Hilary St George Saunders, The Left Handshake, 1948

Chapter V


Scouting in Captivity: Germany

Such, in general, were the conditions of life in the internment and prisoner-of-war camps in the Far East. In Europe they were different, but the spirit displayed by the Scouts was the same in both. The Germans, perhaps because so many of their own people became prisoners-of-war, until at last their whole army passed into captivity, maintained at least in some of the camps a certain standard, in this strewing themselves to be the opposite of the Japanese, whose internment camps for civilians were, on the whole, slightly less vile than those harbouring prisoners-of-war.

Scouting in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany was confined to Rovers, since their inhabitants were, for the most part, young men, and the results achieved, if unspectacular, were solid and enduring. Let the story of three camps serve for all.

In May, 1940, Rousseau, a Belgian Scout, found himself a prisoner-of-war in a camp in Germany. On the 31st July he and fourteen other Scouts celebrated Belgium’s National Day, and then and there decided to meet more often and to carry on Scouting. By December their numbers had increased to forty and they had been joined by some who, though not Scouts, were lonely and thirsted for the companionship which Scouting affords. At the beginning of 1941 the camp was divided into two, but the Rovers continued in both, and five years later, when the war was over, their numbers had increased from the original fifteen to 350, each of whom had made the Rover promise. This was no mean achievement, and one of its results was to provide the Regular Army of Belgium with a nucleus of Scouts which it still possesses.

The Rovers proceeded on standard lines. Chiefs were chosen and a training programme drawn up. Clans, or as we should say in England, Crews, were formed and by the end of the war twelve were in existence. They received names such as Rainbow, Lark, Flame, each personifying an ideal which their members, shut up in their dark camp away from home and happiness, strove to attain. In addition to training they occupied themselves with many activities normally performed by the Red Cross, and within their ranks were to be found about a hundred former ambulance drivers. During a severe epidemic of influenza, when 3,000 men succumbed, the Rovers were the right-hand men of the three overworked doctors of the camp.

Yet there was another side to their work. There is an obligation on all prisoners-of-war to escape if they can, and the Rovers were determined to fulfil it if they could. Many plans, some of them most elaborate, were concocted, civilian clothes were contrived, food saved, tunnels dug. The Rovers organised the prisoners into groups for escaping purposes, but the task was one of extreme difficulty. Of the many attempts made to escape, only one in five were successful.

The success of these Belgian Rovers was not easily achieved. At the outset it proved more than a little difficult to arouse interest in Scouting, for so many of the prisoners took the view that it was a pleasant occupation designed to keep children out of mischief. It was the Red Cross work of the Rovers and their attention to the sick during the epidemic of influenza that established the reputation of Scouting in the camp. The devotion to duty and to Scouting, practiced throughout the period of captivity, unceasingly by the Rovers, received its reward in the last days of the war when the camp, which was near the Oder, was broken up under the threat of the Russian advance, and the prisoners marched into Germany. Conditions on the road were very bad. By then all were gravely under-nourished for no Red Cross parcels had reached them since the invasion of Normandy by the Allies nearly a year before. As they trudged wearily along it was the Rovers among them who maintained their spirits and helped the weakest. Finally they were overtaken by the Russians and liberated, in the sense that their German guards were captured or disappeared. For the next month, until they were sent home, conditions continued to be very hard. They found themselves in a new camp set down in a battlefield surrounded by the corpses of dead Germans. These had been left unburied, the Russians performing this office only for their own troops. The Rovers organised the burial of the German dead and thus, in all probability, prevented a grave outbreak of disease.

Scouting in British prisoner-of-war camps was very similar to that carried on by Rousseau and his Rovers on the banks of the Oder, for it cannot be too strongly emphasised that Scouting is international and knows no frontiers, physical or moral. In Oflag 3C, the Richard Coeur de Lion Troop was established under the leadership of an Australian warrant officer, and presently came to include Scouts from Stalags. By November, 1942, the numbers were more than forty, and the Crew was duly registered at Imperial Headquarters. A year later they had contrived, saving from their meagre pay as prisoners-of-war, to send over £100 as their contribution to the Baden-Powell Memorial Fund.

