Prisoners of War
III: Prisoners of War in Germany
III: Prisoners of War in Germany
3 The increase of New Zealanders in Italian hands was approximately 2000.
It will be remembered that the two sections of Oflag IXA/H at Spangenburg were reopened for senior officers in February 1942. At first there were only about 2501 in the Upper and Lower camps, but by April the numbers had risen to nearly 480, and although the German Foreign Office denied that the camp had yet reached capacity, Swiss representatives reported both sections as overcrowded. Even after the transfer of the 45 Air Force personnel to Stalag Luft III at the end of the month and four Navy and Merchant Navy officers to Marlag-Milag Nord, the numbers continued at the excessive figure of about 450. As might have been expected after the move from Warburg, mail was slow in arriving, books and recreational facilities were rather short, and it took some time before adequate areas were agreed upon to enable outdoor games to be played. However, parole walks were arranged, permission was given to use a local sports field twice a week, and the floor of the moat in the Upper camp was used for rockeries, vegetable gardens, walking paths, a cricket pitch, deck tennis and other games. By July the prisoners in the Upper camp had done sufficient art and craft work to hold what was described by the Swiss representative as a ‘fine exhibition’. On the other hand the overcrowding at the Lower camp precluded the use of any rooms for recreation and made it difficult for prisoners to do any serious reading.
The German camp authorities were described by the prisoners to an International Red Cross representative as ‘strict but correct’. There were, however, a number of matters on which the two senior British officers were continually pressing them for satisfaction. Canteens, although they existed, had practically no stocks, in spite of an issue of weak beer every ten days; but this was of general application throughout Germany, and was part of the economy measures taken by the German authorities in conformity with the principle of ‘total war’. The same was true of the fuel for cooking, which had been cut by 45 per cent in mid-1942, and of the very poor lighting supplied by a local village power station.
2 Previously they could be made for any prisoner who applied for them, at his expense.
There seems to have been some attempt on the part of the Germans at this stage to impose collective stoppage of privileges and to offer to reintroduce them only if parole were given regarding their use. This the senior British officers strenuously opposed. Mail, both outward and inward, was stopped from the beginning of August. Finally, at the end of September, doctors, chaplains, ‘grand-blessés’,1 and those of Irish birth were moved to Rotenburg, and the remainder of the camp was subjected to rigorous restrictions on the orders of the High Command as a reprisal for alleged ill-treatment of German officer prisoners en route to South Africa. Not only were the officers denied the use of all books (except bibles) and other collectively owned property, but their private effects were confiscated and they were without soap, towels, razors, toothbrushes, knives and forks. Their badges of rank, decorations and other insignia were removed and they were denied the services of any orderlies. It goes without saying that the order was not taken lying down by the camp leaders, but it was not revoked until two months later in spite of letters of complaint and exchanges of government notes. Strange as it must have seemed to the German authorities, it occasioned a great deal of good humour in the camp, not the least part of which resulted from a beard-growing competition. Swiss delegates who visited the camp during the reprisal period commented, ‘The spirit is splendid’. Their report goes on to say:
The sight of nearly four hundred bearded officers in plain uniforms is of course shocking, but the air of manliness and dignity with which they bear themselves makes a great impression on everybody.
The new year was comparatively peaceful after the turmoil of the reprisal period, and though many of the drawbacks of the camp remained, mail improved a little and it was at least possible to eat, sleep, and indulge in recreation in a more or less civilised fashion.
1 There had been over 50 amputees and other seriously wounded in the camp.
The camp to which those doctors and others who were to be exempt from the reprisals had been sent in September was only ten miles away, at Rotenburg on the River Fulda. When Oflag VIB at Warburg split up in August and September 1942,1 the Air Force officers were sent to Schubin in Silesia, the junior and younger officers to Eichstaett in southern Bavaria, and the ‘over thirty-fives’, together with repatriable cases, to what became known as Oflag IXA/Z2 at Rotenburg. In order to make room for the doctors, chaplains, ‘grand-blessés’, and others from Spangenburg, 120 of those who had come from Warburg were sent off to the Upper and Lower camps from which the former had come.3 The camp at Rotenburg was a former girls' school, a large, fairly modern stone building of classrooms and cubicles, equipped with central heating. Though the latter advantage was largely nullified by the small coal ration, for those coming from Warburg the place was comfortable indeed. Food consisted of the normal inadequate German rations but was supplemented by ample Red Cross supplies. Contrary to the procedure at Warburg and other camps, all meals were prepared in a central kitchen and served in a common dining room.
