Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Prisoners of War


page 524


THE mobile type of warfare practised in the Second World War often made it impossible for outnumbered land forces to be extricated, and left them no alternative to destruction but surrender. It was thus that numbers of able-bodied soldiers far exceeding those of previous wars, in addition to seriously wounded,1 were taken prisoner between 1939 and 1945. The initial lightning campaigns of the German Army brought these numbers to more than two million by late 1940, and the later campaigns of both Allied and Axis Powers in Europe, Africa, and the Far East added further hundreds of thousands. It is safe to say that more than one person in every thousand of the world's population was held captive for some period during these six years of war.

For New Zealand's population the proportion was much higher. More than one person in every two hundred suffered captivity; and the majority of these for three years or longer. The proportion is large enough to justify some examination of the effect of such losses on the New Zealand Armed Forces during the war, and the possible effects on the New Zealand community as a whole in the post-war period of having had such large numbers in enemy hands.

By far the greatest number of those taken prisoner belonged to the New Zealand Army. With the expedition to Greece the New Zealand Division began a series of four campaigns belonging to that desperate middle period of the war, which did not end until the victorious breakthrough at Alamein. Two withdrawals followed by sea evacuations from Greece and Crete, what was at best a very costly victory in Libya in 1941, and a narrow escape from annihilation during the retreat into Egypt in 1942 were ordeals which might be expected to weaken any division. By the close of the fourth of these campaigns at the end of August 1942 the Division's dead amounted to 2641 and those taken prisoner to 7897—a total loss of 10,538 men.2 The number of men to be replaced totalled nearly a whole division.

In fifteen subsequent actions during the remaining years of the war, although the Division's dead rose by 2736, those taken prisoner increased by no more than 425. Thus nearly 90 per cent of the 9000-odd New Zealanders held captive in the Second

1 About one-seventh of the New Zealanders taken prisoner were wounded.

2 This takes no account of wounded (other than prisoners who were wounded), many of whom were not again fit for active service. The dead include killed in action and died of wounds.

page 525 World War were soldiers who fell into enemy hands during a period of little over a year between the spring of 1941 and the summer of 1942. The bulk of them were to spend in captivity the three to four years that dragged on before Germany's final defeat, to which they had contributed a great deal in a most critical period.1 By the nature of their operations Air Force personnel fell into enemy hands in only small numbers at a time, but over the whole period of the war. They made up six per cent of the New Zealanders in captivity. Naval men and merchant seamen made up less than one per cent each.

It is not easy to attempt an assessment either of the effects of captivity on individuals or of the influence on the community as a whole of having had such a considerable proportion of its population held captive in enemy countries for several years. At the end of the war the fact that an ex-serviceman had been a prisoner of war was not regarded officially as of significance for his rehabilitation, and no special records of ex-prisoners of war were maintained. A comparison of the post-war histories of ex-prisoners of war with those of a like sample of other ex-servicemen would therefore involve a major piece of research. All that is attempted here is an analysis of the replies to questions concerning the physical and mental after-effects of their experiences, put to a selected sample of ex-captives from Europe and the Far East.

The enormous variety of camp conditions and of individual experiences makes difficult any wide generalisation about the physical condition of prisoners of war and internees on their release. Conditions varied in different countries and, inside these countries, in different camps at different periods of the war, quite often according to whoever was the enemy camp commandant. Clearly a man's physical condition on release depended on the length of his captivity and on his own personal experiences as a captive. If he had worked in the Silesian coal mines or on the Burma-Thailand railway at its worst, if he had been in one of the less fortunate columns that marched across Europe or subjected to severe exposure and privation while attempting to escape, if he had served a spell in a German military prison or been beaten and tortured by the Kempetai, he would probably be in a worse state than if he had not had one or more of these experiences. The local supplies of food, water, and medicine and local conditions of heat, cold, and dampness all had an influence. In general it may be said that prisoner-of-war conditions in the Far East were more damaging to health than those in Europe. If the latter had turned

1 Except for the casualties in Greece and Crete, the figures used are those of the Statement of Strength and Losses in the Armed Services and Mercantile Marine in the 1939–45 War, presented to both Houses of Parliament in 1948. The Crete casualties are the revised figures published in the official history of that battle.

page 526 out to be better than most prisoners had expected, the former had turned out generally worse. Yet some men were released from captivity in Europe in worse condition than some from the Far East.

