How Were Prisoners of War Treated in Britain During (and After) the Second World War?

How Were Prisoners of War Treated in Britain During (and After) the Second World War?


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Many of the official documents regarding prisoners of war taken by the British during the Second World War have been lost or destroyed. However, just like any other warring nation in any other war, the British army did take prisoners during their advances.

Whilst many of these prisoners were kept interned elsewhere in the British Empire or by other allied nations, almost half a million prisoners of war were being held in Britain in 1945.

1. Who were the prisoners in Britain?

Initially, the number of prisoners of war kept in Britain remained low, consisting mainly of German pilots, aircrew or naval personnel captured within its borders.

But with the war turning in the Allies favour from 1941, increasing numbers of prisoners were brought across. This began with Italian prisoners taken in the Middle East or North Africa. They participated in constructing some built-for-purpose camps, such as camp 83, Eden Camp, in Yorkshire.

As the British continued to push the Axis powers back, prisoner numbers increased, and included soldiers from not only Italy and Germany, but from Romania, Ukraine and elsewhere. During and after the Second World War, over 470,000 German and 400,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in Britain.

Original caption: ‘When a group of Italian prisoners captured in North Africa arrived in London on their way to a prison camp, one of them sported a tennis racket… these captives will probably be used for agricultural work.’ 15 June 1943

2. Where were they imprisoned?

The British prisoner of war internment camps were numbered – the list extends to 1,026, including 5 in Northern Ireland. A prisoner would be assigned to a camp depending on their classification.

‘A’ category prisoners wore a white armband – they were deemed to be benign. ‘B’ category prisoners wore a grey armband. These were soldiers who had some ideals sympathetic to those of Britain’s enemies, but did not pose a major risk.

‘C’ category prisoners were those believed to maintain fanatical national socialist ideals. They wore a black armband, and were thought likely to attempt an escape or an internal attack on the British. Members of the SS were automatically placed in this category.

To reduce any chance of escape or rescue, this final category of prisoners were held to the north or west of Britain, in Scotland or Wales.

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3. How were they treated?

According to the Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, signed at Geneva on 27 July 1929, prisoners of war had to be kept in conditions equal to those that they would experience on their own army bases.

There was also no guarantee in 1942 that Britain would eventually win the war. In the hope that Allied prisoners would be granted equal treatment, those interned in Britain were not maltreated. They were often better fed than they would have been fighting at the end of a supply chain.

Those in lower risk camps were permitted to leave for work and to attend church alongside the British congregations. Depending on the camp, prisoners might be paid in real currency or in camp money – to further prevent escape.

Jack Kenneth Lyon was number 79 on the list of PoWs preparing to break out of Stalag Luft III in 1944. A Flight Lieutenant in the RAF during the war who was captured when his bomber crashed in Poland after a raid, he was on the brink of entering the ‘Harry’ tunnel when prisoners heard a gunshot and realised that the game was up.

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Prisoners at Eden Camp were able to fraternize with the local community. Skilled labourers among them would make ornaments and toys to barter with the community for items they could not otherwise obtain.

When prisoners worked for and with British civilians, the animosity towards them tended to wear off. On Christmas Day, 1946, 60 prisoners of war in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, were hosted in private homes after an outreach by a minister of a Methodist church. Prisoners also formed football teams and played in the local league.

In their spare time, the Italian prisoners of camp 61, the Forest of Dean, built a monument to Guglielmo Marconi – the inventor and engineer. The monument, on Wynol’s hill, was completed in 1944 and not demolished until 1977. Remaining both in the village of Henllan, Wales, and on the Island of Lamb Holm, Orkney, are Italian chapels converted from camp huts by prisoners in order to practice their Catholic faith.

The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, Orkney (Credit: Orkney Library & Archive).

The experience was very different for category ‘C’ prisoners, who would not be trusted with local communities. In addition, the Geneva convention specified that prisoners could only be assigned work fitting with their rank.

At camp 198 – Island Farm, Bridgend, Wales – the 1,600 German officers were therefore not only entirely confined, but also exempted from manual labour. Without the opportunity to engage with the local population, animosity between the guards and the prisoners remained high. In March 1945, 70 German prisoners of war – having stockpiled provisions – escaped from Island Farm through a 20-yard long tunnel which had its entrance under a bunk in accommodation hut 9.

All of the escapees were eventually captured, some as far away as Birmingham and Southampton. One prisoner was idenitifed by his cohort as having been the guards’ informant. He was put through a kangaroo court and hanged.

Island Farm camp, 1947 (Credit: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales).

4. What work did they do to help the war effort?

Almost half of the prisoners of war in Britain – 360,000 people – were working by 1945. The nature of their work was limited by the Geneva convention, which stated that prisoners of war could not be set to work in war-related or dangerous tasks.

Italian prisoners in Orkney declared a strike when it emerged that their work on the island of Burray appeared to be intended to close off to invasion access to the four sea straits between the islands. The Red Cross Committee reassured them 20 days later that this assumption was incorrect.

For other camps, this convention meant farm work. Camps that were built from scratch, such as Eden Camp, were often placed in the centre of agricultural land. In 1947, 170,000 prisoners of war were working in agriculture. Others were engaged in rebuilding bombed roads and cities.

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5. When were they repatriated?

There were prisoners of war interned in Britain until 1948. Due to the heavily depleted labour force and the requirements for food supplies and rebuilding, they were too useful to let go.

According to the Geneva convention, seriously sick or injured prisoners should be repatriated immediately. All other prisoners should be released as part of the conclusion of peace. The Second World War, however, ended with unconditional surrender – meaning there was no full peace treaty until the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.

