Rhine Meadow Camps, German Rhineland April 17, 1945

By this date in 1945 and over the next two months, American, British, and French armies estab­lished 19 Rhine Meadow camps (German, Rhein­wiesen­lager) prin­ci­pally on the west bank of the Rhine River in the German states of North-Rhine West­pha­lia and Rhein­land-Pfalz (Rhine­land-Pala­ti­nate) (see map below). The Rhine­land camps were offi­cially part of the Allies’ Pri­soner of War Tem­po­rary Enclo­sures (PWTE) and held between 1 mil­lion and 1.9 mil­lion Wehr­macht (German mili­tary) and “sus­picious civil­ian” (ver­daech­tige Zivil­personen) pri­soners who were cap­tured or sur­ren­dered by the end of May 1945. The pri­soners were clas­si­fied under a new desig­na­tion invented the pre­vious month, Dis­armed Enemy Forces (U.S.) or Sur­ren­dered Enemy Per­son­nel (British) (DEFs/SEPs) instead of pri­soners of war (POWs) as codified in the 1929 Geneva Convention.

Until New Years 1945, German POWs were typ­i­cally trans­ported across the Chan­nel or the Atlantic to Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. But after 250,000 Germans had been swept up in the failed German Ardennes offen­sive, aka Battle of the Bulge (Decem­ber 16, 1944 to Janu­ary 25, 1945), and 325,000 after the Allies’ destruc­tion of Germany’s Ruhr Basin (April 1–20, 1945), there were now more than 3.4 mil­lion German pri­soners in Allied cus­tody. Envi­sioning the immi­nent col­lapse of the Wehr­macht and the Nazi Third Reich, the Western Allies saw the logic in keeping their recent captives at home as it were.

The 19 Rhine Meadow camps began their exis­tence in open farm­lands close to German vil­lages served by a rail line; buildings bordering the farm­lands were converted into admin­is­tra­tive offices, kitchens, and infir­ma­ries. A few of the camps remained oper­a­tional into Septem­ber 1945. Some camps were enor­mous and sub­divided into smaller enclosures for 5,000 to 10,000 people. Camps were seg­re­gated by gender, mili­tary affil­i­ation, and date of cap­ture: e.g., POWs cap­tured before Germany’s capit­u­la­tion on May 8, 1945; DEFs/­SEPs with­out the status of POW who sur­ren­dered after May 8; nurses; Waffen SS; and high-profile Nazis. Teen­age and elderly Volks­sturm (home guard) sol­diers were dis­armed and released after a few days; same for women and polit­i­cal types who were “beyond reproach” (polit­isch unver­daech­tig). Mili­tary equip­ment like shovels, tents, and blan­kets was confis­cated. To create shel­ters and sleeping places for them­selves internees used hel­mets, ration cans, and fingers to dig holes in the ground.

Interestingly, the 40,000-strong U.S. 106th In­fa­ntry Divi­sion had over­all respon­si­bil­ity for the camps, but the divi­sion placed inter­nal camp admin­is­tra­tion in the hands of pri­soners: camp man­agers, armed guards, doctors, cooks, work detach­ments were posts assumed by Germans themselves.

As if postwar German-run prison camps weren’t con­tro­ver­sial enough, the nature and num­ber of camp deaths were. The esti­mated deaths in the Rhine Mea­dow camps between April and Septem­ber 1945 range from 3,000 to 10,000. Offi­cial U.S. govern­ment sta­tis­tics on the death tolls range between 3,000 and 6,000, most occurring in the first two months of the camps’ exis­tence. A vari­ety of German sources place the lowest figure at 8,000 dead and the highest at 40,000. The West German Maschke Com­mis­sion (1962–1974) scien­tif­i­cally and exten­sively inves­ti­gated the his­tory of German pri­soners of war on behalf of the Federal Min­is­try for Expel­lees, Ref­u­gees, and War Vic­tims. From church records and eye­wit­ness accounts com­mis­sion members tabu­lated 4,537 deaths in the 6 most‑noto­rious Rhine Mea­dow camps, which held 557,000 pri­soners from April to July 1945, and in the remaining camps just 774 deaths; com­mis­sioners reck­oned, how­ever, that the true death count for the 6 camps might be twice as high. A Cana­dian nov­el­ist, James Bacque, who neither exa­mined the Maschke col­lec­tion nor could read German, posits an absurdly inflated 790,000 to 1,000,000 camp deaths. Bacque’s 1989 revi­sionist book, Other Losses, is hotly con­tested by U.S. and German historians.

