STALAG LUFT III
Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
Quentin Richard Petersen
I recall little of the mechanical aspects of our purge's arrival at Stalag Luft II. That is, transfer out of the boxcar into the stalag and so forth. I arrived in this prison camp on August 31, 1944. One of the first things that happened to me in this camp was to be put against a stone wall to be photographed. Below you see a scared but defiant 20-year-old boy.
This photo was on my Personalkarte, which was used to keep records on prisoners of war (kriegsgefangenen) or, "kriegies" as we called ourselves. I will describe how I got this remarkable card in a later memoir. In the original photo one can make out pieces of straw from the boxcar trip, stuck on my sweater.
Just as "kriegie" was as both a noun and an adjective when talking about prisoners, the word, "Goon" (from the Popeye cartoon character "Alice the Goon) was used as both a noun and an adjective when talking about Germans! For example, "Goon in the block!" when a guard entered a barrack, or "goon bread" to describe the German black bread ration.
Luft III was divided into five "compounds." East, the first, followed by Center, North, South and West, as the population of kriegies grew.
Two barbed-wire fences, parallel and five feet apart enclosed each compound; the space between crammed with barbed-wire coils. Ten yards inside this barrier was the warning wire, 30 inches high. Step across it and the goons located in the 40 ' high guard towers found at 50-yard intervals (goon boxes) would shoot!
The South Compound was full when our purge arrived, so we were housed in double bunks, lined up in large tents near the fences separating the North and South Compounds.
It was probably about this time that my mother received a telegram, letting her know that I was a prisoner of war, similar to the one below. I once had the original but, where did it go?
I quickly learned the required routines. Twice each day we lined up to be counted (Appel) and if the number in a given "block" was correct the procedure took only about a half-hour. I have a very clear memory of the Sargent calling out, "hundret ein und zwanzig" (121) twice each day. If, however, the count were wrong, the block was subjected to a "picture appel" and the photo on each Personalkarte was compared with the actual kriegie. This could take an entire day, and if it got dark, was continued indoors.
I soon learned the value of the 0.6 mile perimeter track, which ran around the entire compound, inside the warning wire. Walking it provided exercise but mostly it provided solitude. 18 men living in a 16' x 28' room did not provide much of that! At first, I walked alone, but over time found some individuals with whom I was comfortable walking in silence or, on occasion, conversing. One such person was Col. Charles. Jones who will enter this story again in the next memoir, THE MARCH.
A few weeks after my arrival in the South Compound I started getting sick; nothing specific, just feeling awful. We had a "First Aid Room" run by a couple of kriegies who had been pre-med students before the war and I went to them a couple of times. The second time I was sick enough to be given an excuse from appel, two-thirds of which I still possess!
The final time I went there, I lay on the very table you see in the following picture. As if in a nightmare, I heard them discussing whether or not I had died! "Can you get a pulse?" "No, he's awfully cold!" "Do you think he's dead?" I could hear all of this, but I could not speak or move. They finally pulled a blanket over my face and carried me down the road and out to the German "vorlager," where a German physician decided that reports of my death were exaggerated; I was in a deep malarial chill!
September 9 and discharged (I would guess 30 pounds lighter) on September 18, a notably long stay in the Luft III hospital! I was successfully treated with the German drug Atabrin. I knew I had been discharged in a very fragile condition and that from this point forward I would have to take very good care of #1 to survive what was sure to be a tough year.
When I was returned to the camp, I found the tents gone and all of their residents assigned to rooms in one of the blocks. Rooms that were intended to hold eight men in four double bunks now had 18 assigned. Four double bunks were exchanged for six triple bunks and the newcomers were on the top!
Each bunk had nine bed-boards to support a paper paillasse filled with wood shavings. The number of bed-boards were frequently checked by the Goons as they recognized that they could be used to shore-up escape tunnels (see Paul Brickhills's The Great Escape.". When we were evacuated in January, I had only five remaining!
Two other bed-board memories are with me. This wood was fairly grainy and could be split off in thin sheets or, alternatively, as large splinters. From the former I made a bas-relief of Alice the Goon by cutting (with a small penknife I had obtained by trading in some fashion) and scraping with a piece of broken glass.
Somehow, this bas relief returned home with me and a life-sized direct scan of it follows.
Then, the 10 -12" splinters were meticulously-smoothed into knitting needles, again by following the grain, and using broken glass for finishing. One of my 17 roommates, Silas Nettles from Montgomery, Alabama taught me how to knit perle and even turn a heel. I unraveled the Red Cross Sweater I was wearing in my ID photo to obtain yarn I then used to make a much more valuable pair of heavy socks as Winter came on.
