Going to the bathroom as a prisoner during WWII.

Hi SD,

How were bodily functions handled during WWII? I mean, as a human being, you have to go to the bathroom a certain number of times per day. Did prisoners raise their hands and ask guards if they could go to the bathroom? Did guards accompany them and have a gun pointed at them the whole time? I know I would have a tough time going if my life literally depended on it. But yet, if a large amount of people had to go at the same time (truthfully or not) would there be enough guards to supervise them? Forgive the macabre nature of this question, but I am curious if going to the bathroom was ever used as an opportunity for escape or overpowering guards? Was there a difference between death camps and concentration camps in this regard? I assume death camp personnel would have little to no concern for sanitation or prisoner hygiene.

Even more broadly, were bathroom activities during wartime approached with the same shame/embarrassment/privacy/dignity issues we have today? I ask because if people were given privacy to perform these bodily functions, that could be a springboard for all kinds of mischief…and people go to the bathroom a lot.

Please fill in this knowledge gap for me.


Most camps did not involve supervising the prisoners literally every second of the day. They were often a series of shacks or cabins within a secured perimeter. If the camp supervisor doesn’t want his place overflowing with waste and disease, he had better build a latrine. The alternative is that you get an Andersonville style situation. Remember that disease kills the guards just as easily as it kills the prisoners, so the guards have an incentive to make sure that the camps are sanitary.

In the novel King Rat, set in the Japanese Changi prisoner camp, the prisoners spent much of their time wandering around the prison camp. The guards stayed outside the prison most of the time and relied on the fence/gates to keep prisoners in, not lots of individually locked cells. If memory serves, the “bathroom” was a bunch of holes in the ground in an open part of the camp, so there was nothing even close to privacy. The novel mentions this lack of privacy several times, especially when some characters are ill.

Except for Hogan’s Heroes. They installed nice luxurious facilities in the tunnel below the barracks.

A number of articles I’ve read about less advanced prisons mention the “bucket in the corner”, even in a crowded cell with several prisoners. Why would you expect any different in the middle of a war? Of course, on reduced rations and limited water the urge to go would be reduced too.

My grandfather was a French artillery officer. His unit got captured by the Germans and he was a POW for the entire war. His camp was for French officers only; prisoners were well treated and free to do whatever they want as long as it was harmless.

He wrote many letters and I read them recently. I don’t remember anything about bathroom (I guess he had better things to write about), but to give an idea of the conditions: they were housed in barracks and fed appropriately; they could receive letters and packages (food, money, books…), buy beer and extra food at the camp’s shop. Lots of them were students in their early twenties (he was at Polytechnique). They created clubs, had tennis courts and a well furnished library (they had their families mail books, scientific magazines, etc).

So, I am sure that they had decent latrines (or the means to create some) and the freedom to use them whenever they wanted.

Obviously this has little to do with what other camps were at the time. Based on this and novels I read, as a general rule WWII camps guards enforced security by guarding fences and gates; keeping some presence inside the camp and inspecting the barracks regularly; and possibly enforcing curfews, but they wouldn’t monitor individual prisoners.

Perhaps slave ships would a better fit for the conditions the OP was hinting at?

There were the Nazi camps for Soviet POW’s. Those were essentially Andersonville-like enclosures.

Even the classic Seventies British POW board game Escape from Colditz had a “WC” openly accessibly to the players playing prisoners. It’s the topmost room in this image of the board.

(A dead end, but those windows in the adjacent rooms were always attractive if you had the card for a length of rope …)

The discrepancy in the way different classes of POW’s and general prisoners were treated helps highlight the many different conflicts that made up WWII. Many American POW’s were treated reasonably well by the Germans too. My grandfather was a German POW in Germany proper. He wasn’t among the lucky ones and came very close to dying in one but that may have been because his camp was in a devastated area of Germany and he had to stay until liberation. The Germans tried to follow the rules for the treatment of POW’s however but some of the rules themselves were harsh and strange.

My grandfather was a navigator on a bomber that was shot down while trying to destroy a large bridge over Germany. The only reasons that he lived at all was because he was injured while it was being shot down (blinded in one eye) and a fellow crewmate threw him out of the plane. Ironically, his crewmates that weren’t injured were killed on the spot after a very brief “trial” soon after they hit thew ground. My grandfather was injured so he couldn’t be be executed and had to be treated because of war logic.

German POW’s were generally treated very well in the many POW camps scattered around the Southern U.S. Many were closer to summer camps than prisons that were barely guarded at all and some had amenities like movie theaters. They could often take field trips into the closest small towns for personal supplies and many POW’s were allowed to work outside of the POW camp. The camps were generally located in rural areas that had a labor shortage because of the war so it was win-win as long as they behaved. It wasn’t like there was anywhere for them to go even if they did try to escape and the reasonable treatment helped ensure that few really wanted to. For an individual German soldier, being held in a nice, safe camp stateside was vastly preferable to being sent to fight the Russians.

How many Soviets were housed/tortured/killed in POW camps built or pre-existing for that reason (i.e. POW) compared to how many–the majority, I always assumed–were sent to places already set up for housing/torturing/and killing either all sorts of people, or Jews in particular, who then became bunkmates–Auschwitz and all the others in that wretched universe?

