Category Archives: Germany

The Idea Factory for POW Reeducation

From Nebraska POW Camps: A History of World War II Prisoners in the Heartland, by Melissa Amateis Marsh (History Press, 2014), Kindle pp. 41-44:

Located at Fort Kearny, Rhode Island, the Idea Factory consisted of German POWs who were carefully screened for their anti-Nazi tendencies and then selected after they filled out questionnaires. These prisoners were then separated from the rest of their comrades at their camp to await transport to Fort Kearny. Although this selection was not foolproof, the Americans did have an advantage. Hitler’s impending defeat had soured many Germans against Nazism. Others had never been ardent admirers of Nazism. Still, at the time the reeducation program appeared, many of the German POWs had been prisoners for two or three years, offering them ample opportunity to think about Germany’s status in the world. These prisoners were involved in the experimental phase of the reeducation program. Although pro-Nazism was still a problem in the camps, this group was determined to do something about it.

The Special Projects staff then assembled a division of “specially-qualified” German prisoners—writers, professors and linguists who were dedicated anti-Nazis. All were volunteers, all were officers and all renounced their Wehrmacht ranks. Due to this special assignment, these prisoners enjoyed far more freedom at Fort Kearny than they had had at their respective camps. No guards or towers policed their movements, and they even took the ferry to Jamestown in army trucks to pick up their supplies.

However, this rather elite group of individuals was perhaps not the most prudent choice. Although the group was happy to be among other intellectuals, Ron Robin believed the group did not understand the tastes of the average prisoner. According to Robin, this would come to negatively affect the program. The Idea Factory was separated into subdivisions, which included review sections for film and government agency material, translation sections for the school curriculum and a camp newspaper section. This last section monitored around seventy POW camp newspapers as well as produced its own nationwide camp newspaper called Der Ruf (The Call). The goals of the newspaper were to “reflect the experience of being a German PW in America, but also stimulate democratic thinking.” The first issue appeared in the spring of 1945.

When Germany fell and victory was proclaimed in Europe in May 1945, many of the ordinary classes POWs had been taking were eliminated. Instead, the essentials—English, history, geography and others that stressed democracy—were emphasized. Now the men at the Idea Factory in New York concentrated on reviewing and preparing materials for the new reeducation program. They focused on two areas: censorship and translations. Books that were to be considered for class use, libraries and for sale in the POW canteen all had to be read, analyzed and evaluated before they would be declared “suitable” for the POWs.

With so many diversions already in place before the reeducation program went into effect, it remained imperative that the Special War Projects Division find U.S. officers capable of implementing the program. The requirements were stiff. The men were expected to be experts on German and American journalism, film and literature; be fluent in German; and have previous experience in a POW camp and education. These assistant executive officers were trained at conferences in Fort Slocum, New York, in late 1944 and early 1945.

The importance of intelligence officers to the program’s success could not be overstated. Yet more often than not, they met with more opposition from their own officers and American servicemen than from the prisoners themselves. Alfred Thompson suggests that the program did not receive the support and cooperation it should have at the camp level because of the intense secrecy surrounding it. Because it was a top secret program, they could not even tell their fellow officers just what they were doing. “One went so far as to tell his commanding officers that he was under secret orders and could not reveal his mission even to him. Some of the AEO’s had enough brains to recognize the difficulties which would be involved in such complete secrecy and lack of confidence in co-workers, but the majority was not so intelligent.” In fact, Thompson and other officers found themselves ostracized by their own co-workers. “We were called ‘Junior Dick Tracys’ or ‘Super Sleuths’ to the point where it hurt.”

This attitude originated from the very top. The supervising officer of the assistant executive officers, Major Paul A. Neuland, felt that the lack of contact between the officers in the field and the Special Projects Division chain of command was having a detrimental effect on the program itself. Even though he tried to pass along the critical comments of the officers to division headquarters, he succeeded only in alienating himself further from his fellow officers. Neuland was upset by the continual rejection of the officers’ comments “by a man in the New York Office…doesn’t make sense.” But unfortunately, to his fellow Special War Projects Division officers, Neuland’s criticism only pointed to a lack of loyalty.

These intelligence officers’ responsibility carried further than merely implementing the reeducation program. They were also required to keep morale and special service activities “maintained and improved” for the American military personnel at the camps. They were ordered to distribute the War Department pamphlets 19-1 “What about the German Prisoners?” and 19-2 “Facts vs. Fantasy” to help in this endeavor. Yet with the majority of the responsibility of the program falling on their shoulders, it is difficult to understand why the commanders in the Special Projects Division office did not listen more to their thoughts on the matter.

Yet the very nature of those in charge, who were mostly from academia, might offer a clue. As Ron Robin states in The Barbed-Wire College, “They represented an alienated intelligentsia, who never bothered to hide their contempt for the rank and file within the camps.”

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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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The Times of Appeasement, 1930s

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 842-62:

The Times of London, then co-owned by another member of the Astor clan, John J. Astor, was at the time the daily journal of the British establishment. As Lord Halifax, Chamberlain’s foreign minister, put it, in prewar Britain, “Special weight was held to attach to opinions expressed in its leading articles [that is, editorials], on the assumption that these carried some quality of government stamp, if not approbation.” The newspaper fervently supported appeasement throughout the 1930s, to the point that it was willing to tolerate and even embrace Hitlerian tactics. Following the “Night of the Long Knives,” a series of shocking political murders carried out on Hitler’s orders in mid-1934, the newspaper soothed, “Herr Hitler, whatever one may think of his methods, is genuinely trying to transform revolutionary fervour into moderate and constructive effort and to impose a high standard of public service on National-Socialist officials.”

