Disarmed Enemy Forces

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German prisoners fill puddles at Recklinghausen internment camp

Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF, less commonly,[1] Surrendered Enemy Forces) was a US designation for soldiers who surrendered to an adversary after hostilities ended, and for those POWs who had already surrendered and were held in camps in occupied German territory at the time.[2] It was General Dwight D. Eisenhower's designation of German prisoners in post-World War II occupied Germany.[3]

Because of the logistical impossibility of feeding all of the nearly two million of surrendered German soldiers at the levels required by the Geneva Convention during the food crisis of 1945,[4] the purpose of the designation, along with the British designation of Surrendered Enemy Personnel (SEP), was to prevent categorization of the prisoners as Prisoners of War (POW) under the 1929 Geneva Convention.

Germany at the end of the war[edit]

German agriculture had suffered extreme productivity decreases in 1944 and 1945, as Germany had mobilized for total war, and food for the troops and war workers was a part of that war.[5] A shortage of synthetic fertilizers had developed after nitrogen and phosphate stocks were channeled into ammunition production,[5][6] and much of the potato crop was requisitioned to produce fuel for the military's V-2 arsenal. Consequently, crop levels had fallen by 20% to 30% at the end of the war.[5][7] Allied bombing raids had destroyed thousands of farm buildings, and rendered food processing facilities inoperable.[5][6] Lack of farm machinery, spare parts, and fertilizer caused an almost total disruption of agriculture when the war was over.[5][7] After the release of Ostarbeiters, slave laborers that were Soviet POWs and Eastern Europeans, extreme agriculture labor shortages existed that could be relieved only by German DEFs and SEPs.[5][7] Roving bands of displaced persons and returning soldiers and civilians decimated the hog herds and chicken flocks of German farmers.[5][7]

In addition, the destroyed German transportation infrastructure created additional logistical difficulties, with railroad lines, bridges, canals and terminals left in ruins.[8] The turnaround time for railroad wagons was five times higher than the prewar average.[8][9] Of the 15,600 German locomotives, 38.6% were no longer operating and 31% were damaged.[8] Only 1,000 of the 13,000 kilometers of track in the British zone were operable.[8] Urban centers often had to be supplied with horse-drawn carriages and wheeled carts.[5]

By May 8, 1945, the Allies were responsible for 7 million displaced persons in Germany and 1.6 million in Austria, including slave laborers from all over Europe.[10][11][12] Soon thereafter, German populations had swollen by 12 to 14.5 million ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union.[13] Bavarian villages in the American zone faced 15% to 25% population increases from displaced persons, with Munich alone having to deal with 75,000 displaced persons.[13]

The worst dislocation of agriculture was caused by the German zonal partitions, which cut off Western Germany from its "breadbasket" of farm lands east of the Oder-Neisse line that had accounted for 35% of Germany's prewar food production,[5] and which the Yalta Conference had given to Poland to compensate for lands of Eastern Poland.[5] The Soviet Union, with millions of its own starving citizens at home, was not willing to distribute this production to the population in western Germany.[14] In January 1945, the basic German ration was 1,625 calories/day, and that was further reduced to 1,100 calories by the end of the war in the British zone, and remained at that level into the summer, with levels varying from 840 calories/day in the Ruhr to 1,340 calories/day in Hamburg.[14] The situation was no better in the American zones of Germany and Austria.[14]

These problems combined to create severe shortages across Germany. One summary report estimated that just prior to Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, German consumer daily caloric intake was only 1,050, and that after V-E Day it dropped to 860 calories per day, though actual estimates are confusing because of the wide variation by location and because unofficial estimates were usually higher.[15] It was clear by any measure that, by the spring of 1945, the German population was existing on rations that would not sustain life in the long term.[15] A July 1945 CCAC report stated that "the food situation in western Germany is perhaps the most serious problem of the occupation. Average consumption is now about one third below the general accepted subsistence level of 2000 calories per day."[16]

In the spring of 1946 the International Red Cross was finally allowed to provide limited amounts of food aid to prisoners of war in the U.S. occupation zone.[17] By June 1948, DEF rations had been increased to 1990 calories and in December 1949 rationing was effectively discontinued and the food crisis was over.[18]

