Posted - 01/08/2014 : 15:33:10
| This is a short history of the Rennes Military Hospital (AKA EPS Rennes, Frontstalag 221 W, Stalag 221, EPS Rennes Zweilager) which held a number of the 90th Division wounded Prisoners of War.
Rennes Military Hospital was set up by the Germans in a school building on Rue Jean Mace' in 1940. Initially it held British and French Colonial (Senegalese) wounded from the France campaign of 1940 and Tuberculosis patients from Indian troops captured in the desert campaign. Wounded commandos and sailors from the St. Nazaire raid in March 1942 also were treated here prior to being moved to permanent POW camps.
The school building had been built in 1916 and was used in WWI as a convalescence hospital by the British during that war. The school building is still there used as a High School and was extensively renovated in 1997. The Rennes Military Hospital was known under several aliases (EPS Rennes, Frontstalag 221 W, Lazarett Rennes) during WWII and is often confused with another Prisoner of War (POW) Holding Camp on the southwest edge of Rennes called Lazarett 133 or Frontstalag 221.
Across the narrow street from that school was the Rennes Gestapo Headquarters. In the backyard, which is now a playground, the Germans had air raid shelters dug underground. The stairways, rooms etc. inside are quite modern and even stand-up to today's standards. The Hospital was primarily used for seriously-wounded American and British airborne POWs, but there were also some from regular infantry divisions in there. Approximately 1300 wounded POWs transited or stayed the Hospital prior to liberation treated by some 90 Allied and French medical staff.
The medical staff consisted of 7 American, British, and French doctors aided by about 50 full and part-time personnel, nurses and nuns who speak little or no English plus some support staff, and 78 soldiers who were aid men or orderlies in their units. Medical attention was fair but lacked sufficient medications, sanitation was also fair with no infestation of Lice but flies were a problem, and food was unbelievably poor and the staff was badly overworked. About half of the injured leave their beds to assist the staff with the many of the bedridden patients who are immobilized, paralyzed or blinded.
Regardless of this there was a POW barber in that place, running water (the tap water was safe to drink), a laundry service (albeit with very limited soap), a semblance of showers- pipes with holes in them, at intervals, which squirted-out water, flushing toilets, etc. This was in a girls' school which was modern for the times and only seriously-wounded Allied POWs were sent there.
Professor, Doctor Eugene Marquis was chief consultant and operating surgeon before the Allied doctors came and remained in that capacity until the Americans took Rennes. He gave his services constantly – working daily from 0830 – 1230 hrs and from 1530 – 2030 hrs. He saw every patient every day and brought female nursing staff into the hospital and housed them at his office down the street; he also did his best to get food and extra medical supplies for the patients. He was supported by at least two other French doctors and several support staff.
Major Malcom Oxley RAMC, and Captain Douglas Nelson RAMC, were the British military doctors which supported the Hospital working on Allied wounded. At first a Captain Ernest Gruenberg of the 101st Airborne was the US doctor. Captain Gruenberg was Jewish and when this was discovered in late June he was sent away and Captain Lester Kolmann of the 29th Infantry Division, was brought in as his replacement. Germans were fascinated by the Allied medical techniques using blood plasma transfusion, penicillin and sulfa drugs to which they had no equivalent training or medication.
Major Phil Gage, XO of 1/501 PIR was the ranking US officer at the Hospital and who had lost his hand in the fighting near St Georges de Bohon on D-day morning. The British had several different ranking officers during the period who rotated out to the Stalag so eventually Major Oxley was the default Senior Officer.
The Hospital was an offshoot or Annex (Ausstelle) of Frontstalag 221 based in Bordeaux and was labeled Frontstalag 221 W in POW correspondence. The Germans started with a Captain Stabsarzt Lummp in charge but he quickly became overwhelmed and the POWs suffered from his lack of administrative skills. Lumpp’s attitude was to take the easy way out in the face of difficulties. He seemed afraid to make a fuss with higher command. In late June Major Doctor Oberstabsarzt Ernst Enzinger arrived to take over and things got better but were still bad.