The building was in the middle of a lovely countryside, into which walks on parole were arranged with the German authorities. For a while these made up for the limited space in the camp for outdoor exercise—an area no more than fifty yards square. By the new year, however, the school gymnasium was in use, and cinema shows, a theatre, and a good library provided plenty of indoor recreation. Unfortunately the camp became more and more crowded; and, as at Spangenburg, classes became difficult to hold (though there was plenty of coaching), and men trying to study found it hard to concentrate. In April there were 33 medical officers and 20 chaplains in the camp—a decrease on the earlier numbers of each. Though they had applied for work in other camps, no action was taken to transfer them; and there were some hints from the Germans that they caused too much trouble in camps with their complaints about conditions and refusal to allow sick men to go out to work. There was some tunnelling and other escape activity in Rotenburg, but as might have been expected, the thoughts of large numbers of unemployed protected personnel and disabled men turned mainly towards hopes of repatriation.
2 The Z stood for Zweiglager, branch camp.
3 This left about 350 officers and 70–80 other ranks at Rotenburg, including 30–40 New Zealanders.
In September 1942 the 1800 or so younger and more junior officers1 at Warburg were moved by train to Eichstaett. Their reputation for escaping and generally defying authority apparently went ahead of them, for not only were their boots taken away at night during the train journey, but they were subjected to a most thorough search on arrival, and in the new camp they encountered stricter regulations than ever before. As with most strict regulations, the human weaknesses of those who had to carry them out soon brought about their relaxation.
The camp was an old cavalry barracks, built some forty years previously and set in a beautiful Bavarian countryside of meadow, trees, and hills. Prisoners were housed in one of the original three-storied barracks on the slope of a hill, and in eight or so new concrete army huts on the flat below. The former was fairly comfortable and was served by tarsealed paths; the latter were surrounded by mud in winter, were damp and ill-ventilated, and had only carbide lamps instead of electric lighting. Men captured during the Dieppe raid were already in the camp, and the accommodation was from the first very overcrowded in its sleeping quarters, ablutions, and sanitary installations. As might be expected where accommodation was limited and of varying quality, there was some ill-feeling at times about its allocation. The cold of the winter of 1942 combined with the very small German coal ration to produce considerable ill-health among many of those in the lower barracks; and there was such a serious outcrop of chilblains, rheumatics, and bronchial troubles that the senior medical officer ordered a general issue of malt and cod-liver oil and submitted a strongly condemnatory report concerning the accommodation. Eventually in mid-1943 the German authorities moved 120 officers to another camp.
Oflag VIIB had fine grounds, including gardens, a sports field, and two tennis courts for the use of the prisoners. In a short time the camp had an active theatre group, and the German camp authorities had arranged cinema shows. When weather permitted there were parole walks into the Bavarian countryside, and as winter approached an ice-skating rink was prepared. A large part of the library from Oflag VIB—some 11,000 to 12,000 books—came to Eichstaett. The potential resources of the camp for recreation were thus very great indeed.
2 At the beginning of November 1942 one estimate gives the number of letters to be censored as 20,000.
In November, when the first five prisoners escaped, there was a roll-call lasting five hours the following day, and two more that night which took up another two hours or so. After three weeks the roll-calls settled down to three a day until June 1943, when 65 got out through a tunnel and another five-hour roll-call was held to discover the identity of the escapers. They were all recaptured within a short time and confined in the nearby Willibaldsburg castle, some of the camp entertainments being banned as a punishment.
At the roll-call on 8 October, to their bewilderment 107 officers and 20 other ranks taken prisoner at Dieppe were fallen out and marched to the castle, where their hands were tied with rope and remained so for twelve hours daily. This, it was explained by the German authorities, was a reprisal for British ill-treatment of German prisoners at the time of the Dieppe raid and also during the commando raid on Sark. The commandant was at pains to explain that he was acting on orders from the High Command and that the binding was done in the most humane way possible; many of the German camp staff gave obvious indications that they disliked the whole affair.