The number of German prisoners actually peaked after the war ended, reaching 402,200 in September 1946. In that year, one-fifth of all farm work was being completed by Germans. Repatriation only began in 1946 when Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced – after public outcries – that 15,000 prisoners of war would be released per month.

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24,000 prisoners chose not to be repatriated. One such soldier was Bernhard (Bert) Trautmann, who had become a member of the Jungvolk aged 10, in 1933, and volunteered as a soldier in 1941, aged 17. After receiving 5 service medals, Trautmann was captured by Allied soldiers on the Western Front.

As a category ‘C’ prisoner he was initially interned at camp 180, Marbury Hall, Cheshire. He was downgraded to a ‘B’ status and eventually placed at camp 50, Garswood Park, Lancashire where he stayed until 1948.

In football matches against local teams, Trautmann took the position of goalkeeper. He worked on a farm and in bomb disposal, then began to play for St Helens Town. He was offered a contract for Manchester City in 1949.

Bert Trautmann catches the ball during the Manchester City game against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane 24 March 1956 (Credit: Alamy).

Though he initially faced some negativity, Bert played 545 matches in his 15-year career for Manchester City. He was the first sportsman in Britain to wear Adidas, received a standing ovation at his first match in London – against Fulham, and played in the 1955 and 1956 FA cup finals.

In 2004, Trautmann received an OBE. He is unusual in his reception of both this and an Iron Cross.


Displaced persons camps in post–World War II Europe

Displaced persons camps in post–World War II Europe were established in Germany, Austria, and Italy, primarily for refugees from Eastern Europe and for the former inmates of the Nazi German concentration camps. A "displaced persons camp" is a temporary facility for displaced persons, whether refugees or internally displaced persons. Two years after the end of World War II in Europe, some 850,000 people lived in displaced persons camps across Europe, among them Armenians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Yugoslavs, Jews, Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians and Czechoslovaks. [1]

At the end of the Second World War, at least 11 million people had been displaced from their home countries, with about seven million in Allied-occupied Germany. These included former prisoners of war, released slave laborers, and both non-Jewish and Jewish concentration-camp survivors. The Allies categorized the refugees as “displaced persons” (DPs) and assigned the responsibility for their care to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).


IN PICTURES: How German women suffered largest mass rape in history by Soviets

Between the months of January and August of 1945, Germany saw the largest incident of mass rape known in history, where an estimated two million German women were raped by the Soviet Red Army soldiers, as written by Walter Zapotoczny Jr. in his book, ‘Beyond Duty: The Reason Some Soldiers Commit Atrocities’.

Between the months of April and May, the German capital Berlin saw more than 100,000 rape cases according to hospital reports, while East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia saw more than 1.4 million rape cases.

Hospital reports also stated that abortion operations were being carried out daily across all German hospitals.

Natalya Gesse, who was a Soviet war correspondent at the time, said that the Soviets didn’t care about the ages of their victims. “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty. It was an army of rapists,” she said.

This caused the deaths of no less than 200,000 girls and women due to the spread of diseases, especially that many eyewitnesses recounted victims being raped as much as 70 times in that period.

Red Army soldiers would mass rape German women as a kind of revenge against their enemy: The German army. They felt that it was their earned right to do so as the German army had ‘violated’ their motherland by invading it. In addition to not being in contact with women for long periods causing their animal instinct to be heightened.

“Our fellows were so sex-starved,” a Soviet major told a British journalist at the time, “that they often raped old women of sixty, seventy or even eighty - much to these grandmothers’ surprise, if not downright delight.”

In his book, Zapotoczny said that even female Russian soldiers did not disapprove of the rapes, some finding it amusing.

In 1948, rape cases decreased vastly after Soviet troops were ordered back to their camps in Russia and left residential areas in Germany.


The resettlement of Polish refugees after the second world war

When it became clear in 1945, at the end of the second world war, that the Polish forces and refugees abroad would not be able to return to their homeland, the British government took on responsibility for them. The first step was the founding of the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC) in May 1946. Almost a quarter of a million Polish servicemen supporting the Western Allies found that they could not return home. Soldiers and airmen serving overseas were to be helped through the Corps to stay in the United Kingdom (UK) and settle into civilian life there. Service in the Corps was intended to be an opportunity for retraining and education it was agreed with the British trade unions that prospective Polish employees could only be recruited from the PRC and would be placed in ‘approved’ Ministry of Labour jobs.

The 1947 Polish Resettlement Act aimed to resettle political refugees in the UK, at a time when it was on the verge of an era of considerable population increase based largely on immigration. The Act provided Polish refugees in the UK with entitlement to employment and to unemployment benefit. The Act also laid out the responsibilities of several government departments to provide health services, pension entitlement and education for the Poles.

The Act was welcomed in parliament and considered to be an act of great statesmanship – an act that changed people’s attitudes to the foreigners then arriving. The Act enabled Poles to integrate in the UK and thus contribute to providing the labour force needed by the British economy in recovering from the war. By the end of 1949, 150,000 Polish soldiers and their dependents had settled in the UK and their descendants continue to make up a large part of the UK’s Polish community as it exists today. In due course, the Poles emerged as dedicated contributors to the reconstruction of the UK economy, and Polish refugees became one of the most prosperous immigrant groups in the UK.

This was the first time in the history of migration to the UK that this kind of legislation was brought out, directed uniquely at a refugee group. The Act demonstrated that by providing adequate resources and responding positively to the needs of refugees, the integration process into the host society can be significantly eased.

