Stalag Luft I opened its gates in July 1940, prior to which RAF personnel had been sent to Dulag Luft but their increasing number had called for more permanent accommodation to be made available. Situated in the largely featureless area of Barth, very close to the Baltic Sea, the region was a popular yachting resort and from a certain vantage point in the camp the tops of masts could be seen in the distance. Neighbouring the camp was a training school for Luftwaffe anti-aircraft recruits.
1940 - Starvation
In May 1940 the Air Ministry ordered that all qualified aircrew below the rank of Sergeant, be they captured or not, should be raised to that rank. For prisoners this meant that under the terms of the Geneva Convention they could not be used as labourers, however Germany decided to partially ignore this fact by putting men to work who were captured before their elevation to a higher rank. These men were known as "Erks", and they laboured on the railway sidings or in a factory canning fish. Truth be told those who were regarded as senior NCO's and were not forced to work were somewhat envious of the Erks, because while they were confined to the limited space and entertainment that Stalag Luft I had to offer, the Erks at least saw some of the world beyond the wire, received slightly extra rations for their trouble, and had the opportunity to pilfer rare items such as fish.
In the first party of prisoners who took up residence at Barth was Flight Sergeant Graham Hall, who with his first letter home attempted to establish a coded link between the camp and England. He had informed his wife that if he was captured then in his letters home any word that followed a full stop would be a code word. It was a primitive system that was quickly deciphered when his wife passed the letter on to the Air Ministry. Some time later Sergeant Neil Prendergast was taken prisoner and arrived at Stalag Luft I with orders to report to Hall and pass on a superior and almost unbreakable code which he had memorized. Delighted with this development the two men began to teach it to others. Amongst those introduced to the system was Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who later organized the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III.
Despite there being no shortage throughout Germany very little food ended up on the tables inside POW camps, and that which was sent was in a far from wholesome condition. Winter 1940 was a most miserable time in the war and their Christmas meal, a very weak soup, did nothing to improve spirits. Red Cross parcels did not arrive regularly enough to take up the slack, and when they did there was not a great deal inside them. On that rare occasion that meat arrived it usually contained maggots, which were hastily swept off, and most other foods if not in an equal state were too foul tasting for even starving men to stomach. The potatoes and swedes that had been poorly delivered to the camp were already rotten before they had arrived and stank badly, but faced with a choice between starvation and dysentery the prisoners opted for the latter. Lice began to emerge, but so did the prisoners natural ability to adapt to their circumstances and make the best of what they had. The lice eggs were sought out with a naked flame, as men had done in the trenches during the First World War, and the technique of shaving and bathing the whole of ones body using only a mug-full of water was mastered. However the men were weak and prone to injury and infection, so Senior British Officer banned any form of outdoor games until better times came.
Spurred on by the poor conditions and the forced restraints of camp life, the prisoners began to go on the attack. After receiving news of how badly the war was going for the Allies, they conducted their own propaganda campaign concerning the depth of Allied military might, and began to hone their subtle skills at goon baiting, gradually chipping away at the morale of their guards and becoming friendly with them to a degree where blackmailing or bribing them became an option. A few of the guards brought in war magazines for the prisoners to read, all of a highly biased nature, but the prisoners took heart from reading of the steadily increasing loss of life on the German side.
1941 - Food at Last
Once winter was behind them, the Kriegies began to perk up, especially when the Red Cross managed to arrange proper supply routes through Sweden and Switzerland, and by May the parcels began to arrive at Barth. Until this time the hunger of the prisoners was such that food had become an obsession and they were unable to seriously contemplate thoughts on a different topic, but with this nourishment their minds turned elsewhere, some to the outdoor games which were now permitted, others to escape. So daunting was the prospect of an escape so deep inside Germany that only a few would contemplate it, but all were willing to help in any way that they could. A number of escapes were tried, but as at all camps the art of escape had to be learned the hard way through trial and error, mostly error. But the techniques developed, tunnelling was contemplated, and the boards which supported the bunks began to disappear for the purpose of shoring. However due to the high water table, Barth was far from ideal ground for tunnels.
