D-Day behind Barbed Wire: Hope for POWs

On June 6, 1944, news of the Normandy invasion spread through German prisoner-of-war camps like wildfire, igniting hope in Allied POWs. 

POW WOW D-Day Edition, Stalag Luft I.

Top Photo: POW WOW D-Day Edition, Stalag Luft I. Courtesy National Museum of the US Air Force, Accessed Stalag Luft 1 POW camp Orginal Photos (b24.net)

When American prisoners of war in Stalag Luft I learned of the start of the D-Day invasion, they couldn’t hide their excitement from their captors. US Army Air Forces bombardier and POW Oscar Richard reported: “The German guards, not yet aware of the invasion, were mystified by our whooping and yelling.”[1]

Uncertainty was a common thread for the more than 93,000 Americans captured and held by the Germans during World War II. POWs occupied themselves with thoughts and discussions of when and how liberation would come. Prior to the June 1944 D-Day invasion, thousands of Americans waiting out the war were some of the most avid consumers of news of all kinds. Harold Romm, bombardier on the B-17 Hellsapoppin shot down in April 1943, recorded in his diary, “The first week of my 2nd year as a POW was very dull and no developments of any importance except that the invasion seems to be imminent.” In Oflags (Offizierslager, or officers’ camps), Stalags (Stammlager, or main camps), and Stalags Luft (camps for Allied air forces), keeping up with the war news was a full-time concern. In camps that held tens of thousands of men, Kriegies—a nickname derived from Kriegsgefangener, the German for prisoners of war—rumors ran rampant. “Flap,” “poop,” and “scoop” were used to describe the all-important bits of information to keep busy with. 

Kriegies received their news from various sources. Newly arrived POWs were an important source of information, bringing the latest on their missions, the front, and baseball scores back home. The Germans were also information providers. Camp administrations broadcast news into camps, usually from the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or Wehrmacht High Command) over loudspeakers on the grounds or in barracks. They also left newspapers around the camp intended to spread information or misinformation among the POW population. The Germans also printed a paper with an obvious slant, the O.K., or Overseas Kid, expressly for Allied POWs, spreading fake news that was dangerous to morale.  

The most trusted source, though, was the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). In most European theater POW camps, prisoners managed to secure or build crystal radios. These tiny contraband sets provided details about Allied progress and operations. In addition, they supplied life-sustaining, morale-boosting broadcasts—speeches, music, radio plays. The Germans spent countless hours sniffing out radios in the camps, many of which were engineered with supplies bartered from camp guards. 

Crystal radio made in Stalag 17B

Crystal radio made in Stalag 17B by A. Wesley Wright using broom and toothbrush handles and foil from cigarette packs. Gift in Memory of A. Wesley Wright, 2018.008.001

In Stalag Luft IV, prisoners bribed a German guard with cigarettes to acquire the components for a crystal radio. Army Air Forces radioman Norman Bussel, who was shot down in April 1944, reported that “now we knew with certainty that the Yanks were coming. ... It was such a damned thrill to know that the Allies were winning this stinking war.”[2]

In Stalag Luft III, American camp leaders learned of the Normandy invasion via the BBC in the early morning but decided to delay sharing the exciting news with the broader camp until the Germans made the announcement.  At 10 that morning the German announcement came through. Of course, everyone went wild despite the unknowns and bias in the enemy reporting. Kriegie George Vasil, an Army Air Forces navigator shot down in May 1943, heard the OKW report and later copied part of it in his diary: “During the past night, the enemy has made his long prepared, and by us expected, attack against Western Europe. Inaugurated by heavy air attacks against our coastal fortification, the enemy landed troops by air on several places along the North French coast between Le Havre and Cherbourg. Simultaneously troops were also landed by sea under protection of strong naval forces. A relentless battle is in progress in the attached stretches of the coast...” 

Illustration from George Vasil, Stalag Luft III

Illustration from George Vasil, Stalag Luft III. Gift of George S. Vasil, 2012.390.001

Information networks and methods of sharing information also varied from camp to camp. Within camps, sometimes notes were passed between barracks. POWs in Stalag Luft III also used semaphore flag signaling to communicate between compounds. In Stalag Luft IV, several men regularly memorized a newssheet compiled from BBC broadcasts, which was later destroyed. The readers then went to various barracks and recited the reports. Few knew the site of the hidden radio, minimizing the risk of discovery. 

