Axis POWs

The Historical Eye

The art of survival

 

Götterdämmarung, twilight of the gods, and the operational name for Hitler’s parting legacy to the German people. Nothing was to be left for the victorious Allies; where there had been cities they would find rubble, where there had been cultivated fields they would find wilderness. That the Führer and his henchmen came close to achieving this goal can be seen in the Herculean difficulties faced by Eisenhower and Allied command on the surrender of Germany. Agricultural production had virtually ground to a halt, while millions lived precariously on the edge of starvation.

 

In the western zones of Germany the population was swelling daily as an estimated 12 million to 14.5 million persons fled Russian-occupied territory. The survivors of German concentration camps and sites of slave labour were also in desperate need of aid, as were thousands of newly-released Allied prisoners of war (POWs). Distribution of the limited stockpiles of available aid was severely constrained by the smashed state of Central Europe’s rail and transport infrastructure. In Germany, only 1,000 km of 13,000 km of railway remained in serviceable condition. With limited rations available and restricted rail capacity to deliver them, the Western Allies were forced to make some tough choices, particularly concerning German and Axis POWs.

 

Overwhelming numbers

Under the Geneva Conventions, enemy POWs would have been entitled to a 2000-calorie per day diet, a level of supply that was impossible to sustain given the circumstances. To side-step this rule, it was decided to label the waves of incoming prisoners as ‘Defeated Enemy Forces’ or, in the British case, ‘Surrendered Enemy Personnel’. This action was taken from a purely pragmatic and legalistic point of view and not, as some commentators have suggested, from a concerted and systemic desire to collectively punish all enemy prisoners.

 

Well aware of the North American agricultural surpluses and how they could be used to alleviate the food crisis, Eisenhower had asked his superiors in Washington for assistance, but was turned down. He was reminded that the bulk of Allied shipping was now earmarked for the Pacific theatre; only when the war in the Far East had been won would it revert to supplying the European continent with aid. In short, Eisenhower and his staff would have to feed the hungry millions of Europe as best they could with limited resources already to hand.

 

At the start of April 1945, the USA was responsible for 313,000 prisoners in the European theatre. By the month’s end this had shot up to 2.1 million. After the fall of the Third Reich, the USA was responsible for a staggering 5 million surrendered German and other Axis prisoners. It is estimated that about 56,000 of them died in US hands, a mortality rate of just over 1% an equal rate experienced by American POWs in German hands. Given the vast numbers involved, the initial holding camps were often hasty creations. Cases of starvation instrumental in the death of prisoners did occur, although the overall scale was small. Pre-existing wounds, disease, poor weather and the lack of tents were other key factors in raising the mortality rate. However, it should be stressed that the Western Allies ironed out most of the severe problems in a relatively short space of time.

 

Repatriation was slow, but slower still for those in British and French hands, primarily because the POW had become a vital component within the workforce of these countries, particularly in agriculture and reconstruction. In addition, the Allies had established a denazification programme, a gargantuan but necessary task that sought to screen the prisoners’ histories and to ascertain where their sympathies now lay. That said, hundreds of thousands of old men and young teenagers were sent home within a very short period due, quite simply, to their unimportance.

 

Most survived

Although illuminating, the approach of analysing facts and figures affords little idea of what life was like at ground level for those being held behind the wire. Examining the records and recollections of witness affords us a greater insight into the issues at hand. One man who experienced detention at the hands of the British was Rudi Janssen. A young country lad, Rudi volunteered for service a year early aged just 17 in the first months of 1943 and was later assigned to the SS Police Division of the Waffen SS. His unit was sent to Greece, where he trained up as a signalman. As the fortunes of the Third Reich waned, Rudi was sent to join a Panzerjäger Abteilung unit being formed in Prussia, eastern Germany. Rudi contracted jaundice and missed his unit’s baptism of fire in Hungary, where many lost their lives.

 

By early 1945, Rudi’s unit was stationed just south of Stettin (now Szczecin), about to face the Red Army’s final offensives into Germany. One branch of their attack swung north and severed German units in the east, including Rudi’s, off from the rest of the Reich. Amazingly, their morale was still high. ‘Most people at the time sincerely believed that a big offensive would be made and reverse the situation,’ Rudi recalled. It was not long before Rudi found himself fighting alongside the infantry; except he carried a radio on his back and was responsible for maintaining contact with command. His unit was often used to retake villages that the regular army, the Wehrmacht, had been pushed out of. ‘We’d be used to retake lost Wehrmacht positions: we were like yo-yos!’ Rudi said, adding that ‘we were losing a lot of people; it was usually pretty hot whenever we were sent in’.

