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Stalag IVB

From available records, it appears Sgt. Robert Otterson spent about 20 months as a prisoner of the Germans, virtually all of it in the camp known as M. Stammlager IVB.


The word “Stammlager,” literally base camp, was used for POW camps throughout Germany. Usually, it was shortened to Stalag, and so for thousands of Allied prisoners Stalag IVB in Wehrkreisen or Army District IV became home for their final stretch of World War II. The name also became rooted in the memories of countless families who sent letters and parcels to the oddly sounding address somewhere in Germany, in the hope that they would reach their absent fathers, husbands, sons and brothers.


Stalag IVB was situated on a wide expanse of flat and windy farming land between the small villages of Burxdorf and Neuburxdorf in Saxony, about four miles east of Mülhberg and about 70 miles to the south of Berlin. It was a huge camp - possibly the largest in Europe - and at times held up to 16,000 men. Some stayed there for almost the entire war.


Robert Otterson probably arrived at the end of September 1943, transferred from Italy soon after the Italian Armistice of September 8 was signed. His first message to England from Germany was in late October, 1943 - a postcard informing his wife he was in Germany “continuing my tour of Europe,” as he put it with a touch of self-deprecating humor. He came to Germany in a cattle truck on a POW train from Italy via Austria, 40 men cramped into each wagon. First major stop was a transit camp at Jacobstahl/Zeithain, also used as a concentration camp mostly for Soviet POWs just a few miles from Stalag IVB.


Left: The Church Committee at Stalag IVB. Robert Otterson is on the back row, third from the right.

Left, below: The Church at Stalag IVB. Both of these photographs are from the POW log book of Sgt. Robert Otterson.


More pictures: The best known collection of pictures of Stalag IVB is on the POW website www.pegasusarchive.org/pow/. This site provides a variety of internal and external photographs of Stalag IVB, including the “main street,” the delousing shed, the shower block and latrines.

Top:  POW dog tag of Robert Otterson from Stalag IVB, prisoner number 60074.

Above: The main gate to Stalag IVB. Image copyright Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Reproduced in the book, “Finding Your Family on the Internet,” by Michael Otterson. Used by permission of the Rijksmuseum.

Below, right: Wide, empty field where barracks stood now bears little trace of what was once the largest POW camp in Europe. 

Inset: One of six watchtowers at the camp. The photograph was one of several taken by Dutch prisoner N. Uchtmann.

Christmas in Stalag IVB                                                                 

1944:


“We wish you a merry half a parcel.”  Such was the strange greeting displayed by a lurid poster at the entrance to one of our barrack rooms.


Red Cross parcels had ceased to arrive in camp so that the stock had diminished alarmingly and would necessitate the issue of one parcel between two instead of the usual one, for each man. Food meaning so much to us in this place, and the shortage coming at a time when we hoped for a little extra, it would be quite natural if our spirits were not so festive as they might be.  Experience has taught us that if a man’s stomach is filled, and the threat of hunger in the immediate future is removed, then a good deal of his troubles will vanish.  But even here, the spirit of Christmas was not entirely dependent upon the amount of food available for consumption.  Had there been none whatever, Christmas would have still been celebrated in the secret place of many hearts.


However, things turned out better than we had expected.  Christmas Eve arrived and with it a truck load of American Red Cross Christmas parcels. They each contained a plum pudding, a tin of turkey, nuts, sweets, cheese, biscuits, tea, sugar, milk, corned beef and salmon.  Each parcel was shared by four men.


Christmas morning dawned bright and frosty. We had our 8 a.m. roll call and ran back to barrack rooms which had been swept and garnished the previous evening. The long tables were decorated with coloured strips  of crepe paper, and vases of paper flowers (surely foreign to any botanist).  Streamers, made from salmon tin labels, hung from the ceiling.  A Christmas tree near the central window was the only adornment which could be truly labeled ‘non-ersatz’, it having been collected from the neighboring woods.