Guards in Hospital and Frontstalag 133 in Rennes mostly Austrian, Polish/Latvian and elderly with bad morale and appeared to be waiting to be taken prisoner by Allied forces and reiterated their wish for the war to end. They were most likely from the Landesschuetzen Battalion 907 which formed on the border of Germany and the Protectorates of Boehmen and Maehren.
There appear to have been German wounded kept for a while at the Hospital as well. They were housed on the third floor and were treated by German doctors and French staff.
There were at least three French and one Polish Doctor POWs looking after the wounded Senegalese since 1940. Before the casualties from D-Day and later arrived the hospital was also used as a Tuberculosis Sanatorium for British Indian POWs. These men were cared for by a group of 5 captured Indian medics who later stayed on to treat the Allied wounded.
Soap ration was a bar 3” X 1-1/2” X 1/2” per ten men for a fortnight and that had to satisfy all requirements, personal and laundry.
The Hospital started off with two clean sheets per bed, Stabsarzt Lummp told the staff to wash them when soiled, but gave no additional soap to do so. After Lummp had been superseded by a Major Oberstabsartz Enzinger some improvement was made in this matter, and about five pairs of sheets could be replaced per ward every week.
The Hospital daily routine was, roll call at 0730 hrs and breakfast consisting of Ersatz tea and a piece of the issue bread which was usually a quarter loaf per man (sometimes only a sixth) and often green and moldy. Lunch at 1230 hrs consisting of stew, and stew again for supper at 1800; finishing the day’s work with roll call at 2000 hrs.
The Hospital Operation
The majority of the wounded reached the Hospital 4 to 5 days after being wounded. They had all been treated previously by the Germans. In most cases, primary excision of wounds; packing with sulpha drugs; splinting of fractures by Germans prior to arrival. In most instances of fractures of the lower extremity, travelling casts had been applied of which most were made of concrete not plaster. Each patient was accompanied by some form of medical document with much the same details as Allied medical paperwork, including injection of morphine, injection of anti-tetanus and in some instances anti-gas gangrene serum.
The majority of the wounded reached the Hospital in a grossly infected state – a few patients arrived with maggots crawling over them. The casualties were either naked, or half clad, and all had the dust of battle upon them. The reason for this seemed to be that clothing had been cut away from the wounds, and had not been replaced. Hospital clothing such as shirts, pajamas, etc. was not supplied, and the staff had nothing to give them when they arrived. All complaints and demands for some sort of clothing were replied with “impossible c’est la guerre” by the German administrator. A number of POWs arrived that should have been stabilized before transport and subsequently died or had complications from their wounds.
Seldom was a proper ambulance used to bring Allied men to the hospital. It was generally the same vehicle, a coach with seats removed – straw scattered on the floor. Obvious stretcher cases were seldom on stretchers, with the result that on some occasions the primary cause of death was the rough jolting received by the man in the vehicle. Wounded generally had to do a 5/6 hour journey to get to the hospital. They travelled without orderlies and received no attention en route. They were always extremely thirsty upon arrival.
Allied doctors complained to the German Administrators many times but this led to no improvement in the following conditions.
1. Many men had to remain in the clothes in which they reached the hospital, or give up soiled garments to give to naked men.
2. Sheets at first remained soiled, or were washed without soap – later this became easier, when sheets were taken off less serious bed cases, and given only to serious cases, and these could be replaced at five pairs per ward per week.
3. Washing of patients had to be done in cold or lukewarm water and little or no soap, hot water was often scarce, although there are showers in the court yard for walking wounded.
4. Lavatory accommodation and flushing water to deal with bed utensils was insufficient most of the time.
The Gestapo HQ across the street got into trouble if their victims died on their hands – so they brought them across to the Hospital and put them in a cell with an orderly outside. The cell had no windows but could be lighted from outside and stank. Occasionally “Lummp” who hated the Gestapo would ask the French professor Marquis to try and do something for the man if he thought there was any chance of survival. Otherwise no one was allowed to visit the cell.