In French camps, too, there were many Scouters who practiced Scouting. in one camp the numbers rose from 50 to 350, and here, as with the Belgians, the Scouts took a leading part in planning escapes, one of them helping no less than 140 men to get away. The unhappy divisions of opinion, which were one of the main causes of the downfall of France, continued in the French camps, where there were many quarrels over political matters. It was here that the Scout Movement was of peculiar value, for it united men of the most divergent views so that Communists found it possible to live at peace with Radical Socialists, and all, because they were Scouts, remembered that they were also Frenchmen.

In addition to those of the French Army they captured, the Germans removed many Frenchmen to Germany for forced labour. Among them were Scouts and Scouters who practiced their Scouting in conditions far harder even than those which prevailed in the camps. The Germans mistrusted Scouts because they knew them to profess and preach ideals very contrary to the doctrines of Fascism. Moreover, they were convinced—nor can it be maintained that they were wrong—that French Scouts in the armament and other factories of Germany did their utmost to disobey orders, sought to aid General de Gaulle, and were everywhere a source of trouble. They and the Belgians were very active in organising Scouters and Rovers wherever the forced labourers sent to Germany were in strength. "Wherever Scouts happened to be in Germany they spontaneously knew one another," runs one report. "They organised various services which made the long captivity easier to endure. Their ability, their spirits, their good temper, and their love of life, all these they brought to ease the misery of their stricken brothers. Before the war ended, more than 4,000 French Scoutmasters and Rovers were at work in Germany, where they had formed district Clans in such large towns as Berlin and Breslau."

The Gestapo waged unceasing war against them, and occasionally, as a deterrent to the rest, chose one or more of their number for execution. Such was the fate of Joel Angles d’Auriac. On his arrival in Germany he was sent to an armaments factory in Bodenbach and was billeted with other French civilian workers in a nearby hotel. He bided his time and on the 6th December, 1943, formed a Rover Crew, putting it under the protection of Our Lady of Good Hope. At the beginning of March, 1944, he paid a brief visit to Dresden, where he founded another Rover Crew, and returning almost immediately to Bodenbach was arrested and eventually on the 20th October tried for high treason, being accused of sabotage, inciting to sabotage, and Scouting activities. Convicted, he met death at Dresden on the 9th December. "Do not mourn me," he wrote in a last message to the Rover Crew he had founded. "I die with a smile, for the Lord is with me. Continue along the road I have shown you. It is certainly the most successful and leads to the fullest kind of life. Good-bye, my brother Rovers. My last word is ‘Do not leave the Scouting Movement."’ It is such men as these, bearing witness with their lives, who place Scouting among the great movements of the world.

Internment and prisoner-of-war camps, were, during the Second World War, bad enough, but the lowest depths of human cruelty outside, and of human misery inside, were to be found in the concentration camps. Here existed thousands upon thousands of human beings in conditions so revolting that it is hard to realise that they were caused by man. Some were situated in prisons, others were specially built, but in all a policy of callous neglect, coupled only too often with sadistic cruelty, was pursued with Teutonic vigour until the armies of the Allies arrived to release the few emaciated occupants who still had life in them.

The men and women who suffered in these camps or who were condemned to a scarcely less severe fate, that of forced labour, are very reluctant to speak of their experiences. It is an effort for them to recall those years of horror, and between that time and to-day they have striven hard to set up a wall of reticence which it is not easy to pierce. These few stories of their sufferings must, therefore, be taken as examples only of what man can endure and still not die, either physically or morally. Very far from being the whole truth, they have been chosen to illustrate not only courage and endurance in adversity, but also the mainspring of that courage and endurance. This was, quite simply, the spirit of Scouting. Each and every one of these survivors broken in body though many of them were, still had a stout heart and they have testified that these remained stout because they were trained Scouts. They had learned to master their minds as well as their bodies and were thus able to withstand a strain under which others without that spirit and that training only too often wilted and died. They were of all nations, for courage, like Scouting, is international, and they light up the world not so much by their actions as by their steadfast fortitude.

