German Prisoners Of War in Britain 1939-1948

1 Introduction

The Second World War has shaped life and memory in Europe like hardly any other event. In film and television, both Hollywood and documentary, symbolic turning points of the war, such as the Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, or the Allied landings in Normandy, have been immortalized. With comparable attention, Nazi atrocities, most notably the Holocaust, were examined and sometimes more sometimes less accurately portrayed by said media. But the subject of POWs has so far occupied a rather less prominent place within the German culture of remembrance, especially with regard to the imprisonment of German POWs in the West. This can probably be attributed, at least in part, to German foreign policy in the first post-war decades, which did not make the research literature on the subject available to the general public until the 1970s, long after the last POWs had returned to Germany (cf. Benz & Schardt 1991, p. 10).

This thesis will now deal with exactly this topic, more precisely with the captivity of German Wehrmacht members in British captivity. This study will be limited to prisoners of war in Great Britain, as a thorough account of the experiences of all prisoners in British custody, including Commonwealth countries, North Africa, and continental Europe, would simply go beyond the scope of this paper. Only the deportation and the circumstances of the same to the various countries of the British Commonwealth will be included, since the image of the public and the politics of these prisoners in the first years of the war is reflected particularly clearly in this removal of German prisoners.

In addition to the course of the war itself, the use of the Germans as a labor force towards and after the end of the war had a considerable influence on this image. In order to carry out this study, the treatment of the German members of the Wehrmacht will be divided into chronological sections, which will roughly follow turning points in the course of the war, since these – as already indicated – are usually accompanied by changes in the treatment of the prisoners of war. In this context, the different treatment of German and Italian prisoners will also be discussed.

As Allied victory began to emerge by 1943 at the latest, the victorious powers, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched a program to “re-educate” German POWs away from Nazi and toward Western, democratic values. Although there were also programs for re-education in the USSR, it should be obvious that these were oriented toward other values and were partly carried out for other purposes (cf. ibid., p. 12 f.). This program, designated with the aforementioned term re-education, will also be presented at least briefly.

At the end of this thesis, a short summary on the development of the captivity of German Wehrmacht members in British captivity during the war will be presented, as well as a conclusion on the influence of the war on the treatment and life of the same in captivity.

For the accomplishment of this investigation mainly textbooks, as well as articles from professional journals, both from the German and from the Anglo-American area, were used.

2 Imprisonment in British Custody

Over the entire duration of the war, a total of about 3.7 million German Wehrmacht members were British prisoners of war (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 17). It is obvious that the number of POWs in British custody and the way they were treated depended strongly on the phase of the war, which is why this thesis is divided into different phases. The first phase deals with the experiences of German POWs from the beginning of the war until 1944. The determining factor for this phase was above all the invasion fear of the British public and politicians and the associated removal of the majority of the German prisoners. After the successful landing of the Western Allies in Normandy, large numbers of Wehrmacht personnel were taken prisoner for the first time. This circumstance and the positive experience with Italian POWs induced the British government to now use German POWs as laborers in the country, which shaped the public image of these soldiers. Because of this change in the way prisoners were treated, the period from 1944 until the surrender forms the second phase of this study. In the last phase from 1945 until the repatriation of the last German soldiers in 1948, the use of German POWs as a labour force intensified. At the same time, some of these individuals were now actively re-educated away from National Socialism and toward democratic values. In the following chapter, these three phases and the characteristics of each will be presented in detail.

2.1 From the Beginning to the Normandy Landings (1939-44)

Just a few weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe, the first Germans were taken into British captivity. These were the crews of two German submarines, including 18 officers (see Held 2008, p. 7). In total, with the “Unteroffizieren und Mannschaften” (sergeants and crews), there were 112 men who were housed in two different camps, one for the officers and the other for the lower ranks. As Britain avoided direct confrontation with Nazi Germany in the early months of the war, the number of prisoners also remained relatively low, although from 1940 onwards a steady influx of POWs began in the form of German naval and air force personnel, who were generally captured in and around the British Isles. Even with this influx, however, only 6245 German POWs were in British custody by the end of 1941. Even this comparatively small amount of POWs was already globally dispersed; only 1854 of the German POWs in British custody were held in Great Britain itself, the rest were distributed among Canada, North Africa and Australia, i.e. a total of four (!) different continents (cf. Wolff 1974, p.3 ff.). Here it already becomes clear what extent the deportations already mentioned had assumed, as will be described in more detail below.

2.1.1 The Image of Prisoners of War in Public and Politics

Both the government in office at the beginning of the war under Chamberlain and the majority of the British public, at least as far as the opinions expressed in the media were concerned, saw Hitler and the Nazi regime, and not the German people per se, as the enemy. This was also evident from the consistent distinction between the “Germans” and the “Nazis” in the rhetoric of the time. People even went so far as to view the war as a kind of “liberation struggle” to redeem the Germans from the tyranny of the Nazis. However, at the beginning of the war, it was also expected that the German people would eventually turn against the Nazis and that the war would thus be over quickly. This image of Germans as victims of the Nazi regime was also reflected in the treatment of the few prisoners of war at the beginning of the conflict. These were “not seen as dangerous enemies, but merely as acting on behalf of a criminal government.” The accommodation of the captured officers, however, met with early criticism from the British public. This was because they were housed in a relatively luxurious mansion, which was correspondingly expensive to administer (cf. Held 2007, pp. 19-28).

