Daily Archives: 29 October 2018

From Penal Division to POW Camp

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 838-865:

At the height of the 1943 Nazi- and anti-Nazi crisis, Camp Huntsville proved to be a particularly important spot within the national POW system. At Huntsville, the general population of Afrika Korps non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and enlisted men were mixed with political prisoners, criminals, and anti-Nazis. Some of these prisoners likely came from the 999th Light Afrika Division, which contained the majority of anti-Nazis captured early in the war. Originally created as a penal brigade in 1942 in France, the unit expanded into a Division and began deployment into North Africa in early 1943. The defeat of German forces in North Africa interrupted the deployment, however, and many of the unit’s members quickly surrendered without a fight to the first Americans they encountered. Such actions did not endear them to their fellow POWs who viewed them as deserters and traitors. Despite the obvious divisions between these German prisoners, the POW camps in North Africa did not attempt to organize the prisoners, but rather mixed them all together in large compounds. This led to a number of problems with identification and organization. It also meant that the prisoners from the 999th were scattered throughout the early POW population and camp system.

The enlisted members of the unit were primarily communists, traditional socialists, anti-Nazis, and criminals, while their non-commissioned officers and officers were trusted party men. Just as the non-commissioned officers of the Afrika Korps tended to be the most ardent Nazis, the enlisted men of the 999th tended to be the most radical anti-Nazis. Much of the 999th’s more senior non-commissioned officers and leadership were confirmed Nazis and included Gestapo men, who were put in place to “keep watch” over their radical troops. Thus, the stage was set for violence whenever these two forces found themselves occupying the same camp in significant numbers.

In his account of his time at Camp Huntsville, former POW Rudolf Thill identifies twelve of the anti-Nazis who arrived with him as part of the first batch of prisoners who had been released from concentration camps to serve in the penal battalions of units like the 999th. These men had a particular problem in that their arms bore the telltale number tattoos of concentration camp prisoners. This made it nearly impossible for them to blend in with the prisoner population, even if they wanted to, which by all appearances they did not. Eventually, following an attack on two prisoners, the twelve anti-Nazis along with Thill, who had taken a job working with the Americans, were transferred to another camp after being segregated from the other prisoners and placed in the stockade for their own protection. More transfers and violence would follow.

In fact, disagreements among the “German” soldiers proved to be the greatest disruptive force at Camp Huntsville. This was, in large part, because the German military was not nearly as homogeneous as it has often been portrayed. In addition to a large number of Austrians pressed into service, it included Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, and any number of Balkan partisans who found themselves serving in the Wehrmacht or in specially organized foreign units. The U.S. generally treated all of these men as “German” on the basis that they were captured in German uniform, at least until later in the war.

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Nazi vs. Anti-Nazi POWs in Texas

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 804-837:

Interestingly, in 1943, administrators at Camp Huntsville and the Eighth Service Command seem to have been primarily concerned with ridding the camps of the anti-Nazis who were viewed as a “potential source of disturbance” and “trouble-makers,” rather than the die-hard Nazis. Yet, the problems at Camp Huntsville and other sites ran deeper than a few outspoken anti-Nazis. The reasons for Huntsville’s continued problems dated to its inception. The majority of the men at the camp were from the Afrika Korps captured during operations early in the war. Unlike many of the prisoners captured in Italy and Europe, who would later populate the camp, these men were part of the professional German Army, and included a significant proportion of political Nazis, SS, and Gestapo men. The United States, despite admonishment from the more experienced British, had failed to screen the majority of its POW population. As a result, a minority of anti-Nazis mixed with this much larger general population of prisoners. That minority would come under regular attack throughout the war, but Huntsville was an especially bad place to be an anti-Nazi.

The anti-Nazis did little to help their own cause with the Americans, however. Many were radicals who were aligned with left-wing elements that had been suppressed in Germany in 1919 by returning members of the army after the November 11 Armistice. Others were former political prisoners with communist leanings or avowed members of the communist party. Their radicalism sometimes led to counter-productive behavior, like refusals to salute American officers as part of a general rejection of militarism and not just Nazism. In contrast, Nazis appear to have relished delivering their stiff armed salute to the Americans. Both the refusal to salute and the Nazi salute were essentially political acts, but the Nazi salute, in context, was a proper rendering of military courtesy, whereas the Americans viewed the refusal to salute as subversive and unbecoming of a military member.

