Pvt Shanklin 501st PIR (parachute infantry regiment) of the 101st Airborne, and a German POW in a posed shot in Turqueville, on the road running East out of Sainte Mere Eglise.(caption and photo identification courtesy of WW2 talk forum US Airborne at Normandy)
On the Western front, the Germans and the Allies usually observed the major elements of the Geneva Conventions but sometimes the Americans along with British and Commonwealth troops shot German soldiers who were trying to surrender or who had surrendered. But many times in the heat of battle, both sides shot prisoners. We, that is the Americans and the British, did our fair share.
“Our tough first sergeant grabbed me and ordered me to take the SS prisoners behind the church and shoot them…They were too much to guard at this crucial point in the battle. He looked and me and said, “Now!”…I turned to the prisoners sitting on the floor and motioned them outside…
I walked them out the door and to the left around the building where I lost no time in firing a round into the back of the man nearest me. Both men dropped instantly…
I fired a round into the head of each one…went through the pockets of the dead men. I came up with several tins of sardines, cheese and hard biscuits that I stuffed into my pocket…”
From Visions From A Foxhole: A Rifleman in Patton’s Ghost Corps by William A. Foley, Jr. (This is the best memoir written by a U.S. Infantryman in WW II in the European Theater and I give it five stars.)
The International Laws of War in Effect
The international laws of war in effect during World War Two had been formally codified by the Hague Convention of 1904 and three different Geneva conventions adopted at different times and covering different groups of people including mariners, sick and wounded, prisoners of war and civilians. All of these have been amended many times or have been mostly superseded by the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949.
When you watch World War Two movies and the soldiers refer to the “Geneva Convention” they are referring to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of 1929. (All of these conventions were signed in Geneva, Switzerland as you might imagine).
The original copy of the first Geneva Convention, the first international treaty of its kind. The official name is the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field”. It was adopted on 22 August 1864
German Landser, their term for GI or Tommy, captured by British troops on D-Day. It appears they are being marched to landing craft. They would have been taken to troopships offshore which had just debarked thousands of Allied troops and end up in the United States two or three weeks later.
Some German soldiers taken prisoner on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, were in the US PW camps within ten days. The term PW was used in the era instead of POW. The Germans were sent to American under an inter-Allied agreement that the USA would take most German POWs and the remainder would go to Canada.
There simply wasn’t room in the UK. Some German troops captured in the early days of the North Africa campaign spent most of the war in PW camps in modern day Sri Lanka, then the British colony of Ceylon. (Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum).
US paratroopers of the 505th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) of the 82nd Airborne Division advancing through the contested French town of Sainte Sauveur Le Vicomte the first days of the Normandy invasion.
American paratroopers were trying to advance down a road on D-Day in the face of withering fire from German machine guns. In fighting that morning, the Americans had taken 75 German POWs. They lined them up and forced them to march down the road toward the machine guns ahead of the American paratroopers.
“They (the American officers) were hoping the enemy wouldn’t fire on their own, but it didn’t make any difference to the men on the machine guns, and they opened up, drilling holes in their own comrades in trying to hit the American troopers.
The prisoners started screaming, ‘nicht schiessen‘ (don’t shoot) and leaped headfirst for the ditch, and possible escape, so we opened up on them too…before the shooting stopped they were all dead.”
From Currahee: A Screaming Eagle at Normandy by Donald R. Burgett
“Shortly after the 45th Division hit the beach at Scoglitti, (during the invasion of Sicily) two of its men, a captain and a sergeant, in two separate incidents had lined up and and murdered in cold blood seventy-nine German POWs.
When I learned of these appalling incidents I at once reported them to Patton. I do not believe Patton fully grasped the gravity of the matter, or his moral sense had completely deserted him….he told me to tell the two men to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something…. I, of course, disregarded those absurd instructions and general court martial proceedings were brought against the two men.
From A General’s Life: An Autobiography by General of the Army Omar N. Bradley.
The reference to snipers is interesting. Both sides detested snipers and neither side gave quarter to captured snipers. Apparently, this was an unspoken understanding.