Until 1944, the British civilian population had virtually no contact with the German POWs. While Italian POWs were used as laborers relatively early on, especially in agriculture, the Germans were not employed for most of the war, due in part to security concerns on the part of the British government. Because of these concerns, the British government tried to minimize contact between the British civilian population and especially the German POWs. This went so far that the British government issued a general “fraternization ban,” which found expression in various laws, such as the prohibition against even going near a POW camp. In general, this ban was intended to prevent contact and “fraternization” between British civilians and German Wehrmacht members by minimizing contact between the two groups (cf. Moore 2013, p. 743 f.).

After the invasion and conquest of Poland and the associated atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht, the image of Germans in Britain gradually began to change. While it was still mainly the Nazi government that was blamed for these crimes specifically, and the war in general, it was now also recognized that the German people did little, if anything, against this regime. On the contrary, according to an American report, no “general dissatisfaction” was found among the German people with the course of the war thus far. With the attacks on Denmark and Norway at the latest, the distinction between Germans and Nazis had been abolished. There was now talk of the German people identifying with the Nazi government and therefore being indistinguishable from them. This change in the image of Germans in British politics and public opinion naturally had an impact on the treatment of German Wehrmacht members who had previously been captured. These were now no longer seen as misguided soldiers who were merely doing their duty in the service of a tyrannical state, but were “identified as representatives of a regime to be fought” (Held 2007, p. 25). The fear of an imminent invasion of Britain understandably fuelled the British public’s fears and resentment of Germans inside and outside of Britain even more. This had a greater impact on the Germans and Austrians already living in the United Kingdom before the war, including many refugee Jews, than on the actual prisoners of war. Indeed, a proportion of the former were now interned in camps along with, in some cases, Nazi sailors from Nazi merchant ships due to fears of sabotage or even attack from within. Why it is a bad idea to lock seamen, some of whom were Nazis themselves or supported National Socialism, and Jews together in a camp hardly needs to be emphasized. Suffice it to say that there were often violent clashes between the two groups within the camps (cf. ibid., p. 28 ff.).

This internment of Germans and Austrians, as well as of German and Austrian Jews, once again shows particularly clearly how the image of the enemy had already changed drastically in this relatively short period of time. From National Socialism “seduced” but basically innocent or at least irresponsible fellow human beings to the spectre of terror of Europe and Great Britain (cf. ibid.). This paranoia, naturally spread to the subject of captured Wehrmacht members in the United Kingdom. While these had previously played a relatively minor role in the public eye, they were now perceived as an acute security risk. Most of the Germans and Austrians in the country, whether civilians or soldiers, were to be deported from the British mainland to smaller islands in the British archipelago. Churchill justified these considerations by saying that the internees would be safer in the camps than in public, since the British population would not be able to vent their anger and frustration on them in the event of a German attack. In the end, however, the internees were not taken to islands but to a “section of coastline defined as a ‘protected area.'” This measure also did not affect all prisoners of war and civilian internees, but only “the male enemy aliens between the ages of 16 and 60” (cf. ibid., p. 33 ff.).

When an Allied defeat finally became apparent in Belgium and France, voices were raised in public to deport both the civilian internees and the prisoners of war in their entirety from British soil. At first it was discussed whether it would be sufficient to deport the prisoners and internees to smaller British Islands, as had been considered before. However, it was concluded relatively quickly that in view of an impending German invasion, this measure was no longer sufficient, since parts of the British government, including Churchill, feared that the invaders could free the captured Germans and Austrians with weapons dropped by plane over the camps, and thus cause an attack from within. After – from the British point of view probably longer than desired – negotiations with Canada, they were the first to agree to accept German and Austrian prisoners of war and civilian internees. Shortly thereafter, Australia and Newfoundland also agreed, and deportation began at the end of June 1940. Whether this was justified on the one hand and legal in the sense of the Geneva Convention on the other hand was not discussed beforehand. However, the deportation of German prisoners of war could be interpreted as a violation of the Convention if the prisoners were unnecessarily exposed to danger. It was also feared in the British Foreign Office that the German government might respond with retaliatory measures of the same kind, deporting British POWs to more remote areas of Europe now largely occupied by Germany and its allies. Just how dangerous the transport of POWs and internees could actually be turned out later that same month when one of the transport ships, the Andorra Star, was attacked and sunk by German U-boats. The British government refused to accept responsibility for this incident, saying that it was generally not in accordance with the “rules of warfare” to attack “merchant ships.” However, the government had failed to inform the International Committee of the Red Cross about this transport and so the captain of the German U-boat that sank the transport ship did not know anything about its passengers either (cf. ibid., pp. 36-45, pp. 49-50).

