Tale of courage as enemy attack causes 100th BG pilot to become POW at Stalag Luft III

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor's note: this is the second in a two-part series on retired Capt. Robert "Bob" Wolff, veteran of the 100th Bomb Group and World War II survivor. In case you missed it, look out for Part One, which tells the story of Wolff joining the U.S. Army Air Forces, and his journey to Thorpe Abbotts, England, from where he flew bombing missions over Germany from 1942 to 1943. During a video interview May 23, 2022, he shared more of his story about life as a prisoner-of-war at Stalag Luft III.

And so, to the final mission...

First Lt. Robert "Bob" Wolff, lead pilot of the “Wolff Pack” was, in his own words, a more infamous than famous B-17 Flying Fortress pilot within the 100th Bomb Group, based at Thorpe Abbotts, England, during World War II.

Unbeknown to him and the rest of the Wolff Pack, Sept. 16, 1943, would mark their final mission.

"Our plane had been used by another crew the day before (we got shot down), and when we went out to get on board, we were told it would take a couple more hours as the maintainers were patching up a few holes in it," recalled Wolff. "Anyway, we took off about two hours after the rest of the group did, but they were easy to find (because of the Square D displayed on their B-17 tails). We were heading toward Wales at a fairly low altitude, so as not to let the enemy know by their radar that we were on the way. Staying at a low altitude until we got offshore from the target, we then climbed to 17,000 feet – if I remember right – and were the last and lowest plane in the formation, commonly known as 'Tail-end Charlie.'"

The tail-end Charlie was considered the most vulnerable plane in a formation due to the propensity of the Luftwaffe pilots to attack formations from the rear.

The retired B-17 pilot explained that they continued to head towards the target, which was an airfield in Bordeaux, France.

Four engines… three… two… ‘pop’

"We saw that it was overcast, and not having radar to bomb with at that time, we turned toward a secondary target, which I think was the submarine pens at La Rochelle," Wolff said. "As we turned to the new target, six Messerschmitt Bf-109 aircraft suddenly appeared and fired at us, which resulted in us losing number three engine. It began running away, so we feathered that and I pushed the throttles up in order to stay in formation, as we'd dropped back and needed to catch up. About two minutes later, the number two engine began running away, so I had to feather that as well.”

Feathering propellers is when the blade pitch of the propeller is adjusted to align the propeller parallel with the direction of airflow, to reduce drag.

"At that point, I knew we couldn't stay at altitude because we couldn't keep in formation with just two engines. I pulled back a little bit and tried to keep up with the group, pointing the nose down at about 45 degrees and trying to get the plane down as close to the ground as I could – fighters don't generally want to follow you down," exclaimed Wolff. "That was the thought, anyway, but on the way down we were attacked by two of 'em ... I know we got one of 'em because I could see it going down. The other was a moot point because we couldn't be sure we got it."

He then described how they were flying low to the ground - around 50 to 100 feet up - and following what looked like a big row of eucalyptus trees on one side.

“We were heading out to sea in order to try and get back to England on two engines,” Wolff remarked. “Pretty soon, a big church steeple loomed up right in front of us and to avoid that, I made a turn to the right. By the time I got straightened out, we were heading toward a big bridge. I wasn't sure what it was, but it turned out to be a transporter bridge near Rochefort, France, so we had to make a little left turn to get away from that one.”

The crew had just made it out over the water, about two or three miles off shore, when their number four engine also started to give out.

“I heard a 'pop', then a 'pop, pop,' and the whole area was covered with flames! Apparently the engine had overheated and lost three cylinders, and the fuel was on fire coming out,” he exclaimed. “I knew a B-17 didn't fly very well on one engine, so I told the crew, 'Head for the radio room,' which is the place you gather for a water landing. We made a nice landing, if I say so myself, and the plane was floating for about 10 minutes.”

In the meantime, the crew had all bailed out of the radio room and got rid of the two rafts. Members of Wolff’s crew would later credit his outstanding flying skills for saving their lives during their evasion from enemy aircraft as well as the emergency water landing.

