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Prisoners of War

I: Early Air Force Prisoners

page 1

I: Early Air Force Prisoners

NEW ZEALAND entered the war against Nazi Germany on the same day as the United Kingdom, and some of the New Zealanders at that time serving with the Armed Forces in Britain1 were in action almost immediately. One of the first military tasks of the war was air reconnaissance of the German Fleet and its bases on the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic, followed by aerial attack where practicable to prevent the exit of raiders and so help to reduce the dangers to our shipping. On 5 September 1939 a New Zealand officer was piloting an Anson on such a mission near Dogger Bank. He was unlucky enough to have his plane shot down into the North Sea, and recovered consciousness in time to find the attacking German seaplane preparing to land on the water close by. The only survivor, he was picked up and flown to a Luftwaffe hospital on the island of Norderney, where he ‘… was very well treated…. and found the German officers and men good scouts, but all the same [he] was pretty dashed lonely and the fact that [he had] lost [his] crew of three did not help matters ….’ He had good reason for feeling lonely, for he was at the time the only Royal Air Force officer in enemy hands.

In this first month of our participation in the war the German organisation for dealing with prisoners was still in its infancy. For the handful of British prisoners there were as yet no separate camps. Accordingly, after ten days the captured airman was removed to a dark cell in a German detention barracks at Wesermunde, where he was taken each day to the local hospital. It appears that in this early stage guards were a little uncertain how to treat prisoners of war, especially officers; and in the absence of detailed instructions or knowledge of the international law regulating such treatment, some tended to treat them as civilian

1 These comprised New Zealand officers in the Royal Navy recruited over a number of years; some New Zealanders serving with the British Army; Air Force officers to the number of about 80 recruited with both short- and long-term commissions, including those of the flight organised to take the first Wellington bombers out to New Zealand.

page 2 criminals. After a hungry and generally unpleasant three weeks at Wesermunde, the New Zealander was taken some sixty miles east to Itzehoe. Here, in a camp for Polish officers, he and some other captured Royal Air Force personnel lived under reasonably good conditions. The camp was ‘quite comfortable’ and there was ample space for exercise. But it was rapidly filling up with Polish prisoners, and after a week or so this comparatively pleasant interlude was cut short.

The number of British prisoners steadily grew, and in mid-October all British officers were moved to the high country north of Kassel. There they were housed in a twelfth-century castle perched on a rocky hill, which overlooked the village of Elbersdorf on one side and Spangenburg on the other. Built of grey stone, with a clock-tower and small turret, and surrounded by a deep moat with a drawbridge, this first British ‘camp’ could have been a castle from one of Grimm's fairy tales. Originally a hunting lodge, it had housed prisoners in the Thirty Years' War, but prior to 1939 had been used as a hostel for agricultural students, the interior having been renovated so that it conformed in some degree to modern standards.

By December 1939 this ‘camp’, known as Oflag IXA,1 contained some thirteen officers and the same number of non-commissioned officers and other ranks. Although, in their opinion, their treatment left a lot to be desired, it is clear that relations with the German commandant were quite amicable. Rations appear to have been rather inadequate, though officers could sometimes purchase extra food through the canteen. Requests for other canteen supplies, ranging from suitcases to wine for ‘celebrations’, seem also to have been met. Other ranks without pay found the food insufficient, and the arrival therefore in November of gift parcels of food and other immediate necessities from the War Organisation of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John was very welcome. Time was killed by playing cards, reading such books in English as could be got hold of, and walking when permitted in a fenced-off exercise area. The airmen found the confinement in the castle irksome, as many hundreds more were to find it as the war progressed. By the end of the year it had been decided that Air Force prisoners were to be in the charge of the Luftwaffe, which would be entirely responsible for their custody and interrogation. The Luftwaffe would build special camps for the purpose, but

1 German prisoner-of-war camps were numbered according to the military area in which they were located, e.g., Oflag IXA Spangenburg was in Webrkreis IX. Oflag was an abbreviation for Offizier-lager, or officers' camp. The letters ‘A’, ‘B’, etc., served to indicate different officers' camps in the same area.

page 3 would meanwhile take over certain accommodation from the Wehrmacht.1

In the first month of the war the German Army authorities had set up a temporary Off-Dulag,2 or officers' transit camp, on the site of a former poultry farm at Oberursel, a suburb four miles out of Frankfurt-on-Main. Here the farm buildings were used as administrative quarters and a two-storied house known as the ‘Stone-house’, formerly for farm pupils, was set aside for the prisoners. The first officers to be held here, some Frenchmen, were moved away to permanent quarters in December, and the Luftwaffe took over the camp site. It was renamed ‘Dulag Luft’, a name by which it became notorious among Allied airmen over the next five years as the main German Air Force interrogation centre and transit camp. The first arrivals were a small advance party of British and French on 15 December from the old castle at Spangenburg. The latter was to be cleared of Air Force prisoners as soon as practicable, but this was delayed by the influx at Oberursel resulting from the German successes in Norway and France. The new camp compared favourably, in some respects, with Spangenburg. An RAF officer wrote:

The setting is not so romantic but the place is modern, warm and clean. The bathing arrangements are V.G.—hot water at any time—and I can get my morning shower which I have missed so much to date. The food is much better.

The Luftwaffe seemed out to show that airmen (even enemy airmen) were worthy of higher standards of treatment than those normal to the Wehrmacht. But concealed microphones had been installed in the living quarters, and the comfort may have had the additional object of encouraging prisoners to relax and talk. As the ‘Stone-house’ was difficult to guard, it had the additional drawback for prisoners that their cubicle windows were fitted with iron bars and that they were locked in from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., with only an hour's exercise twice a day outside the building.