This event led for the first time to a certain skepticism within the British population regarding the deportations. Contributing to this skepticism was an incident on the transport ship “Duchess of York” in which “a German sailor of the merchant navy” was shot and two other internees or prisoners on board were wounded because they and other persons had not cleared the deck quickly enough. According to the report of a German officer on board, those to be deported were told only one day before departure that they were to be taken to another place, without specifying where that place was to be. Furthermore, they were told that the journey was to take only “5 to 6 hours,” which is why “neither toilet articles nor linen” were packed, to which the Germans and Austrians on board then had no access anyway. On this transport, refugees of the Nazi regime were again accommodated together with Nazis, which in turn led to “friction” (cf. ibid., pp. 36-47).

The incidents had long-term consequences for the civilian internees. The public, which had only recently called for the forced internment and deportation of the German and Austrian populations of Great Britain, now let their outrage at these measures be known. As a consequence, many of the civilians who were considered less dangerous were released over the next few months. However, this was not to change the situation of the prisoners of war. For the most part, they continued to be taken out of the country (cf. ibid., pp. 51-52).

2.1.2 The Principle of Reciprocity as the Determining Factor

As has been mentioned, Britain feared a reaction by Germany to the deportations. Throughout the war, this fear was one of the most important factors in countries adherence to the regulations and measures prescribed by the Geneva Convention for the humane treatment of prisoners of war the principle of reciprocity: Since the enemy also had captured soldiers in custody – in the case of Great Britain, Germany also had a disproportionately larger number of prisoners in the early years of the war – the enemy’s prisoners of war in its own custody would have to be treated as well as necessary, according to a minimum standard established under the Geneva Convention, to prevent mistreatment of one’s own captured soldiers by giving the enemy as few reasons as possible to treat them below this minimum level (cf. Held 2007, p. 63). Mackenzie notes that it was this principle that protected German POWs from British retaliation, especially in the later years of the war, when the Luftwaffe increasingly dropped bombs on civilian targets. Against the background of the reciprocity principle, it was then also possible to organize several prisoner exchanges (cf. Mackenzie 1994, p. 491). According to Mackenzie, it is this principle, even more than the Geneva Convention per se and the participation in a “common humanity” that the convention sometimes embodies, which determined the adherence to it over the largest period of the war in the West (cf. ibid., p. 518). Against this background, the relatively good care of the prisoners of war, which will be briefly described in the next section, makes perfect sense.

2.1.3 Living Conditions in the Camps and the Political Attitudes of the Prisoners

At the beginning of the war, the War Ministry under Leslie Hore-Belisha was responsible for the administration of the German prisoners of war, which was also responsible for their accommodation and care. As already mentioned, the first 112 prisoners were divided into two different camps, one for officers and one for common soldiers of lower ranks (see Held 2007, p. 26 ff.).

Most of the prisoners were housed in “Nissen huts”, which Neufeld and Watson described as “corrugated tin and wood structures”. Each hut housed up to 80 men, which were furnished with beds, tables, and benches. The authors note that prisoners were also offered recreational activities such as “sports, cards, chess, English lessons and educational opportunities” (see Neufeld & Watson 2013, p. 38).

The German POWs wore their uniforms, although there were often supply problems here due to the “textile shortage in the country” (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 34). “Nazi Loyalists” were separated from the other prisoners and identified by a black marking on their clothing (cf. Neufeld & Watson 2013, p. 38). For the most part, food supplies met the standards required by the Geneva Convention. A relatively wide variety of different foods and beverages were available to those captured, including bread, meat, cheese, potatoes, coffee, tea, and milk. This covered approximately 3300-3400 calories per day per man. According to the International Red Cross Committee, health care was also “always satisfactory” (cf. Wolff 1974, pp. 36-39).

In the first years of the war, German and Austrian POWs were not yet used as laborers in the country, although this was theoretically possible for the lower ranks according to the provisions of the Geneva Convention. The only limitation to be observed here was that the work intended for the prisoners must be neither “dangerous” nor “humiliating, or directly related to military operations.” Apart from the obvious benefit that the respective custodial power could derive from its prisoners, the work was also supposed to promote their general mental and physical health (cf. Davis 1977, p. 626). The fact that German POWs were not yet used as a labour force, at least in the first years of the war, was due to several practical reasons. First, because there were still relatively few German or Austrian prisoners overall and even fewer in Great Britain itself due to the deportation, so that the benefits might not even make up for the administrative effort (cf. Held, S. 2007, 55-57), and second, because there were unemployed people in the country who should be employed first (cf. Moore 1997, p. 119). Secondly, the Germans were supposedly “hostile” to the United Kingdom, in contrast to the Italians, who were employed as workers relatively early on. Churchill even went so far as to describe the Italians as “docile,” in stark contrast to the Germans, who were “regarded as ‘fanatical National Socialists'” (Held 2007, pp. 55-57). Moore justifies this view in part by the fact that the Italians, unlike the Germans, were never “seriously regarded as ‘the enemy’ by large sections of the public” (cf. Moore 2013, p. 753).

