|STALAG VI A|
8. März 2000
Taken from the memoirs of Dr. James D. Allan, (copyright with Florida State University Dpt. of History, with permission of the author)captured pilot age 20 at that time, from West Springfield, MA, who sent his memoirs to the STALAG VIa group on Sept. 20th 2004-
Thank you! - picture taken at the WWII memorial (Washington DC) in summer 2004
" The last part of our journey was in a charcoal powered military vehicle. That’s how I arrived at Stalag VIa (6A) which turned out to be a huge slave labor camp just outside of Hemer. The word “Stalag” is an abbreviation for “Stammlager”, I believe. All of the prisoner of war camps were called Stalag. This had approximately 24,000 prisoners and I was the only American. Stalag 6A was situated on the side of a mountain, overlooking Hemer in the valley below, with another large mountain range in the distance. It was about 600 yards long and 300 yards wide, surrounded by a triple set of barb-wire fence, but without guard towers, as you see in the movies. Large three-story brick buildings and a smaller two-story building took up one side of its length and the opposite side had multiple wooden barracks. At the front end were solid brick buildings for the headquarters, officer quarters and the kitchen. The opposite end had three story concrete buildings to house the guards and other personnel. This left a courtyard of about 300 by 150 yards where the prisoners would wander and be fed. Just thought I’d give you an orientation of the place, at this point in my story.
On being processed into this compound, my dog tags were removed and I was given one German dog tag that, easily, could be split in two for the same purpose as ours. Mine are in a box around here. They ushered me into a building, where I was ordered to remove all my clothes, and pushed me into a large room. They indicated that I was to close my eyes when the showers came on. This was my first experience at being deloused. Thirty or so other prisoners were in the room at the same time. One of them came over to me and asked: “parlez vous en francais?”. He was obviously French, and my answer was “une peu”, meaning “a little”. I won’t attempt to use French or German from here on, because it will slow the story and my language ability has markedly deteriorated with age, and lack of use. So, be glad. A couple of other Frenchmen joined him and they informed me, that they knew through their inside sources, that an American pilot was to become a prisoner in their camp, even before I arrived. They had arranged to meet me there. They told me that there were no other Americans in the camp and that they would contact me for information on the Allied advance. They had a two-way radio and were happy to know that my map was still intact. It seems that the Russian prisoners were happy that an American had become a prisoner because the guards had told them that our troops would kill all Russians. For some unknown reason, my presence seemed to convince the Russians that the guards were liars. Our conversation was cut short at this point because we were ordered to stand under the showers. The Frenchman, whose name was like mine, Jacques, advised me to stay away from the area where our clothes were piled up. The guards picked one man to take our clothes thru a door into another room to be treated with stronger chemicals. Jacques told me that that person never appeared again. Have often wondered whether or not this ‘delousing’ procedure led to the idea of the so-called “gas chambers”.
Roughly, of the 24,000 prisoners in Stalag 6A, 20,000 were Russians and 3,000 Poles. Until the advance of the Allied Forces, they had been working as slave laborers on German farms, or whatever. Then, there were 1,500 Italians (previously their allies) and 500 French. All of this info was according to the French. They all lived across the compound from where I was taken, which turned out to be a regular GI type wooden barracks at the lower end of the compound. To my surprise, there were four British airmen in this large barracks, who had arrived the day before. They had been transferred here from a hospital in Dortmund. One was in a complete body cast and the others had wounds that only required dressing changes. It was great to be able to speak English once again.
The French informed me that I was the ranking officer in this Stalag, meaning that I was technically in command over all the Allied prisoners. My thought was “So What”. Of course, that didn’t include the Russians. Command or not, I needed some medical supplies to treat the British airmen and raised cane with the guards to get me some medical supplies. Later that day, the Kommandant came down with two other officers, one of whom spoke French, and helped with the translation. The Kommandant informed me that he had been in command of this prison in WW I (World War I) and was pulled out of retirement to do so again. Then, in German, that I could understand, he said it was an honor to have me as the first American prisoner in his camp in two wars (zwei krieg). The necessary medical supplies needed to change the dressings arrived in very short order. The rolls of bandages were like crepe paper, but they worked out well and they also supplied me with an ointment. Antibiotics were a rarity in WW II, so the ointment was probably zinc oxide.