Number of surrenders in World War II[edit]

Approximately 35 million POWs were taken in World War II, 11 million of them Germans.[10][19] In addition to 20 million dislocated citizens, the U.S. Army had to cope with most of the surrendered German army.[20] While the Allies had anticipated 3 million surrendering Germans, the actual total was as many as 5 million in American hands by June 1945 out of 7.6 million in northwestern Europe alone, not counting the 1.4 million in Allied hands in Italy.[20] Approximately 1 million were Wehrmacht soldiers fleeing west to avoid capture by the Red Army.[20]

The number of Germans surrendering to U.S. forces shot up from 313,000 by the end of the first quarter of 1945, to 2.6 million by April 1945 and more than 5 million in May.[4][21][22] By April 1945, entire German Army groups were surrendering, which overwhelmed Allied shipping such that German prisoners could no longer be sent to POW camps in America after March 1945.[23] According to a June 22, 1945 announcement by the Allies, a total of 7,614,914 prisoners (of all designations) were held in British and American camps.[24]

Although the British and Americans agreed to split the western Germans who surrendered,[24] the British recanted arguing that they "did not have places to keep them or men to guard them on the continent, and that moving them to England would arouse public resentment and adversely affect British morale."[25] By June 1, 1945, Eisenhower reported to the War Office that this refusal produced shortages in the 25 million prisoner-day rations which were growing at the rate of 900,000 prisoner-day rations.[25][26] Feeding this number of people became a logistical nightmare for SHAEF, which frequently had to resort to improvisation.[25]

Early considerations of DEF designations[edit]

Regarding the adherence to the Geneva Convention for vanquished Germans, Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 summed up the Allies "unconditional surrender" policy with "If we are bound, we are bound by our consciences to civilization."[27] In prosecuting the war, SHAEF carried out the decisions of the Combined (Anglo-American) Chiefs of Staff (CCS).[28] They had to execute the directives of the European Advisory Commission (EAC), which included the Soviet Union.[28] The CCS and EAC directives implemented policies of the heads of government who decided the most important questions of Allied occupation policy.[28] After the EAC was set up by the 1943 Moscow Conference, it drafted the instruments of unconditional surrender.[27] During the EAC debates the Allies determined that they could strip the Germans of all government, including their protection by international law, and be free to punish them without restriction.[27][29] The Geneva Convention (GC) required SHAEF to feed German POWs a ration equal to its own base soldiers.[4]

The original discussion of the Allies treating post Victory in Europe (V-E) Day prisoners of war as something other than those protected by the Geneva Convention had its vague origins in the Casablanca Conference, but it was given specific form by the EAC in the summer of 1944 in a "draft instrument of surrender" given to the American government.[30] The instrument required the surrendering German commander to accept that his men "shall at the discretion of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Allied State concerned be declared to be Prisoners of War."[31] Several factors went into this consideration, including that the EAC member the Soviet Union refused to sign the Geneva Conventions, despite intense pressure from 1942 onward to sign the document.[32] Behind the Soviets' refusal were a number of considerations closely linked with the regime, but a major consideration that emerged at the Tehran Conference was that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin desired four million German laborers for an "indefinite period", perhaps for life.[32] The Soviets' refusal to even consider signing the GC created great problems for the EAC, including the fact that a single surrender instrument could not be drafted if a Soviet commander taking the surrender could not possibly commit his government to accord GC rights to prisoners.[32] As a result, the EAC instruments promised nothing in that regard, employed awkward and tortured language and made plain the premeditated Allied evasion of the Geneva Convention.[32] In addition, other Allies also considered using Germans for prison labor, which the Germans themselves had already required of prisoners they had held during the war.[33] Later EAC documents described the "Disabled Enemy Forces."[31]

DEF and SEP designations[edit]

With regard to food requirements, regardless of the reasoning or GC legal requirements, SHAEF was simply not capable of feeding all of the millions of German prisoners at the level of Allied base soldiers because of the high numbers and lack of resources. This was not deliberate policy, but the result of wartime damage to the infrastructure, which created the difficult problem of feeding the defeated peoples without it.[4] In a March 10, 1945 cable to the CCS, Eisenhower requested permission for this designation per the earlier EAC documents, and was granted such permission.[31] When the CCS approved Eisenhower's March 1945 request, it added that prisoners after Victory in Europe (V-E Day) should not be declared "Prisoners of War" under the Geneva Convention because of the lack of food.[34]

