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Saturday, 2 September 2017

Camp Life

Despite its tragedies and hardships, the Waidmannsdorf Arbeitskommando (work camp) in Klagenfurt was considered to be one of the better placed for a German prisoner-of-way. Credit must be given to the Commandant, the Man of Confidence, and to the men themselves. Some of the POWs deserve a special mention. The Man of Confidence, Sgt Stewart Stubbings, who you can read about below. Geoffrey Skinner, the unofficial 'camp clerk'. Geoff became a doctor and pathologist after the war. This would have surprised no-one. Geoff was intellectually gifted and wise beyond his years. And there was Don Munns, the head of the Escape Committee.

Hogan's Heroes, the TV comedy series of the 1960s would bring a wry smile to Kevin's face. While there was no Colonel Klink or Sergeant Schultz, some of the antics of Colonel Hogan and his men were not entirely comedic fantasy. Perhaps I should first explain how the POW camps were organised.

There were different camps for: Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers (Warrant Officers and Sergeants), and Other Ranks (Corporals and below). Camps for POWs were divided by service, i.e. Army, Navy and Air Force. Prisoners of various nationalities were generally separated from each other by fences subdividing each stalag into sections. Prisoners speaking the same language, e.g. British Commonwealth soldiers, were permitted to intermingle.

The Geneva Convention permitted non-commissioned personnel of lower ranks (called Other Ranks by the British and enlisted men by the Americans) to be used for work in agriculture and industry, but not in any industry producing war material. The Convention also specifies the conditions under which they should work, be housed and paid. At each stalag, the Germans set up sub-camps called 'Arbeitskommando' - Work Camp, in English - to hold prisoners in the vicinity of specific work locations, e.g. factories, coal-mines, quarries, rail yards, road maintenance, etc. The work camps were administered by the parent stalag (18A in this case), which maintained personnel records, collected mail, International Red Cross packages and then delivered them to the individual Arbeitskommando. Likewise any individuals that were injured at work or became ill were returned to  the parent camp's stalag. Some autonomy was given to the Stalag 18A MOC's administration staff. The German hierarchy left it to them to shell out the work assignments. POWs could apply for a particular Arbeitskommando and their choice would generally be honored if there was a vacancy.

Man of Confidence

The Man of Confidence (MOC) was a prisoner selected to liaise with the camp authorities. The MOC as the ranking NCO set the standards for military discipline and dress. This was a demanding roll as the MOC had no real military authority apart from his three stripes. Further, as he was the only sergeant in the camp he never had peers he could lean on. Kevin's work camp was populated by soldiers from three Commonwealth nations, British (about 40%), Australian (about 35%) and New Zealanders (about 25%) and the MOC had to lead them all regardless of his nationality. The MOC was appointed by the senior MOC at the 'parent' camp, Stalag 18A. The initial Klagenfurt MOC, an Australian, lasted only a few months before he was replaced. The replacement was elected by the troops. Corporal Stewart  Stubbings, also an Australian, was one of the older men in the camp. Stewart had been awarded a Mention in despatches on 8 Jul 1941 for action in the Desert Campaign. The Commandant accepted Stubbings as the new man Of Confidence and moved the original MOC to another camp.

Stewart Stubbings, b. 1906, grew up in the tiny Tasmanian town of Sandfly (pop. 157 in 2011), south of Hobart. As a teenager in 1923 he got into trouble with the law and was sentenced to three months in prison for forgery and larceny. He again was charged with forgery in 1933. He was tried before a jury but on this occasion was found not guilty. Despite his humble beginnings and chequered past, Stubbings had the ability to manage and lead more than 300 POWs unchallenged for the remainder of the war.

Man of Confidence, Sgt Stewart Stubbings, was also known as “The King” because of his penchant for pomp and ceremony. An eagle was found by a POW. It had a damaged wing and the men 'took it prisoner.' They considered this a great joke, keeping in mind that the German symbol of power was an eagle.

One important difference between the camps was that the Other Ranks (ORs)  left the camp each day for work whereas officers and senior NCO had to remain behind the wire. While working was often a hardship (long hours and a poor diet led to early deaths for some men in the years that followed the war) it had its rewards. It meant that time passed more quickly and there were opportunities to pilfer and scrounge extra food or coal for the stove. Some men in Kevin's camp miraculously 'found' a radio and for three years were tuned into the BBC.  The radio was never found by the camp authorities or the occasional snap inspections by the Gestapo. Later in the war, there were opportunities for escape - several tried and some were successful - without the need to dig tunnels or indeed to ride a motorbike over the fence Steve McQueen-style. The men got up to all sorts of mischief, mostly for their own amusement. When Kevin was sick with the flu he wanted to avoid working in the wet weather. He was appear for morning parade parade to get counted but then would slip slip back to his hut when the guards were distracted. For more than a week he hid in the ceiling of his hut to recover.


During the warmer months, the men spent their Sunday afternoons playing sports or, on occasion, two-up - an Australian gambling game that dates back to WW1. Soccer and cricket were also popular with the men forming teams under their national banner. The highlight of the sporting calendar was an athletics carnival appropriately called The Empire Games.

Sprint Race
 Games Participants
The Australian Team (1944 Games)
 2-Up School
 Test Match Scorers
 Soccer Match

Music and Theatre

Bring 300 me together and inevitability you will have men trained as tailors, commercial artists, carpenters, electricians and even musicians. So it was in 10029/GW. Theatre companies were established in all the major camps. There was a core group at Stalag 18A who would come up with scrips for plays and musicals. This group might also supply a key actor, singer or technical stagehand to ensure the show was a professional as possible. Tailors would spend weeks sewing costumes from scrounged materials. Artists would make posters and stage props while the stagehands would do the stage design and build the sets.

In 1943 the men pooled their wages to purchase a piano. The Commandant agreed to source the piano and several other instruments. The Red Cross also came to the party and supplied some instruments.

 Band Practice
While the stage photos appear blurry, keep in mind that the POWs took the photos without floodlight or flash and developed the prints themselves. This scene was from a play called "Flying High."
Scene from "Flying High" - someone had to do the female lead.
 The Orchestra for Flying High. The musicians were fitted out with shirts and ties made by the POWs themselves.
Scene from "Aladdin"
Scene from "Aladdin"
"Flying High" Stagehands


In the absence of officers or an RSM, it would be completely understandable if the POWs became less regimental as time passed. After all, most had been in uniform for only a year when they were captured, nine months in my fathers case. Yet on ANZAC Day, Armistice Day, and for the funerals of their fallen comrades the men turned out immaculately. The photos  of Michael Cister's Burial Parade shows the men looking exceptionally regimental.

Sgt Stewart Stubbings and a Stalag 18A padre lead the men out of the camp to march to the war cemetery.

Writing Home

Kevin's letter to his parents mentioned that he hoped this 1943 Christmas would be his last, that he was looking forward to "Aladdin", and that the kiwis had concocted a "home brewed lubrication." He was allowed to write a letter like this once a fortnight.

Post Cards could be sent weekly. They rarely contained more that a comment on the weather.

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