History of Stalag XVIII A

Main events

October 1939: Oflag XVIIIB created in Wolfsberg, Austria, to accommodate Polish Officer POWs.

March 1941: Oflag XVIIIB redesignated as Stalag XVIIIA. French and Belgian POWs begin to arrive. 

June 1941: Camp Commander: Oberst Flechner
                    French Doctor: Dr. Poy

July 1941: British POWs from Greece begin to arrive at Stalags XVIIIA, Wolfsberg, and XVIIID at Marburg.
                Total XVIIIA strength (including Work Camps): 31,667; British: 5,567 (in the main Stalag: 1,780).
                British Camp Leader: Sgt Claude Cooper, POW 3724
                Chief British Medical Officer: Cpt David Wood, POW 50

August 1941:  Camp Commander: Oberst Flechner
                        Second in Command: Oberleutnant Steiner
                        Adjutant: Hauptmann Braun
                        Camp Physician: Oberartz Tonello
                        Supervisor British Camp: Unteroffizier Stoll
                        British Man of Confidence: Sgt Claude Cooper
                        Outside Man of Confidence: WO1 W.G. Richardson
                        Camp Sergeant Major: Sub-Conductor Len Midgeley
                        Camp Interpreter: Sgt Coates
                        Clothing Store MOC: Sgt J.G. Salter
                        Total British POWs: 5316 (528 in XVIIIA itself)
                        Nationalities: 3178 English
                                              407 Scottish
                                                34 Irish
                                              833 Australian
                                              814 New Zealanders (including 320 Maoris)
                                                12 Canadians
                                                  5 South Africans

October 1941: Russian POWs begin to arrive.
                        Acting Camp Commander: Oberstleutnant Radhammer
                        Adjutant: Hauptmann Braun
                        British Man of Confidence: Sgt Claude Cooper

December 1941: Typhus epidemic breaks out. Stalag XVIIIA is quarantined.

March 1942: Typhus epidemic under control. British section considered overcrowded. Total British in the main Stalag: 942. In Work Camps:3,994.
                       Camp Commander: Oberst Flechner

June 1942: Three new barracks built but not occupied.

August 1942: The Stalag has a tailor's shop where some 30 POWs work, and a cobbler's shop employing about 50. All the huts have many fleas and bugs and a steam disinfection apparatus operates continuously, 40 men passing through every hour. The water supply installation is very precarious and there are no drains.

September 1942: New barracks occupied. 400 British NCO's moved to Stalag XVIIIB at Spittal an der Drau. British in the main Stalag: 675. British in Work Camps: 3,831.
                    Camp Commander: Oberstleutant von Reckow

October 1942: SSM Cooper resigns as Chief MOC (ill health). RQMS W. Wells chosen as new Chief MOC.

December 1942:  RQMS Wells resigns as Chief MOC. WO2 E.F. Stevenson elected.

January 1943: Stalag XVIIIB is redesignated as Stalag XVIIIA/Z. Stalag XVIIID, Marburg,  is closed.

February 1943: Stalag XVIIIA/Z at Wagna is closed. POWs moved to Stalag XVIIIA.
                    British Man of Confidence: WO2 E.F. Stevenson

March 1943: Lazaret (hospital) organised at Stalag XVIIIA/Z, Spittal. New Stalag XVIIIB created at Wagna (Leibnitz).

November 1943: British POWs begin to arrive from Italy. Total British in main Stalag: 861. British in Work Camps: 10,156.
                    Camp Commander: Oberstleutnant von Reckow
                    Asst. Camp Commander: Major Schirrnig
                    Abwehroffizier: Hauptmann Ebenpichler (at some later date Hauptmann Schofer)
                    German Chief Doctor: Oberstabsartz Toppler
                    Doctor's Orderlies: Unteroffizier Frank Upholzer & Unteroffizier Fritch
                    British Man of Confidence: W.O. Stevenson
                    British senior Medical Officer: Major P.D.C. Kinmont
                    Red Cross Bulk Store: Sgt J. Travers-Ball
                    Red Cross Lager Store: Sgt W. Wiseman

June 1944: 200 NCO's transferred from Stalag XVIIIA/Z, Spittal, to Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau.

July 1944: Total POWs (all nationalities) controlled from Stalag XVIIIA: 38,831. Total British: 10,667 (40% Australian, 10% New Zealanders), 825 in main Stalag, 9,355 in Work Camps.

December 1944: Camp bombed by USAF. British Surgery and Chapel destroyed. 61 POWs killed.

February 1945: Total POWs (all nationalities) controlled from Stalag XVIIIA: 26,470. Total British: 9,700 (2,000 Australian, 1,500 New Zealanders, 40 American), 1,000 in main Stalag.

April 1945: Fit POWs marched from Stalag XVIIIA to Stalag XVIIIC.

