mark on us!' This cartoon by J.Welch exaggerates a general fear of 'barbed-wire fever'

Black and white photograph of men in an outdoor space between barracks


Black and white photograph of men inside barrack


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Black and white photograph of camp with lights


Black and white photograph of barracks in camp

This shows the type of hut and layout common to many German camps

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Black and white photograph of barracks covered in snow

Winter in Germany, 1943-44

Black and white photograph of men pacing and in repose outside barracks


Black and white photograph of puddles on ground between barracks


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Black and white photograph of men inside hut


Black and white photograph of men gambling

A miniature Monte Carlo, with cigarettes as currency

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Black and white photograph of men at outside wash-stand

Ablution stand for a group of over 1000 men

Black and white photograph of men

STALAG 357 Dividing up swede peelings from the German mess
Each man represents a barrack of eighty prisoners and stands in front of the cardboard boxes into which their share is put

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Black and white photograph of men standing in uniform in front of wreathes

Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg, Austria—An Anzac Day parade in 1943

Black and white photograph of men at work

STALAG XVIIIA The shoemakers' shop

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Black and white photograph of men acting a Shakespearean play, dressed in costume


Black and white photograph of men in costume (including as women) acting a scene from a play


Black and white photograph of hand made boats and a chess board

The handicrafts section of an arts and crafts exhibition at Stalag 383

page 143 move brought a further crop of attempts at escape, which continued until late April 1942,1 by which time the evacuation of the camp was nearly complete.

Stalag Luft I at Barth had not proved large enough to accommodate all British air force prisoners, and its situation on the Baltic had encouraged attempts at escape. There had also been numerous breaks by airmen from camps under Wehrmacht control, and two NCOs from Badsulza had reached England via France. Accordingly the Luftwaffe decided to assemble all Air Force prisoners in a new camp at Sagan, in Lower Silesia, 80 miles south-east of Berlin. Prefabricated wooden huts were erected in a clearing at the edge of an area of pine afforestation, about a mile from the town of Sagan. There were at the beginning two compounds, one for officers and another for NCOs and airmen, known later as the East and Centre compounds respectively. In April 1942 some three or four hundred officers arrived in the East compound from Barth, from Lubeck, from Warburg and from Spangenburg; and from then on these were supplemented by batches from Dulag Luft. At the same time Lamsdorf, Badsulza, and Kirchhain were practically cleared of all NCOs and airmen, who were brought to the Centre compound; these were supplemented in the same way. By the end of May the camp strength had leapt to over 2000 all ranks.

It seems likely that the Luftwaffe hoped in this new camp to combine security with contentment: to make the camp escape-proof, to provide better amenities than most other camps, and to disarm prisoners' antagonism and suspicion by a show of friendliness. There were all the usual camp defences,2 with the addition of ground microphones to detect digging. There was a full staff of security personnel (Abwehr), who clad in their dark-blue overalls spent their day crawling under barracks, peeping in windows, eavesdropping, and generally keeping a watch on what the prisoners were doing. Searches of barracks were laid down in camp orders for every second day, though in practice this became every month. At the same time the Luftwaffe guards brought from Barth were schooled in a certain superficial friendliness and courtesy to officers, and were characterised in some letters from prisoners as ‘reasonable’. The commandant himself hoped by these tactics ‘to gain influence over the prisoners’ and also an ‘advantage in dealing with the Protecting Power.’3

1 Up till this time 46 had broken out of the camp from 37 different attempts, excluding another 48 tunnel projects. All were recaptured within a short time of their breakout, except two who reached Sweden.

2 See account of Stalag Luft I on p. 34.

3 The quotations are from the report of the court martial of the commandant and others following the mass break of March 1944.

page 144

The officers' barracks were subdivided into rooms, which at first held from two to six but were later more crowded; other ranks' barracks consisted each of two large rooms with double-tier bunks to hold sixty, though this figure was later increased to eighty. Officers' barracks each contained cooking facilities, a washroom and latrines; those for other ranks contained only a small stove and an improvised night latrine, the cookhouse proper, washing facilities and latrines being in separate buildings. There was a sports field which, though a little small, enabled football, cricket, and baseball to be played. Educational classes were soon organised, many books having been brought from Barth and elsewhere; and plays, concerts, and revues were soon being produced by an active theatre group, who received plenty of assistance from the Germans by way of hired costumes and stage accessories. For most of the other ranks from Wehrmacht camps conditions at Sagan were a considerable improvement; and for a large number of all ranks from smaller camps it was good to see new faces and to exchange news and ideas with a larger number of men.

No time was wasted in putting escape schemes into action. Soon after the first arrivals in April there were successful breaks from the camp by walking through the main gates in disguise and by negotiating the wire. German vigilance was increased and an anti-escape ditch was dug to a depth of seven feet just inside the perimeter. When a favourable opportunity occurred at dusk one evening in early June, three officers1 entered the ditch and dug their way out from the side nearest the wire. Sealing up the tunnel behind them and poking through to the surface for air as they went, they gained their temporary freedom the same night. Five days later they were arrested near Stettin. Although none of these early attempts was completely successful, a large camp organisation was being built up on foundations which had been laid at Barth, to control escape activity and to assist all approved schemes with expert planning, escape aids, and provision against discovery by the German camp staff.

In this period a few more New Zealand airmen were forced down in neutral territory and interned. By the end of 1941 there were four detained in Algeria, four in unoccupied France, and one in Eire. In December 1941 those who had been interned at Aumale in French North Africa had been transferred to a camp at Laghouat, in a healthy locality on the edge of the Sahara 200 miles south of Algiers. The camp soon held between three and four hundred servicemen, mostly from naval vessels. Difficult

1 The New Zealander in the party was Flt/Lt H. W. Lamond, RAF.

page 145 relations with the Vichy Government had made alleviation of the conditions of internees in Algeria a slow matter. The new camp, however, was an improvement, and food and clothing parcels received through the Red Cross relieved their two major wants.

The airmen in unoccupied France were interned at Saint-Hippolyte-du-Fort, about 52 kilometers from Nîmes (Gard), where between three and four hundred were collected, including many recaptured escapers. Quarters were reasonably comfortable, rations, the same as for French civilians, but clothing was very short; treatment was, on the whole, fairly good. In mid-March, however, they were all transferred to Fort de la Revere, not far from Nice, where all military internees in unoccupied France were being assembled. This proved to be a depressing old fortress, very over-crowded and short of water. For those forced down in Eire, the British internment camp near Kildare was adjacent to that for Germans detained under similar circumstances. Though strongly guarded it was comfortable, there was plenty of good food, and treatment was excellent.