Life as a German POW at Stalag Luft III

One of our Directors recently came across an intriguing collection of 1000 names in the National Archives, a complete nominal roll of all men from Stalag Luft III in Silesia, Poland (the famous camp of the Great Escape). The thing that makes the list unusual is that it is actually the roll call at Marlag/Milag, a Navy internment/POW camp in the Baltic! The Stalag prisoners were marched there as the Russians drew closer to Germany in 1944/45 and later moved on elsewhere. What is especially interesting is that these records is that, unlike the camp’s own rolls call (which can be seen in our collection), they list the place of capture, plus the number of the hut the prisoner was billeted to at Marlag. Keep an eye on our site if you have a POW relative who was at Stalag Luft III, as we’ll be transcribing those 1,000 records very soon! Meanwhile, here’s a bit more about what life at Stalag Luft III was like.

In a way it’s surprising that so many men were willing to risk death to escape Stalag Luft III, since, according to the accounts of camp life in Adian Gilbert’s ‘POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939-1945’, it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad (certainly not a patch on life in a Japanese POW camp). The main problems were overcrowding by the end of 1944, the hunger typically found in any camp, the fact that nuisance inmates (such as the Great Escapers) could be dealt with extremely harshly, losing their rights under the Geneva Convention, and that the depression of captivity could become too much to bear. Whatever else it had going for it, Stalag Luft III was not pretty. Large and purpose-built, composed entirely of low wooden, brick or concrete barracks and barbed wire, it lay on the flat, muted and featureless North European plain. What view there might have been was blocked by pine forests, making the setting very oppressive.

Certainly, the guards expected the prisoners to try to escape, and prepared accordingly. The fences were high, with a double-perimeter and razor wire in between the two barriers, and wooden guard towers equipped with machine guns and powerful spotlights were found at regular intervals. The huts themselves were raised off the ground with bricks, allowing guards to spot attempts to tunnel under them before they really got going. Dogs regularly patrolled the grounds, on occasion microphones were concealed in barracks when the guards became suspicious of covert activity, and seismographs were planted around the camp’s perimeter. It’s amazing that the prisoners managed to get out – but then, since the camp was mainly inhabited by RAF Officers, they were an extremely fit, resourceful and canny bunch. That they remained so is partly down to diligence, partly down to the fact that there were some good leaders among the prisoners who encouraged their men to remain active and busy, and partly, it must be said, due to good treatment by the Germans. It was perhaps this vigour, rather than the conditions, that led to the pilots’ burning urge to escape.

Despite the uninspiring surroundings and heavy security, the captives at Stalag Luft III had much to be grateful for. Their Commandant, Colonel Friedrich von Lindeiner, who remained in charge from the camp’s opening in April 1942 until after the Great Escape was mounted in March 1944, was fair, careful to maintain channels of communication between himself and the ‘head’ prisoners (Wing Commander H.M.A. ‘Wings’ Day of the RAF and Colonel Delmar T. Spivey of the US Air Force) – he spoke fluent English – and earned the trust and respect of the prisoners for his kindly treatment. Even better, the bulk of the guards followed his example, so there was none of the casual brutality found in some other camps.

The prisoners found quite a bit for themselves to do. Gardening was allowed, and although the soil was extremely poor and the resulting vegetables weren’t really plentiful enough to add to the diets of the population as a whole, some individuals, including Colonel Spivey, gained a great deal of satisfaction from tending their crops. Seeds came sometimes from the guards, who sold them on, and sometimes from the Red Cross. In the summer of 1943, amazingly, golfing was all the rage. The discovery of a single wooden club prompted the founding of a ‘Sagan Golf Club’, and before the winter storms set in, 10 more clubs had been found and several more fashioned besides, using home-fashioned shafts and heads cast from melted stove pipes and water jugs. Apparently the most satisfying on 9 holes played was a blind shot over the kitchen, though Adrian Gilbert quotes one airman as saying “the ‘abort’ (latrine) hole played from the back tee used to thrill us in the playing of it, as well as the unfortunates who came out of the door just as someone drove.” They also had gramophones, although a shortage meant that each block of prisoners only got one record session a month, and a dance club flourished. Some men also signed up for a variety of study courses on offer.

Finally, there were at least some opportunities – legitimate or otherwise – to gain news from home. As David Rolf’s ‘Prisoners of the Reich: Germany’s Captives 1939-1945’ explains, the post for all POW camps was sorted centrally at Stalag Luft III. Although letters were heavily censored, one assumes that there was less chance of letters to this camp going astray than those to any other. The entrance and exit of 200 postal workers even provided the workers with a rather tantalising glimpse of those most elusive of creatures in wartime – women! The rest of the news was received via highly illegal radio receivers, smuggled in unconsciously by Red Cross workers in aid parcels. Coded messages were delivered as part of the news bulletins, and these were read to each compound when no guards were around.

All in all, it would be surprising that anyone would want to escape such a camp. However, it must be remembered that energetic young men truly wanted to do their bit in the war. Looking back, it seems like the POW camps were relatively safe places to be… but then, that’s with the hindsight of knowing that the Allies won the war. To the prisoners, this happy outcome was less certain, and they chafed against the bit when ‘put out to pasture’ and prevented from being of use to their country. There could never be enough amusements available to over-ride this restlessness. The breaking up of the camps could also prove to be fatal, as the Germans were driven further and further back, and took the prisoners with them. Many a prisoner likely died on the ‘Long March’ to Marlag, and for those leaving a model camp like Stalag Luft III, conditions could only get worse. The camp was evacuated in January 1945 as the Red Army approached. At 11:00 PM on 27 January 1945, Germans marched the POWs out of Stalag. A SHAEF report dated 10/2/45 confirmed this move and the dispersal of the POWs amongst ‘various camps’.

Want to find out more about your German or Italian POW relative’s war? Find out how now in our free tutorial:

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