Not the Image but Reality: British POW Experiences In Italian and German Camps by Peter Liddle & Ian Whitehead
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"...human treatment could have been given out but, instead, studied torment was an officially sponsored policy."
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Peter Liddle has a long-standing commitment to the study of captivity and for some years too has worked with Dr Ian Whitehead from the University of Derby in a number of publications related to the First and Second World Wars. Here they try to get behind the image we may have derived from a whole range of sources of what captivity was like, to the reality of barbed-wire enclosed existence.
Most people will have an image of life as a British POW in a German or Italian camp, during the Second World War. More often than not it will be one heavily influenced by British war films, or probably the output of Hollywood. Predominant are exciting stories of escape and attempts to outwit the guards. Throughout, the POWs, in the hands of fellow Europeans, are usually depicted as well treated. Incidents of brutality and maltreatment, apart from those following upon 'The Great Escape', usually are limited, in the minds of filmmakers and audiences, to the context of Japanese prison camps. However, letters, diaries and recollections held in the Second World War Experience Centre,1 enable us to trace the real experiences of British POWs, from initial capture through to their life in Italian and German prison camps. In these accounts we are confronted with the grim realities of POW life, the boring grind of the diurnal round in the camp, and also with some evidence of deliberate maltreatment. This article provides some indication of how men coped with these conditions and the collective effort made to sustain morale.
The article also covers the lasting impression that POW life left on men and highlights the difficulty of achieving a generalised picture. On the one hand, there were men for whom the experience was grim, moulded by exposure to acts of inhumanity that bred a hatred for their captors. Yet, on the other hand, there were men who present a less embittered and more positive assessment of life as a POW.
POW life, of course, begins with the moment of capture. For the most part, this appears to have come by surprise, been reached swiftly and left bitter disappointment. From that time on, the daily existence of the captured British troops was very largely dependent upon the degree of respect and consideration that they received from their captors. The quality of this treatment depended upon the morale and organisation of the enemy. POW life also varied from place to place, reflecting the influence of such factors as climate, the nationality and political doctrine of their captors or the attitudes of individual camp commandants. This variety of circumstances does much to explain the variety of POW testimony.
For Major Harry Sell, life as a POW began in June 1942, in the Western Desert. He was amongst a batch of prisoners held at Mersa Matruh, housed in barbed wire cages originally built by the British to hold expected enemy POWs. Too good a job had been made of their construction, making escape impossible. However, decent latrines had, at least, been constructed and the Germans provided the men with two biscuits and a quarter pint of water. They also allowed Sell to visit the cage where the British other ranks were being held. Here he was able to assist with the application of Field Dressings for the wounded. But, the German attitude to Indian POWs was markedly different. They were held in a separate cage and had been "starved for several days as a reprisal for alleged mutilations of German dead and wounded".
Conditions for all the POWs deteriorated when the Germans handed them over to their Italian allies, who left their captives exposed to the sun for three days without food or water. There followed a journey back down the Lines of Communication to Tobruk, where the brutality continued - the Italian authorities doing nothing to restrain the actions of their men. A Gurkha soldier had his back broken by a blow from a sentry's rifle, producing no other response than laughter from the assembled Italian officers. Meanwhile, conditions in the compound at Tobruk were "grim". It was cramped, had no sanitation and the guards, according to Harry Sell, "amuse[d] themselves by throwing in hand grenades".
Another diarist, P. Hainsworth, also captured at Mersa Matruh, recorded the problems encountered on the journey down the lines. He too presents a picture of relative German efficiency and Italian neglect:
[At Sidi Barani] water was getting a very serious matter. No one seemed to have any authority to get us any. In the end we all were more or less mobbing every vehicle which stopped and begging them for wasser and aqua. Some had 4½ gall. containers that they lobbed out as far as possible at about an average quantity of ¼ pint per man. It wasn't a particularly pleasant sight to see a huge crowd of thirsty prisoners pushing to obtain little more than a mouthful of brackish or rusty but nevertheless wet water. I don't know what the reason was - whether the Jerries as a rule carried more spare water than the Itis or whether our plight found a softer spot in the hearts of the German troops. But it is a fact that we were turned away from a much greater proportion of the Iti wagons dry mouthed than from the Jerry vehicles.
By these means, the men managed to procure enough water for themselves, Hainsworth concluding, "we didn't do so badly". The intervention of a German officer brought further relief:
The following morning, July 1st, a Jerry officer who could speak some English stopped by the roadside and we told him what the situation was. He said it was really no concern of his, but all the same he began stopping empty Jerry wagons that were travelling towards Sollum.