That sinking feeling

“I, like a nincompoop, was turning off switches on a plane that was starting to sink in the water! Finally, I had enough of that and dove out the window on the pilot's left side - which is pretty tight - but apparently I went through it with my metal helmet on and everything else! Once in the water, I climbed up on the wing and one of the dinghies came over and picked me up, and that was that,” said Wolff.

A French fishing boat approached them and they realized their rescue was imminent.

“We also knew we were probably going to meet the Germans, because there was a German patrol boat right next to the fishing boat... if I remember right, the French vessel had sails and was a 40- to 60-foot fishing boat. It's foggy in my mind, but I had a pistol on me and I didn't want to get caught with that, so I gave it to one of the guys on the fishing boat; I don't know what happened to the gun after that,” recalled Wolff.

He said that at that time, the German military did not mistreat their prisoners, though neither were they treated as heroes.

“The crew of the fishing boat took us to a little island off Rochefort, called Ile d'Aix. Our first night – Sept. 16, 1943 – was in an old stone castle, and we were in individual cells,” he said. “They had 6- or 7-foot bed with a few pieces of straw on it, there was a dirt floor at the far end –  I guess for temporary relief – and there was a big, heavy, wooden door at the other end. At about six or seven o'clock, someone would open the door and give us a plate of, well, I don't know what it was, it was sort of a soup or stew I think.”

The next morning, the French fishermen put the Wolff Pack crew back on the boat and took them over to the mainland, to a German hospital school.

“It happened to be on the other side of the row of trees that we'd flown by the day before,” said the 100th Bomb Group pilot. “We stayed there for a couple of days, with the Germans telling us how they were going to win the war. They were friendly enough, but that was probably the first time they'd seen a flyer coming in there. They had been having their dinner the night before when we came by and apparently had heard us coming and ducked down under the tables!”

Wolff explained that he and his crew stayed there for a couple of days until a bus came to take them to Paris.

50 into ‘40 and 8’

“That was my second view of the Eiffel Tower – my first had been when I flew by it and had seen the explosions going off,” he said. “We got to the railroad after about 10 days of walking, and we were put into a box car with some British (Royal Air Force) prisoners that the Germans had collected; I think there was about 40 or 50 of us in the one box car!”

He said the box cars were the same as had been used in World War I. They were nicknamed “40 and eight” as they were good for 40 people or eight horses.

“We had 50 people in our box car and you could either stand up, or crouch down with your knees under your chin and that was it, because there wasn't much room,” he said. “If everybody had taken a deep breath, it would have broken the walls of the box car down I think! But we survived.”

From there, the American and British prisoners were taken to Frankfurt, where the interviews began. Wolff said at the end of it, the officers went one way, and the enlisted went in another direction.

“While I was in Frankfurt, I walked in to be questioned, and there was a German officer – I don't remember now if he was a captain or a lieutenant – who congratulated me on being a first lieutenant. He said, 'Our records show you're a second lieutenant, so congratulations on your promotion'. He also told me that when the war was over, he was going to come back and have a drink at a hotel in San Francisco, because he knew I was born there, as well as having a record of where I went to school and everything else from before the war. It was just a file card, but apparently they had a lot of those on the people on our side of the war. When that was all over, they put us in another box car – all officers this time – and we headed for Stalag Luft III.”

Life in Stalag Luft III

Stalag Luft III was a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, situated in the German Province of Lower Silesia, near the town of Sagan (now Zagan, in Poland) about 100 miles south-east of Berlin. Captured allied Airmen were held there by the Germans. Each of its three compounds consisted of 15 single-story huts; each 10 x 12 feet bunk room slept 15 men in five triple-deck bunks. Eventually, the camp grew to around 60 acres in size and became “home” for around 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 USAAF, and about 900 officers from other Allied air forces.

“That was 'Home, Sweet Home' for the next 18 or 19 months,” Wolff recalled. “We had a radio and picked up the BBC (British radio) reports almost daily, about once a week we'd gather – with everybody keeping an eye out for the German patrols. We called them 'Goons,' which wasn't too complimentary, and if anyone saw one of them coming into the barracks, they would say 'Goona!' and that meant someone was coming to inspect, so we quickly broke up our meeting!”