This view of the Germans as a dangerous adversary compared to the docile Italians was based in part on interrogations conducted with the prisoners since the beginning of the war, in which their attitude toward Britain was again described with the word “hostile.” This contrasted with the report of Major General Cyrus Brooks, who, after several interrogations of German conscripts, as well as German civilians in British custody, concluded that the main concern of most of them was to return home as quickly as possible to resume a normal life, even if this meant German defeat in the war. Members of the Luftwaffe, on the other hand, including probably some Nazis, believed in a quick victory for Germany, even if in the case of Britain they hoped for an early peace, since the British were a “brother nation” that one did not want to fight. On the whole, the majority of the prisoners had not been much interested in politics, nor in the outcome of the war, even though “the socio-political achievements of National Socialism (so perceived)” turned many into supporters of the NSDAP. However, since this all-too-human image of German soldiers was not suitable for British propaganda of the dangerous German enemy, who had to be “fought with all means,” Cyrus’s report on these interrogations was not made available to the public (cf. Held 2007, p.60 f.).

Brooks concluded from his interrogations that prisoners convinced of National Socialism had to be convinced in turn “that he [the prisoner per se] had thoughtlessly parroted National Socialist ideas and slogans without really analyzing them.” (Smith 1997 Bonn, p. 21). In this, Smith sees the first beginnings of a program of re-education, which, however, was not yet implemented at this early stage (cf. ibid.). However, these approaches were to be taken up again later in the war, after the initial successes of the Western Allies in Western Europe and the associated increase in the number of prisoners of war, a point that will be returned to later.

2.1.4 First Allied Successes in North Africa and the Bondage Crisis

By the end of 1941, the total number of German POWs had risen to 7275 (cf. Held 2007, p. 53). By the end of 1942, this number had increased to 25190 due to military successes in North Africa. Of these, the majority were taken outside of Europe, as had been the case at the beginning of the war, and not held in Britain itself. By the end of 1943, this number had risen to a total of 34986 German prisoners of war in British custody. This relatively small increase compared to 1942 can be explained, among other things, by an agreement between Britain and the United States, which had already agreed to accept “150,000 British-owned prisoners of war”. Thus, most of the prisoners taken in Africa were handed over to the USA (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 6 ff.).

With Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and the U.S. entry into the war as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor toward the end of 1941, the fortunes of war slowly but surely turned against Nazi Germany. The Allies were now able to record increased military successes, which had previously been largely absent except for the Battle of Britain. However, the accumulation and intensification of confrontations between the warring parties and the accompanying increase in the number of prisoners of war also led to an affair known as the “bondage crisis” (Held 2007, p. 14). This crisis was brought about by the discovery of dead German soldiers with their hands bound after an attack by British and Canadian troops on the German-occupied French port city of Dieppe. The High Command of the Wehrmacht and Hitler responded to this discovery by demanding that the hands of German prisoners of war not be bound in the future. If this ultimatum was not agreed to within a day, the British POWs taken by the Germans at Dieppe would also be bound. According to Churchill, the prisoners found were shot while trying to escape, which seemed to be sufficient reason to convince the British War Cabinet not to accept the German ultimatum and to issue its own ultimatum instead. If Germany were to shackle British POWs, Britain would shackle the same number of German POWs. This diplomatic exchange played out on the seventh and eighth of October 1942. By the tenth of October, a total of (not each) 5500 German and British soldiers were in shackles. The situation did not escalate further, however, as both sides began to realize that further retaliation would only provoke further reactions from the other side, and by early 1943 the situation had largely been defused (cf. Mackenzie 1994, p. 491 f.).

Except for this dramatic episode, not much changed in the treatment of POWs from 1939 to 1944. As at the beginning of the war, most prisoners were deported abroad. This was to change with the landing of Allied troops in northern France, better known as D-Day.

2.2 From D-Day until the Downfall (1944-45)

According to Wolff, there were a total of 55,235 prisoners in British custody at the end of July 1944 and up to 270,561 by the end of December of the same year. By July 1945, this number had almost doubled to 574,062, before falling slowly but steadily over the next months and years until June 1948, when the last Germans were repatriated. Not included in this calculation are German soldiers who were taken into British captivity after the surrender of Germany, since they were not considered prisoners of war by the United States and Great Britain under the Geneva Convention. These men were called “‘Surrendered Enemy Personnel (SEP)’ by the British or ‘Disarmed Enemy Forces (DEF)'” by the Americans, and there were about 4 million of them in the West in total, distributed mainly between the two major Western victorious powers. Since this extraordinarily large quantity of prisoners made it difficult, if not impossible, to provide care and treatment under the rules of the Geneva Convention, the surrendered forces of Germany were denied POW status. Moreover, the Allies now had no retribution to fear from lower standards of treatment of former German Wehrmacht members against their own prisoners from the German side, since they had now all been liberated. The International Red Cross protested vehemently, sometimes with the help of legal means, against this special status, which denied these prisoners of war their rights under the Geneva Convention, at least in part, but without success. Despite their new status, the prisoners were generally supposed to have been treated “as humanely as possible.” If these SEPs are included in the calculation, the total number of German prisoners in British custody was approximately 2,788,000 (cf. Wolff 1974, pp. 11 ff.). According to Mackenzie, the conditions under which these prisoners were treated by the Allies were changed “when and where it was deemed necessary.” (Mackenzie 1994, p. 502). As a result, some of the SEPs had to endure “extremely harsh conditions,” which contributed to insufficient effort to feed the German prisoners, ultimately leading to the deaths of tens of thousands through starvation and disease. Mackenzie assumes that “self-interest and a desire for retribution” also played a role in this and illustrates this with the example that SEPs who were obviously too ill were forced to work on the reconstruction of formerly occupied areas, which cost some their lives (cf. ibid., p. 503).

