Russian prisoners of war were beginning to [permalink id=13520 text=”die in their tens of thousands”] in the camps in the German occupied territories in the east. A proportion were transported back to Germany, some to concentration camps others to extensions of conventional POW camps, where they were treated quite separately from British POWs. Here conditions were still appalling and the death rate far higher than for other prisoners. But there was a some chance of surviving now that they were working for the Germans.
Ion Ferguson had been captured in Greece. As a doctor he had struggled with the German authorities as he sought to maintain basic facilities for British prisoners in his care. Like [permalink id=13134 text=”Doug Palmer”] he had suffered the privations of the slow cattle car journey to the camps in Germany. Now British POWs were to learn that they had been treated comparatively well:
On one of my last afternoons at Wolfsberg, I saw our first Russian prisoners. I was standing in the late afternoon near the gate, when I saw a long straggling column of perhaps one thousand men marching towards me, accompanied by noisy guards.
They looked terribly thin and dejected and their clothing was an odd mixture. Most of them had on tattered civilian clothing, but the younger men wore the uniform of the Russian Army, while others had on badly-fitting, torn and split German uniforms of the 1914 War.
These prisoners had experienced frightful hardship.
We heard from them, for there were means of making contact in spite of the vigilance of the Germans, that they had had very little food since they had been captured. They had travelled into Austria on railway wagons crowded even worse than our men had been, and had been given no food and little water for a week.
They were reduced to eating grass and weeds at the side of the line. At the stops the guards had just thrown the bodies of those who had died out on to the side of the railway. When they arrived at Wolfsberg station scores of dead bodies were still in the wagons and these were left there, when the survivors were marched off to the Stalag.
This was a war crime that many Germans had some direct knowledge of, whether serving in the Wehrmacht or as the prisoners were transported through Germany. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen was also recording these scenes sometime during September 1941:
Recently, at the little station of Garching, in Upper Bavaria, I saw the first trainload of Russian prisoners of war.
I should say: I did not see them. I smelled them. A line of sealed freight cars was standing on a spur, and the summer breeze carried over to me a foul stench of urine and human excrement. When I went closer I saw the urine and excrement seeping through the floorboards and cracks in the cars and down onto the tracks.
‘They are packed in there like cattle.’The militiaman who said this to me did not seem to agree at all with this treatment of defenceless men – he seemed, in fact, truly disturbed. ‘They are so starved in the prison camps that they tear the grass out of the ground and swallow it.’