The German guards accepted the nickname 'Goon,' given to them by the POWs, as they were unaware of the Allied connotation and had been told it stood for “German Officer Or Non-com.”

Wolff said having the radio and hearing information from British news reports meant they were able to keep up-to-date with some of what was going on in the outside world, They were also allowed to read German newspapers once in a while, which he said often deliberately told a completely different story to what they'd heard on the radio.

Reporting the ‘news’

“The newspapers said the Germans were advancing into Russia, but the shadows of the so-called advancing troops were on the wrong side, which indicated that they were actually retreating - at least that's what we thought at the time, and I haven't changed my mind yet!” he remarked. “But we did have enough information to know that we were moving ahead with the war and that we were winning. When they began to use the P-47s and P-51s to escort aircraft, we pretty soon took over the air war as far as that's concerned. I mean, we didn't know all about it, but we had a vague feeling that's the way it went, from what we heard on the BBC. It was very easy to be optimistic in those days, and it was a case of just waiting until it was all over - and we survived.

The senior officer at Wolff's compound was Col. Delmar Spivey, an American military officer involved with aerial gunnery systems development, air education and command structure. He later became a major-general.

“He was nice, and we really got along with the Germans,” said Wolff. “One of the 'goons' we called 'Popeye' as he'd lost an eye on the Russian front. He was maybe 40 or 50 at the time, and wasn't happy - until we told him that Popeye was a strong man back home, so he liked that. He was probably the friendliest of all the guards we met there; some of them were pretty stiff and trying to show they were superior.”

In good company

Wolff and his crew were not the only members of the soon-to-be-infamous “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group who would end up in Stalag Luft III. Within one month of their capture, Oct. 8 and 10, 1943, the 100th BG would lose an incredible 19 B-17s and more than 190 men. The survivors of these downed crews would end up joining Wolff and his crew in the German prison.

“I met more people from our group in that prison camp than I did when I was on active duty,” he remarked.

‘I’ll be Home for Christmas…’

“I remember when it was Christmas, 1944; somebody in our barracks had a phonograph and they played various songs on it. One night the lights and everything else were out, and here comes this song, 'I'll be Home for Christmas, you can count on me... '. Well, the final line says, 'If only in my dreams' and as they built up to that final line you could feel the groaning from everybody,” he chuckled. “It was really sorta funny, looking back on it, but at the time the implication was, oh my goodness!”

I had an old pair of pants (trousers) that had holes in them, which I quickly made a knapsack out of, and put as much as I could in it to take with us - most of which I've still got today,” he remarked. “I got a little Bible from the YMCA, a picture book that I made – I'm not an artist by any means, but I did what I could. It's not like I had anything else to do!

“I also got hold of a packet of flower seeds one day and planted them right outside our window in the little garden there, so we had pansies - I took one of those out, and still have it in my book from almost 80 years ago! We survived – it wasn't pleasant, but we made it,” he said.

The retired B-17 pilot said on an average day at Stalag Luft III, the German soldiers got them up at around 6 a.m. and took the prisoners out to count them. He said the prisoners were broken up into groups of eight people, called “combines,” which made it easier to prepare food. There were 20 to 30 combines in each barracks, and the four “Wolff Pack” officers teamed up with four others.

Wooden bread and other ‘delicacies’

“After we went back in, we would fix breakfast and clean up. Sometimes after breakfast, somebody would go over to the cook house and come back with a dish pan of cooked barley, or whatever food they were gonna give us. Another person would go and pick up two loaves of bread, or whatever we were allotted that day,” Wolff recalled. “Apparently - and I know this for a fact –  it was made with a lot of wood sawdust to fill it out, because the one time I went over there and got a loaf of bread, it had about a 3- or 4-inch splinter of wood baked into the bottom of it! That convinced me they were using something other than just flour to make it with; but we all survived on it.

