Over over a 10 month period of operations from October 1941 to April 1942, around 40 North Luffenham/Woolfox airman went into the ‘bag’ (captured).
Apparently they were greeted by their captors with the saying “for you the war is over”. I don’t think that saying is true for the them, the war was not over at all, it was just really starting, some endured captivity to the end of the war.
It is difficult to comprehend today the feeling they must have had on capture, but it is known that for some the shock of capture and shame at their change of fortunes was overwhelming.
There were over 11000 RAF POWs held by the Nazis in World War II. Bomber Command aircrew made up 9838 of these. The prisoners called themselves ‘kriegies’ from the german word ‘kriegsgefangener’.
A book called ‘Footprints on the sands of time’ by Oliver Clutton-Brock comprehensively tells the story of the RAF Bomber Command prisoners of war in Germany in 1939 to 1945.
Impressions of POW camps will have been formed by the film ‘The Great Escape’. The realities of what happened when taken prisoner in Nazi Germany by the evil, brutal and repressive regime is quite grim reading. There of course are also uplifting tales of survival and the British character telling through.
The book documents the individual record of the way prisoners were treated and why one in twenty of those who entered captivity did not return alive at the end of the war. War crimes and occasional cases of treason are also documented. It is a book (like his other book RAF Evaders) where if you open a page at random, the content grabs you and it illuminates some deed, attitude or fact otherwise unthought about.
Other books ‘Walls and Worse’ and ‘Wire and Worse’ by Charles Rollings tell the detailed stories of early camps in the period 1940 to 1942.
As the war progressed it seems that the ideals of the Geneva Convention became less relevant in the captors minds. Certainly, later in the war, as the German cities were decimated, some airman landing alive on the ground failed to make it into captivity. They were killed by civilians or other people from the Nazi state. Overall, even in 1942 the story is of brutal treatment, lack of care, indaquate food, poor sanitation, war crimes and a few traitors.
There are also the tales of bravery, humour and great resilience of men under stress and difficult circumstances, and of course of escape attempts and the organisation of those attempts. It was the duty of an officer to escape and continue the fight even if only to achieve tying up enemy resources.
As the war progressed the training and equipping of aircrew, debriefing and support of escape became more sophisticated but also the detection of escapers by the Germans improved. The war crime of the murder of the ‘Great Escapers’ also took place.
The greatest escaper from North Luffenham was Peter Stevens, the German Jew, the story is relayed in another post on this blog. Stevens was an inveterate escaper who was awarded the military Cross for his activities in pursuing escape attempts while in captivity, including a part in the great escape. The post can be found at… http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=67
I can only find one ‘evader’ from 1942 who managed to evade capture and make it home, this the tale of Sgt Albert Wright, his story being recounted in this blog at … http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=76
The record in ‘Footprints’ shows that most prisoners were housed in at least 2 camps until liberation. Some camps were run by the Lufwaffe (generally ‘L’ or Stalag Luft) and some by the Wermacht (just numbered). Many crew members would later meet up at Stalag Luft 3 Sagan in Poland, due to the sheer size of the camp. This camp later in the war housed thousends of aircrew, and from which the great escape took place. From this escape 50 escapers were murdered by the SS and Gestapo on Hitler’s orders. In the early days the North Luffeham airmen were introduced to camps where Army, Navy and Air Force prisoners from defeats at Dunkirk, Crete and North Africa were already inmates.
Some of the North Luffenham airmen also had a difficult time on bailing out or exiting a crashed aeroplane. Sgt Laing, Sauders and McV Smart spent 20 hours in a dinghy after an attack on Brest on the 1 Feb 42, before they were captured. P/O Graham broke his back in landing and spent time in Lubeck hospital before being moved to a camp. All of the captured men lost at least one of their mates in their crash. It seems that no complete crew went into captivity in the period of Hamden and Manchester operations at North Luffenham/Woolfox in 1941 and 1942.
One airman, Flt Sgt W H Shorrocks RCAF (61 Sqn RAF) who was shot down by flak in an Avro Manchester raiding Brest on 1 Feb 42, was housed in 5 diferent camps. He was in 3 camps in Germany (8B Silberberg, 344 Lamsdorf and 13C Nurnberg) and then was held in L6 Heydekeg in Lithuania and L4 Beninia in Poland.
Shorrocks also is recorded as having exchanged identify with Private E G Joslin of the Essex Regiment at some stage. This was because escape opportunities for enlisted non aircrew prisoners were better, as they took part on working parties, which was allowed under the Geneva Convention. For Joslin the aircrew seemed to be better treated than the Army prisoners. However, it is not recorded if Shorrocks escaped, but the identity exchange is evidence of his resistance to captivity.
Many also took part in the ‘March’ at the end of the war – where POWs were marched westwards away from the Soviets – Stevens took part in that as well.
In conclusion, it is difficult for me to really understand what these POW’s went through and for some being in captivity 4 years until liberation. However, their survival through captivity humbles me and as I read the accounts, it illustrates the positive foundation qualities of our airmen in the face of sustained hardship and Nazi brutality.
Later in the war there were more POWs from 218 Squadrom flying Short Stirlings from RAF Woolfox Lodge in 1944 prior to D Day. From their operations there is record of a remarkable number of evaders as well. This is the topic of a future post on this blog.