In April 1940 the prisoners, whose numbers had grown to 35, were transferred to three newly erected wooden huts across the road. This came as a pleasant relief from the strictly guarded ‘Stone-house’, which was now reserved for housing prisoners during their interrogation period and for storing records. Each of the two new sleeping huts contained small rooms for two heated by stoves, its own washroom and showers with plenty of hot water, a boiler room, lavatories, and even a sitting room after the guards originally housed in each barrack had been moved elsewhere. The third barrack comprised a large dining room with a stage, two

1 German Army.

2 Abbreviation of German Offizierdurchgangslager.

page 4 other small officers' messrooms, kitchen, canteen, parcels store, clothing store, and a room for those of the advance party who had become part of the permanent staff of the camp. It contained in fact most of the amenities necessary for the treatment of prisoners according to the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929. But the Germans found it impossible to mass produce amenities like these when, later in the war, they had to find permanent accommodation for tens of thousands of prisoners from France, from Greece and Crete, from the air offensive on Germany, and from Italy.

It soon became obvious that a large percentage of all Air Force personnel taken prisoner would require medical attention. As additional evidence of their adherence to humane and civilised standards of treatment towards Allied airmen, the Luftwaffe requisitioned part of the nearby Hohemark hospital, 65 beds of which were from then on reserved for wounded prisoners. At the same time a number of private rooms were set aside, ‘ … where high-ranking Allied prisoners of war could be interrogated in circumstances which the Germans considered appropriate to their rank.’1 The comfortable quartering of high-ranking officers in the Hohemark hospital, the convivial parties arranged for them, and the trips into the countryside on which they were taken, were apparently designed to create an impression of friendliness and hospitality in the minds of newly-arrived prisoners, which would help to lull their suspicions and break down their reserve. Medical requirements seem to have been subordinated to those serving an obvious opportunity for interrogation and propaganda. Only the lightly wounded were catered for, the more serious cases being treated in regular military hospitals and not sent to Hohemark until in the convalescent stage. The Hohemark hospital rapidly became a hotbed of activity for the spies and ‘stool-pigeons’2 which the German camp staff began to use as part of their interrogation scheme.

In this early stage of the war little thought had yet been given by the German High Command to the systematic appreciation of statements made by captured airmen, nor in fact to the whole business of prisoner-of-war interrogation. To quote a German report:3

1 From an Air Ministry report on German interrogation methods.

2 ‘Stool-pigeon’ (in prisoner-of-war slang ‘stooge’). Here used to mean a German masquerading as an Allied airman (or other serviceman) or an Allied traitor placed among Allied prisoners of war by the Germans for gaining information of use to German Intelligence.

3 Prisoner interrogation and documents evaluation and their intelligence value to the Higher Command, by the Director of Auswertestelle West, 1945 (Translation).

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Prisoner-of-war interrogation was organised on a very small scale, without a clear line which was to be followed or definite aims, not to mention a theory or method. The information which was assembled frequently only served to satisfy the desire for sensational news and the detective story romanticism on the part of those on the distribution list.

This was borne out by what is known of the first commanding officer of Dulag Luft, ‘whose qualifications for the job consisted of an ability to speak some French.’ The same report also blames the ‘amateurish manner’ in which ‘unsuitable persons’ attempted to carry out a preliminary interrogation near the place of capture, with results detrimental to later questioning. It was found necessary for the German High Command to issue an order in October 1939 forbidding such interrogation of Air Force prisoners and the ‘souveniring’ of equipment and prisoners' personal effects which often accompanied it. The report goes on to refer to the impossibility of segregating Allied airmen or preventing them from conversing while on their way to the interrogation centre, and so improvising a story or boosting each other's morale. The first installation of microphones in the barracks of Dulag Luft also apparently bore little fruit, as ‘the voices of 50 prisoners produced nothing but a hopeless din in the headphones’. But, whatever may have been thought of the shortcomings of the interrogation centre in its early stages, a system was soon established by which all Air Force prisoners were transported to Oberursel after capture and put through an interrogation routine before being released to a permanent camp. The staff thus gradually became specialists in interrogation on Air Force matters, and as time went on a formidable organisation was built up under the control of the Intelligence Section of the Luftwaffe operations staff.

Letters from prisoners indicate that the Germans in control of Spangenburg and Oberursel were, in the earliest stages, not only ‘correct’ in their treatment but also perhaps even kindly. An officer wrote, when he was leaving Spangenburg, ‘The General came up to say goodbye to us, which was a very nice gesture. I have told you before we liked him very much ….’ On his arrival at Oberursel, the same officer wrote, ‘The C.O. and 2nd in Command both appear very nice and speak English.’ At this period of the war, confident in their country's military strength already demonstrated in Poland, German prison-camp officers could perhaps afford to be ‘nice’. The British blockade had not yet taken effect, nor had extreme Nazi influence made itself felt among prison-camp staffs. Enemies tend to be more gentlemanly at the beginning of a struggle than after it has become a matter of life or death. On the prisoners' side there is evidence in these first weeks of something akin to a schoolboy holiday spirit, as yet page 6 unaware of the dreary years ahead and revelling a little in relief from responsibility and former routine. With the approach of Christmas these high spirits were tempered with nostalgic thoughts of home and anxiety about mail, mingled with vague hopes of a possible exchange of prisoners and the first ideas about escape.