The battle of the Falaise Pocket from 12 – 21 August 1944 was one of the most terrible events of the Second World War. Enemy troops forced into a shrinking space were butchered from every side and above.
By 22 August 1944 Allies had closed the infamous ‘Pocket’ around thousands of enemy troops. Estimates vary, but of the 80,000–100,000 troops who were caught inside, 10,000–15,000 were killed, 40,000–50,000 were taken prisoner, and 20,000–50,000 escaped. Allied investigators say the Germans lost around 500 tanks and assault guns in the battle.
Thousands dead and an emergency camp
Nonant-le-Pin is on the southern line of the ‘Pocket’ and here thousands of exhausted, hungry, frightened, furious and relieved enemy soldiers were herded, into a makeshift camp. There are no traces of the camp now, but in 1944 it stood on the site of one of the many horse racetracks around the village.
By the time the ‘Pocket’ closed, many roads around Nonant-le-Pin were impassable as dead animals (the German army used many horses) and abandoned equipment piled up.
The prisoners were not all German soldiers. Some were eastern Soviet conscripts, captured by the Germans in Operation Barbarosssa in 1941 who volunteered to join the German army, but used for work in the kitchens and stables. Others had been pressed into service from Poland, Lithuania, Italy and the Ukraine.
Very quickly after D-Day many PoW camps sprang up across Normandy.
In the camps the Allies attempted to separate the fanatical Nazis who could cause trouble (and who they wanted to interrogate) from the less ideologically motivated prisoners. Short of guards, an Allied soldier recalls driving around one camp occasionally shouting ‘Halt!’ and shooting his gun in the air to give the impression they were coming down hard on escaping soldiers, but there were few escape attempts. Within the camp they were fed, given medical treatment and were relatively safe. Outside of the camps they faced recapture or execution by the Resistance and vengeful French citizens.
Heinrich Steinmeyer later recalled his own capture “I realised the situation was hopeless. I was in a hole with an 18-year-old. We raised our hands and surrendered… We were taken to the banks of the Seine and told to wait for a boat to take us across. Suddenly a group of elderly French women wielding butchers’ knives and ropes approached us. They spat at us and wanted to kill us because we were SS. The Scottish soldiers drove them off, again and again, until the ferry came. I am 100 per cent sure we would have been killed had the soldiers not intervened.”
Injured Prisoners of War were a priority. Joan McGuire, physiotherapist in an army hospital in Bayeux says “At one stage we started receiving German prisoners of war. Apart from the language difficulty, I think they were very relieved to find themselves out of the war. Any prisoners who were mobile were set to work in the camp. Our own soldiers arriving in ambulances must have had scary moments when the stretchers were carried out by a German at either end!”
By tiny Foucarville in the Manche a camp was set up that would grow to cover 100 hectares. It was built to process prisoners before they were shipped over to the UK (and then many on to the USA). In fifteen months, nearly 100,000 troops and officers passed through Foucarville, then under the command of Colonel Kennedy. The camp, known as ‘Continental Central Enclosure No. 19’ arrived in kit form from the USA and was put together by 1200 PoWs, under the management of Captain Huntingdon of the Engineer Corps. Like a small town, it had roads, 7km of railway track, electric lighting (unlike many Normandy villages at this time), a 1000 bed hospital, a theatre and a church, with bells. Inside PoWs were set to work as cobblers, cooks, whatever they could do.
Organising Prisoners of War
Inside the camps each section would have a prisoner designated ‘compound leader’. The compound police and kitchen personnel were all prisoners. The Allied camp commanding officer would also work with a Lagerfuhrer, a prisoner who would liaise with influential camp figures; physicians, chaplains and legally required prisoner representatives. Tensions would rise between those still ideologically bound to the German cause and more moderate PoWs. The Allied discovery of the German concentration camps is widely acknowledged (and recorded by the Red Cross) to have affected the treatment of PoWs but the end of the war also lifted spirits.