Three days after the first announcement came a second that, as German prisoners in England were now being bound, the reprisal would now apply to three times the present numbers. Accordingly the last thirty or so in each group on roll-call parade were marched off and placed in handcuffs, which had by then been substituted for the original rope; there were, therefore, finally 321 officers and 60 other ranks in handcuffs, including a number of New page 239 Zealanders. In spite of there being a medical officer in constant attendance, the camp leader reported to the Swiss Legation that the treatment was ‘having serious effects on mental and physical health’. Indeed, by 18 October several of those originally shackled had been replaced because of illness or calloused wrists, and one officer wrote in his diary that the Germans were ‘quite sympathetic and a little disgusted about it all’.
As time went on conditions were considerably relaxed for the shackled prisoners. The original tight handcuffs were replaced by police fetters with a fairly comfortable length of chain between them. The Dieppe prisoners had all been moved down to the barrack block occupied by the other victims, and although this was at first wired off from the rest of the camp and subjected to a strict guard, those in handcuffs were later allowed to move about the camp freely and to attend lectures and entertainments. Meanwhile prisoners had found that the handcuffs could be opened with a nail, and a good many began taking them off while not under observation by guards. The guards themselves had begun the practice of simply leaving the right number of manacles in each room, instead of seeing that they were put on. By April some of the shackled prisoners were playing ‘baseball in the mornings and hockey in the afternoons’,1 though for obvious reasons such developments could not be mentioned in the prisoners' letters.
Eichstaett was not the only camp where shackling was imposed. There were prisoners from Dieppe at Stalag VIIIB, at the newly formed camp for NCOs at Hohenfels, and a handful at Stalag IXC; they were all subjected to it. When the number to whom the order applied was trebled, the other British prisoners in these camps took their share of the reprisals. On 9 October in Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, some 1500 British and Canadians had their hands tied with pieces of Red Cross string 18 inches in length—apparently a misinterpretation of an order specifying 18 inches of play between the hands. This was bad enough for those concerned, who four days later included another 800 of the camp strength.2 But it seemed as if the German camp authorities seized the opportunity to work off old scores. The issue of Red Cross food parcels, cigarettes, and regular mail was discontinued, and shortly afterwards all sports, concerts, and educational classes were forbidden until further notice. With only the poor German rations to exist on, an acute shortage of blankets and no allowance of fuel to combat the increasing cold, conditions in the stalag became as hard as they had ever been.
1 Mentioned in report by Swiss representative on his visit to the camp on 25 April 1943.
2 The camp strength at this time included about 21,000 British (1800 New Zealanders) of whom some 6000–7000 were in the stalag itself.
The period preceding the shackling had been one of strained relations between the prisoners and the German staff. It had been signalised by many lively disputes concerning the handling of Red Cross supplies and the conditions of work, and also by numerous escape break-outs from the stalag and from Arbeitskommandos. The medical officers of the stalag complained vigorously about the system of puncturing all tins of Red Cross food before issue, on the grounds that it involved a waste of food, or alternatively, danger to the health of prisoners if they ate the food after the tins had remained punctured for some time. There were individual refusals to work the long hours demanded at some Arbeitskommandos, there were heated disputes about sending sick men out to work, and there were some refusals by a whole gang to work until an issue of Red Cross food had been made. The prisoners could always rely on the support of the prisoner-of-war doctor or padre, if they had one at their work-camp, and many of the camp leaders of working gangs had daily, and often trying, struggles with the local guard officer to secure better terms for the men they represented. To add to the worries of guards and commandants the summer brought a crop of break-outs from working camps; even at the stalag several parties got out by cutting through the wire, and a tunnel nearing completion was found in September. So far from being subdued by the imminence of defeat that might be indicated by the war news in the summer of 1942, the British prisoners seemed to be making more trouble than ever.