The CCS then cabled British Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, suggesting that the same steps be taken regarding the German surrenders in Austria, and then approved Alexander's similar request for a DEF designation, stating "in view of the difficulties regarding food and accommodation, it was so decided."[34] Eisenhower's JCS superiors ordered him to change German POWs' designation to "disarmed enemy forces" (DEF), just as British chiefs had done, redesignating their prisoners "Surrendered Enemy Personnel" (SEP).[4] Alexander then requested that the CCS let British forces use such a designation for the surrender of German forces in Italy, the CCS granted his request and the conditions of such surrenders to British commander General Sir William D. Moran almost prevented the surrenders from occurring for worried German troops.[33] The CCS submitted the DEF designations for study to the Combined Civilian Affairs Committee (CCAC), which not only concurred with the designation, but went further, suggesting that the status of all German POWs be retroactively lifted after the German surrender.[35]

By June 22, 1945, of the 7,614,914 prisoners (of all designations) held in British and American camps, 4,209,000 were soldiers captured before the German capitulation and considered "POWs".[24] This leaves approximately 3.4 million DEFs and SEPs, who according to Allied agreements, were supposed to be split between Britain and the United States.[24] As of June 16, 1945, the U.S., France, and the U.K. held a combined total of 7,500,000 German POWs and DEFs. By June 18, the U.S. had discharged 1,200,000 of these.[36]


After the DEF designations were made in the early summer of 1945, the International Red Cross was not permitted to fully involve itself in the situation in camps containing German prisoners (POWs, DEFs or SEPs), some of which initially were Rheinwiesenlager transit camps, and even though conditions in them gradually improved, "even the most conservative estimates put the death toll in French camps alone at over 16,500 in 1945".[37]

The Geneva Convention was amended. Articles 6 and 7 of the Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Geneva July 27, 1929, had covered what may and may not be done to a prisoner on capture. The wording of the 1949 Third Geneva Convention was intentionally altered from that of the 1929 convention so that soldiers who "fall into the power" following surrender or mass capitulation of an enemy are now protected as well as those captured in the course of fighting.[38][39]

Most captives of the Americans and the British were released by the end of 1948, and most of those in French and Soviet captivity were released by the end of 1949, although the last big release occurred in 1956. According to the section of the German Red Cross dealing with tracing the captives, the ultimate fate of 1,300,000 German POWs in Allied custody (mostly Soviet) is still unknown; they are still officially listed as missing.[40]


In his 1989 book Other Losses, James Bacque claimed that Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower deliberately caused the death of 790,000 German captives in internment camps through disease, starvation and cold from 1944 to 1949. Bacque charges that some of these deaths were DEF-designated soldiers that could receive harsh treatment because they did not fall within the Geneva Convention protections. Stephen Ambrose, the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, also organized a conference of eight British, American, and German historians, which disputed Bacque's claims.[41][42][43]

Niall Ferguson wrote that Bacque's "calculations grossly exaggerate both the number of Germans the Americans captured and their mortality".[44] However, Ambrose concedeed that "we as Americans can't duck the fact that terrible things happened. And they happened at the end of a war we fought for decency and freedom, and they are not excusable".[45]

Historical precedents[edit]

After defeating Poland in 1939, and also after the defeat of Yugoslavia two years later, many troops from those nations were "released" from POW status and turned into a "virtual conscript labor force".[37]

Germany had either broken up or absorbed the countries in question, and the German argument was that neither country remained as a recognized state to which the POWs could still claim to belong, and that since belonging to a recognized nation was a formal prerequisite for POW status, "former Polish and Yugoslav military personnel were not legally prisoners of war".[37][46]

The Allied argument for retracting Geneva convention protection from the German soldiers was similar to that of Nazi Germany vis à vis Polish and Yugoslav soldiers; using the "disappearance of the Third Reich to argue that the convention no longer operated-that POW status did not apply to the vast majority who had passed into captivity on and after May 5".[37] The motive was twofold: both an unwillingness to follow the Geneva convention now that the threat of German reprisals against Allied POWs was gone, and also they were "to an extent unable to meet the high standards of the Geneva code" for the large number of captured Germans.[37]