May 1945: Stalag XVIIIA liberated by British 8th Army. Remaining POWs leave for Italy and UK.

June 1945: Camp becomes detention centre for ex-Nazis, run by British Intelligence.

1947: Camp buildings handed back to Austrian authorities. Rented out as accommodation.

1998: Last original building demolished.

For the following account, I am indebted to Dr Barbara Stelzl-Marx of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences in Graz (Address: Schoergelgasse 43, 8010 Graz, Austria).

Introduction

During the Second World War, Stalag XVIII A was one of the biggest POW camps in Austria. Up to 48,000 prisoners were incarcerated either there or in one of the many Arbeitskommandos in its orbit. These men came from France, Belgium, Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Serbia, the Soviet Union, Holland, the USA and even Australia and New Zealand.

On 19th October 1939, Oflag XVIII B, a prison camp for officers was set up in Wolfsberg. Its designation derived from defence area XVIII (District Tirol, Salzburg, Kärnten, Steiermark). The place had previously served to house internees during the First World War and remained for the disposition of Polish officer POWs.

In February 1941 the camp became Stalag XVIII A and took in prisoners from Stalag XVII A in Kaisersteinbruch. The reason for this change was the lack of POW manpower in Districts XVII and XVIII..

The Prisoners

Most of the prisoners in Stalag XVIII A were French. On 1st June 1941, 26,190 French soldiers and 9 officers, together with 632 Belgians, were registered in Wolfsberg. Of these men 25,516 French and 600 Belgians were out in Arbeitskommandos.

The second largest group were the British (including Australians and New Zealanders) whose numbers from July 1941 until liberation in 1945 varied between 5,000 and 11,000. Of the 5,500 British prisoners who had arrived at the camp by July 1941, 3,700 were sent to various Arbeitskommandos.

In the autumn of 1943, after the fall of Italy, there was a new influx as a large contingent of Allied prisoners were transferred from Italy. At about the same time, the first Italian Military Internees were arriving. Within a period of two months their numbers rose from about 3,000 to eventually reach almost 10,000. In October 1944 the majority of these Italians were released to become 'civilian workers'.

The third largest group were the Russian prisoners. The first batches arrived in the autumn of 1941. By October 1942 their number had risen to nearly 4,000 and continued to rise until, by the end of 1944, there were over 8,000 men, including those at the branch camp of Spittal/Drau.

The number of Poles and Americans, first listed in January 1945, were 300 and 63 respectively, and a further 180, listed as 'Serbian', were brought in from the area south of Wolfsberg. The number of Dutch prisoners remained constant at 160 from December 1943 until the end of the war.

Life behind the barbed wire

Prisoners were housed, according to nationality, in barracks in sections joined together and separated by the surrounding barbed wire. In 1941 the British were accommodated in three huts and what had formerly been stables, to which were added four huts in April 1943 and three more in the same year. In 1945 the total number of barracks was 35.

Each of the buildings provided living room for 300 men. While the French and English prisoners were provided with wooden bunks of two storeys, the Russians had three storey bunks to cater for larger numbers. Straw-filled sacks served as mattresses, giving a delightful home for all kinds of obnoxious vermin. According to a Red Cross report of October 1941, the British were each provided with just one blanket. The sanitary arrangements consisted of 21 washbasins for 300 men with a poor pump system providing only cold water.

Compared to the other nationalities the Russians were without exception more badly treated. For instance, the bread issued to the Russians, known as 'Russenbrot',  was of inferior quality and quantity. Half of it consisted of red rye, the rest comprising 20% sugar waste, 20% mealie and 10% straw meal or foliage, resulting not just in malnutrition but deterioration of the digestive system. The 'soup' also provided, called 'Balanda', consisted of bone, buck-wheat, turnip and uncleaned, usually rotten potatoes.

On arrival at Stalag XVIII A, the Russian prisoners would be stripped and, despite the low temperature, showered in cold and hot water. In their already weakened state, many died.

Medical care

For the medical treatment of prisoners in Stalag XVIII A, there were six British and six French doctors and two French dentists.

The medical care in the large number of Arbeitskommandos was very unsatisfactory. Not only were men who were injured at work not well cared for, but were also not retained in hospital as long as they should have been. In one of the Arbeitskommandos only a maximum of ten prisoners were allowed to be away from the workplace at any one time on grounds of illness. The German doctor refused to allow a prisoner doctor to accompany him on his visits and sent patients back to work before they were fully recovered.

The air-raid on 18th December 1944, in which 46 prisoners and several guards lost their lives, made life even more difficult. Both the British and French camp hospitals were hit and partly destroyed. The hospital in the British sector was almost completely destroyed. The senior doctor, Captain Wood, another doctor, and a medical orderly died in the attack and, with the loss of most of the medical equipment and supplies, care of the sick was reduced to a minimum. Many of the wounded were taken to the town hospital in Wolfsberg where the senior physician, Doctor Rainer, saved the lives of many of the victims of the bombing.

