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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Lt. Bill Kaplan - WWII Navigator and Prisoner of War at Stalag Luft I . Lt. Bill Kaplan
Navigator - B-17
452nd Bomb Group

Stalag Luft I  - North 1 Compound



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From Mission # 26 to P.O.W. Camp at Stalag Luft 1

            It was early in the morning of July 28, 1944, when my crew and I were awakened to attend breakfast and briefing for what was to be my 26th and last bombing mission of the 30 missions that I was required to complete.  I was the lead navigator of a B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft equipped with the latest radar apparatus for the bombing of German targets.  We were limited to targets primarily in the third Reich where we could use the radar equipment to bomb through overcast weather, but not in France and other occupied countries where the bombing had to be on visible military targets only.

             I was 19 years of age on that July morning, stationed at Snetterton Heath in East Anglia region of England and a member of the 452nd  Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force.  It was our lead ship that was to head the 3rd wing of some 300 planes to bomb the synthetic oil works at Merseberg, Germany, near Leipzig.  Only one other B-17 was equipped with the radar equipment, and that ship was designated as the alternate lead aircraft.

             After our breakfast and briefing, we were driven to our B-17 to assemble over Great Britain with the other airships of the 3rd Wing and, after assembling in formation, to head for our Merseberg target.  After flying for about five hours, we finally reached the I.P., or initial point, of your bombing run.  The skies were completely overcast below our 24,000 ft. altitude, and we were required to use the radar for bombing our target.  It was the requirement of all the other planes to drop their bombs when the lead plane dropped its.  Since I was unable to visually see the target, and therefore, had nothing to do from a navigational standpoint on the bomb run, I decided to play it safe.  I put on my chest pack parachute, which I normally never wore because it was so cumbersome, ate my candy bar, and awaited our bombing of the target by radar.

             When we were a the initial point, our pilot announced to our crew that our radar was not acting properly, and that we were going to change leads with the alternate lead ship.  While making the cross-over, the two planes evidently flew too close to each other, got caught in the prop wash, which created a vacuum effect, and we were sucked together, which caused the two planes to collide with each other with a tremendous explosion.  I tried to make my way to the escape hatch, but I never made it.

             I, evidently was knocked out by the crash, and blown out into the frigid 24,000 ft. altitude, where I was awakened by the very cold air.  Our aircraft could not be seen because it had exploded into millions of floating metal pieces.  I pulled the ripcord and floated through the clouds and saw a small town, which I later learned to be Sangerhausen, Germany.  A crowd assembled in the field below, led by civilian police who were there to capture me.  They led me to the city jail while refusing to turn me over to uniformed soldiers whom I am sure would have killed me.  I spent the rest of the day in a jail cell without food or toilet facilities.

             The next morning I was led out to the jail yard, which was enclosed by a tall brick wall.  I then learned that there were five other American prisoners captured. The six of us were lined up facing the wall with our hands up, and we were sure that we were going to be shot.  But 15 minutes or so later we were taken away from the wall and loaded onto a Luftwaffe truck that had just arrived from Nordhausen, some 25 kilometers away.  At that point we were then under military control.  The other five captured were a fighter pilot and four airmen from the B-17 that collided with us.

             The six of us stayed at the Nordhausen base for about three days.  Then on the fourth day, seven guards were assigned to escort us to the interrogation center north of Frankfurt at the town  of Oberursel.  We could not understand why they needed seven guards to keep six prisoners from escaping.  The allies were just breaking through at St. Lo in Normandy, some hundreds of miles away, while the Russians were even further away fighting the Germans on the Eastern Front.  There was no way possible for us to escape.  The Nazis would have picked us up in no time at all,  and would have probably shot us.

             We traveled by passenger train to our destination, the interrogation center.  When we arrived at the South station in Frankfurt around noon, we realized why we had seven guards escorting us.  We had to leave the train station because we were told that the Allied bombers had destroyed the marshalling yards between the South and North stations, and we had to traverse the distance by foot.  The German civilian population was so incensed when they saw us, that they wanted to subject us to bodily harm.  If not for the guards protecting us from the onslaught, we would have never made it to prison camp.  These guards actually saved our lives.

             The city of Frankfurt was virtually 100% destroyed.  Every building in the city was severely damaged, and bricks were piled up as much as two stories high.  I had been to London, and felt so sorry for the British who had suffered so much during the Battle of Britain.  But after viewing Frankfurt, I felt that London had hardly been damaged compared to what we were doing to the German cities.  I didn’t feel sorry for the Germans.  They deserved everything they got.

             At the North station we boarded a train again for the interrogation center.  At the center we were questioned by an English-speaking German major quite thoroughly, but truthfully, we hardly knew more than our name, rank and serial number.   The German intelligence was unbelievable.  After questioning me for what seemed to be hours and learning next to nothing from me, he tried successfully to let me know how much he knew about me, which was plentiful.  He had an assistant bring out my files and told me where I had gone to school in the States, where I got my air force training, my air bases in East Anglia, England, and other personal facts about my life.  I did find out what had happened after our planes collided.  The major informed me that the rest of the Third Wing found an opening in the clouds over Kassel, Germany, and bombed the railroad tracks there.  At least my last mission was not a complete failure.

             After several days of confinement in the Dulag Luft in Oberursel, we were sent on our way by rail to our final destination in Germany, the P.O.W. camp, Stalag Luft One, at Barth, Pomerania on the Baltic.  I spent the rest of my days in the Stalag’s North Compound I until being liberated by the Russians in early May of 1945.  We were “free at last”, to quote a phrase made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King.  Being a P.O.W. was certainly not fun.

             The Russians were wonderful the first day or two.  They went into the fields and slaughtered cattle, called us “comrade”, offered us cigarettes and couldn’t do enough for us.  The next day, their attitude changed 180 degrees.  Word had evidently come down from Moscow, and the 45 year “Cold War” had started.  They wanted us to march to Rostock, some fifty kilometers away; board cattle cars there for a lengthy rail trip to Odessa, Russia, on the Black Sea, and then to be turned over to the Allied forces.

             Our commanding officer, Col. Hubert Zemke told the Russians that we had all come to prison camp by air, and that’s the way we were going to leave Germany.  He must have prevailed because we were flown out of Barth by B17’s and B24’s of the 8th Air Force to Laon, France, and from there we were moved to Camp Lucky Strike at LeHarve, France to await our return to America.

             A few of the things that I remember from my stay at Stalag Luft One outside the severe cold, the roll calls, the lack of food, the harassing of the Nazi guards and the horrible living conditions that we had to endure, were several personal matters that I recall.

             When Hitler decided to segregate the Jewish P.O.W’s into Barracks 11 of North Compound 1, I being of Jewish descent, feared the worst.  Fortunately for me the Germans had evidently lost my records, and I was never segregated.  My 15 roommates assured me that they would protect me if trouble arose.  How they were going to do that, I still can’t figure out.

             Another incident occurred that amazed me, was a letter from my mother written on Kriegie stationery that was censored.  She had joined an organization of women whose sons or husbands were either missing in action or P.O.W.’s, and that she had befriended a mother whose son was still classified as “M.I.A.”.  She asked me that if I ever met a prisoner whose name was Paul Lipps, I should give him her regards.  I read her letter from my top bunk, and then handed it to the gentleman in the bunk below to read the letter.  His name was Paul Lipps.

             I feel very fortunate to be at home now. I still grieve about the horrible fate of my nine crew members.

Bill Kaplan in 2000.  Former POW in WWII Germany

Bill Kaplan

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