Following the surrender of Italy to the Allies in September 1943, German forces took around one million Italian military personnel prisoner. These personnel were designated "Italian military internees" and not granted the rights of POWs under the Geneva Conventions, as the German government claimed that they were not POWs as the two countries had not been at war. This continued, despite Italy’s subsequent declaration of war on Germany on October 13th, 1943.[47] Approximately 600,000 of the captured Italians were subsequently transported to Germany and required to work as forced labourers in generally harsh conditions.[48][49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note: it is said for German troops in Northern Italy, not to be confused with its British equivalent, "Surrendered Enemy Personnel."
  2. ^ In April, the War Department approved treating all members of the German armed forces captured after the declaration of ECLIPSE conditions or the cessation of hostilities, and all prisoners of war not evacuated from Germany immediately after the conclusion of hostilities, as "disarmed enemy forces," and specified that such captives would be responsible for feeding and maintaining themselves. The ruling did not apply to war criminals, wanted individuals, and security suspects, who were to be imprisoned, fed, and controlled by Allied forces. The War Department further directed that no public declaration was to be made on the status of the German armed forces. (Smith p. 93)
  3. ^ ICRC Commentaries on the Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War Article 5 "One category of military personnel which was refused the advantages of the Convention in the course of the Second World War comprised German and Japanese troops who fell into enemy hands on the capitulation of their countries in 1945 (6). The German capitulation was both political, involving the dissolution of the Government, and military whereas the Japanese capitulation was only military. Moreover, the situation was different since Germany was a party to the 1929 Convention and Japan was not. Nevertheless, the German and Japanese troops were considered as surrendered enemy personnel and were deprived of the protection provided by the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. The Allied authorities took the view that unconditional surrender amounted to giving a free hand to the Detaining Powers as to the treatment they might give to military personnel who fell into their hands following the capitulation. In fact, these men were frequently in a very different situation from that of their comrades who had been taken prisoner during the hostilities, since very often they had not even gone into [p.76] action against the enemy. Although on the whole the treatment given to surrendered enemy personnel was fairly favourable, it presented certain disadvantages: prisoners in this category had their personal property impounded without any receipt being given; they had no spokesman to represent them before the Detaining Power; officers received no pay and other ranks, although compelled to work, got no wages; in any penal proceedings they had the benefit of none of the guarantees provided by the Convention. Most important of all, these men had no legal status and were at the entire mercy of the victor. Fortunately, they were well treated but this is no reason to overlook the fact that they were deprived of any status and all guarantees."
  4. ^ a b c d e Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 9
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 11
  6. ^ a b Farquharson 1985, pp. 16, 28–29, 252
  7. ^ a b c d Farquharson 1985, pp. 1–29, 44–60, 252
  8. ^ a b c d Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 7
  9. ^ Farquharson 1985, p. 25
  10. ^ a b Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 2
  11. ^ Marrus 1985, pp. 283–313
  12. ^ Wyman 1989
  13. ^ a b Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 4
  14. ^ a b c Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 12
  15. ^ a b Tent 1992, p. 199
  16. ^ Tent 1992, p. 100
  17. ^ ICRC in WW II: German prisoners of war in Allied hands International Red Cross 2 February 2005
  18. ^ Balabkins, Nicholas (1964). Germany under direct controls: economic aspects of industrial disarmament, 1945-1948. Pages 113 - 125: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0-8135-0449-0.CS1 maint: location (link)
  19. ^ Overmans 1992, p. 144
  20. ^ a b c Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 5
  21. ^ Ratza 1973, pp. 54, 173–185
  22. ^ Overmans 1992, p. 146
  23. ^ Bischoff 1992, p. 217
  24. ^ a b c d Overmans 1992, p. 147
  25. ^ a b c Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, p. 6
