World War II
SQMS Robert Otterson RCOS
Stalag IVB Prison Camp, Mühlberg, Germany - Sept. 1943 - May 1945

Letters from Germany

Extracts from the Stalag IVB letters


November 16, 1943

I could do with those boots you were sending out. Mine are worn out. I have handed them in for repair, and until they arrive back I have been issued with a pair of clogs. They are not much good for walking through mud with as they stick, and one’s feet come out.


November 21, 1943

We have a padre visit here occasionally. With the approach of Xmas, our desires and hopes are to receive news from home by that day. You are always in my thoughts, dear one.


November 29, 1943

...wishing you a very happy Xmas. Make the most of it because you will probably have to put up with me for the next one. Happy birthday to you and Ann. Charge the presents you buy to my account! I’m congratulating myself on the money this separation saves me.


December 3, 1943

I am performing the duty of Group Commander to new arrivals, which is almost a full time job. The newcomers brought with them complete jazz bands and musical instruments, plus their own concert parties. So we shouldn’t lack entertainment. We had the first fall of snow this week.


December 13, 1943

We are saving labels from salmon tins for Xmas decorations.

More than 50 letters and postcards were received by Doris Dix Otterson from her husband in Germany between October 1943 and the liberation of Stalag IVB in May of 1945. Like the letters from the Italian camps, they were subject to censorship and POWs could not discuss the war or anything of a military nature.


By mid-1944 it must have been obvious even to the prisoners that the tide of the war was running strongly in favor of the Allies, and that liberation could only be a matter of time. This sentiment comes through in several places in the German letters, as Robert Otterson urges his wife to be patient and allow things to take their course. There had been disappointments enough, and he cautions her against unrealistic expectations.


And so life in the camp went on, with the men hungering for letters and snippets from home as much as for the crucial Red Cross parcels which made life bearable. Sgt. Otterson took advantage of the confinement to read extensively, and also to study and sit for examinations organized through various institutions. Certificates awarded during this period are found at the foot of this page.

December 16, 1943

Nine days to Xmas, and we are looking forward to it. I have written a ghost story as an entry to a competition. This is only one of many competitions arranged for that day.


December 26, 1943

I can now tell you that I have had a very merry Xmas. I have never laughed so much since I was POW ... I won a cigarette prize for a general knowledge quiz and a ghost story. The Xmas fare was good. An unfortunate accident occurred when I was heating up some tins in a dixie of water. One tin containing steak, kidney and macaroni suddenly blew up with a terrific report, plastering the walls and everyone within 3 yards range with the contents. Fortunately I had something as a replacement.


January 8, 1944

This being the first letter of 1944 I wish you the happiest of New Years. What could be happier than a reunion for us this year! Every day is a day nearer that memorable occasion. How I look forward to seeing you and the children. Ruth and Ann will have grown beyond all recognition for me.


January 15, 1944

I am wondering how you took the news of my move from Italy - philosophically, I hope, yet no doubt it would be disappointing. The details I shall have to discuss when I get home. In the meantime, we make the best of things here ... I expect you to write soon and tell me that Ruth has started school. I feel that she and Ann must have a good education. If they can pass a scholarship, I feel you will agree with me that we should spare no sacrifice to advance them to a secondary or high school.


February 1, 1944

I will take this opportunity of sending my love to Ruth and wishes that she may have a happy birthday. How I wish I could be there to kiss her! I know you will do it for me. Does she remember her Daddy? God hasten the day when we can all be together again.


February 16, 1944

I especially needed cheering up as yesterday was rather depressing. We moved to another camp (same address) and old associations were broken. We were happy in our previous camp; but now it means feeling our way about again.


March 26, 1944

We have a New Zealand Presb. padre with us, and though we are not holding church services at present, we have some pleasant times together in Bible study.


April 3, 1943

My Darling wife

... You say you hope your castles in the air are not shattered again, sweetheart. The solution is - don’t build them! Didn’t that poem I wrote to you verse by verse convey to you that my castles were shattered the day I was taken prisoner? I do not wish to appear cynical, but I saw things in their true perspective that day and learned to live day by day trusting in God more and in my own plans less.


April 10, 1944

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. I praise God that barbed wire can’t take away the glory of the Resurrection.

June 17, 1944

We have recently formed a branch of the St. John’s Ambulance Association with the purpose of giving ourselves a refresher course, and then instructing classes. Here is a sample of one day’s programme. Reveille 6 a.m. Roll call, breakfast, clean the room; 9 a.m. Morning Prayers;  10 a.m. - 11 Bible Class; 11 - 11.30 soup; 1130 - 1300 Mathematics or Geography; 1300 - 1400 lunch; 1400 - 1600 shorthand; 1600 - 1730 preparing and eating evening meal; 1730 - 1830 Visiting Church members in the camp; 1830 - 1930 St John’s Lectures; 2000 Roll Call;  2030 - 2130 Revision of Maths or shorthand; 2200 lights out. It leaves me with about an hour during the day without anything in particular to do.