On the 22nd August, 1944, forty Belgians whose leader was Jean Francois Nothomb, found themselves imprisoned in Zuchthaus, near Bayreuth. By then they had been long accustomed to captivity and were expecting death, to which they had been sentenced. Instead, they found themselves locked for six months in narrow cells too small for one person, into which three were thrust. There they existed covered with vermin, in foul air and darkness save for an hour or two when the sun was very bright outside, with no work to do or books to read, and with almost no food. Yet the Rovers and Scouters among them, of whom their leader was one, so contrived it that presently all began to follow the Scout Law and to derive from it such comfort as gave them the strength to endure. They found means to send messages to each other, and Nothomb set subjects for meditation so that they might control their thoughts during the long, dark hours.

Then there was that patrol of Belgian Scouts aged between fifteen and eighteen who were arrested for manning an illegal radio station. They were placed in solitary confinement in the prison of St. Giles in conditions very similar to those which prevailed at Zuchthaus save that in their cells there were radiators. Soon each Scout was tapping on the pipes in Morse to communicate with his friends, and presently they succeeded in teaching this code to every inhabitant of the prison, who made use of this newly-acquired accomplishment to such an extent that fixed times for communications had to be allotted. Two of these boys left the prison for the cemetery.

Father Schoorman of Belgium offers a fine example of endurance. He spent five and a half years altogether in various prisons, having, as has been related, been arrested in Brussels for printing secret newspapers. After a long period of solitary confinement in five different prisons, where by tapping Morse like the boys of St. Giles he succeeded in getting into contact with a number of French Scouts, he reached Siegburg between Cologne and Bonn. Here, shut up alone in his cell, he would start a Scout song very quietly, and soon Scouts in other cells would pick it up and begin to sing too. During the infrequent periods of exercise he would make slight gestures of salute, lifting his fingers no higher than his thigh. "Other Scouts did the same; it comforted them." At Siegburg, when his conditions of confinement were somewhat relaxed, he made the acquaintance of Josy Wengler, of Luxembourg, a boy of nineteen, whose story will be told in a moment.

Father Schoorman was given the task of mending socks and trousers for the prisoners and washing their clothes. He presently joined the famous "Klok" Group, who spent their nights in the prison and their days in various war factories in the neighbourhood. Here they became expert saboteurs and found a way to send information to England concerning a great variety of subjects, the quality of the goods they were making, details of new alloys, new aircraft designs, new detonators. After raids by the Royal Air Force they were used by the Germans on the difficult and dangerous task of removing unexploded bombs.

Whenever possible, they sent back to England the technical reasons why the bomb had not exploded. On their way to work they had to travel some fifty kilometres. They carefully noted the numbers of any German troops they passed and also regaled Whitehall with the gossip of their German guards. The messages were sent to England by three Luxembourgers who, since Germany had absorbed their country, were treated not as prisoners but as guards and allowed to see their families once a week.

In all this activity Father Schoorman played a leading part. He listened daily to the B.B.C. for the guard whose room he cleaned possessed a wireless set. For the last year of his imprisonment he became the camp librarian, and as such was able to visit the cells of the other prisoners, and thus pass news. The leader, Klok, was a man of great resource, a skilled craftsman with a perfect knowledge of German. Finding that he could repair small arms, he was set to do so by the Germans, and making a false key was presently able to inform his fellow prisoners, by means of Father Schoorman, that zoo rifles and 50,000 rounds of ammunition were at their disposal when the time came. Klok had decided that as soon as the Allies drew near he would arm all who were willing to fight and thus create a timely diversion. The plan, however, failed, for when the moment came the whole camp was stricken with typhus.

Father Schoorman, who throughout his captivity had not "ceased to think of Scouts and Scouting," was released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination and was able to say Mass for the first time since his imprisonment five and a half years before. During all that period he drank, according to his reckoning, not above ten glass of water, and contrived to exist on thin soup and five small pieces of bread a day.