For the approximately 570,000 German prisoners of war who remained in Great Britain after the end of the war and were not shipped abroad, as were the majority of the SEPs, nothing fundamentally changed in their treatment, which still largely complied with the regulations of the Geneva Convention. However, during the course of the war, Germany and Great Britain had concluded several “supplementary or modifying agreements” for the improved treatment of their POWs, including permission to send mail to the homeland. In general, care was good under the circumstances, and most POWs were able to return home “healthy and fit for work” by 1948. The only criticism voiced by the International Committee of the Red Cross was the accommodation of German prisoners of war in tents, sometimes even in the winter months. However, this type of accommodation was replaced by barracks as quickly as possible (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 31 ff.).

Due to the large number of prisoners who arrived in Great Britain toward the end of the war, the previously mentioned problem of textile shortages intensified. Sometimes only a fraction of those captured had nearly complete uniforms to wear. For this reason, brown-colored uniforms bearing one or more identifying marks were issued to the prisoners, who, however, “sometimes […] perceived them as discriminatory.” Some of the prisoners brought their own clothing, which they had acquired in American POW camps with their labor wages, to Great Britain. There, however, these had to be surrendered due to a lack of communication between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, since the British were not informed that they were private property (cf. ibid., p. 35 f.).

As for the food situation, due to the “food crisis […] worldwide,” calories for the POWs now had to be cut, sometimes drastically: “2800 for working POWs [and] 2000 for non-working POWs,” i.e., a difference of 1300-1400 calories for the latter, which led to weight loss for some prisoners. Toward the end of November 1945, two of the three meals received during the day consisted mainly of bread with either jam or cheese. These were still lavish compared to the British occupation zone within Germany, however. Here, only 1200 to 1500 calories per day were provided. Overall, the prisoners rated the general food situation as good or at least sufficient (cf. ibid., p. 37 ff.).

2.2.1 Prisoners of War as Labour Force

While German and Austrian POWs were not yet used as a labor force in the early years of the conflict, as already discussed in Section 2.1, toward the end of the war Great Britain increasingly relied on the now rapidly increasing number of POWs to support its own economy. The prisoners were mainly employed in three sectors: Either directly in the “service” of the military, or in agriculture or industry. In the first case, the prisoners were chiefly employed in their own POW camps, for which they did not have to be paid. For other work for the military, working POWs had to be paid as much as their own soldiers in the same role. Alternatively, a salary could be negotiated with the opposing side for these workers (cf. Davis 1977, p. 626 f.). For agricultural or industrial work, salaries were negotiated on a contract basis by POW camp officials with potential employers. These salaries were ideally supposed to be within the range of the standard local salary for the job in question. The bulk of the salary itself was usually not paid directly to the prisoners, but held back either for the “common welfare” of the camp or for the prisoner’s future release. The part of the salary that was due to the prisoners was usually received in a form of “camp currency,” which could only be used in the camp canteen (cf. ibid., p. 628). By March 1945, a total of 66,500 German POWs had been used as laborers in Great Britain (cf. Moore 1997, p. 118), after it was decided on July 12, 1944, to now employ Germans as well as Italians. This change of heart was motivated, at least in part, by Italy’s switch of sides to the Allies and, in this context, by the ebbing of the influx of Italian POWs. Despite this change in Britain’s treatment of her German POWs, those employed still represented only a fraction of the total number of prisoners. Thus, in November 1944, there were still approximately 100,000 German POWs unemployed (see ibid., pp. 132-135). This was to change drastically in the coming months and years, however, and the captured Germans would become an important and, in some cases, necessary part of the British post-war economy, as will be shown in the following chapter.

2.3 After the End of the War (1945-48)

The fraternization ban already briefly mentioned in Chapter 2.2 was lifted in December 1946, which meant that German POWs were now allowed to visit British civilians and generally move much more freely around the camp within a 5-mile radius. Even driving cars was now permitted. During 1947, prisoners were allowed even more freedom, such as visiting local “cinemas, stores or restaurants.” This culminated in July 1947 with “permission to marry British girls.” From 1946 at the latest, secret relationships between local women and German POWs apparently increased. The increasing freedoms of Germans within Britain made it increasingly difficult to stop them, which also contributed to the relaxation of the fraternization ban and eventually its complete repeal. Subsequently, there were a total of 796 marriages between British women and German prisoners of war (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 42).

