Sunday, February 9, 2020

For You, the War is Over...

U.S. soldier at Camp Remagen guarding thousands of German soldiers captured in the Ruhr area on 25 April 1945.
The firing began to slacken as ammunition ran low. Horst stayed in his foxhole, keeping his head down, he was completely out of rounds. He thought about fixing his bayonet, then realized it would probably be better to cut his own throat with it rather than make some futile gesture. The war was over.

The Amis had attacked at dawn, first with a blizzard of artillery fire. As his platoon was well dug in, the artillery hadn't hurt them, much. No doubt the lieutenant's parents would disagree as his position had taken a direct hit. From past experience Horst knew that they'd be lucky to find the young officer's boot heels, let alone an intact body to bury.

When the Amis had advanced into the open across the firebreak from them, the platoon's remaining two MG-42 machine guns had waited until the enemy was halfway across the roughly 20 meter strip of open ground. When there were no more targets to be engaged, the firing stopped.

A single American had lurched to his feet and tried to retreat back to his side of the firebreak, he was cut down immediately by rifle fire. That had been over an hour ago.

That's when the artillery started again.

When the artillery stopped, Horst was deaf, couldn't hear a thing other than a ringing in his ears for a few long minutes. Lifting his head slowly, he peered over the lip of his foxhole. The Amis were being careful this time.

The brush moved on the opposite side of the firebreak, again machine gun fire rang out, but only briefly. Then the gun was silent. Horst guessed that the gunners had fired off their last belt. The Amis came into the firebreak once more, crouched low, darting quickly from cover only to go to ground after a short dash. No machine fire rang out.

Horst's hearing was returning, he heard shouts to his right, he turned to look, one of the machine gun crews was standing, waving a light colored rang, all three men were yelling out, "Nicht schießen!" Don't shoot. Perhaps none of the Americans spoke German, perhaps they just didn't care to accept the surrender of those gunners. They were out of ammunition, the Amis were not.

When the firing stopped, all three German machine gun crewmen were dead, cut down in the act of surrendering. At that point, Horst realized that it was unlikely that he would survive the war. The Amis were in a killing mood.

It was the afternoon of the 17th of April, 1945.

Being a prisoner of war sucks. But as a POW you do have certain rights and protections under the Geneva Convention -
Under the Third Geneva Convention, prisoners of war (POW) must be:
  • Treated humanely with respect for their persons and their honor
  • Able to inform their next of kin and the International Committee of the Red Cross of their capture
  • Allowed to communicate regularly with relatives and receive packages
  • Given adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical attention
  • Paid for work done and not forced to do work that is dangerous, unhealthy, or degrading
  • Released quickly after conflicts end
  • Not compelled to give any information except for name, age, rank, and service number
In addition, if wounded or sick on the battlefield, the prisoner will receive help from the International Committee of the Red Cross. 
When a country is responsible for breaches of prisoner of war rights, those accountable will be punished accordingly. An example of this is the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials. German and Japanese military commanders were prosecuted for preparing and initiating a war of aggression, murder, ill treatment, and deportation of individuals, and genocide during World War II. Most were executed or sentenced to life in prison for their crimes. (Source)
But what if a combatant is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention? The Germans argued in World War II that as the Soviet Union had not signed the convention, their captured troops were not protected by the Convention. The number of captured Soviets who were killed out of hand, left to starve to death in open enclosures after capture, or worked to death as slave labor ran into the millions.

An improvised camp for Soviet prisoners of war. August 1942.
Notice the similarities between the opening photo and the one of the Soviet POWs?

Near and at the end of World War II the western Allies (the U.S., the U.K., and France) were bringing in prisoners by the thousands, and then by the hundreds of thousands. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians, liberated Allied POWs, liberated concentration camp survivors. Logistically the Allies were already stretched fairly thin, there wasn't much of a chance of being able to take care of all of those people set loose in Europe.

So the western Allies decided that the surrendering Germans would not be classified as POWs They would be designated as Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF). By doing that, the western Allies "technically" didn't have to abide by the Geneva Convention. A large number of German troops who had surrendered died in the camps set up along the Rhine River, which the Germans called the Rheinwiesenlager, the "Rhine Meadow Camps."

Was this a war crime? Technically yes, I suppose it was. But the thought at the time was that the Germans, having started the war and having caused the problem, should be the least of the Allied powers' worries. Help the innocents, the civilians uprooted by the war first. Let the Germans fend for themselves until the first thing was sorted out.

Oddly enough, the Rheinwiesenlager were run by the Germans themselves. German military police, still armed, were used to police the camps. The camps were mostly shut down by September of 1945. Still, thousands died.