1 Several hours with wrists shackled and held up tightly behind the back, nose and toes touching a wall.
1 The Germans were at this stage very short of blankets and allowed each prisoner at most two (usually well-worn), whether his own or issued by the OKW. At Stalag VIIIB before September 1942 they had even withdrawn all their own blankets and allowed prisoners to retain only those which were privately owned or sent through the Red Cross. When late in 1942 a request from Stalag VIIIB for 5000 blankets, backed by the International Red Cross Committee, was referred to the War Office, the latter declined to accede to it. For it was felt that if the blankets were sent the Germans would almost certainly withdraw those they had issued, and thus escape responsibility for supplying British prisoners with adequate bedding.
2 A comparison of the cut and normal weekly rations is shown in the following table:
|Bread||2250 grammes||2250 grammes|
|Meat||260 grammes||300 grammes|
|Fat||135 grammes||205 grammes|
|Cheese||60 grammes||62.5 grammes|
|Flour||100 grammes||160 grammes|
|Sugar||140 grammes||175 grammes|
|Jam||140 grammes||140 grammes|
If some of the Arbeitskommandos were quartered in reasonable comfort, though somewhat crowded, and were employed by firms who thought it good policy to treat their workers with consideration, others lived under bad conditions and relied upon relief supplies to alleviate their lot. Although by March 1943 50 per cent of the men in working camps had two sets of battle dress, many had had to go for a long time with one only, and for those in mines and on other heavy manual labour this one suit had, in the words of a Red Cross delegate, reached a ‘deplorable state’. Many employers, too, found great difficulty in obtaining overalls for their civilian workers, let alone prisoners of war. A large number of these camps had blankets that were small and worn thin, though it must be admitted that their barracks were usually quite well heated. Many of the working camps supplied heavy workers' rations, but others depended on supplies of Red Cross food from stalag to maintain a sufficient diet. Owing to transport difficulties deliveries from Lamsdorf were usually only every three months, and it was not until 1943 that a sufficient stock was built up there to make it possible to deliver enough to last three months. In 1943 two whole barracks at Lamsdorf were set aside for relief supplies, and a senior warrant officer and a staff of 60 were handling as many as 70 railway wagon-loads a week; they once handled 30 in one day.
1 An analysis of the Arbeitskommandos dependent on Stalag VIIIB in September 1942, given in a report by an IRCC delegate, shows the percentage of prisoner labour employed in various classes of work: Industry, about 70 per cent; Agriculture, about 20 per cent.
1 Quotations in this paragraph are from a report by a Swiss representative, August 1942.
2 The German authorities were on the whole scrupulous in seeing that deceased British prisoners had a proper military burial. There were usually wreaths on behalf of the German guard company as well as the prisoners, a firing party, and sometimes quite an elaborate cortege. Numerous photographs were usually taken of the ceremony, of which copies could be sent home in prisoners' letters.
Not a great number of these were in the stalag, the population of which, with the exception of administrative staff, convalescents, and men awaiting repatriation, was continually changing. The British section of the camp had always suffered from crowded quarters and what are described in a neutral report2 as ‘deplorable’ washing and sanitary facilities. Insufficient disinfestation had resulted in large numbers of palliasses becoming so infested with fleas and bugs as to be unusable; the water supply became totally inadequate as the result of a breakdown at the local waterworks, being for three weeks available only for one hour daily between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.; and the septic pools into which drainage took place were too infrequently emptied, smelt badly, and attracted flies.
A new commandant appointed in July appears to have done what he could to improve matters. Three new barracks which had been building for some time were opened in September. These and the transfer of non-working NCOs did much to relieve overcrowding, so that it was no longer necessary to use the lowest of the three tiers of bunks. The installation of a new sewerage system was begun, but, mainly through shortage of materials, took until February 1943 before it was completed. It was a long time too before the water supply was made anything like adequate by means of a new well. The camp theatre, library, and educational classes were carried on, in spite of losing among the transferred NCOs many who had done most to help with them, and a sports ground was laid out. The camp had its own hospital and a dental surgery which did something to cope with the large amount of dental treatment that was required.
1 By February 1943 there were only 118 British prisoners (20 New Zealanders) there, and these were later transferred to Stalag XVIIIA.
