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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Sgt. Roy Kilminster of the Royal Air Force W/O Roy Kilminster

Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner
35  & 58 Bomb Squadron

Shot down November 7, 1941 on his 20th mission

Stalag VIIIB, Stalag Luft III and Stalag Luft I POW

Camp Forger


Click here to email Roy

Roy Kilminster describes some of the undercover work that was carried out by Royal Air Force prisoners-of-war in Germany during World War 2. Those activities of more than fifty years ago are no longer secret of course, although there are still several areas of the work that have not been documented in detail, and it is those aspects that have provided the material for much of part 2..

Whilst there have been many stories of escapes from POW camps, with such epics as the 'The Wooden Horse', 'Colditz " 'Moonless Night', and of course, 'The Great Escape', undercover work that was not relevant to the escapes was not usually mentioned. Although the story here is also concerned with escape operations, some of the less well-known areas of secret work are also featured in detail.

This photograph of 'A' Flight of 58 Squadron provides a convenient point to introduce the story. The photograph was taken in May of 1941 on the RAF station of Linton-on-Ouse, in Yorkshire. Linton was one of the airfields of 4 Group, Bomber Command. The point I should make about this photograph is that I was one of the luckier ones amongst that group.

58th Bomb Squadron


aerial view of Linton on Ouse airfield

A glimpse of the airfield at Linton-on-Ouse photographed from a Whitley bomber. Although cameras were forbidden on operational airfields, I did sneak a few photographs of 58 Squadron Whitley aircraft on the satellite airfield of Linton-on-Ouse. Satellite airfields were used to disperse the squadron's aircraft in case of an attack on the main airfield by German raiders. The main airfield was, in fact, attacked on a number of occasions.

This photograph shows a Mk. 5 Whitley bomber with Sergeant Pilot Rymills and two members of the ground crew. I was part of Rymill's aircrew on several operations over Europe. The Whitley Mk. V had two Rolls Royce 'Merlin' engines of 1,000 hp each, it could carry a bomb load of 4,000 lbs. Rather a slow aircraft, even for the time, but structurally, it was extremely strong, it could take a considerable amount of punishment.

Roy Kilminster by rear gun turret

Roy beside the rear gun turret of a Whitley.



Whitley wireless equipment

A final look at the Whitley with a view of the wireless equipment. The lower unit is the transmitter with the operators hand resting upon the Morse key. The upper unit is the wireless receiver.


 Altogether, I took part in seventeen operational sorties with Whitley aircraft whilst on 58 Squadron, initially as a rear gunner and eventually as the wireless operator.

In October of 1941 I was transferred to 35 Squadron, also operating from Linton-on-Ouse and equipped with Halifax aircraft, one of a new generation of four-engined bombers. The Mk.1 Halifax the type used by 35 Squadron at the time, had four Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Later Halifaxes were fitted with Bristol Hercules radial engines and had a top speed near too 300 miles an hour.  Over 6,000 Halifaxes were built in total.

Although the sortie on the night of the 7th November was my third with 35 Squadron, we were a completely new crew, having been made-up only that day. For that reason we were put on what was rather euphemistically termed a ­nursery operation, The majority of the bomber force that night went to Berlin, whilst our 'nursery' was to Essen in the Ruhr. Although our mission was intended to be an easier run than Berlin, it also meant that the Ruhr defences were able to concentrate their efforts on the relatively few aircraft on our particular sortie.

On the way to our target we came under quite concentrated fire from German anti-aircraft guns. The nearer that we got to the Ruhr industrial area the more intense the flak became.

There were several quite close explosions, and one of the pieces of shrapnel that penetrated the aircraft hit me on the knee. Fortunately, it didn't do any damage, coming through the aircraft must have taken the last bit of sting out of it. Picking the piece of shrapnel up from the floor, I put it into the drawer of the wireless desk with the thought that it would make a souvenir when we got back to base at Linton.

