Life in Stalag Luft 

 

2nd, Lieutenant Warren Felty

WWII War Stories

 

This article draws extensively on the The Great Escape Stalag Luft III, Sagan March 24/25th, 1944 by Rob Davis. The material has been edited to reflect Warren Felty's experience at Stalag Luft IIIA 

Life and Culture in Stalag Luft III

51,106 American airmen were missing in action or taken as prisoners of war. The POWs were held in Stag Luft camps in multiple locations through out Germany as shown in the map below (click on map for a larger version)

 

The German Luftwaffe was responsible for Air Force prisoners of war and maintained a rather high degree of professional respect for fellow flyers. Treatment by the SS or Gestapo was an entirely different matter. For the most part the Luftwaffe treated POWs well, despite an inadequate supply of food and for the most part prisoners were handled in a manner consistent with the Geneva Convention. 7a

In the last year of the war the German leadership encouraged enraged civilians, who had captured Allied airmen to wreak their vengeance on them indiscriminately. Fortunately, and to their credit, German military personnel aggressively defended shot-down airmen from such outrages. 2a.

Dulag Luft, located near Frankfurt, was the Luftwaffe Aircrew Interrogation Center to which all Allied airmen were delivered as soon as possible after their capture. There each new prisoner, while still trying to recover from the recent trauma of his shoot-down and capture, was skillfully interrogated for military information of value to the Germans. The German interrogators claimed that they regularly obtained the names of unit commanders, information on new tactics and new weapons, and order of battle from naive or careless U.S. airmen, without resort to torture. New prisoners were kept in solitary confinement while under interrogation and then moved into a collecting camp. After a week or ten days, they were sent in groups to permanent camps such as Stalag Luft III for officers or Stalag VIB for enlisted men. A nearby hospital employing captured doctors and medical corpsmen received and cared for wounded prisoners. 2a.

The POWs lived in barrack like structures and for the most part had freedom of movement within the camp.

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

The International Red Cross made frequent visits to the camp and provided regular parcels of food and supplies. If it was not for the Red Cross support food would have been a serious problem in all POW camps.  As a supplement to starvation rations, food parcels sent by relatives, despite being frequently stolen, were essential.  It should be remembered that the guards themselves were not much better off than the prisoners, in terms of food.  Receipt of one parcel per week per man was typical. 7a

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

The rule was that all parcels were pooled.  Thus, replacement clothing, shaving and washing kits, soap, coffee, tea, tinned meat, jam, sugar and essentials were distributed equally. 7a

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

 

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 6a

Various forms of recreation were regularly engaged in including cards, chess and checkers. The most popular card games in Stalag Luft III was Bridge.

At Stalag Luft III the men were able to construct a simple crystal radio and were able to monitor war news on the BBC. They had to bribe a young German guard for an essential part to the radio. Frequently they were able to see Allied bombers and fighters overhead and could hear bombs being dropped in the nearby region. 

Much attention was taken in food preparation and special occasions such as a birthday or Christmas that might require months of hoarding.  POWs usually banded together in groups of 8 men for cooking and messing purposes, and such groups usually became very close-knit.

The recommended intake for a normal healthy active man is 3,000 calories; German rations allowed between 1,500 and 1,900.  It was a case of the issued official rations providing prolonged and unpleasant starvation and only the Red Cross food parcels saved the day. 7a

Letters were censored both at the sending and receiving ends.  There was no restriction on how many letters could be received, but they were only only allowed to send three letters and four postcards per month.   Letters averaged five weeks from the USA. 7a

Clothing was always a problem for the POWs. Civilian clothing was strictly forbidden and military uniforms were assembled from whatever was available.  The men made every attempt to maintain military bearing, ensuring that their rank and flying badges were displayed regardless of what they were attached to! Any officer who had civilian item of clothing took great care to hide it and keep it safe.

It was vital to carry aircrew badges and brevets in a secret place while escaping, in order to prove that an escapee was not a spy.  The Geneva Convention dictated that a serviceman should always wear a uniform, or be subject to being shot as a spy.  The ability to produce evidence of being an escaped POW was essential.  The Germans issued each captive with an official POW identity disc which could also be used to establish a man's POW identity.

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

Used with permission 

Newcomers to the camp had to be personally vouched for by two existing POWs who knew them by sight.  As the numbers of airmen increased, this became essential as it was not unknown for the Germans to introduce infiltrators in an attempt to spy on camp operations and escape attempts.  Such infiltrators were known as "stool pigeons".  Any newcomer who could not summon two men who knew him had to endure a heavy interrogation by senior officers.  Also, he was assigned several men who had to escort him at all times, until he was deemed to be genuine.  Any stool pigeons were quickly discovered and there is no evidence to suggest that infiltrators operated successfully at Luft III.

The International Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, undertook the mission to protect and preserve the quality of life for thousands of prisoners of war on both sides. The International Red Cross provided food, clothing, and medicines, while the Y.M.C.A. provided books, athletic equipment, musical instruments, and chaplains' supplies. Both efforts contributed immensely to the well-being of POWs. Volunteers from neutral countries, such as Switzerland and Sweden, with great dedication and at considerable personal risk, served Allied camps in Germany throughout the war.

