POW Camps in Szubin (Schubin/Altburgund)
Several German POW camps existed in Szubin during World War II. The Germans located all of them in the same area – the grounds of the confiscated and repurposed boys’ reform school. Over the years they expanded the compound to include additional brick and wooden buildings.
The history of the Szubin camps can be divided into five phases, each marked by the dominance of a particular nationality among the prisoners: Polish, British-French, French, British and American.
The “Polish” Period: Autumn 1939 – Spring 1940
As early as September 1939, the area served as an internment camp for civilians, mostly Polish intelligentsia. There is evidence that the camp was administered by the local paramilitary structures – the criminal Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz organization – which was comprised of members of the local German population who collaborated with the German police and the SS.
The Wehrmacht administration decided that Szubin was a logical place to also intern prisoners of war, specifically, the captured Polish soldiers. The camp began operation between September 26 and September 30, 1939. The first large POW contingent, most likely numbering several hundred soldiers, arrived there on 4 October. Some publications, however, claim that the first POW camp in Szubin (Kriegsgefangenenlager Schubin) was not established before 5 October.
We do not yet know exactly how many prisoners were held in Szubin in the autumn of 1939, or what was the status of the camp after 26 October, when a new, permanent military administration of the Polish territories was incorporated into the Reich. We also do not (yet) know who was the first commandant of the camp, or from what unit the guards were recruited.
On December 1, 1939, the Germans formally established two new permanent POW camps. They were each a Stalag—by definition, for enlisted men, petty officers, and privates: Stalag XXI B1 Schokken (modern-day Antoniewo, approx. 70 km from Szubin) and Stalag XXI B2 Schubin (located in Szubin proper).
The two camps were part of Military District XXI (Wehrkreis XXI), with its capital in Poznań (Posen).
During the initial period, the conditions in the Szubin camp are assumed to have been difficult. The rooms were in the process of being adapted for residential purposes, there was a lack of equipment and clothing, and supplies were delivered on an unreliable schedule. The Protecting Power responsible, Sweden, failed to offer proper support, and the POWs received virtually no outside help.
Between March and May 1940, the Germans relocated the majority of these Polish POWs deep into the Reich. This relocation was in line with the German policy of not holding Polish prisoners in areas inhabited primarily by Poles (which rendered escaping easier), as well as made more room for the expected waves of POWs from western countries. Over the next several weeks, the Wehrmacht interned here the first POWs captured during the French campaign– these men were primarily British soldiers.
The “British-French” Period: Spring/Summer – End of 1940
The new prison population resulted in a change to the status and designation of the camps.
In early August 1940, Stalag XXI B2 Schubin was renamed to Stalag XXI B/H Schubin (main camp). What was formerly known as Stalag XXI B1 Schokken was transformed into a subordinate entity and renamed to Stalag XXI B/Z Schokken (branch camp), before being transformed into an autonomous camp exclusively for officers—an Oflag--two weeks later, Oflag XXI A Schokken.
Nearly at the same time, on 18 September, a new permanent camp for officers was established in the town proper – Oflag XXI B Schubin. It was established on the same grounds as the Stalag, and its first prisoners were French officers and adjutants.
The co-existence of two camps next to each other--Oflag XXI B Schubin and Stalag XXI B/H Schubin--lasted for nearly three months. In early December 1940, Stalag XXI B/H Schubin was relocated to Tur, a village located 10 km from Szubin, and renamed to Stalag XXI B Thure. From then on, and until the end of World War II, only one permanent camp, the Oflag, existed in Szubin.
The “French” Period: Early 1941 – September 1942
For a short period spanning only three weeks (from March 28 to April 19, 1941), Szubin housed a transit camp (Dulag 202) which the Germans eventually relocated to Serbia. Its location in Military District XXI was most likely in preparation for the invasion of the USSR, which included establishing a transit camp network for Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans. However, as a result of the events unfolding in Yugoslavia, the camp was ultimately moved to the south of Europe. In July, it was relocated to Romania, before being moved to Ukraine in September.
Meanwhile, Oflag XXI B Schubin primarily housed French prisoners of war. The number of prisoners fluctuated greatly: it would decrease with prisoners being released or transferred to other camps and would increase with the arrival of new transports (e.g. from camps which needed to make room for new batches of Soviet POWs). There were approximately 1,400 French prisoners in Szubin in February 1941. By July, this number dropped down to 1,200, then to 600 in September, before growing back to more than 1,500 in the period between 1941 and 1942. Ultimately, in September 1942, the number fell to a little over 580, and down to 38 in October.
The conditions in which the French were held were relatively comfortable – the majority of the buildings had been finished and adapted for POW purposes, the Red Cross had already established a postal service, and the camp was visited by representatives of international organizations several times.
