Hände Hoch!: Everything a Frontline Joe Needs to Know About Prisoners of War

PFC REID PALMER | 1 JANUARY 2020

When Jerry knows when he’s beat, he’ll throw his arms above his head and ask to surrender. Even if you’ve already secured the battlefield, don’t let your guard down! An Infantry Captain wrote “The thing to remember is—there are lots of Germans and non-Germans in their Army. Some of them are fair and square fighters—and some of them are tricky and dirty.”1 As one Private in Normandy reported, “one of them yelled to me in English, ‘Friend!’ — and let us have it.”2  

Despite the risk, take prisoners alive when you can. They can offer us valuable information and, as the Captain notes, “we don’t want to discourage prisoners by shooting at them when they try to give up.”3 One surrendering Hun can turn into a hundred if you play your cards right.4 So how do you do this safely?


“The safe thing is—take no chances.”5 When a German is trying to surrender, “let them come to you—but don’t expose yourself by going out to them.”6 Once they get near your position, assign at least two men to process them. Everyone else should keep an eye out for German ambush. When processing prisoners, remember your training:7  

  1. Secure the prisoners
    • Tell the prisoners to stand up and that they will be shot if they run
    • Have one or more soldiers stand behind the prisoners with weapons at the ready
    • Keep the prisoners looking forward with their hands up
    • Remove all visible firearms, explosives, and edged weapons 
    • Pat down their boots (many Germans carry a boot knife), belts, and then have them open up their jacket to make sure they’re not hiding anything
  2. Segregate officers, NCOs, and privates
  3. Search the prisoners
    1. Secure all documents such as maps, messages, orders, codes, and diaries 
    2. Mark the time and place of capture on each document
    3. Give all captured documents to the unit commander
    4. If you are on patrol and it hasn’t accomplished its mission, immediately send two messengers back to your commander by different routes:
      • One messenger carries documents
      • One carries a report with the gist of what the documents say
      • Both must be able to verbally communicate what the documents say if they are in danger of being captured and need to destroy the documents
      • Both messengers should be able to communicate if the patrol’s objective is changed because of this new information
  4. Secure all money, watches, anything that may be traded to aid escape and provide the soldier with a receipt for what you removed 
  5. Speed prisoners to the rear
    • Send one guard for every ten prisoners
    • Do not allow prisoner to talk amongst themselves
    • Remind prisoners that if they try to run or attack you, they will be shot

According to FM 31-50, “The handling of prisoners of war is normal but should be prompt. [Do not] permit an accumulation of prisoners to interfere with [your] progress.”8 Be prompt and professional. Many Germans we have captured have expressed surprise by our generous treatment.


How Do You Feel About German Prisoners?

  • “As for the prisoners, I want to cut their throats. The German soldiers know they are licked, but they keep on shooting until they are surrounded and can’t do anything about it; and then they come out with their hands up.” —Sgt., weapons platoon.
  • “I’ve been around them a lot. It makes me mad while you’re fighting them, but I like to see them give up. I’m not sorry for them at all.” —-Pvt., platoon runner.
  • “Yeah, we captured some around here. One was a pretty dejected private. He was pretty young, about 17 years old. He said he never wanted to get in the war. He didn’t like the government. Then there was a first sergeant, about 23 or 24, who still thought we were going to lose. It touched you until you thought about what they done.” —Pvt., 90mm gunner.
  • “I have treated a lot of Jerry wounded myself. I don’t feel sorry for them. Once I was trying to patch up four wounded Jerries when other Jerries threw grenades at me. I just took off and left them there. When we took Vire, we captured plenty of armed medics. The men were armed with P-38 pistols, and the medic officers rode around in cars that had machine guns on them. I say keep away from German civilians. They may be Jerries changed into civilian clothes. — Pvt., company aid man.
  • “I hate to have their snipers pick us off; and then, when they run out of ammunition, come crying to us for surrender. The prisoners ought to be used to help rebuild the areas they destroyed so that we won’t have to do it all.” — 2nd. Lt., platoon commander, rifle company.
  • “My feelings toward prisoners vary according to circumstances at the time. When you see a friend or some of your men killed, it hardens you. I feel all right toward them most of the time. We should be more strict with them.” —2nd. Lt., executive officer, infantry.
  • “I’ve seen what they’ve done, and I don’t like to take them as prisoners. But we play the game straight.” — 1st. Lt., regimental Hq.
  • “Yes, and I don’t feel too good toward them, seeing and hearing how they done to our men. They can kick them around as far as I’m concerned. ” — Pvt., officer’s orderly.