2 Report by delegate of the International Red Cross Committee of 6 August 1942.
The land workers usually had their quarters in one or two rooms of a farmhouse near their work. There was scarcely ever any running water, ablutions and latrines were usually very primitive, and the improvements in their quarters depended largely on the prisoners' own efforts. They usually had their meals on the job with their employers, and though a meal was sometimes a rushed affair1 and sometimes eaten from a communal bowl, our men very soon adapted themselves. The hours of work were long—sometimes eleven hours a day in winter and thirteen in summer, frequently with jobs on Sundays such as feeding the horses—but prisoners in these camps were found to be in good health, thought the work ‘not too tiring’, and were above all in ‘excellent spirits’.2 Their day was spent largely in the open air, temporarily free from barbed wire. Most of the Austrian countryfolk after a while were finding our men, if not gluttons for work, at least decent people to have about their farms. Although some men ascribed this to the change in the trend of the war, it is clear that a good deal of real friendliness soon developed on both sides. A Red Cross delegate speaks of prisoners being ‘much appreciated by their employers’ and of an ‘esteem and understanding that is reciprocal’.
1 The German authorities allowed them half an hour for the midday meal, but sometimes an employer would try to limit the time to ten minutes or so.
2 Report of the IRCC delegate in January 1943.
About a hundred New Zealanders and 250 or so other British prisoners worked until the end of the war on the building of a dam and hydro-electric plant at Lavamünd. Quarters installed near the works were at first crude and overcrowded, but later were replaced by roomy new barracks described by a neutral inspector as ‘model’. The men could keep clean with daily hot showers, but most had for some time no clean uniform to change into after work. The work consisted mainly of shifting concrete from mixers to the timbering of the dam, a task which occasionally provided opportunity for sabotage by dropping tools either into the river or the wet concrete of the dam itself. Work lasted for eight and a half hours daily,1 but was described as ‘not too hard’, at least in the way in which the prisoners went about it. By an arrangement with the commandant, those who wished could do an agreed amount of work daily and stop when it had been completed—usually in about five and a half hours. This ‘contract system’ was in use in many other Arbeitskommandos and was generally in favour with prisoners, provided the agreed amount of work could be kept as low as possible by the local man-of-confidence in his negotiations with the local commandant. As at other camps, the commandant sometimes sent out to work men whom the doctor had ordered to rest, and there were at first a number of accidents, at least one of which was fatal, arising from dangerous work. But with constant pressure the camp improved and in May 1943 was pronounced ‘excellent’ by the Swiss representative who inspected it.
1 These hours, with Saturday afternoon and Sunday free, were usual in Austrian industrial Arbeitskommandos.
Many men were still making breaks from Arbeitskommandos, but usually with little of the equipment necessary to complete their escape and with little idea beyond making for the borders of Hungary or Yugoslavia. For food and shelter it was common to call at one of the Arbeitskommandos encountered en route. Many men were chary of getting entangled with partisans, and the later schemes for providing would-be escapers with information, routes, contacts, clothing, and other equipment had not yet been worked out. The German security measures had moreover been increased. All escapers recaptured in Austria were sent to an interrogation centre at Landek, where they were often kept for a week or so while persistent efforts, using methods reminiscent of Oberursel, were made to find out the route taken by the escaper and where he had sheltered and been fed. From Landek they usually went to Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau, where they were kept in the punishment cells for a week or two before being returned to Stalag XVIIIA to serve whatever term of punishment they might be awarded for their attempted escape. This sentence could not exceed 28 days by the terms of the Geneva Convention, but their previous periods in Landek and Markt Pongau added a good many extra weeks to their confinement.
Although many Arbeitskommandos were being supplied with reading matter from the stalag circulating library, they still did not have sufficient material for indoor recreation. There were seldom any organised classes, though the keener prisoners studied privately with books sent to them. One or two sympathetic German commandants arranged periodical visits to a local cinema. Football matches between different Arbeitskommandos had now been forbidden by the German High Command; on the other hand, many of those in the country were allowed to swim in a nearby river or lake. During this period permission was extended to the Anglican chaplain1 from the stalag to visit working camps. In addition to purely religious duties, he was able to do a great deal of welfare work and to give essential help with various camp activities both in the stalag and the outlying kommandos.
The Germans had never ceased their pressure on NCOs to go out on working parties, but by September 1942 they were finally resigned to allowing those who claimed exemption to go to a special camp at Hohenfels—at first Oflag IIIC and later Stalag 383. Between September and the end of 1942 over 3000 NCOs were collected there from camps all over Germany, and by April 1943 their numbers had increased to over 4000, including 320 New Zealanders.