The Krupps armament works at Essen was our target for that night. Having eventually reached Essen and dropped the bombs, the course was set for England. We came through the Ruhr flak belt again, this time without any close encounter with odd chunks of shrapnel. But then, our luck ran out!

Caught in searchlights


Somewhere over Holland we were picked up by a searchlight, and then quickly coned by several others. Quite quickly, a waiting German night-fighter, a Messerschmitt 110 was on our tail! The rear gunner of our Halifax, after firing only one burst from his guns, reported that the guns were out of action. Whether that was a malfunction or the result of enemy action we will never know. Whatever the reason, with the guns useless, we had become a sitting duck, being virtually defenseless and in the full glare of several searchlights!

Very shortly, the pilot reported that the plane was on fire, and soon followed up with the order to abandon the aircraft! As quickly as I could, ­I sent an SOS on the wireless and then clamped the Morse key down so that our position might be monitored back in England. I donned my parachute pack and made my way to the forward hatch. The front gunner was already sitting there with his feet dangling through the opening; with little conscious thought I gave him a push to help him on his way.

Finding then that there was nobody queueing-up behind me to get out of the plane, and as the aircraft still appeared to be under control, I plugged my headphones into the nearest intercom point for a check on the situation, I was just in time to hear the pilot saying to the remainder of the crew, 'Hurry-up - there isn't much time!' At that, I wasted no more time myself, made my way to the hatch and dropped through.

As the parachute opened, it gave me quite a thump on the side of the jaw. After recovering my wits, I looked around for our aircraft, but it was quite a time before I recognised it for what it was, it had fallen so far in the meantime and looked like a small fiery cross moving in a wide arc. Eventually, there was a sudden flare-up of the fire with no further movement and I realised that the plane had hit the ground.

As for my own situation, after what seemed to be an interminable time ­suspended in the darkness, I saw that I was fast approaching the ground myself.  I landed on a fir tree in a wood, ending up suspended a few feet above the ground. I suppose that it was a comfortable landing under the circumstances.

It would have been impossible to get the parachute off the tree, so I started to walk, and kept walking across country for the remainder of that night. I had little notion of where I was, or where I was going, it just seemed a good idea at the time to get as far away as possible from the locality of the crash. At one stage during that night's trek I climbed over a high wire fence and, shortly afterwards, came upon a signpost.

One arm of the signpost was marked 'Focke-Wulf Strasse', another indicated 'Messerschmitt Strasse'. That signpost puzzled me at the time. Many years later, I learnt from a contact in the historical section of the Royal Netherlands Airforce that, somewhat ironically, I must have walked across part of Deelen air­field, at that time the headquarters base for the German night-fighter that had brought us to grief.

I don't know how many miles I covered that night, but when dawn eventually came I took refuge in a small wood. During the morning it rained slightly and, as I was rather thirsty, I tried to catch drops of water as they dripped off branches of trees. They weren't sufficient to do any good and tasted fusty. The only other sort of diversion was listening to what I later found out to have been German troops, singing their marching songs, as they marched along nearby roads. That only tended to increase my own sense of isolation.

By that time I was beginning to feel that I should be doing something more positive, although I didn't quite know what. At that comparatively early time in the war, aircrew were not given much in the way of survival or escape aids. I had nothing, no food or drink, not even a map. Likewise, although we had heard that there were resistance groups in occupied territory, we had no information on the possibility of contact with them.

Some way down a nearby road I could see what appeared to be the outskirts of a village, but as flying clothing would have been very conspicuous, I thought it best to remain hidden in the wood during daylight. The hours dragged, but when night finally came again, I walked towards the village.

At the first house, although it was quite dark because of the blackout, I could just make out that somebody was leaning on the gate smoking a cigarette. I asked for a drink of water, in English, and after a few words that I didn't understand, but which I assumed to be Dutch, the person motioned me into the house.

There were several people in the room that I was ushered into, most of them in uniform! As luck would have it, that house was being used as a billet for German airmen!

