Troublesome British POWs in Germany

Taking exercise in the U.S. section of Stalag Luft III, 'walking the circuit', a path beaten around the perimeter of the compound, just inside the warning rail placed ten yards inside the barbed-wire fence.

Taking exercise in the U.S. section of Stalag Luft III, ‘walking the circuit’, a path beaten around the perimeter of the compound, just inside the warning rail placed ten yards inside the barbed-wire fence.

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.’

See Ken Rees: Lie in the Dark and Listen

Kommandant of Stalag Luft III, Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau

Kommandant of Stalag Luft III, Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau

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

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Gill Chesney-Green August 14, 2013 at 8:20 am

My dad was in LS III and remembers this incident in his book ‘Of Stirlings and Stalags: an air-gunner’s tale’ by WE ‘Bill’ Goodman.

“Popeye, [a guard] was completely incorruptible and would not even accept a pipeful of tobacco to be smoked there and then. We found him to be scrupulously fair and he expected his men would be too, and would permit no cruelty or unseemly behaviour towards us. I shall never forget one occasion when we were assembled in an open square to be counted, as we were mornings and evenings. We were required to parade in ‘fives’ by huts.

Our Camp Leader, ‘Dixie’ Deans would wait in the centre of the ‘open’ side for the arrival of the German officer on duty and Popeye to walk down from the gate. Guards were loosely spaced out behind us and most of them expected we would be messing about in front of them. We might chase each other around like a lot of schoolboys, or having a friendly wrestling match and moving from one’s own assembled and lined up hut to one nearby. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ must have been their opinions of us, but it was all done with the purpose of creating that impression. Most of the time there was no real purpose in it, but if anyone had got out, we wanted to hide his absence as long as possible (sometimes the absence would only come to light when he was captured!).

On this occasion there had been a new guard who did not know what to expect, and so when he shouted at one of the ‘misbehaving’ Kregies and was ignored, he swung up his rifle and, with the wooden stock knocked him to the ground. His bayonet was fixed and he was holding it to stick into our chap when Dixie, who had seen what had happened, dashed over in time and wrenched the rifle from the guard’s hands. Popeye and the officer had also seen it, and saw Dixie knock down the guard with the rifle and hold it at the ready.

Popeye reached them and, politely asked, ‘The rifle, Mr Deans, please’. Dixie handed it over, the guard stood up, Popeye gave the bayonet back to the guard and instructed him to return it to the scabbard, emptied the bullets from the rifle and put them in his own pocket before instructing the guard to return to the Guardroom and wait for him. He was younger than most and of the Hitler Youth type. We never saw that guard again and it is said he had an immediate posting to the Eastern Front.

We found out that Popeye’s son was a prisoner in England, having been shot down during the Battle of Britain, and letters from him told his father how he was being treated over here, of the rations, accommodation etc. and he was determined that, as far as he was able, we would be as well treated. We all became quite attached to him and he to us, and when, after about a year there, we were moved to open up a newly completed camp, I was in the first party to leave, and he saw us off actually with tears in his eyes as he warned us all to be careful and not take unwarranted risks on the journey. He looked upon us as ‘his’ men.”

Just another aspect of life in LS III and one that shows that the Germans weren’t all bad or stupid and the order in the camp was maintained by both sides being fair.

Editor August 2, 2013 at 8:29 am

I go by what the original source states … “In late July I think it was” says Rees. The other report provides context and as I make clear was issued on another date.

Charles Rollings August 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Such a pity that the incident described by Rees didn’t happen until September, and that the rest of the content doesn’t apply to Stalag Luft III, but to another camp.

Old Fart July 31, 2013 at 7:33 am

It seems a pity that “POW”, which looks like something from a comic strip, is gradually replacing the good old evocative spelling “PoW”, so familiar from hundreds of black and white films …

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