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What was life like for POWs in the UK?

Germans would sometimes get themselves deliberately captured so that they could give the British information (which was often haphazard and out of context) and would then ask to join the British Army.

New POWs were transported to initial holding areas in Belgium and later on, British-occupied France. They would be treated for disease, searched, questioned, and prepared for transport to London by boat.

In London, they were interrogated again to find out their political leanings and whether they had any useful information. The CSDIC (Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre) in London would assess and interview the POWs. It kept reports of their interrogations and the descriptions the POWs had of other Germans. It asked questions on their involvement, other personnel, military equipment, tactics, and organisation. Political “grading” was not always done at that point because there were so many men there.

Germans graded “black” were housed in special, higher security camps, often in remote areas which made escape more difficult for them. Most camps had a mixture of “white” “black” and “grey” POWs, but some had mostly one type of POW. A “white” German POW put into a “black+” camp would likely end up assaulted or killed. “Black+” or “Grade C+” POWs weren’t supposed to leave base camp or join working parties, except under the supervision of the Director of Labour.

By 1945, the restrictions on the usage of “black” German POWs in work parties were loosened.

Those not needed for further interrogation in the London Cage were taken by train to various camps. The camp site would often be roughly 40 feet from the main road, a quarter of a mile from a town centre (e.g. in the case of Royston camp in Hertfordshire) with a double-wired cage, one part for prisoners approximately 350 by 150 feet, and another for guards about 200 by 150 feet. This sort of set up could hold 300 prisoners and 80 guards.

When the Italians came from capture in the Near East, they often had malaria, dysentery, typhoid fever, and pediculosis. The Italians were shipped to Britain in the hopes that a lot of them could help with the labour shortages. Great care was taken to try to send the Italians to locations that did not have the species of mosquito that can spread malaria.

If a prisoner became ill, they would be sent to the closest Emergency Medical Services hospital, but if they had an infectious disease they were sent to a military hospital in Colchester. Many camps had their own hospital facilities run by medics selected from amongst the POWs.

Letters Home

Postcards sent home were limited to 25 words.

For Italian prisoners, telegrams to their families had to be written in Italian or English only, and a maximum of twelve words. Only one message could be sent a month. Only the camp number and “Gt Britain” were to be written on it. If the Italian POW was either in the Air Force or Naval Services, their first telegram home had to be sent to the Admiralty or the Air Ministry, who took two months to process it. All messages arrived at Liverpool to be censored, and could be delayed there for 96 hours.

Daily Life and Rules

POWs sometimes had a “P” sewn onto their left sleeve.

There were often microphones hidden in the prisoners cells to record their conversations to better understand their minds and attitudes. Sometimes, the POWs would find one, but that didn’t matter as there were usually several others hidden.

UK POW camps were more humane and focussed on re-education / denazification. They would have things like a library, a recreation ground, a POW orchestra, a canteen, a chapel, and people coming in to give lectures.

Working POW parties would do things like electricians’ assistant jobs, cleaning, digging in mines, working in factories, digging sewage trenches, or building roads.

POWs would often build small toys and sell them to local families for a small income.

Most camps had football pitches, and there were regular Saturday afternoon matches.

It was technically an offence for a civilian to enter a camp or accept items for transport from a POW.

A policeman assigned to the camp would lock the accommodation huts by 10 p.m.

In terms of re-education, all the Camp courses and lectures were non-compulsory and designed to encourage debate and discussion, as well as free thinking.

Camp sentries were told to shoot to kill to prevent escapes.

Escapes

A lot of red tape surrounded escapes. First, when a POW escaped, the camp commandant had to inform the police, then the police telephoned the Home Office, who then telegrammed the coastal chief constable, who then had to tell the immigrations officers, customs authorities, and the coast guard. The Home Office had to send 120 telegrams to all police forces across the country per escape. This procedure didn’t alter until 1946, when the Home Office was allowed to just tell Scotland Yard, then Scotland Yard would let the other police forces know.

Working

The first POWs offered a chance to work were the Italians, and if they chose to work they were redubbed “cooperators.” If they didn’t work, they were “non-cooperators.”

