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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Filed under Germany, military, nationalism, U.S., war

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