 

By now, the Russians were making constant raids into what were considered ‘secure’ German positions. ‘They would come into the villages in which we were stationed. On one occasion – I wasn’t there, but it happened to a friend of mine – a Russian popped his head over a hedge and shouted “You’re being pulled back again!” They knew perfectly well that they had us on the run ... The Russians were superior to us in terms of materiel. For example, they sometimes shot at individuals with anti-aircraft guns. They could afford to use up the ammunition.’

 

Pushed back to positions near the Bay of Danzig (now Gdansk), waiting for higher command to evacuate them, Rudi's unit clung on under a heavy barrage that lasted several days. It was at this point that the scales finally fell from their eyes. ‘We had started to take a beating and now there was a real feeling of defeat; there was a resignation that this was the end. Indeed, I wondered what the hell we were doing there.’ Those lucky enough to be evacuated were taken to positions on a nearby peninsula, although still within range of the Red Army’s guns. Here Rudi was wounded. But his luck held and he was evacuated to the port of Rostock by fast boat. After several days in the city’s hospital, a doctor made the rounds one night and told the walking wounded that they should leave: the Russians would be arriving shortly.

 

Rudi and five others went to a nearby station and clambered onto a slow-moving goods train heading westwards. This suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere after several hours, the drivers then detaching the locomotive from the carriages and continuing off on their own. Rudi and the others travelled on foot until they arrived at Travermünde, near Lubeck, on May 3. Believing the Allies were still bogged down on the Western Front, they were shocked when a passer-by told them that British forces were only 4 km away. By now, Rudi’s wound was giving him greater difficulty and so he visited the town’s hospital, only to be told to remain in the waiting room. Instead, he decided to head down to the river Trave, where he flung his machine pistol and paybook into its waters: ‘We didn’t know what our reception [with the British] would be, particularly as we were SS.’ Returning to the hospital and sitting in the waiting room he soon heard the approach of military vehicles. The British had arrived.

 

After being searched for weapons, the German troops in the hospital were told to wait for further instructions. The British then promptly left and it was only until evening that an officer fluent in German arrived with orders. He instructed the prisoners to stay the night in the cattle trucks of a stationary goods train. They were moved into a hotel on the next day. Including Rudi, the SS men were separated from the rest of the prisoners several days later and sent to a newly-liberated concentration camp near Hamburg. They were then moved to a large bordered-off zone in the Schleswig-Holstein region, near Denmark, after about ten days. There was no accommodation. ‘We slept in farm buildings and in hay,’ Rudi recalled, adding ‘some had made temporary holes in the ground with roofs made of sticks and brush and covered with sods of turf. We were left to our own devices. As far as food was concerned we had to grab what we could. A lot of stealing was going on – we grabbed potatoes from the fields, while ears of corn were stripped off from around the cornfields. Most survived.’

 

Eventually winding up in the village of Lensahn, the presence of British troops was a rarity and, when seen, usually drew a crowd of curious POWs. One day, a batch of British soldiers arrived and announced they were looking for volunteers from among the Germans. Rudi put his name forward and discovered his new job was to work as a clerk processing the repatriation of others. Tellingly, those prioritised for return worked in agriculture or other areas of food production.

 

In early 1946, his job as a clerk came to an end and Rudi was taken to Belgium, where he was detained in a vast transit camp that held roughly 36,000 men. From February to April he did his best to get by, although he admitted the situation there was ‘rough’ and starvation rampant. ‘Every single man there was undernourished. We would get three biscuits a day and, very occasionally, a piece of bread. We were given what was supposed to be soup that was little more than greasy water. We lacked salt too.’ Famished and demoralised, there was one night when Rudi faced the threat of a complete nervous breakdown: ‘I thought I was going to go crazy. There were 16 of us in a tent and if one turned, we all had to turn. I was bathed in perspiration. All I could think of was Field Marshal Montgomery saying that all SS men should receive 25 years. This thought of 25 years imprisonment was going round and round my head. I thought I was going to start screaming. And, if I did start screaming, I wondered if I’d ever be able to make myself stop. In the end I must have collapsed and I woke up the next morning as right as rain.’

 

On April 6, Rudi joined a detachment sent to England. The men were given hearty rations at a transit camp after the voyage over. ‘[It was] almost like a holiday camp to us. We could eat as much as we liked, which was fantastic because we were undernourished by this stage – just skin and bone.’ One of Rudi’s fondest memories was of the porridge served up: ‘It was like cream and even contained fruit. I felt like we were getting more food than we could have possibly eaten. Really, hunger can drive you mad. When people say “I’m starving” they really don’t know what hunger is. When there is nothing and you get nothing, well you can’t describe these things in words really.’

 

Performing various jobs, including repair work for the British Army, Rudi found the conditions not only acceptable, but as time passed, almost comfortable. In 1948, his last year of captivity, Rudi took up a British offer to extend his time in the UK as a farm labourer in return for regular pay and the opportunity to wear civilian clothes. Posted to picturesque rural Surrey and now conversational in English, Rudi felt himself integrating with the local community. When he returned to Germany in Christmas 1948 he took up another offer for former POWs to go back to Britain and continue working as agricultural labourers. Returning to Surrey in 1949, Rudi met an Irish girl at a dance and later married her. Being a POW, despite some tough times, had led to the happiest of conclusions.

 

Houses of the dead

Officially, the Soviet Union took 2,388,000 Germans and 1,097,000 combatants from other European nations as prisoners during and just after the war. Of the German captives, over 1 million died. The harsh treatment of the POWs may fill Western readers with a sense of unease, but it should be stressed how bitter the war had been for the USSR. The immense pain and suffering Germany and her Axis partners had inflicted was seared onto the collective and individual psyche of Soviet citizens and this played a key role in the treatment of surrendered enemy forces. The British military historian Max Arthur writes: ‘In 1945, in Soviet eyes it was time to pay. For most Russian soldiers, any instinct for pity or mercy had died somewhere on a hundred battlefields between Moscow and Warsaw.’

 

Initially, Stalin’s regime was woefully ill equipped to deal with prisoners: in 1943, with the tide turned and more enemy units falling into Soviet hands, the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) recorded death rates of around 60% among POWs. Roughly 570,000 German and Axis prisoners, it noted, had already died in captivity. In March 1944, for economic rather than humanitarian reasons, there was a drive to try and improve conditions. As the manpower of the USSR became swallowed up by war, it became increasingly important to use the prisoners as a surrogate workforce.

 

Technically, the prisoners were not part of the Gulag system, but the lines were often so blurred that even the Soviet authorities found it difficult to delineate the boundaries. Camps and detainment centres for POWs were created, although these were often poorly-constructed huts that allowed the bitter Russian winter winds all too easy access. Sometimes the buildings were more solid structures. Taken prisoner in the dying days of the war, Hans Schuetz in his memoirs Tell ‘em recalled how his first detention centre was a particularly grubby brick building that crawled with bed bugs, their bites leaving many prisoners seriously weakened.

 

But POWs known to have specialist knowledge could find themselves sent to workshops and even laboratories, as described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book The First Circle. Here food and conditions were decidedly ‘upmarket’. The Soviet Union sent back batches of prisoners at irregular intervals and sometimes the numbers returned could be large; for example, at least 225,000 POWs were released as early as June 1945. But by 1953 there were still at least 20,000 German prisoners clinging on in Russia. These men were finally repatriated after Stalin’s death.

 

Prisoner of fate

Amid all this there were some German and Axis prisoners that were fairly treated by the Russians. The conditions they experienced were tough, but no worse than many of the prison regimes to be found elsewhere in the world at that time. A young teenager in 1939, Milan Lorman witnessed the dismemberment of his native Czechoslovakia by Hitler and the creation of an independent Slovakia, a satellite state of the Third Reich. Milan’s father, a poor countryside teacher, took the opportunity to trace the family’s Germanic roots and claim the generous benefits offered to those of German origin.

