written by Marilyn Walton 

WWII Eighth Air Force historian and US POW expert, Marilyn Walton, sent us a response to her viewing of Masters of the Air, Episode 7, “The Hell Over Berlin.”  Marilyn served as an advisor on the Apple TV + series and shared her expertise with us on Greatest Generation Live. Marilyn’s review amounts to an expert account into the lives of Americans imprisoned by the Germans in World War II.

The POW camp on the Masters of the Air (MOTA) set looks very good. It was built in the UK in a field and has been dismantled for some time now.

The barracks room was modeled after one that our friend and Director of the Stalag Luft III Prisoner Camp Museum in Zagan, Poland, replicated in his exhibit space. Mike Eberhardt and I raised funds for the exhibit, and the response was overwhelming. The MOTA people asked me the name of the record label and song that is on that record player.

After 1944, these bunks were turned into triple bunks as so many more American crews were being shot down.

The atmosphere within the rooms was claustrophobic. The only private space was one’s bunk, and no one was allowed to sit on it without permission.

So many men smoked then, and cigarettes came in Red Cross parcels. At 9:00pm every night, the heavy wooden shutters were closed over the windows trapping all the smoke inside. There were no curtains,  as were seen in Episode 7–just shutters.

Keintrinkwasser pitcher in Stalag Luft III replica

Keintrinkwasser pitcher on the left (Marilyn Walton)

You will notice the ‘keintrinkwasser’ water pitchers sitting on the floor. This is the pitcher that Buck and the others stood in line to fill at the cookhouse. Daily water issue meant that each room could obtain two jugs of hot water each morning, one at noon, and two each in the afternoon. Water was collected in a standard issue galvanized metal pitcher labeled, ‘keintrinkwasser,’ meaning ‘not for drinking water.’ The pitchers had lead in them.

Future episodes should show more of the camp cookhouse’s “porch” where POWs gathered.

One of my jobs as consultant was to find original items that would have been posted on the camp’s various walls. What you see, especially on that cookhouse wall,  was really what the POWs saw. I helped make sure the pens, the papers, the telephones—everything you see in the offices—were exactly accurate.

One thing that wasn’t accurate was the “Halt! Kontrolle” signs on Stalag Luft III gates. Those signs were used by the Gestapo at checkpoints at railroad stations and elsewhere. There wouldn’t have been a checkpoint at those gates. Gestapo was not present in the camp. SS entered when the Great Escape’s Tunnel Harry broke. They came over from the neighboring town of Breslau, Germany, now called Wroclaw, Poland.

“Halt! Kontrolle” signs on Stalag Luft III gates on Masters of Air

(Masters of the Air)

As for the Great Escape—the mass breakout of 76 British POWs from Stalag Luft III (SLIII) in March 1944—the Germans suspected an escape plot was afoot and moved 19 tunnellers from the British Compound, North, to another camp called Belaria a few miles away. It was a satellite SLIII Camp. Some confuse that camp with Stalag VIIIC that sat right next to Stalag Luft III and was a French work camp that existed there before SLIII was built.

Note Tunnel Harry extended out to what would have been a rutted, dirt, road then. It went under that road into the woods. That is the road that the POWs who arrived in Sagan at the train station walked about ¼ mile and turned left into that front gate.

Clandestine radio transmitters (and receiver) were usually hidden in the walls of the room, but were safer in a table leg. The secret crystal radio was taken apart and stored in a hollow table leg. There was never a cut door on the leg that opened up, particularly with a nail sticking out to indicate where it was.

Later, on the march, three different men would carry an individual piece of the radio. One British POW carried a radio in his bagpipe!  Information gleaned from the BBC and a Belgian station was sometimes put into tin cans and thrown over from one compound to another, but that carried some risk.

Access to the BBC intelligence was on a need-to-know basis. The fewer people who knew it, the better.

Only a few POWs were designated to listen to the BBC where the radio was. The listener took it into his bunk and pulled a German sheet over his head.

Each night at 10:00pm, he listened to the BBC broadcast, and at midnight he listened to a radio station in New York.

Notes of the broadcasts were prepared in shorthand and transcribed for censoring before being distributed.

Afterward, the news was announced or delivered to the individual blocks for general kriegie (POW) consumption. Each block had its own “X” Committee that checked to see that the block was clear of any ferrets or goons, and they posted guards around the block while “X” Committees operated inside. Once the news was read out loud, the deliverer ate the paper it was written on.

The American radios were also secretly sent from the U.S., and the radio unit fit in a cigarette carton with the battery pack taking up a second carton.

X-ray of radio concealed in cribbage board during WWII

X-ray of radio concealed in cribbage board (USAF Museum)

The beginning of the BBC news began with the chimes of Big Ben and repeated non-sensical coded sentences to Resistance Fighters.