This development also seemed to be supported to a large extent by the public. Thus, British girls and women admitted that they voluntarily had contact with the prisoners, among other things even in court, which could usually result in a punishment, albeit a very mild one, in the form of a fine of a couple of pounds. Even in the press, these acts of fraternization, as these relationships between German men and British women were ironically called, were not despised but seen as a sign of humanity and compassion (“pity”) Moore 2013, p. 755 f.). Thus, although the image of Germans seemed to improve in general, at least one British woman who was in a romantic relationship with a POW had to contend with discrimination from her compatriots because of this relationship. This ranged from verbal attacks to “being punched and spat at in the streets” (ibid., p. 758).

Despite these generally good conditions, many of the prisoners struggled with their own problems of a mental nature, sometimes due to the particularly long confinement. Here, “hopelessness, depression, suicides and attempts to do so” are mentioned (cf. ibid. p. 44 f.). These mental problems were sometimes also summarized under the term “barbed wire disease,” along with symptoms such as “the feeling of homesickness, isolation, and loss of freedom, and more serious symptoms such as intense irritability, moodiness, depression, and even paranoia” (Hellen 2008, p. 42). Older prisoners were particularly affected, with these symptoms increasing the risk of psychotic and psychological illnesses (cf. ibid.). Peter Steinbach’s characterization of wartime captivity as “the experience of emptiness, failure, insecurity, spacelessness, and timelessness.” (Steinbach 1997, p. 278) aptly summarizes these negative aspects of internment.

2.3.1 The Intensified Use of POWs as a Force of Labour

Although, according to the provisions of the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war should be returned to their home country as soon as possible after the end of a conflict, this was not the case with the German POWs in the hands of the Allies, as no peace treaty was concluded after Germany’s unconditional surrender, which would have formally ended the hostilities. For these and other reasons, the Allies had decided to keep the POWs in custody until December 1948 at the latest, before the last Germans were to be repatriated. As has already been explained, the German Wehrmacht members in British custody had also been used as labour within Britain since 1944, which certainly contributed to the decision to keep the POWs for longer. As the war progressed and Germany surrendered, and with it the exponential increase in POWs, the proportion of working prisoners also grew, reaching a peak of 380,000 employed Germans in Britain. This was particularly noticeable in agriculture, where POWs accounted for one-fifth of the total labour force. Overall, between one and two per cent of the total labour force in Britain during these years were prisoners of war, and again the majority of these were Germans, as the majority of Italian prisoners had already been repatriated. In 1946 and 1947, prisoners contributed a total of one per cent to Britain’s gross domestic product (cf. Custodis 2012, pp. 243-46). In addition to agriculture, POWs were also employed in “British buildings and civil engineering”, where they contributed up to 2% of total production (cf. ibid., p. 262).

While the POWs worked on the farms during the day, most of them had to return to their camps at night. An exception was made for those who, due to “good behaviour”, were allowed to spend the night in so-called “hostels”, i.e. “guarded houses near employment sites” or on the farms themselves. Over time, this type of accommodation was even preferred for pragmatic reasons “because it saved the costs of guarding, transportation and food, shifted responsibility to the farmer, and increased net working time” (ibid., p. 251), even if there were initially security concerns as far as German prisoners of war were concerned. The image of the dangerous Germans compared to the harmless Italians was still firmly anchored in the thinking of British policy. But after several “experiments”, former members of the Wehrmacht were also accommodated in hostels and on farms, which sometimes led to a change in the image of German POWs among the public – at least the part of the public they worked with, i.e. the farmers themselves and the villagers living around the farm – and even to friendships between former German soldiers and British civilians. According to Custodis, this change of heart regarding the accommodation of Germans did not come about because of a change in the perception of Germans as a security risk, but rather because the accommodation in camps and the guarding of working prisoners of war was no longer economically viable (cf. ibid., pp. 251-254).

As far as the work itself was concerned, the Germans were generally considered more productive and efficient than the Italians, at least this view was expressed both in public in the form of the press and in politics. However, this was said to be the case only if they were under appropriate observation and had received clear instructions. A study of the working hours of Italians and Germans came to the same conclusion, that the German prisoners of war generally worked more. (cf. ibid., p. 255 f.)

In summary, the cooperation of German POWs in the last months of the war as well as in the years after was significant, especially in agriculture (cf. ibid., p. 265).

While the POWs in Britain were helping to revive the British economy, the British government was also concerned about how Germany could be rebuilt as a democratic state in the future. To this end, a programme of re-education of selected POWs was launched, which will be discussed in the next section.

2.3.2 The Re-Education of German Soldiers in Wilton Park

At least since the aforementioned report by Cyrus Brooks, there had been thoughts in Great Britain about how German soldiers could be led away from National Socialism and towards democratic values. However, since the number of prisoners of war was still quite manageable at that time and the outcome of the conflict was uncertain, this approach was not pursued further for the time being. By 1944 at the latest, however, this attitude changed with the rapid increase in the number of prisoners of war and work began on a programme to re-educate them. This programme was to be led by a Prussian, Heinz Köppler, who had emigrated to Great Britain in 1933 to study medieval history. Apparently, a proportion of the POWs themselves were interested in “helping to liberate Germany from the Nazis”, which was a good indicator that there were individuals among the prisoners who would be receptive to such a programme of re-education. To this end, “known Nazis […] should be isolated from the other prisoners”, since attempts at re-education were considered a waste of time as long as a strong Nazi influence existed in the camps. Interestingly, “re-education was seen merely as a prelude to the general treatment of the German people after Hitler’s defeat,” meaning that at least some kind of political re-education was also envisaged for the German people in general. (cf. Smith 1997, pp. 43-48).

