US POWs from 101st deal with a German mole

A German image of Beyrle after he was recaptured following an escape attempt. He was an uncooperative POW.
A German image of Beyrle after he was recaptured following an escape attempt. He was an uncooperative POW.

Joseph Beyrle was a demolition expert with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne’s “Screaming Eagles” division. He had been captured a few days after dropping into Normandy on D-Day. He had eventually been sent to Stalag III-C at Alt-Drewitz, [now Drzewice in western Poland].

Some men resigned themselves to their fate and adjusted to life as a POW. Others were determined to continue the war by any means possible and to seek to escape. After five years of war the Germans had become accustomed to the escape attempts of British officers in their POW camps and were actively looking for signs of any potential escape:

American krieges in III-C, especially Airborne, constantly pushed the limits of camp regulations. Whereas earlier the Germans hadn’t been much good at uncovering transgressions, in October 1944 it seemed that no one could get away with anything.

Now far too many clandestine meetings were being busted, even those arranged by BTOs, whose security measures were the best. Guards had to be bribed and they could squeal, but the law of averages wasn’t working. Men were being thrown into solitary on bread and water. With everyone ’s health so borderline this was more than punishment — it was life threatening.

The secondary duty of the escape committee was to pre- vent penetration by the Germans. Ferrets were open penetrators, pretty easy to neutralize, but it became clear that Schultz was also running something covert and effective against the Americans.

The escape/security committee had a long talk about what could be going on. Krieges who looked like they might be collaborating were the first suspects. Coleman put out the word to rough them up. If they continued to be palsy with the krauts, beat them up. This was done, but the busts and punishments continued as before.

The committee then had to consider that there might be moles in the compound. A Ranger at IV-B had warned that the krauts’ best opportunity for mole planting occurred during transfers between stalags. After Joe persuaded the committee that this had happened between IV-B and III-C, they pondered countermeasures.

The one approved was to create kriege groups from all regions in the United States, create them openly for an ostensibly benign purpose. With the commandant’s acquiescence, Coleman armounced that there would be regional meetings to disseminate local news from home. Bring any mail you got, and read it to your buddies.

By then hut commanders knew the home state of all their men. If someone didn’t go to his regional meeting, he became a suspect. There were only a few like that, checked out thoroughly and found to be just lone wolves, men who chose to go through the kriege experience by themselves. They did so very well, and none tumed out to be a security risk.

The regional group that uncovered the mole was from Ohio. It took days of innocuous but very specific questions put casually: “Hey, anyone from Senator Taft’s hometown?” Like the needle on a gyrating compass, suspicion began to home on a man who said he was from Cleveland but didn’t recognize the name Bob Feller. How about the mayor in 1942? No response. What high school did you go to? He had an answer for that, however, he didn’t know any of the ice-cream parlors in the neighborhood. What do you hear from home? Nothing. No mail? No. Why not? No parents? No girl-friend? They didn’t write him. He had a Polish name, something like Websky, but couldn’t say anything about the part of Poland his ancestors came from. This seemed like a pretty tough requirement to Joe, who couldn’t have said much about Bavaria either.

After increasingly less friendly questioning, this Websky owned up. He ’d lived in Cleveland for four years with an uncle from Lithuania before returning to East Prussia, where he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. He clerked on the Eastem Front for two years, then felt lucky, because of his American English fluency, to be pulled out in 1944 to serve as an intelligence staffer in France.

It was quite possible that Websky had worked at the chateau where Joe had had his head bashed in, but he was not allowed to ask because Coleman designated a prosecutorial team to handle Websky’s case and they provided him Fifth Amendment protection. However, he made the mistake of acting as his own counsel. His defense was that he couldn’t turn down the mole job, he didn’t have a choice, and if he didn’t produce results, it was back to the Eastern Front, this time as an infantryman.

That was too bad, but the committee didn’t have much choice either. His hut commander was briefed and provided astand-in for Websky at roll calls after Coleman ordered a secret court-martial. Joe asked, how can we court-martial a guy who’s in the enemy army? Coleman’s answer was, you know what I mean — have a trial and make it fast. It was fast indeed, as a six-by-six hole was dug under a hut.

What took inordinate time was the question of whether the hole would be Websky’s execution site, grave, or both. He was given the choice of a shiv in the heart, a club on the head, or being strangled. “He didn’t choose, he just started praying out loud, going from English to German, whatever came to his head. One trooper volunteered to club him, two to strangle. We chose the strangler, who was less eager for the job. I didn’t watch the execution because I volunteered to be on security when it happened. I didn’t say so, but I would have liked to have clubbed him, the way I was clubbed in the chateau. Getting rid of a cockroach like Websky also made me feel better about a chance to escape.”

There was a lively debate within the committee about how to dispose of the dead man. Joe was angry because the ques- tion should have been answered before Websky was executed. What’s the problem? said Coleman’s staff. Just leave him in the hole. The committee objected: dammit, when Schultz misses Websky, any fresh dirt in the compound will be dug up. We can’t tamp down the earth enough to fool the krauts — they’d had a lot of experience in uncovering British tunnels.

Coleman sided with the committee, one of his most important decisions. Websky was dismembered and fed into latrines like Heinz [a German guard dog that they had earlier lured into their hut and killed]. When the latrines were routinely emptied for use by farmers, the committee had a quiet party catered by extra rations from Coleman.

“Before long we knew that Schultz [ the German in charge of security in the camp] knew what had happened, but there was no reprisal. He had lost a dog and a mole, probably caught hell from the commandant, but he still showed respect for what we were doing.”

See Behind Hitler’s Lines: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for both America and the Soviet Union in World War II

One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft III, Sagan.
One of the watch towers at Stalag Luft III, Sagan.

5 thoughts on “US POWs from 101st deal with a German mole”

  1. Sounds vaguely Stalag 17-ish. Was this the true story behind the play/film?

  2. Wow! I think if it was me, my attitude would be, I’m out of the war, this place stinks but I want to get out in one piece, so I’m not going to cooperate, but I’m not going to try anything either.

  3. Amazing story, as usual.

    My amateur sense is that it might have been better to turn the mole into a double agent. Maybe he would have then escaped, but on the other hand maybe by late October 1944 the mole would see the writing on the wall and try to get on the good side of the winners.

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