United States Army Air Force (USAAF) Second Lieutenant (2nd Lt.) Carl A. Groesbeck was a B-17 Flying Fortress navigator with the First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Roy Ranck crew assigned to the 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 368th Bomb Squadron, based at Thurleigh, England, in WWII.
The Ranck crew’s first combat mission was October 8, 1943, to Bremen, Germany. The primary target was the German aircraft factory there. Due to a thick smoke screen obscuring the target, the bombs were dropped over a secondary target. After the raid, the B-17 formation encountered Luftwaffe fighter planes and heavy flak. The Ranck B-17 made it back to Thurleigh but was badly damaged with so many holes in the fuselage that Carl said it looked like a sieve. The B-17 was scrapped. Miraculously, no member of the 10 man crew was seriously injured.
The second combat mission for the Ranck crew was the next day on October 9, 1943, to Gdynia, Poland, a city in the Polish Corridor on the Baltic Sea. At that date in time it was the deepest B-17 penetration mission into the European Theater. Gdynia was almost 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Berlin. The city had been under German control since the start of WWII in September 1939. The target that day was the German Naval, industrial, and port facilities.
The 306th BG B-17s arrived at Gdynia about the same time as a formation of USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers from another base in England. The B-17 formation did a 360 degree turn and dropped the bombs on the second run over the target. As the B-17s departed the area numerous German Messerschmitt and Junkers fighter planes were in pursuit. The Ranck B-17 was badly damaged in the attack. The aircraft dropped out of the formation, an engine was on fire, and it was flying too slowly to outrun the fighters. Right waist gunner Sergeant Douglas Farris was killed in action.
Flying over the Baltic Sea on the return route from Gdynia, pilot 1st Lt. Ranck was able to fly the B-17 to a Danish island called Samso in the Kattegat Sea east of the Denmark Jutland Peninsula. The crew bailed out over land, but their landings were spread out over the island. 2nd Lt. Groesbeck landed near B-17 radio operator Technical Sergeant William Skahan who broke a leg when landing. While tending to the broken leg, Carl was arrested by German soldiers. He was led away from the area and hoped the radio operator would be taken to a medical facility. 2nd Lt. Groesbeck was now a prisoner of war (POW). He was 24 years old. The date was October 9, 1943.
2nd Lt. Groesbeck spent his first night as a POW in a Samso farm chicken coop guarded by a German soldier. The farmer’s wife brought him some food that evening.
On Day 2 he was reunited with B-17 Flight Engineer Staff Sergeant (S/Sgt.) Harry Hall. They were transported by boat to Copenhagen, Denmark. Carl was surprised when they were billeted in a luxury hotel in the city. He tells of walking into the hotel lobby while a man in a tuxedo was playing the piano. They had a room on the fifth floor. One German guard said he would buy them a razor and soap to get cleaned up if they gave him some money. 2nd Lt. Groesbeck said the American flight crews had been told not to carry money with them. That was when S/Sgt. Hall pulled out a “ten spot” (American ten dollar bill) from his shoe. They got cleaned up, and then a German officer offered them “the run of the town” if they promised not to try and escape. Carl refused the offer, and that night a German sentry took their shoes and stood guard outside their hotel room.
2nd Lt. Groesbeck and S/Sgt. Hall were separated on Day 3. That was the last time Carl knew anything about the crew until WWII ended. [The nine Ranck crew members who bailed out did survive the war.] Carl was transported by truck to a nearby German air base, taken by ferry to Germany, and then travelled by train to a Dulag Luft. It was Day 4 as a POW. [A Dulag Luft was a transit and interrogation center for newly captured Allied airmen. There were several facilities in Germany as well as German occupied countries. After interrogation the prisoners were sent to permanent camps.] Carl spent about a week at the Dulag Luft and was then transported in a standing room only cattle car with other POWs to what would be his permanent camp at Stalag Luft 3 in Sagan, Germany [now Zagan, Poland]. Sagan was about 90 miles (145 kilometers) southeast of Berlin.
Stalag Luft 3 opened April 11, 1942, and expanded to include North, East, South, and West Compounds. There were prisons within a prison. It housed Allied airmen who at one time totaled 10,949 men. The camp had recreational activities, a library, theater, radio station, a band and orchestra, religious services, two newspapers, and prisoners planning escapes.