 

But it was not long before the Third Reich came looking for repayment; a letter arrived soon after his 18th birthday in 1943 asking Milan’s father why his son had not volunteered for the SS. The letter alluded to the cessation of the family’s entitlements should Milan fail to join. Under immense pressure, the teenager was forced accept the fate inadvertently set in motion by his father, despite thinking himself Slovakian through and through, he volunteered for the SS. He became a pioneer following basic training. His field engineer unit, with a fair smattering of Slovaks in its ranks, was sent to Greece to work on coastal fortifications that were never used. Soon afterwards they were sent to the Eastern Front as the Red Army advanced towards the Reich.

 

By early 1945, Milan was forwarded to become an NCO and joined roughly 1,000 men on an intensive training programme. Towards the end of the course, news arrived that the Russians had broken through the defence lines at nearby Poznan (now Posen). The trainee NCOs were quickly formed into a unit and rushed to the frontlines. The casualty rate was extreme: according to Milan only 60 men out of 1,000 were available by April 18. They were holding positions alongside a canal between the Rivers Oder and Neisse and, by 3 pm, only 17 men were left. They were gathered up by a surviving Feldwebel who ordered them to make for headquarters – wherever that may be.

 

Milan ran off into a nearby forest and came out stumbling towards a group of around ten men standing in a shallow depression. The Slovak was glad to see them, thinking they were a detachment from a Hungarian unit that had been stationed on Milan’s left. He was wrong. They were Red Army soldiers. They were manning a machine gun and beckoned Milan forward. On reaching them, the Russians were amazed to discover that they had bagged a Slovak. They had also captured another soldier, a young Russian who had joined a volunteer unit under German auspices. These men were considered the worst sort of traitors by the USSR and could expect to be sent to the most brutal Gulags or – as a swifter form of death – a bullet to the back of the head on the way to a holding area. Milan was asked if he had any cigarettes. The Slovak promptly handed over his stash and was pleased to note that handed some back. ‘I began to hope that I would survive after all. Surely they wouldn’t bother handing cigarettes back to a man if they were going to kill him?’

 

The impromptu smoking break was suddenly interrupted by incoming fire from the nearby woods. A Russian NCO now ordered Milan to stand up and call out for those shooting to surrender. Amazed he could understand the Sergeant so well, the Slovak now realised the danger he faced. He had two options: stand up and get shot, or refuse to carry out the order and get shot – but at close range. He jumped up, called out and was given a prompt burst of automatic gunfire by way of reply. Amazingly, only one bullet hit him, passing through his thigh. The NCO obviously felt a pang of guilt for Milan’s wounding and, after his unit disengaged from the area, had the Slovak patched up and sent to an aid station. Milan slept in a goat sty with other POWs that night.

 

The next day, standing outside, Milan witnessed a Red Army soldier playing with a golden duckling in the spring sunshine. When called to report to a nearby house, the man suddenly dashed the bird to the floor and crushed it dead under his boot heel. For Milan it was an eye-opening and terrifying moment. ‘I cannot describe my feelings at the time. Words really and truly fail me. A little later, when the initial shock wore off, I told myself to be very wary of these people. From that day on I was determined to humour them and to avoid the fate suffered by the beautiful duckling.’

 

Milan was sent to a hospital in Schwiebus (now Swiebodzin). Housed in a disused factory, it gave him a chance to recuperate. Milan and other German and Axis POWs were used as orderlies to help take the wounded to the operating theatre, to clean up, and to bury those who had died. Every day saw at least one or two unfortunates laid to rest. His own wound was fast healing and Milan recognised that staying in the hospital, an oasis of calm compared with the outside world, was vital for his chances of survival. He improved his language skills and became a translator, while also making the effort to become a familiar and friendly face with the staff. ‘I didn’t miss a single opportunity to strike up a conversation with one or another of the Russians,’ he recalled.

 

Unaware of the danger they faced, others were less willing to work with the Russians. One evening a German officer and his men bluntly refused to clean the hospital yard, stating it went against the Geneva Conventions to work after the last meal of the day. Milan and around 20 others broke ranks and started to clean up regardless, while those who had protested, including the officer, were promptly taken away – the Gulag probably being their final port of call. In October 1945, a Russian major working at the hospital informed the Slovak that his group was to be returned home. He casually asked whether he should allow the SS men among them to also return. Milan recalled saying: ‘Why not? They also have homes to go to.’ The major was well aware that Milan had been in the SS and, to an extent, had been toying with him. However, he agreed with Milan’s reasoning and, on October 13, 1945, the Slovak was given his discharge certificate

 

Milan headed west with a companion who had also been released. His goal was to reach his family’s last address, a house in an Austrian village in the province of Steiermark that he had briefly visited during a short spell of leave in late 1944. On October 18, the two men arrived in the ravaged city of Berlin and headed into the French sector. His travelling companion was from Alsace-Lorraine and a French national. They would need documentation to continue their journey and so both went to a French military police station to file for the necessary paperwork. They were handcuffed and detained instead. On discovering the pair had been in the SS, the French threw Milan into solitary confinement in Tegel prison. The man from Alsace-Lorraine was taken elsewhere.

