Platoon sergeant James W. Collins was one of five thousand Americans in Stalag III-B, a prisoner-of-war camp near Frankfurt, in western Germany. Collins had been regarded as one of the fiercest fighters in his outfit when he was taken by surprise and captured by the Germans in Tunisia, North Africa, in the spring of 1943.
Unlike most young American draftees, Collins had found the strict, often harsh discipline and regimentation of army life to be easy. The sergeant had grown up in the hills of rural Kentucky, one of thirteen children in a family that had to scramble almost constantly just to exist. For many months, the German colonel commanding the POW command had been frustrated. He could never figure out the “crazy Americans” and had regularly employed subtle and not-so-subtle tactics to cow the prisoners, to crush their spirits and pulverize their morale. But he had failed.
One reason the Americans morale had remained relatively high was that they had established a unique intelligence system that kept them informed on the progress of the war and also about schemes to be utilised against the POWs by the German commandant. The key component of the camp’s intelligence apparatus was an anti-Hitler guard, an elderly man who risked his life almost daily to pass along tidbits. Now, in October 1944, the mole told the Americans that Allied armies were pushing up against the western frontier of the Reich. He added that the German Army was preparing to do something peculiar to stem the Allied tide in the West. Sergeant Collins recalled much later: “Our Kraut, as we called him with a degree of affection, informed us that German officers would soon enter our barracks and demand that we give them our uniforms. We stayed awake most of the night conjecturing about the means of such an extraordinary action.” As was forecast, a Nazi officer entered Collins’s barracks two days later and ordered the Americans to remove their uniforms and deposit them in a pile in the center of the floor. Non-commissioned officer’s stripes and any unit insignia were to be left intact. This clothing would be used for an American infantry unit that had just been captured and did not have uniforms, it was explained.
“What a crock,” Collins whispered to a comrade. “I guess our generals are sending our guys into battle these days stark naked!” The German officer said that he would go to another barracks, then return in an hour to pick up the uniforms. When the German came back, the uniforms had been placed as ordered. But each POW had taken a razor and slashed his garments to ribbons. Red-faced with anger, the German stared at the stack of mutilated garments, then he spun around and barged out of the barracks. Collins and his comrades broke out in wide smiles and launched a blizzard of mock Nazi salutes and “Heil, Hitler!” calls. Only much later would the POWs learn that Adolf Hitler had ordered the collection of one thousand U.S. army uniforms from various camps in the Third Reich. These garments would play a key role in an ingenious scheme hatched by the Führer to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on the Western Front.