“Once in a while we'd also get something called 'blood sausage' – I don't know what the meat was, but believe me, the blood was right there! On a later trip to Germany, well after the war, one of the little towns we were in was having a fair and there was a big cart with all kinds of meat. I asked the guy if he sold blood sausage, and he said, 'Ja' and gave me a sample - yeah, that was it!” he laughed. “It was a staple they used sometimes.”

Wolff continued that occasionally they would be given some other “delicacy”. They didn't get a lot of fresh vegetables – and what little they did get came out of a can or various parcels they received, more often than not from Canada or England.

Not the greatest escape plan

“I remember on Thanksgiving we opened up a whole can of spam, which as I recall came in a round can in those days. That was our 'turkey' for Thanksgiving - for eight people!” he said. “We'd also get powdered milk called 'Klim' - that's 'milk' spelled backwards - and we'd make that then use the tin can it came it to make dishes or pans, or whatever, out of the metal. We saved most of the cans and did stuff with them to make life a little more normal. There was a privy, or outhouse, which was abandoned - nobody used it for anything. I thought, well here's a way to maybe start a tunnel... it was paved with 1- foot tiles. So I dug a tile up, left it in place then came back and made a tin pan for it to fit in. I had the brilliant idea that we were going to have a spot here for a tunnel! Well, I put it back in place and the next day I went there and they'd found it and taken it out – that was the end of my experience of trying to escape.”

He said earlier that year, in March 1944, there had been a mass escape of Allied soldiers from Stalag Luft III - later known as The Great Escape after being immortalized in a movie in 1963 – when hundreds of men put their lives on the line with the goal of enjoying a taste of freedom and demonstrating their will to resist Hitler's tyranny. In the words of RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, whose plan it was for the mass escape, “Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug - 'Tom, Dick and Harry.' One will succeed!” And one of those did – though Wolff's later attempt was rather less successful, and he wasn't surprised by that.

“It tempered down the idea of trying to get out, and to my knowledge, there weren't any other escapes from our camp,” said Wolff. “We could see some Russians at an adjoining camp, as well as somebody digging up potatoes, but that was about it. Once in a while, some high-ranking official would come by into the camp, look around and leave, but we didn't have much to do with them.”

“All I know is, right now, with this virus going around, it brings back a lot of the times when I thought, 'When is this thing gonna end?' I get the same feeling now, and so my wife and I don't leave home very often,” he said. “It's sort of like prison camp, but with a lot of extra benefits,” he said, laughing.

It was Jan. 28, 1945, Wolff explained, when they were moved from Stalag Luft III and realized the war was finally coming to an end. The prisoners were then transferred to Stalag VII-A, Moosburg, which was the largest prisoner-of-war camp in Nazi Germany during World War II.

“Our camp was about 100 miles southeast of Berlin, and we could hear Berlin getting bombed all the time. The Germans were forced to move us because the Russians were approaching; we were the ‘bargaining chips’ that the Germans hoped would ease their terms of surrender, although by this time they knew they would not win the war. Actually, no one wins a war – we all lose,” he said. “We were marched through the snow for almost eight days. One night we were in a church, then a barn, followed by another night in a brick factory, where we appreciated the warmth. Another night we were in some kind of barracks – a number of us became ill, but because we were moved out early the next morning, so we didn’t have to clean it up. As we went through some of the small towns, people were mostly silent as we walked by – I guess they saw the writing on the wall.”

Finally, the POWs time in the camp did come to an end, and they would soon be free once more.


“I remember the day one of the 3rd Army tanks came in and knocked the gate down. It was April 29, 1945, and that tank disappeared under the bodies of every guy who could climb on top of it! The U.S. Army took us to Ingolstadt nearby. I got into a warehouse and got a pair of German officers' pants which I had to wear as the ones I had on were pretty shaggy,” he recalled. “In fact, I wore them all the way to Le Havre when they finally flew out. I also picked up a German helmet, bayonet and arm band - think I gave those things to one of my kids later. I didn't feel like getting everything I could lay my hands on, as all I wanted to do was get the heck out of there! We just wandered around and used up as much food as we could without wasting it or throwing it away, and ended up spending the night on the grass by an airport nearby.