A good deal of the work linked to this Act involved the creation of the Polish Resettlement Camps. Former army and air force camps were utilised as temporary accommodation for the Polish troops and their families. By October 1946, some 120,000 Polish troops has been quartered in 265 camps throughout the UK. Over the years, wives and dependants were also brought to Britain to join them, bringing the estimated total to over 249,000. The camps were generally in remote locations with Nissen huts or poor-quality dwellings each occupied by more than one family. The huts were equipped with electric lights and heated by slow combustion stoves but had poor natural ventilation and light. However, for the first generation of Poles they became a symbol of stability, and for the second generation the camps would remain in their memory as happy places, full of freedom.

Alongside the basic needs of the new arrivals in terms of accommodation, health, welfare and employment, there was a considerable demand for education. In 1947, the Committee for the Education of Poles was set up, with all expenses to be defrayed out of funds provided by parliament. The Committee’s principal aim was to “fit [the Poles] for absorption into British schools and British careers whilst still maintaining provision for their natural desire for the maintenance of Polish culture and the knowledge of Polish History and Literature.” [1] This involved imparting to them an adequate knowledge of English and of the British way of life through education in appropriate British institutions in order to prepare them for resettlement either in the UK or overseas.

The annual expenditure of the Committee was estimated at about £1,000,000 during the first year of its existence, rising for 1948-49 to £1,500,000. During the seven and a half years of its existence the Committee’s expenditure totalled nine million pounds.

Not surprisingly, for the first generation of newcomers the experience of settling down proved to be tougher and lengthier than expected. However, for younger Poles the route of adaptation, integration and even gradual assimilation was more of a natural process, and education provisions helped here enormously. Learning the English language became the basic step to be taken in pursuit of this ambitious plan.

From March 1948, the Home Secretary announced that applications for British citizenship would be accepted from Polish ex-servicemen and Poles were granted the right to become naturalised British citizens. In the end, the Poles emerged as dedicated contributors to the rebuilt British economy. Those who obtained secondary or higher education found profitable and sometimes prestigious posts in the British labour market and made successful professional careers. Their different culture and tradition, along with the shared traumatic wartime experience, slowly came to be seen as assets contributing to community life. The Committee’s aim of adapting Polish exiles to a new life was slowly being achieved. As one local newspaper article of the time said, “Their assets and pastimes may differ, but that very difference is an asset to the joint community of the town.” [2]

Agata Blaszczyk [email protected]
Lecturer in history, The Polish University Abroad in London www.puno.edu.pl/english.htm

[1] Memorandum from the Minister of Education and the Secretary of the State for Scotland, ED128/146, pp1-2. Report on the Curriculum and Staffing of the Committee’s Polish Schools, 13 July 1948, ED128/5, p3.


How it really was

Henry Faulk was the British officer responsible for a programme to 're-educate' 400,000 German Prisoners of War held in England at the end of the Second World War.

This book, published in 1977, is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly much has been written on the theory of re-education, but the programme described in the book was one of the few examples where it was consciously and systematically applied in practice. Secondly Faulk approaches the subject from the point of view of group psychology, rather than the attitudes of individuals, or of any supposed 'national character.'

In all, there were 1,500 separate prisoner of war camps in Britain, which, in Faulk's words, made it possible to observe alterations in the group conditions of men "under conditions as like those of a laboratory as real life permits."

It is also one of the few books in English I have read, which consciously tries to portray both a British and German point of view. As Faulk says:

"Although the war was the same historical event for both the Germans and Allies, they saw it from diametrically opposed points of view. To the West the war was a symptom of the specifically German disease of super-nationalism, and re-education was to be the cure. The majority of German POW had as little comprehension of that viewpoint as had the British population for the way in which Germans had experienced the years of National Socialism under Hitler."

Before 1944, very few German POW were held in Britain. But after D-Day and the Normandy landings, numbers increased rapidly and in total around 400,000 German POW were held in Britain between 1944 and September 1948, when the process of repatriation was finally completed.

(The 3 million German soldiers who surrendered to the British in Germany at the end of the war in April and May 1945, were not treated as POWs and are not part of this story. They were renamed 'Surrendered Enemy Personnel' allocated a living area within Germany, provided with rations, and left to manage as well as they could, until they were eventually demobilised).

On the concept of 're-education' Faulk says that: "The word was a reminder that the Second World War was in part fought on both sides for ideological reasons." The policy as it applied to POWs was officially approved in 1944: "In September 1944 the War Cabinet approved a scheme of re-education for German prisoners. The Department responsible for the submission and initiation of the scheme was known at that time as the Political Intelligence department and, later, as the Prisoner of War Division of the Foreign Office."

On his own role Faulk says that: "A few weeks before the end of the war the author, then an officer of the Intelligence Corps, was seconded by the War Office to the Political Intelligence Department. At the end of the war the author was given the task of organising the work of re-education in the camps."

The situation in the POW camps at the end of the war

Until the end of the war, the POW camps were run in accordance with the Geneva Conventions which meant that prisoners remained subject to their own military discipline and Nazi ideology and supporters dominated the camps. Faulk says of the situation at this time:

"Until the end of the war. The POW accepted and carried out orders in the same way and in the same spirit of mingled defiance and contempt as any other POW. There was no trouble for the British guards other than the odd attempt at escape, and all serious crime was committed by the prisoners against each other and was politically motivated. In general the behaviour of the German POW was probably the best of all POW of the last war. Serious crime was rare. The good behaviour of the POW was not the simple submission to authority. It was a conscious good conduct of the individual. The men were proud of their communal discipline and hoped that it would persuade the world at large that they were not really barbarians. They rarely understood that the accusations of the world were really directed at their group ethos, not at their personal morality."