Father Schoorman survived, and so did Robert Schaffner, a Luxembourger who, after his return, became a Cabinet Minister. The Gestapo interrogated him first on the 14th August, 1940, for they knew him to be a Scouter and suspected him, rightly, of having worked for the Allied Intelligence Services. On this occasion they let him go and he continued to work for the Allies in conditions of increasing difficulty and danger until Easter, 1943, when he was denounced by an informer and taken to his first concentration camp, Hinzert, just inside the German frontier. He had received warning that his arrest was imminent, but had not been able to escape for he had broken his leg and was lying helpless in bed. He remained at Hinzert for seven months, living on soup made of nettles, losing fifty-two pounds and becoming very weak. Throughout this period he derived great spiritual consolation by reciting to himself Kipling’s poem, "If."

Conditions in Hinzert were bad enough, but they were far worse at Buchenwald, whither he was sent in June, 1943. Being by trade an electrician and a decorator, he fared better than most and was set to decorating the living-rooms of the SS guards. It was in Buchenwald, the most notorious of all the concentration camps, that Robert Schaffner organised a Patrol of Scouts. In addition to decorating rooms, he also worked in the garage and was thus able to steal bread and other foodstuffs which he distributed among the ten boys who formed his Troop. Presently the number of Boy Scouts in Buchenwald reached twenty-four. For the camp-fire they used a candle, and round it they would sing in low voices. In their ranks there were two Czechs and an Austrian. That Christmas the Germans allowed parcels and they had the first square meal they had eaten for months. After that, parcels arrived regularly, out of which they fed many prisoners. Presently, since Buchenwald was situated in the midst of a wood, they chose a spot as remote as possible from the guards and there held meetings at which they discussed what they would do when the invasion of Europe began, and sang "Smile, smile, smile" in German. The proceedings never lasted more than half an hour for fear of the Buchenwald Gestapo, which "was most severe, and if you were called to the Gestapo Bureau it was some times in order to die. I had once to go to the Bureau but it was only to be asked for information."

So the slow days passed, and presently Schaffner found him. self transferred across Germany to the hardly less notorious camp of Lublin. This "was the most darkest camp of all. It was like a camp of extermination and was so dirty that flies and lice were in millions in the barracks . . . you became really sick seeing it. In Hinzert and Buchenwald you had your own plate and cup, but not so in Lublin…. There we were four in a bed and blankets so dirty and so full of insects that you could feel them with your fingers. The sick and the healthy slept together. There were very many sick prisoners full of open wounds. They used the same cups as the healthy and they were not clean. For the first three days I did not rest. I did not go to bed and did not eat because I could not, but then I felt faint and did as the others. Sometimes when you lay in bed and woke in the morning you would find the boy next to you dead."

Schaffner’s clothes were taken away from him at Lublin, and when he protested "they beat me and an SS guard broke my shoulder with a blow from a light machine-gun. Then I lost consciousness and they took me naked into the snow. When I got back my mind, the others in the hut gave me some clothes so dirty and so ill-fitting that really I looked rather comic."

Fortunately for him, Schaffner, having a knowledge, among other trades, of that of blacksmith, was set the task of shoeing horses and was transferred for this purpose to a sub-camp. He had not been there long, however, when eighteen young Poles escaped by digging a tunnel beneath the wire. The remaining prisoners, Schaffner among them, were severely beaten. Here, as in Buchenwald, Schaffner organised a Scout Troop made up of Dutch, French and Czech young men. Liberation, however, was in the air, for the Russians were advancing. On July 22nd, 1944, the camp was bombed, and when the raid was over the Germans set up machine-guns and announced that they were about to massacre every occupant. Changing their minds, however, they took them away instead during a bombardment by Russian artillery.

