Escape From Stalag VIIIB
Wilkommen bei Stalag VIII-B
Stalag VIII-B was one of the largest POW camps in Germany, with its roots as a camp dating back as far as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. It became home to some of the first POWs from Poland in 1939, then to POWs from Britain and the Commonwealth from 1940. Recently, the first Americans have started to arrive, taken in the North African, Sicilian and Italian campaigns. Russians were not incarcerated at Stalag VIII-B. They had their own camps, some of which were close by. As Russia was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, they were treated little better than animals by the Germans (and vice versa).
Using today’s geography, the site is close to the Polish village of Łambinowice close to the junction of the Polish, Czech and Slovak borders. In 1943, however, it was located in the heart of German-owned Silesia – a centre of coal mining, steel works and heavy industry vital to the military production of the Third Reich. The village it was located next to was known in German as Lemsdorf.
Unfortunately for the occupants, it was located about as far away from the front/neutral countries as it was possible to get in 1943.
Those who have seen The Great Escape should have a fairly good idea as to how life was like at Stalag VIII-B. Stalag Luft III-B, the camp featured in the movie, was located just 120 miles NW of Stalag VIII-B.
The main compound of Stalag VIII-B looks like this:
Which is part of the overall complex which looks like this:
There are, however, some important differences between Stalag VIII-B and Stalag Luft III as appeared in the movie.
All of the POWs at Stalag VIII-B were enlisted men rather than the airmen who were incarcerated at Stalag Luft III (most of whom were officers) or any of the Oftlagen (POW camps for officers, the most famous of which was Colditz). Enlisted men were not considered such a great prize as officers (nor were they considered to have enough initiative to make fiendishly clever escape attempts). Instead they were used more as a ‘resource’ for the Nazis.
According to the Geneva Convention, it is allowed for enlisted men to work, providing that they were not working in an active military role. Working the land, or a quarry, coalmine, steel works, etc., was allowed, however, and naturally of great benefit to the captors as it freed up able-bodied Germans to fight at the front.
These working parties, known as Arbeitskommandos were optional for POWs to join. Those who did were rewarded with more food and better conditions than the refuseniks who stayed at the camp. Stalag VIII-B has 600-700 Arbeitskommando sub-branches in operation around the region, employing 10,000 of the 15,000 POWs registered to the camp, employed in a wide range of employment in this strategically vital and heavily industrial region.
The Arbeitskommando units are significantly less well guarded than the main camp, the degree of security depends upon the amount of trust earned by the POWs and their nationality. For example, French POWs were considered such low-risk that they were allowed to go shopping on their own in towns, trusted to come back on their own accord. Russians, conversely, were always heavily guarded. Commonwealth troops were somewhere in the middle.
Escaping the guards was the not the hardest part of any potential escape attempt, however – not when the closest neutral country or front line was over 500 miles away. The vast majority of escapees were quickly captured within a day or two and received a minimum of a month in solitary as punishment for their escape attempt.
So the first decision that the escapees need to decide is – do they try and escape from the main camp itself, or do they choose to get assigned to an Arbeitskommando unit (without having the knowledge of where the unit will be based or what jobs they will be given when they get there?)
For more information, please check out www.lamsdorf.com