The camp, formerly for officers, was built on a gentle slope in the middle of a piece of heavily wooded country, some miles from the nearest town. Instead of being crammed by the hundreds into unpartitioned barracks, the NCOs found themselves allocated small dormitory huts holding twelve or less, described by one of them as ‘snug billets’. The camp had plenty of room for sports fields and walking space besides, and some larger barracks for theatrical shows and indoor recreation. When Red Cross food arrived in October to supplement the ordinary German prisoner-of-war ration, there was little to complain of at Hohenfels. Much effort went into constructing small stoves so that private food could be cooked when desired. By November one man was writing that he was ‘fourteen pounds heavier than when he joined up’; others spoke of there being ‘more freedom and less interference’ and of the camp being ‘far less depressing’ than Lamsdorf. The winter proved to be cold, but there was sufficient coal and the men were allowed to collect wood from a nearby forest. For most of them it was the best camp they had been in.
It was to be expected that, although there were only three NCOs from Dieppe at the camp, such a large body of non-workers would be selected as suitable for the tying-and-chaining reprisal. It began on 10 October and by the 14th some 1250 had their hands tied for twelve hours each day. At first, too, they were separated from the page 249 rest of the camp and all recreational activity was stopped. Thereafter the history of the reprisals at Stalag 383 is much the same as in the other camps, except that relaxations were introduced more quickly and in the later stages men were allowed to take the shackling in rotation—a month at a time.
After the first week or two shackling interfered little with the recreational life of the camp. Many musical instruments and other material had been brought from other camps; by February several different kinds of orchestra and a choir of 500 voices were performing as occasion demanded, and a number of shows had been presented on the newly-built stage. A stalag ‘university’ had been organised by a former NCO of the Army Educational Corps; and classes under this scheme, together with the activities of no fewer than 56 clubs—from a debating club to a Caledonian society—enabled men to pass the winter months profitably. A first exhibition of arts and crafts was held in February, and in March, with the ground drying up, sport was in full swing. Plenty of parcels from the Red Cross and from home had made the food and clothing position of the camp secure, and men could write with conviction that they were ‘well and being well-treated’.
Mention has already been made of the RAF activity connected with the land defence of Egypt and the Alamein offensive, in which twenty or so of our airmen fell into Italian hands. A number of others shot down in the Middle East and Mediterranean front fell into German hands and were transported to Germany as quickly as possible. But the majority of the 180-odd who became prisoners in Germany during this period were lost on air operations over western Europe. Here bombing attacks were being extended and fighter sweeps were reaching out to the coastal areas of France and the Low Countries. Although casualties fell somewhat during the winter, the summer of 1942 saw the New Zealand losses in prisoners average nearly twenty a month, and in each of the months of May and June 1943 more than twenty of our airmen were captured as a result of air operations over the Continent.
By this time Auswertestelle West had attained considerable importance and authority as a source of intelligence for the German Higher Command. The Luftwaffe claimed that the information from captured airmen (though gleaned more from the evaluation of documents captured with the prisoners than from their interrogation) was better than that obtained through any other source including agents abroad. Police, area troops, and airfield staffs therefore co-operated by sending captured airmen to Oberursel as quickly as possible, and in taking the utmost care to ensure that every page 250 article and document from their persons or from the crashed aircraft was sent on ahead of them.
The mass of information filed at Oberursel concerning Allied air force units, airmen, and possible operational activity had now become formidable, and many prisoners were surprised by the completeness of their squadron histories and ‘Who's Who’. There was little change in the procedure during interrogation, though there were some refinements. It was considered that the mental shock of capture to the young airman was not very great, and that it was necessary to lower his morale by a week or so of solitary and hungry confinement in the cells (already described) before commencing his interrogation proper. The interrogator then usually apologised for the previous treatment suffered by the prisoner and usually claimed to be an anti-Nazi, or at all events a man to whom politics and national prejudices were immaterial. Sometimes a quarrel was staged in the presence of the prisoner between his interrogator and another German who had expressed fanatical opinions likely to give offence to the British. After a friendly man-to-man talk about civilian days and home and family, came the pressure: subtle appeals to the conceited to show off their knowledge, veiled threats to the stubborn of the Gestapo and possible disappearance, sometimes to the more imaginative a carefully prepared scene with ‘noises off’ as of men undergoing torture or even being shot.