The “British” Period: October 1942 – April 1943
The French prisoners were replaced by the British POWs in September and October 1941, transferred to Szubin primarily from Oflag VI B Dössel and Stalag Luft III Sagan. In the autumn of that year, their numbers fluctuated between approximately 500 to approximately 700. Half of those soldiers were “English” (a term used by the Germans to refer to the English, Scots and Welsh), 20% were Canadians, 15% were Australians and New Zealanders, and 5% were Afrikaners (from the Union of South Africa). The remaining prisoners (mostly RAF pilots) came from other countries, including America.
For the majority of these prisoners, the transfer to Szubin was a punishment for their numerous previous escape attempts. However, the conditions in Oflag XXI B were equally conducive to such plans. The POWs made several attempts, the most brazen of which took place on the night of March 5, 1943. On that night, 33 prisoners escaped via a tunnel they had dug out underground. In the end, however, none of them managed to reach a safe haven. Two of the prisoners who were the closest to succeeding, drowned trying to cross the strait between Denmark and Sweden. The Germans captured the rest. Nevertheless--up until the famous breakout from Stalag Luft III Sagan, which took place a year later--this escape attempt was the largest in the history of German WWII POW camps.
The “American” Period: May 1943 – January 1945
The Germans formally closed down Oflag XXI B a month after the escape attempt of March 1943 and sent the British soldiers interned there primarily to Stalag Luft III Sagan. In May, they established Oflag 64 in Szubin, this time for the purpose of interning U.S. Ground Force officers. The first transport of approximately 185 American soldiers arrived in Szubin from June 6, 1943 to June 9, 1943. Oflag 64 was the first and also the largest POW camp for U.S. Ground Force officers. The majority of the prisoners were captured by the Germans in North Africa, and later in Italy and France. By November 1943, the number of prisoners grew to 336, by March 1944, to 402, and by October of the same year, to 775.
The “American” period of the Szubin POW camp is the best documented period thus far. It lasted the longest, and the nationality distribution of the prisoners remained unchanged. The American officers could enjoy a number of amenities (regular packages delivered by the Red Cross and the YMCA), and they themselves were well-organized and active with regard to cultural activities, sports, education and publishing (a number of memoirs survive to this day, as well as all issues of the camp newspaper). The camp underground was also well-developed.
It is worth noting that Oflag 64 was the place of internment of the two American officers (Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. and Cpt. Donald B. Stewart) who were taken by the Germans as witnesses to Katyń in May 1943 and tasked with observing the exhumations of newly-discovered graves of Polish officers, who had been killed by the Red Army three years prior.
Oflag 64 was known as the best or most comfortable camp. This relative comfort also applied to how its prisoners were treated by the German staff. This atmosphere changed in the summer of 1944 when the camp quickly became overpopulated. In fact, by January 1945, when the Germans evacuated the camp (which will be explored later), it housed more than 1,600 prisoners.
Between June and October 1943, the administration of Oflag 64 also operated a special repatriation camp (Oflag 64/Z Heilag). The camp held sick and wounded British soldiers who were to be released and sent back to Great Britain in exchange for German prisoners of war. All evidence points to it being located in Mątwy, modern-day part of Inowrocław. After the camp was closed down, the remaining infrastructure was used to establish Oflag 10 Montwy, which was unrelated to Oflag 64.
Oflag 64 had a subordinate branch in Antoniewo (Oflag 64/Z Schokken), which held primarily Italian prisoners, including a number of high-ranking officers (a total of 160 prisoners in October 1944). Oflag 64/Z Schokken was established as replacement for the old Oflag XXI C Schokken, which had been relocated to Ostrzeszów in the autumn of 1943 (Oflag XXI C Schokken was itself established in March 1942). By the end of the war, some of the American prisoners had been moved to Oflag 64/Z Schokken too.
The Germans hastily evacuated Oflag 64 on January 21, 1945, leaving behind approximately 86 prisoners who were too ill to be moved. The next day, the Red Army arrived in Szubin. On January 28, the Russians moved these Americans to a collecting point in Rembertów, near Warsaw, and then, a month later transported them to the USA via Odessa.
A total of 1471 prisoners set out westward, with more than 550 km of snow-covered roads ahead of them. The bitter cold, lack of food and insufficient medical supplies made for a difficult march. Only 490 prisoners reached their destination – Oflag XIII B Hammelburg in Bavaria (Lower Franconia). The rest either escaped or returned to meet with the Soviet troops. Some of the prisoners reached Stalag III A Luckenwalde near Berlin, which collected all prisoners from the evacuated territories, and which was eventually liberated.