To get ready for Episode 8:

BBC broadcast 1 June 1944: “Long sobs of autumn violins” meant that Operation Overlord  (D-Day) was to start within two weeks.  BBC broadcast 5 June 1944: “wound my heart with a monotonous languor” meant that it would start within 48 hours and that the Resistance should begin sabotage operations, especially on the French railroad system.

My understanding was that not much would be said about the Great Escape in this series. That’s what I was originally told by those involved in the production of Masters of the Air. But, it seems, the showrunners changed their minds.

Some of the POWs loved to pull pranks on the guards. If they suspected a guard would come in that night, for example, they would all sit up in bed, when there was no light in the room, and they held open books as if they were reading. When the guard rushed in to capture them doing something, he would shine his flashlight around  the dark room first to find all of them “reading in bed.”

Verrückten Amerikaner,” the guard would say. “Crazy Americans.”

There is a scene in this episode where a POW lures a cat out from under the barracks. I sent the production team several cat stories I’d gathered from former POWs. There were some funny mice stories, as well. One British POW found a mouse eating cheese in the barracks, and he decided to put the mouse on trial for his transgression. The trial took several days, and witnesses were called. After much deliberation, the verdict was “Not Guilty.” The mouse was released.

Not usually true with cats. In times when Red Cross parcels could not get through due to bombed out railroad tracks, if a cat was caught, it was eaten. But at Oberursel, at Dulag Luft, after interrogation, British Senior Officer, Harry “Wings” Day found a cat and kept it as a pet. He named it Ersatz, which means imitation in German. The men drank ersatz tea and coffee and ate ersatz sour German brown bread which contained sawdust, and they had ersatz margarine.  The German personnel in camp had the same rations.

Ersatz (meaning imitation in German) sour German brown bread which contained sawdust

German brown bread with sawdust (Marilyn Walton)

There is a great scene in “The Hell Over Berlin” with Lt. Col. Clark, whop is referred to as ‘The Brass,’ for some unknown reason.

Clark and others were in Adjutant Simoleit’s office and told that soon all names of Jewish POWs were to be reported.

To my knowledge, this never happened at Stalag Luft III, but several other camps tell the story of Germans in command  lining up the POW ranks and demanding all Jewish POWs step forward.  Instead, every man lined up stepped forward.

That is where Clark’s line in Episode 7 comes from: “There are only Americans at Stalag Luft III.”  At least three or four other POW camps claim this story as their own. Though it didn’t happen, it’s a good story, and I think it was ok to tell it here.

My late friend, Irv Baum, who was a prisoner at SLIII, tells the story of his arrival in the camp on the same day the Great Escape Tunnel broke. The SS were there, and the camp was in chaos.

Ira Baum's ID card while at Stalag Luft III

Ira Baum’s ID card (Marilyn Walton)

Even German personnel were scared. As Lt. Baum sat at a table and filled out information for his  Personalkarte (ID card), he got to the line that said religion. He started to write a J for Jewish when a young German guard standing near the table, carefully shook his head, “no.”

Irv was stunned. He thought maybe he should write H for Hebrew, as that was what was marked on his dog tags. As he started to do that, with no words spoken, the German guard took his pencil and quickly made the J for Jewish into a P and wrote “Prot.” for Protestant.

Had the guard been caught doing what he did, he likely could have been shot as SS were in the camp that day.

Irv always told me that neither he, nor his fellow Jews, were ever mistreated in the camp and were allowed to hold religious services there.

Matches were almost impossible to find at the stalag. It was not uncommon for the smokers to go through the barracks hallway asking for a light from another POW who had his cigarette lit. This happened all day long. Candles were not around either. The men could make oil lamps from ersatz margarine and would stick a piece of cut pajama cord from the drawstring, and use that as a wick. These oil lamps were also taken down into the tunnels that were dug.

The POW shooting was loosely based on the killing of a POW named Cpl. Cline C. Miles who died April 9, 1944 – killed by gunshot fired by German guard from a goon box as a warning shot when he saw that Cline was in the cookhouse instead of his barracks during an air raid. Cline poked his head out to see the raid, and when the guard fired, his bullet ricochetted and hit Cline killing him. He was later buried at Stalag Luft III with military honors.

Sentry dogs were let loose in the compound at night to run and find any hiding prisoners. They were not routinely used in the day time, so they really did not attack POWs. They were fearsome dogs though, and even the commandant was afraid of them.

Kriegie humor:

Roll call was held twice a day, and occasionally after someone escaped, the Germans would hold a “picture appel.”

Appel was the name for roll call. A man walked up to a table to show his face, and the German soldier at the table pulled out the man’s ID card to compare the picture with the face. One POW cut a ping pong ball in half and put one half over each eye. The German looked up and was terrified! The POW paid for his prank with a week in cooler.

I told the Masters of the Air production crew this story, but I doubt there was time in the series to use it.

On to episode 8!