To counter the enemy stories, American POWs spread war news through various channels. Kriegies published camp newspapers like Kriegie Times, The Circuit, and Stalag Luft I’s Barth Hard Times, Barbs and Stripes, and the POWWOW (Prisoners of War Waiting on Winning), which was edited by interned International News Service correspondent Lowell Bennett. On June 6, the POWWOW printed a special edition with the headline “Invasion! Yanks-British Land in Europe!!!” It came with the instruction, “This edition to be read silently, quickly, in groups of three.” The printing preceded even the American newsflashes of the D-Day landings.

POW WOW D-Day Edition, Stalag Luft I

POW WOW D-Day Edition, Stalag Luft I. Courtesy National Museum of the US Air Force, Accessed Stalag Luft 1 POW camp Orginal Photos (b24.net)

Prisoners established situation rooms with maps lined with colored pins or string, tracing the direction of the war using any bits of information they could gather. In Stalag Luft III, the POW “Education Department” managed their newsroom, which featured German radio communiqués and newspapers translated and posted on boards. At its center was a giant hand-drawn map of Europe. B-17 pilot David Howard, a member of “Club 42,” which was made up of Stalag Luft III Kriegies who were shot down in 1942, recalled that after D-Day, “our frenzied interest in military news revived, and our geo-military expert, Don Eldredge, was hard put to keep his maps up to date to handle the flood of inquiries.”[3]

The same was true in Stalag Luft I where it was said that “each possible forthcoming battle was fought over the battlefield on the wall before the Allies and Germans ever entangled.”[4] These POW camp newsrooms became gathering points and hubs of activity and speculation. They were also active sites of POW wagering as men bet on the next move of the Allies. 

Lieutenant John Lee, shot down in August 1943 while an observer on the B-17 We Ain’t Scared, provided a glimpse into the POW war room reaction to the D-Day news in Stalag Luft III. Lee’s illustration, preserved in his Wartime Log journal, shows the loudspeaker used to broadcast the German announcement and the newspaper Kriegie Times on the bulletin board. The “FLAP” meter reads “Hysterical” and the men run every which way, celebrating with cigars and readying themselves for their impending freedom.

Illustration by John Lee of Stalag Luft III

Illustration by John Lee of Stalag Luft III. Gift in Memory of John J. Lee, 2013.355.001

The fever pitch was echoed in a letter dated June 18 that was the printed in the November 1944 issue of the Prisoner of War Bulletin published by the American Red Cross for the relatives of American POWs.  The anonymous Stalag Luft I POW wrote: “Maw: The invasion at last!! A fever of excitement and unlimited optimism was felt by all of us here when the news was published by the Germans. It is confidently voiced that the struggle cannot last much longer.”

The D-Day invasion was just the first step in a long march toward liberation. Despite the unbridled hopes of the POWs to spend Christmas 1944 with their loved ones back home, they still had 10 months before they would once again be free men. 

Footnotes & Additional Reading:


  • [1] Richard, p. 81

  • [2] Bussel, p. 124

  • [3] Howard, David. A Kriegie Log. Gift in Memory of David C. Howard, 2016.032

  • [4]Budgen and B. Arct., p.66


Additional Reading:

  • Budgen and B. Arct. Welcome to POW Camp Stalag Luft I. Edwards & Broughton Company: Raleigh, North Carolina, [1945]

  • Bussel, Norman. My Private War. New York, New York: Pegasus Books, 2008

  • Clark, Albert P. 33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III: A World War II Airman Tells his Story. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004

  • Richard, Oscar G. Kriegie: an American POW in Germany. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2000

  • Spivey, Major General Delmar T. POW Odyssey. Attleboro, Massachusetts: Colonial Lithograph, Inc., 1984

  • Walton, Marilyn and Michael Eberhardt. From Interrogation to Liberation: A Photographic Journey Stalag Luft III: The Road to Freedom. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2014


Kim Guise

Kimberly Guise holds a BA in German and Judaic Studies from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She also studied at the Universität Freiburg in Germany and holds a masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Louisiana State University. Kim is fluent in German, reads Yiddish, and specializes in the American prisoner-of-war experience in World War II.

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