According to Faulk: "For the mass of German POW National Socialism was a way of life, a system of group attitudes, which supported the individual in his concept of himself as a German, and was seen though a projection of personal honesty. It was identified with racial virtues, patriotism, courage, comradeship, fidelity, self-sacrifice, honour and efficiency. Politically it was seen as a movement of reform towards a classless society, social justice and the betterment of the underprivileged."

This meant that the mass of POW could not understand why the world was "blind to the 'good side' of National Socialism or was not a 'good idea badly carried out.'"

However, according to Faulk, the POWs showed a lack of empathy for those who were not members of their own group. This was not a lack of understanding of another's point of view "for they learned in the most admirable way to listen quietly and patiently to differing opinions and to discuss without hear. Basically it was the lack of a concept of humanity, of men simply as people."

"Until the group blinkers had been removed and it became possible to achieve a moral perspective based on a concept of humanity and not solely on conformity to the group habits, it was difficult to establish an intellectual common ground for any kind of social or political discussion. On the other hand, once the moral basis was established, re-education had attained its aim and the political aspect was of little import."

In summary, the aim of the British Prisoner of War Department, "entrusted with the re-education of the German POW . was first to separate the concepts of National Socialism, patriotism and the German character, and then to substitute for the attitudes of the National Socialist group ethos, attitudes based on a less ethnocentric and more humanitarian view of people."

Changing British attitudes to the German POWs

On attitudes to the re-education of POWs in Britain, Faulk says: "In so far as the general public was aware of the policy of re-education, and on the whole it evinced relatively little interest, its interpretation of the aim, never clearly defined, tended to be a vague feeling that it was necessary to make the Germans more like the British."

Initially the war was seen as a war of ideas, not a national war between Britain and Germany. But after the discovery of the concentration camps, the distinction drawn by liberal opinion between Germans and Nazis was questioned. Nationally minded opinion, largely represented by the Conservatives, saw this of further evidence of German collective guilt.

According to Faulk, the meaning of 'guilt' was understood differently by British and Germans. The British understood it to mean moral responsibility. "Although there was a general emotional confusion, the British were really talking of moral responsibility." The Germans, on the other hand understood it as "criminal involvement in a personal and legal sense."

During the war, the German POW had enjoyed a higher level of rations than the British civilian population, in line with the government's interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. But on 15th May 1945, after the discovery of the concentration camps, the government yielded to popular demand and reduced the ration scale. Faulk comments on this: "In the POW camps the adjustment of the ration scale was regarded either as proof of the hatred the British bore them or as an act of revenge for the concentration camps in the course of time the latter explanation became the generally accepted slogan."

But from then on, remarkably, the attitude of the civilian population to German POW changed. Despite a ban on fraternisation and social contacts: ". German POW from that time on began to receive secret and illegal offerings of food from the [British] civilians among whom they worked, a first step in the process which made the POW draw a sharp distinction between their personal thoughts of the [individual] Britisher and their group concept of 'the British.'"

Presumably the British civilian population had made the same distinction in their personal thoughts, between a group concept of 'the Germans' and the individual German POW.

In general there was little contact between the general British population and POWs until 1946. Faulk says of this: "The POW first appeared outside the camps as workers under strict military supervision in the autumn of 1944. Contact with civilians was then the minimum dictated by the needs of employers. Civilian contact developed through 1946 and became general and sanctioned only at the end of that year."

"The war psychosis began to ebb at the beginning of 1946, and the demand on humanitarian grounds for fraternisation and repatriation gathered momentum. Public sympathy was increased by the growing number of cases of people punished for kindness to POW or for deliberately flouting the fraternisation ban. Conversely no credit was allowed to the POW for praiseworthy action. When, for example near Stratford, in the summer of 1946, two POW saved the life of a farmer from the attack of a bull, the War Office forbade any concrete expressions of gratitude."

"In July Richard Stokes MP chaired in London a public meeting of the Churches, Parliamentarians and welfare organisations that passed a resolution demanding for the POW repatriation, fraternisation, a decent pay and a chance to send parcels home. By August the press was in full support. The ban continued even after repatriation began in September and was only relaxed at Christmas, when public and parliamentary pressure had made fraternisation inevitable. Thereafter it progressed fairly rapidly."

"Among the families with which the POW began, eighteen months after the end of the war, to form friendships, any conscious idea of re-education was almost completely absent. Here the watchword was simply humanity and friendliness, and the underlying principle the faith that warm humanity would evoke humanity and that this was bound to have social and political repercussions."

By 13th June 1948 even The Sunday Express was saying: "At the beginning bus conductors refused to carry Germans, Councillors would not have them in libraries, ex-soldiers fought them in dance-halls, but all gave way to public opinion. The Germans are all right."

Around 10% of the 400,000 German POW applied to remain in Britain and eventually 25,252 (6%) were given permission to do so. 796 British girls married POWs.

The process and methods of re-education

The process of re-education started by screening POWs and classifying them as 'blacks' ie Nazi sympathisers, 'whites' ie anti-Nazis and 'greys'. Faulk says of this:

"There never at any time existed among the POW camps of Great Britain a 'White' or a 'Black' camp, in the sense that all the inmates of the one were untainted by Nazi attitudes, whilst all the inmates of the other were steeped in Nazi ideology. Every camp consisted of a small 'white' element and a small 'black' element, rarely making up more than 20% of the camp total between them, and of some 80% of 'greys', men in whom National Socialism was simply the expression of group conformity. Nevertheless both prisoners and POWD spoke of 'white, 'grey' and 'black' camps. The reference was to the 'tone' of the camps, the awareness of preponderant attitudes to which the mass conformed and which emanated from the small active element."