The French take (some) control
By the autumn of 1944, the Allies decided to stop sending Prisoners of War to the United States and Britain and set up more permanent confinement camps.
Within the camps several hundred specialist labour companies were set up, each employing 150-300 PoWs. The military would employ PoWs from these companies to work outside the camps in construction, supply chains, forestry, transportation, maintenance and warehouses. Supply services employed PoW companies for laundries and bakeries. There were also PoW medical companies and companies specially formed to work in the ports.
PoWs on mine clearance could earn their freedom by defusing 30 mines. The German cemetery at Orglandes in the Manche has many PoWs who died from accidents after the liberation.
Shortage of land, and food
The Allies needed to feed their Prisoners of War in line with the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention and partly to avoid reprisals against their own prisoners held in Germany. However the French people were surviving on severely rationed food and did not appreciate seeing the Allies give PoWs ‘too much’ fruit, chocolate and cigarettes. The PoW camps and Allied supply bases also demanded the requisition of large areas of land from local farms already exhausted by German occupation and damaged in the battle for Normandy. The French felt occupied again, this time by the Allies.
May 1945 – an army of PoWs
By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, 250,000 Prisoners of War were living in Normandy, almost as many as the German occupying army between 1940-1944.
Seeing the Allies employ PoWs, the French began to put pressure on their government to give control of the PoWs to France. The French government formally requested the transfer of 1.75 million PoWs to the custody of the French armed forces. After long negotiations (the Allies were concerned the French could adequately feed and clothe this huge number of prisoners) 765,000 were handed over between February 1946 and May 1946.
Many camps like those around Cherbourg were handed over as they stood to the French. Over time tents were gradually replaced with wooden shacks or Nissen huts of corrugated iron. Camps created by the French army housed PoWs in barracks, in tents camped within abandoned industrial sites and refugee internment camps left over from the Spanish civil war.
French PoWs meet their German counterparts
French prisoners of war repatriated from Germany, and German controlled areas in 1945, played a surprising role in Franco-German relations back in France. The returnees were mostly sympathetic towards enemy PoWs. There were a few instances of bitterness and revenge, but more often those returning understood how the Prisoners must feel; they either wanted the PoW’s to be treated better than they had been or, in many cases, be given the same good treatment they had received in Germany.
The French authorities decision to employ liberated French prisoners to manage PoWs was so successful that by August 1945 the official recommendation was to recruit civil guards “preferably among the French repatriated former prisoners or political deportees”.
The repatriated French were vocal in their demands for the PoWs to be treated well. In November 1945, Robert Gasnier a former Prisoner of war in Germany is recorded as complaining to the International Committee of the Red Cross that poor treatment of the PoWs was “a very regrettable state of fact and which is unanimously condemned by the repatriated French prisoners”.
Many repatriated French also had the advantage of being able to speak to the prisoners. They were also unlikely to be victimised by civilians for treating them well, their own time as a PoW ensuring they would not be seen as Nazi sympathisers.
German prisoner Hellmut Frauenlob working on a farm in Normandy wrote in his diary at Easter 1946 “I passed by the neighbour’s farm, the son of the house was waiting for me. He gave me two cigarettes for me and Hans. He thought that we, too, had to feel that it was Easter. He had himself been for two years in Germany and he had been happy, so here it was meant to be the same for us.”
However a German PoW who had stayed in a number of camps in Northern France “noticed that the French who had stayed five years in Germany behaved more decently with us than the younger generation”…
The last Normandy Prisoners of War were repatriated in 1948, to an uncertain future. The camps were all flattened.
Although the strongest memories of the enemy in Normandy are of German occupation from 1940-1944, Prisoners of War were an important part of Normandy’s recover. Thousands of PoWs helped rebuild a devastated Normandy; repairing buildings, clearing ruins, laying roads and restoring the land.
There are a few memorial plaques that do remember them, but for many they remain an uncomfortable reminder of a terrible war.
German and French PoWs during and after WW2, by Valentin Schneider
Archaeological dig of a WW2 PoW camp in Normandy