Stalag Luft III

“For you the war is over.”

That was the almost universal greeting to shot-down American airmen when they fell into the hands of the German enemy, a statement as far from the truth as any lie concocted by the Third Reich’s propaganda machine.

The war was not over for the new POW; it just became a different war, a war not without its own brutal casualties.

For the average World War II flier who ended up at Stalag Luft III — the prison camp for downed airmen run by the Luftwaffe — his last mission became the Longest Mission.

Typically, his mission began before dawn at an airfield somewhere in England, North Africa, or Italy. It ended months or years later with the liberation of Stalag VIIA on April 29, 1945.

While at Stalag Luft III, his mission continued unabated, but not his role.

He went from flier to prisoner of war in a matter of minutes. His new task was to contribute to the war effort as a Kriege, from the German term for prisoner of war, Kriegsgefangener.

His duty now was survival, communication, and escape. He no longer engaged his enemy in the air, but met him in the isolation of an interrogation cell at Dulag Luft or at another enemy installation. He met him behind the barbed wire at Stalag Luft III, on a forced-march in the dead of winter, or in the mare’s nest of Stalag VIIA.


The Air War

Statistics published after the war by the Army Air Forces tell a dramatic story about the air war against Germany.

During the course of the war, 1,693,565 sorties were flown — a sortie defined as one aircraft airborne on a mission against the enemy.

Of these missions, 89% were deemed effective. Mission accomplished! Flying these missions were 32,263 combat aircraft. Fifty-five percent of these planes were lost in action.

On the other hand 29,916 enemy aircraft were destroyed.

On the human side, there were 94,565 American air combat casualties. Killed in action accounted for 30,099, with 13,660 wounded and evacuated. The remaining 51,106 were missing in action, POWs, evaders, and internees. Miracles of survival were numerous.

Stalag Luft III held many fliers whose planes exploded in the air — disintegrated — yet one, two or more crew members survived. Some were blasted unconscious into the sky, and came to on the ground, their open parachutes beside them. Others were literally dug out of the wreckage of their crashed airplanes — horribly injured, yet survivors




There were countless instances of men surviving the catastrophic destruction of their aircraft high in the sky. The accounts of explosion and fire which left men unconscious in the air only to have them land safely by parachute were so common that in Stalag Luft III such survivors had difficulty finding an audience for the story.

In the last year of the war the German leadership actually encouraged enraged civilians, who had captured Allied airmen who were destroying their cities and killing their women and children, to wreak their vengeance on them indiscriminately.

How many men died this way is known only to God.

Fortunately, and to their credit, German military personnel aggressively defended shot-down airmen from such outrages.

Dulag Luft, located near Frankfurt am Main, was the Luftwaffe Aircrew Interrogation Center to which all Allied airmen were delivered as soon as possible after their capture. There each new prisoner, while still trying to recover from the recent trauma of his shoot-down and capture, was skillfully interrogated for military information of value to the Germans.

The German interrogators claimed that they regularly obtained the names of unit commanders, information on new tactics and new weapons, and order of battle from naive or careless U.S. airmen, without resort to torture. New prisoners were kept in solitary confinement while under interrogation and then moved into a collecting camp. After a week or ten days, they were sent in groups to a permanent camp such as Stalag Luft III for officers or Stalag VIB for enlisted men. A nearby hospital employing captured doctors and medical corpsmen received and cared for wounded prisoners.



Kriegie Views of Camp

Stalag Luft III was located 100 miles southeast of Berlin in what is now Poland. The POW camp was one of six operated by the Luftwaffe for downed British and American airmen.

Compared to other prisoner of war camps throughout the Axis world, it was a model of civilized internment.

The Geneva Convention of 1929 on the treatment of prisoners of war was complied with as much as possible, but it was still war, still prison, and still grim. With a madman on top, there was the ever-present threat that authority above the Luftwaffe could change things on a whim.

Kriegies always knew that they were living on the razor’s edge.


The Americans

The officer airmen who were POWs in the German camps at Stalag Luft III arrived there through an accident of war. They varied widely in age, military rank, education, and family background, but had several common experiences:

They all volunteered to go to war as airmen.
They all completed pilot training.
They all engaged in aerial combat.
They all were survivors of a traumatic catastrophe in the air.

This unique selection process seemed to give these men some common characteristics. They had an uncommon love of country and a loyalty to each other. They were very resourceful and applied great skill to improve their living conditions and to conduct escape and other clandestine activities. They indeed became a band of brothers.