The volunteers got paid the same rate as British workers. Cooperators were sent to labour camps that had partly dismantled wire fences and the camp gates were often left open. They were given brown battledress and shoulder flashes that read ITALY. Badges of rank were worn, along with “good conduct” badges if they had worked trouble-free for 6 months. The conduct badge took the form of an inverted chevron on the left sleeve – up to three – and one chevron could be taken away as a punishment).

Money was issued as “token money” that could not be used outside the camps, but could be redeemed in the camp canteens. Rates varied but increased over time. Only the volunteer cooks in the camp canteen received a skilled rate.

Roles ranged from agricultural labourers to working on railways, loading and unloading milk or cleaning carriages, working at gas works or Royal Navy victualling yards, coal wharves or factories, or repairing bomb-damaged properties, or they worked in the camps, cooking in the mess, being officers’ batmen, or doing clerical work.

The Italians could not work in bomb disposal, but they did work in other areas that paid a “dirty work” allowance for unpleasant jobs, e.g. tunnel work, clearing of drains, handling raw materials at docks such as bulk sulphur, oily tubes, cement, loose salted hides, dextrine, floating timber, Canadian white flour, lime, dates in oil, ore in bulk, manure in bags, barytes, Coke, coal and even raw asbestos.

They had the same working hours as the British, with one day off a week, usually on Sundays. The cooperators refused to work after 7p.m. as they feared making their non-cooperator comrades jealous.

After 1944, the Italians’ uniform was altered to spruce green and khaki with a service stripe bearing Italian National colours. In 1944, they were also allowed to change part of their weekly wage into sterling to use in local shops and visit the post office, where they could send two airmail letters to allied-occupied Italy a month, use public telephones, and watch a film at the cinema, though they were still not allowed on public transport or in pubs.
A 5-mile-radius “Free Area” existed around the camps (2 miles prior to 1944) where Italians could wander or ride bicycles, if they had been allowed a bicycle. All prisoners had to be back inside the camp by 10p.m. and were not allowed to talk to British civilians unless it was necessary. After August 1944, this rule got relaxed to the extent that they could accept invitations to private houses.

The German POWs were employed on similar terms, but with less freedom. Initially, they only worked in agriculture and forestry, in gangs of twelve or more, and they moved into recently vacated Italian labour camps (once the Italians had been repatriated). Some Germans were employed by the USA and in the U.K. to do salvage work. Work groups had one sergeant major, two “unteroffiziere” and 27 men, for example.

Italian POWs were allowed to drive transport vehicles. To do so, they had to be selected by the camp commandant and given papers stating they had permission. They drove the lorries carrying prisoners from their camp to their work site every day, and the lorries were not given military escorts. They had to drive along recognised routes and keep track of the petrol they used daily. They were also allowed to drive tractors on public highways if the tractor had to be moved between fields or farms. To do so, they had to show the Home Office that they could operate a tractor, but it wasn’t necessary for them to obtain a driving licence for this.

Italians were allowed bicycles, which were given by their employers so long as the camp commandant selected the POWs for bicycle usage. The bicycles could only be used to travel to and from work and were restricted to 7 miles from their camp or hostel. If the farm was further away, different transport was arranged. If a man on a bicycle did not arrive at work within half an hour of his expected time, the employer had to call the camp on the telephone.

They could not accept food, money, or cigarettes from members of the public.
In the later days of the war, German POWs were given access to vehicles, via the YMCA. Less than six Germans would be selected to travel to various camps for welfare work in winter 1947. They weren’t given civilian driving licences, but special authorisation papers under the control of the YMCA.

From May 28th, 1945, Italians were allowed to form police patrols and watch the exercise area in camps during off-duty hours, and were able to apprehend any fellow POWs who were abusing privileges or behaving inappropriately. Patrols were given yellow brassards with green “P”s on them.

