the assorted works of G. H. Spaulding

 

Ticket to Stalag Luft III

 

by GH Spaulding, CAPT, USN (Ret)

 

   

“Well, I guess all you sons-a-bitches are glad to see me!”

-- General George S. Patton, standing on the hood of his staff car as he addressed thousands of cheering,  just-liberated Allied POWs at Stammlager VIIA, Moosburg, Germany, on 29 April 1945.

 Among the nearly 36,000 U.S. Army Air Force personnel known to have fallen prisoner to the Germans in the Second World War were three current members of Denver’s Daedalian Mile High Flight 18—Salty Saltsman, Rod Rawlinson and Bill Hendrix—who share the common experience of incarceration at Stalag Luft III. Located 100 miles southeast of Berlin, Stalag Luft III was one of a handful of POW camps administered by the Luftwaffe for captured Allied airmen. It was also the site of the infamous “Great Escape.”

     Like many Allied fliers, all three of these men escaped the fiery death throes of a heavy bomber only to face a lengthy confinement behind barbed wire. Before being liberated just one week prior to the end of the war in Europe, they and thousands of other POWs were herded across Germany in harsh winter conditions to camps further removed from advancing Allied forces. An important and often overlooked part of their story relates to the rigors of combat they experienced prior to their incarceration. Their story begins in Holland....

 

Heinz Knoke is a 21-year-old Luftwaffe fighter pilot and a veteran of more than 190 missions when he takes off from his base in Holland on 22 March 1943 to attack a formation of B-17s on their way home after bombing Wilhelmshaven. For the first time a 500-pound bomb is strapped to the belly of his Messerschmitt Me-109. Although he is the flight leader, he is far behind the other aircraft in his flight as none of the others is carrying such ordnance. Knoke struggles to 30,000 feet and is above the B-17s as they pass over Heligoland. He arms and releases his bomb, which detonates in the center of a row of Fortresses. One of them is destroyed.

       This is an experimental drop intended to validate an idea suggested by Knoke’s best friend Dieter Gerhard on the night of 27 February. The two pilots had worked through the night in Knoke’s room to flesh out the concept of bombing American heavy bombers from above before going after them with guns. The tactic they devised was to equip their bombs with 15-second time delay fuses and drop them from an altitude 3,000 feet above the bomber formation. For the next few weeks, they train by dropping 100-pound practice bombs on a drogue towed by a Ju-88. Gerhard never sees his concept come to fruition as he is killed during a traditional fighter mission only four days before Knoke’s operational test.

     But the idea is well received by Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. Consequently, it is decided that a fighter squadron based on the Channel coast would also experiment with bombs. Results are generally good. When bombs happen to detonate in the right place, they produce spectacular explosions, destroying one or more planes at once. Meanwhile, those that do not cause physical damage are effective as weapons of terror, disrupting the integrity of bomber formations and demoralizing crews as they free fall menacingly between aircraft. It is understood that this is a temporary tactic which will be abandoned when fighters begin escorting American bombers all the way to their targets. Nevertheless, in August 1943 Knoke’s squadron will switch from bombs to unguided rockets launched from cans suspended beneath their wings. While the results are hit and miss, several bombers are downed by rockets.

     All told Knoke will complete 400 missions and be shot down several times in the process. But he does not come out of the war until October 1944 when his car is damaged by a bomb planted by the Czech underground and crashes into a bridge abutment. He is permanently crippled in the incident, which occurs as he transfers to another base in a desperate attempt to reconstitute his squadron.

Against impossible odds

It is difficult to imagine an ordeal more terrifying for pilots than flying a large, relatively unmaneuverable aircraft laden with high explosives through the triple threat of enemy fighters, flak from below and bombs raining down from above. But it has to be even worse for the rest of the crew. At least bomber pilots have their hands on the flight controls and, when not inbound from the IP, can attempt limited evasive action. Even so, they have only minimal control over their destinies; it’s still a crap shoot. But except as gunners, those not actually “driving the bus” have no control whatever. Their fate is entirely in the hands of others—their own pilots’ as well as the enemy’s.