July 11, 1943

I often wonder (not worry) what the future holds for me in the way of a profession. The easiest course, probably, is to remain in the army, or there may be opportunities in the Palestine police, or in the Post Office. I feel I am unsuited to any job with a fixed routine, which one leaves only when he is old enough to stagger into the grave. Of course, my choice (if I have any) will be governed to a large extent by the degree of comfort I supply you with, and the needs of the children.


August 16, 1944

As to my being repatriated, darling, I guess there is no shortcut home like that for me so don’t wish it. Only seriously ill or maimed men are repatriated ... Glad to know that Ruth enjoys school ... She must think me an ogre when she cries at the thought of you writing to me when she is naughty. Ah well! They will both have to be introduced to me afresh when I do arrive home.


August 24, 1943

I have today received 20 letters from you, and one letter each from Tom, Doris, mother and Mrs Barclay, all addressed to Italy. The dates range from March-Dec 1943.


October 3, 1944

Red X food parcels have been cut down to one per fortnight, but it does us good to go without occasionally. We appreciate things more when we get them ... I cannot visualize a home of our own for some time after the war, as I shall probably be obliged to stay in the Army. But we shall be together wherever I am. How would you like to live abroad for a while if the opportunity occurs?


October 18, 1943

You ask what my reactions were when I saw the photograph. Well I confess the sight came near to ruffling my stoical calm. My first thought was the change in Ruth - no longer a baby as you keep telling me. Ann too has grown out of recognition.


December 2, 1944

I treasure those little sayings of Ruth and Ann which you send. They help to compensate for what I am missing in their lives.


January 2, 1945

We had a quiet Christmas this year - we didn’t go anywhere particular - just stayed at home (behind the wire).


February 10, 1945

So it is with Ann and Ruth. Photographs (the two I have had) cannot change my mental image of them, and I know I shall be looking for two babies when I get home. So it is, too, with both of us. Youth is not perennial and we must expect changes in each other and traces of the results of war. But though the outward man may perish, the inward man is renewed day by day. Beauty of character is a constant, and it is that we must learn to read. I am longing to see you and our dear children.


March 17, 1945

This morning I have been out with a party to collect firewood from the woods about five miles from here. It was a nice walk and good exercise. I shall probably be going for another walk soon ... [After the war] how would you like some chickens to look after? I get all sorts of ideas you know, such as having a transport cafe on some main road, or a tea room for servicemen. As it is, I shall probably soldier on. One thing I would like, though, is to take you abroad for a while. Either in the Army, or, if I had the right connections, to live in S. Africa or N. Zealand ... Anyhow, we must have a holiday in Italy or France some time. I think it a necessary part of the children’s education to see something of other countries. If there were more education along these lines, people of other countries getting to know each other, one of the main causes of war would be removed.



The March 17 letter is the last that we have on record that came from the camp at Stalag IVB. By this time the Russians were pushing through from the east, and the Americans, British and other Allies from the west. Germany was pulling everything into the defense of Berlin, and everywhere else was on the point of collapse. The end of the war was just two months away. It was an anxious time as regular communications became disrupted in the chaos of those final weeks. During this time the volume of prisoners in Stalag IVB also rose dramatically, as men were moved from other camps. ahead of advancing Allied armies. Enormous pressure was placed on available space, bunks, bedding and food,

Above:

The first letter received by his wife from Germany was written by Robert Otterson on November 16, 1943.

Below:

Letters and certificates for Pitman’s shorthand and other subjects taken while a POW. Formal examinations and lessons were possible even under the adverse wartime conditions.

May 11, 1944

It seems that I am to be surrounded by a swarm of nephews and nieces when I get home. I feel that I shall be a stranger in a strange land, not even recognized by  my children. However, roll on. I am longing to see you.


May 17, 1944

In your last letter you mention the sunshine and the birds singing. We too have enjoyed these and the green fields around during the last few days. As I lay in the sun with my eyes closed, listening to the larks, I could easily imagine myself in the English countryside.


May 24, 1943

I have moved into a new billet this week. It is much quieter than my previous one. They are all decent fellows and there is a very friendly spirit among us.


June 1, 1944

You will be happy as I am to know I received my first parcel this morning. It is the first you sent to this address. I can honestly say darling that I was in desperate need of some of the things. My present towel I have used now for two years, so you can imagine the condition of it. And so with the underclothes, etc. I am very thankful for them and for your discrimination in what you sent.

“I received my first parcel this morning. It is the first you sent to this address ... I was in desperate need of some of the things. My present towel I have used now for two years, so you can imagine the condition of it. And so with the underclothes, etc. I am very thankful for them and for your discrimination in what you sent.”

Below: Two pages from a small memo book that Robert Otterson used to keep track of letters sent and received. The book was given to him at Bari, Italy, by a visiting dignitary - the Papal Nuncio.