The march westwards was a long, drawn-out scene of horror. All who fell out were instantly shot, and most of them were women and children. "There was one child who could no more go and we took it in our arms and brought it to the next village. …. The SS guard allowed us to put it in a house, and I never will forget the thankful eyes of this child . . . when the farmer said he would keep her with him." The grim journey continued. Mounted guards with police dogs rode up and down the column, and by the time the prisoners had passed the Vistula there was not a pair of boots among them. At last they reached a railway station beside a small lake and there the commander of the SS guards decided to put them in a train. While they waited for it, the prisoners, led by Schaffner and the Scouts, "took off our clothes, washed and shaved." The guards, who were almost as exhausted as the prisoners, made no attempt to do so, and " when the commander saw that, he was angry and warned them that he could not understand how they, SS guards, could be so tired and dirty, and the prisoners so clean."

This small incident revived their spirits, but they fell again to zero when the train into which they had been herded eventually drew up at the extermination camp of Auschwitz. In this terrible place, where they remained for months, the Scouts, particularly those from Luxembourg, kept together. The horrors they witnessed varied from the indiscriminate shooting of prisoners, to the slaying of children between one and five years old. "They took them by the legs, dashed their heads against the wall or against a car. Those that were killed they left. Those that were alive were taken to the crematorium. They were mostly Jewish children."

One of the Scouts was a butcher by trade, and he found means to slaughter purloined cattle. "In this way we had the opportunity to get back our strength, and it was very good that we had that chance." It was indeed, for a few days later began the last and worst of their marches, from Auschwitz to Gros Rosen. Sometimes on foot, sometimes packed a hundred in a single lorry, they moved westward until at last they reached this camp. The routine at Gros Rosen was the same as at Auschwitz. Once a week the prisoners were paraded naked, and those incapable of marching were taken away to the gas chamber, for "every one too weak to work was of no value and only ate food."

From Gros Rosen Schaffner was transferred to Litmeritz, a still unfinished camp. There, with some Russian, French and Czechs, all young, he formed his last Scout Troop, organising meetings and sing-songs, and stealing food from the kitchen. Employed in the foundry attached to the camp, Schaffner had to cross a number of fields which were being sown. Little by little he collected a sack of the seeds, built a small machine to mill them, made flour and succeeded in baking bread. This sufficed to keep them alive and "so we came to the end. On the 8th May the SS guards assembled us, saying that they, too, were only soldiers. We, too, were soldiers and now we should be free, and they gave us each a paper with the words ‘The bearer of this is to go to his own country as soon as possible."’

A few weeks more, and then with the aid of the Americans and the Red Cross, Schaffner once more reached Belgium, where he found his wife and family, who had also spent a long time in concentration camps. Through all these years of misery he had never forgotten what Scouting meant, and when he was home again and had picked up the threads of civilisation, "it was the Scout Law," he said, "and living according to the Scout Law that gave us courage to endure all the bad things we had to live through, because nothing makes you so happy if you have done something good for someone every day."

Schaffner was not the only Scouter to organise Scouting in Buchenwald. Another of its inmates, Chief Scout Professor Slava Rehak of Czechoslovakia, was also active, and during his period of detention, which lasted several years, not only kept in touch with all Commissioners and Scoutmasters in the camp but with their aid worked out details for rebuilding Scouting in Czechoslovakia and prepared a handbook for the training of Scouters. A triumph indeed of spirit over matter."

Josy Wengler, the prison friend of Father Schoorman, was a young Rover Scout of nineteen who, from the camp at Siegburg went out daily to work. He presently became head of a band of saboteurs called the "Kodak" group. They specialised in the production of "dud" shells, and claim to have made between 100,000 and 150,000 a month. Josy induced the inspector of Siegburg to engage him as his secretary. In this capacity he bought far more food than was laid down in the regulations, falsifying the books, and thus improving the rations for the prisoners. Josy also had charge of the card index of prisoners and by falsifying some cards and destroying others was able to save about 200 men from being sent to Auschwitz and other places of extermination. But he could not save every one, notably three Luxembourg Scouts who were shot on the 23rd August, 1944. Josy, however, preserved the details of their execution, together with the names of those who condemned them. He was more successful with twenty other prisoners, of whom two were German officers connected with the plot to kill Hitler. They took to the woods close by and were for some time fed by Josy.