The camp was intentionally built on sandy soil with the idea being it would be difficult for the prisoners to dig escape tunnels. That did not seem to make a difference to many of the Allied airmen imprisoned there. The most famous of the escape attempts was on March 24, 1944. It became known after WWII as The Great Escape with the story being told in a book (1950) and a movie (1963).
Carl spent his time trying to keep busy, answering roll calls, attending Catholic Mass when he could, and sometimes acted as a security guard for tunnel diggers. I once asked him how he lived through that chapter in his life. He said his faith in God and an optimism about life were a great help to him.
After Carl’s nearly 16 months as a POW, on January 27, 1945, he and other prisoners of Stalag Luft 3 saw what he would describe as a “blood red” night sky. The Soviet Army was advancing west and getting closer. Artillery exchanges between the Russians and the Germans and burning structures in the distance lit up the sky. The Germans decided to move Allied prisoners west into Germany. Prisoners from Stalag Luft 3 (and other POW camps) were forced to march west in what was one of the coldest winters in Europe. Temperatures were as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 25 degrees Celsius). Over 80,000 prisoners made what became known as “The March.” [Although the numbers of men who died during the forced marches that winter vary, the number of US and Commonwealth POWs is estimated to be 3,500.]
Carl and a group of men numbering about 250 were forced to start their march just before midnight on that January 27th night. They had only the clothes they were wearing and any food they had stored in their living quarters and were able to carry. Carl remembers marching through six towns and the POWs seeking shelter where they could when they were allowed to rest. He recalls the first night after the march began that he and other prisoners packed as many men as they could into an abandoned German Lutheran Church. Carl shared what food he had (a box of raisins) with a fellow POW. There was always the threat of Allied air forces attacking them as they could have been mistaken for retreating German soldiers. At one point along the march the prisoners were put in cattle cars and taken to their destination point at Stalag 7A near Moosburg in Bavaria, Germany. They arrived at the camp on February 2, 1945. The distance travelled from Stalag Luft 3 to Stalag 7A was approximately 390 miles (626 kilometers).
Other groups of POWs from Stalag Luft 3 and other camps continued to arrive.
Carl spent the last few months of WWII at Stalag 7A. The camp was originally built to house 10,000 prisoners. When it was liberated on April 29, 1945, by the United States (US) Army 14th Armored Division, there were nearly 80,000 POWs from many different Allied countries. General George C. Patton made a visit to the camp.
WWII was over for Carl. He had survived.
May 8, 1945, WWII officially ended in Europe. Carl was ill at that time and remained in Germany at Stalag 7A undergoing treatment for about two weeks before being evacuated to Camp Lucky Strike (one of the US camps in France for repatriated servicemen). He recalls food portions in the mess hall being rationed for the POWs as they slowly regained weight and strength. Food portions were determined by the color of the ticket they presented. Too much food too soon could have killed them. And at Camp Lucky Strike he saw B-17 Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Hall again.
Carl returned to the US by ship. He went back to his hometown of Ottawa, Illinois. Carl continued his education, married, and is the father of five children. He attended Stalag Luft 3 POW reunions over the years and kept in contact with other fellow prisoners.
But that is not the end of the story. The German plane that shot down Carl’s B-17 on October 9, 1943, was a Junkers JU 88. A crew member Heinz Philipp had written down the B-17 tail number that day. After WWII, with the help of the US Air Force, Heinz learned the names of the B-17 crew and contacted Carl. Carl later visited him in Germany, and they stayed in contact until Heinz’s death.
Last December Carl celebrated his 98th birthday. He still has that sense of optimism and faith in God.
Thank you 2nd Lt. Groesbeck for your service in WWII.
A special thank you to Carl Groesbeck for sharing his wartime experiences with me and for all the time he spent answering my many questions while doing research for this story. The story and photographs are posted with his and his family’s permission.
Thank you to the Witness to War Foundation which is dedicated to historical preservation of the stories of war veterans. Martin Madert interviewed Carl in 2013 and provided me a copy of the interview which I used in researching this story. For further information on the Witness to War Foundation visit http://www.witnesstowar.org/.
Information about the WWII 306th BG Historical Association can be found at http://306bg.us/. Association Historian Cliff Deets is always an invaluable resource for BG history.