German POW’s captured in campaigns in Western Europe, were held in Allied POW camps. These came under the inspection of the Red Cross and all the evidence suggests that German POW’s held in Western Europe were well treated – accommodation was adequate as was food. The Red Cross took care of communicating with families. German POW’s captured on the Eastern Front had a far worse experience.
Russia had failed to co-operate with the Red Cross. Russia had failed to provide a list of captured German soldiers – despite promises – and the Germans reciprocated. German POW’s could expect nothing but the harshest of treatment from the Russians.
The war in Russia had brutalised those who fought there – on both sides. The common standards of decency even in war all but disappeared. Those German POW’s who were captured were tarred with the known atrocities that had been carried out by the SS. German POW’s were seen as the people who had destroyed vast areas in western Russian and killed millions. Therefore, those who had been captured were used to rebuild what they had damaged. If they died doing so, then they died. The Nazi government had warned all German soldiers about the dangers of being captured alive – “a fate worse than death” – and many did not see this as an exaggeration.
The Germans had 91,000 men captured alive after the Battle of Stalingrad. Few of these men returned to Germany after the war ended. Made to carry out hard labour often in extreme weather conditions, many died as a result of lack of food and disease. Their accommodation was basic at best.
Very many more Germans soldiers became POW’s when the war ended in May 1945. They were expected to rebuild Russia. Gerhard Ohst was sent to Velikiye Luki. Here was Russia’s largest railway repair shop – but a ruin in 1945. 1000 German POW’s were sent to Velikiye Luki to rebuild it. What many expected to take 20 years was completed in just 3 years – but many died doing so, primarily from malnutrition and the diseases associated with it. The Soviet authorities had one requirement – that work that needed to be done was done. How many died doing this work was unimportant. Such an attitude fitted in with the attitude that had prevailed in Russia on both sides since the time of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in June 1941.
The Russians divided the prisoners into three classes. Those who exceeded the work required of them – they were given extra rations; those who completed the work required of them got the basic ration of food; those who failed to complete the work required of them, got less than the basic ration. The rations for those who exceeded their work requirement were minimal – and the more hungry someone became, the less productive he was work-wise. A ‘normal’ day’s ration was a bowl of gruel and just over 1lb of bread.
Twice weekly, German POW’s received lessons in Communism, but there is no evidence that this met with any success. The NKVD was also active in the POW camps hunting out those who had committed war crimes.
German POW’s frequently had to work alongside Russians who had been assigned to various rebuilding tasks.
Germans held as POW’s in British camps had access to Red Cross visits. There was a chance of escape but few attempted to do so especially when it became clear that Nazi Germany was not going to win the war. Many of the British POW camps were in remote areas of Britain. The escape routes that existed in occupied Western Europe and were manned by resistance fighters did not exist in Britain. Without these manned routes with their safe houses, any Germans who did escape were very much by themselves. Crossing into the Irish Republic was a possibility but this still required crossing water. Crossing the English Cannel was a serious problem for anyone wanting to get back to mainland Europe without being seen.
The most common cause of complaint to the Red Cross seems to have been about the cold in the huts they were housed in – i.e. the British weather. Another common complaint was about the quality of food served up. The latter complaint was presumably a common one from a British point of view in a German POW camp.
Once in captivity, a German POW was stripped of any Nazi regalia that they might have on them ranging from ceremonial daggers, badges and arm bands etc.
The number of German POW’s vastly increased as the Allies broke out of their Normandy landing bases in 1944. As the Third Reich started to collapse in 1945, the numbers meant more and more POW camps were needed on mainland Europe. The Germans under the supervision of French troops were sent to work on farms or in mines. There was little reason for any German POW to escape and many simply got on with their lot. After the surrender of Nazi Germany, the priority was to get back to Germany itself men qualified in a trade that Germany needed to rebuild itself. As early as the summer of 1945, POW’s who were builders, farmers, drivers etc were sent back to Germany. However, those suspected of war crimes or being members of a political group were held back for further questioning.
|“Our diet was inadequate during the
first few months of captivity, and the prisoners lost up to a quarter of their
body weight. There was sufficient water available and the hygiene arrangements
were satisfactory. The conduct of the British camp supervisors and sentries was
correct at all times.”
However, medical treatment was an issue.
camp hospital was built, but there was a shortage of every kind of medicine.
Dental treatment was practically out of the question because of a lack of the
necessary instruments and equipment.”
In Western Europe, the British and Americans did not have any intention of keeping German POW’s for longer than was necessary. They realised that many of the men they had captured had been conscripted into the war effort by the Nazis and that the vast majority had committed no war crimes. It was also generally believed that they would serve a better purpose rebuilding damaged Germany as opposed to simply languishing in a POW camp.
However, captured SS officers were kept away from regular army POW’s. At a POW camp at Bellaria, they were kept in a special guarded unit. Barbed wire kept both sets of prisoners apart. Whereas the army POW’s were allowed one hour’s exercise outside of the camp, the captured SS men were only allowed to exercise inside the camp and they were escorted by guards at all times.
In the autumn of 1946, senior army officers were transported to a POW camp at Munster. Here they could be visited by relatives who were allowed to bring with them food parcels.
Those suspected of being too politicised by Nazi doctrine, had to face a review board on a regular basis as the Allies were not prepared to release anyone who was suspected of having a Nazi past. A senior Allied officer was the head of any review board and he worked alongside two assessors. Anyone suspected of being politicised was not given a defence councillor but he did have access to an interpreter. The review boards had four categories. If a POW was placed in Categories 1 or 2, he would not be released. Categories 3 or 4 meant that a POW could expect a quick release from a POW camp as he was no longer a POW. However, many were simply moved from a POW camp to a former concentration camp at Neuengamme and held as a civilian detainee until the authorities were convinced that there were no issues concerning these individuals.
German POW’s continued to be held by the Allies for a number of years after the war had ended. The last POW’s held in Egypt returned to Germany in December 1948.