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The Little Brown Hen At Stalag 11-B
By: Cpl. Albert Smith

Getting along at Stalag 11-B was chiefly a matter of knowing how to work the angles. When I arrived there, in November of last year, wounded in both legs, all I knew about German prisoner-of-war camps was that they had wire around them and were good places to stay away from. When I was liberated six months later, I was forty pounds lighter and a lot wiser.

Stalag 11-B was thirty miles from Hanover. At the time I was dumped into the prison hospital there where some 30,000 Poles, Russians, Jugoslavs, Italians, French and British cooped up inside six barbed-wire compounds which must have covered ten acres of farmland outside the town of Fallingbostel. There were two other Americans in camp. All these men were military prisoners of war.

I won’t say much about the hospital, where I spent three months, because about all you could do there was try to keep warm between the single blanket and the lice-ridden straw mattress with which our Nazi hosts provided us. Three British doctors did their best to take care of 1,500 patients, using paper bandages and what medical supplies they could get through the Red Cross. The Germans provided practically nothing.

If you didn’t die in the hospitals – wounds seldom healed because of dietary lacks – you were discharged when (a) you were well enough to hobble around or (b) when your bed was needed for a more serious case: These released patients walked out of the hospital wearing just what they’d had on when they were admitted, and as a number came in without anything but the blanket that covered them, they went out that way. After watching a couple of convalescents walk the quarter of a mile from the hospital to the
Compounds with nothing but a blanket wrapped around them, I got busy. I’d come in from a jerry clearing station that way. By the time I was ready to leave the ward I had a French undershirt, G.I. pants, an overcoat and a pair of jerry shoes – all bought with cigarettes.

Each nationality, except the British and Americans, who were billeted together, had its separate compound at Stalag 11-B. Our compound had six wooden barracks, each housing 800 men in four-tiered bunks, a latrine and an open area for exercise. The whole business was surrounded by a bank of barbed-wire fences about five feet apart. Guard towers could sweep any part of the area in machine-gun fire.

The barracks had wooden bunks, but no mattresses, windows without glass, and a fireplace, but no stove. Each man was given one blanket. The body heat of 800 men in one room kept us fairly comfortable at night after the blackout shutters were closed. During the winter days we froze. For washing facilities we had two cold-water spigots for the several thousand men in the compound. After your first few experiences at standing in line for several hours to get some of the icy trickle from those faucets, you usually gave up washing for the duration. The lice were always with you anyway. Most of us shaved once a month. The fastidious used the warm barley coffee doled out at 6:30 every morning for their washing; it saved wear and tear on your stomach. There was no paper of any kind – toilet, reading or writing at Stalag 11-B, so we used wrappings from Red Cross parcels, labels from cans and rags from our own underclothing, which we washed again and again.

With a little ingenuity, you could solve most of the general living problems at Stalag 11-B. The real hurt came in the culinary department. After your first few weeks at the camp, you thought and talked of nothing but food. I mean this literally. Women, the war, our families – the conversational backlog for soldiers the world over – were never mentioned. The one preoccupation was food. You thought about it, talked about it and dreamed about it until the whole pattern of your existence centered in your empty stomach.

The German rations were supposed to be enough to keep you alive. We were given the barley coffee at 6:30 and dry rations at 10:30. This meal was a loaf of sour dough bread for eight men, a tablespoonful of sugar and a pat of margarine made from coal tar. Twice a week we were given a small slice of wurst and a dab of jam. At three o’clock we had wet rations – a watery turnip or sugar-beet soup and a few small potatoes. To supplement this diet we had both the German and the camp black markets.

The German system was a simple graft. After lights-out at night, an armed guard would come in with a bag of bread from the military kitchens across the road. The price was twenty-cigarettes a loaf, and no bargaining. Once in a while this traveling salesman also had cigarette papers or saccharin tablets to offer.

The camp black market was a little more complicated. The Russian, Polish and French prisoners who worked as “commandos” or laborers on near-by farms brought all sorts of simple edibles back with them and sold the produce to the rest of us. The medium of exchange was always cigarettes. Money had no value.

The price for entrance into one of the other compounds was one cigarette, given to the guard at the post. If the guards changed while you were visiting, it cost you another cigarette to get out. The trading going on between the British and American section and the other sections was both furious and intricate. The trick was to barter fountain pens, watches and clothing with one compound for cigarettes, and then use the cigarettes to buy food from another section

Just to give you an idea of the prices – a fountain pen was worth from 30 to 60 cigarettes, depending on the nib, a watch from 250 to 800, and a shirt 30. The Poles and the French, being regular residents of the camp, got more Red Cross parcels then either the British or Americans, who were listed as transients. For that reason many a pair of G.I.
breeches bought coffee, chocolate bars or cigarettes from a Pole who had received them in an International Red Cross parcel. And the cigarettes from the Pole, in the hands of an American, would buy an egg from a Frenchman who was working as a farm laborer. It was a middleman’s paradise.

Sometime during March we received a large group of American Air Force boys from a camp threatened by the Russian advance in the east. It was one of these new arrivals who conducted the campaign for the little brown hen.

Bordering the camp were several farms and we often stood close to the wire, mouths watering, and watched the chickens and the pigs wandering around in the process of fattening themselves up for the Nazi dinner tables. On this particular day, an American sergeant gunner discovered a little brown hen just within the outer fence. He started baiting it with breadcrumbs thrown through the three other fences. The chicken arrived inside the compound.

By this time several thousand hungry men were watching the seduction. After a hasty council, a group was sent off to another corner of the compound to divert the guards’ attention. And then, step-by- step, the sergeant dropped his breadcrumbs in line across the open compound. The idea was to get the chicken into one of the slit trenches, where it could be disposed of. We knew that if the guards observed this treacherous treatment of German livestock, there would probably be some wild shooting and no chicken dinner. So several thousand men watched with rapt attention as the crumbs dropped and the little brown hen pecked.

That was the most deliberate chicken I’ve ever seen – it sat down and digested every crumb before it moved on to the next. It must have taken the little brown hen half an hour to cover the thirty yards to the edge of the first slit trench. The American jumped into the trench and extended his hand. The chicken moved toward the last crumb and the pot. The crowd held its breath. Somebody jostled somebody else. There was a small disturbance. A guard yelled from a tower. The little brown hen ruffled its feathers, squawked, turned and headed back for the fence. With the guards alerted, no one dared make a move. We just stood there and watched that meal walk away. Two thousand men mourned for the rest of the day.

I never saw that hen again. But the day we were liberated, I beat a horde of hungry Russians to that farmyard just outside the fence. And I hope the big rooster I got was the little brown hen’s father.

THE END

Drawing by J. W. Welch