The “detaining power” had supplied us with porridge for breakfast as an Xmas gift.  This, followed by fried potatoes, meat roll, jam biscuits and coffee did much to impair my healthy appetite.


After breakfast I attended the service of Holy Communion in our camp church.  Padre McDowall, our Free Church padre, read to us from Dr Moffatt’s translation the beautiful story of the events which preceded, marked and followed the birth of Jesus.  The reading, which occupied 10-15 minutes, was more effective than a sermon. It was listened to in complete silence, unpunctuated by even a cough or a sniff from the 500 or so men present.


This was followed by a Christmas carol and the Sacrament.  “Traced we the Babe who has retrieved our loss, from the poor manger to the bitter cross”.  Did the inward joy and peace of that hour come from the knowledge of food awaiting us for dinner?  I trow not!  We had fed upon the Bread of Life, which is always available to satisfy the spiritual hunger of every man.


Back in our barrack room at 12.30 p.m., the 23 occupants sat down together for Xmas dinner.  I doubt if there was a man among us whose thoughts did not flash home for a moment. This was my fourth Christmas away from home, some had been away longer and a few, less.  However, we were all grateful to the International Red Cross who had provided our fare. A few perhaps looked beyond this instrument, to the Giver of every good and perfect gift.


I sat opposite my friend Ted Hunt with whom I had shared the  poverty and occasional plenty of 2½ years’ POW life.  “Our people at home,” I said to him, “will never believe that we are sitting down to tinned turkey, roast potatoes and peas, followed by Xmas pudding, bread and butter, biscuits and honey.”  He nodded his agreement through a glass of German beer he was consuming.


The pudding was my own confection. Twenty four hours before it had been a thing of uncertainty, as we had no ingredients. But these materialized in an amazing manner. First there was a German flour issue. The next question was what to use as fruit. This was solved by the issue of the American Xmas parcel, from which we received a tin of cherries, two sticky fruit and nut bars, some prunes and mixed nuts.  These, supplemented by two more fruit bars procured in exchange for cigarettes, together with Klim, butter and sugar, all went into the pudding.


The finished product was half the size of my head, and though I say it modestly, it was excellent. Even Ted, never profuse in his praise of my cooking, declared it superb. Our shrunken stomach muscles were stretched to a capacity they had never reached since our capture. Few beds were left unoccupied for the next two hours after the meal.


At tea time there was a splendid assortment of iced and decorated cakes of all shapes and sizes. Many of them would indeed be a credit to a professional pastry cook. I noticed that only small inroads were made upon them, however. The effects of dinner had not yet worn off.


After tea I took part in a religious tableau depicting scenes from biblical history, from the Garden of Eden to the birth of Christ. The pageant was accompanied by soul stirring music of Haydn and Handel, rendered by an orchestra and choir.


And so, as the day had commenced with the story of Christ, so it ended in this tableau, and I went to bed with the peace in my heart that neither man nor circumstance can take from me.

Stalag IVB Camp Statistics for week ending 16/12/44

Technical Library
1481 books were issued last week.  A new daily record was made of 357.

Post Office
The number of letters distributed was 11,133. Personal parcels from Monday to Thursday inclusive, 631.

M.I. Room
Number of patients having medical attention was 1,808.

School
160 candidates are taking professional and trade examinations. Of these, 34 have already written papers.  Only two results have so far been received. Both passed.

Empire Theatre
Some idea of the work put into the Empire Theatre productions can be obtained from the following figures for “Spring Time or Jennifer.”

Number of persons engaged in the production – 95
Total of full dress pre-views – 16; comprising 32 hours playing time.
Total number of costume changes during run – 704 main changes, 336 minor changes.
Total number of scenes changed 64, each of an average time of three minutes.

Musical Items
Played by the orchestra over full run – 480. Sung 288. Danced 128. Number of laughs heard averaged over run 192.  Number of persons made up 544. Number of stage props used, 75. Number of pieces of stage furniture, 36.