From reading The Second world war by Antony Beevor, the german style of POW camp for the Russian soldiers was to basically set up a wire fence enclosure with nothing on the inside ( not buildings , toilets nada) post some guards on the outside and just leave things that way. Occasionally throw in some food.
When the red army captured the german 6th army , and others, the style of imprisonment was also used.
The book is an excellent one stop history of WWII, if a little bit, well ok, relentlessly, depressing.

According to what I can find online, approximately 5,700,000 Soviets were captured by Germans as POW’s during the war. Of these, approximately 3,300,000 died while in German custody.

Some were placed in official POW camps (Stalag). Some were held in open enclosures (Russenlager) - essentially a field with a fence around it. I can’t find what percentage went to each but it appears the majority went to a Russenlager. Approximately 600,000 were sent to work in Germany and occupied Europe. And approximately 400,000 were sent to concentration camps.

Not a military vet myself, but it’s my understanding from my dad, who was Navy, and others, that part of basic training was urinating/defecating in front of others, with no privacy or walls in the latrines to facilitate getting used to it. The idea was to make soldiers willing to take a dump any convenient place and not debilitate themselves by holding it until they had some privacy.

Soldiers through history have had communal latrines:

US Army 1960s http://www.ipernity.com/doc/57114/5296662/in/group/57074

German Army 1940s http://www.ipernity.com/doc/57114/8416976/in/album/74808

Australian army 1915 https://farm9.staticflickr.com/8713/17017661801_6cc4deeed8_o.jpg

Roman army 2nd century latrine |


When I was in USCG boot camp at Cape May, NJ in 1979 our squad bay had urinals and toilets that had walls. It was a lot like a rest stop on an interstate. My first duty station was USCG Yard in Baltimore, MD and one of the decommissioned ships was a 327 cutter USCGC Spencer. It was used for steam school and housing crews from ships that were in for work (if the CO was too cheap to put them up in a hotel). One E-6 I worked with had been on the USCGC Bibb, a sister ship still in service. He said he was surprised the toilets (which have a nickname in the service that I won’t use because this is a family site) on the Spencer had walls, the Bibb didn’t.

But I’m sure the Guard was a lot different from the other services, in many ways.

My father was a POW of the Germans in WW2, and since he wasn’t an officer he was required to work (as the Geneva Conventions allowed - German and Italian POWs in the UK were often sent out to work on the land, often with minimal supervision by guards, and many were retained for a couple of years after the war to help with reconstruction - some were allowed to settle permanently).

My dad worked in railway marshalling yards, and later down a coalmine in Poland. If you were sent out on a work detail, you might be held in a camp attached to the workplace, if big enough, or you went out by the day and were marched back to your camp for the night. Officers didn’t have to work, which is how they had the time to plot and plan the kind of escapes they make movies about (not that other POWs didn’t escape, but those were less planned and less often written about).

Almost always POWs were held in dormitory huts with attached WCs and washing-space, of varying degrees of sophistication, and probably not very different in layout and style from the places where they might have trained at home, but with less food and heating depending on the state of German supply chains (the last few months of the collapse were pretty awful).

Those held by Germany and the western allies were visited by representatives of the “protecting power” (usually Switzerland, I think) and of the Red Cross, who were empowered to report back to both the holding power and the POWs’ own authorities on the conditions they found, and on any complaints. I’ve seen records of such reports in our National Archives for the camps where my father was held: the Swiss government reps seem more inclined to take what the Germans told them at face value, but the Red Cross did report in more detail on things like food supplies, sanitary conditions, health and so on. I read of one complaint over the Germans placing an anti-aircraft gun in or near the camp, thus risking making it a military target; and another where prisoners wanted the Red Cross to report their rejection of someone who wanted to be a “V-Mann” (POWs’ representative to the Germans), who I think had been a fairly prominent Fascist in Britain pre-war.

But things were very different in relation to the USSR and Japan, which hadn’t signed the Geneva Conventions.

Once again we have an OP who is trying to relate today’s standards to those of 80 years ago. You should understand that many conscripts in WW2 used an outhouse or a pot at home, and a zinc tub in the kitchen for their weekly bath. The idea of being embarrassed (for a man at least) would have seemed odd as in their own barracks they shared showers and toilets often had no doors (to stop any homosexual activity I believe).

Most of the escapes were by officers from Oflags, since they did not work, they had both time and inclination to try. Other ranks were working hard and often badly treated so they were generally too exhausted to attempt escapes.

Toilets did not really feature in escape attempts except when they hid tunnel entrances under gratings.

Thank you for the info and for doing the research.

I’ve toured Fort Breendonk in Belgium; it is a prison camp that has been kept like it was during the war. There is a large communal bathroom with toilets and showers, but when in the locked cells they only had a bucket.

Jews were housed in cells much more crowded than other prisoners. Here is a picture of a Jewish cell in the Fort Breendonk Interior.

The wooden bunks are three levels high and held three people per bed; they run down both sides of the room. I’m not positive, but I think the item on the floor at the far right end of the aisle may be the bucket.