Rhine Meadow Camps, German Rhineland, April to September 1945

Map Rhine Meadow Camps, April to September, 1945

Above: This map of the Rhineland shows the loca­tion of 19 Rhine Mea­dow camps (German, Rhein­wiesen­lager). The camps were offi­cially named Pri­soner of War Tem­po­rary Enclo­sures (PWTEs). Situ­ated in the north were three British-run PWTEs, Buederich, Rhein­berg, and Wick­rath­berg. From Remagen and moving south, the camps were run by the U.S. and, after June 10, 1945, France, the date the Amer­i­cans trans­ferred owner­ship of their camps to France at the latter’s request. The French govern­ment under Gen. Charles de Gaulle wanted 1.75 mil­lion pri­soners for forced labor in France to rebuild that coun­try’s infra­struc­ture damaged by 4 years of com­bat on its soil. Eight camps were emptied of some 182,400 pri­soners and trans­ported to France as a kind of “labor reparations.” The British, who con­trolled the Buederich and Rhein­berg camps, handed de Gaulle all pris­oners fit for work and sent the rest on their way, closing their camps. By the end of Septem­ber, nearly all Rhine Mea­dow camps were shuttered. Only the Bretzen­heim camp, aka “Field of Misery” (German, Feld des Jammers), remained open until 1948. It was needed as a tran­sit camp for German prisoners released from work in France.

German POWs Aachen 1944Unknown Rhine Meadow Camp, 1945

Left: German soldiers in this photo were captured after the fall of Aachen in Octo­ber 1944 and given POW status; they are unlikely to have been placed in a Rhine Mea­dow camp the fol­lowing year. Under the 1929 Geneva Con­ven­tion, which governed the human­i­tar­ian treat­ment of pri­soners of war, POWs were to be sent home with­in months of the end of the war. But their treat­ment neces­sarily required a German govern­ment able to nego­ti­ate with the Inter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross. Allied govern­ments refused to recog­nize the valid­ity of the Nazi regime of Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz, who, after Adolf Hitler’s sui­cide on April 30, 1945, governed what remained of the Third Reich from Flens­burg near the Danish border. Doenitz and his cabi­net were arrested on May 23, 1945, by order of Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Supreme Allied Com­mander, Allied Expe­di­tion­ary Force (SHAEF). The Doenitz regime was dis­solved the same day. A four-power docu­ment, the Decla­ra­tion Regarding the Defeat of Germany, for­mally abo­lished any German govern­ance over the van­quished nation and gave the U.S., Great Brit­ain, France, and the Soviet Union legal cover for assuming political control of Germany.

Right: Aerial view of an unidentified Rhine Meadow camp. The Allies incar­cer­ated between 1 mil­lion and 1.9 mil­lion enemy com­bat­ants during the 6‑month exis­tence of the Rhine­land camps. Many of the com­bat­ants arrived at the camps sick, wounded, or mal­nourished due to Nazi Germany’s eco­no­mic col­lapse in the last months of war. German rail trans­por­ta­tion and food fac­to­ries had been heavily bombed in the Allies’ cam­paign to hasten the end the war. The aver­age German civil­ian at the time was reduced to living on 1,000 calories per day, a star­va­tion diet. It’s no wonder that mal­nu­tri­tion and dis­ease spread through these prison camps in the first 2–3 months of their existence.

Rhine Meadow Camp Sinzig May 1945aRhine Meadow Camp Sinzig May 1945b

Left: Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosure at Sinzig, Germany, probably May 12, 1945. On that date, 116,000 German pri­soners of war were held there; the rated capacity was 100,000. Pri­soners were kept in a barbed wire-fenced open field with little or no shelter. Sinzig PWTE and the neigh­boring camp at Remagen accounted for half the pri­soners held in the Rhine Mea­dow camps. Sinzig was one of the six Rhine­land camps with the highest mor­tality rates.

Right: Lacking shovels, spades, or trowels—anything of that kind having been confis­cated by camp author­i­ties—pri­soners dug holes in the ground for shelter and a place to sleep. During rain­storms these holes filled with water, making them inhab­itable. Many inmates died from star­vation, dehy­dra­tion, and expo­sure to the elements because no struc­tures were built inside the prison enclosures.

The Rhine Meadow Camps: What Really Happened