Saturday, May 4, 2013


Just as with the forensic scientists the Germans wanted to have the ‘most important’ individuals brought to Katyn.  Their original plans had been that a group of no less than fourteen, and possibly as many as sixteen men was to be brought to Smolensk.

The Senior British Officer or SBO in captivity was Major General Sir Victor Morven Fortune (1883-1949) – former Commander of the 51st Infantry Division, taken prisoner in France in June of 1940 and held in Oflag IX A/H. However, in consideration of his age, he had turned 60 in 1943; the Germans “graciously” relieved him of the responsibility that he undertake the journey, even allowing him to designate which of the remaining captive British generals would replace him.  (As a side note, General Fortune had such a sense of propriety; that although he was offered the opportunity to return home in a prisoner exchange program he refused; and remained a POW until liberation in 1945.) All indications were that the next English officer, in line of seniority, would go to Katyn – and that was Brigadier Claude Nicholson, who as commander of the 30th Infantry Brigade, had also been taken prisoner in France in the spring of 1940.  At the time the English-speaking group was being finalized, Nicholson served as Prisoner Camp Commander of Oflag IX A/Z.  Ultimately, however, General Fortune decided otherwise:

The following Wednesday, Brigadier Nicholson was informed by Hauptmann Heyl, that he would not be required to journey to Katyn as the General had instructed Brig. Somerset of  Oflag IX A/H to deputise for him.

The cause for this change in decision is not clear; Brigadier Nicholson died while still a prisoner, on June 17, 1943 and perhaps, four weeks earlier, his physical condition was already such that he could not travel.  It should be surmised that the Germans accepted the proposed replacement quite readily; since Nicholson was to be replaced by an officer of similar rank. Brigadier Nigel Fitzroy Somerset, who similarly to Nicholson had, during the French campaign commanded an infantry company (the 145th) and that he had been taken prisoner in a manner similar to that of his senior colleagues.

It does take a bit of effort to comprehend at first, but the Germans had Ilags – camps for civilian POWs, Soldags – camps for enlisted men and Oflags – which were for officers.  Now the fact is that there was an issue with airmen who often had differing ranks, but in general that was how camps were split.  Additionally, a single officer’s camp such as Oflag IX could have a number of sub-camps – thus Oflag IX A/H and Oflag IX A/Z were different camps although located reasonably near each other.  

Finally, and this is where it becomes somewhat complex, the Hague Convention, which regulated that officers were to be held in different camps than enlisted mean (the former could not be required to work) also regulated that the men had to be held in camps designated for specific national groups.  Thus, there were cases, such as with the camp in Szubin, a town incorporated into Germany after the invasion of 1939, and renamed Altburgund, where the original camp was Oflag XXI B and French officers were held there.  However, after the US Army suffered defeats in North Africa, in the late spring of 1943, the French were removed and the camp renamed Oflag 64.  Thus, when reading about POWs it is often easier to remember the camp designation, than the town name, as although both could change, once a national POW was sent to a location it tended to retain that number for the duration.

© Krystyna Piórkowska