The Great Escape glossary N-Z

The story both at Sagan and particularly after The Great Escape, when recaptured POWs were in the hands of the SS and Gestapo, involves a mix of slang, German names, official ranks and security organisations. This glossary will hopefully help people understand the terms used. 


Please note: it is common practice to refer to a particular POW camp by the town it was located in or closest to it.

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Nazi – See under 'Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei'.


Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – Usually shortened to Nazi or NSDAP. National Socialist German Workers Party.


Nacht und Nebel – German for 'Night and Fog'. Usually shortened to N+N. Originates in a decree – issued on 12 December 1941 by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler's Chief of Staff – aimed at dealing with civilian dissenters in Germany and resistance in Occupied territories. Essentially, 'problem' people were made to disappear without a trace. Often brutally tortured before being executed and the remains cremated and the disposed of in a German-controlled death camp. Some SS commanders applied this decree to captured British Commandos and SOE agents.


Natzweiler Concentration Camp – Also known as Natzweiler-Struthof. The only death camp built on French soil. Site of the horrific murder of four British and French female SOE agents. Also where the body of one of the murdered Great Escapers was taken for cremation. Included a network of around 50 smaller satellite camps.


NSDAP – See under 'Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei'.


Obergruppenfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Lieutenant-General.


Oberregierungsrat  – German Kripo rank.


Oberscharfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Warrant Officer.


Obersturmbannfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Lieutenant-Colonel


Obersturmfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Lieutenant.


Oflag – See under 'Offizierslager'.


Offizierslager– German for Officer Camp. Usually shortened to Oflag. Oflag XXIB at Schubin (now Szubin) was a camp run by the Wehrmacht for mainly Army officer prisoners. Although it was common for Allied aircrew prisoners from Stalag Luft III to be sent here as a punishment. Originally a boys' school converted to use for prisoners from Poland, it was then used for British and French POWs. On 6 June 1943, it became Oflag 64 and used exclusively for American POWs.


Parole – An individual's word of honour / undertaking that they would not attempt to escape from some relaxation of the terms of their imprisonment. For example, being allowed outside the camp for a walk or to buy provisions.


Penguins – Nickname for POWs on the Soil Disposal Teams. They carried the soil in long bags (converted long johns – winter underwear) inside their trousers, which made them waddle a bit when they walked.


Piccadilly Circus – Name of the first of the two interchange stations in the tunnel (Harry). Named after the London Underground tube station.


PoW / POW – Prisoner of War.


Polizeitische Beschenigung – German police permit allowing foreign workers into restricted areas.


Prominenten – German term for their VIP captives. Among those held in the two Sonderlagers at Sachsenhausen were four Great Escapers: Harry 'Wings' Day, John Dodge, Bertram 'Jimmy' James, Sydney Dowse and Raymond van Wymeersch. Among the other captives were Red Army Artillery Captain Jakob Djugashvili (Stalin's son); Vassili Kokorin Molotowski (son of the Russian foreign minister Molotov); Russian Major General Pyotr Privalov and Ivan Georgio Bessanov; Lieutenant Colonel Brodnikov; Polish RAF pilots Stanislaw Jensen and Jan Izyski (both later killed).


Protecting Power – Based on the Geneva Convention and permanent Swiss neutrality, Switzerland was the main Protecting Power for POWs of both sides in WWII. The Swiss Foreign Office ran 126 missions (85 on behalf of the Allies and 41 on behalf of the Axis) which carried out inspections of POW camps and the treatment of prisoners. Prisoners from Russia and other countries which had not signed up to the Geneva Convention were not covered, and suffered horrendous conditions of imprisonment. Germany later breached the convention by concealing the existence of some prisoners deliberately under Nacht und Nebel. 


Purge – A now somewhat old fashioned term meaning to get rid of unwanted person or persons. In POW terms troublemakers were often purged (sent) to other camps either as punishment for a short spell or to where there was more stringent security, like Colditz Castle.


