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 in 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 postwar 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 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 politics 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 1944 until the repatriation of the last German soldiers in 1948, the use of German POWs as labor 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” (non-commissioned officers and enlisted men), 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 housed 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 war. These were “not seen as dangerous enemies, but merely as acting on behalf of a criminal government.” The housing 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 (see 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 (see 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 Germany understandably fueled 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 bring both the civilian internees and the prisoners of war completely out of the country. 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 again, 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 to be 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 briefly mentioned, Britain feared a reaction by Germany to the deportations. Throughout the war, this fear was one of the most important factors in Germany’s 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 its own 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 or prevent them by giving the enemy as few reasons as possible to treat its own soldiers below this minimum level (see 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 (see Mackenzie 1994, p. 491). According to Mackenzie, it is this principle, even more than the Geneva Convention per se and the participation in a “commom humanity” that the convention sometimes embodies, which determined the adherence to this convention 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 enlisted men (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” (see 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 quite 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 labor 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 “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'” (see 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 defeating Germany 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 (see 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 air battle for Great 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 (see 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, known in English-speaking countries as “D-Day.”

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