anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

 Chapter 5 - "The Yanks are coming and going!"

The first Americans crash-landed on August 13, 1943 on Swiss territory. One of their "flying fortresses" had left from a base in North Africa to bomb the town of Weiner-Neustadt in Germany. Having lost two engines from anti-aircraft fire, it could not reach sufficient altitude to cross the Alps and was forced to crash-land near Wil. As the crew had landed in uniform and were "armed" with their aircraft they became "internees".

Because these airmen were officers or senior NCO's, by negotiation with the American Legation in Bern, they were interned in superior hotel accommodation in luxury tourist hotels, first in the alpine winter sports resort of Adelboden, and later also in Wengen, where such hotels were lying empty.

However particularly along the Rhine river which forms most of the German-Swiss border, some American airmen who had parachuted into German- controlled territory, had managed to avoid capture and crossed the Rhine to the Swiss side. Others had landed in occupied France, had been rescued by members of the French Resistance, and smuggled to safety in Switzerland. As they were in civilian clothes and unarmed, like the Allied escapees from Italy, they were classified by the Swiss as "evades".

By the time the Swiss border was re-opened at Geneva by the American Fifth Army, there were 167 USAAF aircraft in Switzerland, 96 of which were salvalged as junk and 7I of which were considered repairable. There were some 1,500 USAAF "internees" and a handful of "evades". And just as that distinction was significant, so was the distinction between the Geneva and the Hague Conventions. While the former were generally well-known to all POW, the latter was not well understood, and became the cause of much friction between "internees" and the Swiss authorities, trying desperately to preserve their neutrality.

Allied airmen, surviving their crash-landings in Europe, considered themselves lucky to have done so in neutral countries. Technically, they had never surrendered to the enemy nor experienced the ignominy of becoming POW. Moreover while well understanding the terrors and horrors of active combat, they never really suffered the deprivation of basic personal liberty, nor the struggle of starvation. Most had gone from being a "free man" in their own unit in only a matter of hours, to being a "free man" in a neutral country, albeit unable to continue their military duties and careers. Lapse of time was not the basic cause of their frustration, but lapse of action. Almost universally, they considered that it was not only their duty to escape and re-join their units, but by doing so, they would resume the camaraderie and patriotism of active service.

What to them was a personal deprivation of liberty and unaccustomed personal discomfort, was to most "evades" in Switzerland, particularly the Australians and New Zealanders, a huge improvement over their experiences in their long and indeterminate prison sentence.

While there is little doubt that the Swiss airforce, and more particularly those with pro-Nazi sympathies, over-reacted in defending the neutrality of their air-space in many instances, to the detriment and death of some airmen, the Swiss were determined to go to war if necessary, to have no war on their territory. On the other hand, American crews flying off on missions were briefed to seek asylum in Switzerland, Sweden or even Spain if their aircraft could not return to base.

Although under the Geneva Conventions, "internees" should be held by the host nation until hostilities finally ceased, their repatriation could always be arranged on humane and other specified grounds, such as government to government agreement.

By an agreement, drawn up by the Swiss, the Germans and Marshal Petain of France, some 30,000 "Internierten" had been returned to France via the border crossing at Geneva in 1941 (A5). Smaller exchanges continued to be negotiated and when the Americans opened up the border again to provide an exit point into Free France via Geneva, the British requested that a Reception Camp be established on the border at La Plaine, so that allied convoys returning empty from the front lines, could take back repatriated "evades" to Naples where they could be sent further by sea. This facility was later extended to the rail system and permitted 6,778 "evades" to be returned in the period July 1, 1944 to December 31, 1944 viz:

4524 British (including nearly all Australian and New Zealand "evades".)
    91 American (including presumably all American "evades")
  440 French
  860 Russian
  495 Poles
  313 Czechs
     9 Dutch

This was followed by a second repatriation stage of Allied and German "internees" in February and March 1945, when 586 US and 43 British airmen, a total of 629, as against 783 German soldiers, 1053 German Customs and Police Officers, and 890 Yugoslavs was effected. In addition 20,500 Italians were repatriated on June 28, 1945 were repatriated via Chiasso in 22 trains.
In all, during 1945, 42,606 foreign military persons were repatriated (A5 p180). Hostilities in Europe did not cease until May 8, 1945.

Such agreed repatriation was a pragmatic policy followed by the Swiss to lessen the number of the uninvited guests they had to feed and foster.
Nevertheless, some 38,746 "internees" still remained in Switzerland by VE-Day, mainly Germans, Italian Fascists, Russians and military deserters, who had no place to return to!

Some airmen "internees", particularly Americans, who had seen the border opened up by their Army colleagues, were highly critical of the Swiss repatriation policy and indeed of their general treatment while in Switzerland and a "Swiss Internee's Association" was formed to voice this criticism (see the account of Dan Culler, an American airman from Arizona, who tried to "jump the border", was caught and sent to the Swiss Federal Prison of Wauwilermoos in his book "The Black Hole of Wauweilermoos" L4)

When "internee" RAAF W/O Murray Bartle was caught "jumping the border", he states:

"We were taken to the "real" prison of Wauwilermoos, where we were treated harshly and life was pretty grim. This should not have been allowed in a neutral country and the pro-Nazi Camp Commandant was later severely censured for his lack of humanity and was cashiered out of the Swiss Army".

But the Swiss "internees" also had their critics - which also appears in Swiss Official Records (A7):

"Die Internieten zu gut gehe, dass Ihre Naerung zu reichlich soi, dass sie gratis studieren und faulenzen koennten, kurz dass sie Parasiten am Schweizerischen Volkskorper sein." (Internees have it so good, that their food is too rich, they study free and can laze around - they are actually parasites on the Swiss people).

Even in Adelboden,feelings were mixed. Nearly all Australian and New Zealand "evades"  there, both permanent and on R and R leave, were "other ranks", notoriously loyal only to their own officers and generally quite disrespecful of rank as such. And all highly critical of "whingers". There was a tendency to regard the airmen "internees" as such, not understanding what a "real" POW had experienced. As one Rat of Tobruk, unjustifiably sneered at an incoming batch of American airmen: "Look at the buggers, they've still got creases in their pants". In Adelboden among the airmen there was a preponderance of senior rank, and a marked difference between treatment of commissioned and non-commissioned men.

After Noel Davis's commission came through, he had to leave the hotel in which he was staying with his RAAF mates and move into another hotel for officers only. This was later to be corrected when British airmen were moved to Glion. There, all British airmen stayed in the one hotel, regardless of rank. This was closer to the Swiss ideal and was more compatible with the Hague Convention of all POW, "internees" or "evades" being "free men".  When Fred Birnie wangled his job with the local Adelboden butcher, he used it as both a cover and a funding source to help impatient Alpine Airmen "jump the border". And as Murray Bartle found out, the Swiss Intelligence system was very strongly against this practice as another threat to their neutrality.

The bombing of Schaffhausen by the USAAF in April, 1944 did not improve the reaction between the Swiss and their airmen "internees", but the successful landing in Normandy in June 1944 went a long way to cancel this out.

Acknowledgements and thanks to:

Murray Bartle
Fred Birnie
Dan Culler
Noel Davis
Bob Long
Don Waters                                         

Web Design Web Hosting by FirstLine