The Royal New Zealand Navy
Appendix IV — PRISONERS OF WAR AND PAROLE
PRISONERS OF WAR AND PAROLE
Before they were released from the German raider Komet, the prisoners, including the thirteen New Zealand naval airmen and the merchant service officers and men, signed the following undertaking:
We, the undersigned, do hereby give our word of honour and declare solemnly that on our release we will neither bear arms nor undertake military actions against Germany and her Allies during the present hostilities. By breach of this promise we realise we are liable to capital punishment.
The New Zealand Naval Board immediately asked Admiralty for a policy statement. Should naval personnel refuse to sign such undertakings? In cases where they had signed, what was the official attitude regarding further naval service?
Since merchant seamen and civilians were also involved, the question was raised at Government level. The New Zealand Government said the undertaking was ‘obviously intended in part to be in conformity with Article 6 of The Hague Convention, No. 11, 1907’, in connection with which the British Government, earlier in 1940, had expressed the opinion that ‘little importance can be attached to any undertakings that such prisoners will not bear arms’ and that they had ‘reached the conclusion that they cannot in any way regard Article 6 as being binding upon them during the present war.’ The New Zealand Government said it was necessary for them to ‘consider the effect of such undertakings, for example, in connection with compulsory military service and with service at sea.’ The problem as they saw it was a moral and not a legal one, and they were inclined to the view that these people having rightly or wrongly pledged their word in order to obtain their release, their pledge should be honoured and they should not be required, or indeed allowed, to undertake military or naval service. The question of defensively armed merchant vessels was of greater difficulty and, before deciding their policy on this or the general question, they would like to have the views of the British Government.1
1 Governor-General to Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, telegram of 20 January 1941.
In the meantime the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, having inquired the exact numbers and categories of men who had signed the parole undertaking, sent a long and detailed statement of the view of the British Government. He said the position was not free from difficulty and had required careful examination.
Most of the statement was concerned with the position of merchant seamen under Article 6 of The Hague Convention No. 11. Naval personnel were, however, considered to be covered by different articles which the British Government had not repudiated and a precedent had already been established. So far as members of the armed forces were concerned, the British Government considered that the position in regard to such undertakings was governed by Article 10 of The Hague Convention No. 4, which laid down the obligations of both individuals and their Governments in precise terms. Article 74 of the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention also required that no repatriated person should be employed on active military service. In view of these provisions the British Government had given no option to survivors from HMS Hunter from whom similar undertakings were extracted before they were sent to Sweden; but they were being employed in shore establishments, i.e., in a manner which did not require them to bear arms against the enemy.1
The naval airmen, therefore, were informed that they would not be allowed to serve in a combatant capacity. There was a possibility that some of them would be employed as ratings in shore establishments, but there was little likelihood of their reaching officer rank. None of them accepted this offer.
The War Cabinet had ruled that none of the men could be discharged until civilian employment was available, and the responsibility for arranging this was passed to the National Service Department which had placement officers throughout the Dominion. The other services were informed of the Government's decision and supplied with nominal lists of the men concerned in case they tried to join the Army or the Air Force in a combatant capacity. This was in accordance with Government policy which required all the services and departments to co-operate in assuring that all servicemen, merchant seamen, and civilians who at any time signed a parole undertaking were debarred from taking part in active service against the enemy. By 13 June 1941 the thirteen naval airmen who had given their parole had either returned to civilian life or joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in non-combatant capacities.
1 Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs to Prime Minister, telegram of 12 April 1941.
The story ends with an anti-climax as the rating was on his way back to New Zealand in August 1945. He probably withdrew his application or was refused as there was considerable congestion in HMS St. Vincent, which had sufficient men available to undergo flying training courses for up to twelve months ahead. It is of interest, however, that both the rating himself, who had some experience of the medical standard required, and the High Commissioner apparently considered he had a reasonable chance of making the grade even after nearly five years as a prisoner of war.