Lost Airmen of Buchenwald

Directed by Michael Dorsey. 115 minutes. On the Military Channel; also on DVD, $18.95.

Buchenwald, once a sylvan site where the great German poet Goethe sought inspiration, is encrusted with repulsive tales thanks to the Nazis, whose primary purpose there was to provide slave labor for nearby arms factories. Think of Ilse Koch, the camp’s famed “Bitch,” who savored torture and souvenirs of human flesh. A less-known facet is that in 1944, 168 Allied airmen came to be held in this brutal camp.

The Germans generally treated Western POWs—unlike nearly everybody else—more or less according to the Geneva Convention. But these airmen first languished in a Paris prison, then were reclassified as Terrorflieger: “terror pilots.” Along with 2,500 French prisoners, they were stuffed into cattle cars and shipped to Buchenwald instead of the expected Luftstalag. The ranking POW officer, Squadron Leader Philip Lamason, a New Zealander, was smashed in the face by an SS guard for protesting this treatment. When they arrived five days later in August 1944, Lamason demanded to speak with Buchenwald’s commandant, who agreed there must have been a “mistake” but followed orders. And so began three weeks of hell: the POWs were shaved, left shoeless, and forced to sleep outdoors in the camp’s harshest section.

Lamason fought back the only way he could: re-instilling military discipline in his men, who mounted guard duty (to prevent pilfering) and marched, both infuriating and impressing their guards. He barely escaped being shot while he boldly stood off the Germans, who insisted his men work in the factories, by pointing to the convention, which states that captured soldiers cannot be forced into war-related labor. Eventually, one of Lamason’s camp contacts managed to smuggle his messages to the Luftwaffe: he gambled that German airmen, fearing for their own POWs in Allied hands, would come to his men’s aid.

Just when that hope seemed futile— a week before their mass execution was to take place—156 Allied POWs were transferred to Stalag Luft III. They’d escaped from hell, but their harrowing experiences continued until the Third Reich’s collapse.

That is the story told in this moving documentary. Vintage footage and compelling eyewitness commentary from seven survivors—director Michael Dorsey, whose grandfather was among these airmen, conducted the interviews—make the ghastly situations they faced resonate.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.