The British 'escape committee' were closely involved with medical matters, organising and supporting those planning a break for freedom. With the help of X-ray apparatus they were supplied with much-creased documentation. When one of these fell into the hands of the authorities, the X-ray apparatus was confiscated and thereafter prisoners had to go to the town hospital for X-rays.

In December 1941 an epidemic of spot-fever and typhus broke out in Stalag XVIII A, as it did in all German prison camps. The whole Lager was placed in quarantine and so completely isolated that not even letters got through. Thanks to these measures the epidemic was brought under control by March 1942 and the quarantine lifted. The number of deaths during that period cannot be stated with accuracy but dozens of Russian corpses were brought out in a cart.

While the Russians were buried in mass graves, other nationalities were buried singly and in coffins. A total of 121 were buried in the cemetery at St Johann in Lavantal, including 46 Russians and 4 Poles. The remainder were 4 Dutch, 7 Belgians, 10 British, 20 French and 31 Italian. (Not all of these deaths would have been due to the typhus epidemic.) The latter bodies were all exhumed shortly after the end of hostilities and re-buried in their homelands.

Obviously the number of dead quoted here by no means covers the real total of mortality in the camp. At least 255 French prisoners died either in Wolfsberg or in the working camps. The number of Russian dead must have been very much higher. In November 1941 alone one Russian prisoner died nearly every day.

Peoter Leniz died 1.11.41
Vassili Mostovoi died 1.11.41
Grigorii Yevtoschenko died 3.11.41
Nikolai Ljealin died 3.11.41
Petro Vesolovski died 6.11.41
Petr Lotozki died 7.11.41
Vladimir Deryagin died 8.11.41
Feodor Nasarov died 10.11.41
Alexei Morosov died 11.11.41
Stefan Nemey died 11.11.41
Mikolai Vakuluk died 13.11.41
Grigori Levkov died 15.11.41
Ivan Yershov died 18.11.41
Timofei Selesniov died 18.11.41
Alexander Dietschenko died 20.11.41
Yemelyan Novikov died 20.11.41
Vladimir Bandarenko died 21.11.41
Ivan Kiss died 22.11.41
Ivan Rasputin died 22.11.41
Ivan Baranov died 23.11.41
Ivan Kiritschenko died 26.11.41

Putting prisoners to work

In the whole of Germany (including Austria at that time) by the summer of 1940 - because the industrial war machine had priority for qualified people - it was necessary to use other workers to meet the needs of other occupations, and that meant prisoners of war and civilian foreigners. Stalag XVIII A was created in February 1941 in order to meet that need in Defence Area XVIII.

The National Socialist ideology forbade any recognition of the Soviets as human beings and consequently no preparations were made for the injection of Russian work parties. Indeed, the heavy workload imposed, together with the lack of food, points to the intention to work them to exhaustion and death. As a result, 60% of the 3.5 million Russian prisoners died in 1941.

Apart from the Russians, all other nationalities were drawn into most of the various branches of the economy. Nearly all farms had at least one 'Franzosen', 'Russen', 'Italiener' or 'Polen'. They worked on the dam construction at Lavamund, in saw-mills, forestry, railways, the coalmines at Steyr and, together with prisoners from Stalag XVIIIC at Markt Pongau, on road construction in the High Alps.

Most of the working prisoners registered in XVIII A were employed at one of the many Arbeitskommandos. Although in comparison to the main camp it would appear simple enough to set up a working Kommando, certain conditions were laid down, such as the provision of a sick bay and a space of five cubic metres per man. These regulations were not always observed. At the beginning of March 1942, Lagerkommandant Oberst Flechner issued a fifty-page document giving comprehensive instructions necessary for the satisfactory direction of an Arbeitskommando.

As the following report by the IRC makes clear, the workload of British prisoners was often heavy and sometimes dangerous. Because of this, and the long hours they were expected to work, the prisoners sometimes went on strike.

'The prisoners work on the neighbouring dam. They are excavators, carpenters and labourers and many of them are specialists. They work in day and night shifts and each man works 10.5 actual hours a day. The work is severe. All the prisoners have 24 hours rest per week. Up until now there has been one fatal accident and two very serious cases of cerebral concussion.'
'The men work nine hours a day on the construction of a motor road. It is forty minutes march from the barracks to the work. On the other hand only one hour rest is given at mid-day, but it is twenty minutes march from the work to the place for the meals, which leaves only twenty minutes for their meal, and apart from their work they have two hours march a day.'