Anti-Nazis also considered themselves “free” of past constraints; Freiheit hinter Staacheldraht (freedom behind barbed wire) as they called it. This led to outspoken behavior in which they freely discussed the downfall of the Hitler regime and preached their political beliefs. They also considered the Americans allies and wanted to help them, which they usually did by informing on their fellow prisoners. Consequently, their fellow prisoners, even those who were not ardent Nazis, viewed anti-Nazis as traitors, deserters, and snitches, and they were a constant source of trouble within camps where their numbers offered them a degree of safety.

It should not be surprising, then, that American guards generally viewed the anti-Nazis through a similar lens as the Nazis—many of the anti-Nazis were traitors and snitches to their own side, and generally disruptive in many cases. Anti-Nazis, like defectors, spies, or snitches, were greeted with suspicion and a certain amount of distaste, even when they provided valuable information. However noble their motives, the consequence of their actions meant their captors often treated anti-Nazis with a degree of suspicion.

In any case, camp administrators were more concerned with order and discipline within their camps than with any political argument between Germans, who were, as a group, viewed as the “enemy.” Any anti-Nazi attempting to cozy up to guards, demanding special treatment, or causing trouble, was a problem, no matter the political reasoning behind it. Until the development of the re-education program later in the war, which channeled the activities of the anti-Nazis into a U.S. coordinated program, the activities of most anti-Nazis within their respective camps caused problems and garnered few converts to their cause.

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Adapting Rations for German POWs

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 579-608:

The Geneva Convention placed very strict stipulations on the availability and quality of food served to the prisoners. Specifically, Article 11 directed that the food rations provided to the POWs must be equal to that supplied to American troops. To make certain that such provisions were carried out, inspection teams were assigned to report on the implementation of the Geneva Convention on a regular basis. The quantity of food served at meals never seemed to be in question during the first three years of the war. A POW from Camp Huntsville was quoted as saying, “On the first evening and on the first days, we were hungry, but we were soon provided with sufficient meals. We received good and adequate food. According to our orders to do damage to your enemy wherever you can, we naturally were always asking for everything we could get.”

The acquisition and delivery of food to the camp for prisoners and staff proved to be a considerable task. Many of the goods came into the camp from the train station in Riverside, Texas. Box cars filled with loads of rice, beans, potatoes and various dry goods circulated into the camp and were divided amongst the compounds. Necessary foods, such as cheese, butter, and meat went directly to cold storage units. Other goods were stored in the kitchens, many of which ran 24 hours a day. As Titus Fields later reported, “I have never seen so many potatoes in my life!”

Careful attention was paid to the food preferences of native Germans and efforts were made to appeal to their tastes in order to reduce food waste. A POW Menu and Mess Guide was published in 1944 and catered to German prisoners’ food preferences. The menu provided the POWs with various foods such as frankfurters, salami, bologna, cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and bread. Cabbage was required to be served a minimum of three times per week. Foods that were unpopular, such as American style soups, frozen fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter were removed from the menu completely. The Germans also refused to eat corn, calling it “Swine Food.” Former Huntsville resident Linda Evans recalled meeting two POWs from Camp Huntsville while visiting Germany in the 1970s. One of them, Herr Pfieffer, mentioned to her that his treatment at the camp was “OK,” but some of the food was terrible. On Thanksgiving, the traditional American turkey dinner was served, and the prisoners were told that it was very good. Pfieffer said, in truth, to the Germans it was terrible, and they could not eat it. Any dish containing oysters, celery, green peppers and canned juices were also removed from the menu because the Germans were said to be unfamiliar with these types of foods. To help reduce waste from the breakfast meal, bacon, eggs, ham, potatoes, and sausage were removed from the prisoners’ diet and substituted with fruit, cereal, and bread because the Germans traditionally preferred a lighter breakfast. Beef was also to be served less frequently with a substitution of salt pork in its place. All of these efforts lead to a reduction in waste and aided many German POWs in adapting to their surroundings.

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