In Stalag Luft III the ever growing band of British RAF officers who had been shot down, the great majority of the bomber crew, were doing their best to keep up their morale whilst POWs. They were engaged in the very serious business of the construction of Tom, Dick and Harry, the three tunnels that would eventually lead to the ‘Great Escape’.
Whenever other opportunities arose to undermine the German war effort, no matter how small, they were sized upon as entertaining diversions. Always at the forefront, and getting his share of time in temporary detention in the cooler was Ken Rees, who recounts the following episode in his memoirs:
In late July I think it was, a German General paid us a visit, a sort of AOC inspection, I assume.
A large, sparkling black Mercedes pulled up inside the compound, and he got out of it, together with the Kommandant, von Lindeiner. As they left for their tour of the compound, von Lindeiner, seeing all too well the prisoners who had surged up around them, told them smartly to keep their distance.
But the General, brimming with self-confidence, said, ‘No, no. The driver will keep watch.’ Like his boss the General, the driver didn’t know much about POWs; he was far too polite, fielding a constant stream of questions from two German-speakers while the rest of the rabble scrambled over the car, in evident awe and admiration.
After giving the driver some cigarettes the crowd dispersed, together with the General’s gloves, torch, maps and tool-kit, and a handbook optimistically marked ‘Secret’.
Although the driver, poor sod, was probably already on his way to the Russian Front when von Lindeiner came into the compound next day and suggested to the SBO [Senior British Officer] that if the handbook were returned the other losses would be ignored and no reprisals taken, we all knew that really, the General was far too embarrassed about having been so easily taken in, and would be only too glad for every reference to be hushed up.
And there was no point in keeping the book anyway, as the German speakers had been through its every nook and cranny, finding there very little of interest or military value. Roger Bushell quickly arranged for a special stamp to be made and applied to the front pages. The General got his book back stamped: ‘Passed by the POW Board of Censors.’
Whilst officers were kept in separate camps and had the time to engage in escape attempts, ‘other ranks’ were legitimately employed as part of the labour force and often lived in very poor conditions. Many suffered from malnutrition or even starvation. Nevertheless the Germans encountered a similarly disrespectful attitude, which they found hard to comprehend. At this very same time the SS were producing a report on the attitude of British POWS. A captured copy , dated 12th August 1943 fell into British hands:
The British usually take very little notice of the Germans and look straight through them. Many Germans have remarked that their own women, and in particular some of their allies could profit by studying the attitude adopted by the British towards their enemies. Sexual relations, for instance, between British prisoners and German women are very rare.
This is probably due to the fact that the British have a strongly developed sense of national pride, which prevents them from consorting with women of an enemy nation. A striking example of British national pride and attitude towards the Axis was seen the other day. Some Italian soldiers on a passing convoy threw some cigarettes to some British prisoners, who turned their backs on the Italians and left the cigarettes lying on the ground.
SOLIDARITY OF BRITISH WITH OTHER ALLIED PRISONERS
It is reported that British prisoners of war have been showing of late marked solidarity with Russian, and in some cases French prisoners. The prisoners make signs to each other, and the British often give the Russians the Communist clenched fist salute. An official gave an account of two adjacent camps near his home which contained British and Russian prisoners respectively. At first the Russians used to file past the British camp in silence. After a time, the British used to gather together to watch the Russians go by, and bombard them with cigarettes.
BRITISH LACK OF RESPECT FOR GERMAN OFFICIALS
It is also worthy of note that, especially in agricultural work, the British frequently succeed in lodging complaints with their guards without consulting their employer. The guards themselves say that [the] British frequently complain about them, and that they have no chance to defend themselves. “It often happens”, says a report from Gras, “that guards are arrested on the strength of a British complaint.”
A guard N.C.O. wrote: “It’s no wonder the British get cheeky, as the officers listen to their complaints privately, and simply send the German soldiers out of the room. The only thing we don’t have to do is to stand to attention in front of the goddam British. When that happens, I’ll stick a bullet in my head.”
THE SUPERIOR QUALITY OF BRITISH RATIONS
German opinion is influenced to no small extent by seeing the gifts of food sent to the British. Their parcels consist largely of articles which have for a long time been in short supply in Germany. The British realise the propaganda value of these gifts and take every opportunity of bragging about them. Such remarks as “Oh, that’s nothing – England’s full of stuff like this” often has the desired effect on the Germans. The prisoners receive from home ample supplies of chocolate, sausage, tinned meat, ham, etc., and in the work interval they consume them as ostentatiously as possible. The German worker looks on and draws his own conclusion. Considerable ill feeling arose among the German workers of the stone-breaking quarries at Holzkirch when they saw the good food the British had. “We’re expected to do double shifts on bread and margarine” they said, “while the ‘Herren Englander’ are too idle for words, and think of nothing but guzzling.” Eventually an order was brought out forbidding British prisoners to bring their food to work with them.
The German authorities, too, make concessions to British prisoners; this the German workers simply cannot understand. Beer is often available in the prison camp canteens, while Germans cannot find beer even in the inns. In a camp near Dresden, a barrel of beer was emptied by the British to celebrate the conclusion of the African campaign. This made the German workers in the camp very angry; one of them wrote: “The Germans can just work till they bust, as long as the prisoners of war get all their little luxuries.”
To sum up, the British tradition of behaving as Herrenvolk is kept up by the prisoners of war. Their presence in Germany is thoroughly demoralising, since their behaviour not only typifies a nation which is racially akin to ours, strong, and absolutely sure of victory – but also has given rise to discussions about the futility of a war between two nations of the same stock.
See TNA WO 208/3242. The full report can be found at Archive Research