Many repatriates from Europe were below normal weight on their release; many found that they tired easily and lacked their former ‘punch’ and endurance; a considerable number, more especially the older men, had digestive troubles and rheumatism or fibrositis in some part of their bodies. They generally found, however, that these effects wore off after some months of good food and healthy living.

Generally speaking, repatriates from the Far East were suffering from the effects of malnutrition and tropical diseases such as malaria; their condition varied from merely being somewhat under-weight to extreme emaciation; some still had dysentery or beriberi, and the more fortunate had got off with digestive upsets; many found their eyesight had suffered; a number had contracted hernias, and others had a variety of aches in muscles and joints. Some found it took them a year of care and good feeding to get back to normal physical condition and to build a reserve; the worst cases were still receiving medical or even hospital treatment eighteen months after repatriation. Some were prevented by resultant physical handicaps from again taking up their pre-war occupation; others, on medical advice, did not return to the country of their pre-war employment in the East. A number of those whose medical examination immediately after repatriation revealed no serious defects succumbed, after a period of normal life and work, to ailments that could have been attributable to their conditions of captivity. In some of these cases a medical re-examination resulted in the grant of a war pension.

It was probably the mental effects of captivity which were the most difficult to gauge, especially from the necessarily somewhat brief and standardised type of medical examination that was given to all returning servicemen. Here again the individual's reaction to captivity depended on the length of his term, the strain of the work he had to do, the facilities for recreation and further education, and any specially drastic experiences he might have undergone during interrogation or disciplinary punishment. There can be little doubt that the often very fine musical and dramatic performances given in prisoner-of-war camps helped to reduce the strain of living in cramped and sometimes squalid conditions amid an atmosphere of irritability; and that the often excellent educational facilities enabled men to offset the demoralising effects of inaction and frustration. Occasionally men drove themselves so hard at their studies that they became nervous victims of overwork; but in general the effect of so occupying the mind seems to have been page 527 beneficial. Some men felt deeply what they imagined to be the disgrace of capture, and regular soldiers sometimes felt that their career had been ruined by it. To many of the younger men lack of freedom of movement was a greater trial than it was to those whose mental resources had had more time to develop before their capture. A good number of men had worried during their captivity as to whether physical deprivations would not leave behind some permanent impairment of their bodily functions: respiratory, digestive, or sexual. To them a reassuring medical report on their physical condition was nearly always able to eliminate one element of the nervous tension which accompanied their release.

Many repatriates from Europe speak of restlessness and inability to settle, impaired powers of concentration and memory, a tendency to be easily affected emotionally (notably by a pathetic film or music), a feeling of awkwardness in meeting strangers, a strong dislike of crowds and queues, and an overpowering desire to be quiet and alone. Many men were inclined to resent and oppose restrictions on their freedom of action. ‘If anyone tries to order me round I take strong exception to it’, wrote one repatriate. While such an attitude could easily derive from situations other than captivity, no doubt the latter tended to accentuate it. For most of these men such after-effects tended to disappear after some months of normal living.

Repatriates from the Far East described themselves as ‘nervous and emotional’ or ‘wrought up’; lethargic, unable to concentrate, and content to just sit and dream; depressed; unable to sleep; easily irritated; ‘mentally tired’. While they mentioned that these symptoms had become less severe with the passage of time, it was clear that those men who had spent three years or more as prisoners in the Far East or had had especially bad experiences would need a long time to recover.