RHSA – See under 'Reichssicherheithauptamt'.


Reichssicherheithauptamt – German for State Security Head Office (HQ). Usually shortened to RHSA. Made up of 7 departments (Amter) and around 180 sub departments; included the Gestapo (Amter IV) and Kripo (Amter V). Worst was Amter III, whose Einsatzgruppen (special action groups) were responsible for implementing the Nazi's genocidal plans.


Ruckkerscheine – German return permit. Type of travel document authorising a foreign worker's return to their home country.


Ruckkehr unerwunscht – German for 'Return not desired'. Often shortened to 'R.U.' Essentially, a death sentence. Gestapo and Kripo prisoners selected for liquidation would be sent to one of the death camps with their papers marked in this fashion. It was common practice for them to be murdered and cremated within a few hours of arrival. Sometimes the camp would be given prior notification of an impending transport, as was the case with a group of four SOE agents – British and French women – murdered at Natzweiler death camp. The camp was locked down and the incinerator fires stoked up before their arrival. The German camp doctors intended to give them lethal injections but at least one woman recovered and was pushed into the incinerator while still alive.


Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp – Established in 1936. Also known as Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg. Became one of the main Nazi concentration camps. Population varied during the war, estimated 11,000 - 48,000. Around half of the 200,000 prisoners housed here died from various causes.


Sagan – At the time of the war a German town near the Polish border. Then the town closest to the site of the Stalag Luft III POW camp, and the name of the town is often used as a shorter way of referring to the camp. Post-war the area was transferred to Poland as war reparations and it is now the Polish town of Zagan. When it opened, apart from the commandant and abewhr officer, the staff came from Barth. Originally, only two compounds (East – officers; Centre – NCOs), there were five before the camp closed.



SAO – Senior American Officer. This could refer to the camp as a whole or to individual compounds.


SBO – Senior British Officer. This could refer to the camp as a whole or to individual compounds. Originally, the SBO involved in The Great Escape was Wing Commander Harry Melville Arbuthnot Day (05175) – better known as Wings Day. Later, Group Captain Herbert Martin Massey (04128) arrived in the camp. However, he had injured his leg so for the large part let Wings continue as SBO. After The Great Escape, Wings Day was sent to a concentration camp and Group Captain Massey was repatriated on medical grounds. The SBO at Sagan till the camp was evacuated in January 1945 was Group Captain Douglas Ernest Lancelot Wilson, RAAF.


Schubin – Then a German town, now the Polish town of Szubin. Usually a reference to the POW camp Oflag XXI B (later Oflag 64).


Shutzstaffel – Usually shortened to SS. German for Security Squadron / Echelon.


SIB – Special Investigation Branch. RAF unit set up to track down war criminals. Head office based at Princes Gate, London. Disbanded on 31 August 1948 following a decision by the British Government not to bring any more offenders to trial.


Sicherheitsdienst – Usually shortened to SD. German for Security Service. In 1939, merged with the Sicherheitspolizei to form the Reichssicherheithauptamt (RHSA).


Sicherheitspolizei – Usually shortened to Sipo. German for Security Police. In 1939, merged with the Sicherheitsdienst to form the Reichssicherheithauptamt (RHSA).


Sipo – See under 'Sicherheitspolizei'.


Sippenhaftlinge – German for 'Kin Liability', in effect family hostages. Relatives – male, female, young and old – particularly of 20 July plotters were among the Prominenten prisoners in concentration camps.


Sonderlager – German for Special Compound. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Sonderlager A was used to detain Great Escapers Wings Day, John Dodge, Jimmy James, Sydney Dowse and, briefly van Wymeersch. Sonderlager B, across the wire was used for elite prisoners. The main compound contained around 40,000 at the time of Day's arrival.


Spoil – Excavated earth from the tunnels. Disposal was not easy at Sagan as the soil beneath the first foot or so was a smelly, yellow sand, which showed up against the much darker topsoil.


SS – See under 'Shutzstaffel'.


