World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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The Bet at Barth

by:  Earl Wasson - 466th Bomb Group - ex-POW - Barth, Germany

In war-time, a place called Barth was Hell.  It was a prisoner of war camp located only a few miles south of the Baltic Sea in Northern Germany.  Downed aircrews were interned there after having been shot down and captured by the enemy.  Ten thousand were held there as prisoners. 

The camp was divided into four administrative compounds with 2,500 airmen in each unit.    These “guests of the Germans” were elite quality men – leaders and brave American youths.  They had been effective in their aerial combat activity against Nazi Germany. 

But now, their role had dramatically changed.  Internment brought suffering beyond belief; the unending frigid weather, the unpredictable behavior of the guards.  Inadequate food, lice, sickness, boredom, death by starvation or by exposure, was their unchanging agenda.  Yet there were times when the spirits of the Prisoners of War were lifted. It was always through their own methods of creativity and ingenious that this happened.

One on-going “high” occurred when each new contingent of “guests” arrived in the camp.  Up-to-date uncensored information became immediately available.  The reports brought in by these new POW’s gave fresh, unbiased running accounts of how the war was progressing on both the Eastern Front with the Russians and on the Western Front. 

The increasing numbers of bombers and fighters appearing in the air overhead brought silent but exuberant joy and hope to Barth’s imprisoned.  As optimism flourished small group conversation centered on the war’s end and their freedom.   Liberation was on everyone’s lips.  The war was indeed winding down!  Talk of being home for Christmas became a Utopian Dream. 

Although all embraced the Dream, not all were optimistic.  This difference in opinion brought about the “Bet at Barth”.  A wager was on.  New life came to the camp.  But what was there to wager!?  There was no money, no freedom of 3-day passes to London, no material possessions for the loser to forfeit, no points or promotions to be gained or lost.  

In a heated conversation two men got carried away in their claims.  An optimistic airman bet a pessimistic one on the following terms. “If we aren’t home by Christmas, I will kiss your a** before the whole group formation right after head-count on Christmas morning.”  They shook hands.  The bet was on! 

Well, the optimist hadn’t counted on the Battle of the Bulge in early December. Consequently, the war was prolonged and they were still in Barth on Christmas Day, 1944. Christmas morning was cold, there was snow on the ground and frigid air was blowing in off the Baltic Sea.  The body count for the compound began, each man was counted off.  ein…, zwei…,drei…, vier…,funf…,sechs…, sieben…,acht…

Under ordinary circumstances, when the counting was completed and the German guards were satisfied that everyone was accounted for, the group split up and everyone went to their barracks.  But this time, everybody stayed in formation.  The two betting “Kriegies” walked out of the formation and went into the barracks.  No one else moved!  The guards were puzzled  They didn’t know what was going on. 

Soon, the two men came back out of the barracks.  One was carrying a bucket of water with a towel over the other arm.  The second one marched to the front of the formation, turned his back toward the assembled troops and guards, pulled down his pants and stooped over.  The other took the towel, dipped it in the soapy water and washed his posterior.  The whole formation was standing there looking and laughing.  The German guards and dignitaries of Barth stood gazing in amazement, they didn’t know what was going on.  Then the optimist bent over and kissed his opponent on the rear!  A mighty cheer went up from over 2,000 men. Then the puzzled guards joined in the fun. 

Nothing changed on Christmas day – the same black bread and thin soup, sparse and flavorless.  As evening fell, the weather worsened, the barracks were cold, the last of the daily allotted coal briquettes were reduced to nothing but white ash.  Boredom was setting in and the prisoners anticipated another long miserable night.  Suddenly, the door opened…a voice shouted, “The curfew has been lifted for tonight!  We’re going to have a Christmas service over in the next compound.”  The weather was bitterly cold, the new fallen snow crunched under the feet of the men as they quickly shuffled towards their congregating comrades in the distance.

The nightly curfew always kept men inside – this Christmas night’s reprieve allowed them to be outside after dark for the first time.  Above, the stars were shining brightly and were high in the northern skies; the dim flicker of Aurora Borealis added a magical touch as the troops assembled.  Gratitude was felt in their hearts… a lone singer led out with one of the world’s most familiar and loved carols.  Others joined in and soon there was joyful worship ringing throughout the camp.

          Silent night! Holy night!
          All is calm, all is bright…

The German guards marching their assigned beats stopped in their tracks... they turned their heads toward the music.  The words were unfamiliar but they recognized the tune…after all, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht was composed by a German.  They loosened up, smiled, and joined in the celebration; the praise became bilingual.

          Round yon virgin mother and Child
          Cinsam wacht nurdas traute hoch heilige Paar

          Holy Infant so tender and mild
          Holder Knabe im lockigen Hoiar

          Sleep in heavenly peace.  Sleep in heavenly peace.
          Schlaf in himmlischer ruh!   Schlaf in himmlischer ruh.

The Bet at Barth had paid off.  Everyone had won!  As the words of the carol rang in their hearts, there was a literal fulfillment.  Tonight they would sleep in peace.  War and internment did not have the power to destroy the meaning and beauty of this special day.

It was Christmas.  They were not at home. But they declared, “Next year we will be! All of us!”  And they were!

The Betters:

Winner  -  2nd Lt. Stanley M. Johnson of Port Allegany, PA

Loser -  2nd Lt. Richard D. Stark of Tampa, FL.

Location:  North 2 Compound of Stalag Luft I

Bet at Barth illustration - Stalag Luft I - WWII

Illustration from Mozart Kaufman's book
 "Fighter Pilot - Aleutians to Normandy to Stalag Luft I"

Note the men standing in formation have written on their shirts letters which spell out "Merry Christmas  Blk 3". I wonder if this really happened or if it is by the artist. )

Excerpt from Mr. Kaufman's book:

     We awoke on Christmas morning  for "appell" (roll call) on a bitter cold day.  After counting the "Kriegies," Major Steinhauer turned us over for dismissal. It was then we witnessed the payment of the debt by the man who had wagered the war would be over by Christmas. In September 1944, Stark had said to Johnson, "I'll kiss your a** if the war isn't over by Christmas."  Stepping out before 1,500 "Kriegies", Second Lt. Stanley M. Johnson of Port Allegany, Penn., lowered his pants and leaned over.  Second Lt. Richard D. Stark of Tampa, Fla., came forward with a bucket of hot water and a towel.  After washing Johnson's rear end, he folded the towel, placed it over the crack and gave the "cheek" a good kiss,

     Fifteen hundred men let out with a cheering and clapping that could be heard in all the other compounds.  The German Major Steinhauer stood there with his guards, shaking his head in amazement, not believing what he had witnessed.  We were then dismissed.

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