After reaching Tobruk, the POWs were then sent on to Derna. J E Jenkins, who had been captured in June 1942, recorded the hardship of this journey in his diary: "We went via Tmimi to Derna and had a most horrible night in the rain during which a chap was shot. I have never felt so disillusioned in my life before."
At Derna, Hainsworth found himself in Italian hands. He gives a fairly positive account of the treatment that POWs received there:
In most ways the camp at Derna was an improvement over our previous conditions. The part we were most grateful for was the almost unlimited supply of water. Although we drew the water from tanks they were usually filled three times a day which was sufficient for all our needs as long as none was wasted ... The food situation was a little easier. It still wasn't enough to get fat on but it was certainly better to have the knowledge that rations would be in pretty well to time. They consisted of one tin of Iti bully weighing about ½ lb to be shared between two and four large Iti hard-tack biscuits between three and in the late afternoon a medium ladleful of veg and mac soup.
Sell's next destination was also Derna, but he provides a less favourable assessment of the conditions he was held in. He writes that a Beau Geste type fort was where the POWs were housed. Here they were crammed into a narrow, dark cell. He describes the scene as rather like Newgate Gaol circa 1600. It was so dirty and cramped that "even the Italian commandant allow[ed] us outside for a breather". From Derna they were transported to Barce, under the guard of Askaris, who generally mistreated their charges, on one occasion clubbing an elderly colonel, struggling to climb unaided into a truck. Barce itself, however, was the one place where Sell records more humane Italian treatment:
We were given a good helping of macaroni stew and a bread roll - it seemed weeks since such a luxury came our way. This was the only camp where the Commandant was reasonable, that is, if the word 'reasonable' can be applied to not going out of the way to impose further hardships. His own son, however, was a prisoner in India.
There was nothing reasonable about treatment at their next camp, in Benghazi:
Our quarters were grimly overcrowded, lice and fleas abounded, any food was a disgusting mess, an open cess-pit in the yard bred milliards of flies which swarmed over everything. But even this was a luxury spot compared with the Other Ranks compounds. Here, overcrowding prevented men from lying down; they were exposed to the sun and without latrines. Applications for tools to dig latrines were jeered at. A few handfuls of biscuits were thrown over the wire to be scrambled for by ravenous men. The weak got nothing and did not survive, dysentery was raging and nothing was done.
For the Indian prisoners conditions were still worse. They were kept without food or water, but were tormented by the sight of both being stacked up outside their compound. An attempt was made to bribe these men; the Italians offering them water in exchange for a commitment to fight the British in Burma. The offer was contemptuously dismissed. The treatment meted out to the Allied POWs in North Africa was condemned by Sell:
There can be no excuse: it was a back area where humane treatment could have been given out but, instead, studied torment was an officially sponsored policy.
None of the accounts of capture so far discussed make mention of interrogation by the enemy. It is likely that the sheer numbers of POWs made widespread interrogation impracticable. In any case, it is possible that the generally favourable course of the War for the Axis meant there was no great sense of a need to question prisoners. Interrogation however was standard for evaders and escapers, all RAF aircrew and for those judged to hold useful intelligence. It followed a pattern familiar from goodness knows how many books and some films, information to be extorted by guile, by attractive inducement and by physical and mental coercion.
An RAF evader captured in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Stan Hope, received brutal treatment which led in due course to his conceding information:
This was in Bayonne. I was in prison, a military prison. They took me out and there was an officer who could speak very good English and he interrogated us and he showed me a photograph of one of these guides. He said, do you know this fellow and I said, no, I don't know him. He is just a man we met or not but anyway he seemed to think I knew him and he ordered the Sergeant that was there to take me out in the corridor and he gave me a good going over and I always remember this.
There were two other men with him as well. So I couldn't do anything much about it but I got very indignant. I remember that. I got very mad. Anyway, he gave me a going over in the face. He punched me in the face and took me back in again and I said, I didn't know the man. I said, I am not sure. It could be him. I don't know. I don't know one Frenchman from another. That is the way I put it. Anyway, I remember this Sergeant when he finished with me. He sort of shrugged his shoulders as if to say I can't help this. I have got to do it. This is my orders. He felt sorry for me. I knew it. He hit me because he had to do it and he shrugged his shoulders as if to say there you are, I have to do it. I always remember that. An extraordinary thing. Anyway this interrogation went on for quite a long time. I remember once they fetched us out about 4 o'clock in the night and that was about identifying somebody or other. I forgot who it was but I know I was scared stiff. We were scared stiff all the time. When we were first caught we were lined up against the wall and told we were going to be shot. One of them had his dog tags and he pulled them out and said, we are RAF. So they took us down to interrogation. I got beaten up there too.
