German treatment of Soviet POWs

Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were taken prisoner during 1941.

Although there is argument over the extent to which regular Wehrmacht units were [permalink id=13136 text=”aware of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen”], few were ignorant of the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war coming into German custody. The German High Command had anticipated that they would take huge numbers of prisoners but they had made virtually no plans as to how to deal with them. Their main strategic aim was to fight huge battles of encirclement in which whole armies would fall into their hands. For the Red Army soldiers captured during 1941 this usually amounted to a death sentence.

Thousands of prisoners were crammed into enclosures with the most basic facilities, sometimes it was standing room only.

The Germans disregarded all the usual conventions for the treatment of Prisoners of War when it came to the ‘Russians’ – although this term encompasses many different nationalities that were then part of the Soviet system. There were many instances of [permalink id=13324 text=”prisoners being routinely shot”] not just Soviet Commissars and Jews. There were few proper POW camps established during 1941 – most were simply barbed wire enclosures with no shelter. Most often the men were marched long distances with little food or water to reach the ‘camps’, those that fell by the wayside were shot. When they arrived starvation, disease and exposure to the elements were allowed to take their course.

Many camps were no more than barbed wire enclosures in the open.
It would have been a fatal mistake to admit to being a Jew in the Soviet army if taken prisoner. The yellow star was almost certainly only provided for the benefit of this propaganda photograph.

During the course of the war 57.5% of the Soviet POWs in German hands died – nearly 3 million soldiers. Most of them died during 1941 – only later would they be recognised as a useful source of labour and allowed to survive in order to work, on a starvation diet, for the Germans. During this period it was far more lethal to be a Russian POW than to be in any German concentration camp. It is estimated that during the last months of 1941 more Soviet POWs died every day than American and British POWs died in German hands during the course of the entire war.

Some German soldiers recorded what they saw, Benno Zieser was one of them:

We suddenly saw a broad, earth-brown crocodile slowly shuffling down the road towards us. From it came a subdued hum, like that from a beehive.

Prisoners of war. Russians, six deep. We couldn’t see the end of the column. As they drew near the terrible stench which met us made us quite sick; it was like the biting stench of the lion house and the filthy odour of the monkey house at the same time.

But these were not animals, they were men. We made haste out of the way of the foul cloud which surrounded them, then what we saw transfixed us where we stood, and we forgot our nausea.

Were these really human beings, these grey-brown figures, these shadows lirching towards us, stumbling and staggering, moving shapes at their last gasp, creatures which only some last flicker of the will to live enabled to obey the order to march ?

All the misery in the world seemed to be concentrated here. There was also that gruesome barrage of shouts and wails, groans, lamentations and curses which combined with the cutting orders of the guards into a hideous accompaniment.

We saw a lone man shuffle aside from the ranks, then a rifle butt crash between his shoulder-blades and drive him gasping back into place.

Another with a head wound lost in bloodstained bandages ran a few paces out with gestures almost ludicrous in their persuasiveness to beg one of the nearby local inhabitants for a scrap of bread. Then a leather thong fetched him a savage lash round his shoulders and yanked him, too, back into place.

See Benno Zieser: Road To Stalingrad. For the one of the most recent studies surveying the research into this area see Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

A proportion of Russian POWs were sent to concentration camps - such as Sandbostel - where hard labour and appalling conditions killed many.

Reprisals against Russian POWs

Soviet commissars in the Russian army were invariably shot soon after capture - but all Russian prisoners of war faced a terrible existence.

Huge numbers of prisoners were being taken by the Germans in the encirclement battles where whole armies were captured. The Wehrmacht was totally unprepared to handle them all and a very high proportion of those captured in the early battles would die by the end of the year – from starvation, sickness, maltreatment, exhaustion from the long marches, and exposure to the elements.

For some the end was a much swifter – perhaps, with hindsight, mercifully swift. Erich Stahl was fighting with Waffen SS at this time and his brutally honest memoir gives plenty of examples of what was going on at this time:

At noon next day an order was received by Division to the effect that all prisoners captured during the last three days were to be shot as a reprisal for the inhuman atrocities which the Red Army had committed in our sector.

It so happened that we had taken very many prisoners during those fatal days, and so the lives of 4,000 men fell forfeit. They scarcely looked up when our interpreter told them in a cold voice of their fate.

