Conditions at Limburg were notoriously bad with next to nothing in the way of facilities. This is partly explained by the fact that Stalag XIIA's primary function was to act as a transit camp which processed newly captured Prisoners of War before distributing them amongst the other, better organized Stalags in Germany. Typically a new prisoner would arrive, be interrogated, documented, and moved on within a few weeks, therefore most men did not have to endure this depressing camp for long. However it was as a consequence of this short stay that the prisoners could not be organized to make the conditions more habitable, nor were new arrivals able to receive in such a short period of time the luxuries of the frequently life-saving Red Cross Parcels. The population of the camp was always extremely high because for many prisoners captured on the Western Front, passing through the gates of Stalag XIIA was their first point of call.
Despite these problems and the unwieldy numbers, little was done by the authorities to raise the camp above the lowest common denominator. For the British and Americans, temporary accommodation came in the form of four very large marquees, not wholly dissimilar to circus tents. There was no furniture of any kind inside these structures, instead the cramped conditions dictated that everyone had to sleep back to back on the floor, which in some instances was cobbled stone, with, if they were extremely lucky, a loose scattering of straw for bedding.
Between meals, which were only a few notches above starvation rations, there was absolutely nothing in the way of entertainment to occupy the minds of the prisoners. There was no lighting in the camp, and so as soon as it got dark men slept until dawn because there was little point to being awake. The threat of disease, especially diarrhoea, was far from being uncommon, and the camp possessed almost nothing in the way of medical facilities. The stone toilets served several thousand men, and as such created a considerable stench.
Despite the transitory nature of the camp, some of those held at Stalag XIIA were more permanent residents and spent several years there. The Russians were, as was the case in all German camps, treated as a sub-species and were effectively left to rot. However there was a sizeable population of Indian soldiers who had been captured during the fighting in North Africa in 1942, and they sat out the remainder of the war at Limburg. As Commonwealth troops they were treated better than most, and like POW's all over Germany who had been imprisoned for a long time, they had learned how to make their lives reasonably comfortable and were able to keep both themselves and their quarters clean.
Upon arrival, men who were newcomers to life as a POW had the basic ground rules of Stalag law spelt out to them, one of which was a warning that they would be shot if they placed as much as a finger upon the tall barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp. For many freshly captured servicemen, Stalag XIIA was their first opportunity to write a postcard home to their family, and although it would take weeks to arrive it was often the case that this would be the first news they would receive that their loved ones, now posted as missing-in-action, were alive. The following image is an example of such a postcard, almost all of which were phrased in an identical or highly similar fashion.
Leaving the Camp
When the time came to leave Stalag XIIA to a more permanent camp, the majority were sent via rail from Limburg station. Depending on their destination this journey could last anything from a couple of days to a week, due to the stoppages caused by the constant threat of opportunistic strikes by British and American fighters. There were several instances of planes strafing a train which, against the rules set out in the Geneva Convention, carried no markings on it to indicate that it carried POW's, and as a result some men were killed or wounded.
The cattle trucks that the prisoners were herded into possessed not even the luxurious comforts that they had become accustomed to at Stalag XIIA. Typically 50 men were packed into each car, and most had to stand throughout the duration of the journey as there was not enough room to get down and sleep, though in some cases it was possible for men to rest in shifts. During transportation very little was provided in terms of food or water. Sometimes men were issued with a large sandwich before departure which they had to make last for a week, whilst others received nothing to begin with, but were given a foul brand of cheese along the way. However the German guards were willing to trade their own food for any items of the prisoners kit. Each car contained only one toilet, usually in the form of a deep tin of one description or another. The opportunity to empty this container did not come too often, and as such the already stale air inside each carriage became something to behold. Due to the nature of their diet since arriving at Stalag XIIA, the men often suffered with diarrhoea during transportation.
Many British prisoners captured during the Battle of Arnhem were initially sent to Stalag XIIA. At this time the camp held a colourful mix of nationalities; Africans, French, Indians, Italians, Russians, British, and a larger number of Americans. It is uncertain precisely how many servicemen were interned at Limburg at this time or another other, though upwards of 20,000 would be a likely figure. Daily rations for each man was a fifth of a loaf of bread with a serving of margarine, occasionally with a bit of filling, for breakfast, followed by coffee after morning roll call, and finally the main and evening meals were a watered down soup.
On the 23rd December, 63 men were killed during a British air raid one night. The intended target had been the railway station at Diez, a few miles away, but unfortunately the flares dropped by the pathfinder aircraft drifted off course in a strong wind and some strayed into Stalag XIIA. The bombs of RAF Mosquitos did not miss the highlighted target of a concrete building, housing mostly medical personnel.
At about this time, when American prisoners from the Battle of the Bulge began to arrive, rations per man were reduced to a tenth of a loaf, followed by coffee, then a soup at lunch time, and either a potato soup or three jacket potatoes for supper.
Liberation - 1945
When Allied soldiers began to cross the Rhine in March 1945 the position of Limburg was directly threatened and so the Germans began to evacuate as many prisoners as they could. 1,200 British and American soldiers were packed into the usual railway transport, but the unmarked train was strafed shortly after its departure by US P-47 Thunderbolts and a number of the prisoners were killed. A Scottish padre managed to get some of the men off the train, and in so doing he ended the air strike by ordering them to remove their shirts and arrange their bodies in a field to spell "POW", using the white skin on their backs. The P-47's broke off their attack, but continued to monitor the train in order to ward off other hunting aircraft which may spot the train and regard it as prey. The wounded were moved to a hospital in Limburg, whilst the remainder continued their journey away from the front line.
A few days after, in late March or early April, American troops of the 9th Armoured Division arrived at the camp and then proceeded to capture the town, meanwhile the camp and its 15,000 former prisoners were placed in the care of the US 70th Division. Stalag XIIA was renamed "Allied Prisoner Camp No.2", because although the British, American, and French prisoners were sent home at the earliest opportunity, it was not so easy to arrange for the removal of the approximate 7,500 Russians, Poles, and Yugoslavs that remained, and they had to stay at the camp until this could be done.
Representatives were appointed to speak for the servicemen of each country and a daily council was held to discuss any issues that the prisoners had. The Russians had reservations about the presence of US guards patrolling the perimeter fence where there had previous been Germans, and they suspected that they may still be prisoners. They were assured that this was not the case, and in order to make the situation more pleasant to them it was agreed that Russian troops would serve alongside an American soldier at every guard post, though at the suggestion of the Captain who represented the Russians, they were not issued with ammunition.
Much to the delight of the men the food ration was substantially increased to ten-in-one, though as was the custom the rations were not enjoyed individually, but instead heaped into a very large pot and boiled into a stew. Due to the poor condition of the camp, the occupying force had to perform extensive repair work to the facilities that had been in existence. The German guards who had been captured when Stalag XIIA was reached still remained at the camp and were employed in various roles, one of which was the maintenance of the American mess.
There was an accident one day when the American mess sergeant and the German cook went to Limburg together in search of potatoes, because there were none at the camp and the cook could not bring himself to make a meal without them. Whilst in the town they took the opportunity to indulge themselves in a little celebration, but upon returning to the camp their vehicle crashed and the cook was killed.
One of the more unusual sights at Stalag XIIA was the presence of over 15,000 discarded American helmets. After the liberation, these were arranged into an enormous pyramid outside the gates, an image frequently captured on film.