The above, occurred on the first day and in rapid order. Then the French came over to explain that they had a short wave radio to pick up the BBC broadcasts of the Allied advance. When not in use, they separated the radio into multiple parts to prevent the guards from finding it. They were elated to find out that I still had my escape map. They came over frequently to pin-point how close the troops were to our camp. Some Polish cigarettes and a mold covered salami came with them to our barracks. In order to smoke a Polish cigarette, you needed a full pack of matches, because they kept going out. The salami they brought became a problem that I hate to mention. The French told me that there would be a big group of prisoners outside our barracks that night and I was expected to give them an encouraging speech. At dark, a large ragtag group did congregate outside our window and my new British friends insisted that I say something. Under their pressure, I said: “Ich bin ein Americana und zwei tag (two days) Americana kommen”. Lousy German, but after all I hardly had any training. They all cheered, but instead of two days, it would be two weeks before our troops arrived. Not being much of a meat eater and looking at those starving men outside my window, I threw them the salami given to me by the French. That caused mayhem and someone must have gotten hurt, fighting for it. Spur of the moment sort of thing, but was a rather foolish thing to do.
We were supplied with a canteen-like vessel and, in the morning, the guards came with a pail that consisted of a barley-potato soup. They poured this slop into our ‘canteens’ and gave us a much smaller piece of black bread than the ones I’d had before. Unfortunately, the soup also had some sort of insect cooked into it. Tried my best, but couldn’t eat it. We also got a cup of hot liquid that they called tea, but we used it for shaving. That was our total rations for a whole day. It wasn’t too long before we all ‘wolfed’ down the soup and tried for seconds, which rarely happened. Naturally, we all got hungry as the days went on so, the Brits and I all swore that we’d save the black bread to eat later in the afternoon. None of us succeeded, but we were the lucky ones in this camp..
Many of the other prisoners had to share the other barracks for sleeping in two shifts because the camp was built to handle only 10,000, not 24,000. When not sleeping, many dug in the ground around the kitchen for any food that might have been thrown out. They all looked like scarecrows. When it came time for their ‘rations', which were the same as ours, they had to line up at the bottom of the large courtyard. Then walk about 125 yards in order to have the gruel dumped into whatever container they had. Some were so weak, that they couldn’t make that distance. The Germans had a rule that they were allowed to be supported by one other person. If they didn’t make it with the help of one, they were placed on a stretcher and taken into one of three barracks, just to our right. The only attention to those barracks occurred about noon each day. About a dozen soldiers would enter and carry out the dead on stretchers that hardly sagged with weight as they were carried across the compound. We were told that a large lime pit existed just outside the camp to receive these corpses. Several times we counted the litters as they were being carried across and it averaged a hundred a day. The French and Italians were able to have a small amount of extra food via the Red Cross, but Russia had no Red Cross. This was explained to us a few days later by an Italian prisoner-barber came over to give us free haircuts.
We got along without a latrine in our barracks for urination, but had to cross the compound and use the large and wide open room in the barrack across from us. A guard accompanied us in to this stinking area, but we had no choice. At least it was flushed down daily. That is, until one day, a group of P-47’s (my buddies) attacked the town nearby. They knocked out the water supply to our camp and that ended any semblance of sanitation to the latrine. I was able to get the guards to supply us with shovels to dig our own and the lime to go with it. Oddly enough, a stray burst of fire from one of the P-47’s came into our camp and the only one hit in the crowded courtyard was a German guard. The other prisoners jumped on him, but he was rescued and I don’t know how badly he was injured by the bullet or the crowd.