Re-education was about finding the right people, more than about ideas. The process was to remove active Nazis from a camp and then to "find and encourage men capable of making the group aware of a new direction, and to aid the mechanics of the spread of awareness."

"Even though a camp might, for a number of reasons, be ready for change, the process would not start without the right kind of man to lead it. Rejection of Nazism, whether political or based on a positive humanitarianism was not enough."

"The initial impetus toward change required men of impressive quality. The best of these 'whites' were men whose humanity, integrity and capabilities were of a quality to overcome opposition and to command respect, trust, and a focal social influence in the community."

The British Prisoner of War Department described the process as follows: "These men will be hard to find, but when we do find them, we must win them over for re-education. Above all they have objectivity and humanity, integrity, tolerance and ethical principles, which they can express. They prefer democracy because with all its faults it puts people in the foreground and not an impersonal political or economic ideology."

Results

Faulk's assessment of the results was that the process of re-education resulted in a shift of attitudes from 'black' towards 'white' but the greatest movement was from 'black' to 'grey'. The proportion of 'whites' remained fairly constant at 10%.

"Re-education was not a process of preaching and persuasion. It was a reorientation of group attitudes to people and events. It did not proscribe opinion, but it affected the way in which the group saw its problems and the conclusions it drew."

The 'tone' of the camps changed and results are summarised as follows:

  • "About 3% of the POW claimed to have acquired in captivity a new, positive philosophy of life
  • About 30% considered tolerance, objectivity and esteem for human dignity the basis of their new social attitudes. The word 'tolerance' was the commonest new concept among the POW. They were proud of it.
  • About 20% claimed to have changed their political outlook. For almost all of these men that meant a conclusion in favour of democracy.
  • About 4% remained faithful to the old National Socialist norms. For these men the re-educational efforts were enemy propaganda."

Faulk claims that whereas many POW retained some respect for the social institutions of National Socialism, they rejected its attitudes, whereas the mass of the civilian population in Germany rejected National Socialism as a political system, but retained the attitudes which had ensured cooperation with it. Many POW were "shocked after repatriation by the retention of National Socialist attitudes at home."

In summary Faulk says that in the camps involved in re-education in 1945 there was a "gradual, fairly slow, but steady reaction against National Socialism . In 1946 the persistence of the old attitudes and the dominance of the 'blacks' shrank to a small minority of the camps."

To finish this posting here are two examples from letters Faulk received, after their release, from POW at different ends of the scale. Firstly one who claimed that re-education was a complete failure, because it taught the POW, or at least those of his generation, nothing they did not already know:


The Red Cross and World War Two

The Red Cross played a very important role in World War Two with the help they gave to prisoners of war. The Red Cross worked within the confines that war puts on it – that the belligerent powers will allow the Red Cross to do its work. If warring nations do not allow this to happen, then the Red Cross can do little.


The first of these conventions involved the sick and wounded. The Red Cross established auxiliary hospitals where they were allowed to and staffed them with Red Cross personnel. They were neutral and treated anyone caught up in a conflict wherever this was. It was an international expectation that warring nations would treat Red Cross personnel in the appropriate manner and that the hospitals were not legitimate targets. The Red Cross also established convalescent homes to look after the sick if they needed long term care.During World War Two, the belligerent nations in Western Europe allowed the Red Cross to carry out its work of supporting those who had been taken prisoner. The same was not as true in the Pacific and Eastern European theatres of war. At the Changi camp run by the Japanese in Singapore, on average, a POW received a fraction of one food parcel sent by the Red Cross in the three-and-a half years that the camp was open. They also received just one letter per year. The Red Cross was linked to the Geneva Conventions on how captured personnel should be treated and Japan had not signed up to this.

The other convention in existence at the time involved POW’s and their treatment. This convention also extended to internees held by a warring nation. In 1934, the International Red Cross had attempted to get all nations to agree to legal safeguards for all civilians in an area where war had broken out. International powers agreed to defer agreement on this until 1940. Therefore, when World War Two broke out, many civilians had no safe-guarded legal rights. The Red Cross never stopped trying to access those who were arrested, deported or sent into forced labour but with little success.

Article 79 of the Convention allowed the Red Cross to pass on information or enquiries about POW’s. These ‘letters’ were restricted to just 25 words and had to be about family news only. All messages were sent to the International Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they were sent on to their respective destinations. By 1945, 24 million messages had been exchanged. The International Red Cross was also empowered to collect all information they could about POW’s – such as their whereabouts, health etc.

The devastating impact of Blitzkrieg was first seen with that attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939. In September alone, the Germans captured 500,000 Polish soldiers in just 22 days. It fell to the International Red Cross to collate all the information about these POW’s. By the end of the attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940, 30,000 British troops were POW’s along with many more French, Belgium and Dutch troops. Combined with this was the vast number of refugees that had been a product of the German attack with families being spilt up. In 1940 alone the International Red Cross was flooded with enquiries as to the whereabouts and health of thousands of people. With so many people involved, the work of the International Red Cross was never ending.

A major test for the Red Cross came when Greece was occupied in April 1941. Before World War Two had started Greece imported a third of its food supplies. Now as an occupied nation it was cut off from all its suppliers. What crops existed in Greece had been destroyed either in the fighting or by bad weather. As a nation, Greece seemed to be on the verge of starvation. It is thought that up to 500 children a day died from the effects of malnutrition. The Red Cross got the agreement of those nations occupying Greece to allow in food supplies and by March 1942, the first 1,000 tons of grain was landed. The German government freed up Swedish freighters that had been laid up in ports since the occupation of Denmark and Norway. The Germans insisted that a member of the International Red Cross had to be on board each ship and the British gave a guarantee of free passage in the Mediterranean Sea. Each boat had a large red cross painted on it and each freighter was also painted in the colours of Sweden. In Greece itself, the Red Cross set up food kitchens and produced over 500,000 basins of soup in just two months.

