I’ve been looking at what the Australians of Stalag Luft III went through during interrogation, and how they responded. Not everyone had a bad time of it, but a good many did, and here are the recollections of just a few.
The Luftwaffe took over the Army’s Offiziersdurchgangslager (officers’ through camp) at Oberursel in December 1939 and renamed it Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe (through camp of the Air Force). Located just northwest of Frankfurt, one part of the complex served as the Luftwaffe’s main transit camp and the other became the Luftwaffe’s main intelligence gathering centre. The intelligence and transit sections were separated in September 1943; the intelligence staff remained at Oberursel but the transit camp was relocated to Frankfurt, near the railway station. That was destroyed in a raid in March 1944 and a camp was constructed at Wetzlar, about 30 miles north of Frankfurt. Interrogations continued to be carried out at Oberursel. The entire facility soon became known simply as Dulag Luft and, despite a number of name changes over the years, and regardless of location, continued to be referred to as Dulag Luft.
Germany’s attitude to interrogation was organised. Within weeks of the beginning of the war, the Germans recognised that prisoners of war would be good sources of information about British morale, war-readiness, and military strength and matériel. Army prisoners, however, were usually taken in large groups either by battle winners, or as a consequence of surrender. Any interrogation was usually carried out close to the battlefield and was at best cursory. Assiduous and wide-ranging intelligence gathering and assessment became the province of the Luftwaffe which recognised that aircrew would be great assets in the intelligence war. Accordingly, a dedicated and ‘sophisticated sifting centre’ was co-located with the Dulag Luft transit camp and all aircrew captured in German held territory passed through it before transferring to permanent camps.
Dulag Luft evolved into a professionally-run organisation where intelligence gathering was developed to a fine art. By intensively interrogating new arrivals, scrutinising documents and equipment carried by the airmen, and examining crashed aircraft, interrogators developed a detailed knowledge of allied air operations. It was acknowledged as the most efficient interrogation facility of the war and boasted an extensive archive which included press clippings, photographs, maps, and squadron histories, and comprehensive lists of squadron personnel. More than one man was shocked by the level of detail accumulated by the interrogators.
The period immediately after capture is acknowledged as one of the most physical and trying phases of the entire captivity continuum. Formal interrogation, which occurred within days of apprehension was, for many, the worst experience since their last battle. Recognising that prisoners still suffering the shock of captivity would more easily succumb to the pressure of interrogation, new captives were whisked to preliminary detention for questioning by local military personnel before they were almost as quickly ferried to Frankfurt. Some were humiliated by the local populace en route. Some had made abortive escape attempts while in transit and their confidence was at a low ebb. Once they arrived at Dulag Luft, every aspect of their confinement in the cooler—the prisoner name for detention cells both at Dulag Luft and permanent camps—was designed to create psychological pressure, thus breaking down any resistance to interrogation.
The Dulag Luft interrogators spoke perfect English and were professional. They developed sophisticated, insidious interrogation techniques which included ‘softening up’, repetitive questioning, wheedling details bit by bit, and alternately adopting friendly and menacing styles. They also deployed food and sensory deprivation, varying degrees of torture, and took advantage of continuing shock.
Rooms were kept in darkness for extended periods and the walls were so thick the airmen could not orientate themselves to the outside world. Before they were consigned to solitary confinement in a small cell with few amenities, new arrivals were stripped of their belts, boots and uniform, underwent a complete—and in Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Baines’ recollection, ‘embarrassing’—body search and were x-rayed. While some items were returned, Article 5 of the Geneva Convention stated that ‘identity tokens, badges of rank, decorations and articles of value may not be taken from prisoners’. Personal items (other than weapons) were eventually returned. Uniforms, however, were not. In Norman ‘Bill’ Amos’ case, he was issued with an ill-fitting pair of riding pants and a woolly singlet and a pair of wooden clogs.