Except for daily dressing for the Brits with me, there was nothing to do. The French gave me a paper back book called “Le Mystere de Y” that was a very interesting. It was a tale of a series of murders, carried out in a large aristocrat’s home, with such precision that the police were puzzled and had no motive. It turned out that a deceased member of the family was into writing stories and hid one behind a brick in a fireplace. He used the names of his family as murder victims and described exactly how each was to be carried out. Children found the novel and proceeded to carry them out. Dumb story, I know, but it did help pass the time and was glad that I could read French. When I asked for another they said they’d try to get one to me, but our situation changed. Approximately 50 American soldiers were suddenly brought into the camp and to our barracks.
The Brits and I had been living in one of two rooms in the front part of the barracks. The rest of building had been empty until then. There was one other small room which the lieutenant took over and the rest of his unit stayed in the larger barrack area. The story was that their second lieutenant led them into a trap and all of them were captured without a shot being fired. Both his major sergeant and his master sergeant came to talk to me, as the ranking officer in the camp. Their discussion was a long litany of complaints about the incompetence of their lieutenant. They said that ever since he had been given a “battle-field” commission, as a second lieutenant, he wouldn't listen to advice from anyone. The two sergeants had specifically advised against the action which caused their capture. The end result of their discussion with me was a request that they be relieved of duty from their unit and be assigned to come directly under my command. New problems, I didn’t need, but they were convincing. What the hell, we were all prisoners in Stalag 6A.
At this point, I hadn’t met their 2nd lieutenant and sent one of his sergeants to request that he come in to discuss the situation of his squadron of infantry arriving in our camp. It was late afternoon when he finally came into the room, that I shared with the Brits. He didn’t bother to salute me, as he should. A salute is always given to a higher ranking officer as a matter of military courtesy and recognition that the higher commission comes from the President. Without mentioning that to him, I asked him what had happened. He said that their orders were to continue advancing down a certain route, but seeing no further enemy resistance, he decided to bivouac his men well off the main road. When they woke up, they were surrounded and had to surrender. He didn’t mention that his master sergeants advised against the location. This now became my second “command” situation. The first being at Napier Field, described quite a few pages before. He was informed, by me, that he could continue the day to day operation of his unit, but no major decision about the movement of his unit was to be made without my consent. In addition, I relieved the major and master sergeants of his unit of his command and let them move in with us. He was told that any other major problems must be brought to my attention for a decision. This shocked him. He stated that he was Infantry officer and how did my Air Corps status out-rank him. The sergeants straightened him out on his ignorance. Before he left the room, I ordered him to salute and leave, which he did. Unfortunately, his actions created a major problem within a week.
My recollection of names has always been poor, but I think Mike and Jack were the names of the sergeants. One was from Long Island and the other from upper New York. No matter, they both had a great gift of humor and the Brits found them extremely funny. Our minimal rations left all of us in a continuous state of hunger. So they suggested we each make up stories to tell about our first day back in either London or New York. This turned out to be a great pastime and all of the tales involved gourmet meals and sumptuous ladies. Even the poor guy in the body cast got a great laugh out of this and joined in. His morose attitude during the day and, occasional screams at night, had concerned all of us. They also had a multitude of jokes to tell.
The guards informed me that President Roosevelt had died, but we didn’t believe them. He died April 12th. The French were able to get over and check my map that showed our forces very near. The French told me that the Kommandant of the Camp had been flown out and that some “American Colonel” had been flown in. Shortly thereafter, the sergeants told me that their "no good 2nd Lt" agreed with this ‘Colonel’, to move his men into the town below us. The professed reason was to have the town classified as a “no fire safe-zone”. Incomprehensible as this was, I found the Lt. and demanded an answer. He told me that an Infantry Lt. Col. had given him orders to take his men from the camp and go into a school house inside the town. He had no proof that this ‘Colonel’ was genuine and my orders to him were that his men were to remain in the camp. Early the next morning his unit marched out of the camp to their destination inside the town of Hemer, in the valley down below us. The guards prevented me from interfering. His sergeants and I, were furious at his stupidity and failure to follow my orders, as the camp. The “Colonel’ had to have been a fake, created by the Germans.