The Red Cross also paid regular visits to POW camps. These visits were usually done by trained medical staff who checked on the prisoners health and accommodation. The quality of food was also checked. Complaints about the way the POW’s were kept were made to Red Cross officials who then made those complaints known to the relevant authority.

The Red Cross could only operate in countries that allowed it to operate. The USSR had not signed the Geneva Convention. As a result the many Russians who were taken as POW’s did not receive Red Cross visits. The Red Cross did offer its services to all belligerents, but the Germans simply had to point out that as Russia had not signed the Convention, her POW’s were not entitled to Red Cross support. Hence, they received none and were kept in appalling conditions.

Up until ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the USSR had failed to respond to appeals by the Red Cross to set up a delegation in Moscow. After the huge loss of manpower in the initial stages of Barbarossa, the Soviet government agreed to allow the Red Cross to help and an office was set up in Ankara. Its task was to find out about Russian and German POW’s from the conflict on the Eastern Front. In August 1941, the first list of names of Russian POW’s reached Ankara from the Germans. It was to be the last. The Germans claimed that as the Russians seemed unwilling to send them a list, via Ankara, of Germans POW’s, it would also do the same. This also led to the Germans failing to allow Red Cross visits to the POW camps that housed Russian prisoners. The Germans argued that as the Russians did not allow Red Cross visits to German POW’s, it would do likewise with Russian POW’s.

In Germany, the Red Cross visited every other nationality that the Germans held – but not Russians. The first time the Red Cross had formal access to Russian POW’s was in the last few weeks of the war as Nazi Germany crumbled.

The Red Cross also attempted to help those in concentration camps. Here, they met with mixed results. Attempts to get the names of those in the camps met with failure. In 1943, the Nazis did agree that Red Cross parcels could be sent to named non-Germans in the concentration camps. Somehow, the Red Cross got hold of a few names and sent food parcels to these names. Receipts for these parcels were returned to Geneva – sometimes with as many as a dozen names on each receipt. This method allowed the Red Cross to collect more and more names. By the time the war ended, the Red Cross had a list of 105,000 names of people being held in concentration camps and over 1 million parcels were sent out – even to the death camps in Poland. As the war came to its end, to observe what went on in the concentration camps, a Red Cross delegate stayed in each camp.

In the Far East, the Red Cross had little joy with the Japanese government. The Japanese government had signed the Geneva Convention but had not ratified it, so Japan was not bound by its terms. The Japanese did all it could to hinder the work of the Red Cross, from failing to inform it of all its POW camps (they named 42 when there were over 100), to delaying or simply failing to issue the necessary documentation that allowed a camp visit to suspecting Red Cross officials of being spies. In Borneo, the Red Cross delegate was shot, along with his wife, on charges of trying to obtain the names of interned civilians.

In August 1942, the Japanese ordered that no neutral ship, even flying the flag of the Red Cross, would be allowed in Japanese waters. Clearly this meant that food parcels for POW’s held in Japan could not be sent. Food parcels were stockpiled in Vladivostok from September 1943 on, but they remained there until November 1944 when the Japanese allowed one ship to transport parcels to Japan. However, how much of this consignment actually got to POW’s or internees is not known. A second shipment never occurred as the ship was sunk.

The Japanese put a limit on the number of words a POW could receive in a letter. The maximum was 25 words that had to be typed in capital letters. Sending a letter from a POW camp was even more difficult as the Japanese had little time for POW’s who had surrendered. Such indifference meant that very little news came from the camps to families and the Red Cross could do little to change this.


German Prisoners of War

German POW’s captured in campaigns in Western Europe, were held in Allied POW camps. These came under the inspection of the Red Cross and all the evidence suggests that German POW’s held in Western Europe were well treated – accommodation was adequate as was food. The Red Cross took care of communicating with families. German POW’s captured on the Eastern Front had a far worse experience.


The war in Russia had brutalised those who fought there – on both sides. The common standards of decency even in war all but disappeared. Those German POW’s who were captured were tarred with the known atrocities that had been carried out by the SS. German POW’s were seen as the people who had destroyed vast areas in western Russian and killed millions. Therefore, those who had been captured were used to rebuild what they had damaged. If they died doing so, then they died. The Nazi government had warned all German soldiers about the dangers of being captured alive – “a fate worse than death” – and many did not see this as an exaggeration.Russia had failed to co-operate with the Red Cross. Russia had failed to provide a list of captured German soldiers – despite promises – and the Germans reciprocated. German POW’s could expect nothing but the harshest of treatment from the Russians.

The Germans had 91,000 men captured alive after the Battle of Stalingrad. Few of these men returned to Germany after the war ended. Made to carry out hard labour often in extreme weather conditions, many died as a result of lack of food and disease. Their accommodation was basic at best.

Very many more Germans soldiers became POW’s when the war ended in May 1945. They were expected to rebuild Russia. Gerhard Ohst was sent to Velikiye Luki. Here was Russia’s largest railway repair shop – but a ruin in 1945. 1000 German POW’s were sent to Velikiye Luki to rebuild it. What many expected to take 20 years was completed in just 3 years – but many died doing so, primarily from malnutrition and the diseases associated with it. The Soviet authorities had one requirement – that work that needed to be done was done. How many died doing this work was unimportant. Such an attitude fitted in with the attitude that had prevailed in Russia on both sides since the time of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in June 1941.

