Bridgend, South Wales · March 10, 1945

Twenty-two miles west of the Welch capital, Cardiff, was a British prisoner-of-war camp built to house mainly Ger­man but also some Ital­ian pri­soners. Cap­able of accom­mo­dating 2,000 in­mates, the camp was called Island Farm. On this date in 1945, 67 POWs (one source says as many as 84 POWs) escaped from Island Farm through a 70‑ft‑long tun­nel that breached the camp peri­meter. The break­out was the largest escape attempt from any Euro­pean POW camp. (The largest escape took place in 1944 in Cowra, New South Wales, Aus­tra­lia, at a Japa­nese POW camp, when at least 545 prisoners attempted an escape.)

Some of the tech­niques used by the fugi­tives in Wales were in­genious and not too dis­similar from those de­picted in the film and book of the same name, The Great Escape, which focused on the March 24–25, 1944, escape of 76 British air­men (out of 200 who tried) from “escape-proof” Sta­lag Luft III in what is now Żagań, West­ern Poland, but then part of Ger­man Lower Silesia. To dig the Welch tun­nel camp in­mates used cans and knives from the mess hall; soil was hauled out in a make­shift box and put into knap­sacks. The tun­nel roof was held up by wood retrieved from benches and beds. A hand-cranked fan forced air through a venti­la­tion pipe made from con­densed milk cans. The men were divided into groups and each had iden­tity papers forged in the camp. They also had rough sketches of Welch rail­roads and road­ways. When the POWs made their escape late on March 10, one set used a stolen car to reach Bir­ming­ham in the Eng­lish West Mid­lands, 120 miles away. Another set reached South­amp­ton, the major port on the south coast of Eng­land. The fugi­tives were even­tually cap­tured; none was offi­cially pun­ished, unlike the 50 recaptured Brit­ish air­men from Stalag Luft III whom Adolf Hitler ordered exe­cuted.

The nearest equi­valent to a mass break­out in the U.S. was attempted by 25 Ger­man detainees at Pa­pa­go Park east of Phoenix, Ari­zona. After crawling through a 178‑ft tun­nel just before Christ­mas 1944, they headed for the near­by Salt River, their in­tended escape route to Mexico, 150 miles to the south. The fugi­tives, some carrying wooden boards to fashion into a raft, were hugely dis­appointed to find that the Salt River was a dry river­bed, even in the dead of winter. By Janu­ary 28, 1945, the last fugitive had been captured.

Years ago, when I first came across the startling infor­ma­tion that German prisoners of war—more than 370,000—were held in the United States during World War II, I knew I had to write about it, particularly when I learned a POW camp had been located about two hours from my home that housed more than 1,700 naval and U‑boat officers and crew­men. My research became a histor­ical novel, The Swastika Tattoo, a story set at Camp Papago Park in east Phoenix, Arizona. Luckily for me, John Ham­mond Moore did a lot of the ground­work I needed with his book, The Faust­ball Tunnel: German POWs in America and Their Great Escape. Another well-researched book, Nazi Prisoners of War in America by Arnold Kram­mer filled more gaps, touching a bit on the re-edu­ca­tion program 20,000 hand-selected POWs were put through before being shipped back to Germany. How­ever, Ron Robin’s research for The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States During World War II describes the program in-depth where camp offi­cials tried to mold the daily lives and minds of their cap­tives. To round out my research, I wanted to find out what happened to German POWs still held in Europe after the war. Giles Macdonogh, author of After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occu­pa­tion, paints a dis­paraging view of the Amer­i­can occu­pa­tion of Germany, one entirely different than the treat­ment of German POWs held in the States.—Geraldine Birch

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Scenes of Three Stalags (Prisoner-of-War Camps) in Germany

Stalag IV-B street sceneOflag XIII-B liberation

Left: Stalag, a contraction of “Stammlager” (“Main Camp”), was a Ger­man term used for pri­soner-of-war camps, of which there were 54. (By con­trast, the U.S. had 511 POW camps.) Stalag IV‑B (shown here), about 30 miles north of Dres­den, was one of the largest POW camps in Ger­many. At the end of Decem­ber 1944, some 7,500 Amer­i­cans arrived, pri­soners taken in the Battle of the Bulge. When the Soviet Army arrived at Stalag IV‑B on April 23, 1945, there were roughly 30,000 POWs crowded into the faci­li­ties. About 3,000 of them died, mainly from tuber­culosis and typhus.

Right: An M4 Sherman tank of Gen. George S. Patton’s 14th Armored Divi­sion crashes into the pri­son com­pound at Oflag XIII‑B, an officers POW camp (“Offizier-lager”) two miles south of Hammel­burg, Bavaria, on April 6, 1945. A raid sanc­tioned by Patton, whose son-in-law was a pri­soner at the camp, failed 11 days earlier. All of the 57 tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles were lost in that first raid. Of the roughly 300 men in the March raiding party (Task Force Baum), 32 were killed and only 35 made it back to Allied-con­trolled terri­tory, with the rest taken prisoner.

Liberation of Stalag XIII-CFreed POWs at Stalag XIII-C

Left: Just after the liberation of Stalag XIII-C. The Amer­i­can tele­vision sit­com Hogan’s Heroes, which aired from 1965 to 1971, was sit­u­ated in a ficti­tious POW camp called “Stalag 13” said to be near Hammel­burg. There was no resem­blance between the fic­tional camp and the actual Stalags XIII‑A, -B, and -C other than name and location.

Right: Freed POWs at Stalag XIII‑C. Following Germany’s sur­render, the north­ern part of the Stalag XIII was used to intern former Nazi Party mem­bers. The camp also housed large numbers of Ger­man refugees who had fled the ad­vancing Red Army in East­ern Germany as well as eth­nic Ger­mans who had been ex­pelled from areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Various Scenes of Allied POWs Following Liberation; Germans Entering Captivity; Gen. Eisenhower Touring Ohrdruf, a Subcamp of Buchenwald Death Camp