Swedish lawyer Henry Söderberg, was the representative of the International Y.M.C.A., and was responsible for the region of Germany in which Stalag Luft III was located. He visited the camp regularly and went to great efforts to procure items requested by the men. As a result, each compound had a band and orchestra, a well-equipped library, and sports equipment to meet the different British and American national tastes. Chaplains also had the necessary religious items to enable them to hold regular services. In addition, many men were able to advance their formal education. 7a

Söderberg kindly donated his rich collection of official reports, photographs, letters and other materials documenting his work on behalf of the prisoners to the U.S. Air Force Academy Library. 7a

 

THE MARCH

A huge Russian offensive was driving into Germany from the east that would inevitably overrun Sagan and Stalag Luft III. Marshal G. K. Zhukov’s First White Russian Army was advancing into Silesia and had reached the Oder River at a point only sixteen miles East of Sagan. Adolph Hitler had ordered that all American and British officers in Stalag Luft III be evacuated to the west. Plainly, the Germans did not want to permit the Russians to liberate 10,000 Allied POWs who might returned to action against them. The prisoners in the South Compound would be the first to depart. Anyone who tried to escape would be shot. 10a

As the Russians advanced from the East the prisoners of Stalag Luft III were marshaled at the gate and then driven by their German captors on a 200 mile forced march to Mooseburg and then Nuremburg. The POWs were starving, did not have adequate clothing for the severe cold and consequently many of the POWs died along the way - collapsing and freezing to death in the snow.

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

 

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 9a

 

Towards the end of the war, the prison camp at Mooseburg held over 70,000 POWs from 27 different countries.

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

 

The men were able to observe Allied bombers overhead and were able to hear the bombs falling. As Allied ground forces approached they were able to hear cannon fire.

POWs point to Allied bombers overhead.

 

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 3a

On the morning of April 29, 1945, elements of the 14th Armored Division of Patton's 3rd Army attacked the SS troops guarding Stalag VIIA. Prisoners scrambled for safety. Some hugged the ground or crawled into open concrete incinerators seeking protection from the bullets flying overhead. Finally, the American task force broke through, and the first tank entered, taking the barbed wire fence with it. The prisoners went wild. They climbed on the tanks in such numbers as to almost smother them. Pandemonium reigned. They were free! 1a

 

General George Patton

Two days later, General Patton arrived in his jeep, garbed in his usual uniform with four stars on everything including his ivory handled pistols. He was a sight to behold. The prisoners cheered and cheered. The Longest Mission was finally over! 1a

The reality of liberation was a very emotional experience for the tens of thousands of POWs throughout Germany. Many had had a dreadful experience in the last four months of the war as they were marched or transported as far as possible from advancing Allied forces. In the case of the thousands of former POWs at Mooseburg, liberation also brought frustration and disappointment. Initially all support of the camp stopped. The Germans who ran the camp had all been taken off to Allied prison camps and there was a serious delay before a U.S. Army support battalion could be pulled out of the line to provide essential support for the camp. Next, the hundreds of French prisoners packed up and were flown out. General Charles de Gaulle had obtained first priority for their return from General Dwight Eisenhower. The Americans waited and, against the orders of their captors, many quietly departed and hitched a ride to Paris. Eventually all American former POWs were moved out to nearby German airfields and transported by C-47 aircraft to the vast but now empty Combat Personnel Replacement Depots on the French Channel Coast. 1a

The officer airmen who were POWs in the German camps at Stalag Luft III arrived there through an accident of war. They varied widely in age, military rank, education and family background, but had much in common: 1a

  • They all volunteered to go to war as airmen.

  • They all managed successfully to complete flying training.

  • They all entered into combat flying in airplanes.

  • They all were survivors of a traumatic catastrophe in the air.

This unique selection process seemed to give these men common qualities. They had an: uncommon love of country, a loyalty to each other. They were very resourceful and applied great skill to improve their living conditions and to conduct escape and other clandestine activities. They indeed became a band of brothers. 1a

In retrospect, most acknowledged that their experience as prisoners of war was a defining life experience. It was not simply an unpleasant waste of time but they came out of it with, a clearer sense of values, a knowledge of their ability to endure, a strengthened love of country, improved leadership skills, and an improved ability to live in harmony with others under difficult circumstances. 1a

USAF Academy Mc Dermott Library

Used with permission 

Stalag Luft Archives 5a

 

Stalag Luft Links

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography USAF Academy - Stalag Luft III Archives

B-17 Flying Fortress Stalag Luft III

B-17 Flying Fortress Stalag Luft III - B-24.net

B-17 Flying Fortress Stalag Luft III - Camp life

 

 

General Warbird Links

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography  About B-17s

B-17 Flying Fortress Yankee Lady B-17

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography   Aerial Photography

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography   Aviation Photography

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography   War Bird Nose Art Photos

Bomber "nose art" National Museum of the United States Air Force

Classic WWII warbird aircraft photos and photography  B-17 Links

 

 

Internet References

1a. B-24.net http://www.b24.net/pow/stalag3.htm

2a. B-24.Net http://www.b24.net/pow/stalag3.htm#photos

3a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/stalag/stalag.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

4a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/stalag/Bldg1.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

5a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/liberation/liberation.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

6a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/stalag/Bldg1.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

7a. Rob Davis The Great Escape Stalag Luft III http://www.elsham.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/gt_esc/index.html

8a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/ymca/ymca.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

9a. USAF Academy McDermott Library - Stalag Luft Archives http://www.usafa.af.mil/df/dflib/SL3/march/march.cfm?catname=Dean%20of%20Faculty

10a. Stalag Luft III - An Oral History http://www.moosburg.org/info/stalag/murphyeng.html

 

 

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