Where, among United Kingdom repatriates, for one reason or another these mental effects were severe, but not severe enough for hospitalisation, they were dealt with in England at a special prisoner-of-war rehabilitation centre.1 Here a ‘new but transitional society’ was formed under the guidance of people who had made an expert study of prisoner-of-war conditions and their effects. In order to make the transition to civilian life more gentle, factors such as drama work were introduced into the routine, since they provided a link with prisoner-of-war ‘tradition’. At the same time the local community near the centre was drawn upon to help the repatriate in finding suitable and satisfying work and in getting

1 See, for example, Dr. Maxwell Jones in British Medical Journal, 6 April 1946, Vol. I, p. 533, and in Journal of Neurology, etc., Vol. XI, No. 1, February 1948, p. 53.

page 528 himself used to normal social life. Within a few months of leaving the centre 60 per cent of these men had found the former, and all but 12 per cent were well on the way to the latter, as a follow-up study showed. While nothing similar to this appears to have been done in New Zealand, our repatriates from the Far East were few enough in numbers to receive more than usual individual care, and many of those from Europe were greatly helped on the road to rehabilitation by their stay in England and by the long sea voyage that followed.

The variation in official attitudes to returning prisoners of war has already been noted.1 Enough has been said above to indicate that a rehabilitation scheme which did not take prisoner-of-war experience into account might well be psychologically unsound, at least for that proportion of the ex-prisoners of war whose experiences had been prolonged and severe. The type of official attitude which regarded ex-prisoners of war as just ex-servicemen who had had a slack time for a year or two found its counterpart among a few members of the public, who asked repatriates why they had not managed to escape and presumed that they would be immediately ready to start work where they had left off five years before, to make up for such a long period of idleness. But publicity over several years, especially for stories of hardship and atrocity, had tended to steer public opinion in the opposite direction. The romanticising of the state of captives in enemy countries and the lionisation that often attended the arrival home of repatriates (usually born of a desire to assure them that they had not been forgotten) were justly felt to be unfair to those other ex-servicemen who had had a hard time but of a different kind. It is understandable that there would be a reaction against this public attitude among both ordinary ex-servicemen and among military officials. The pity was that such a reception was desired by few, if any, of our ex-prisoners of war. The vast majority of them wanted no brass bands nor functions in their honour, no strings of solicitous questions as to how they had been treated, no notoriety as some kind of modern Rip Van Winkle. They merely wanted to be alone and quiet and to be allowed to feel their way back into the community to which they had belonged before the war, a community they found different, just as they themselves were different from the men who had left several years before.

Most of these men had been away for four or five years; they had experienced battle and the shock of defeat and capture; they had known real hunger and other kinds of misery; they had known the frustration of being cooped up behind barbed wire, at the

1 see pp. 494–5.

page 529 mercy of an underling with a lethal weapon. To meet their situation they had developed an aggressiveness against anyone who further threatened their freedom of action; a resourcefulness in improvising the necessities and amenities they lacked, coupled with an ever-increasing helplessness in dealing with the real world outside the wire; a high regard for the virtues of self-restraint, thoughtfulness for their comrades, and unshakeable integrity in those holding positions of trust, without which the crowded life of a prison camp community became intolerable. It is of interest to record their impressions of the civilian community they found on their return.

Many of them were keen to get back to some kind of work as soon as possible, to make up for the time they had lost; and those who quickly got themselves into suitable work found it, as one man said, ‘a joy and a tonic’. Some of those who had seen ‘orderly civilian communities replaced by the chaos of war and its aftermath’ in Europe were resolved to enjoy civilian life ‘while it lasts’. A good many others could not help noticing that the average civilian seemed ‘self-centred’ and ‘out for himself’. This came as a shock after years in prison camp communities, where those who ‘pulled up the ladder after them’ regardless of anything but their own welfare were despised and sometimes rudely disciplined. A number were depressed by what they saw of the civilian attitude to work; by a tendency for each civilian ‘to give as little as possible’ and ‘take as much as he can’; and by what they saw as a ‘disinclination to accept responsibility’. Some felt that the moral fibre of the civilian community had deteriorated during the war years, and, according to their temperament, they felt ‘amused’ at what they found, or ‘disillusioned’ or ‘irritated’ or ‘disgusted’.