In retrospect, most later acknowledged that their experience as prisoners was not simply an unpleasant waste of time but that they came out of it with, among other things, a clearer sense of values, a strengthened love of country, improved leadership skills, and an improved ability to live in harmony with others under difficult circumstances.

After the war the majority continued their camaraderie by staging many heart-warming reunions and by establishing at the Air Force Academy Library a central location for the preservation of their memorabilia and the records of their incarceration. Many went on to complete successful and distinguished careers in the Air Force, or in civilian life, some as political appointees in government, others in the professions, including the ministry.



The Germans

The German garrison of Stalag Luft III was composed of non-flying Luftwaffe officers and enlisted personnel who were generally not qualified for frontline duty. Many of the guards were old and uneducated. Some had been wounded in combat and wore the patches of famous battles on the Eastern Front against Russia.

For the enlisted men, guarding prisoners was probably regarded as better than duty in the East, but for the officers it must have been one of the least desired assignments. Some officers and men of the camp’s garrison were genuinely hated by the prisoners. Most of the others tried to be decent to the POWs, often under difficult circumstances and the threat of severe punishment if they were caught doing anything that could be considered contrary to Germany’s war effort.

This general feeling of mutual respect is reflected in the fact that Gustav Simoleit and Hermann Glemnitz were invited as guests to the 20-year reunion of the American Former Prisoners of Stalag Luft III. They were warmly received.




Food was always very close to a prisoner’s heart. Germany, involved in a total war, had difficulties enough feeding its own people. Feeding POWs was well down on the list of priorities. The German POW rations were insufficient to sustain health and failed to meet the requirements of the Geneva Convention. Had the International Red Cross not shipped food parcels to all Allied POW camps except to the Russians, serious malnutrition would have been common. The Red Cross offer to feed the Russian POWs was spurned by Stalin.

The receipt of the Red Cross food parcels suffered from the uncertainties of the wartime rail service in Germany and the caprice of the Germans who would withhold delivery of the food as group punishment

Kriegies stashed food for special occasions. A few spoons of British cocoa here or a few lumps of sugar there all went into a special reserve for what the Kriegies called a bash. Loosely speaking a bash was the Kriegies’ way of celebrating a special event, perhaps the Fourth of July, Christmas, or even a birthday. Its ingredients had been saved laboriously for months. It was a feast.




The International Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, undertook to preserve the quality of life for thousands of prisoners of war on both sides in World War II. The International Red Cross provided food, clothing, and medicines, while the Y.M.C.A. provided library supplies (largely books), athletic equipment, musical instruments, and chaplains’ supplies. Both were major efforts and contributed immensely to the well-being of POWs. Volunteers from neutral countries, such as Switzerland and Sweden, with great dedication and at considerable personal risk, served Allied camps in Germany throughout the war.

Swedish lawyer Henry Söderberg, as the representative of the International Y.M.C.A., was responsible for the region of Germany in which Stalag Luft III was located. He visited the camp regularly and went to great efforts to procure and deliver items requested by the various compounds. As a result, each compound had a band and orchestra, a well-equipped library, and sports equipment to meet the different British and American national tastes. Chaplains also had the necessary religious items to enable them to hold regular services. In addition, many men were able to advance, and in a few cases, complete their formal education.

Söderberg remained in touch with many of his American friends by coming from Sweden to attend their reunions until his death in 1998. He kindly donated his rich collection of official reports, photograph albums, letters, and other materials documenting his work on behalf of the prisoners of many nations to the U.S. Air Force Academy Library. It is available to scholars, other researchers, and cadets alike.




The Great Escape of March 1944 triggered a tragically severe reaction from the Germans. The diversion from Germany’s desperate war effort necessary to recapture the 76 men who got away through the escape tunnel reached Hitler’s personal attention and he ordered 50 of the recaptured men to be shot. After this event, escape became more dangerous but attempts continued. In the confusion in Germany as the end of the war approached, especially after the Stalag Luft III Kriegies reached Moosburg, escape became easier and less dangerous. When it became obvious that the end was near, even the most ardent advocates of escaping decided to wait it out.



The March

Nothing in Shakespeare could match the impact of the short speech delivered in the middle of the second act of “You Can’t Take It With You” at the South Compound Theater on the night of January 27, 1945. Making an unscripted entrance, Col. Charles G. Goodrich, the senior American officer, strode center stage and announced, “The Goons have just given us 30 minutes to be at the front gate! Get your stuff together and line up!”

At his 4:30 staff meeting in Berlin that very afternoon, Adolf Hitler had issued the order to evacuate Stalag Luft III. He was fearful that the 11,000 Allied airmen in the camp would be liberated by the Russians. Hitler wanted to keep them as hostages. A spearhead of Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev’s Southern Army had already pierced to within 20 kilometers of the camp.