They lined up eight at a time at the side ofa large anti-tank ditch. As the first volley crashed, eight men were hurled forward into the depths of the ditch, as if hit by a giant fist. Already the next row was lining up.

It was strange and incomprehensible to us how these men used their last minutes in this world, a world which had treated them so unmercifully. One took off his greatcoat and folded it neatly before laying it sadly on the ground; then he rose for his last walk. Textiles were rare in the workers’ paradise, and he may been instilled in them for so long.

Others greedily smoked a last cigarette, which they had clumsily rolled from a filthy scrap ofnewspaper. Nobody wrote a last message home; there were no tears.

See Erich Stahl: Eyewitness To Hell

First experiences of a German POW camp

Moosberg would later become a transit camp for United States POWs captured in Europe.

Doug Palmer had been with a Heavy Anti Aircraft battery when was left behind, along with nearly 5,000 other British and New Zealand troops, on [permalink id=11945 text=”Crete and forced to surrender”]. He endured the slow, filthy journey by rail from Greece to Germany with little more than potato soup – “it went through you like a dose of salts” – to sustain him. There was some respite when they reached Germany in mid August:

Our eventual destination was Mooseburg, Stalag 7A, near Munich where already there were hundreds of P.O.W.s, Frenchmen, Yugoslavs and Serbians. It was a large camp and about a hundred men were put into a hut.

We were safely in the net, with high wire all round, lookout towers at each corner and guard dogs patrolling the perimeter. We settled down fairly comfortably in our huts with two tier beds and mattresses filled with straw, quite a luxury after the nightmare journey from Greece.

We were not left in peace for long and soon heard the now familiar shout of eraus: eraus: schnell: schnell: which mean get out and fast. We were given our gefangenen number and photographed; then we were deloused and all our hair removed. We knew what it felt and looked like to be convicts, but wondered what we had done to deserve the treatment, and how long it would have to last.

At a certain time at night we had to be in the barracks, but usually some were in the lavatory and this was dangerous when the dogs were loose. It was a race to get to the barracks without being bitten. Only felons and us knew what it was like to be chased by a snarling dog.

A Frenchman and myself were pushed one night and had to run, but I was lucky and got to the door first. The Frenchman was not so lucky and had his thigh tom open. We used a slop pail in the night but this was overflowing by the morning. In the day time the dogs were led on a long leash and woe betide anyone who got in the way.

American prisoners arriving in Mooseburg as late as 1944 were to recall similar experiences with the dogs.

Palmer and his fellow prisoners only began to recover in September 1941 when the first Red Cross parcels from Britain arrived and they received some vitamin tablets. He spent the next four years working for the Germans – only officers did not have to work. It was hard labour, in very bad conditions, in coal mines and a cement factory.

See Kenneth Rankin, Editor Lest We Forget : Fifty Years On

Waiting to surrender on Crete

British prisoners of war on Crete, pictured after the surrender, later in June, 1941

R H Thomson was a New Zealand soldier amongst the 5000 troops who were forced to surrender at Sphakia after the evacuation was halted.

The British Navy, and some of the British Army, left the island of Crete – but I didn’t. Nor did several thousand other dejected lads. Sunday, June the first, was a black day indeed for many assorted British huddled in valleys back from the beach at Sphakia, a small village on the south coast.

They were faced with the alternative of swimming two hundred and fifty miles to Egypt, or of just waiting. So they just waited – quietly, reflectively, unhappily. No one even spoke. Everybody was too dispirited.

We all knew we should not have been in this plight. Although we didn’t have nearly enough gear to match the German’s airborne equipment, we did have the human qualities needed to outlast any enemy soldiers, crack Austrian alpine troops though they be. We hadn’t come ten thousand miles just to be discarded as obsolete; German High Command-for the use of-or misuse of. They just couldn’t do this to us. But they had.

I have never felt so terribly as I did at that moment. In fact, I don’t think that I had ever really felt at all till then. Any troubles I had had in the past were mere ripples compared with this tidal wave. I was disgusted; I was deeply disappointed; I felt frustrated and shamed – above all, ashamed.

See R H Thomson: Captive Kiwi

Italian prisoners bombed by Germans

A Heinkel III bomber in flight, they began operating over North Afrika in early 1941.