For reasons, known only to the Germans, the rest of us were moved from our wooden barracks into a concrete building at the lower end of the camp. There was only one set of barbed wire between us and the town in the valley below. We noticed that many of the guards were changing into wrinkled civilian clothes. Now, there was only one barbed wire fence between us and freedom. Escape was in our minds and, during the night, we crawled out to cut a small opening in a section of the fence between us and “freedom”. It took us so long, that we decided to use it the next night. To our surprise, in the morning, we found that our effort had been discovered by the guards and the fence had been repaired. No matter. A beautiful and clear day allowed us to look down into the valley, with the town of Hemer at the bottom, and up the next mountainside going out of the town. This view from our location to the distant mountainside covered at least 30 miles.
From our viewpoint, we watched many hundreds of German infantry personnel streaming up the easy slope of the distant mountainside, presumably to find a refuge at the top. Suddenly, we heard dozens of artillery shells whizzing over our heads and watched the shells burst among them. Then, all would be silent. Then, after a period of five or ten minutes, the artillery would begin again. The infantry guys, with me, explained that our artillery usually fired what they called “TOT”, meaning “time on target”. In other words, our artillery units fired a certain number of rounds at the same time and at a certain target and then took a break for five or ten minutes before firing again. This explained something to me that had occurred when I was retreating with Greyhound (Windhund) division. They would signal the unit when to move or not to move across a certain area that was under artillery attack. I had wondered how the Germans knew when it was safe for us to cross a certain area and this “TOT” business explained it. The Germans knew that our units took a five or ten minute break from shelling a certain spot. Since an enemy could easily learn our “methods”, it seems strange that such a system was used so frequently by our forces.
The artillery barrage didn’t end when night fell, but it was now directed into the town of Hemer in the valley below us. They now added phosphorous type incendiary shells setting fires all over the town. This was to be the so-called 'safe area' agreed to by that fake ‘Colonel” and the stupid 2nd Lt. This went on for so long that we were truly worried about the fate of our infantry who had been moved into a school house in the middle of town. The artillery barrage was so intense that those troops must have sustained some casualties during the concentrated shelling. Getting ahead in my story, the two sergeants and myself, gave a complete report of the lieutenant’s actions to the headquarters of the 7th Corps. They were very interested in the statements that we signed and we hoped he would be court-martialed.
After midnight, all was quiet. For a while, we watched the fires in the town below us, but the Brits, two sergeants and I, finally fell asleep. Very early the next morning, we awoke to more military fire than one could imagine. The 7th Army came over the hill above camp, like “gang-busters”. There was virtually no return fire from the Germans. I thought, what a waste of ammunition. The camp guards had changed into civilian clothes the day before and had disappeared during the night. The enemy division had escaped up the opposite hillside. Still, it was a pleasant sight watching our troops coming to “liberate” us.
I decided to leave by way of the outside staircase on the valley side of the building. The other guys thought that it was too soon to go and I should have listened to them. The stairs went down a good sixty feet to the ground. Halfway down, I was happy to see one of our infantry men coming around the corner of the building to my right. Just after that, a spray of bullets from a German burp gun cut into the wall of the building just over my head. I dove down the last flight of stairs. When I looked up, the infantry man, I’d seen a few seconds before, raised his M-1 rifle, using only his right arm as if it was a pistol, and with one burst hit the German soldier who had been stupid enough to fire at me. Believe it or not, the infantry man did this amazing piece of sharp-shooting while reaching out towards me with a cigarette pack in his left hand. His greeting was, “Glad to see you lieutenant, we didn’t know any prisoners were here”.