    In the spring of 1943 Second Lieutenant Clifford Hopewell is a B-17 navigator in the 94th Bomb Group based in England. He is a member of the 331st Squadron under the command of newly promoted Major Ralph “Salty” Saltsman. Hopewell recounts what it is like manning his position in the nose of the B-17 during his first completed mission on 14 May: “In addition to the Focke-Wolf 190s dashing headlong through our flight, and dodging the flak from the German anti-aircraft units on the ground, to my horror I saw bombs dropping down upon our formation from the sky above. One seemed to pass so close by my left window I felt I could reach out and slap it if it were not for the plastic.”

    Hopewell will fly six missions—only three of which reach the target area. During his final mission on 21 May, his crew is shot down near the IP prior to dropping its payload. Hopewell describes the event: “As usual, the Luftwaffe hit us head on, attacking the lead ships and then making a pass through the entire fleet. After their initial pass, many of the enemy would hang around the rear of our formation to pick off the followers, especially those who had damaged aircraft from the first pass. As Tail End Charlie, we were the object of their attention today…in a constant battle for survival.”

    “It wasn’t too long before here came a covey of bombs dropping on our formation. It was a formidable sight to see as they dropped between planes, so close that one could almost reach out of the plane and swat them as they passed. After the bombs dropped, our Luftwaffe companion peeled off to his right and started heading for our plane, firing his guns furiously.” Hopewell then notices that the number three engine is on fire.  

     He continues: “I was engaged in firing the bombardier’s twin fifties when behind and under me there was a terrific thud, which threw me off balance and backward through the air. We had been struck by flak. I never did land on the floor of the plane. Apparently the ship blew up, because the next thing I knew I was floating in space.”

     Hopewell recalls what was going through his mind as he descended to the ground: “Gee whiz. Here a few moments ago I was in a raging air battle fighting for my life against swarms of planes and flak. Now I am dangling in the air on the end of a parachute, 23,000 feet in the sky and there is nothing—nothing here except me and the sky. The war has passed me by.”

   Hospitalized seven weeks with a broken leg, he will then spend two years in Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp for Allied air force officers.

Twenty-two days later -- 13 June 1943

The designated targets are U-boat building yards under construction at Kiel and Bremen in northern Germany. According to plan, the 4th Bomb Wing, with 76 B-17s assigned, will be first to cross the English Channel en route to Kiel.  On their heels, 152 Fortresses of the 1st Bomb Wing are to proceed to Bremen.

     The Kiel mission will prove to be the bloodiest air battle of the war to date—the result of faulty planning, harried preparation  and the  imposition of an experimental (and subsequently abandoned) bomber formation. Of the 76 aircraft assigned, only 60 will get airborne and reach the German coast. Only 38 of those will return. The cost: 22 B-17s and 213 MIAs, 86 of whom would become POWs. 

     The general who devised the new bomber formation is overall mission leader, while Major “Salty” Saltsman leads the second of two combat wings comprising the Kiel bomber force. Behind him are the 94th and the composite 94th/96th Bomb Groups, the latter led by Captain Rod Rawlinson.

    “We were under heavy attack—by an estimated 100 to 200 enemy fighters—from the time we crossed the Channel,” says Saltsman. “Early on, I noticed Rod Rawlinson to be in distress prior to reaching the IP. He had two engines out, vapor pouring therefrom, flames shooting from the bomb bay and eventually from the entire airplane before it exploded. We did not see any parachutes.”

      Adds Rawlinson: “The fighting started when we hit the German coast. Then it was one problem after another. My plane was hit pretty good. We lost the number two engine and the fire was spreading.” When it reached the bomb bay, “we rang the bell and told everybody to bail out. I had my seat belt undone and the next thing I remember, I’m kickin’ some of the skin of the airplane away—I’m out in space.”