  26. ^ Ziemke, p. 291
  27. ^ a b c Villa 1992, p. 58
  28. ^ a b c Villa 1992, p. 57
  29. ^ Department of State 1966, p. 172, 191-192,210
  30. ^ Villa 1992, p. 59
  31. ^ a b c Villa 1992, p. 60
  32. ^ a b c d Villa 1992, p. 62
  33. ^ a b Villa 1992, p. 63
  34. ^ a b Villa 1992, p. 61
  35. ^ Villa 1992, p. 64
  36. ^ United States Department of State / Foreign relations of the United States : diplomatic papers : the Conference of Berlin (the Potsdam Conference), 1945 Volume II (1945) p. 765
  37. ^ a b c d e S. P. MacKenzie "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II", The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep., 1994), pp. 487-520.
  38. ^ ICRC Commentaries on the Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War Article 5 "One category of military personnel which was refused the advantages of the Convention in the course of the Second World War comprised German and Japanese troops who fell into enemy hands on the capitulation of their countries in 1945 (6). The German capitulation was both political, involving the dissolution of the Government, and military, whereas the Japanese capitulation was only military. Moreover, the situation was different since Germany was a party to the 1929 Convention and Japan was not. Nevertheless, the German and Japanese troops were considered as surrendered enemy personnel and were deprived of the protection provided by the 1929 Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War."
  39. ^ ICRC Commentaries on the Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War Article 5 "Under the present provision, the Convention applies to persons who "fall into the power" of the enemy. This term is also used in the opening sentence of Article 4, replacing the expression "captured" which was used in the 1929 Convention (Article 1). It indicates clearly that the treatment laid down by the Convention is applicable not only to military personnel taken prisoner in the course of fighting, but also to those who fall into the hands of the adversary following surrender or mass capitulation."
  40. ^ stern-Serie: Besiegt, befreit, besetzt - Deutschland 1945-48
  41. ^ Bischoff & Ambrose 1992, pp. 21–3
  42. ^ Bischoff 1992, p. 201
  43. ^ Villa 1992, p. 53
  44. ^ Niall Ferguson "Prisoner Taking and Prisoner Killing in the Age of Total War: Towards a Political Economy of Military Defeat" War in History 2004 11 (2) 148–192
  45. ^ Ike's Revenge? Time Magazine, Monday, Oct. 2, 1989
  46. ^ Further referenced in footnote to: J. Wilhelm, Can the Status of Prisoners of War Be Altered? (Geneva, 1953) p.10
  47. ^ O'Reilly, Charles T. (2001). Forgotten Battles : Italy's War of Liberation, 1943-1945. Lanham: Lexington Books. p. 68. ISBN 0739101951.
  48. ^ Plato, edited by Alexander von; Leh, Almut; Thonfeld, Christoph (2010). Hitler's Slaves Life Stories of Forced Labourers in Nazi-Occupied Europe. New York: Berghahn Books, Inc. p. 5. ISBN 978-1845459901.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  49. ^ Crew, David, ed. (2012). Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945. Routledge. p. 232. ISBN 978-1134891078.
  50. ^ Note: Captive Italian nationals who were not designated as prisoner of war were alternatively also designated as "personnel in custody of the Government of the United States of America and its agencies,". An alternative name given was also Italian surrendered enemy personnel


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • FRANCE'S DEADLY MINE-CLEARING MISSIONS Surviving German POWs Seek Compensation. Georg Bönisch, Der Spiegel Online, international edition Aug. 25, 2008.
  • Germans forced to run across minefields ("Tvang tyskere til å løpe over minefelt") Video Extract from Norwegian documentary on Germans forced to clear minefields in Norway. Note: German protests that forcing POWs to clear mines was against international law, article 32 of the Geneva conventions, were rejected with the assertion that the Germans were not POWs; they were disarmed forces who had surrendered unconditionally ("avvæpnede styrker som hadde overgitt seg betingelsesløst"). Mine clearance reports received by the Allied Forces Headquarters state: June 21, 1945; 199 dead and 163 wounded Germans; 3 Norwegians and 4 British wounded. The last registration, from August 29, 1945 lists 392 wounded and 275 dead Germans. Mine-clearance was then for unknown reasons halted for close to a year before recommencing under better conditions during June–September 1946. This time many volunteered thanks to good pay, and death rates were much lower, possibly in part thanks to a deal permitting them medical treatment at Norwegian hospitals. Jonas Tjersland, Tyske soldater brukt som mineryddere VG, 08-04-2006.