Opportunities for Entertainment and Education

It would appear at first sight that the working hours left little time for so-called Freizeitaktivitäten or free time activities. Yet even in Arbeitskommandos there was considerable need for education facilities, social and sporting activity, and especially books, of which the Red Cross Commission spoke vehemently:

'There are neither books nor games at the detachment. The men need them. The detachment is in the mountains far away from the civilised world. The prisoners cannot play football, the ground is sloping, and they have no musical instruments.'

By 1941 many Kommandos had available playing cards, footballs and musical instruments, to which, in the course of time small libraries and theatre requirements were added. In the main Stalag there was quite a broad spectrum of free time activities, though this did not prevent the eventual outbreak of 'barbed wire disease'. On several sports places prisoners were able to play football, basket and volleyball, bowls and hockey, table tennis, boxing and athletics. Outside the compound areas there was a cricket pitch to which the British at times had access. The two French officers, Videau and Bourgeois organised 'international' sports tournaments, which were carried out without the knowledge of the Kommandantura.

Almost all nationalities had their theatre groups which, apart from the British whose theatre was destroyed in the air-raid of 18th December 1944, were active until the last months of the war. (Ken Willmott states that the theatre was destroyed in a fire a few days before the raid.) The French and British had their own theatre orchestras which as well as taking part in variety shows, also staged their own concerts.

A whole range of educational facilities were available for the young men who wished to study.  In the British library alone there were 15,000 books some of which were from University libraries on specialised subjects. Even Soviet prisoners had some books in the Russian language, provided by Russian emigré authors and distributed by prisoners of other nationalities with whom they had contact. Courses in German, Italian, Spanish, Psychology, Mathematics, Agriculture and Physics were held in the French 'Gymnasium' under prisoner professionals. English lessons could not be held as the necessary text books were withheld on the orders ofthe Abwehr officer.

In addition to the cultural and literary activities, sometimes with and sometimes without the approval of the authorities, camp newspapers were produced. The British produced the several paged 'POW WOW' once a month. The fortnightly 'Church and Camp' and the monthly 'Courier' were brought out by the Protestant and Catholic factions respectively. Copies of these publications were sent out to Arbeitskommandos. The French publication 'La Chasse Bile', later renamed 'L'Echo', was concerned chiefly with cultural and sporting matters. Apart from the articles by the 'Man of Confidence', one page was contributed by the Belgian clergy for the benefit of a well-concealed resistance group.

Liberation of the Camps at the end of the War

A considerable time before the end of the war, prisoners from Wolfsberg had made contacts with the partisans in Yugoslavia, who were active in the Kor and Saualpe region. Two French POWs were put in Klagenfurt prison for being in touch with them. The Man of Confidence in one Arbeitskommando had given shelter to a wounded partisan and some Russians had joined the freedom fighters after being set free by them.

Stalag XVIII A was liberated on May 8th 1945 by five British soldiers who parachuted into a nearby field. The camp Kommandant, Captain Steiner, subsequently handed over his command to the Senior British Medical Officer and Men of Confidence of the various nationalities. A little later a conference of all nationalities took place on the Appell ground. On the same day French and British inmates relieved their former guards of their arms and took control of the Armoury, the Post Office and the Railway Station. They also took complete control of the local Gendarmerie. After some of the men had taken their own personal record cards from the Kommandantura , the remainder were burnt.

The British doctors, helped by a senior doctor sent in, began the evacuation of the sick on May 10th. On the 11th, soldiers of the British 8th Army arrived. Hauptmann Steiner then officially laid down his command. To the end of May freed prisoners were transported via Klagenfurt to collecting points in Bari and Naples, from where in June, they were repatriated to their homelands by sea or by air. The last contingent remaining in the Stalag by the middle of June were Russians. They were due to be exchanged with British and Americans north of Graz, but a difficulty arose as the latter had been transported in the direction of Odessa. A large number of Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were branded as traitors by Stalin and they faced a bleak future in Gulag prisons.

The repatriation of prisoners from Arbeitskommandos strewn over District XVIII was slower. Some made their way to Klagenfurt and then to Naples by rail or other British transport. On 22nd May there were still 1,400 French POWs together with 1,500 French civilian workers in the Soviet occupied area of Bruck and Kapfenberg, due to be exchanged with 2,500 Russian POWs in the British zone.

What remains of Stalag XVIII A?

After the last POWs had left Wolfsberg, the Lager was taken over by British Intelligence and served as a detention centre for ex-Nazis. In 1946, about 7,000 of these were discharged, the remainder in 1947. The buildings were returned to the Republic of Austria in 1947. The Authorities then rented out the buildings for living quarters. Thereafter the whole area was taken over by the firm of Gallus and used as a trading complex.

Today there is hardly a trace of the once great prison camp which held the destiny of thousands of men and impacted on the lives of the local inhabitants. To the memory of Stalag XVIII A all that remains 55 years after the war is a plaque with the inscription 'France Austria Europe Day 5th May 1979, Stalag XVIII A'.

The last original barrack building was demolished in 1998.