Though the war was going badly, morale was boosted, in spite of the subsequent loss of privileges from the tightening of security, when Flight Lieutenant Harry Burton escaped from, of all places, the cooler and successfully made it to Sweden on the 31st May. When new prisoners arrived at the camp they were asked if they had any news of Burton and they learned that he had been returned to England where he toured RAF bases, offering instruction on escape methods.
When men who for one misdeed or another ended up in the cooler, their fellow prisoners refused to accept that they were in solitary confinement. Initially they simply shouted messages of encouragement directly towards the building, but the German guards were quick to put a stop to this. After a little more thought it was noticed that most of the guards could not speak English and none had a full appreciation of RAF slang and obscene phraseology, therefore communication continued using this special code. To the casual observer, the deliverer of the message did not direct his words to the men in the cooler, but instead appeared to be doing nothing more than offering comment on a football game that was conveniently taking place in front of him.
As prisoners began to arrive in POW camps from the conflict with Russia, the Germans were greatly fearful of the Russians bringing typhus with them and so the order was given to inoculate all German troops and Allied prisoners. Needless to say the men at Stalag Luft I would have nothing to do with the injection, after hearing rumours of concentration camp killings by injection they had cause to fear something similar, or perhaps a drug that would make them impotent. In the end the men accepted the injection after a compromise was suggested by Sergeant James "Dixie" Deans who proposed that for every prisoner who was given the jab a serviceman in the adjacent flak school should also be inoculated. The 26 year old "Dixie" Deans had been shot down on the 10th November 1940 after a bombing raid on Berlin and, although junior in rank to other men in the NCO's Compound, he was observed to possess a number of key leadership qualities and was elected as their leader, a concept which baffled the Germans.
The Kommandant of Stalag Luft I was Major Burchardt, a most rational man. He had been a POW himself in South Africa during the First World War and as a consequence took no pleasure in his job, once commenting to one of his prisoners, "I do not like to see men in cages. I am a soldier not a jailer." He came out to watch football matches and chatted pleasantly with those on the sidelines, and in the Spring he granted permission to 20 prisoners, who were under guard and swore they would not try to escape, to go to a nearby creek for a swim.
The senior German NCO at the camp, Oberfeldwebel Hermann Glemnitz, had a considerably deceptive manner and was regarded by the prisoners as their most dangerous opponent. He had a sense of humour which the British were able to appreciate, and to the untrained eye he appeared very casual and friendly, creating the impression that it was possible to pull off any trick in his presence without him noticing. The truth was this was only an act and he was in fact hyper aware and constantly probing to test the prisoners. It became lore that if this man was around, any subversive attempt would be doomed to fail.
The new year got off to an unfortunate start one morning when the Ferrets ordered prisoners out of a hut so they could search it. While they were about their business the prisoners were outside and close to the warning wire, beyond which it was forbidden to cross on pain of death. One man rolled over, quite innocently, and let his foot stray within inches of the wire, upon which he was shot in the ankle by a German guard. Some prisoners rushed to help him while others turned furiously at the guard, who after ignoring a little provocation then gave notice that he was prepared to fire again. Oberfeldwebel Glemnitz arrived and hastily replaced the guard. "Dixie" Deans meanwhile issued a strong protest to the Kommandant and assured him that the guard could not be assured of his safety if he was to re-enter the NCO's Compound. The guard was posted away. Although "Dixie" Deans threat was a total bluff as the consequences of taking such action would be heavy indeed, it did send a shiver down the spines of a few guards who from that point onwards were open to exploitation by the Kriegies.
In April 1944 the prisoners were wandering about the camp when in the distance they could hear the distinctive drone of Merlin engines. They spotted two British Mosquitos attacking the airfield at Barth and roared them on as they sound of explosions could be heard. The guards did not like this activity at all as they assumed the cheering was a distraction for an escape that was in progress, but for all they tried to restore order using rifle butts and bayonets, nothing could dampen the atmosphere for the Kriegies.