Norman ‘Bill’ Amos
There were many significant examples of inhumane treatment at Dulag Luft including isolation, discomfort, physical and sensory deprivation and varying degrees of torture. Indeed, according to one commandant, ‘no amount of solitary confinement, privation and psychological blackmail was considered excessive’. It was a disturbing time and Richard ‘Dick’ Winn, for one, alternated between despondency and near panic and hope. ‘These mood swings were very frequent.’ Compounding their distress, the airmen were placed on harsh rations. It did not appear to matter that such treatment contravened the Geneva Convention.
Richard ‘Dick’ Winn
In his diary, George Archer recorded the three days he spent in the Dulag Luft cells. He briefly noted the conditions of his accommodation and treatment. ‘In cooler. Bloody awful. Nothing to do but sleep.’ The next day, he was ‘still in cooler, very hot. No windows open. No books or shaving. Sleeping is the only saviour. Five dirty spuds and soup for dinner. Bread and herb tea. B. and tea.’
George Archer. Courtesy of David Archer
Archer’s contemporary diary, jotted into a small pocket notebook, had little space for elaboration. Those compiling late-life accounts had more scope, and decades’ reflection to record the more challenging physical and psychological aspects of this phase of captivity. ‘The room in which I was placed was unlit, virtually soundproof, overheated and hence enervating’, reminisced Alex Arnel. Bruce Lumsden, Bill Amos and Dick Winn recalled alternating hot and cold in the cells where any sleep was intermittent. Kenneth Gaulton sweltered ‘with all the heat turned up in the middle of summer; it was pretty uncomfortable’, and Ken Todd included in his wartime log book a pencil drawing of his cell annotated ‘heaters on in summer, off in winter’. Lumsden began to realise that this contravention of the Geneva Convention was ‘another part of the game of prisoner harassment’. Knowing this did nothing to alleviate Lumsden’s ‘sense of mingled rage and humiliation’.
Alex Arnel. Courtesy of Alec Arnel
Ken Todd’s cell. Courtesy of Peter Todd
Once in the interrogation cell, polite, seemingly friendly and courteous questioners tried to coerce with cigarettes, bonhomie and, in the case of Alex Arnel, morning tea of scones, honey and coffee and admiration of the Spitfire. Alex Kerr, who had come to Dulag Luft after many months in hospital, recalled that he too had received ‘soft treatment’, possibly because, he speculated, any information he might have would be out of date. When the soft touch, deployed by ‘gushingly polite’ interrogators failed, the Germans again contravened the Geneva Convention.
Arnel was threatened with being handed over to townsfolk who had been subjected to propaganda about the allied terrorfliegers (terror flyers) who had subjected them to frequent bombing raids. ‘What do you think would happen?’, the interrogator demanded of Arnel. When that failed to elicit a response, Arnel heard his neighbour being removed from his cell, then shouts and a volley of rifle fire. ‘I tried to convince myself that this was just another psychological pressure to get us to “cooperate” but nagging doubts remained.’ Douglas McLeod was deliberately lied to in order to weaken his defence. He was told that ‘3 members of my crew had been killed’. As a Jew, Cy Borsht suffered physical as well as psychological assaults. His interrogator hit him on the back of the head, lightly at first and then harder and harder. Finally, in the face of Borsht’s continued resistance to questioning, he ‘played the Jew card with me’, threatening to hand him over to the Gestapo. ‘The information he was after was not important, really. He was making an issue of it’, Borsht recalled 71 years later. ‘He was making a big fella of himself.’
Kenneth Gaulton later claimed that the only time he was deliberately tortured was during his encounter with the interrogators. Doug Hutchinson was also tortured. Although he was admitted to nearby Hohemark clinic for shrapnel wounds to elbow, legs and body, and a piece shot from his left foot, he was denied treatment for three weeks. He was on his back during interrogation. ‘I couldn’t move very much, I had a leg that was aching like hell. … I had bits and pieces off all over me, and I was starting to feel sore. And I suppose there was a certain reaction catching up with me, from the crash.’ Despite pain and discomforted, Hutchinson he resisted questioning. His interrogator then aggravated his foot wound. While Charles Lark, who had been seriously injured during his last operation and had had an eye removed before being transported to Dulag Luft, did not mention deliberate torture, he requested medical attention on a number of occasions and was refused.