The infantry, followed by tanks, went forward toward the town. I circled around back into the camp and walked into the headquarters section. There, a German lieutenant was sitting at a desk, looking rather glum. He was blond and about my age. I asked him to hand over his pistol, which he did, but he did it such a way that I got the impression that it was being done as some sort of military gesture. His words were beyond my slight knowledge of German, but seem to indicate that he was making a formal offer of surrender. The pistol was a Mauser with a swastika carved on the holster. Regular issue, I imagine. On a desk, near him, were three 9 mm Lugers and an over and under 22 rifle. Somehow, all these weapons went out the door with me, as he sat there. Later, I gave the Lugers to the tank crews and the unusual rifle to a Captain who came to be sure that I was all right. The Mauser, I kept for myself.
The 7th Army had been totally unaware that a “slave labor” prisoner camp existed in the path of their advance. Naturally, they were totally unprepared to handle 24,000 starving prisoners. No one seemed to know what to do with this unforeseen problem. Some of the prisoners had already left the camp and were seen vandalizing nearby houses. The military, then sealed off the camp until the actions of so many starving and uncontrolled prisoners could be determined. 95 percent or more were Russians and Poles. Things were quite confusing for a while, but finally our troops got control of the camp. Because of my gift of Lugers to the tank guys, they invited me in to show a 'fly-boy’ what their ‘iron box’ was like inside. As I climbed out of the tank, a German vehicle with a white flag came up the road. Surprise of surprises, their insignia was the Greyhound (“Windhund”) division that had captured me. One of the officers in the vehicle was the same captain who had talked to me the first night of my capture. His Colonel and a Colonel from the 7th Army Corps went into the same building, I’d left a short while before. The captain and I remembered each other and, somehow, booze was available. We drank together and then shot at the empty bottles, he with his gun and me with the Mauser. Remember, he graduated from UCLA and spoke perfect English. He explained to me that they came in to surrender, but Hitler had given orders to his SS that, if any division attempted to surrender, their orders were to kill the superior officers. He explained that all Wehrmacht divisions had “secret” SS soldiers within their troops who reported back directly to Himmler, Hitler’s SS chief. While firing at the empty bottles, we’d consumed, he said that they knew each and every one of those SS troops, but needed a few hours to eliminate them. Then, they could then surrender to our forces without a battle. Without much food for a while, I started to feel the wine, but thought it was kind of humorous that the outfit that had captured me was now negotiating a surrender in my presence.
Later that afternoon, the entire Windhund division surrendered. The decision was made to put them into the camp called Stalag 6 A and let all of the other prisoners go to make their way the best they could back to Russia or Poland. Not sure how the German countryside took that infiltration, but that’s what happened. It was then that they transported the two sergeants and myself, back to their main headquarters to the rear. I have no idea as to what happened to the Brits, but think they left much earlier by ambulance. It was food time, back at headquarters, and without enough food for so long, the sergeants and I ate too much and all became very sick. After that, we were interviewed as to our experiences since being captured. Each of us gave signed statements, mentioned above about the Lt., which our interrogator seem to take very seriously. They were under orders to ship all American prisoners to a staging area in France. So, they refused to cut travel orders that would have allowed me to find my way back to my outfit. We then climbed into the back of a half track truck to be driven for hours through the “Black Forest”. We didn’t have the vaguest idea of where we going, but we were all now back on our side, so what the hell. We ended up at an airfield. Well, it really wasn’t an airfield per se, but just a single strip adequate for transport, without any tower or other facilities. We were told to wait until a C-47 came in to pick us. So, I spent the time studying the Mauser pistol and found it to be an amazing piece of equipment that could be totally disassembled and reassembled all by hand. Someone mentioned that care would be needed to hide it as the military was cracking down on weapons being brought back to the States. No problem, since it could be hidden in multiple pieces, whenever they issued me some new gear."