This programme of re-education began to gain momentum in 1946 in a school set up especially for this purpose in Wilton Park by Köppler and his team (cf. ibid., p. 166). There, a few thousand selected German prisoners of war were to be confronted with the crimes of the Nazis and also put them into a larger context of German history up to that time. The aim was to turn these ex-soldiers into democratic citizens who would help rebuild Germany in the spirit of the Western powers. Although these chosen few, unlike their comrades, did not have to work, they would have preferred to be sent home instead of being taught. This desire was reinforced by letters from Germany, which reported on the ever worsening living conditions, which also caused feelings of guilt among the prisoners, since they themselves were comparatively well off. These circumstances made it difficult to concentrate on the lessons (cf. ibid., pp. 151-54).

The prisoners were selected for the re-education programme more on the basis of personal character traits such as empathy than on political views. This is clearly illustrated by the assessment of a German prisoner of war as “politically naïve, but has the right attitude”. This prisoner was graded with an A, i.e. very well suited for re-education. Also contributing to the selection of course participants were their age, since older men seemed less enthusiastic, and their educational background, since less educated prisoners sometimes could not keep up with the relatively demanding course material (cf. ibid., pp. 156-160).

Later, students from Germany were also brought to Wilton Park to study alongside the prisoners of war. For the prisoners, this was the first confrontation with people from home since they had been taken into British captivity. However, these encounters aroused feelings of disapproval on both sides: The POWs were jealous that the German civilians were allowed to return home after completing the course, while the civilians back home had “experienced hunger, cold and homelessness” at the end of the war, while the prisoners had lived in relative “luxury” (cf. ibid., p.161 f.).

In addition to history, the “regional studies of Great Britain” and “international relations” were taught. There were also separate lectures on historical topics, such as the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, but also on current political events, such as the Nuremberg war crimes trials and “comparative accounts of democracies” (cf. ibid. p. 165).

The re-education in Wilton Park was largely evaluated positively by the prisoners. Dr. Köppler in particular was highly praised and considered a “great inspiration”. One prisoner even went so far as to say that he had become a human being again in Wilton Park. However, there were also negative voices that called the school a “dream factory” or even indirectly described the teachers as communists (cf. ibid., p. 167 f.).

Overall, it is difficult to judge how effective this programme actually was. The graduates were sent back to their camps after completing the course, with the hope that they would pass on what they had learned to their comrades and thus influence them positively. Smith judges that some camp reports show that this was indeed the case, at least to a certain extent. One example cited is a graduate who “conducted a course in political science” with 21 fellow prisoners. Over time, however, the programme seemed to become less effective. This was mainly due to the fact that the most suitable candidates had already passed through the courses in Wilton Park and now less suitable prisoners, i.e. prisoners with a lower level of education, older prisoners or politically more problematic prisoners, who were less receptive to re-education, were being taught. (cf. ibid., p. 169 f.)

One of the methods of the re-education programme was to create a new sense of belonging, which was to replace the sense of group belonging of National Socialism. Köppler was so successful in this, however, that a “British visitor” to Wilton Park had the impression that this would create a new “elitism” among the prisoners, which would merely replace the old one.

3 Summary and Conclusion

The aim of this study was to provide as complete an overview as possible of the experiences of German prisoners of war in Britain during the Second World War, although it was clear from the outset that a work of this scope could never cover all aspects of the subject. For this reason, the author limited himself to the most important events and developments of captivity, beginning with the deportations of German prisoners brought about by invasion fears, contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Convention, through dramatic escalations such as the shackling crisis, to the pragmatic use of German Wehrmacht members as labourers and their re-education in the spirit of the democratic West. Among these experiences, the use of labour as well as re-education probably had the greatest impact on those POWs who were not taken outside Britain.

Despite occasional violations of the Geneva Convention, only 1254 German POWs had died in Britain by early 1947 due to the generally good care given to POWs (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 40). A total of “404 escape attempts were made during the war, and a further 1777 afterwards” (cf. Wolff 1974, p. 41). This relatively low number of deaths and escape attempts is representative of the generally good treatment of prisoners of war.

Of course, there were exceptions to the rule, as in the case of the deportations and the shackling crisis. Some problems, however, stemmed not from the custodial power but from the prisoners themselves, as the planned escape of a group of Nazis in 1944 who wanted to steal weapons and tanks and attack London clearly shows. This plan was ultimately foiled by a fellow prisoner who betrayed them. In response, he was beaten to death by the same Nazis, five of whom were hanged for this brutal murder (cf. Neufeldt & Watson 2013, p. 38). This example clearly shows the tensions that sometimes prevailed in the camps. According to Steinbach, about 10 per cent of the prisoners were themselves convinced Nazis, with another 30 per cent whom he describes as the “circle of close followers”. A maximum of 10 per cent were opponents of the regime and the rest were politically relatively neutral individuals who allowed themselves to be influenced by both sides (cf. Steinbach, p. 280). The aim of Heinz Köppler’s re-education was to convince these individuals of the values of Western democracy with the help of specially selected candidates, many of whom certainly were opponents of the Nazi regime. This was not to take place through brainwashing, however, but through high-level instruction and stimulating discussions among the Germans themselves (cf. Smith 1997, p. 164 f.), which also seems to have led to moderate success.