Douglas Hutchinson. Courtesy of Robert Douglas Hutchinson
Despite the physical and psychological assaults many found opportunities to withstand ill-treatment. Some had been briefed during escape and evasion lectures about what might happen during interrogation, or had viewed the 1940 training film, Enemy Interrogation of Prisoners. They had been warned that the Germans would consider them valuable sources of information and would question them; they were primed to be wary of tricky interrogation techniques. The airmen had also been alerted to the possibility of stool pigeons. As well as formal briefings, the rumour mill worked overtime and many ‘heard’ that they might be beaten and tortured to extract vital military ‘gen’ (information).
Armed with this knowledge and rumour-based expectation, the airmen took control to mitigate the worst of the debilitating effects of sensory deprivation. They actively exerted personal power to raise their morale and maintain self-discipline. Bill Amos played with a piece of string to amuse himself and to keep himself alert during solitary confinement. Dick Winn—who spent his 22nd birthday in Dulag Luft—did physical exercises and composed rhyming poetry in his head. ‘I figured that I should do the thing that was most difficult and time consuming for me. Each verse took many hours and sometimes days.’ Winn also indulged in some self-serving sabotage. Rather than put up with the ‘unbearably hot’ room, he disconnected one of the heater’s electrical wires with his ‘dog tag’, now returned to him, and manipulated his fountain pen barrel to turn the heater on and off.
In physically alleviating the worst effects of the heat torture by rubbing his handkerchief on the early morning condensation in his cell, and urinating into his handkerchief and using the moisture to ‘just wet the lips’, Kenneth Gaulton also waged a psychological defence against his circumstances. ‘That was the way I beat the system in my mind’. Alex Arnel had received little briefing about what might happen in interrogation but he had already been subjected to German techniques in a local holding cell shortly after he was captured. Drawing on that experience, he battled disorientation, depression and boredom. He counted the straws in his palliasse, sang hymns and songs loudly and recited all the poetry and scripture he could remember. Bruce Lumsden turned to his religious background as well. ‘I sought comfort and strength in prayer and in softly singing a hymn—the 23rd Psalm.’
Once the interrogation began, Justin O’Byrne was alert to German ploys for information. After about seven or eight hours alone in the cell, ‘a German “leutnant”’ came into his room and offered him an English cigarette. ‘He gave me a form with a big Red Cross on the top and asked me to fill it in’. O’Byrne and Bill Amos had been warned that these forms were bogus, designed to extract military details. Charles Lark believed very few were taken in and Tom Wood, for one, recognised immediately that ‘of course it was a fake’. O’Byrne certainly ‘had no intentions of falling for such a simple ruse’. Accordingly, he only ‘gave them my name rank and number which is compulsory under International Law’. The ‘leutnant’ asked O’Byrne why he ‘had not filled in the particulars concerning my squadron, group, duty, etc.’ and ‘said it was for the International Red Cross in Switzerland and that unless I completed it my next-of-kin would not be advised of the fact that I was still alive’. O’Byrne continued to refuse to complete the form so his interrogator said he would come back the next day ‘to see if I felt in a better mood to fill in the form’.
Justin O’Byrne. Courtesy of Anne O’Byrne
Each airman had a clear duty to protect the RAF’s security; he was still considered on ‘active service’ and was obliged to safeguard service information at all times. Indeed, that ‘responsibility is greatest after capture’. The training film Enemy Interrogation of Prisoners reinforced the onus of air force discipline and continuing service despite their captivity status:
You should remember that, although a prisoner of war, you are still at British subject and under the orders of the Royal Air Force. Obedience to these orders and procedure means that, far from being of no further service to your country, on the contrary, you can continue to be of great service to your country and comrades.