Discipline among the POWs in the POW hospital was of a very high order. With the Gestapo Headquarters right across the street POWs would tease the SS guards about the progress of the war. Once these guards umbrage and took a pot-shot at some of the patients leaning out of the windows teasing them. The German Administrator then issued an order to restrain patients from going to the windows. On 1 August the Gestapo left their headquarters hurriedly leaving a quantity of wine and liquor and radio sets behind them. The French brought us the wine and food stocks they found there and also the radio sets which were sent to England.
While the POWs were there at the hospital the city was under bomb raids and some bombs fell close to the hospital but no one was injured. The wounded POWs and nurses in the Hospital sweated out a bomb landing on the POW hospital, because it was right across the narrow street from where the planes were attacking. This motivated ambulatory Allied PWs to flee the hospital a few days before Patton's 4th AD and 8th ID arrived to liberate Rennes. Some brave French civilians hid those Kriegies in their cellars until Patton's forces arrived. On liberation day, some rather brutal retaliation was publicly carried-out on local collaborators, both male and female, in the city center, near the Hotel de Ville and several former POWs were witness to the events.
During the period prior to the liberation there were almost daily air raids by fighter aircraft on the rail yard which was about 750 meters away from the hospital. Anti-aircraft shell fragments frequently rained down on the hospital. There were another 7 raids using 50 or more bombers on the town killing approximately 300 civilians and one hitting a psychiatric hospital killing 62 patients.
Bread particularly, but food in general was very short, and guards had to be placed on the passages leading to the kitchen to prevent hungry walking wounded from snatching raw vegetables. Two hospital cats went into the pot early on and rats were hunted for adding meat to stews. There was no tobacco for the first few weeks. The French POWs were on a better ration scale than the new Allied POWs and they could also buy food outside because they were on parole.
Food was lacking of quality and quantity, its unsuitability for some of the wounded and for the orderlies who had to do the hard work. When Allied doctors first arrived at the hospital the calculated calorific value of the food was about 600 calories, which was about 1/8th of the standard for a normal man. Eventually it rose to estimated caloric value of 1200. To a great extent the food could not be supplemented except now and then – as no Red Cross parcels came through to the Hospital. Objections were made by the German Administrator to the Allied doctors buying food from the outside with what little money they had – or on I.O.U.s which doctors promised would be met by the Allies upon entry into Rennes.
Typical menu at the Hospital.
Stew – Potatoes, onions, carrots
Allied POWs did get a few things from the Senegalese POWs (Mostly plate leavings) and the local Red Cross did what it could to send in some things, i.e. 1000 eggs monthly, 40 litres of milk per day (usually ready to spoil), some jam, butter and cheese occasionally. Grateful thanks are due to the Red Cross of Rennes for what could be provided. The quality of the food was at first really bad, latterly potatoes and meat improved a little – but mouldy bread was quite usual. The Germans eventually said the POWs should cut off the mould and the Germans would replace by an equivalent weight in good bread. Replacement took some days and an already short bread ration was reduced by the amount of mould cut off each day. At first the same quantity of food was issued for 350 patients as for 200 patients even when the patient population increased to over 600 rations were apportioned as if only 500 patients were there. An excuse for the amount of food was made of lack of cooking utensils – although these were subsequently found to be actually in the hospital grounds. Eventually Major Enzinger appears to have falsified the personnel count to 750 so that additional rations were provided.
When the fall of Rennes seemed imminent, Major Enzinger arranged for food to be looted from the Gestapo Headquarters opposite (and what was secured was enormous and included Red Cross packages). When it was clear supplies of food would not reach the hospital much longer – and in fact they did cease on 1 Aug 44, the French Staff and Allied aid men continued to loot the Gestapo HQ. Furthermore Major Enzinger would not clear off when he had orders to quit before he had handed over the hospital to Col. Poirier, who was from the district Ministry of Health (MOH) and who placed Lieutenant Jean Fourier in the hospital as his representative.
