By summer 1944, harsh treatment and the wanton killing of Allied POWs accentuated the tension that existed at Stalag Luft IV and other German internment camps. The fortunes of war had already turned decidedly against the Third Reich during the past two years, and the Allied bombing campaign was now systematically destroying large cities, manufacturing and industrial facilities, and the national transportation system.
STALAG LUFT IV
In early 1944, the compound was acquired by the Luftwaffe and designated as Kriegsgefangenen Stammlager Luft IV. This newly acquired facility was intended to hold the increasing number of American and British enlisted air force personnel who were being captured at a rate of 2,000 airmen a month. Ultimately, this new camp would become the largest and most notorious of the four largest stammlagers administered by the German Air Force.
Few Allied airmen anticipated that their greatest danger in captivity would occur shortly after being apprehended. This was especially true during the last two years of the war when the German population was "strongly encouraged to kill" these airmen as soon as they were captured. However, once Allied flyers were in the custody of the German military, especially the Luftwaffe, they were usually protected from hostile, threatening crowds. Still, this initial and often protracted first phase of detention represented a period during which time the German government did not formally recognize an airman's status as a prisoner of war. Formal recognition only occurred after the captured airman had been interrogated by military personnel and interned in a permanent prisoner of war camp.
Allied POWs arriving at Stalag Luft IV
Allied airmen departing Wetzlar
All four lagers at Stalag Luft IV were similar in size, structural design, and occupied approximately a quarter square mile in area, with two rows of five barracks for 1,600 POWs. The two rows of barracks in each lager were separated by a large open field used for mandatory morning and evening formations to conduct a head count.
Stalag Luft IV, 1944
Primary Luftwaffe interment camps