Another point of investigation was the influence of the war on the lives of the POWs. According to Bob Moore, the events of the war had a decisive influence on the perception and thus indirectly on the treatment of German and Italian prisoners of war and their use as labour. While Germans were considered too dangerous to be used in the British economy at the beginning of the war, they had to replace Italian prisoners of war as labour at the latest since Italy’s defection to the Allied side. This did not necessarily mean that German prisoners were now perceived as less dangerous, but was much more a necessity in the face of the British economy, which had been hit by the war. It was the use of POWs as a labour force themselves and the benefits they brought to Britain that slowly changed the image of the fanatical Wehrmacht members (cf. Moore 1997, p. 136).

This influence can also be clearly traced in other aspects. While at the beginning of the war the Germans were portrayed as naïve and seduced by Hitler and clearly distinguished from the Nazis, their image changed dramatically with the British defeats on the European mainland and the threat of invasion. Now the German, and thus also and above all the German prisoner of war as a soldier, was a dangerous enemy that had to be fought with all means. As the number of POWs increased they were eventually used as workers in the British economy and the British public came face to face with the POWs for the first time, despite the ban on fraternisation. As a result the image of the Germans seemed to change. Moore summarises this development as follows: “Over time, an amorphous and demonized enemy was replaced in the public mind by individuals who, for the most part, turned out to be very much like their own fathers, sons and brothers.” (Moore 2013, p. 759). Even the press of the time showed a relatively high degree of sympathy when prisoners of war were sarcastically referred to as “peace prisoners” and their labour was condemned as “slave labour” (cf. Smith 1997, p. 162).

In summary, it must be stated that the experiences of prisoners of war were strongly related to the course of the war itself and thus to the image of Germans in politics and the public. In general, German POWs were treated well to very well in Britain, even if the motivation for this until 1945 was probably mainly the principle of reciprocity, as the treatment of SEPs, which could not be dealt with in too much detail, shows. The impact that being a prisoner of war in British custody had on the future lives of the prisoners after their repatriation is difficult to ascertain, but at least some of the Wilton Park graduates remembered their experiences in Britain for many years after their release home. Even if these were not universally perceived as positive, the repatriates agreed that their treatment had, on the whole, been fair (cf. ibid., p. 168). And as was shown, some of the former prisoners even found love and started a new life on the other side of the Channel in the country which they once had been forced to fight.


  • Custodis, Johann: Employing the enemy: the contribution of German and Italian Prisoners of War to British agriculture during and after the Second World War. In: The Agricultural History Review , 2012, Vol. 60, No. 2 (2012), pp. 243-265.
  • Davis, Gerald H.: Prisoners of War in Twentieth-Century War Economies. Journal of Contemporary History , Oct., 1977, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 623-634.
  • Hellen, Ingeborg F.: The Boys’ Own papers: The Case of German POW Camp Newspapers in Britain, 1946-8. In: German Historical Institute Bulletin. Band 30, Nr. 2 (2008), S. 38-79.
  • Held, Renate: Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien. Deutsche Soldaten des zweiten Weltkriegs in britischem Gewahrsam. Hrsg.: Gestrich, Andreas. München 2008.
  • Mackenzie, S.P.: The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II. In: The Journal of Modern History , Sep., 1994, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 487- 520.
  • Moore, Bob: Illicit Encounters: Female Civilian Fraternization with Axis Prisoners of War in Second World War Britain. Journal of Contemporary History , October 2013, Vol. 48, No. 4 (October 2013), pp. 742-760.
  • Moore, Bob: Turning Liabilities into Assets: British Government Policy towards German and Italian Prisoners of War during the Second World War. In: Journal of Contemporary History , Jan., 1997, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 117-136.
  • Neufeld, Jacob and Watson JR., George M.: A BRIEF SURVEY OF POWS IN TWENTIETH CENTURY WARS. Air Power History , Vol. 60, No. 2 (SUMMER 2013), pp. 34-45.
  • Smith, Arthur L.: Kamp um Deutschlands Zukunft. Die Umerziehung von Hitlers Soldaten. 1997 Bonn.
  • Steinbach, Peter: „Die Brücke ist geschlagen“ Die Konfrontation deutscher Kriegsgefangener mit der Demokratie in amerikanischer und britischer Kriegsgefangenschaft. In: Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung , 1997, Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (83), 20 Jahre: Zentrum für Historische Sozialforschung: Teil II: Politik und Gesellschaft (1997), pp. 275-299.
  • Wolff, Helmut: Die deutschen Kriegsgefangenen in britischer Hand. Ein Überblick. In: Zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des zweiten Weltkrieges. Band XI/1. Maschke, Erich (Hrsg.). München 1974.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.