After the US Army breakout from Normandy Rennes was attacked by VIII Corps, 4th Armored Division Combat Command A (CCA)and eventually 8th Infantry Division's 13th Infantry Regiment. CCA attacked north Rennes 1 August 1944 but were repulsed by small force from 91st Division plus 2 replacement battalions and Luftwaffe 88s. The Americans who had just liberated Avranches were stopped at the doors of Rennes by a German anti-aircraft battery. In a few minutes, ten tanks and light vehicles are destroyed. About fifty soldiers are killed or wounded and a score are made prisoners.
In Rennes itself, mixed groups of German troops, mainly remnants of the 91st Luftlande-Division and Luftwaffe Flak units, prepared their escape and destroyed equipment and files. On 2 August 13th Infantry ordered forward to attack but doesn’t arrive until evening 3 August. Members of the French Resistance had slipped through the lines and tell the attackers of the exact position of Gestapo headquarters in Rennes. They did not say that it was just opposite the hospital where American and British prisoners of war were held.
On 3 August CCA sweeps around Rennes to south-east almost surrounding town. The 1st battalion of 13th Infantry gains foothold in northern part of Rennes in evening 3 August. When the rest of the 13th Infantry Regiment of 8th Infantry Division arrive they begin to bombard the city not knowing of the POW Hospital, but fortunately there were few injuries. A French doctor, probably Dr. Marquis or one of his staff, infiltrate the lines to tell the Americans outside the town about the prisoner hospital and the 8th Division artillery ceased shelling. Members of the Resistance and the POWs themselves raided the headquarters upon spotting the hurried departure of the Gestapo on 2 August and took the food there to feed the malnourished prisoners.
German’s receive permission to withdraw 2300 hours and leave town by 0300 hours 4 August. Morning 4 August 13th Infantry attacks in force unopposed into Rennes. The German troops slipped away during the night towards Saint-Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire. The only ones who stayed behind were ‘a handful of drunks’. They were easily rounded up by the American infantry on 4 August, ‘but they had to be protected from the French’. The remaining population – some 60,000 out of 120,000 – surged on to the streets to welcome the Americans, who rushed medical units to the hospital. ‘One paratrooper patient with a bad face wound came up and shook my hands and cried,’ a captain reported. Soldiers immediately gave whatever they could, including their own combat kit, to those whose uniforms had fallen to pieces.
As the Americans approached the city the Germans in charge of the hospital decided not to evacuate the POWs, but merely packed up their belongings and records told the staff to take over and be picked up by the Americans. After burning the hospital records they said “Aufwiedersehen” and took off. The Hospital was under fire as the Americans troops advanced, the hospital was hit several times by small artillery shells or fragments.
The Red Cross came in the afternoon of 4 August with a doctor from the 8th Infantry Division Medical Company and reported the state of the prisoners to their Headquarters. The Division Headquarters made arrangements for the 35th Evacuation Hospital to come and take care of the men. In the meantime the 8th Infantry Division Medical Company sent every available man to help at the Hospital.
The 35th Evacuation Hospital was moved from Carentan to Rennes, Brittany, on 4 August and after an all-night ride in 2 ½ ton 6x6 trucks set up and went into operation in a field on the north side of Rennes at 1130 5 August 1944, caring for some 600 liberated Allied Prisoners of War, most of whom were in bad physical condition. They required a tremendous amount of care. A high percentage was orthopedic cases and the casts were found to be maggot-infested and made of concrete not plaster, posing an enormous task for the Hospital’s department. Despite the fact that the main line of resistance manned by the 8th Infantry Division ran by the front door of the 35th Hospital, the citizens of Rennes felt secure in their liberation and celebrated in the streets near the unit.
The final count of POWs treated.
655 US Troops all ranks
272 British Troops all ranks
88 Canadian Troops all ranks
1 New Zealand Pilot
1 Netherlands Navy Pilot
Of these POWs 30 US, 4 British and 2 Canadian troops died from wounds suffered. 430 wounded were moved from the hospital after treatment to the nearby Frontstalag/Lazarette 133 for continued processing through to permanent POW camps.
LTC USA (Retired)