     “So I got that kicked away from me and pulled the rip cord. On the way down, a German Fw-190 circled me and I thought he was gonna spill the chute. But he didn’t. He pulled his oxygen mask off, saluted and peeled off.”

     “When I came to next, I’d already landed. Some soldiers…were pulling me across a plowed field. I looked back and saw my chute wrapped up in a fence with  four or five posts broken.” Rawlinson describes being taken to a farm house, where he is cleaned up and then taken to a hospital by a Luftwaffe captain.

      “I was in the hospital two or three weeks and finally got to Stalag Luft III, which was the permanent camp. One day a month or so later, I looked through the fence at some new “Kriegies” (Allied prisoners) and there stood Salty.  Looked like hell.  He was burned, looked downhearted and depressed—what was normal, I guess. He looked through the fence, saw me and said, ‘Now I know I’m in hell!’”

Thirty-one days later – July 14, 1943

It is Bastille Day in France, anniversary of the day in 1789 when citizens of that now occupied country stormed a prison called the Bastille to free political prisoners, an act celebrated as the beginning of the French Revolution. What better day to bomb Paris?

     The actual target is LeBourget Airdrome, where 16 years earlier, Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis after his solo crossing  of the Atlantic.  Today’s reception will be somewhat less welcoming than the one experienced by Lindbergh.

      The flight is expected to be a “breather” with P-47 fighter escort slated over the French Normandy coast—both inbound and outbound from the target. Major Salty Saltsman, in “Good Time Cholley II,” is leading the low squadron. His second in command, Captain Willis Frank, is flying in the left seat when the escorting P-47s break off some 50 miles inside France. German fighters appear a few minutes later at approximately 0740.

     Saltsman details the action in an account he types up while a POW in Stalag Luft III: “There was a number of aircraft diving out of the morning sun and as they came in front of us, they turned head on so we could see the yellow noses of the Fw-190s and Me-109s. We held a steady position in the formation so the gunners could get a good fire platform and already the nose guns and  top-turret were vibrating the ship with a steady staccato. An Me-109 received a direct hit from Dick Davitt’s turret and exploded at 100 yards in front only to go tumbling through us in three blazing sections. Willy raised the left wing and we missed the debris.”

     “In the next wave, one of the ‘Abbeville Kids’ got a sight on ‘Goodtime Cholly’ and 20 mm shells came directly at us like a series of hot rivets. A message from those in the rear stated that the horizontal stabilizer and dorsal fin had been hit in several places. The fabric and metal on the control surfaces was tearing loose and the ship had lost lateral control.”

     As Saltsman and Frank struggle to regain control the aircraft loses altitude and drifts away from the formation. "A Jerry...had come from below and got a hit with incendiaries. Our cockpit went up in bright orange flames as the oxygen ignited and I immediately gave the order over the interphone to bail out. I was unable to reach the alarm bell because of the intensity of the fire."

   “I had about reached the nose hatch when the ship made a violent turn downwards, throwing me back in the tunnel. The next time it revolved, it hurled me forward and out of the hatch.” 

    Saltsman estimates his bailout altitude at 19,000 feet. “When I figured I was at a safe altitude I pulled the rip cord and was jarred to a sudden stop as the chute billowed out. My hands were cold. I was getting a little giddy and gritted my teeth to maintain consciousness—but to no avail as a black curtain fell over my eyes at about 10,000 feet. With a terrific bang I regained my senses to find myself sitting in the middle of a tulip patch.”

     He is in the center of a big farmer’s field bounded by woods. After burying his chute, boots and Mae West, he crawls into a nearby wheat field and covers himself up. When he realizes his face is burned, he treats the wounds with milk paste from his x-kit, then wraps them with his silk scarf. Over the next several hours, he is assisted by the farmer’s family and reunited with another downed crew member.