For a hat, most of us had only a knit helmet-liner, which, though wool, let the air through. So, with the remaining sweater wool I knitted two double-thick 3'' x 3" ear pads, which I sewed into the helmet liner. Why I do not know, but I still have both of these pads today and pull them out when I'm feeling sorry for myself! Remember, life was very boring, but after learning to knit, and making something useful, one could then occupy time teaching a new kriegie to knit his sweater into something he needed!
Showing this draft to Peggy, my wife, she went to the "gloves and hats" storage-drawer in our front hallway and pulled out the original helmet-liner, with a large "P" sewed in blue yarn on its top! Actually, pretty moving; I'd forgotten that I had it. That was the source of the ear-pads!
Windows had to be shuttered after dark and at 10:00 pm the barracks doors were barricaded with a wooden bar and the Police dogs were permitted to run free in the compound. We generally played cribbage, cards (poker, , hearts, pinochle or solitaire) after dinner. Lights went out at midnight.
Life as a prisoner was monotonous, cold and hungry. You can properly assume that much of our attention was given to preparing and eating the food that the Goons provided, supplemented by Red Cross parcels, each one intended to supplement the diet of one kriegie for one week. The parcels were of British, American or Canadian origin. Only the American parcels used part of the space for cigarettes instead of food! By the time I arrived we were on "half parcels." The Goons gave us rations of heavy black bread, kohlrabi or rutabagas (rarely potatoes), and barley or pea soup. All goon food came from a central cookhouse, prepared by enlisted Army Air Corps POW's.
Food was issued and prepared communally. Hot water was usually available at the cookhouse too. It would be issued in "keins." The cook might say to the stooge (helper), "Junior (my nickname as I was the youngest in the room), please go get me a kein of hot water." This vessel, kind of a truncated cone with a soldered bottom, holding about a gallon, held a riveted metal tag: Kein Trinkwasser, which means Not for Drinking Water! But the name stuck and was used for all our water needs.
Kriegies were issued one ceramic bowl, one ceramic cup, a knife, a fork and a spoon. I wish I had kept that spoon, its bowl worn almost in half from daily scraping on the ceramic bowl. Each room had a kein. There were no other cooking or serving utensils In each American Red Cross parcel was a 16-oz tin of powdered milk called KLIM. Once emptied these Klim-tins became raw material for the construction of all of our pots and pans. We had some skilled smiths, and wanted for little in this department.
What goes in must come out and normally, "bodily functions" were taken care of in the "abort" building, kind of like a 20-holer outhouse. For some reason I still have clear memories of a an unusually uncomfortable Major, whom I didn't know, who could never face the fact that he had to shit, like everyone else, without extreme embarrassment. There was one indoor toilet in each block for use during the night lockup. It had two stools and one urinal. I don't believe it could be used in the daytime, but I'm not sure.
This topic flashes me back to my glacial-slow boxcar passing through a marshaling yard somewhere in central Europe; a middle-aged woman is trying to have a bowel movement in an open area between the tracks. Tears, again. War is, indeed, hell, and not just for soldiers. Still on the hygiene kick, we were offered a hot shower about once a month. At Stalag Luft III I had two, as I recollect.
Food was an almost constant topic of conversation in the room and on the track. I've mentioned that food was issued from the cookhouse and prepared communally. Cooks were named for a weekly stint so that meal planning could be done. We did not "take-turns" at this assignment. Those serving in this role had already shown outstanding imagination in menu selection, logistics, and presentation of dishes in our family-style, sit-down dinners each evening.
Just as I learned that I was not alone in hearing grand symphonies in the beat of unsynchronized engines, I discovered that I was not the only kriegie to experience wet-dreams about food!
Each cook had one or two "stooges " who followed his orders through the entire day, from fetching a Kein of hot water before morning appel so that the early-risers could have their coffee before they went outside, dicing kohlrabi, slicing bread etc, through to washing all of the dishes and utensils.
Each room's cook had 20 minutes on a stove in the block's kitchen - after that, the food had to be kept warm on the room's heating stove, assuming that the room had not used up its briquettes for the day!
The Germans provided no meat, though there was an occasional issue of cheese or blood sausage.
However, the three kinds of Red Cross parcels contained a variety of meats: Spam, liverwurst, corned-beef, salmon, bacon and, even from the meat starved Brits, a can of "meat roll" or "meat and vegetable." With careful planning and hoarding an experienced cook could prepare remarkably good meals!
Some of my roommates had been in the bag for years. They had managed to build a structure of civility and care that, on reflection, really amazes me. I'll use Christmas, 1944 as a good example. Keep in mind that fewer than ten weeks earlier both their living space and Red Cross Parcel food allocation had been halved, in good measure because we, the new kriegies, had arrived. Nevertheless we, every last one of the 18 roommates were going to have a Christmas party! Cooks and stooges worked for a week on the upcoming "bash" (special meal) even as day-to-day work was continued.