Eventually, in certain cases, the prisoners could “live in” on the farms where they worked. The farmer was held fully responsible for their upkeep and behaviour, and they had to live with the farmer or with one of his employees, or in a barn or an outhouse. Once living quarters were agreed on, they could not be changed without the camp commandant’s permission. They were given 3 meals a day, the same as those given to an ordinary worker, so the camp commandant gave ration books to the POWs and the farmers were allowed to claim extra cheese rations.

Regular visits from the camp officials were meant to be made to the farms to check up on the POWs, but it is not clear how regularly this happened.

Money was given to the POWs as credits to use on camp premises. By 1947, a POW could earn 6 shillings a week to use in the NAAFI along with 12 bonus cigarettes. They could also earn 9 shillings’ weekly bonus for good work, but could not touch the bonus as it was savings that would be paid to the POW in marks on his return to Germany. Over a year, he could earn £15 12s regular wage and £23 8s as a bonus.

However, the bonus was paid at a rate of 15 marks to the pound, whereas the current official exchange rate in Germany was 40 marks to the pound. By and by, the men realised they were really earning 30s for the entire year’s bonus, so they only did the minimum amount of work required!

Farmers paid £4 a year to the ministry of agriculture for having a POW labour force on their land.

1945

In September 1945, prisoners were confronted with photos of what went on in concentration camps in Belsen and Buchenwald. The photos were pinned up in the POW huts. For many, this shocked them into disowning their country and never wanting to go back.

As early as 1945, German POWs were doing work that included lifting mines, detecting unexplored missiles, and handling munitions, despite the fact that the Geneva convention clearly stated that POWs should not do work directly linked to the war, or war work that was dangerous.

1946

In early 1946, only those unfit for work got repatriated, so the POWs would do things like show old scars, or drink so much coffee they had palpitations, to try and show they were disabled.

There were educational camps in England where Germans could sit their school leaving exams so they could go to University once they were back in Germany. Lessons were run by German teachers, and their results were recognised by the Hamburg educational authorities.

There were libraries in the educational camps with British and American novels, books on theology, philosophy, maths, etc. The YMCA founded some of the educational camps and produced specialist books on German topics, eg. the effects of dictatorship and the origins of the war.

Towards end of the war, people invited POWs into their homes for Christmas. If transport was not available, the POW was allowed to stay overnight, and the usual 5-mile limitation was extended to 100 miles. They could leave camp at 2pm on Christmas Eve and did not have to return until 6pm on Boxing Day.
Hosts had to write their invitation to the camp commandant and state the address where the POW would be staying. They had to take entire responsibility for ensuring the POW didn’t escape whilst in their care and pay for his transport upfront if he was unable to pay for it.
Those with no invite were given late passes on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so that they could stay out until 1a.m. on those two days.
This was not the case for POWs graded C+ / black.

1947

In 1947, 8000 Ukrainian POWs were brought to the UK from Italy. Once here, volunteers were chosen for agricultural labour and long- term residency in the UK.

1948

Although the Geneva Convention stated that POWs could not be used in war-related work, in 1948 some German POWs were set to work in bomb disposal. The War Office released 260 of them to “civilian” status, initially for agricultural work, to get around the convention!

In 1948, prisoners could get their release after marrying a woman by taking his marriage certificate and his birth certificate to the camp commandant, who would then give the information to the War Office. Then it would be sent to the Home Office for a decision.

The application would be refused if the POW was not seen as a desirable addition to the country’s foreign population. If successful, the POW would get a formal letter from the camp commandant that he would take to the police station, where he would be registered under the Aliens’ Order and get an Aliens’ Registration Certificate.

After that the ex-POW could register for a national ID card, a ration book, and clothing coupons.

This did not apply to men who were only engaged – this was after they were married.

Britain invented compassionate repatriation after the war ended. Germans could be returned home early if their families wrote to the authorities stating what hardships they were suffering and why they needed their POW to come home urgently.
500 men a month could be sent home in response to these letters.
700 applications were examined per quota and they were judged by a group of six POWs who had integrity, intelligence, and maturity. Some POWs tried to manipulate the system by getting their families to lie for them, so the POWD (Prisoner of War Department) conducted spot checks on the POWs to test the truth of their claims.

 

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