The Russians divided the prisoners into three classes. Those who exceeded the work required of them – they were given extra rations those who completed the work required of them got the basic ration of food those who failed to complete the work required of them, got less than the basic ration. The rations for those who exceeded their work requirement were minimal – and the more hungry someone became, the less productive he was work-wise. A ‘normal’ day’s ration was a bowl of gruel and just over 1lb of bread.

Twice weekly, German POW’s received lessons in Communism, but there is no evidence that this met with any success. The NKVD was also active in the POW camps hunting out those who had committed war crimes.

German POW’s frequently had to work alongside Russians who had been assigned to various rebuilding tasks.

Germans held as POW’s in British camps had access to Red Cross visits. There was a chance of escape but few attempted to do so especially when it became clear that Nazi Germany was not going to win the war. Many of the British POW camps were in remote areas of Britain. The escape routes that existed in occupied Western Europe and were manned by resistance fighters did not exist in Britain. Without these manned routes with their safe houses, any Germans who did escape were very much by themselves. Crossing into the Irish Republic was a possibility but this still required crossing water. Crossing the English Cannel was a serious problem for anyone wanting to get back to mainland Europe without being seen.

The most common cause of complaint to the Red Cross seems to have been about the cold in the huts they were housed in – i.e. the British weather. Another common complaint was about the quality of food served up. The latter complaint was presumably a common one from a British point of view in a German POW camp.

Once in captivity, a German POW was stripped of any Nazi regalia that they might have on them ranging from ceremonial daggers, badges and arm bands etc.

The number of German POW’s vastly increased as the Allies broke out of their Normandy landing bases in 1944. As the Third Reich started to collapse in 1945, the numbers meant more and more POW camps were needed on mainland Europe. The Germans under the supervision of French troops were sent to work on farms or in mines. There was little reason for any German POW to escape and many simply got on with their lot. After the surrender of Nazi Germany, the priority was to get back to Germany itself men qualified in a trade that Germany needed to rebuild itself. As early as the summer of 1945, POW’s who were builders, farmers, drivers etc were sent back to Germany. However, those suspected of war crimes or being members of a political group were held back for further questioning.

“Our diet was inadequate during the first few months of captivity, and the prisoners lost up to a quarter of their body weight. There was sufficient water available and the hygiene arrangements were satisfactory. The conduct of the British camp supervisors and sentries was correct at all times.” Rudolf Böhmler.

However, medical treatment was an issue.

“A camp hospital was built, but there was a shortage of every kind of medicine. Dental treatment was practically out of the question because of a lack of the necessary instruments and equipment.” Rudolf Böhmler.

In Western Europe, the British and Americans did not have any intention of keeping German POW’s for longer than was necessary. They realised that many of the men they had captured had been conscripted into the war effort by the Nazis and that the vast majority had committed no war crimes. It was also generally believed that they would serve a better purpose rebuilding damaged Germany as opposed to simply languishing in a POW camp.

However, captured SS officers were kept away from regular army POW’s. At a POW camp at Bellaria, they were kept in a special guarded unit. Barbed wire kept both sets of prisoners apart. Whereas the army POW’s were allowed one hour’s exercise outside of the camp, the captured SS men were only allowed to exercise inside the camp and they were escorted by guards at all times.

In the autumn of 1946, senior army officers were transported to a POW camp at Munster. Here they could be visited by relatives who were allowed to bring with them food parcels.

Those suspected of being too politicised by Nazi doctrine, had to face a review board on a regular basis as the Allies were not prepared to release anyone who was suspected of having a Nazi past. A senior Allied officer was the head of any review board and he worked alongside two assessors. Anyone suspected of being politicised was not given a defence councillor but he did have access to an interpreter. The review boards had four categories. If a POW was placed in Categories 1 or 2, he would not be released. Categories 3 or 4 meant that a POW could expect a quick release from a POW camp as he was no longer a POW. However, many were simply moved from a POW camp to a former concentration camp at Neuengamme and held as a civilian detainee until the authorities were convinced that there were no issues concerning these individuals.

German POW’s continued to be held by the Allies for a number of years after the war had ended. The last POW’s held in Egypt returned to Germany in December 1948.


For 𠆊LL Who were Captured’? The Evolution of National Ex-prisoner of War Associations in Britain after the Second World War

Veterans' associations after the Second World War have received very little attention from historians despite the insight they can provide into postwar societies. This article draws upon the literature published by national ex-prisoner of war (POW) associations formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, to examine the significance attached by different groups of British ex-POWs to their wartime incarceration. This literature shows how an early attempt to create one POW association for all who were captured failed. Associations subsequently founded for Far East ex-POWs successfully created an inclusive ‘fictive kinship group’ and their activities challenge recently established discourses that these prisoners were a ‘forgotten army’. By contrast, kinship groups that developed among ex-POWs held in Italy and Germany were fostered by certain criteria in addition to the common one of having been held in captivity. The article concludes by identifying the conditions conducive to the formation of fictive kinship groups among POWs.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Midge Gillies, Lucy Noakes, Lizzie Oliver, Juliette Pattinson, Wendy Ugolini and John Siblon for their comments and suggestions. With thanks also to John K. Banfield, Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Royal Air Forces Ex-PoW Association, for sharing with me the work of the Association.


RELATED ARTICLES

Historians say up to 200,000 women, mainly from the Korean Peninsula and China, were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers in military brothels. While some other World War II armies had military brothels, Japan is the only country accused of such widespread, organized sexual slavery.