In the barracks following Colonel Goodrich’s dramatic announcement, there was a frenzy of preparation — of improvised packsacks being loaded with essentials, distribution of stashed food, and of putting on layers of clothing against the Silesian winter.

As the men lined up outside their blocks, snow covered the ground six inches deep and was still falling. Guards with sentinel dogs herded them through the main gate. Outside the wire, Kriegies waited and were counted, and waited again for two hours as the icy winds penetrated their multilayered clothes and froze stiff the shoes on their feet. Finally, the South Camp moved out about midnight.

Out front, the 2,000 men of the South Camp were pushed to their limits, and beyond, to clear the road for the 8,000 behind them. Hour after hour, they plodded through the blackness of night, a blizzard swirling around them, winds driving near-zero temperatures.

At 2:00 a.m. on January 29, they stumbled into Muskau and found shelter on the floor of a tile factory. They stayed there for 30 hours before making the 15.5-mile march to Spremberg, where they were jammed into boxcars recently used for livestock. With 50 to 60 men in a car designed to hold 40, the only way one could sit was in a line with others, toboggan-fashion, or else half stood while the other half sat. It was a 3-day ordeal, locked in a moving cell becoming increasingly fetid with the stench of vomit and excrement. The only ventilation in the cars came from the cracks between the wall planks. The train lumbered through a frozen countryside and bombed-out cities.

Along the way, Colonel Goodrich passed the word authorizing escape attempts. In all, some 32 men felt in good enough condition to make the try. In 36 hours, all had been recaptured.

The boxcar doors were finally opened at Moosburg and the Kriegies from the South and Center Compounds were marched into Stalag VIIA.




Stalag VIIA was a disaster. It was a nest of small compounds separated by barbed wire fences enclosing old, dilapidated barracks crammed closely together. Reportedly, the camp had been built to hold 14,000 French prisoners. In the end, 130,000 POWs of all nationalities and ranks were confined in the area. In some compounds the barracks were empty shells with dirt floors. In others, barracks consisted of two wooden buildings abutting a masonry washroom with a few cold-water faucets. Wooden bunks were joined together into blocks of 12, a method of cramming 500 men into a building originally intended for an uncomfortable 200. All buildings were hopelessly infested with vermin.

As spring came to Bavaria, some of the more enterprising Kriegies moved out of the barracks into tents that had been erected to accommodate the stream of newcomers still coming in from other evacuated stalags. Some men chose to sleep on the ground, setting up quarters in air raid slit trenches. The camp resembled a giant hobo village.




On the morning of April 29, 1945, elements of the 14th Armored Division of Patton’s 3rd Army attacked the SS troops guarding Stalag VIIA. Prisoners scrambled for safety. Some hugged the ground or crawled into open concrete incinerators. Bullets flew seemingly haphazardly.

Finally, the American task force broke through, and the first tank entered, taking the barbed wire fence with it. The prisoners went wild. They climbed on the tanks in such numbers as to almost smother them. Pandemonium reigned. They were free!

Two days later, General Patton arrived in his jeep, garbed in his usual uniform with four stars on everything including his ivory handled pistols. He was a sight to behold. The prisoners cheered and cheered.

The Longest Mission was finally over!



Going Home

The reality of liberation was a very emotional experience for the tens of thousands of men in POW camps throughout Germany. Many had had a dreadful experience in the last four months of the war as they were marched or transported as far as possible from advancing Allied forces. In the case of the thousands of former POWs at Moosburg, liberation also brought frustration and disappointment. Initially all support of the camp stopped.

The Germans who ran the camp had all been taken off to prison camp and there was a serious delay before a U.S. Army support battalion was pulled out of the line to provide all necessary support for the camp. Next, the hundreds of French prisoners packed up and were flown out. General Charles de Gaulle had obtained first priority for their return from General Dwight Eisenhower. The Americans waited and, against the orders of their keepers, many quietly departed and hitched a ride to Paris. Eventually all American former POWs were moved out to nearby German airfields and transported by C-47 aircraft to the vast but now empty Combat Personnel Replacement Depots on the French Channel Coast.



The Next 50 Years

The trauma, anxiety, hunger, and, even more importantly, the fellowship of the POW experience were not quickly forgotten.

So the next fifty years were filled with the joys of reunions, the nostalgic returns to the scenes of combat or the camps, the finding and thanking of those who gave assistance, and even friendly meetings with former foes.

Some of these latter experiences were very heart-warming.

Cy Widen’s experience was a classic example as published in LIFE Apr 14, 1961.