When many of us think of American airmen held as prisoners by the Germans during World War II, we see images from the movie “The Great Escape” or the TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Unfortunately, the truth about their imprisonment was no adventure and certainly no comedy. The real stories, as told by the men who lived through the experience, are fascinating. Their survival nothing short of miraculous.
American bomber crews and fighter pilots flew thousands of missions over German occupied Europe from 1942 to 1945. Many were shot down and most of the survivors became prisoners of war.
Just imagine – Airmen in a bomber raid flew at 20,000 feet or higher, endured sub-zero conditions in un-pressurized planes, survived terrifying fighter attacks and the helplessness of flying through flack to get to their targets. Youth, optimism and sheer determination kept them going. When their plane sustained damage, the decision to bail out came as a shock to many. Everyone knew it was possible, something they’d been briefed on before every flight, yet these brave, young men didn’t believe it would ever happen to them.
Some of them jumped into a sky filled with airplanes, bullets flying, debris from exploding planes, and artillery shells(flack) exploding around them. Others chose between a crash landing or a parachute ride. When they floated to the ground in hostile territory, they landed in fields, in trees, in water, or in the very towns they had been bombing. Sometimes angry civilians greeted them, ready to kill them on the spot if the German military did not intervene.
The crews became separated once they bailed out and many did not see fellow crew members or know what happened to them until the war was over. If a downed airman landed in an occupied country, such as France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, or even Italy, local partisans or resistance fighters sometimes hid them and helped them evade capture. But with or without help, the Germans captured most of the downed airmen.
Until a prisoner was reported to the International Red Cross, he remained vulnerable to the whims of his captors. Once in the hands of the German military, downed airmen were transported to a Stalag Duft or interrogation center. Intelligence officers attempted to glean information from prisoners by keeping them in solitary cells and questioning them for hours at a time.
In German-held territory the different branches of the military ran POW camps. So, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), the German Navy, and the Wehrmacht (German Army), operated separate camps. They generally complied with the requirements of the Geneva Convention for treatment of prisoners of war. The food was the main complaint. If it hadn’t been for the Red Cross packages shipped in through Switzerland, many prisoners would have starved.
Probably the most famous German POW camp was Stalag Luft III. At this camp near what is now Sagan, Poland, British and American airmen staged the most daring escape attempt of the war. Known as “The Great Escape,” the popular 1963 movie and many books recount the story. Today there are several websites dedicated to Stalag Luft III and the Great Escape. Some websites have posted interviews with former POW’s or personal accounts written by former POW’s. These websites are a tribute to the prisoners, those who survived and those who didn’t.
An often forgotten portion of the story of Stalag Luft III is the evacuation of the camp in January 1945 to prevent the Russians from taking it. As a blizzard approached, orders came to assemble and be ready to march. The men took what they could carry and wore whatever clothes they had. Over ten thousand prisoners and their German guards trudged in the freezing cold along snow-covered roads through the night and for days to come with no idea where they were going. Sub-zero temperatures, inadequate winter clothing and boots, and lack of food took their toll. Along the way the prisoners were allowed to rest in various shelters – churches, barns, a jail building and a tile factory. Finally reaching a marshalling yard, the Germans packed the prisoners into boxcars and transported them to overcrowded POW camps in Nuremberg and Moosburg, Germany. Many prisoners did not survive the horrific journey.
The Germans moved prisoners from Stalag Luft III and other POW camps to consolidate them in the face of Allied advances and in hopes of using them as bargaining chips in surrender negotiations. But negotiations never took place and Allied forces continued their advance. In late April, 1945, the camps were finally liberated by American troops.
Read more about the POW camps and the experiences of the prisoners on these websites: