Friday, 27 January 2017

Hell, haven or heaven? Reactions to Stalag Luft III.

I am always interested in how people cope with a difficult situation, and especially how they make the most of it. Take, for instance, the reactions of the men of Stalag Luft III to their new environment.
Stalag Luft III, in 1945, sketched by James R Taylor. Jim Taylor, a Scot, had given the original of this pencil drawing to Ken Carson. Courtesy of John Carson.
Each compound was ringed by two barbed wire fences, 10 feet high, whose tops sloped inwards, making climbing difficult. The 6 feet gap between—the Löwengang, or Lions Walk—was filled with thick coils of barbed wire, about 3 feet high. (The Vorlarger was also enclosed by a barbed wire fence.) Thirty or so feet from the inside barbed wire fence, 18 inches from the ground, was a warning line ‘beyond which’, Justin O’Byrne recalled, ‘it was suicide to step’. But not immediately. Prisoners were forbidden to cross it but, if they did, they were given two alerts, after which the guards were ordered to shoot. With so much barbed wire about, O’Byrne, looking back on his wartime accommodation, likened it to ‘the usual type of German concentration camp’.
Justin O'Byrne prior to his arrival at Stalag Luft III. Courtesy of Anne O'Byrne.
 While those of Stalag Luft III’s complement with experience in Buchenwald Concentration camp would perhaps disagree, the barbed wire certainly did nothing for some prisoners’ well-being. As one man put it, ‘It is really a horrible prospect looking out on a world through barbed wire: it gives you the feeling of having absolutely nothing to do with it’. Others, however, took a different view.
One man told his correspondent that ‘if it were not for the barbed wire and sentry boxes one could almost visualise a huge holiday camp’. Rather than gazing at his new abode through rose-tinted glasses, this chap appears to have sanitised his account for the benefit of the homefolks. He was not the only one to liken Stalag Luft III to holiday accommodation. Peter Kingsford-Smith took up the theme in his wartime log book. His drawing of the tree and barbed wire bordered compound, with guard tower to the left and wooden hut to the right, took the guise of a naïve travel poster captioned ‘furnish flats at mod[erate] rates. Holidays-at-Sagan’. Promoting ‘summer & winter sports’ interested holiday makers were to apply to ‘Luftwaffe headquarters’ or Stalag Luft 3’. Arthur Schrock, also painted a mock travel poster, complete with pines, snow and barbed wire, in his wartime log book entreating tourists to ‘Visit Sagan. A Haven of Tranquility [sic] Midst the Pines of Nieder Schlesien [Lower Silesia]’. 

Courtesy of Andrew RB Simpson.

Bill Fordyce depicted the ‘horrid result of life of debauchery & drunken-ness at the “haven-in-the-pines” Stalag Luft 3’.

Courtesy of Lily Fordyce.
 John Cordwell, much taken with the coniferous tree-scape, captioned his depiction of North Compound and its needle-y border ‘Heaven in the Pines!’; it was one of the few artefacts Kenneth ‘Ken’ Carson brought out of the camp.

Ken Carson's copy of John Cordwell's map of North Compound. Courtesy of John Carson.
British-born Archibald Sulston’s watercolour of a pine forest-backed hut in Peter Kingsford-Smith’s wartime log book is also entitled ‘Heaven in the Pines!’ but his tongue, like the tongues of the other artist-commentators, was firmly planted in cheek given the presence of an overflowing waste container, large puddles of water, an unsteadily-leaning wooden cask and a number of tree stumps in the drawing’s foreground. (It seems as if this was a common theme for Sulston because he painted a similar image in his own log book.)
Archibald Sulton's rendition in his own log book. Lifted, with thanks, from
For some, there was no humour in the depiction of the camp as haven or heaven. Jock Bryce thought one of the Red Cross magazines erred ‘on the bright side when it described Luft III as “the heaven in the pines”’. John Osborne may have ‘almost settled down’ after his recent arrival, but was quick to tell his family that ‘it’s no heaven’. Osborne also resented the rosy portrayal of the camp by the Red Cross who frequently reprinted extracts from letters, such as the barbed-wire holiday camp mentioned above, depicting the brighter side of life. ‘What tales do the Red Cross print of our conditions?’ Albert Hake, however, was more than content with the images of ‘the pleasant pictures of happy POWs which I am assured are portrayed to worried relatives’ by the Red Cross and Prisoners of War Relatives’ Association. It gave him comfort knowing that his wife Noela was taken in by them. 
At least one man categorically believed that Stalag Luft III was both haven and as close to paradise as you could get in a prisoner of war camp. ‘After two months of hell of earth’ at Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where every hair on Keith Mill’s body had been shaved off, and he and his fellow prisoners, including eight other Australian airmen had ‘slept with rocks for our beds and the sky for our blanket for three weeks’ before managing ‘at last to get into a hut about 50 yards long with 700 people in it’ where they saw people die there, ‘some in strange ways’, Stalag Luft III ‘was heaven’.
Keith Mills and his wife, Val, in 2004. Lifted, with thanks, from (Read this touching obituary.) 


  1. Yes, I am so much happier my father was a prisoner of the Germans Luftwaffe, and not of a German concentration camp, and especially not the Japanese, and so 'Heaven in the Pines' is a term, perhaps coined satirically by krieges, but for their descendants, not to be easily and summarily dismissed, out of hand.

  2. The term is indeed comforting, John, but the illusion it created had other consequences besides comfort. Many believed that 'our boys' had a soft time of it and so did not deserve the same consideration, and later, compensation given to prisoners of Japan. Fortunately, the concept of 'degrees of trauma' was done away with and all (surviving) Australian prisoners of war received financial recognition of their trauma.