FOOD -- if it wasn't on the top of a prisoner's mind, it soon would be.
In Stalag XVII B, food was always inadequate in quantity and very poor in quality. Potatoes were usually rotten, foul-tasting and already a pinkish color from the mold. Cabbage was typically rotten and full of maggots and worms. The bread that the Germans gave the POWs was moldy, hard and very dry; many prisoners claimed that the bread was sawdust mixed with spoiled flour. Sometimes the Germans would provide the prisoners with "Blutwurst", a sausage made of congealed animal blood that had to be eaten cold -- it would melt into a nasty dark-red blob when heated. Whenever the Red Cross inspectors visited the site, the Germans always provided the prisoners with more and better quality food. As soon as the inspectors left, however, the food always returned to the usual low standard.
Almost immediately, the American prisoners formed their own cooking crews to prepare and serve all their own meals. It was the cooking crews' job to make the best of what the Germans gave them, and they would try to include items from the Red Cross food parcels and packages sent from home on special occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Breakfast was usually just a cup of hot water. If prisoners had some instant coffee or tea, they had something to drink to warm them up after a cold night. Some creative POWs grated chocolate bars from Red Cross parcels and made a decent hot cocoa drink. Some prisoners used the hot water to shave, bathe or wash clothes. Dinner (lunch) and supper were often "Jerry Soup" -- a thin, sour broth containing a few vegetables, and occasionally some unknown greasy meat with a few grubs, worms or maggots. Sometimes dinner was a soup made from spoiled barley and prunes, or it was just hot water again. When Jerry soup was served, many prisoners would go off to a dark corner of the barracks so they wouldn't have to see what they were eating.
Page from my father's diary describing the typical weekly menu. "Dinner" refers to the midday meal.
Typical American Red Cross package
Red Cross Parcels
During World War II, the Red Cross delivered food parcels to prisoners held in Axis prison camps. These parcels were mostly provided from Great Britain, the United States (after 1941) and Canada. All packages were sent from their country of origin to central collection points, and from there they were distributed to Axis prison camps by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Because of this, Allied prisoners might receive packages from other countries, regardless of their own nationalities. Each country's Red Cross packages contained different assortments of items. They were sent on special ships to Portugal or France. From there the parcels traveled by rail to Switzerland. The ICRC shipped them to prison camps throughout Europe.
Red Cross food parcels were sent to the American prisoners at Stalag XVII B regularly, but German guards often kept many of them for themselves. The parcels were supposed to arrive each week, but almost never did; usually, the Germans distributed them once every two weeks and, as the war went on, only once a month. In order to keep the POWs from storing food, the Germans would puncture all food cans so they had to be eaten quickly before it spoiled. This was to keep the prisoners from storing food for any planned escapes. The POWs got around this by smearing margarine into the holes and sealing the puncture; it worked very well. All packages sent from families back home in the US took a very long time to arrive, and German guards often took items out of packages before delivering them. American POWs did all they could to make their Red Cross and home-sent food last as long as possible. Some prisoners saved the packs of raisins in their Red Cross parcels to ferment into a nasty (but potent) form of moonshine.
Nothing in a Red Cross parcel was wasted -- not even the box itself. Empty cans were made into cups, bowls, plates, forks and spoons for cooking and eating. Boxes were used as fuel for cook stoves (also made from empty tin cans), but also as background or props for The Cradboard Playhouse.
British food parcels
The British Joint War Organisation sent over 20 million standard food parcels during World War II. They also sent hospital food parcels, medical supplies, books and recreational materials to prisoners. The typical British food parcel contained:
1/4 lb packet of tea
Can of cocoa powder
Bar of chocolate
Can of meat roll
Can of processed cheese
Can of condensed milk
Can of dried eggs
Can of sardines or herrings
Can of jam or jelly
Can of margarine
Can of sugar
Can of vegetables
Can of biscuits
Bar of soap
Tin of 50 cigarettes or tobacco (sent separately)
During the war, the British produced about 163,000 food parcels each week.
American food parcels
The typical American food parcel contained:
One pound can of powdered milk
One package ten assorted cookies
One pound can of oleo margarine
Half pound package of cube sugar
Half pound package of Kraft cheese
Six ounce package of K-ration biscuits
Four ounce can of coffee
Two D-ration chocolate bars
Six ounce can of jam or peanut butter
Twelve ounce can of salmon or tuna
One pound can of Spam or corned beef
One pound package of raisins or prunes
Seven Vitamin-C tablets
Two bars of soap
Twelve ounces of C-ration vegetable soup concentrate
Five packages of cigarettes
Canadian food parcels
The Canadian Red Cross shipped about 16,500,000 food parcels during World War II.
The typical Canadian food parcel contained:
Sixteen ounces of milk powder
Sixteen ounces of butter
Four ounces of cheese
Twelve ounces of corned beef
Ten ounces of pork luncheon meat
Eight ounces of salmon
Four ounces of sardines or kippers
Eight ounces of dried apples
Eight ounces of dried prunes or raisins
Eight ounces of sugar
Sixteen ounces of jam or honey
Sixteen ounces of pilot biscuits
Eight ounces of chocolate
One ounce of salt, pepper or other condiments
Four ounces of tea or coffee
Two ounces of soap
Unlike the American and British parcels, Canadian Red Cross parcels did not include cigarettes or tobacco.
Prisoners receiving these parcels usually were allowed to keep only the cigarettes and chocolate bars; the remainder of the parcel was turned over to the camp cook, who combined them with the contents of other parcels and German prisoner rations (usually bread, barley, potatoes, cabbage and sometimes horse meat) to create daily meals for the prisoners.
Cigarettes in the parcels became the preferred medium of exchange within the camp. Cigarettes were also used to bribe German guards to provide the prisoners with outside (and often forbidden) items that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. Tins of coffee, which were hard to come by in Germany late in the war, served this same purpose in many camps. toward the end of the war, German guards or other camp personnel sometimes pilfered the contents of Red Cross packages for their own use and consumption.