Wednesday, November 12, 2014

German and Italian Prisoners-of-War in Britain, 1939-1948

by Mark Patton

Between the outbreak of the Second World War and the last repatriations in 1948, more than four hundred thousand German and Italian soldiers were held prisoner in over a thousand camps around the United Kingdom. During the course of the war itself, security was the clear priority but, as victory approached, attention turned to the question of how these men might be prepared for their eventual release.

German prisoners disembarking from HMS Starling, by Stephen Bone. Image: Imperial War Museum Art LD 3877 (reproduced with permission).

Cyrus Brooks, a psychologist, was quoted as summing up the scale of the problem, when he interviewed a number of German prisoners-of-war in 1940:

"[Brooks] was astonished to find how far Germany and Hitler had become, for these young men, a single concept. He concluded that the really dangerous Nazi was not the sadist of the special SS battalions, but the ordinary decent German, who talked a great deal about honour, who believed in Hitler's omniscience and kindness and who, insulated from the outside world and subjected to constant propaganda, absorbed ideas and slogans, and repeated them like a litany." (M.B. Sullivan 1979, Thresholds of Peace: Four Hundred German Prisoners and the People of Britain, 1944-1948. Hamish Hamilton.)

After the end of the war, each prisoner was individually interviewed, and placed in one of four categories, according to the extent to which they seemed to be subject to Nazi influence. Category A prisoners were "White" (free from Nazi influence), whilst Category B were "Grey" (the vast majority), and Categories C and C+ were "Black." In theory, prisoners were not supposed to know their designation but, in practice, care was taken to prevent the "Black" prisoners from influencing those in the other two categories.

Italian prisoners-of-war working the land, by Michael Ford. Image: Imperial War Museum D62720 (reproduced with permission).

In early August 1945, every POW was shown a 20 minute film of the liberation of Belsen. Hans Freiberger, a prisoner in Belfast, noted that it took an entire day for everyone to pass through the cinema hut, and that men emerged visibly shaking.

There were specially designated camps for officers, who, under international law, could not be forced to work (though many chose to do so). One of the largest of these was at Featherstone Park on the Tyne, just south of Hadrian's Wall, which held 4000 officers.

The remains of the prison camp at Featherstone Park. Photo: Les Hull (licensed under CCA).

The end of the war saw a marked change of regime at Featherstone. The new Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Vickers, a man who had been promoted from the ranks in the First World War, addressed the prisoners:

"Gentlemen! In the First World War I was in a German POW camp, and was treated as a gentleman. I will therefore treat you in the same way."

Vickers was ably assisted by his camp interpreter (and Intelligence Officer), Herbert Sulzbach, a Jew from Frankfurt who had escaped to Britain in 1937, and had served in the British army ever since. Vickers and Sulzbach set up a library for the prisoners with more than 5000 books, and arranged classes in a range of cultural subjects, with the best educated among the prisoners being co-opted to teach. Featherstone also had two playhouses, a marionette theatre, and a stage for light entertainment. Productions included Pygmalion, Troilus & Cressida and Hamlet.

German prisoners at a concert in a British camp. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

German prisoners at a concert in a British camp. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

Just before Christmas, 1946, the watch-towers and barbed wire at Featherstone came down. Vickers announced that POWs were free to walk within five miles of the camp, so long as they were back by 10.00 PM. They could visit private homes, attend church, accept small gifts, such as tobacco or cigarettes. They could not use public transport, or go to pubs, restaurants, or the cinema (they would not, in any case, have had British currency), but they could play football against British teams. Many of the prisoners were invited to spend Christmas Day with a local family.

By 1947, when repatriation began in earnest (many prisoners had already been sent home on compassionate grounds, either because they were ill, or because of a family crisis at home), it was the judgement of senior officers that most prisoners had successfully been moved from the "Black" and "Grey" categories into the "White." There are surely lessons, here, for our own times.

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Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA. 

His third novel, Omphalos, will be published on 5th December 2014, and one of the six stories follows the progress of a German officer through the final stages of the war, and imprisonment in a (fictional) camp in Wales.

1 comment:

  1. ...see soldiers jumping innocently from the deadly and muddy trenches, forced to the force by order of their inflexible "superiors", to massacre them from enemy´s machine gun nests...while the causers of those wars: monarchs, politicians and of all religions pontifex in their golden palaces were eating partridges...(to the next war that going at trenches: pontifices, monarchs and politicians...and fight between them, then rapidly already NO MORE WARS.)

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