Flats, back-cloths etc, painted, 37, comprising an area of 2,000 square feet. Tickets numbered stamped and issued, 7,216.

Number of words of dialogue written and typed, 40,000.  
Number of sheets of music ruled and written – 2,144.
Cigarettes, bookings – 5,766.

Mühlberg Orchestra
The orchestra consists of 45 musicians playing at 26 desks. Each desk had 26 pages of manuscript all of which had to be lined. Estimated number of notes made by hand, one million, of which more than half were made by one man – Alan Bolt.

Cookhouse
The following quantities were cooked in the English kitchen last week.
Potatoes 47,180 pounds. Meat 4,224 lbs. Brews (coffee and mint tea) 12,000 pints. Vegetables 45,903 lbs.  Cereals 3,092 lbs.

The following quantities were issued from the kitchen:  Cooking fats 1,173 lbs, margarine 25,587 lbs.,  flour 1,262 lbs., Cheese 1,629 lbs.,  Bread 36,678 lbs.,  Jam 2,242 lbs.,  Sugar ,3220 lbs.,  Salt 1,806 lbs.

PS:	Most of these figures have been considerably reduced by March 1st 1945, except the number of sick attending M.I. Room.
Past Christmases

“Well! This is one more country to add to the list of those in which I have sung Christmas carols – and for you too, I suppose.”

The words were addressed to me by a companion at the close of a Christmas Eve service. They started a train of thought in my mind, the fingers of memory reaching out beyond the barbed wire of a German P.O.W. camp to draw from the past treasures old and yet ever new.

There were memories of the cold, crisp, Christmas Eves of England, with laughing, chattering groups of young people, crunching through a white carpet of snow which reflected the rosy light from many a window.

Occasionally they would stop outside the home of some friend, invalid, or aged folk, to tell again in song the glad tidings of a Saviour’s birth. And then, fortified against the cold with hot coffee, would continue on their round.

Again, I felt the cool December breezes of China, laden with the blended odours of tropical vegetation, the camphor wood of the curio dealer, and the garlic and pork from the doorways of eating houses.

Another happy group of people in Chinese and European dress, hurrying gaily through dimly lit streets, but pausing now and again before the overhanging verandah of some house to repeat in English and Chinese, the song which the angels sang nearly 2000 years ago.

Christmas Eve on the Libyan Desert. The bright moon and a myriad twinkling stars shedding a soft gleam over the silvery sand. Dark shadows of camouflaged trucks, guns and all the impedimenta of war.

Before a tent in the centre of the bivouac area, a group of soldiers are gathered. Surrounded by the implements of death, their strong male voices ring over the night air to tell of God’s victory over death in Christ.

Another group of soldiers, ragged in the shreds of tropical uniform, a few with overcoats, but the majority having only a blanket to protect them from the bitter wind. The scene is a POW camp in Italy, and the new British and Colonial troops, who are gathered together after months of hardship and semi-starvation, but with the spirit of Christmas still aflame in their hearts, to unite their praises with those of the choir invisible.

And now Germany. Again in a POW camp but with conditions somewhat improved. A large barrack room is equipped as a church. Gathered here on this Christmas Eve are men who have experienced the Providence of God amid the horrors of war, during days of waiting for release which did not come; in hunger, cold, and sickness.  These are the men who are singing praises to God for His eternal Providence in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ, from which neither man nor circumstance can deprive them.

These memories will grow old and dim with the years, but the joy of Christmas is perennial.

Robert Otterson
Stalag IVB, Christmas Eve, 1944
World War II War Diaries
SQMS Robert Otterson RCOS
Stalag IVB Prison Camp, Mühlberg, Germany - Sept. 1943 - April 1945

More than 40 postcards and letters that have survived from this period (summarized on a separate page), and a log book that deals with the end of his captivity, all provide an insight into life in the camp.


