Sunday, May 12, 2013


As originally planned by the Germans, the POW group was to consist of fourteen men

  • Five officers (including the two US Army and the three British officers),
  • Three „other ranks” from the British Dominions,
  • Four US Army enlisted men,
  • Two British civilians
Capt. Gilder noted that the German commander of the Lazarette stated that he would travel alone.  Frank Stroobant was confronted with a difficult choice. Taken to the camp commandant’s office, where he was informed, through the interpreter, that he was selected to go:
I gathered that an order had been received from the High Command under which British and American officers were to be “invited” to visit the mass grave at Katyn. Two responsible civilian internees were also to be included in the party.

He was further advised that after their return the witnesses
…would be required to give an undertaking to render an account of their reactions and findings after the visit, possibly over the German radio, write articles for the German newspapers and visit prisoner of war camps to lecture about the scene. (The last would have been the hardest part of the undertaking to fulfill, for anyone can imagine the kind of reception which would have been given to any British national, especially a civilian internee, engaged on such a mission.)
Immediately I understood what was wanted I refused to meet their request or co-operate with them in any way.  I was then told that if I persisted in this attitude, volunteers from British internees would be called for on the morning parade, and from those men the Germans would make their own selection...

Stroobant clearly understood how the selection that the Germans might make could look:
They could easily pick out the man who would be prepared to jettison his British loyalty for the odd Reichsmarks, schnapps and fauleins that would be thrown in.

In such a case, the only possible choice that Stroobant could make was to reconcile himself to the German demand that he go.

Stroobant also gives a detailed description of his trip to Berlin, under guard, and gives the most detail on where the group was held. 
The short statement in Van Vliet’s report solely informs us that the building was located near Tiergarten, where, the officers were taken for walks.  In his later article (1962) Van Vliet writes about
Grim prison fortress overlooking the river Spree.

In his report, Gilder informs us:
I was taken the next morning to a house in Schlieffen-Ufer, Berlin, which was used to house a Kommando of mixed French and Russian prisoners.

The most extensive description of the building does come from Stroobant’s book:
…we were housed in a tall building near a canal, and not far from a bridge, which seemed to carry the main road to one of Berlin’s great railway termini. This was the view from the front windows. From the windows of my room, which was on the top floor rear of the building, all that could be seen was… roof tops and what we believed to be the dome of the burnt-out Reichstag building in the distance.

On the basis of these descriptions and the aid of a 1945 map of Berlin, one can determine the precise location (to within 200 yards) of the building.  Lehrter Bahnhof is located on the opposite side of Molke Bridge, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs stands at the foot of the bridges.  Just beyond the Ministry, Schluessenufer runs along the southern banks of the Spree River, and on the northern side of the river, one can see the Customs House in the freight yards.  If one was on the upper floors of the building and looked out the rear windows, one could truly see the Kroll-Oper and  the Reichstag.

The situation of the POWs was a difficult one.  Stevenson, Van Vliet and Stewart, who were all imprisoned in the same camp, Oflag IX A/Z, of course knew each other, as did Gilder and Suttie (if one accepts the identification of Suttie), but Stroobant was not known to anyone.  Gilder was treated with suspicion by the three officers, until one of the British ‘other ranks’ confirmed his bona fides, which was then accepted by the other officers.  Additionally, the officers were placed on a different floor, separated from the enlisted men and Stroobant, which complicated efforts at discrete communication between the groups.  Information had to be transmitted during quick meetings, or by means of an intermediary, although Stroobant mentions that Stevenson did speak with him privately.  As becomes clear from Gilder’s report, an enlisted New Zealander served as a batman, or orderly for the officers; perhaps the officers were able to convince him to transmit messages between the groups.

Among the arriving groups were also the four US servicemen.  Their identities were never disclosed, with one exception, which was made public by both Stewart and Van Vliet during their testimony to the Madden Committee.  That was Corporal Bill Taussig (POW No.33100910 held in Stalag IIIB – presumably the other US enlisted men came from the same camp) of the 168th Infantry, who had served under John Van Vliet, and was taken prisoner at the same time as his commanding officer. Taussig and the other enlisted men were advised of how they were to behave with the Germans. 

During the course of this day, while the POWs were held at the Arbeits-Kommando, each of them was individually questioned by a group of German officers, among whom we only know the name of Captain Bentmann, who chaired Gilder’s hearing. During the course of these hearings, each POW, separately and individually – but according to their previously agreed upon plan, refused to cooperate with the Germans:
We cautioned the entire group to do no talking, to give no indications of opinion, and not to cooperate in any way with the Germans. All agreed. It was evident to all of us that we were involved in an international mess with terrific political implications..

Colonel Stevenson also refused to sign a parole for the group, which would have obliged all of them to not escape during the trip.  What is most curious, is that the German officers did not punish any of the ‘refuseniks’ and limited themselves to only threatening the POWs, and that if necessary they would transport them to Katyn by force.

Such a vapid response – as compared to Nazi „standards” – to the POWs resistance, could possibly be explained.  From the very start, the formation of the group did not go well, and by the time of the Berlin interrogations it was absolutely clear that not one of the British generals would be present (not Fortune, Nicholson or Somerset) nor would the Senior American Officer (Drake) be present, and yet time was pressing on the matter.  The exhumations in Katyn were proceeding apace, and under the circumstances the Germans could not waste precious time in seeking out acquiescent witnesses. Yet it cannot be denied that in his search for usable propaganda materials about Katyn, Goebbels was prepared to do anything, which differentiates this matter from other similar actions, in which POWs were utilized

It has been erroneously stated that the decision about non-cooperation was made during the journey to Smolensk.  This was patently impossible, for at least two reasons: first – the US enlisted men also had to know what they were to say during the hearings, so that the group would have a united front, which confirms that the POW decision was made in Berlin, and prior to the interviews (which is what caused the Germans to reduce the size of the group) and the second – that the main means of travel was a Junkers aircraft, which held eight prisoners, their guards, an interpreter and Kawecki, at minimum 12 individuals, and where there was no possibility for private conversation.

© Krystyna Piórkowska