“It makes me mad looking at some of the expressions on their faces knowing that others are trying to kill you.” — M/Sgt., communications.

Excerpt from “How Do you Feel About German Prisoner?” Army Talks: The Combat Man Speaks, 6 January 1945, 12-13


The Do’s And Don’t’s of Taking Prisoners in Reenacting

DODO NOT
Keep safety first, even if you have to end the skitPoint your weapons at anyone at close range, even if it is on safe or unloaded
Follow the procedures in this articleBecome physically or verbally abvusive
Watch out for German tricks (i.e. hidden grenades, pistols, knives) and stop it earlyExecute prisoners
Report any bad or suspicious behavior to your nearest NCO or officer as soon as possibleSteal anything from German prisoners
Allow Germans to keep their helmets and their gas masks per the Geneva Convention

Useful German Phrases

EnglishPronunciationGerman Spelling
YesYAJa
NoNAINNein
I don’t understandish fer-SHTAY nishtIch verstehe nicht
Speak slowlySHPRESH-en zee LAHNK-zahmSprechen Sie langsam
Say it againvee-der-HO-len zeeWiederholen Sie
PleaseBIT-aBitte
Danger!G’FAR!Gefahr!
Don’t smoke!nisht ROUKH-en!Nicht rauchen!
Careful!FOR-zisht!Vorsicht!
Look out!OUF-pa-sen!Aufpassen!
Lie down!HIN-lay-gen!Hinlegen!
Down!NEE-der!Nieder!
Take cover!DEK-oong nay-men!Deckung nehmen!
Don’t shoot!nisht SHEE-sen!Nicht schiessen!
Don’t move!kai-na B’VAY-goong!Kein Bewegung!
Don’t try any tricks!MA-khen zee kai-na G’SHISH-ten!Machen Sie keine Geschichten!
Obey or I’ll fire!ven zee nisht G’HAWR-shen, SHEE-sa ish!Wenn Sie nicht gehorchen, schiesse ich!
Wait here!VAR-ten zee HEER!Warten Sie hier!
Stand up!OUF-shtay-en!Aufstehen!
Quiet!ROO-a!Ruhe!
Come forward!FOR-tray-ten!Vortreten!
Quickly!SHNEL!Schnell!
Right away!zo-FORT!Sofort!
Move back!tsoo-RIK!Zurück!
Turn around!ROOM-dray-en!Rumdrehen!
Go ahead!FOR-vayrts!Vorwärts!
Follow me!FAWL-gen zee meer!Folgen Sie mir!
Follow him!FAWL-gen zee eem!Folgen Sie ihm!
Go slow!LAHNK-zahm gay-en!Langsam gehen!
Hurry!RAHSH!Rasch!
Stop! or Halt!HAHLT!Halt!
Who’s there?VAYR DA?Wer da?
Advance!FOR-tray-ten!Vortreten!
Identify yourself!TSAI-gen zee meer ee-ren OUSS-vaiss!Zeigen Sie mir Ihren Ausweis!
Surrender!er-GAY-ben zee zish!Ergeben Sie sich!
Throw down your arms!VA-fen nee-der-lay-gen!Waffen niederlegen!
Raise your hands!HEN-da hoakh!Hände hoch!
Line up!
here
there
AHN-tray-ten
HEER
DAWRT
Antreten!
hier
dort

1 “What Normandy Vets Think of Jerry,” Army Talks: Notes From Normandy, July 5, 1944, 6.
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 It’s also important to remember that the United States signed both the Geneva and the Hague conventions which outline the rules of warfare. Here’s a basic summary to keep in mind in the field:

Basic principles. — Among the so-called unwritten rules or laws of war are three interdependent basic principles that underlie all of the other rules or laws of civilized warfare, both written and unwritten, and form the general guide for conduct where no more specific rule applies, to wit : 
a. The principle of military necessity, under which, subject to the principles of humanity and chivalry, a belligerent is justified in applying any amount and any kind of force to compel the complete submission of the enemy with the least possible expenditure of time, life, and money ; 
b. The principle of humanity, prohibiting employment of any such kind or degree of violence as is not actually necessary for the purpose of the war ; and 
c. The principle of chivalry, which denounces and forbids resort to dishonorable means, expedients, or conduct.
For more information, refer to FM 27-10 Rules of Land Warfare, 1 October 1940.

5 “What Normandy Vets Think of Jerry,” 6.
6 ibid.
7 The following section is based on FM 21-75, Scouting, Patrolling, and Sniping, War Department, 6 February 1944.
8 FM 31-50, Attack on Fortified Position and Combat in Towns, War Department, 31 January 1944.

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