Stalag Luft – See under 'Stammlager Luftwaffe'.


Stammlager Luftwaffe – Usually shortened to Stalag Luft. German Air Force Permanent Camp. Stalag Luft I – Barth.


Stalag Luft III – Often referred to by its location, Sagan or St.L.3 / St.L.III / S.L.3. German Air Force Permanent Camp No.3.


Standartenfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Colonel.


Stooges – Term for the members of the Security team. Stooges acted as lookouts. They also helped organise distractions, and shadowed Germans entering the camp (on occasions, the German ferrets tried to hide inside the camp in order to spy on the POWs and discover the location of tunnels).


Stufe Romisch III Order – Literally translates as 'Grade Roman III' – a meaningless code to hide its true nature. Issued in February 1944, by German High Command, ordered recaptured POWs to be dealt with secretly by the Gestapo. The order authorised the 'disappearance' of recaptured prisoners – essentially, their recapture was to be kept a secret and they were to be handed over to the local Gestapo for disposal (instead of being returned to military custody as required under the terms of the Geneva Convention). This treatment was already being carried out on German and other civilian protestors (including resistance fighters) and in many cases British Commandos and SOE agents as part of Nacht und Nebel. Ordinary British and American POWs were treated differently in that they would be held in police prisons and their individual cases were considered before either returning them or murdering them.


Tom – One of the three main tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry) dug as part of The Great Escape. Started on 11 April 1943 with the others, it was located in Block 123 with the entrance concealed in a concrete block. Discovered by the Germans on 8 September 1943 it was later blown up (excessive amounts of explosives blew the roof of the hut off).


Totenkopf – German for Death's Head. A skull symbol used on the badge of the SS unit running the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.


Unterscharfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Corporal.


Untersturmfuhrer – German SS rank, equivalent to Second Lieutenant.


Urlaubscheine – Type of travel document. Used as a leave-chit for foreign workers in Germany.


Verscharfte Vernehmung (also spelt Vershafte Vernehmung in one account) – German for 'Intensive interrogation'. Usually a combination of physical and mental torture before execution. Head of the SS Heinrich Himmler had ordered this 'special treatment' for the Sachsenhausen escapers (and the execution of the camp commandant and his security officers but later relented).


Vertrauenman – See under 'Man of Confidence'.


Volkischer Beobachter – German for People's Observer. A Nazi daily newspaper. The Russian generals held in Sonderlager A, Sachsenhausen, received a copy, which Wings borrowed. The published rejection of Anthony Eden's speech in the House of Commons denouncing the murder of 41 escapers was the first Wings, Dowse, Dodge and James (held at Sachsenhausen) learnt of the fate that befell most of the others.


Volksturm / Volkssturm – German for People's Force. Essentially, the German equivalent of the Home Guard. Although there was no 'Private Pike' – boys too young for regular military formations served in the Hitler Jugend.


Vorlager – German for Outer Camp. A sub compound which contained common areas like the guardhouse, hospital, detention cells (cooler) and coal store.


Vorlaufiger Auswiese – German for Temporary Pass / Passport. Type of travel document.


Wehrmacht – German Army.


Zagan – Polish and current name for Sagan.


Zelle Bau (in some accounts spelt Zellen Bau) – German for 'Cell Block'. Recaptured Great Escapers, who were recaptured after escaping from Sachsenhausen Sonderlager A, were taken and chained up in Sachsenhausen's Cell Block ie. the camp's Death Row for the condemned. Ironically, this was where Artur Nebe, who was by now in hiding after the failed 20 July assassination attempt, was later brought to before his own brutal execution. Known as The Bunker, before October 1944 it was the scene of some of the worse and most brutal excesses by the sadistic Warrant Officer Kurt Eccarius. Fortunately, by the time Wings and the other recaptured Sachsenhausen Great Escapers were sent there it was mainly used as a detention centre with the worst atrocities still being committed but now in the area known as Station Z (the last letter in the alphabet and stop for many inmates).

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