Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Kriegie Commandments

Over the last few months, I’ve been delving into the place of religion in helping the airmen prisoners of war in Stalag Luft III cope with captivity. Some men had profound faith which provided much comfort. Others disclosed a particularly secular—even wryly humorous—relationship with religion.
For many, ‘monotony’ was the key characteristic of life in a prisoner of war camp. One wit, for instance, pointed out that Hebrews 13:8—‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever’—admirably summed up their ‘kriegie’ life. Many relieved the boredom with escape work. When the time came to name North Compound’s the three major escape tunnels, George Harsh, who was in charge of security, favoured calling them ‘The Father’, ‘The Son’ and ‘The Holy Ghost’. 
(Author photo from George Harsh: Lonesome Road, Longman, 1971)
Roger Bushell, the escape mastermind, however, vetoed the idea because they would need all the help they could get, and they didn’t want to ‘start out by making the Almighty cross with us’. Bushell then settled on the less irreverent and more anodyne and the tunnels were dubbed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’.
(Lifted from https://blog.findmypast.com/in-our-prisoner-of-war-records-the-real-great-escapers-1406166255.html)
There were many off duty hours to fill and when they weren’t digging tunnels or carrying out other important escape related jobs, the men were always keen to keep their minds active and stimulated. John Osborne, for example, read religion along with science and philosophy for intellectual interest and a starting point for debate. 
(From the John Carlisle Osborne collection.  Courtesy of Narromine Aviation Museum)
Dick Winn read the Bible and Koran from cover to cover but not for the religious inspiration: ‘these books were so good, because they took so long to read’.
(Dick Winn's POW card)
Some, however, even in times of literary starvation, such as in Stalag IIIA, Luckenwalde after the evacuation from Stalag Luft III, could not stomach the word of God. Bruce Lumsden who carried on the forced march a copy of A Christmas Carol, a hymn book, and his precious Bible recalled that, for weeks, the Dickens ‘was passed around the hut from one to another kriegie, hungry for a read. One or two also borrowed my Bible’.

(Bruce Lumsden and his bible, courtesy of the Bradbeer/Lumsden family) 

Parodying the Ten Commandments, ‘The Kriegie’s Commandments’ exhorted the prisoners ‘to do no arbeit’ (work), or ‘dhobi’ (washing), and to ‘get into as many rackets as possible’. The humour of the ‘commandments’ helped make light of their new life. They also prescribed a formula for harmonious communal living. The ‘commandments’ promoted kriegie safety (‘Thou shalt not walk over the warning wire’) and reflected civilised society’s laws in, for example, the prohibition against stealing (‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s bedboards; nor his palliasse nor his dixie, nor his irons, nor anything that is his’). But they were also subversive. In forbidding arbeit, encouraging their fellows to be involved in rackets, and exposing ‘the rest’, i.e. German involvement in the rackets, the ‘commandments’ also condoned active and passive resistance.

(Courtesy of Alex Kerr)

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