Episodes & Studies Volume 1
THE GERMANS did their best to govern camps and kommandos through the prisoners themselves. Other-rank prisoners elected their own man-of-confidence; in officers’ camps the Senior British Officer had the same functions. All orders to prisoners of war were given through the senior non-commissioned officer at each camp, but the man-of-confidence, who was in charge of all matters concerning prisoners’ welfare, had also to carry a considerable burden of administrative duties. Complaints and representations to the German authorities might only be made through the senior non-commissioned officer. With very few exceptions, the senior non-commissioned officers did a splendid job in maintaining morale, prestige, and self-esteem among the men under their command. In some camps they were punished for offences against discipline committed by those under them.
The Germans were better gaolers than the Italians, as those men who had been in Italian prison camps before going to Germany immediately noticed. German efficiency made treatment more systematic, less subject to local variations, and in total effect more just and humane; the Germans were ‘not petty like the Italians and seem extraordinarily patient with our many misdemeanours’. The same prisoner, however, remarked that some German guards were too eager to shoot, killing or wounding prisoners leaving their huts at night or at any time approaching too close to the wire, although obviously without bad intent. More than one case occurred of mentally unbalanced prisoners being shot while attempting to climb the fences.
Most friction with the Germans came from working parties. The Germans put the greatest page 25 pressure on non-commissioned officers to join kommandos ‘voluntarily’: in one camp the issue of clothing was at first refused to men who did not go out on working parties. In another camp, as one man wrote, ‘we are referred to as work-refusing NCOs and not allowed any of the Camp amenities, nor are we allowed to mix with the British prisoners.’ Admittedly the numbers of non-commissioned officers had been swollen by the numerous self-promoted ‘stalag corporals’, sergeants, or warrant officers. ‘Later the Germans got wise to this and would not accept any rank until it had been confirmed by Geneva.’ On the job men slacked to the maximum extent possible. In the unpopular coal mines ‘krankers’ (self-inflicted wounds) became so common a means of avoiding work that eventually the Germans would not transfer men out of the mines for any reason whatsoever. When men regained their health after sickness, voluntary or involuntary, they had to go back into the mine.
Men who did not work or who fell foul of the Germans in other ways were sent to special punishment camps. A man who had served a sentence in the stalag gaol for some offence (escaping, abusing the guards, slacking on a working party, or ‘taking Hitler’s name in vain’) was sent to a disciplinary camp for the next six months. Discipline at these camps was tough: here occurred occasional shootings, stabbings, and beatings, and the guards were encouraged to oppress their prisoners. However, some Germans had a curious regard for a rebellious prisoner: a German captain told a parade of prisoners at Wolfsberg in 1944, ‘I respect these Disciplinaires; they are prisoners who have done and are doing their duty. It is the duty of all prisoners of war to attempt to escape and my duty to stop them.’ It is interesting to note also that at least one commandant always accepted the word of a prisoner against that of a guard.
Serious offences would be punished by a term in a military prison, shared with German soldiers also serving sentences. A New Zealand warrant officer spent eight months in Torgau military prison for an assault made on a guard in an attempt to escape. While at Torgau he was several times condemned to further ‘arrest’, in cells on bread and water, for refusing to work, these periods being additional to the original sentence. When representatives of the International Red Cross visited the prisoner-of-war section of this prison, it had been specially cleaned up for their benefit, and as soon as it had been inspected such things as bedding were immediately removed again from the prisoners’ quarters. The conditions, without blankets, parcels, books, games, or any communication with the outside world, were very bad. ‘All of us were under great nervous strain … conditions were so rigid that many of the inmates inflicted wounds on themselves in an endeavour to get treatment in an ordinary prisoner-of-war hospital. In other words, they tried to regain the status of an ordinary prisoner-of-war. Others escaped … and entered ordinary stalags under false names with the same end in view.’
After the Dieppe raid, in which an order that prisoners should be tied fell into German hands, the Germans made an elaborate and in some ways ludicrous attempt at mass reprisals against their prisoners. All Canadians and all prisoners who had been put on the Germans’ black-list for any reason were chained. Handcuffs connected by lengths of chain were used, but the men found it easy to make keys to unlock them. The prisoners would form up in queues to be handcuffed; then, to annoy the guards, they would unlock their handcuffs and queue up again and again to be re-handcuffed: ‘This went on time after time and appeared to leave the guards completely mystified and very bad tempered.’