On the 22nd April the British NCO's were transferred to Stalag Luft VI. Their departure made way for the conversion of Barth into a camp for British and American officers only.
1945 - Revolt?
As the war drew to an end in 1945, the young and healthy guards that had once been stationed here had departed to fight on the front line, leaving their duties to elder servicemen of the Home Guard variety, and the daily news of heavy German defeats on all fronts naturally had an effect upon their morale. The prisoners took cheer as their freedom was at hand, however the thought did occur to them that this may be far from certain. There was a very real possibility that Hitler and a hardcore of his followers would make a final and prolonged stand at his mountain retreat, and if this was done then some POW's would be forced to accompany the Nazis to work as slave labour. In such an eventuality there was also the possibility that those who were not taken may be executed on the spot. Work began to ensure that the men of Stalag Luft I would not succumb to either fate.
A contingency plan was drawn up where the prisoners would rebel and take control of the camp by force, and for this purpose the men were organized into platoons. It was decided that one platoon would break through the gate that led to the German sleeping quarters and deal with the guards, while a section of other men would seize the electrical sub-station and the auxiliary lighting plant, both conveniently situated in the same building, and put them out of action. At the same time as these attacks were being carried out, the occupants of the huts nearest the gate would set their buildings on fire to create a smokescreen, which would be aided by the mass of damp straw that they had in place under the floorboards. Under cover of smoke bombs, other men would take out the machine-gunners in the watch towers that overlooked the assault area. This last detail was the brainwave of the American troops in the camp, who decided to take out the towers using Molotov cocktails to set both the position and the guards alight. However to lob such a bomb over a distance of approximately 50 yards was by no means a formality, and so those whose task it was began their training before the eyes of the Germans under the guise of a new game loosely centred on baseball. The "game" in question involved two men standing 60 yards apart, each inside a circle four feet in diameter, lobbing lumps of firewood, which were the same size, shape, and weight as the Molotovs, at each other and hopefully scoring a hit within the circle. Eventually the throwers could guarantee accuracy on three out of every five throws. The remaining watch towers would be taken out by men firing on them with captured German arms. The prisoners were confident that if it became necessary they could brush aside their elderly opposition without too much difficulty.
The revolution, however, did not come. With the Russians very near the prisoners awoke one morning to find their guards had abandoned them. With or without the presence of an enemy the organization did not go to waste and so the platoons came out into the open to perform a range of duties. Some guarded the camp against attack, while others carried out patrol and reconnaissance sorties in the general area, looking for food, weapons, and transport. A mile from the camp one of the platoons discovered a prison for women slave workers who were still hard at work, but Captain Alexander Morrison of the Glider Pilot Regiment did not wish to place their fate in the hands of the advancing Russians and so, after setting them free, he advised that it would be best if they headed in a westerly direction.
Men were even sent to capture the airfield 5 miles to the south, and after VE Day a direct link with MI6 was established to arrange for the transportation of all prisoners back to England. Before this could happen the Russians arrived, and their political officer was determined to be as uncooperative as possible, insisting that as the prisoners were in Russian territory they must therefore possess Russian passports before they are allowed to leave. However a deal was struck whereby the prisoners could make their own passports for the Russian officials to stamp, and so a US officer, who could both speak and write Russian, instructed 50 of the camps forgers how to write the Russian characters, and by working in shifts the prisoners managed to produce 4,600 passports in just three days. Amazed at their rate of work, the Russian officials stamped the passports and gave the men leave to board the American B-17 Flying Fortresses which had landed at the airfield the men of Stalag Luft I had captured. Before going, several Russians, including the bureaucratic political officer, gladly chatted with and shook the hands of those who departed.
The area where Stalag Luft I stood bears no signs of either the camp or the neighbouring anti-aircraft school.