The Luftwaffe was now making its presence increasingly felt in the Mediterranean. The new threat to shipping had become readily apparent with the bombing of HMS Illustrious and the the increasing attacks on Malta but they rapidly started making an impact on operations off the coast of Libya and Egypt. There attacks were not always of benefit to the Italians:

On the 31st January two German aircraft bombed and damaged the S.S. Sollum in the neighbourhood of Sidi Barrani. The ship, which was carrying Italian prisoners, drifted ashore and casualties among the prisoners were heavy. H.M. Minesweeper Huntley was bombed and sunk near Marsa Matruh on the same day by two Heinkel 111; one officer and 12 men were killed. The hospital ship Dorsetshire was bombed and damaged on the 1st February off the coast of Egypt.

From the Naval Situation report for the week see TNA CAB 66/14/48.

The New Zealand Official History describes how many of the Italians were rescued by New Zealand troops on the shore:

There was a strong wind with high seas, but men from the ship swam ashore with lines to the foot of the coastal escarpment. They were assisted through the breakers by Sergeant Cookson, who organised the rescue work after hawsers had been attached to some heavy trucks. Relays of men spent hours in the bitterly cold surf dragging the Italians to safety; others assisted them into slings and those on the escarpment hauled them to the crest. The wounded had to be brought ashore on Carley floats, so the last stages of their journey were extremely hazardous, but groups of volunteers brought them through the breakers and had everyone ashore by first light.

Australians herd their Italian prisoners

A few guards escort the masses of Italian prisoners of war from Bardia into captivity, 8th January 1941.

Pictures of the masses of Italian prisoners taken at Bardia were flashed around the world. Mussolini’s military pretensions were revealed to be little more than a posture. His troops were also retreating in Albania, reeling from their failed invasion of Greece. [permalink id=8844 text=”German military predictions “]that the Greeks would prevail had proved correct. Hitler had now to consider his support for his principal ally. Strategically he was uninterested in North Africa but he could not allow Mussolini’s regime to fail and that meant giving him military support.

Meanwhile the reputation of Australian troops was in the ascendant. They had been in Egypt for over a year and had been eager for action. Wavell may even have believed that they would have caused more trouble in the base areas had they not been brought into the campaign. They had been brought into the battle late, even while they were under equipped, but their success now resounded around the world.

Operation Compass was far from over and troops were needed to maintain the momentum on Tobruk. Outnumbered by their enemy during the battle, the few troops left to guard the prisoners were now massively outnumbered. Their reputation was such that they encountered few difficulties:

Australians, cigarettes in the corner of their mouths and steel helmets down over their lined eyes, squatted here and there among the prisoners, or occasionally got to their feet with a bayoneted rifle and shouted, ‘Get back there, you,’ when some Italian started to stroll away.

These men from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep stations of the Riverina presented such a picture of downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning — always grinning — that the mere sight of them must have disheartened the enemy troops.

For some days the Rome radio had been broadcasting that the ‘Australian barbarians’ had been turned loose by the British in the desert. It was a convenient way in which to explain away failures to the people at home.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

Bardia Captured

The cold light of day - a few of the 40,000 Italians that surrendered to the 6th Australian Division at Bardia

The first major engagement of Australian forces in the war had been an unqualified success. The lessons of the First World War had not been forgotten, the close integration of artillery with the infantry assault and then the rapid exploitation of the breaches in defence line. Some 16,000 troops had overcome a defending force nearly three times their size. The Australians lost 130 men killed against over 1000 Italians. Huge numbers of prisoners once again had to be dealt with but the enormous amount of material captured, including over 700 lorries, proved especially valuable.

Corporal Hoffman watched the prisoners being escorted away:

Fascist flamboyance was exhibited by a captured major in a column of prisoners. When it had reached a safe spot he rushed to the head of the column and baring his chest to them, cried (in Italian): ‘Shoot me … and save my honour’. This brave Roman exhortation must be read with the obvious knowledge that whatever the prisoners had, they certainly had nothing with which to shoot anybody. The ‘suicidal’ major repeated his gesture of honour several times until an Australian sentry approached with a bayonet levelled at the seat of his pants and said: ‘Get back, you mug, before I shoot you’. The terrorized Fascist major skipped back into line at the double.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942