I Surrender under the Geneva Conventions

European and American solders in World War Two would battle the Germans and their allies until the Allies stopped or the Germans quit. In spite of the men they had killed or wounded, when the enemy surrendered, he had to be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. These were not always observed.



German soldier surrenders to US Army troops outside of St. Lo July 1944. This French town sat astride a key crossroads and during the Allied campaign in Normandy was the scene of  and intense battle between American troops and the German Wehrmacht. Most of the town was destroyed before the Americans managed to lever the Germans out.


US M10 tank destroyer named “Hun Chaser” makes its way into the destroyed city of St. Lo.


German POWs (1)

“Art. 27. Belligerents may employ as workmen prisoners of war who are physically fit, other than officers and persons of equivalent statue, according to their rink and their ability.

Nevertheless, if officers or persons of equivalent status ask for suitable work, this shall be found for them as far as possible. Non-commissioned officers who are prisoners of war may be compelled to undertake only supervisory work, unless they expressly request remunerative occupation.”

From the Third Geneva Convention of 1929. You can find that specific document here:

3rd Geneva Convention on Treatment of POWs 1929



In many World War Two movies and novels, characters often make reference to the  Geneva Convention  and the protection it affords them if captured by the enemy. They are actually referring to the Third Geneva Convention of 1929 governing treatment of prisoners of war which was in effect during World War Two along with the First and Second Geneva Conventions.




According to the International Red Cross, there are four Geneva Conventions in effect today:

1) The First Geneva Convention is the “Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field. Geneva, 12 August 1949”. This agreement provides for the protection of all medical facilities, their personnel, and any civilians aiding the wounded. Of special note, the first convention gives the Red Cross international recognition as a neutral medical group. This convention was originally negotiated and signed in 1864 and subsequently amended and ratified by the High Contracting Parties in 1906, 1929, and 1949.

2) The Second Geneva Convention is the “Convention (II) for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea. Geneva, 12 August 1949.” This convention extended protections of the first convention to combatants at sea as well as shipwrecked sailors. It was originally promulgated in 1906 and subsequently amended and ratified by the High Contracting Parties in 1929 and 1949.

Of special note, this convention defines and gives protection to hospital ships of the High Contracting Parties. This protection was usually but not always observed between the Western belligerents. A number of protests were made to the International Red Cross from Nazi Germany about their hospital ships being attacked by the British and vice-versa.

3) The Third Geneva Convention is the “Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949”. In World War Two and in World War Two movies and books, this is the Geneva Convention usually being referred to and is the one which specifically concerns POWs. Originally promulgated and ratified in 1929, it was updated with the other conventions in 1949.

4) The Fourth Geneva Convention is the “Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.” This treaty was specifically adopted as a result of the deaths of millions of innocent civilians in World War Two.

According to the International Red Cross, any person caught up in an armed conflict is covered by one of these conventions. There are issues with this interpretation by the Red Cross as one might imagine particularly where terrorists are concerned.

Those acting in the name of an ideology rather than a state pose vexing questions for international law. Personally, I find it hard to imagine extending the protection of the Geneva Conventions to men and women who kill and maim civilians, especially children, in the name of God, or Maoist Revolution, or any other ideology.

Did The British and Americans Shoot German POWs? Yes.

tGerman surrenders to US Soldier

Pvt Shanklin 501st PIR (parachute infantry regiment) of the 101st Airborne, 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 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



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.

Treatment of POWs and the International Red Cross in World War Two (Part 3 of 3)

All POW camps in the US maintained a canteen, as required by the 1929 Geneva Convention, at which POWs could purchase sundries such as toothpaste, razors, cigarettes as well as Coca-Cola, candy bars, Saltines, local produce, beer and wine – these last at the discretion of the camp commandant. Prisoners purchased these items with the script they were paid in lieu of US currency. Enlisted men received a stipend of 10 cents a day. If they worked, and they were required to do so unless it was dangerous, they were paid an additional 80 cents a day. Many of the men saved a portion of their script which was deposited in accounts kept by the War Department. Prior to their repatriation, the former prisoners of war were paid out their savings in US currency.

Officers were not required to work under the Geneva Convention of 1929 and were paid a monthly stipend according to rank. Captains, for instance, were paid $38.50 per month by the US. However, as was the case with American officers, the cost of food was deducted from the monthly pay of the officers held as prisoners. (American captains held as POWs by the Germans were paid 96 Reichsmarks a month which was comparable with no deductions for food.) If officers worked supervising enlisted men, and many officers did, they were paid extra.

Large camps had their own large auditoriums and the men performed plays and musicals. The Commandant and his wife along with the other officers and their spouses were traditionally invited to opening nights. Once again, I’m not kidding.

Most camps had a crafts room where men worked models, carved various items, painted pictures of all sorts including portraits of Hitler. Each camp had its own library stocked with periodicals, newspapers, and books. Many of the books and other amenities were supplied by the Lutheran Church and the Red Cross. Of special note, all camps subscribed to the New York Times because the nightly Wehrmacht communique was printed in the Times along with the communiques of the other belligerent powers.

[Images courtesy of Alabama Heritage, published by the University of Alabama.]

Treatment of POWs and the International Red Cross in World War Two (Part 2 of 3)

The International Red Cross also inspected prisoner of war camps, arranged for the repatriation of the severely injured, inspected camps where civilian detainees were held, and delivered Red Cross parcels to POWs. In the last year of the war in Germany, many Allied POWs only survived because of the food sent to them in Red Cross parcels. It is fair to note that the Germans delivered these parcels even though they had to use desperately needed space in freight trains. (It is also worth noting that despite the urgent needs of the Wehrmacht for rail transport, trains carrying Jews continued rolling to the death camps until the last few weeks of the war.)

German POWs in American were so well fed most of them gained weight and asked their families to stop sending them Red Cross parcels. The Geneva Convention of 1929 required the belligerent nation holding POWs to treat those POWs in the same way they treated their own soldiers of different ranks. Proper food and nutrition were crucial to meet this standard. The United States strictly adhered to this policy, partly as a way to insure correct treatment of our men in German hands. According to the best and most comprehensive book on the subject, Nazi Prisoners of War in America by Arnold Krammer (four stars), a standard daily meal plan was as follows, this particular daily menu from Camp Clinton in Mississippi for 12 May 1944:

Breakfast: Corn flakes, cake or bread, marmalade, coffee, milk, sugar

Lunch: Potato salad, roast pork, carrots, icewater

Supper: Meat Loaf, scrambled eggs or boiled eggs, coffee, milk, bread

It is worth noting that most of these items were rationed for civilians in the US and almost all of these items were unobtainable in Germany except on the black market.

The irony in this is front line American GIs in Europe rarely ate this well. They subsisted on K rations for days at a time, never seeing hot meals. And if they were fighting in the winter of 1944/45, then the hot meals prepared for them in the rear were frozen by the time the food reached their forward positions.

Even more ironic, in July of 1944 the Provost Marshal General issued an order allowing individual camps to create menus more to the liking of the Germans as long as the food purchased wholesale did not exceed the cost of feeding the same number of American troops. German POWs began to eat better than they had eaten in Germany since the late 1930s.

[Images courtesy of Alabama Heritage, published by the University of Alabama.]