   “At about 4:00 p.m., the French family returned with milk, raw eggs and bread. The arrival of German troops on bicycles caused our friends to disperse in all directions. We remained here (hiding behind a tree trunk) hoping that darkness would arrive before the Germans. However…a squad of the Wehrmacht appeared…and located us about 8:30 p.m. We were taken to the nearby farm…and turned over to a Hauptmann. Our captor informed us in English:

  ‘For you gentlemen, the war is over.’”

Hendrix joins the fold

Rawlinson and Saltsman had spent nearly a year in captivity when bomber group Ops Boss Bill Hendrix, flying in the right seat of a B-24, launched from Italy on his fifth combat mission to attack the marshalling yards at Vienna. Departing the target his plane took flak in the number three engine, which burned fiercely and refused to feather.  There was also a large—and rapidly expanding—hole in the right wing’s leading edge. Time to bail.

   “The pilot waved me out,” says Hendrix. “I went back, dropped onto the catwalk and looked at the bomb bay. It was nothing but boiling flames.” He then went forward in search of the navigator and bombardier. Gone. “I looked at the nose wheel and it was down, but I thought if I tried to go out that way, I’d be pinned against the strut and would never get out. So I went back, stood up and looked for the pilot. He was gone too! I felt kinda lonely about then.”

   Hendrix decided to exit via the bomb bay. “Through the flames all I could see was a little patch of light, so I dove for that. I hit my head on the bomb bay door and my helmet came off. Good thing I was wearing it.”

   While descending in his chute he removed his heavy flying boots and dropped them  to the ground hoping to lighten his load and land more softly. “I hit hard and the impact knocked the breath out of me. I was unconscious for a few seconds. When I came to, I’d already taken my chute off and was running away from where I landed. The back of my neck was hurting, so I decided to go back and get the first-aid kit off the chute.”

   “Halt, halt, halt!” The voice was that of an Austrian man.

   Hendrix searched frantically for a place to hide. “There was a great big bush in front of me, so I decided to crawl under it and hide there. Unfortunately, my chute was draped over it and they found me in a matter of seconds.”  He was ordered out of the bush to find himself  surrounded by ten or twelve men, one of whom beat him repeatedly across the head and shoulders with a heavy stick until the others finally made him stop.

   “They took me to a railroad station, where two or three dozen of us were kept overnight in a baggage compartment. The next day, a train took us to the interrogation center.”

First stop - interrogation.

Newly captured Allied airmen would be taken first to Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe’s interrogation center and transit camp located ten miles northwest of Frankfurt.

   Treatment of POWs at the center varied markedly during different stages of the war. Early on some were actually wined and dined by German Air Force officers, who at the time seemed eager to convey a fraternal aviator spirit. Then the numbers of arriving POWs began to rise, the effects of the Allied bombing campaign were being felt and the wine bottles were re-corked. Attitudes changed.

   Nevertheless, the Germans made a science of interrogation and took pride in seldom having to resort to overt brutality. An injured POW being treated in the Dulag Luft hospital might be questioned quite civilly in his bed. On the other hand, an uninjured prisoner might be thrown into solitary confinement in a filthy, overheated cell, deprived of food and sleep, then asked to fill out certain forms which, he was told, would enable him to rejoin his fellow POWs and the German Government to confirm to the Red Cross that he was alive and well. If a man refused to complete the form, as often as not his interrogator would simply do it for him. The message: “We know everything!”

   The Germans were experts at eliciting what little in the way of tactical information they hadn’t already gleaned from other prisoners. Ironically, however, they allowed a potential fountain of crucial strategic information to slip through their fingers when Jimmy Doolittle’s new intelligence chief at the 8th Air Force, BG Arthur Vanaman—who was fully briefed on Ultra—passed through the center in the summer of 1944. The highest ranking American POW, Vanaman, with his secrets intact, would go on to become the senior officer at Stalag Luft III.