At everyone's seat was a placard written with a hard pencil. I still have mine, but it is now too faded to scan adequately so I will duplicate its two sides as well as I can. At every person's place was a gift and another poem. Clearly, I remain very moved by this ceremony, which had to be both imaginative and sacrificial under these conditions. I must have given something to someone, but I'm damned if I can remember what or to whom. The record suggests that these gifts were not personalized.
Perhaps a committee assigned them to the most needy!
Wyllis Ulrich, of Rocky River, Ohio, seven years my senior, regularly shouted at me, "Stop sniffling, Junior!" Quite independent of any ceremony or expectation, he gave me a handkerchief for Christmas!
Christmas over, our attention focused on the state of the war and how our fate would be affected by it.
The Goons posted war news on bulletin boards outside the cookhouse. Some of it was remarkably frank, news being couched in phrases easily translated into, we're in deep trouble, but we will overcome with secret weapons, strategic relocations (retreats) etc.
We did not have to rely on this information as there were clandestine radios in the camp and we learned to expect a visit from a reporter summarizing the BBC news each evening. It was a memorized report and the reporter was preceded by X people to be sure that no ferrets would be aware of the news report. More than once in my few months in the camp, a warning, that a Goon was in the block, ended the BBC report.
The compound had a library, as sought after for its warmth as its books. I checked out, "An Outline of Organic Chemistry" often and did get a good start on my chosen profession there!
The compound possessed a kriegie-built theatre, described in other's memoirs, but I cannot recall ever attending a function there. Indeed, there are a number of things I must have done, but of which I have absolutely no recollection! Having my hair cut, shaving, cutting fingernails and toenails, washing clothes etc.
It was clear by the end of December that the Soviets were likely to overrun Stalag Luft III soon. The question was, what would the Goons do about it? This concern occupied discussion more than food! None of the options were attractive. Even being liberated by the Soviets was scary -- what to expect?
Although it sounds melodramatic now, the possibility of mass execution by the Goons was an alternative taken seriously by the average kriegie, each of whom had some plan in mind for how he would respond to such a challenge.
The most likely possibility was that we would be evacuated to the west before we could be liberated. And, plans for that possibility concerned us more and more as the physical evidence of the Soviet's presence became increasingly evident with the sound of artillery, heard louder each day, at appel. As appel was dismissed, individuals would shout, "Come on Uncle Joe!"
At this time the Goons handed out a pamphlet offering us a chance to join with the Germans in fighting the "Bolshevik, Barbaric Asiatic East." No takers!
Snow had covered the ground for some weeks now and it was generally recognized that the sub-zero weather alone would threaten survival should evacuation be forced. As it was, almost everyone now slept in his clothes with the one blanket we had been issued and our overcoat covering us
Each kriegie had his own plan. Some joined into groups to build sleds to carry food, clothing, or other things deemed valuable but most men tried to figure how they could carry these things on their person.
I cut up a towel and sewed the pieces on my blanket to make pockets. The pockets were tailored to hold specific items of food or value. I recall one for a stenographer's notebook and pencil, though I rarely wrote anything besides names and addresses in it.
It also held a list of popular records I wanted to buy when I got out of the bag! Nothing remotely resembling a diary!
Anyway, each morning when I arose I packed the pockets as I would if I were leaving on foot. The blanket was then folded and rolled into a package, secured at each end with a piece of rope (obtained by trade) long enough to pass over my shoulder. A classical "blanket roll."
It was apparent that we were going to be marched east soon. Friends checked one another's clothing and packs.
The opening words of the book, "The Last 100 Days" by John Toland are,
"On the morning of January 27, 1945, there was an air of restrained excitement among the 10,000 Allied occupants of Stalag Luft III at Sagan , only 100 air miles southeast of Berlin. In spite of the biting cold and the steady fall of snow in large flakes, prisoners huddled outside their barracks discussing the latest report: The Russians were less than twenty miles to the east and still advancing."
Runners came by at about 10:00 p. m. to tell us that we should be ready to leave the block within a half-hour. The excitement was electric.
The "chicken with his head off" behavior was obvious wherever one looked!
People tried to eat the food they could not carry, but it was not easy to do. My last recollection of that block was pissing in the block's urinal and seeing an unopened can of Spam lying inside it.
Below one sees a document that, remarkably, I still possess. It is the South Compound was the first to be evacuated, goons with dogs entered one door of the block and kriegies were flushed out the other. There was about six inches of snow on the ground as we left. Blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures did not seem promising for thiscohort, most of who started with substantial physical limitations.
Upon reaching the main gate we were each offered an unopened Red Cross parcel to take along!! An extra 11-pound box to carry? No way! Those with sleds did load up. Hunger, however, was not to be the defining stress of this event.
The March had begun!