Fort XIII (Wild, David. Prisoners of hope. 1992. London)

Monday, January 28, 2013

From where did the prisoners of war appear in Stalag XXA?

the battle of Dunkirk

At the beginning of May 1940 Hitler decided to attack the Low Countries. The Low Countries is a historical name for Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg.  The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), French and Belgium troops had been situated on the French and Belgium border with Germany since September 1939, awaiting the inevitable German attack. Germans under the commander General Gerd von Rundstedt made a decision to attack the channel ports before the Allied troops could evacuate. Using the “blitzkrieg” method of attack (rapid advances by armoured columns supported by overwhelming air superiority) British, French and Belgian armies were rapidly overcome.  General Lord Gort who was in charge of the British Expeditionary Force, foresaw that the German attack would rapidly overrun the British forces and would arrive at the channel ports before the BEF could be evacuated to England. Therefore, he conducted a series of fighting retreats to the port of Dunkirk which allowed the majority of British troops to be evacuated.  Those troops used to act as rearguards to the main body were mainly destroyed or taken captive but this action saved the BEF.  This evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk by the Royal Navy was called Operation Dynamo and it was thought by Mr Churchill, as he stated in the House of Commons, that this operation could only save from 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. Thanks to the Royal Navy and French and Belgian troops approximately 340,000 men were rescued from Dunkirk. The plan was to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force with the help of French and Belgian troops with support of a fleet of destroyers and merchant ships. The rescuing fleet was supported by 700 small ships such as fishing boats, commercial vessels and other pleasure craft. Dunkirk’s shallow beaches affected greatly the way the operation was conducted; large craft could not operate close to the beach therefore, the soldiers could only be rescued by these small boats who were later transferred to the larger fleet.  In all, 68,111 people were killed, wounded or captured, a small proportion of the numbers who were evacuated to fight another day.  From Dunkirk, approximately 40,000 men were taken to captivity, many of whom ended in Stalag XXA Toruń, Poland.

 the battle of Saint Valery-en-Caux (France)

A little known action after the evacuation of the main BEF at Dunkirk was the surrender of the 51st Highland Division at Saint Valery. This Division, part of the South West Rearguard force which allowed the main BEF to escape, was responsible for recapturing a bridgehead on the Somme.  They remained in France after Dunkirk with the plan for them to be evacuated at the port of Le Havre after they had allowed the BEF to escape.  Severe fighting took place in their retreat to Le Havre and this time, the Germans remembered their lesson from Dunkirk and put in a southerly armoured flanking column consisting of four divisions trapping the 51st Highland Division at Saint Valery. Unfortunately for the British, their commander, Major General VM Fortune, could not contact an armoured rescue column and to save a huge loss of life, he surrendered the Division. Those men who survived the attack were taken to prisoner of war camps.

the battle of Crete in May 1941

On May 20th 1941, Hitler commenced an airborne invasion of Greece. This location was not accidental; Hitler wanted oil and the closest oil fields were in Romania. After the failure of operation Sealion, the German plan to invade Great Britain, Hitler decided to conduct a peripheral war away from the centre of Europe to secure the oilfields to the East which were needed for his war effort. After the Germans invaded, the Greek government asked Great Britain for help.  Because the British army was still recovering from its defeat at Dunkirk and was fighting a desert war against Germany in North Africa, it could only spare a small amount of British troops.  It therefore sent Australian and New Zealand troops from North Africa supported by British armour and artillery. These forces conducted a fighting withdrawal against the superior German armoured divisions and were eventually evacuated from Greece to the island of Crete.  However, many allied prisoners were taken in the various battles.  In Crete, the existing British garrison joined forces with the troops evacuated from Greece under the command of Major General Freyburg, an experienced New Zealand divisional commander. They started to prepare for the expected forthcoming German invasion by fortifying and defending the various airfields on the island as they feared an airborne attack.  It was an unusual battle for two reasons. For the first time the Germans decided to conduct an airborne organized invasion and secondly, the Germans faced an aggressive dissatisfaction from the civilians. The Allied forces were well prepared: they outnumbered the Germans and also they had a well prepared naval fleet. Unfortunately, the Germans had an advantage in airborne troops. Although the allied forces fought hard, the battle was a spectacular victory for the Germans although they lost many people there. The battle of Britain used British plains from British airfields, in Crete there were no bases for the RAF to operate from once the airfields were lost. As the result of this battle, Hitler took over Crete. The British Navy and Airforce was limited because of the lack of access to the strategic island and had to resupply from their bases in North Africa, many miles away. There were no oilfields in Crete, the oilfields Hitler gained were in Romania which he took on the way to Greece. That battle brought many casualties: 15, 743 British and Commonwealth troops were either found dead or taken to captivity. It was one of the battles which contributed to increasing the number of prisoners of war, especially in Toruń. 

                                            the battle of  Dunkirk
source: H. Bukowska.2012. The formation of national identity in times of danger on the example of British prisoners of war held in Stalag XX A, 1939-1945


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Thank you for comment. We treat war as a great mistake of humanity. Lack of activity and arrogance made such situation where the higest price paid common people.