“They flew us to Le Havre May 9, 1945 – Camp Lucky Strike, they called it – where we got de-loused and cleaned up a bit before being given a new uniform. It was the day the Germans surrendered.  After that, I was put on a little Swedish steam boat of some kind, which was going to New York by way of the Caribbean – they had to dump somebody off there near Panama somewhere – then worked their way up the coast to New York.”

Wolff explained that once they got to New York, they were placed in a camp that had been used in World War I, called Camp Yaphank.

“I got a phone call from a friend of my dad's, Archie Mayo – he was a movie director – and he took me to a nightclub, and my brother Allan, who was in the Navy, came along in his uniform as well. So the two of us and Archie had dinner there, and I got to thinking that five or six weeks ago I was a scruffy-looking character in a prison camp – and look where I'm at now!” he said, laughing.

It was finally time to leave Camp Yaphank and head home. Wolff and the others went on a train and it took six days to get home, from having to stop and drop people off along the way.

After spending around 18 months in a prison camp with a very limited diet, he said he made the most of the food back home.

“I was craving steaks, turkey, fried chicken – just about anything you could think of,” said Wolff. “My mind was still trying to grasp the fact that I was free and could do as I damn-well pleased.”

Once he arrived at the final destination in Northern California, Wolff was met by his parents, who told him that his fiancee, Barb, was waiting for him.

Meeting his one true love

“I first met Barb over her boyfriend's house when they were playing badminton,” the veteran said, starting to chuckle. “I looked at her, and thought, 'Gee, that's a nice girl!' but I was trying to be nice and didn't make a pass or anything. Then one of my friends said, 'You know, she's interested in you – why don't you take her out?' So I did; one thing led to another, and by the time I went overseas she'd agreed to marry me!

“We were engaged before I went overseas, and I got letters from her all the time. I came back in the early part of June (1945) and three weeks later, my family and hers arranged a wedding – and here we are, 77 years later!”

During his 90-day leave upon return, Wolff and Barb married and soon became parents-to-be.

“I had to go out and look for a job,” he said. “I was going to go back to work for an oil company - the same one I'd worked for before joining the military – so they put me in a gas station, but as Barbara was pregnant, she told me 'I just can't stand your smell,' so I quit work there and went to work for another company, making air conditioners for fighter planes.”

After the war, Wolff also joined the Reserves.

“I took lessons in aerial photography and intelligence - both of which have changed drastically since then! – and I got two certificates, which will make wonderful paper airplanes some day,” he laughed. “I was there for about 10 years and one time I was assigned to spend a week at March Field, California, and Bucky Elton, who was one of our 100th Bomb Group guys, was a colonel there. He was gonna take me up on one of their training rides, but that was called off and I never got another chance to do it. Though when I was there, I did get to fly an aircraft in the simulator; though I crashed it into the ground at 300-miles-per-hour and lived to tell the tale!”

Finally ending up in the insurance business, he retired after 35 years and moved to Oxnard, California, trading planes and insurance for boats and motor homes.

“I think most of the guys back then (at the start of World War II) were just appalled at the way Germany was treating people and occupying land that they didn't own, and they wanted to help straighten things out,” Wolff remarked. “Some of them, like myself, chose to get in the Air Force and fly, rather than wait to be drafted. My folks actually told me that my draft notice came about six weeks after I set off for basic training, so I escaped that!”

Modern-day Wolff Pack

In May 2012, the 100th Air Refueling Wing unveiled nose art on a KC-135 Stratotanker in honor of Capt. (ret.) Bob Wolff. Now in 2022, the entire fleet of RAF Mildenhall's KC-135s have nose art (with updated designs) from the B-17s formerly stationed at Thorpe Abbotts during World War II.

Wolff met his namesake jet in 2015 at the 100th Bomb Group reunion in New Orleans, Louisiana, and said he feels very privileged, especially as his B-17 never actually got around to having the nose art painted on, having been shot down before it could happen.

“They've kept it all these years and I feel honored. I had a boat and also named it 'Wolff Pack,' with the same insignia. I've since sold it, but my son has got a boat and named it 'Wolff Pack 2' I guess we want to keep that name with us forever,” exclaimed Wolff.