OFLAG XIII B Hammelburg 1945

Oflag XIII-B was a German Army World War II prisoner of war camp for officers (‘Offizierslager’), originally in the Langwasser District Nuremberg. In 1943 it was moved to a site 3 KM (1.9 mi) south of the town of Hammelburg in Lower Franconia, Bavaria, Germany. Lager Hammelburg (‘Camp Hammelburg’) was a large German Army training camp, that opened in 1873. Part of this camp had been used as a POW camp for Allied army personnel during World War I. After 1935, it was a training camp and military training area for the newly reconstituted Army. In World War II the Army used parts of Camp Hammelburg for Oflag XIII-B. It consisted of stone buildings. Stalag XIII-C for other ranks and NCOs was located close by.



The Hammelburg stalag, a former boys’ military camp, was located atop a plateau that sloped gently upward from the prison buildings for five or six hundred yards and then dropped precipitously several hundred feet to the flats along the Saale River and the town of Hammelburg. A road crossing the river from Hammelburg at the foot of the steep hills made a three-way fork; one running west through Untereschenbach, a second turning east along the river, and the third road angling to the southeast up the face of the hill. Other roads along the top of the plateau led to the south and southeast through the wooded hills past the AT weapons range that was used by the troops in the vicinity for training purposes. Hammelburg was a large camp, containing several thousand prisoners and was divided according to nationality, into compounds for Russians, Poles, Serbians, French, British, and Americans. The American compound, Oflag XIII B, containing officers only, was located at the northeastern end of the camp, adjacent to the road. Officers captured during the Battle of the Bulge slept in the same cubicles as officers captured before the Battle of Kassarine Pass in Africa and they all had the same desire … to get out.

Col Paul Good, the senior American officer, and staff maintained standards of cleanliness, conduct, and appearance which were the same as in any military establishment. This did much to prevent the complete moral and mental stagnation of many of the prisoners. However, the food ration of between 1100 and 1200 calories per day was insufficient to maintain strength. The urge to escape, plus the meager rations, coupled with indications that the Germans intended to evacuate all the prisoners from the camp and march them down into the Bavarian Redoubt, resulted in a general lowering of morale. Early on the evening of March 26, a Serbian prisoner sneaked into Oflag XIII B and told of rumors among the German guards that the American armies were, at one point, within 15 kilometers of Hammelburg. Though rumors, they were a definite morale-raising factor for the Americans. The next morning found many of the prisoners, in spite of studied casualness, looking toward the northwest in the hope of seeing friendly troops with the Wehrmacht fleeing before they smash over the crest of the hills and drive down the slope.

Stalag XIII Hammelburg

Although none of the prisoners dared to put their hopes into words, it seemed within the realm of possibility and so none were completely surprised when at about 1400 hours on the afternoon of March 27, gunfire was heard coming from the west. The Senior American Officer passed the word that the German Commandant was going to move all American officers out of the camp immediately on a forced march to Nuremberg, and that men would use every possible pretext to delay until the last possible moment. Shortly after, guards appeared and ordered all prisoners to pack and prepare to march. Before these preparations could get underway, the guards were recalled and sent out to man the defensive positions in the area, and the planned forced march was never organized. It should be said that there are probably some former German prison guards who will always wonder how the American forces are so successful when so many of their officers were so physically uncoordinated and mentally dull.

Approximately two platoons of German guard personnel moved out to occupy the prepared positions along the crest of the hill northwest of the enclosures. Two 40-MM Flak 28 Bofors were placed off to one side of the road near the platoon positions where they had command of part of the road from Hammelburg. Also, positions that had been hastily prepared along the northern end of the camp astride the road were manned by approximately a company. Not long after the tank fire commenced at the river below, the Bofors opened fire and were joined by small arms fire from the Germans dug in along the crest of the hill. After the shooting had continued for half an hour, HE and smoke shells commenced landing along the crest of the hill in and around the two platoons. Although they had succeeded in delaying the column for an hour and destroying a half-track, the Germans became completely disorganized, left the trenches, and broke for the stalag, pursued by the fire from light tanks and dismounted infantry. The Germans in position along the prison fence returned the fire with machine guns, rifles, and mortars. Two more Bofors guns, shooting from the target range to the south suddenly opened up and caught a gasoline-loaded half-track and a Jeep in the flank before they could be withdrawn to safety. The two guns ceased fire as suddenly as they had commenced, with the result that, due to the surprise and shock created by their shooting, their location was not detected by the men of the task force.

Infantrymen of the 4- shooting the lock on a prison gate to release Allied officers inside the Hammelburg Prison during World War II (Stalag XIII-B)

Light tanks maneuvered into position near a road thirteen or fourteen hundred yards northwest of the camp and began to pound the guard towers and other possible points from which the enemy might have an observation. The range was too great for accurate shooting with the small 37-MM guns, however, luck was good and several hits were scored. One tower at the northern corner of the compound was hit, and a German guard who had been afraid to come down while the shooting was going on was killed. The assault gun with the light tanks was joined by the other two at around 1630. While searching out the German fire in the area near the fence, a barrack in the Serbian enclosure was hit and set afire. The smoke billowed forth in great clouds, hung over the area as a dense haze, and made accurate observation of the prison stockade itself difficult. The assault guns had a fair observation on the road however and lobbed HE into the defenses with good effect.

The infantry, also aiming at the German positions along the road, put out a heavy volume of .50 caliber machine gun fire from the guns mounted on their half-tracks. With tracers ricochetting off the brick walls of the buildings and along the road, and assault guns and light tanks plastering high explosives on the German buildings and trenches, not only the Germans defending the area but also the American officers in the camp received the impression that the attack was being made by a major force. The German 40-MM Bofors guns in the target range opened up again at about the time the medium tanks rejoined the force on the hill. This time the flashes of the Bofors were picked up and tank fire was quickly brought to bear. An assault gun switched its fire and assisted in saturating the area with HE until all danger from this source was eliminated.