Dodging questions and refusing to complete forms was not just a source of pride for O’Byrne. He recognised he was still subject to air force discipline. And so, ‘I evaded every leading question he made’. It was also an opportunity to get the upper hand. ‘Whenever there was a lull in the conversation I enlarged on the advantages of using ‘De boric’, the boracic-glycerine treatment for blowfly strike on sheep’! After about two hours of question and evasion, the ‘leutnant’ threatened O’Byrne that ‘I would never see any of my friends and relations again if I did not give him the information he wanted’. O’Byrne continued to resist. ‘I told him that was just too bad, and he stormed out and slammed the door.’
Even through torture, Doug Hutchinson also attempted to outwit his questioner. When silence didn’t work, ‘I tried to be smarter all the time’. When they asked something, he would reply, ‘“You know the answer. Why are you asking me?” That sort of thing. And they thought we had radar on the aircraft, which we didn’t, and they believed that, so I said, “Well, you know, so why are you asking me about it?”.’ Cy Borsht also managed to act smarter during the continuing physical and psychological abuse—‘it was just simply a matter of repeating what you’ve already told him’—until, at the end of ‘a harrowing four days’ he was released to the transit camp.
After interrogation, the prisoners were taken to Dulag Luft’s transit camp to join the other prisoners. ‘What a relief it was to mix with our own crowd again!’, recalled Charles Lark. Henry ‘Harry’ Train was pleased to be reunited with his crew members, including one who he thought had been killed during the attack on their aircraft. Reuniting with old friend was morale-raising but so too was being able to share their recent experiences and identifying with those who had overcome adversity. ‘There are some original characters here and spirits are always high’, Train recorded. ‘Pretty well every one of these boys have looked death in the face … and their stories are well worth listening to’.
Henry ‘Harry’ Train. Courtesy of Peter Mayo
The horrors of final combat, the shock of captivity, and any lingering effects of ill-treatment were put aside by many in Dulag Luft’s transit camp in the face of like-mindedness, shared experience, conviviality, ‘wizard’ food provided courtesy of the Red Cross, and an energetic social life which included sport, films, concerts, and a steady stream of new arrivals. Within a few weeks, the prisoners were transported to a permanent facility. Officers travelled ‘by 3rd class’ train, ‘sergeants by cattle truck’. Regardless of the mode, it was, as far as George Archer and Ronnie Baines were concerned, ‘bloody awful’.
When I went through their accounts, I found that some prisoners mentioned they had had no briefing, others mentioned they had seen a training film about the experiences of a bomber crew after they’d been taken to Dulag Luft. I let my fingers do the walking and found Enemy Interrogation of Prisoners on Youtube. I thought you might be interested to see what the RAF thought would happen. Reality, for many as you have seen, was quite a bit different.
The film lasts about half an hour. If you don’t have time to watch it, here is the precis courtesy of the Imperial War Museum:
Film consists of a fictional episode with actors and spoken dialogue. Brief film sequence shows a Lockheed Hudson taking off. Film begins with an actor portraying a senior RAF officer who introduces the characters and sets the scene. Before the mission aircrews turn out their pockets to remove identifying articles. A plane is forced to land in enemy territory and the crew taken prisoner; the film then describes how German intelligence learn of a new airfield and proposed bombing raid, starting with a simple clue—a bus ticket which reveals the home station of the prisoners—and subsequently building on this by the use of a variety of techniques— separation of the crew, fraternisation, ‘hard/soft’ interrogation and leading questions, a German posing as an RAF officer, and listening in on ‘idle chatter’ between crew members. Germans then launch a pre-emptive raid which destroys British aircraft and postpones planned raid. Conclusion—give only your name, rank and number, and ‘keep your mouth shut’. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060013719