Europe nmapThis is a map of prewar Europe. The blue spot at the left indicates where our aircraft crashed, that was between Apeldoorn and Arnhem in Holland. After spending a few days in a jail in Amsterdam where I experienced a few minor attempts by the Germans to glean military information, I was transferred to my first prisoner-of-war camp, Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt.

 Dulag Luft was a collection point and transit camp for RAF prisoners. It was there that most prisoners underwent their main interrogation by the Luftwaffe intelligence service. One of the methods in use at the time was the provision of bogus International Red~ Cross forms that, under the pretext of letting your family know that you were safe, required squadron details to be filled in. Legend also had it that some POW camps had originally been bugged with microphones. The story went that some of those microphones were eventually discovered by the prisoners who devised a rather effective way of dealing with them. They ran wires from a lamp-holder and connected the mains electricity supply across the microphone leads.

As batches of prisoners built up at Dulag Luft, they were moved out under armed guard to more-permanent camps. Travel was usually by rail and, in that way, I eventually arrived at my first full-scale POW camp, Stalag VIIIB, just inside Poland.

The journey took several days, as it was about 500 miles, and our journey was naturally of low priority, the carriages containing prisoners-of-war were often shunted into sidings while other traffic went by.

camp cartoon

Our cartoonist's comment upon a new arrival in a POW camp, rather wry humour as you will appreciate from the sketch, and this drawing gives a good impression of the conditions at Stalag VIIIB. The amenities at most POW camps could be described as rather basic. For instance, at Stalag VIIIB, there were about a hundred persons to each hut, with three-tier bunk beds with straw palliasses.


Stalag VIIB POWs in 1942 with wooden shoes


This photograph was taken at Stalag VIIIB early in 1942. It is one of the few photographs taken by the Germans. Note the fancy footwear! these wooden clogs were issued to replace our flying boots which, with all other flying clothing and equipment had been confiscated. POWs short of necessary clothing were then issued a uniform from virtually any armed force in Europe, we make a right motley collection. After spending about six months at Stalag VIIIB, which was a POW camp run by the German Army and basically a camp for Army prisoners, most of the Air Force contingent was moved out, en route to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, a new camp built specially for Air Force prisoners.

And so to Stalag Luft III

Sagan is particularly noteworthy as the camp where the 'Great Escape' took place, and I include one drawing at this point as a reminder of what a stupendous undertaking that event was. 

This is 'Harry'. Harry was the code name for the tunnel finally used for the Great Escape. Altogether, the project required the almost incredible number of 26,000 individual journeys to dispose of the soil and sand excavated 246 tons in all. All of that work had to take place under the noses of the German guards and security staff, and the magnitude and complexity of the project is now difficult to imagine. I spent about five months at Sagan, well before the 'Great Escape' was undertaken, before being on the move once again.

Great Escape Tunnel "Harry" at Stalag Luft III

In October of 1942 I moved to Stalag Luft I, near to the town of Barth in North Germany. Although Stalag Luft I was the original Luftwaffe camp for, captured airmen, it had been closed down when the much larger camp of Stalag Luft III was opened at Sagan. With the ever increasing number of Air Force prisoners, however, the Luftwaffe decided to reopen Stalag Luft I and POW volunteers were called for at Sagan to go to Barth to get the camp running again, ready for the intake of new prisoners.

The NCOs camp leader at Sagan, Sergeant 'Dixie' Deans, had tried to ensure that those volunteers included people with the knowledge or skills necessary to form the various undercover organizations that would be needed at the new camp.  Prior to joining the RAF, I had been trained as a photo litho artist a craft that, in addition to its photographic aspects, required expertise in drawing small lettering. Partly because of that background, I found myself one of the volunteers, as prospective forger for the new Stalag Luft I.

POWs march through Barth to Stalag Luft I

As usual, the journey from Sagan to Barth was by rail.  This photograph shows Air Force prisoners marching through the town of Barth escorted by Luftwaffe guards. Arrival at Stalag Luft I was the beginning of a new phase in my POW life, that episode now follows as Part 2.

Go to Part 2 - Secrets of the German Prisoner of War Camps





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