Faces of the Lost
Original photos taken by the Germans of the Allied POWs at Stalag IX-C. Most of the photos have no names identifying the subjects of the images. (Bill Howard Collection)
Those who served on the frontlines of World War II faced constant uncertainty. Regardless of their branch of service, serving in the military during wartime is a dangerous proposition. A soldier, airmen, sailor or Marine might be killed, wounded, incapacitated by illness, or captured by the enemy. Those who were captured often suffered in prison camps where they were used as slave labor in the enemy’s war production. At the German prison camp known as Stalag IX-C, most POWs were detailed to work in German salt and potassium mines, a camp shoe factory, or in the local stone quarries.
The photographs published here represent the faces of the lost. Each photo was part of a large collection of portraits and images of Allied soldiers who were incarcerated at the camp. Most of these photos have no identification written on them so the fate of the POW pictured is unknown. Many are stamped with a circular German stamp that carries the purple inked imprint, “Stalag IX C.”
Stalag IX-C was located near Bad Sulza, between Erfurt and Leipzig in Thuringia. The camp, which was the site of an old Hitler Youth hostel, opened in February 1940 to hold Polish soldiers captured during the German invasion of Poland. In June 1940, Bulgarian and French POWs captured during the Battle of France were brought here. In 1941, POWs from Yugoslavia arrived. In 1943, large numbers of British and Commonwealth POWs, captured in the battles of North Africa and Italy, began arriving at the camp. The number of British POWs was significantly increased in September and October 1944, when British and Canadian airborne troopers taken prisoner during the Operation Market Garden (Arnhem) were sent to Stalag IX-C. Finally, in late 1944, large numbers of American POWs captured at the Battle of the Bulge arrived.
The camp consisted of seven buildings – three of them packed with POWs – but also others that contained a concert hall and theater, a tailor and shoe workshop, sick quarters, a shower room with delousing equipment and a large building that contained a seven-cell jail, a camp kitchen, storerooms and a library. The guard barracks and headquarters offices were located in a building just outside the main gate and were surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence.
Former POWs who were held at Stalag IX-C recall that immediately upon reaching the camp, they were lined up and photographed. Many of the surviving photographs are credited to the camp photographers, “Wessner” or “Wolf Fischer,” but some were simple snap shots taken by the guards.
Flight Sergeant James A. McCairns, who later attempted an escape from the camp, remembered that after he arrived at Stalag IX-C: “We were put into filthy rooms in which there were rats running about. After two hours we were taken to a Biergarten beside the saline baths. There we were searched, had particulars about us taken, and were issued with identity discs. The searching was done by three censors, but not efficiently, as we were allowed to empty our own pockets. Notebooks were being confiscated, but many of us had them returned later. After being searched, we were passed on to another official who took particulars such as height and weight and also our thumb impressions, but the German was too lazy to fill in a new form and make me give a proper impression. We were then given numbers and Stalag discs and marched into the camp.”
The Germans attempted to humiliate the POWs upon their arrival at the camp. In the summer of 1941, POWs were reportedly marched through town and stripped search in view of the citizenry. Sometimes the POWs were subjected to rocks thrown by local residents as they marched to the camp. The guards did nothing to stop the harassment.
Daily life at Stalag IX-C was very mundane. The POWs were awoken each morning at 7AM by guards who marched through the barracks shouting German commands. Roll-call was held outside at 7:30AM every weekday. Sunday was the only day of rest with religious services that were held separately for the British POWs and those of other nations. During the week, the POWs paraded in the morning and were provided with time for breakfast. POWs either cooked these meals on the communal stove or in small fires sustained by burning bed boards. Each bed was supported by about thirty wooden slats but the POWs discovered they could sleep with only four or five boards and use the rest for fuel. The POWs were allowed time for recreation but were intensively guarded during these activities.
Flight Sergeant McCairns observed that “every day, the lunch was the same, a pint or more of this watery soup with nothing else to supplement it. This was almost always made up of potatoes or rice, sometimes with carrot or cabbage to flavor it and very rarely, tinned meat would be thrown in as a supplement.”
POWs were given 200 grams of brown potato bread, a small amount of grease, some tinned meat, or an ersatz substitute, honey for flavoring and a jug of mint tea.
Mail at Stalag IX-C was irregular and the Germans sometime suspended mail as a penalty to the entire camp in response to escape attempts or behavioral issues. According to one former inmate, letters took about six weeks to arrive from England. Red Cross food parcels were eagerly awaited. One POW said that American and Canadian parcels were the best and contained the best food such as butter, sugar, meat and milk powder but that British parcels contained more variety. A POW remembered: “To make the food parcels go further most of the prisoners joined together in combines of two, three or four members. Cake baking was a favorite pastime in the camp….” The parcels also provided a solid economic foundation for barter. One quarter of tea equaled fifty cigarettes or a one-pound tin of American or Canadian butter.
Original Red Cross POW package from World War II. (Bill Howard Collection)
On March 29, 1945, the prison camp was evacuated and the POWs forced marched eastward in advance of the American offensive. It was a brutal and punishing march. Those too sick to march remained in the camp and were liberated by the American 3rd Army. There are few surviving today who are left to tell the stories of Stalag IX-C. These original photographs are published here in dedication to their memory.