This man finished up in the Gestapo prison in Fresnes, in Paris, where he was further weakened physically and mentally before being transferred to a POW camp.
The journey from surrender to POW camp for RAF personnel could involve transit through a bombed city, which exposed them to civilian anger and insult. Their destination was a processing camp near Frankfurt, Dulag Luft, usually by lorry or train, but for other men, soldiers of the BEF in 1940, men captured in Greece or Crete in 1941 and North Africa in 1941 or 1942, there were longer journeys to be endured; for many, days of exhausting marches, scanty food and water. For others, crowded ship transport, ironically at hazard of British Naval or air attack, would be their fate.
Men captured in North Africa were in due course transported to Europe. Harry Sell was amongst those POWs who were sent to Italy. He was flown in a Caproni bomber and landed at Lecce airport, where the conditions were a great contrast to what he had left behind:
everything was super expensive looking and we expected an immense cream coloured Packard car to zoom up complete with a dazzling film beauty.
Instead they were taken by lorries and then train on to their transit camp at Bari. Sell records that Bari station was only 8km from the camp but the journey on foot "in our condition seemed like a death march. Our food since capture had been very small, clothing was bad and boots badly broken." Prior to entry in the camp the men were searched and deloused. The camp itself was "a well built place of stone with plenty of running water". That, however, was the limit of the amenities.
Camp life at Bari was nothing out of the ordinary according to Sell. There was the usual round of roll calls, and the food was generally meagre, with bread the mainstay. Dysentery was rife and he himself succumbed. The principal incident centred on a Greek, who had passed himself off as a British servicemen when captured trying to assist escaping British officers. His lack of English was nearly his undoing until his fellow POWs managed to convince the Italian guards that he was an Irishman who spoke only Gaelic.
After a few weeks, Sell was moved to his permanent camp - Campo Concentramento P.G. 21. The camp housed over 1,000 men and was:
about 300yds sq. and surrounded by a wall some 12 feet high. A single entrance is cordoned off by a double-aproned barbed wire fence and the quarters of 600 Italian guards. Inside are the U bungalows each leg of which house some 300 men on double tier bunks. The bungalows are of cement on stone tiled floors and no heating.
One bungalow had single beds - this was the hospital. But, although staffed by conscientious Italian doctors, it had no equipment. All serious cases had to be sent to a civilian hospital.
Bathing and eating facilities were also inadequate:
The bathroom and latrines are well appointed with chromium knobs but being typically Italian do not work - besides there is no water. The Cookhouse is also well built but the only utensils are huge cauldrons of about 300 litres with ladles to match. The personal issue is half a double bunk, a stool, a palliasse stuffed with grass, two blankets and sheets together with a few tables possibly one between 30 (seating capacity 6). There is not an issue of knife, fork, or spoon, mug or plate. Each person has a receptacle made by himself from a tin salvaged from the garbage dump.
Eventually, after pressure from the British Government to abide by the Geneva Convention, the Italian authorities did provide eating utensils, though only on payment of extortionate prices. Until then, the POWs had to fight a food war with their captors. The Red Cross food issue came in tins, but the prisoners were denied tins, other than the two allowed them for eating and drinking. This made for difficulties:
we place our [food] parcels in a locked room and by a very carefully worked out means of supervision draw one tin daily, empty the contents into our own tin and leave the original tin under guard. Life is rather complex - I want a tin of cocoa and present myself at the store at the appropriate time. The cocoa is decanted into my 'mug'. I am now the proud owner of a quarter of a pound of cocoa but have nowhere to put it; before I can get my brew from the cookhouse I must eat my cocoa. Similar conditions apply over jam, milk, margarine etc. The net result is that we smuggle tins in which to keep our food, this is discovered by the Italians who confiscate all tins including those in the store and pour the contents in a heap on the floor. What a waste - a week's food for 1,000 men - fish, jam, condensed milk, cocoa, tea, sugar - in one heap.
The camp walls, wrote Sell: "[are] whitewashed stone relieved by reminders that the Sentries have been instructed to shoot. Lighting is by 20 watt bulbs in the high ceilings controlled from outside the camp. They are not sufficient to allow reading but enough to cause annoyance as they remain lit all night - some are painted blue."
The routine of camp life included a weekly strip search of rooms. There was also random strip searching of the men. Each day there were two roll calls, "with one at irregular intervals for good measure".