This a story I had never heard of before until reader Stefan pointed it out in a comment the other day here. I'm still pondering the many imponderables (if that's even possible) surrounding the idea of being treated "fairly" after surrendering. In the heat of battle, soldiers who try to surrender are often killed out of hand. In a fast moving combat situation there is often no time to take prisoners, the victorious soldiers have just been through combat, have seen friends killed and wounded. Why take pity on the bastards who decided to quit because they no longer had the advantage?

Why take pity on an aircrew who have been shot down in your midst after bombing and strafing your town, your unit? In the heat of the moment many aircrew have been put to death for simply doing their jobs. But can you blame the people on the ground?

War is brutal, nasty, and horrifying. There is no way to make it less so, not in reality. People in suits can make rules in marble palaces between wars, thinking that war can be made civilized, less terrible. In the heat of combat soldiers will still execute or mistreat prisoners and innocent civilians. That has been the way since Cain slew Abel.

Yes, things aren't quite as brutal now as they were, there are "rules" which many still try to obey. I have no answers, only questions. The only eternal guarantee in war is that the innocent suffer along with the guilty. I don't think that will ever change.

Horst was searched roughly, his helmet, equipment, and personal effects taken from him. His tunic was ripped open and one of the Americans slapped him, hard, before shoving him into a huddle with the other captured Germans.

A big American sergeant walked up to the Germans and fired a burst from his submachine gun, at least two Germans went down. He would have emptied the magazine but his weapon had jammed. This simple mechanical failure saved Horst and the others. For at that moment an American officer showed up. Yelling at his men, the officer had a few Americans with rifles and fixed bayonets start herding Horst and the others to the rear.

One American shoved Horst into a line with the other Germans, looking Horst directly in the eye and saying, "Für Sie ist der Krieg vorbei..."

For you, the war is over.

Other Sources:


  1. While flying, the only bigger fear I had than of dying was being a POW.

    1. I can't begin to imagine being a POW.

    2. I did my best to give up my fear of dying, otherwise I couldn't do the job I was assigned. That is not meant to sound heroic or nihilistic, we just didn't discuss or try to think about our mortality. But I could not overcome my fear of a disfiguring burn or being taken POW, especially in the South. regards, Alemaster

    3. I hear on you on that. Both of those are terrifying possibilities.

    4. Alemaster said it better than I. I also never really gave much thought to dying. I figured it would most likely be pretty quick and I probably wouldn't even know it was about to happen. POW scared me. Iran and North Korea were well known for their treatment of POWS.

  2. Ya..... keep fighting until your ammunition is exhausted and then give up, hoping that the surviving enemy whose bloodlust is up because their comrades who were killed/wounded, is in a mood to take prisoners..... especially if there are troops of your own that are there to keep you from deserting by shooting you.....dammed if you do, dammed if you don't. If you survive after being on the losing side in a conflict you're a lucky duck.

  3. "Yes, things aren't quite as brutal now as they were, there are "rules" which many still try to obey."
    I strongly think that in the case of a real, all out war, like WW1 or WW2, or Viet Nam, there were "horrors" that happened then, and there would be again. The layer of civilization on humans is a very, very thin layer. All ya have to do is turn on the news any evening and listen. And this, in a time when we are not at "war", so we are still civilized. When/were we at war, yeah, all bets are off. Especially if the enemy we are fighting against is, shall we say, from another part of the globe where the sanctity of life is regarded in a different light than here in the US, or in Western Europe.

    Yes, I think the Geneva Convention is a good thing, and should be followed. But, I can certainly see how, in the fog of war, actions can get out of control quickly. And, you are right...the ones who suffer the most are the innocent civilians who get caught in the middle.

    I just pray to never live to be so old as to see war here in the US in my lifetime.

  4. Whatever is best for our people, our war fighters, is what I support. The enemy, not so much.

  5. And then one remembers fate of allied POWs taken by... soviets. Katyn.

    1. I know the story of Katyn very well. I don't think the guilty ever paid for that, not in this life anyway.

  6. Also that scene from recent movie Midway jumps to mind...

  7. Also, note that different services of same country can sonetimes act different towards POWs. Case of notoriety, Waffen SS.

  8. And then there is case of irregular and guerilla forces, often not taking prisoners due to lack of capacity themselves. And odd ducks like Warsaw uprising where Germans acted horribly massacring civilians but at last in surrender granted insurgents Geneva protections.

    1. After the Rising, odd that the Nazis actually treated them as POWs.

    2. Some smarter ones realised that war is lost and tried to score points for after the war judgement...

    3. Rather too little too late. However, it did save the lives of some very brave people

  9. An honorable enemy would not rip off belts of ammo at 20 meters and then expect to surrender willy-nilly. That's just beyond the pale.