Enemy fire, which at the beginning of the action had been quite heavy began to diminish. Under supporting cover from the assault guns and tanks, two infantry platoons moved out toward the camp generally astride the road while another platoon moved down across the fields on the right. As they drew near the Stalag, the German small arms fire increased for a few minutes, but when answered by another heavy pounding from the assault guns, ceased completely. The infantry on the road pushed past the milking gate to the range area a quarter of a mile south, stopped, and set up security. As the platoon crossed the field, it was joined and preceded by the light tanks which smashed through the wire. At this time one of the American prisoners, Lt Col John K. Waters, son-in-law of Gen George S. Patton, and another officer went to the fence carrying a white flag with the intention of directing fire into an area of known resistance.

M-4 Sherman of the 37-TB enter the Camp

As they appeared at the fence they were fired upon by a sniper and Col Waters was seriously wounded. Although a building-to-building search was immediately conducted it is not known whether the sniper was apprehended. Shortly after the firing ceased, Col Good circulated orders that all prisoners would pack their personal belonging and be prepared to move by 1900. It was after 1900 hours by the time the rescued officers had formed a column and started out of the camp, moving past the barracks and out through a gap smashed in the wire. By the flickering light of the fires, it was easy to see that the assault on the camp had been costly to the Americans as well as to the Germans, for besides stepping over the bodies of several prison guards it was necessary to pass two dead Americans stopped by rifle fire as they assaulted the fence line.

The released prisoners were marched up the road in a column of fours to the main body of the Armored Task Force and were told to find places on vehicles wherever possible. Despite the darkness, it was obvious almost immediately that the tanks and half-tracks in the task force could not carry all of the liberated officers, so it became a matter of first come, first served. Men who two hours before could do no more than move at a shuffle were running up and down the road looking for a vacant place aboard a tank or a half-track. Although it was not at first realized that the task force was alone and 10 kilometers from the lines, competition for seats was keen. However, the cold hard facts concerning the exact situation were soon made known to all and those who were unfit for vigorous activity returned to the stockade. Others felt that they would have a better chance by working their way back through the lines alone. Some officers had previously organized themselves into small ‘escape teams’ of three or four men each, made rough sketches of the area copied from smuggled maps, and devised plans for taking advantage of an opportunity to escape that presented itself.

This was just such an opportunity. For the most part, however, those who had gained places on vehicles elected to remain. Meanwhile, the task force commander considered two general courses of action to return to allied territory. The first, strongly advocated by some of his officers, was to continue east, then swing north, across the Saale and an attempt by heading northwest, to make eventual contact with the 4th Armored Division. However, as radio contact with the division had been out for the last ten or twelve hours, and the force had no maps of the area to the north, the success of such a move was debatable. The other course of action was to select an alternate route back to the crossing at Gräfendorf and then, staying in the area covered by the maps, move rapidly as possible due west toward the main lines. Enemy opposition would probably be encountered sooner under the second course of action, but the map situation, the gas supply, and the lack of any assurance that the force would meet the 4th Armored ruled out the first plan of action.

Map 2 The Return

Three or four light tanks were sent out to reconnoiter a route the use of which would make it unnecessary to retrace the exact course taken from Gräffendorf. In the darkness, the mass of prisoners crowding around and into vehicles did not lessen, nor did the tanks and half-tracks seem to be reforming into an organized column. Some were on the hill crest overlooking Hammelsburg, others were on the road facing up the hill while still others were headed in the opposite direction. It was apparent that the momentum and speed that had carried Task Force Baum through town after town with such amazing success was spent. The men and officers were tired and worn before setting out and the sustained drive of the last twenty hours, plus the sudden letdown upon reaching the objective, the hopeless aspect of the future, and the confusion of the hundreds of prisoners milling around in the darkness, brought about inertia and apathy that would have been a serious problem even under more favorable circumstances.

Some of the officers of the task force moved through the column, shaking sleeping men, giving instructions to NCOs, and making effort, to instill some semblance of efficiency into the exhausted crews. Every vehicle not carrying wounded was so overloaded with hopeful escapees that the crews were told to get rid of excess men by force if necessary so that the vehicles could operate effectively. Personal gear and impedimenta were thrown to the ground to make room for all possible riders. Men have shifted around so the machine guns on the tanks could fire without danger of hitting passengers. All extra weapons that could be found were passed out as there was no doubt that it would be necessary to fight to reach the American lines. M1s, Tommy guns, and Carbines taken from the wounded, captured German rifles K98, MP-38/40 machine pistols, and even personal loot of P08 Lugers and Walter P38s were distributed in order to arm as many men as possible. The seriousness of the situation was brought forcibly home to everyone when two or three bazooka rockets were fired into the parked column by Germans who, under the cover of the noise and darkness, had worked to within firing range. One round hit a tank, putting it out of action, and wounding several nearby men. Another round, going wild, hit a large haystack at the side of the road and set it on fire, lighting up the countryside for several hundred yards in all directions.

M36 Tank Destroyer Recaptures M4A3(76) from Germans in Aschaffenburg 1945

As no one was sure where the shots came from, the Germans were not located. However, the incident served as a focal point around which the task force commander and his officers were able to gain tighter control of the column. Shortly before 2300 hours, Capt Baum succeeded in reforming the column along the same dirt road taken by the light tanks an hour earlier. Although they had not returned from their reconnaissance, they were ordered by radio to meet the main body along the road.

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