British Prisoners of War in Klagenfurt-Waidmannsdorf
by Paul Angerer
From the Frontlines to Klagenfurt
After the German Wehrmacht attacked Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941, thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers were captured by the Germans and became prisoners of war. More than 5,000 of them were brought by train to the central prisoner of war camp in Wolfsberg, Carinthia (Stalag XVIII A), from where they were assigned to work camps throughout the states of Carinthia and Styria.
Starting on 12 July 1941, a total of 200 British, Australian and New Zealand prisoners of war were moved into the newly erected work camp in the Waidmannsdorf district of Klagenfurt. The number of prisoners of war held there was to exceed 300 by the end of the war, making the camp – surrounded and secured by barbed wire and watchtowers – the largest of its kind in Carinthia.
The prisoner of war work camp was situated in Siebenhügelstraße, on the site of what is today the Dag Hammarskjöld housing estate, bordered by Kranzmayerstraße to the north. The location of the camp was not chosen by accident, given that there was an urgent need for labour because Waidmannsdorf was expanding (with the resettlement of German-speakers from the Valcanale, or Kanaltal, in Italy) and the area, which was close to the River Sattnitz, had to be drained. Also, the prisoner of war camp was built adjacent to a so-called “community camp”, where civilian labourers, mostly foreign forced labour, were held.
The official title of the camp was “Work Camp 10.029/GW”. The number 1 stood for the state of Carinthia; the subsequent number was the actual number of the work camp. The abbreviation “GW” stood for “Gewerbliche Wirtschaft”, i.e., “trade and industry”, an indication of the commercial exploitation of the prisoners of war.
The prime beneficiary of the forced labour was initially the Klagenfurt builder Adolf Raubal, who, for instance, used the prisoners of war to dig a drainage canal. When the City of Klagenfurt authorities assumed responsibility for “employing” the prisoners of war, they were assigned a variety of jobs, such as clearing snow or loading or unloading railway cars. In some cases, they were also “loaned out” to private companies, such as the Lerchbaumer timber construction company or the hauliers Künstl & Söhne.
The prisoners of war were not treated well to begin with in terms of food and clothing. Only after the Red Cross intervened were they given adequate food and decent clothing. The situation did not improve markedly until the autumn of 1941, when the first Red Cross parcels began to arrive.
The prisoner of war camp in Waidmannsdorf has its own infirmary, where minor injuries and ailments could be treated. More serious cases were taken care of either in the hospital facilities of the main camp or in local reserve military hospitals run by the Wehrmacht.
The camp was guarded by so-called “Landesschützen”, or “provincial riflemen”. These were mostly elderly men, or soldiers who could no longer serve on frontline duty (similar to the Home Guard in the UK). The prisoners of war were usually escorted by the guards on their work assignments. On guard duty at Work Camp 10.029/GW were the 2nd Company of Provincial Rifle Battalion 895 and the 6th Company of Provincial Rifle Battalion 910.
On their free days, i.e., Sundays and religious holidays, the prisoners of war were able to engage in various leisure activities inside the camp. Within a short space of time, they had arranged for themselves a multitude of sports activities – table tennis, tennis, football, basketball, cricket, darts, field athletics, ice skating, and boxing. The activities even included dancing courses. In addition, the camp had a stage and a library.
Some of the prisoners of war at Work Camp 10.029/GW engaged in resistance to the German detaining power in the form of sabotage, theft, smuggling or listening to enemy broadcasts using radios they had made themselves. One of the most common forms of sabotage, for instance, was pouring sand into petrol tanks or destroying machines.
A central role in resistance activities was played by two Slovene train drivers, Andrej Krečič and Zorco Simčič, who obtained radio parts, maps, compasses and weapons for the prisoners of war of Work Camp 10.029/GW. After the war ended, Andrej Krečič worked for British 6th Army Military Intelligence, supporting them in the interrogation of former partisans and suspected communists.
Many prisoners of war who were held at Work Camp 10.029/GW had regular contact with local civilians, at least during their work assignments. In some cases, friendships developed, although that was strictly forbidden.
One example was Hans Pilgram from Klagenfurt, who worked for the hauliers Künstl & Söhne. He was sentenced to a total of ten months in prison by the Criminal Court of Klagenfurt State Court because he had given gifts to British prisoners of war and received gifts in return.
Another local who became friends with prisoners of war at the Waidmannsdorf Camp was photographer Walter Tollinger. Tollinger, a declared opponent of the Nazi regime, was denounced in April 1944, arrested by the Gestapo, and executed some months later in Graz.
There were regular attacks on the prisoners of war from Work Camp 10.029/GW by local civilians when the prisoners of war were assigned to helping clear the damage caused by Allied bombing. The prisoners of war were ridiculed, spat on, and had stones thrown at them; in protest, they refused to work. Eventually, on the personal order of Gauleiter Friedrich Rainer, the British prisoners of war were no longer sent on such work assignments.
Every attempt to escape from Work Camp 10.029/GW – on foot, by train, or by bicycle – ended with the apprehension of the prisoner of war.
One particularly tragic escape attempt took place on 28 February 1945, when two British prisoners of war, Jack Keats and John Marsh, took advantage of an air raid alert to make their escape. They were apprehended in some woods in Viktring, just south of Klagenfurt, by Michael Widhalm, a policeman from Salzburg. Widhalm opened fire on the two unarmed prisoners of war, fatally wounding John Marsh. During a war crimes tribunal in 1947, Widhalm was sentenced to nine years in prison for his crime, although he was released after serving only two. (For more details, see “A War Crime Story – The Shooting of John Marsh” linked below.)
Allied Bombing Raids
In early 1944, the Allies began bombing strategically important targets in Klagenfurt. In a bombing raid on 16 January 1944, a South African prisoner of war, Michael Cister, who had been assigned to clear snow at the end of the Lend Canal in Klagenfurt, was so badly wounded that he died of his wounds a few days later.
Although the location of Work Camp 10.029/GW was known to the International Red Cross, the camp was again the target of a bombing raid one year later – on 19 February 1945 – by six bombers of the U.S. 301st Bombardment Group. Six prisoners of war died in the attack. The camp itself was hit by a total of 28 bombs and suffered considerable damage.
End of the War
The Waidmannsdorf prisoner of war camp was liberated by British troops on 8 May 1945. The German guard force had fled the previous day, leaving the camp in the hands of the then man of confidence, Gilbert L. Conyard. The repatriation of the now former prisoners of war by plane or by ship took place over the following days and weeks.
British Period of Occupation
After the end of the war, the former prisoner of war camp and the adjacent “community”, or forced labour camp, was continued by the British occupying power as a displaced persons camp, mainly for former collaborators of the Nazi regime from Croatia and Slovenia, along with Tajiks, Kazakhs, Tartars, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis from the southern areas of the Soviet Union. The complex of camps was given the official title DP Camp Waidmannsdorf C. The camp could hold up to 800 persons and was expanded continuously over the years.
Dag Hammarskjöld Estate
In the late 1950s, work commenced on tearing down the now dilapidated barracks of DP Camp Waidmannsdorf C. To replace it, the City of Klagenfurt – with the support of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNREF) – built the so-called Dag Hammarskjöld Estate on the same plot of land, completing construction work in 1962.
With the demolition of DP Camp C in Siebenhügelstraße, the last traces of the former prisoner of war camp disappeared forever. Today, there is nothing left to bear testimony to the place where more than 300 British and Commonwealth prisoners of war were once held in captivity.
More than half a century was to pass before the location of the camp could be determined and its story told.
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A War Crime Story – The Shooting of John Marsh, by Paul Angerer