    Tom Kratman, an ex Army Lt. Col, now writer of military fiction and fact, wrote in several of his books that no matter what was written, the unwritten rule of law was that as soon as it became bayonet time, or close quarters battle range, the concept of surrendering is gone. There is no surrendering to a bayonet charging force or during CQB. Especially if the attempting-to-surrender people just hosed down the first group of bayoneters or CQBers. Roughly, 100 yard or closer range in the open, 1 block or closer in city terrain. It's not that the LAW states so, it's because no-one seriously expects the attacking troops to be 'sane' enough to stop attacking.

    During the medieval and renaissance era in Europe, the general rule was once an attacking force has breached the defenses of a fortification, the defenders were supposed to surrender. To surrender meant looting, theft, rapes, but the fortification and its defenders would live and at pretty much at the same station of life they were at pre-defense (sorry, Hollyweird, you keep getting this part wrong.) To not surrender meant the defenders could and would be put to death, along with other horrors. This is where the phrase, "Kill them all, God will know his own" from the Albigensian Crusade, referring to the nominally Christians who were hiding the Cathars amongst their midst and wouldn't surrender the Cathars once holes were breached in their defenses. Also referred to in Shakespeare's "Henry V" during the siege of Harfleur, when good King Harry et al breached Harfleur's walls and then did not surrender. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more..." Though not in the famous speech, because un-pc, Harry later says it's time to get jiggy with the defenders, go ahead and kill anything alive, they gave up the chance to survive.

    War sucks. Winner takes all. Losing sucks. Don't be a loser.

    Unless you are an American servicemember post Korea, then, yeah, you don't get to take all, you can't shoot the dirty bastard who just hosed down your friends because he just tossed the smoking gun down and raised his hands, you can't take a photo of you with a pile of dead, you can't shoot first even though you're outnumbered, you have to read the dirty haj or whatever his/her/its friggin Miranda rights even though: A) You ain't a cop. B) You aren't in the US or any of it's territories or protectorates. C) The person you are arresting doesn't give a good gosh darned about your rights and will still kill you even though 'he/she/it' has 'surrendered.'

    What is scary in these United States and its territories and protectorates is that criminals and criminal organizations now have far more rights than the common people. Especially the victims of the criminals. Like, oh, say, New York's new law that gives the Defense full disclosure rights over confidential informants and victims, including their addresses, phone numbers, where they work etc. Yay.

    So, to recap, here are the actual rules of war as worked out by mankind since Day 1.

    War sucks. Don't lose.

    Act like winners or you've lost.

    If you want to survive and you're losing, give up now. You can't give up when troops are running through the streets.

    It sucks to be the hostage/ the civilian/ the non-combattant in uniform. Too bad, so sad, you aren't fighting, you have no say so in what comes to your door.

    And, last but not least - It sucks to be the loser, don't be the loser.

    Any attempt to not follow the above rules means... you've basically lost before you started. There are other, cruder rules of war, but basically, don't start none, don't get none.

  10. It's a hard question and one which is always contextual and dependent on real stuff in the real world. Nothing lawyers and politicians come up with is any help. That's just stuff that happens in courtrooms and marbled halls, not in everyday life and certainly not on the battlefield. It helps to understand that every normal ape-lizard has the capacity to out genocide Hitler and out saint Mother Teresa. Which leads me to believe it penultimately important to know the what and why of my own principles before anything else.

    Just my two.

    Good thought provoking post Sarge, thanks much.

  11. WRT the Disarmed Enemy status it was due to a simple calculation made at the very top. The high command could not bring itself to feed POWs the rations guaranteed by the Geneva Convention and then stand by and watch the civilian populace starve to death because the food just wasn't there. Remember England didn't end rationing until some time in the 1950s. There was very little food in Europe at the end of the war and the people were starving everywhere.

    I'm kind of amazed the Germans left any British aircrew alive if they found them so anywhere in Germany or occupied Europe. What the bombers did was pure atrocity and we could say the same thing about 8th AF and their fire raids in Japan. It's not hard for me to see why MacArthur didn't fully pursue the war crimes after the surrender. It would be hard to justify saying just who was guiltier of war crimes.

    War makes monsters of us all.

  12. (Don McCollor)...another aspect of taking POWs - There is a short newsreel footage account of the 83rd Infantry in September 1944 (as I remember it). "Grab your rife" the Lieutenant said "we got some prisoners to guard." "How many?" I asked. "About twenty thousand." he said...It had been negotiated, but an entire German division was surrendering with all their weapons and equipment, and a with twelve man American patrol escorting them in (probably hoping they didn't have second thoughts).

    1. Iraqi troops were surrendering to helos in the Gulf War. If the enemy has had enough, heck, they'll take themselves back to the POW cages. So yeah, I believe it.

      (Second thoughts is what causes the "take no prisoners" word to go out. Unofficially of course...)

    2. and then there was that submarine that surrendered to planes...

    3. Didn't know that one, thanks for the link Paweł!


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