Stalag XVII B

Prison Life

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My father's Stalag XVII B dog tag

During the war, the number of prisoners held in and around Stalag XVII B grew to over 120,000. The main camp area held 50-60,000 prisoners. The rest of the POWs were assigned to Arbeitskommandos (work details) and lived outside of the camp. In September 1943, several thousand Soviet prisoners were moved to nearby German POW camps to make room for captured American airmen arriving in October 1943. The number of American Army Air Force prisoners in Stalag XVII B was around 4,000, and remained around that level until the end of the war.

In May 1944, Hitler approved a special directive called "Aktion Fliegermorde" (Operation Death to Airmen), which made it legal for any German citizens to kill American and British airmen. (No wonder why my father feared for his life when he was shot down!)

After the failed attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944, the prisoners' situations at all the camps generally became much worse. By order of the German government, all camp guards now came under the direct control of the SS. Up until then, the military prison camps were under control of one of the military service branches (army, navy, or air force), and prisoners were usually allowed one day of rest per week. After the SS took over, however, prisoners only got one rest day every 3-4 weeks. Prisoners' freedom of movement was severely restricted and they were searched more frequently.

Soon after the SS took control of the camps, most of the regular German army guards were removed and sent to fight on the Russian front. They were replaced by Volksturm (Home Guard), rag-tag units of local conscripts, old men and other soldiers unfit for combat duty. By 1945, the advance of the Russian army from the east and the Allied bombing of the roads and railroads all around the area had greatly reduced the ability of the Germans to get food and other supplies to Stalag XVII B, making the plight of the prisoners even worse. German guards began to steal the prisoners' provisions and threatened to kill all the prisoners. Only the intervention of the Austrian guards and surrounding civilians prevented a massacre. As the Russian army got closer to the camp, the German guards decided to force the American, British and French prisoners to walk west toward American forces. The Germans reasoned that it would be far better to surrender to the Americans than to the Russians.

With Russian forces just a few miles from Stalag XVII B, the few remaining German guards left the camp on 8 May 1945 and headed west toward the American lines, rather than stay and be captured by the Russians. Russian soldiers entered the camp the next day. At first, the prisoners who were left behind in the camp were overjoyed to see the Russian troops, but their pleasure quickly turned to disappointment. At gunpoint, the prisoners were forced to hand over all their possessions to the Russians. Then they were held captive by the Russians and not allowed to leave! Not until 29 May 1945 were the first prisoners remaining in Stalag XVII B allowed to return to their respective countries. The fates of the Russian prisoners were by far the worst; instead of a hero's welcome, most Russian prisoners were treated as traitors (for having allowed themselves to be captured instead of fighting to their death) by their fellow countrymen and sent to brutal Russian "Gulags" (work camps) for the rest of their lives.