Hashimoto, a lawyer and former TV personality, created an uproar with comments to journalists two weeks ago about Japan's modern and wartime sexual services, which he said were misquoted.

He is reported to have said: 'To maintain discipline in the military, it must have been necessary at that time.

Draw: In this undated image U.S. sailors gather in front of a Yasu-ura House 'comfort station' in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo

World War Two: A Japanese militray unit, consisting of Sumo wrestlers, engage in drills and training exercises as a prelude to induction into the home defense forces, Japan, 1942

'For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest, a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.'

He added that on a recent visit to the southern island of Okinawa, he suggested to the U.S. commander there that his troops 'make better use' of the legal sex industry 'to control the sexual energy of those tough guys.'

Hashimoto has since claimed he had not tried to condone a system of so-called comfort women, but meant to say military authorities at the time, not only in Japan but in many other countries, considered it necessary.

'Comfort woman' is a translation of the Japanese euphemism, jugun ianfu, (military comfort women), referring to women of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who became sex slaves for the Japanese troops before and during W orld War Two.

Forgotten women: Hashimoto failed to mention the Chinese, Filipino, and Indonesian women also exploited as sex slaves during World War II. Above, Filipino former-comfort women march in 2004 to protest their wartime abuse

Outraged: Former 'comfort woman' Lee Yong-Soo (left) stands beside her supporters holding portraits of Chinese, Philippine, South Korean and Taiwanese comfort women who were sex slaves

Hashimoto also claims singling out Japan is wrong, alleging the issue also existed in the armed forces of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the former Soviet Union during World War II.

'Based on the premise that Japan must remorsefully face its past offenses and must never justify the offenses, I intended to argue that other nations in the world must not attempt to conclude the matter by blaming only Japan and by associating Japan alone with the simple phrase of "sex slaves" or "sex slavery",' Hashimoto said in a statement to journalists.

But the mayor did apologise to for saying U.S. troops should patronize adult entertainment businesses as a way to reduce sex crimes .

Hashimoto's suggestion to the U.S. troops brought sharp criticism from Washington. The State Department called Hashimoto's comments 'outrageous and offensive.

Painful past: A South Korean woman cries during a protest rally at the Japanese embassy in Seoul, where demonstrators demanded compensation and punishment for soldiers who abused women

Sense of crisis: Hashimoto made the comments because of a 'sense of crisis' over sex crimes committed by U.S. soldiers stationed in Okinawa, where there has been a U.S. military presence ever since World War II

Okinawa was invaded by U.S. forces in World War II and has had an American military presence since.

The 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor spread rage across the island, and more rapes and other crimes linked to U.S. servicemen over the years, along with military land use and aircraft noise, have caused longstanding anti-U.S. military sentiment there.

Hashimoto said his remarks rose from a 'sense of crisis' about the cases of sexual assaults by U.S. military personnel on Japanese civilians in Okinawa, where a large number of U.S. troops are based under a bilateral security treaty.

'I understand that my remark could be construed as an insult to the U.S. forces and to the American people' and was inappropriate, he told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo. 'I retract this remark and express an apology.'

THE WORLD WAR TWO COMFORT WOMEN

'Comfort woman' is a translation of the Japanese euphemism, jugun ianfu, (military comfort women), referring to women of various ethnic and national backgrounds and social circumstances who became sex slaves for the Japanese troops before and during W orld War Two.

Military brothels existed across the Asia Pacific region in areas occupied by the Japanese forces.

There is no way to determine precisely how many women were forced to serve as comfort women, but estimates range from 80,000 to 200,000, of whom about 80 per cent of whom are thought to have been Korean.

Some of the girls forced into sexual slavery were as young as 12 years old, according to Chinese legal groups.

An 'inexcusable act': Historians estimate that the Japanese military forced up to 200,000 women to act as prostitutes during World War II

Japanese women and women of other occupied territories (such as Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma and the Pacific islands) were also used as comfort women, according to a report by San Francisco State University.

The authorities believed the comfort system would enhance the morale of the military and help prevent soldiers from committing sexual violence toward women of occupied territories, which became a real concern after the infamous Nanjing Massacre in 1937.

They were also concerned with the health of the troops, which prompted close supervision of the hygienic conditions in the comfort stations to help keep STDs under control.

When the war ended, the only military tribunal concerning the sexual abuse of comfort women took place in Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia) in 1948.

Several Japanese military officers were convicted for having forced the 35 Dutch women involved in the case into comfort stations.

The issue began to emerge in Korea only in the late 1980s.

The Japanese government admitted deception, coercion and official involvement in the recruitment of comfort women in August 1993, but critics said they needed to go much further.

After Japan's surrender it is reported that it set up a similar system there for American GIs, with tacit approval from U.S. authorities,

Japanese officials visited a New Jersey town in April 2012 to ask for a memorial to the thousands of Korean women and girls who were enslaved to be removed.


3. Coupon allocations decreased as the war progressed

The rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear forced the surrender of seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed.

The coupon allowance was at its lowest from 1945 and 1946. For the eight month period from 1 September 1945 to 30 April 1946 only 24 coupons were issued, effectively allowing the shopper only 3 coupons a month. Throughout the war, special provisions were made for some people, including manual workers, civilian uniform wearers, diplomats and theatrical performers. New mothers were also given 50 coupons. Government publicity offered advice about the complex rationing system. Shoppers were constantly reminded of the need to plan their clothes purchases carefully and make difficult choices between garments of differing coupon values, as seen in this poster.


Watch the video: How Were Germans Treated In British POW Camps?


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