 The camp

When it first opened in April 1942, Stalag Luft III was comprised of two barracks compounds and housed only a few hundred Allied prisoners. By the time the Germans ordered its evacuation in late January 1945, it had expanded to six compounds and held approximately 11,000 prisoners, more than half of them American.

   Located near the town of Sagan, Germany (now a part of Poland), the camp was built on sandy soil in a cleared area amidst a forest of scraggly pines. It consisted of drab and drafty barracks constructed on  concrete stilts to thwart tunneling activities and to facilitate inspections by the Germans and their guard dogs. Enclosing it were parallel nine-foot fences topped by barbed wire with rolls of barbed wire between the fences and guard towers placed strategically outside them. Additional fencing segregated the various compounds.

   Near the geographic center of the camp lay the Kommandantur, the Germans’ headquarters and barracks  area. Bracketing the Kommandantur were the West, North and South Compounds on one side and the Center and East Compounds on the other. The North and East compounds housed British and other Allied prisoners, while American POWs occupied the West, Center and South compounds. An overflow compound called Belaria, situated three miles west of the main camp, housed some American but mostly British and Commonwealth prisoners.

   Rawlinson and Saltsman were consigned to Center Compound, while Hendrix was sent to West.     

Plan of the day: same as yesterday

At first there was little for the prisoners to do aside from trying to subsist on the meager rations provided by the Germans, forming up twice a day for roll call, learning to adapt to a crowded, communal existence in wretched facilities and longing for freedom, home and family. That changed in time as senior American officers took charge, formalized the chain of command, published standards of conduct, organized various activities and assigned responsibilities for carrying them out.

   Although escape planning and preparation were among those activities, given the remoteness of the camp, many American POWs were less than enthused about the prospects of successful escape. Americans were also relative newcomers to the war and may have been more confident in its final outcome than their British counterparts. While less urgency was given to escape planning after D-Day,  a variety of escape attempts—tunneling included—had already been undertaken. Indeed, American Jerry Sage, an Army paratrooper known as the “Cooler King” for his many escape attempts, was one of those whose tenacity inspired the character played by Steve McQueen in the film The Great Escape

   Meanwhile, the ill-fated “Great Escape,” which originated from the British North Compound in March 1944, not only met with disastrous results but effectively foiled other ongoing escape plans. Of the seventy-six men who actually made it out of Stalag Luft III by way of tunnel “Harry,” only three reached free soil. The other seventy-three were recaptured and,  on Hitler’s orders, fifty of them were executed to discourage similar attempts by others. The Germans also found and destroyed a number of nearly completed tunnels.

Fortunately, governments of Geneva Convention signatory states were able to stay connected to their POWs through neutral countries and support institutions such as the International Red Cross and the YMCA.

 

One of the more practical and most important duties fell to Salty Saltsman when he was put in charge of the athletic and recreation program for Center Compound. His responsibilities later expanded when he was named YMCA Administrator for Stalag Luft III.

Saltsman’s job was to “kick the men in the ass,” get them out of bed and give them something to do, to help lift them from the doldrums of idleness and lethargy and to keep them physically and mentally fit. He obtained athletic equipment—for baseball, football, basketball, track, fencing, volleyball, boxing, gymnastics and hockey—and formed leagues for competition. He also supervised the camp’s entertainment program, acquired musical instruments, costumes and the like and oversaw the conversion of a barracks into a theater with 240 wood-crate seats, where prisoners put on Broadway plays and musicals.

   As YMCA administrator, he coordinated the shipment and distribution of art, religious and educational materials. A sizeable library was established and qualified POWs taught a variety of classes—so well that prisoners were able to obtain college credits for some of the courses they completed.

   Although Saltsman credits the leadership of Col. Delmar T. Spivey and other compound SAOs (Senior American Officers) for the success of his program, Spivey himself recognized the value of Saltsman’s endeavors when he wrote: “…as a result of this physical reconditioning, these men were able to complete, at a later date, a grueling forced march, on foot, despite freezing weather, without the loss of a single individual.”

