Life behind the wire at Stalag Luft III
On 12 August, 1944, Alexander Jefferson was flying his P-51 Mustang over the French Riviera. It was a beautiful day, and the mission target – radar stations at Toulon Harbor – soon rose from the summer haze. As Jefferson pulled back the throttle and began his dive toward the target, he noticed a string of blinking red lights – anti-aircraft fire. Flying at 50 feet, he felt a resounding thump shake his P-51, followed by a rush of cool air. The Mustang’s canopy had been blown off and fire and smoke were filling the cockpit. After regaining some altitude, Jefferson bailed out, and was quickly apprehended, along with two other pilots from his unit: Lt Robert Daniels and Lt Richard Macon. After a congenial interview by a jazz-loving German officer, Jefferson, Daniels and Macon were sent to a transit camp, known as a Dulag Luft, for interrogation. From here, they made the three-day train journey to their permanent camp, Stalag Luft III.
The 332nd Fighter Group pilots were, understandably, apprehensive about the welcome facing them at their destination. As members of the US Army Air Force’s first Black flying group, the pilots were no strangers to prejudice. The ‘Red Tails’, named for their P-51s’ distinctive painted tails, had overcome institutional racism to garner a reputation as a highly competent unit, adept at destroying ground targets and escorting bombers. But for the first time, the Tuskegee Airmen would be living with the white bomber crews they’d protected from Luftwaffe attacks.
< S/Sgt Alfred D Morris, crew chief of the 332nd Fighter Group, 15th Air Force, helps Captain William T Mattison into the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang
As the air war intensified over Europe, downed US airmen flooded into POW camps at an astonishing rate. By the end of the war, more than 35,000 US Army Air Force personnel had been captured by Germany and its European allies; 28,000 of these were members of the Eighth Air Force flying from bases in England. Stalag Luft III internee, 100th Bomb Group pilot Robert Wolff, recalled: “I met more people from our group in that prison camp than I did when I was on active duty.”
When Jefferson arrived at Stalag Luft III, situated about 100 miles south-east of Berlin, he was met with a sprawling city of barbed wire and wooden huts. Prisoners were assigned to one of six fenced-in compounds, comprised of 15 single-story barracks, or ‘lagers’. Each 10 x 12 feet bunk room slept 15 men in five triple-deck bunks. At its peak, the camp was 60 acres in size and housed around 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 USAAF, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces.
Stalag Luft III was one of nine prisoner-of-war camps (Kriegsgefangenenlagers in German) run by the Luftwaffe to house downed allied airmen, who nicknamed themselves 'Kriegies'. By the time of Jefferson’s arrival, the camp had become notorious for the number of escape attempts made by its prisoners, most notably the so-called Great Escape of March 1944. The camp was overseen by 800 Luftwaffe guards, nicknamed 'goons', who ranged in character from cruel disciplinarian to sympathetic supervisor.
< A German sentry stands guard in a watchtower at Stalag Luft III, Sagan. Heavy snow falls around him. Several prisoners can be seen walking in the snow below.
According to Wolff, an average day began at 6am with roll call, followed by a modest breakfast of bread (reportedly filled out with sawdust). Lunch was typically a thin potato soup, while dinner was a meat and potato roll. Food was one of the greatest concerns in the overcrowded POW camps, with meagre rations supplemented by the contents of Red Cross parcels and produce from the camp's vegetable gardens. Prisoners could exchange surplus goods in the camp's marketplace.
As officers, the prisoners in Stalag Luft III were not expected to work. To pass the time, Kriegies took part in a wide range of recreational and educational activities. George Ott, 92nd Bomb Group, planted a patch of lawn from blades of grass he’d carefully excavated from the camp's perimeter. Soccer, cricket, softball, volleyball, golf, and even ice hockey, were played and matches were fiercely competed. The camp had a substantial library and prisoners were able to take certified examinations in a range of subjects, invigilated by interned academics. Astrophysicist Gale "Buck" Cleven, 100th Bomb Group, taught advanced calculus to his fellow prisoners, while more theatrically-minded Kriegies could join the camp's group of players. Each compound had a theatre, where shows were performed twice a week. News and music were broadcast across the camp through the public address system. This radio station was supplemented by two camp newspapers, which contained updates from around Stalag Luft III, theatre reviews, and sports scores. News from home, in the form of eagerly anticipated letters, usually took a month to reach the camp and was heavily censored by the Germans.
The monotony of camp life ended abruptly on the night of 27 January 1945. Alexander Jefferson was watching a play in the camp theatre when the compound's commanding officer told the men that they had thirty minutes to evacuate. As the Soviet Army advanced towards Sagan, the Luftwaffe guards had been ordered to move the POWs to other camps. Jefferson's compound was to be transferred to Stalag Luft VII-A, near the Bavarian town of Moosburg. Temperatures were at record lows and snow covered the ground when Stalag Luft III's 10,000 prisoners embarked on the forced march, forming a five-kilometer-long column. Jefferson walked through the night, covering a distance of twenty miles before stopping to rest in Grosse Stille, their only sustenance being the Red Cross parcels they carried with them. As the men set out on the next leg of their journey, exhausted prisoners weakened by dysentery, frostbite, and hunger, began to fall away.
One night, 100th Bomb Group pilot Gale Cleven took shelter in a building previously used by Polish and Russian slave labour. The straw mattresses were "so infested by bugs they could have moved by themselves". In the general chaos of the march, Gale Cleven evaded and made his way to the American lines. He was back at his base of Thorpe Abbots twelve days later. Jefferson remained with the column, and on 31 January, was loaded onto an overcrowded cattle truck for the final leg of the journey to Stalag Luft VII-A. The camp was severely overcrowded, and living conditions were dire. However, the prisoners' ordeal was nearly at an end. On 29 April 1945, Patton's Third Army liberated Stalag VII-A, and the long process of repatriation began.
Alexander Jefferson returned to the US aboard the RMS Queen Mary in mid-1945. On disembarking the ship, Black personnel were ordered to the right-hand gangplank, and white troops to the left. Jefferson later commented that the racially charged reception he received upon his homecoming was worse than his treatment by the Nazis.
Jefferson served as an instrument instructor at Tuskegee Army Airfield, until it closed in 1946. He remained in the US Air Force reserve, retiring in 1969 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
< Alexander Jefferson during a visit to IWM London in 2012