Conditions in Auschwitz were reproduced at Grini in Norway, and it was in this camp that Per Gulbransen, who was but seventeen years old in 1943, lived for sixteen months. Eight of them were passed in solitary confinement varied by bouts of torture of which he bears the marks to this day upon his wrists. One day he was confronted by his father, the head of an Underground organisation, who had also been arrested and tortured. Neither would speak. The legs of the elder Gulbransen were broken, and in this condition he was put on board a ship with thirty-eight other prisoners to be taken to Germany. On the way the ship was torpedoed and they were all drowned.

After his eight months’ solitary confinement, Per was allowed to mingle with the rest of the prisoners, and had soon formed a Scout Troop although he had lost so much weight in his cell and was so exhausted that it was some time before he could walk. The 1st Grini Troop followed a programme and " hiked in fantasy and had camp-fires." When Per was liberated he returned to his mother, who was in her early forties but whose hair was snow white.

Hans Morch was a member of the Grini Troop, which met on Sundays at five in the evening. Birger Groom of Trondheim, who had been trained at Gilwell, was elected Scoutmaster, and in addition to "hiking in fantasy" they used to play Kim’s game, listen to a lecture and discuss it. They also practiced knots and splices. Presently the Troop was divided into two Patrols and held camp-fires made of a small pile of logs beneath which an electric lamp, the bulb covered by red paper, was lit. They even contrived to publish a news-sheet. "Most of our life at Grini," records Morch, "we would rather forget, but the Troop and Patrol meetings will live long in our memories."

In July, 1940, thirteen young men, ten of them Scouts, were thrown into prison in Bergen. The Germans had caught them sending messages reporting troop and fleet movements to one of the Secret Service organisations in London. They were all sentenced to death by a court composed of two German admirals and a general, who paid tribute to the bearing and bravery of the Norwegians. The sentence was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment, and while serving it they were asked whether they would render harmless a number of mines which had been washed up on the shore. They all volunteered provided that no report of their action should be published in the Press. Their demeanour so impressed the German commandant of the prison that he abandoned his harsh methods and for two years treated the prisoners "in a specially fine way." He would sit up till ten or eleven at night talking with them, and once, presumably wishing to pay them a compliment, said, "I should like you all to be young Germans." In 1942 ten prisoners, of whom three were Scouts, suffered death. One of them was twenty-two years of age, and before execution had been questioned by the Gestapo for sixty-three days at a place in Bergen known, grimly enough, as Hell. When eventually he was taken from it and they told hum that he was to leave Hell, he answered, "Some may call it that, but I do not for I found God in that place." His face was bright and full of joy," and he shouted words of encouragement to the others as the rifles spoke.

France, Germany, Poland, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, all held their camps of horror and misery, and the hideous tale of the agony and heroism of their inmates is a long one. Of all types of courage this is the hardest to maintain, especially when the body is weak from hunger and wounds There 1S nothing dramatic about it. No roar of guns nor brandishing of swords, no flashing bayonets accompany it, but rags and vermin, mouldy food and prison sores, hard living, and, a deadly, soul-destroying monotony. Such is the unromantic setting, and to practice fortitude in it and to continue to practice it unfaltering is the highest test of human nature. To pass it as thousands passed it, is to take rank as the most proven Scouts of all, and to show beyond all question what it is to believe and fulfil the Scout Law.

Hilary St George Saunders, The Left Handshake, 1948
Chapter V: Endurance. Scouting in Captivity
Part One: Introduction
Part Two: China
Part Three: Malaya
Part Four: Dutch East Indies, Formosa and Thailand
Part Five: Germany
Return to the Foreward and Table of Contents

Return to the Pine Tree Web Home Page

Your feedback, comments and suggestions are appreciated.
Please write to:
Lewis P. Orans
Ralf Bell (Ralf.Bell@uni.duesseldorf.de)

Copyright © Lewis P. Orans & Ralf Bell, 1997
Last Modified: 12:17 PM on August 3, 1997