Evacuation

By January 1945, Russian forces were rapidly approaching. With camps further east already vacated, the men of Stalag Luft III began preparing for their own evacuation, gathering up whatever they thought they could carry. Ironically, the play You Can’t Take It With You was in progress in South on the night of 27 January when the compound SAO came on stage and told the assembled prisoners to be at the front gate in 30 minutes.

  Through that night and the next day, the camp emptied one compound after another as prisoners were marched under armed guard into a relentless snowstorm and sub freezing temperatures. It was the beginning of an arduous trek—with little or no food or shelter to be found along the way—that would take them ultimately to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg some 300 miles to the southwest.

   Rawlinson and Saltsman were among a group of POWs who were force-marched 55 miles to Spremberg, then stuffed into cattle cars and transported the rest of the way by rail. They arrived at Moosburg ten days after leaving Stalag Luft III.

   Hendrix’s group was taken initially to Stalag XIIID at Nurnberg, where they remained two months. With Patton’s Third Army closing on the city in early April, these prisoners were again uprooted and marched 80 miles south to Moosburg. They arrived two weeks later. Not Hendrix, though. He’d escaped en route, hiding out for several days in the hayloft of a farmer’s barn. When an American army officer happened by in a jeep, he drove Hendrix and two other escapees back to Nurnberg (now in Allied hands). The next day they boarded a C-47 headed for Camp “Lucky Strike” at Le Havre, France. They were free.

Liberation

Conditions at both Nurnberg and Moosburg were appalling.  In the end more than 100,000 Allied prisoners were shoehorned, twelve men to a three-tiered bunk, into barracks and tents at the Moosburg stalag. Many had to sleep on the ground outside. The camp was extraordinarily filthy and lacked sanitation facilities. Food was scarce.

   That was the situation when Patton’s tanks came crashing through the fences on 29 April 1945. Almost immediately, the Nazi flag was torn down and the Stars and Stripes hoisted in its place. Liberation!

   Finally, the men who had parachuted into the hands of the enemy—a lifetime ago it seemed—were on their way home.

On reflection

In the scheme of things, American POWs in Europe stood a far greater chance of surviving captivity than did their counterparts in the Pacific. In Europe, fewer than two percent died during internment, while forty percent of American POWs held by the Japanese did not survive—the result of brutal treatment and the Japanese practice of using POWs as expendable forced laborers.

     A case in point. Twelve of the eighty Doolittle Raiders became POWs, eight of them captured by the Japanese after the raid and four later interned by the Germans. Of the eight held captive in China, three were executed, one died of malnutrition and untreated disease and four managed to survive despite the most inhumane conditions imaginable. Meanwhile, all four of the Raiders who ended up in German POW camps survived captivity along with the overwhelming majority of their fellow prisoners.

   Bill Hendrix sums up his POW experience in Germany this way: “POW camp was not bad. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t bad. I’ve always said it wasn’t what they did to me, it was what they didn’t do for me.”

   His words are testimony to the fact that Germany was unable or unwilling to provide for Allied POWs more than the bare minimum required by the Geneva Convention. They also attest to the quality of leadership within the American officer camps and to the efforts of men like Salty Saltsman, whose labors on behalf of his fellow prisoners made camp life not only survivable but bearable.

 

                    

Another Flight 18 member, Glen Funk, also served time as a POW during the war. While on a bombing mission out of Fogia, Italy, his B-24 was shot down over Romania on D-Day 1944. He was captured by the Germans and held for three months with other Allied officers in a makeshift POW camp—a schoolhouse—in central Romania. Although prisoners were never allowed outside the building and received no Red Cross assistance during their captivity, they were otherwise well treated by their Romanian jailers. For them, liberation came following Romania’s capitulation when they were air lifted to Italy from Bucharest.

 

To all of our ex-POWs, a belated welcome home.

   

 

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