In 1937, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, confided to his Geneva correspondent, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their susceptibilities.” According to the Times’s own official history of itself, published in 1952, those who opposed appeasement were all too often “intellectuals, utopians, sentimentalists and pacifists satisfied with a programme of resistance without the means of resistance.” The Times’s history, with extraordinary nerve, blames those hotheads for making the disastrous policy of appeasement necessary, arguing that the newspaper, “like the Government, was helpless in the face of an apparently isolationist Commonwealth and a pacifist Britain.” What this explanation fails to note is that the role of a leading newspaper is not just to follow opinion but to try to shape it, especially when a major government policy rests on faulty assumptions. And it certainly is not the role of a newspaper editor to suppress news on the grounds that it might bother people or force government officials to reconsider their policies.

King Edward VIII himself, during his eleven-month reign in 1936, supported appeasement. According to one account, when Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland in March 1936, breaking the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the king called the German ambassador in London to tell him that he had given Prime Minister Baldwin “a piece of my mind.” To wit, “I told the old-so-and-so that I would abdicate if he made war. There was a frightful scene. But you needn’t worry. There won’t be war.” The king actually would abdicate for other reasons later that same year. During the war, his rightist views and contacts would become a persistent worry for Churchill and British intelligence.

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Battle of Britain Advantages, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1849-76:

The whole theory of fighter defence was created to avoid what they called “standing patrols.” If you were guarding the country by having aeroplanes up all the time, you ran out of engine hours and you were on the ground when the attack occurred. So the RAF developed a system of reporting incoming raids. First, he used radar to plot the aircraft as they were approaching Britain and then he used the Observer Corps to spot them when they’d crossed the coast. All the information was fed to a filter room and then to an operations room where you got a picture of the developing raids plotted on a table. That picture would be three or four minutes old but it was sufficiently up to date to get the fighters off when they were really needed.

Thus the characteristic image of the Battle of Britain that we have today is of young tousle-haired pilots lounging near their aircraft, not flying but ready to go aloft at a moment’s notice. In historical retrospect, the British air defense system was the equivalent of a human-powered computer, a remarkable real-time information-processing system that worked so well in conserving British aerial resources—aircraft, pilots, and staff attention—that it was one reason the Royal Air Force actually grew more powerful with the passage of time in 1940. A second reason was that British aircraft factories finally swung into high gear.

The third reason that the British prevailed in the Battle of Britain was German incompetence in waging an aerial offensive. Contrary to the Teutonic reputation for martial skill, the Luftwaffe’s approach was “astonishingly amateur,” concluded Bungay, amounting to “little more than flying over England, dropping some bombs on various things to annoy people, and shooting down any fighters which came up as a result.” It is no accident, Bungay adds, that the military service operating so incoherently was the only one of the German armed forces led by a Nazi politician, Goering, who before going into politics had been a pilot during World War I. Hitler supposedly liked to say that he had a conservative army, a reactionary navy, and a Nazi air force. That politicized air arm flew into English airspace unprepared for what it would encounter. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, who flew a Messerschmitt 109 fighter, recalled being surprised on a fogbound day: “I experienced a Spitfire formation all of a sudden coming up from behind, having a clear line of fire and I wondered how this was even possible. Having no visibility whatsoever, from above nor from below, how was it possible that an enemy formation was able to get into a firing position from behind?” The answer, of course, was the well-tuned British radar and early warning system.

The Germans in their days of pride also consistently overestimated the damage they were doing, believing in mid-August 1940 that the British had only 300 working fighters available. In fact, they had 1,438—which was twice as many as they had on hand just six weeks earlier. The kill ratio always favored the British, who lost a total of 1,547 aircraft while destroying 1,887 German ones. On top of that, because most of the aerial combat took place over England, British pilots could fly many missions in one day, with their aircraft reloaded with ammunition in under four minutes. And when they were shot down, they often could parachute to friendly soil and fly again, while parachuting Germans who survived became prisoners of war, and those who ditched in the frigid waters of the channel often were lost either to drowning or hypothermia. (For the same reasons, the RAF lost more bomber crew members during this period than it did fighter pilots—801 from Bomber Command versus 544 for Fighter Command.)

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Waking the Bureaucracy, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1668-82:

Even as he was rallying the nation and trying to bolster the French, Churchill also was working full time on another major task: waking the soporific British bureaucracy. His work in this area, while if anything underappreciated, arguably helped the war effort as much as his oratory did. One of the biggest problems facing the British internally when he took office was the lethargy of the government during the first nine months of the war. “Chamberlain [had] presided efficiently over the Cabinet,” recalled Sir Ian Jacob. “Business was managed in an orderly fashion; but nothing much happened.” One surprising sign of this official indolence is that Britain should have been revving up its industries as it mobilized for a large war, yet unemployment increased from 1.2 million in September 1939 to 1.5 million in February 1940.

Churchill, upon becoming prime minister, reacted to the “sedate, sincere, but routine” attitude of the Chamberlain government by firing a daily barrage of personal memos that shook both military leaders and senior civilians. The memos often were tagged with a bright red label demanding “Action This Day,” a device Churchill first used at the height of the Dunkirk crisis, on May 29, 1940. His notes, wrote one aide, were “like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration—so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing. In Whitehall the effect of this influence was immediate and dramatic. . . . A new sense of purpose and urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel.” As another wartime aide remembered it, “All round Whitehall people sat up and took notice.” They began working on nights and weekends—just as Churchill did.

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