Though many men realised the purpose behind these threats and maintained silence, others less patient did not hesitate to give the interrogator a piece of their minds. The commandant's report mentions that some of the United States, Australian, and New Zealand airmen ‘were openly recalcitrant and brought a certain native virility to their rescue in resisting the “dressing down” which followed’ their refusal to talk. From the fact that the report goes on to talk of the punishments that followed, it may be deduced that the ‘virility’ of the expressions used on these occasions did not leave the interrogators wholly unmoved.
On the other hand the interrogators were finding their task made increasingly difficult by the instruction now being given to air crews in the probable methods that would be used to interrogate them should they fall into enemy hands, the subjects about which information would be sought, and the traps into which they might fall. Prisoners were now, without exception, unimpressed with the ‘Red Cross’ from, notwithstanding the quoting of the Geneva Convention to show them how necessary it was to indicate their unit. Just as prisoners came in time to disregard everything in German broadcasts and newspapers as propaganda, so numbers of airmen were con- page 251 vinced that the copies of the Geneva Convention they were shown at Oberursel had been falsified to suit German purposes. The Germans claimed that a large proportion of the forms continued to be filled in at least partially, but it seems unlikely that the prisoners completed the questions relating to operational matters. Prisoners' familiarity too with oral methods of interrogation entailed greater efforts and more subtle advances on the part of the interrogating officer. As time went on and pressure of work for the staff became greater, nervous tension at Auswertestelle West was by no means confined to the prisoners, and a special kitchen had to be installed ‘to cater for the duodenals of harassed interrogators….’1
Airmen had been well warned too of the likelihood of approaches by stool-pigeons in Dulag Luft, and so careful were they to avoid ‘careless talk’ and so greatly did the German information obtained in the transit camp decrease that it was decided in 1943 to abandon the use of stool-pigeons altogether. Those whose interrogation was completed were therefore not kept long at Dulag Luft. Most of the officers went to Stalag Luft III, though a number captured in late 1942 and early 1943 went to Oflag XXIB at Schubin. NCOs and other ranks went to Stalag Luft III or, as that became more crowded, to Stalag Luft I, which reopened in October 1942, or to the RAF compound at Stalag VIIIB; a few NCOs were for a time in the Army NCOs' camp, Stalag 383.
The numbers in Stalag Luft III at Sagan rose steadily until in September 1942 there were 710 officers and 1797 NCOs and other ranks2 in the East and Centre compounds respectively. By then, too, American airmen taken prisoner were being sent to the camp. In six months the camp administration and amenities had been thoroughly organised. The East compound was under the control of the senior British officer, and the Centre compound under a British warrant officer elected to the post of compound leader by a majority vote. These two men met the German commandant periodically to settle points under dispute. The camp had ample food and clothing consigned to it by the International Red Cross Committee, and medical care was adequately provided for, though the dental officer sent to the camp—a New Zealander—was as usual greatly overworked.
2 New Zealanders in these totals were 34 officers and 100 NCOs and other ranks.
All this did not prevent much attention being devoted to escaping. There were a number of attempts to escape from both the officers' and the NCOs' compounds by walking out of the entrance gate disguised in German uniform; some had partial success, but all were recaptured within a short time. None of the numerous attempts at going through the gate hidden in some form of transport succeeded, and only some of those at going through or over the wire had initial success; none of the men concerned finally reached freedom. There was tunnelling, but all such projects were discovered by the German security staff, and during the winter of 1942–43 all large-scale efforts were temporarily abandoned so that the Germans might be induced to think that the prisoners had tired of the idea, and in order to prepare for the coming move to the new North compound.
