Stalag XVII B

History of Stalag XVII B

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Locations of German POW camps, March 1944

Germany had about 100 German military prison camps during WWII (120 in 1942, and 98 in 1944). They were located mostly in Germany, but some were located in countries that Germany conquered and occupied. 

How Germany named their military prison camps:

Before the war, Germany had established a system of Wehrkreise (military districts), for the purpose of drafting and training soldiers. During the war, military areas were added, changed, merged, or dropped. They were given Roman numerals. Wehrkreis XVII was the designation for central and eastern Austria.

Types of German military prisoner of war camps in World War II:

Dulag = Durchgangslager (for processing and interrogating all captured servicemen before sending on to POW camps)
Stalag = Stammlager (for captured non-officers)
Oflag = Offizierslager (for captured officers)
Marlag = Marinelager (for captured naval servicemen)
Luft = Luftwaffe (for air force prisoners only: e.g., "Dulag Luft", Stalag Luft" or "Oflag Luft")
Front = Frontline (located near the front lines of combat: e.g., "Frontstalag Rouen", they moved to the Eastern Front after June, 1941.) 

Chronology of German POW camps in Wehrkreis XVII

There were four main POW camps in Wehrkreis XVII. For about twelve months (mid-1941 to mid-1942) there was a fifth camp, Heilag XVII A, converted to a hospital, located near Gänserndorf.

Aug 1939 - Dulag J created at Kaisersteinbruch; renamed Stalag XVII A Sep 1939
Sep 1939 - Dulag Gneixendorf was created; renamed Stalag XVII B Oct 1939.
Sep 1939 - Dulag Döllersheim/Edelbach was created; renamed Stalag XVII C Oct 1939; converted to Oflag XVII A in Jun 1940
Jun 1941 - Heilag XVII A created at Gänserndorf. Sick and wounded prisoners from Oflag XVII A were taken here until closed in Jun 1942
Sep 1941 - Stalag XVII D created at Pupping; renamed Stalag XVII B/Z Oct 1941; renamed Stalag 397 Sep 1942; renamed Stalag 398 Feb 1943

Also, three Frontstalags (230, 231 and 232) were created in Wehrkreis XVII in 1940 for French prisoners. After June 1941, the French prisoners in these Frontstalags were moved to other camps or Arbeitskommandos (work details), and the Frontstalags were moved to Russia for Soviet prisoners after Germany invaded Russia.

The total population of all prisoners in Wehrkreis XVII reached a peak of 138,000 in June 1944. By nationality, the most numerous were the French, Italians, Soviets, and Serbs. Ten nationalities of soldiers were held in and around Stalag XVII B. The number of guards and officers in all of Wehrkreis XVII reached a peak of about 15,000 in late 1941; most of them were stationed in or around Stalag XVII B.

Prison guard units were originally created from German Army reserve units. As the war got worse for Germany, more and more prison guards were taken from camps everywhere and sent east to fight the Soviets. To replace them, the German Army drafted local citizens, usually old men and others unfit for frontline duty. Late in the war, Germany even created prison guard units from some Russian and Italian prisoners!

How "Stalag XVII B" got its name

The designation "Stalag XVII B" indicated that:
1) it was a military prison camp for captured soldiers below officer rank (Stammlager),
2) it was in Wehrkreis (Military District) XVII (Roman numerals for "17")
3) it was the second camp established in that Wehrkreis (B is the second letter of the German alphabet).

Stalag XVII B quickly became the largest German prison camp in Austria, and the second largest of all German prison camps during WWII. It was also second worst among all the camps in the treatment of its prisoners.

Creation of Stalag XVII B

After Germany invaded and occupied Austria in 1938, a German motorized infantry battalion was stationed near Krems, Austria. Soon after that, the Germans built a civilian Dulag and KZ (concentration camp) near Krems. To make room for the concentration camp, the Germans took land and property from many nearby homeowners and farmers. Soon after the outbreak of WWII in September 1939, hundreds of captured Polish soldiers were sent to this new camp, consisting only of tents. The Poles were then forced to build the permanent structures  and the camp grew quickly from a few tents to a large prison camp with concrete buildings for the German officers and guards, and 40 large wooden barracks for the prisoners. After Germany's invasion and occupation of France, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1940 and until the end of World War II, the majority of Stalag XVII B's prisoners were French and Belgian soldiers. Serbs and Soviets began arriving in late 1941 after the invasion of the Balkans and the Soviet Union. Americans, British and Italians were added in late 1943, and the northeast section of the camp for Americans was renamed Stalag Luft XVII B. Slovakians and Romanians arrived in mid-1944. And about 10,000 guards - about two-thirds of the total guards in Wehrkreis XVII! - were stationed in and around Stalag XVII B.

The rise and fall of Stalag XVII B

The prisoner population in Stalag XVII B grew rapidly and remained at around 40,000 inside the camp, with another 60,000 prisoners outside the camp and assigned to Arbeitskommandos (Work Details) - groups of prisoners put to work to provide labor for nearby farms, factories and businesses. It quickly became the largest POW camp in Austria, and one of the largest of all German POW camps. The camp was forced to hold far more prisoners than it was designed to hold, and it soon became so overcrowded that many prisoners had to sleep in the washrooms or on the barracks floors. Stalag XVII B held soldiers of ten different nationalities throughout the war. The captured Polish soldiers arrived first, then the French and Belgians in June 1940. Russian soldiers arrived shortly after the Germans invaded Russia in the summer of 1941.

In the summer of 1943, thousands of Russian prisoners in the north-eastern area of the camp were relocated to other German prison camps in Austria to make room for the captured American airmen who began arriving in October, 1943. Most of the first groups of American prisoners were transferred from other camps in Germany, and some - like my father - had been shot down just as Stalag Luft XVII B was opened. The number of American prisoners in Stalag XVII B grew quickly to about 4,400 and stayed at that level until the war's end. The arrival of the American airmen prisoners caused considerable problems for the German officers and guards. While the whole camp was under the overall command and control of officers and guards of the Wehrmacht (German Army), the part of the camp that now kept the American prisoners was placed under the separate command and control of officers and guards in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). This separation of command and control soon became a constant source of friction between the German officers and guards of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. This situation changed in late 1944, when Hitler ordered the SS and Gestapo to take control of the entire camp away from the military, and all officers and guards were placed under SS and Gestapo command.

After the failed attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944, the treatment and living conditions of all prisoners - which were generally bad to begin with - got considerably worse in all the camps. Up until then, prisoners typically were allowed one day of rest per week, but after late 1944, they were given at best one rest day every 3 to 4 weeks. Prisoners' freedom of movement was severely restricted and theys were searched and treated roughly more frequently.

Soon after the SS took control of the camps, most of the regular German army guards were removed and sent to fight the Soviet forces in the east. They were replaced by Volksturm (Home Guard) - rag-tag units of local conscripts, old men and other soldiers unfit for combat duty. By early 1945, the advance of the Soviet army from the east and the Allied bombing of the roads and railroads all around the area of Stalag XVII B had greatly reduced the ability of the Germans to get food and other supplies to the guards and prisoners there, making the plight of the prisoners even worse. German guards began stealing the prisoners' Red Cross food parcels and making threats to kill all the prisoners. As the Soviet army got closer to the camp, the German guards decided to force the American, British and French prisoners to walk west along the Danube river toward American forces. The Germans reasoned that it would be far better to surrender to the Americans than to the Russians. The forced march across Austria began in early April, 1945.