Russian POWs marched through Poland

This afternoon another” group of Soviet POWs was moved through town. Because today is Sunday, many watched. Bread, apples, and other goods were placed on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. Even though the soldiers from the convoy started shooting at them while they fought for food, the prisoners did not pay any attention to the Germans.

Soviet prisoners of war after their arrival in Mauthausen concentration camp in October 1941.

The plight of the [permalink id=13520 text=”Russian prisoners of war”] captured by the Germans was particularly bad during 1941, when hundreds of thousands died from starvation and ill treatment. The way they were treated became widely known in Poland and Germany as a minority of them were marched back for use as forced labour. Dr Zygmunt Klukowski watched them pass through eastern Poland:

October 5

This afternoon another group of Soviet POWs was moved through town. Because today is Sunday, many watched. Bread, apples, and other goods were placed on the sidewalks on both sides of the street.

Even though the soldiers from the convoy started shooting at them while they fought for food, the prisoners did not pay any attention to the Germans.

The Germans stopped the convoy and forced people to remove the food before they moved out. Finally they agreed that the food could be put on a wagon and later be divided among the prisoners.

The entire Polish population, not only the Jews, were very sympathetic to the Russian prisoners.

I can still see, even though I close my eyes, those poor Russian soldiers, looking more like the skeletons of animals than humans.

See Klukowski: Diary from the Years of Occupation

Russian POWs arrive in camps in Austria

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.

Russian prisoners of war at Wolfsburg. These were the lucky ones - having been transported back to the Reich to work for the Germans.

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.

See Ion Ferguson: Doctor At War

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.’

See Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen: Diary of a Man in Despair

German treatment of Soviet POWs

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 ?

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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