Conditions in the camp were generally poor and according to Sell it was infamous as "the worst camp in Italy". Certainly, the Italian authorities missed no opportunity "to add to the straws loading the camel's back," with their reluctance to grant even the basic facilities of day-to-day existence. Water for ablutions had to be drawn from a well. There was no supply of fresh clothes - men had to make do and mend, which became increasingly difficult. In particular, when pants could no longer be repaired, "the last resort [was] to cut a hole in the middle of our blanket, stick the head through and wear the ensemble 'comme Mexican'". As the weather grew colder, the shortage of clothing led to "an epidemic of colds in the innards" and jaundice became widespread so that the men, "dressed in the fantastic garb," resembled Chinese brigands. As life in the camp became ever more extreme, tension mounted amongst the POWs. The men were also driven to increasingly desperate measures: "all kinds of misdemeanours are rife such as petty pilfering of clothing and food. One or two are caught and beaten up and when a Padre falls to the pangs of hunger and takes a piece of bread from a sleeping comrade his bedding and belongings are thrown down the well - he narrowly misses joining them."
Stealing from fellow prisoners was looked upon gravely and could result in severe consequences for the culprit. Geoff Steer, held in a German POW camp, recalled one such incident:
After Christmas the weather got worse, snowing and freezing fog, but we still had to go to work. My socks were worn out so I cut a piece of my blanket off to make two foot-rags to go to work in, then take them off to work. We went about a fortnight without parcels through the weather being bad and one day, coming in from work, we were told somebody had been stealing from us while we were working. A trap was set and the culprit was caught. It turned out to be one of our men - British. The Committee found him guilty of the worst crime in the Army, stealing another man's rations. It was worse in a POW camp.
He was handed over to the Captain of the camp, who gave him seven days in the cooler. The cooler as we called it was a small brick building, 6 feet by 6 feet and 7 feet high with a steel door and an opening one foot square with bars and no glass. There was a wooden bed and an earth floor. He was allowed his overcoat and one blanket, nothing else, not even shaving tackle. He had one slice of dry bread and a pint of water a day. His toilet was a five-gallon drum and if he wanted to see out, he stood on the bed. After the first day he started shouting to be let out. The Jerries told him if he continued shouting he would stay in another week.
When let out we watched from the windows, so did all the camp. The guard opened the door but the lads had to carry him out, back to the living quarters where it was warm and sat him by the stove. I think he could have put his hands on the stove and not feel it. He looked terrible, especially with seven days of stubble on his face. His face, fingers and toes all had frost bite, his eyes were bloodshot and he stank like a sewer. The first job was to get his clothes off. No matter what he had done he was still one of our comrades. Part of his toes came away with his socks. We got him under the shower and while some of the lads sponged him down we washed his clothes and hung them up round the stove. You could dry anything in under an hour round it.
After a few weeks he recovered enough to return to work but he was never the same man after that.
The Senior British Officer (SBO) played a key part in dealing with such miscreants as well as liaising with the camp commandant. A good SBO was an important factor in the maintenance of morale and securing decent conditions for the POWs. A bad one might have the reverse effect. Many of the inmates in Sell's camp felt that the SBO was far too soft in pressing the Italians for improvements. According to Sell, he lacked the character to command the confidence of the men in such circumstances. Raised tension in the camp nearly produced a full-scale confrontation between the POWs and the guards, as frustration with the SBO's impotent leadership spilled over. It was only the Camp Commandant's decision to call off his guards that calmed things down, thus showing "more sense than was to be expected". The SBO made a futile attempt to court martial one of the ringleaders of the agitation. Soon after, his request was granted for a transfer to another camp. The morale of the POWs was boosted by this show of opposition and it emboldened them to make further shows of disobedience, which generally succeeded in causing upset and irritation in the camp administration. It also appeared that the camp was becoming a centre for 'difficult' POWs:
our camp is being turned into a 'Devil's Island' as new arrivals are from other camps and have their documents stamped 'Turbulenti'. Similarly those sent from our camp are what may be termed amenable to discipline.
Certainly, the systematic neglect of POWs, described, by Sell, appears absent from the recollections of Ernest Hall:
Life in an Italian prison camp in the north of Italy was one of boredom and low-grade misery. We were herded into bitterly cold jerry-built barracks, counted daily by the guards, given starvation rations supplemented by spasmodic deliveries of Red Cross parcels. Most of the time we were louse-infested. No, the guards weren't brutal. They were living pretty miserable lives themselves. Good friends died of starvation related disease. The Italian Camp Commandant recorded their deaths in a notice on the camp noticeboard adding, 'Great honour to the soldier who has given his life for his country - signed Guiseppe Ferrari, Cavalry Colonel'.
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