In September 1942 a hundred officers and some fifteen NCOs who had volunteered as orderlies were transferred to Schubin; they and another 200 from Warburg made up the first Air Force group to go there. Another hundred officers were sent from Sagan in November, and from then on a steady stream came direct from Dulag Luft.1 Schubin lies in a large agricultural plain in Poland, some 150 miles west of Warsaw. The camp, Oflag XXIB, had consisted in 1940 of a large girls' school with fine grounds and gardens before it was taken over to accommodate prisoners of war; and since then a number of brick barracks had been built in the grounds to accommodate more. Though the surroundings were so pleasant, those who had been used to small rooms found the verminous, unpartitioned, stalag-type barracks hard to get used to. There were the usual tiered bunks, and a table and two forms for twelve. The stove-heating was inadequate, and there was no provision for cooking private food other than what could be contrived in the open or in the washhouses.
1 By the end of November there were nearly 600 officers, 56 NCOs, and 50 orderlies. Some fifty New Zealanders were in Schubin.
2 In almost every officers' camp in Germany difficulty was at first experienced in getting the camp authorities to agree that prisoners need salute only those German officers of equal or superior rank.
The ‘difficulties’ came to a head in the new year. A carefully planned tunnel completed in early March made possible a mass break of 33 prisoners. Though none was finally successful, this break caused large numbers of troops, police, and Home Guard to be employed for a week while the escapers were being rounded up. SS troops took over control of the camp and almost immediately evacuated the prisoners in parties of two hundred. Although the additions to Stalag Luft III were not yet ready, it was decided to use them and move all those at Schubin to Sagan rather than risk another break-out in Poland.
On 27 March 1943 the East compound at Sagan was practically cleared of British officers when 850 were moved to the North compound. A large party of officers from Schubin took their places, and thereafter both compounds received additional batches from Dulag Luft and also later from Italy. Many of those transferred to the North compound had been allowed to go there before it opened in order to help prepare the barracks for occupation and particularly to fit up the theatre. They made good use of this opportunity to note the layout of the camp and prepare for a large-scale escape. The accommodation differed little from that of the East compound and the German defences against escape were almost identical—fences, patrols inside and outside the wire, dog patrols, ground microphones to detect tunnelling. Nevertheless there were several attempts at the wire and the gate in the first month or two of the new compound's existence, and three large tunnels, which had been carefully planned, were begun simultaneously as soon as the prisoners moved in. It was through one of these that one of the largest successful mass break-outs of the war was made, a year later.
Of the ten New Zealand naval prisoners in Germany at this period, seven belonged to the Fleet Air Arm and were in Stalag Luft III, treated in the same way as if they belonged to the Royal Air Force. Six of these had been on the ill-fated Rangitane; one had been shot down near Mersa Matruh in September 1942 and had been taken direct to Dulag Luft. Of the three who did not belong to the Fleet Air Arm, two had been captured in Royal Navy operations off the French coast—a petty officer who seems to have been the only New Zealander in the Marlag section of the camp for naval prisoners, and a rating who after a spell in Sandbostel was page 255 moved to Stalag VIIIB to work; the third, a leading seaman, was captured on the Port Hobart and had since been treated as a member of the Merchant Navy. Also in the Milag section were some twenty New Zealanders belonging to the Merchant Navy.
In August 1942 Marlag-Milag Nord, which had hitherto formed a special section of the huge Stalag XB at Sandbostel, was moved to Westertimke, in the flat sandy plain between the Weser and the Elbe, where a new camp was still being built on a pine-planted area to accommodate naval prisoners and was commanded and guarded by German naval personnel. A small compound was set aside for naval officers and a larger one for petty officers and leading seamen, who as non-commissioned officers were exempt from work. The Merchant Navy compound was larger still and held over 3000 officers and seamen drawn from over twenty different nations. The organisation and discipline of this large collection of different ranks and races must have been a most difficult task, but the camp seems to have been soon running smoothly. As civilian internees these men were exempt from compulsory labour, but over 400 worked on maintenance in the camp and a few on farms outside.
Shortly after the Allied landing in French North Africa the camp for military internees at Laghouat was liberated, and the British servicemen, including the four New Zealand airmen, returned to England. The German occupation of Vichy France had taken place about a month previously, and during this period a number of interned British servicemen there, including three New Zealand airmen,1 were able to make good their escape from Fort de la Revere near Nice and were in England in early October. Others not so fortunate fell into German hands and were later transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Although those shot down in Switzerland and Sweden were closely guarded, a few who came down in the Iberian peninsula were able to make their way to Gibraltar.