His dairy covers only the period from Christmas, 1944, through to his return home in May of 1945, but with long gaps in between. Nevertheless, some of his short narratives are vivid, even poignant.

Above:

Hand-crafted tobacco tin or cigarette case given to Robert Otterson by a Russian prisoner of war, probably in Stalag IVB in Germany. The face of the tin depicts the Kremlin, Moscow, USSR. The name “Lenin” is inscribed in the Cyrillic alphabet on the tomb, lower center, and the date - 1 January 1924 - is the date of Lenin’s death.

Books Read as a POW in Germany

Judging by the camp statistics, the library of books available at Stalag IVB was at least as good as that of Monturano, Italy. However, Sgt. Otterson’s reading seems to have dropped off in the late spring of 1944. For the last year of captivity, only one book is recorded. From other notes, it appears he was busier with examinations and camp duties which left less time for reading.

The Gentleman of the Party - A.G. Street
Ask for Ronald Standish - Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile)
The Shame of Motley - Rafael Sabatini
David and Destiny - Ian Hay
Stop Whistle (American novel)
But Now We’re Christians - D.F. Ackland
The Loom of Youth - Alec Waugh
The First Hundred Thousand - Ian Hay
This Man is Dangerous - P Cheney
The Country House - John Galsworthy
A Portrait of Paul - A. Findlay, MA, DD
The Old Testament and its Message - A Lewis Humphries, MA
Prayer and Worship - D.V. Steere
Frankenstein - Shelley 
Young Ames - Edmunds
Humourous Tales - Rudyard Kipling
Beau Ideal - P.C. Wren
God
The Luck of the Bodkins - P.G. Woodhouse
Middle East - H.V. Morton
River Bend Feud - William MacLeod Raine
Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained - John Milton
The Keys to the Kingdom - A.J. Cronin
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
St. Ives - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Growth of the Soil (translated from Norwegian) - Knut Hamson
The Citadel - A.J. Cronin
Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
The Bounty Trilogy - C. Nordhoff and Hall
Esme’s Sons - Anthony Pryde
Paul Kelver - J.K. Jerome
The Good Earth - Pearl Buck
The Scarab Murder Case - S.S. Van Dine
The Kenine Murder case - S.S. Van Dine
Rainbow Farm - Samuel Horton
The Forsyte Saga - John Galsworthy
A Modern Comedy - John Galsworthy
Eminent Victorians - Lytton Strachey
A Surgeon’s Log - Johnson Abrahams
Ready Money Mortiboy - Besant and Rice
Irvin Cobb at His best - American humorist
The Travels of Marco Polo
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain
Tom Sawyer Abroad - Mark Twain
A Yankee at King Arthur’s Court - Mark Twain
Green hell - J. Beguin
Angel Pavement - J.B. Priestly
The Making of Modern Europe, 1789-1878 - Sir J. Marriott
Drums Along the Mohawk - Walter D. Edmonds
Adam Bede - George Eliot
Dickens, the Man and the Book - R. Straus
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
Finding the Trail of Life - R.M. Jones
Modern Approach to the Bible - Harry Emerson Fosdick
Siamese White - Maurice Stewart Collis
Prayer - Butterwick (Butterwick could refer to a publishing house in Lincolnshire, England)
The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis

In the same diary, Robert Otterson lists another 30 books he intends to read. The subjects include theology, history, anthropology, science and law. Since his reading list ends in late 1944, it is not known how many others he managed to obtain.
Index
Robert Otterson, 1911-1949

A Tribute to the Soldier
The early years - under development
Doris Dix
The War: -

The Fall of France; Defense of England
The Middle East
Capture
The Camp at Benghazi
Life in the Camp
Thoughts of God
Change of Quarters
Evacuated to Tripoli
Voyage to Naples, Italy
Arrival at Bari Transit Camp, Italy
The Italian Diary
Letters from Italy
The Move to Germany
Stalag IVB 
Letters from Germany
Liberation: The Journey Home

After the War 
Parting - under development
Retracing History
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