German Prisoners Of War in Britain 1939-1948

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 Western 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 (see 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 also 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 (see 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 mainly 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 (see 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 car driving 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”) (see 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 captivity.

The more liberal treatment of prisoners of war was also conditioned by their more intensive use as a labor force in Great Britain, which will be discussed in more detail below.

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 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 (see Custodis 2012, pp. 243-46). In addition to agriculture, POWs were also employed in “British buldings 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 obviously 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 report by Cyrus Brooks mentioned in the previous paragraph, 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 this 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 need 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 also 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 (see 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 fellow travellers 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 followers of Western democracy with the help of specially selected candidates, many of whom were certainly opponents of the 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 prisoners of war. 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 and they were eventually used as workers in the British economy, the British public came face to face with the POWs for the first time, despite the ban on fraternisation. And it seems that the image of the Germans seemed to change as a result. 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 that had imprisoned them for years.


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