 

Stuck in a cell measuring 2 x 3.5 metres, Milan now had to contend with loneliness and lack of exercise. The months ground by without conversation, while the food was poor in quality and small in quantity. ‘The food we were given was not quite enough for survival, only for gradual dying … But, to be fair, few people outside the prison gates were eating very much better. By the end of the first nine months of this existence my weight was down to 47kg – I was 181cm tall – and my morale was lower than the proverbial snake’s belly.’ Some work was provided, although it often proved mind-bendingly dull. On one occasion Milan recalled a half-hearted attempt to make some straw footwear. After nine months the authorities allowed him to communicate with other prisoners and to work in the cookhouse. Altogether, it took the French 16 months to realise Milan was harmless and of no importance. Milan was released on 19 February 1947, aged 23.

 

Free, but informed he was considered stateless by the Czechoslovakian authorities, Milan continued with his attempt to track down his family. After a spell being processed in American hands in the former concentration camp of Dachau – giving Milan the experience of being a POW in the hands of three nations within three years – he finally arrived at the family home in Austria. They were long gone, having returned to Slovakia once the war had ended. It was to be many years before Milan could visit them and to be properly reunited. Until then, Milan went to work in England and then headed off to Australia, a land of opportunity. However, he never forgot his Slovak roots and was even able to forgive his father for the mistakes that set his fate in motion.

Reflections

 

In no uncertain terms, survival as a POW in Western Allied hands was tough in the months just before and just after the Third Reich’s surrender. That some men died in captivity because of hunger and disease is sad, but primarily the knock-on effect of Hitler and his henchmen’s decision to lay their nation to waste. With limited food stocks to hand, the Western Allies had to direct supplies to where they were needed most: to the old, the children, the infirm and the survivors of Germany’s slaughter houses. Fitter POWs were placed lower on the list of priorities until the situation improved, which, in a relatively short space of time, it did. For some POWs captivity even brought benefits. In Britain, for example, many took the opportunity to work in a civilian capacity and earn good money on their release. Some, like Rudi, even found love.

 

By contrast, the Soviet system afforded none of these opportunities and the roles assigned to the POW often straddled the fine line between life and death. But in considering the trials and sufferings of German and Axis POWs, it is important never to lose sight of the misery and suffering of those who fell into the German captivity; those that escaped the Nazi maw only did so because they survived against the odds to be liberated and nursed back to health. And it is important not to forget the millions of Soviet citizens or peoples from Soviet-occupied countries who were also fed into Stalin’s Gulags. They too had to fulfil the same backbreaking ‘norms’ and kow-tow to the same brutal guards. And while Axis and German prisoners had the hope of going home, even when this seemed a slim prospect, most the marked peoples of the Soviet Union had nowhere to go.

 

Nonetheless, ex-German and Axis POWs willing to speak of their war and immediate post-war experiences deserve our attention. The two case studies in this article, and a plethora of other sources, warn us of the folly, danger and grotesque lure of extremism. It can force a family into surrendering a son to feed a war machine; it can tempt teenagers – often isolated or with troubles at home – into volunteering for hell on earth. Dovetailed into this, the accounts also illustrate the danger simple youthful ignorance can have; both Milan and Rudi joined the dreaded Waffen SS, fighting for fascism but ignorant of what that truly meant and the price they would have to pay because of their choices. But just as importantly, their accounts prove the rewards that can be reaped through re-education, honest work and, in the end, by extending the hand of forgiveness.

 

Recommended reading

Bischof G and Ambroise S, Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts against falsehood, Louisiana State University Press, 1990

 

Schuetz, Hans, Tell 'em: Memoir of a German Prisoner of World War II in the Soviet Union, Authorhouse, 2004

 

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