Those from the Far East especially found it hard to understand what civilians had to ‘growl about’ in the ‘green and pleasant land’ of New Zealand, where material conditions seemed to repatriates little short of ‘perfect’. They might be excused for listening unsympathetically to the occasional civilians who told them of the long hours they had worked during the war, or of the difficulties they had had in getting silk stockings or new suits. Nor is it surprising that these men commented on what seemed to them the waste of food which they found to be the normal accompaniment of civilian life. They detected, moreover, what they felt to be ‘complacency’ and ‘self-satisfaction’ with our way of doing things, and an ‘intolerance’ of those who thought and lived differently.

No doubt much of this was reaction to the contrast between the reality as repatriates found it and the enchanted picture of their homeland which they had built up in their minds, and which had page 530 buoyed them up during the blackest days in their distant prison compounds. It might be tempting also to dismiss any such criticisms as the by-product of the more or less abnormal state of mind in which ex-prisoners remained until they got used to normal civilian life again. But it is perhaps open to doubt whether post-war civilian life is normal. It must be remembered too that nearly all these men had seen something of the normal life of peoples in other parts of the world, and some had lived among peasant communities in Europe for considerable periods. These experiences provided them with some kind of a yardstick. And if nearly all of them left the country of their captivity thankful for British standards of living and British forms of government, they could not help feeling on their return that their civilian compatriots, who had seen only their own environment, did not appreciate these advantages at their full value. ‘The people of New Zealand are more dissatisfied and disobliging than in countries where life is more of a struggle’ was the way one man summed up his impressions.

It is no part of the present task to try and evaluate these opinions, but merely to record them. Their interest lies in the fact that they form a picture of how we seemed in the immediately post-war years, not to visitors from other countries but to our own brothers, husbands and sons, from varied walks of our national life, on their return from several years of the chastening experience of imprisonment and forced labour among other peoples in Europe and the Far East.

While a few men discounted their period of captivity as pure loss, the vast majority regarded it as an experience which taught them much. It is natural that those who spent a long captivity slaving at manual labour for the enemy and struggling to keep alive under appalling conditions, only to return broken down physically if not mentally, would feel that not only were their years of captivity wasted years, but years whose effects would hamper them all the rest of their lives. For these men it was a ‘waste of time’, a period in which they ‘lost everything materially’. But the majority, especially of those in Europe, experienced long periods during which conditions were bearable and during which they had the strength and urge to look about them and make good use of their time. These men, who returned to normal health soon after repatriation, were as definite that they gained from their captivity knowledge which might never otherwise have come their way. They say that they ‘benefited vastly’, and that the experience of captivity was worth ‘a four year college education’ or ‘twenty years of ordinary life’.

page 531

In some camps, especially those for prisoners who were not forced to work, there were educational and cultural opportunities such as civilian life might never have afforded. Libraries, dozens of trained minds from almost every profession, musical instruments and scores, the raw material for dramatic production, the essentials for pictorial art: all these, together with the amazing improvisations for which captivity provided the stimulus, formed in some camps a background to a vigorous intellectual and artistic life. There were few inmates of these camps on whom such an atmosphere did not have its impact. Within the small area of their compound they were able to listen to authoritative lectures and to read widely; to find fellow prisoners with special qualifications willing to discuss religion, philosophy, history, and indeed almost any aspect of human knowledge; to see competently produced drama; to get to know good music; and to attain some degree of skill in various arts and crafts. So that, quite apart from those who seized upon their enforced leisure to further their professional training, there were thousands whose intellectual and emotional life was enriched by activities for which they could not have found in civilian life either the time or the opportunity.

Prisoners who were in working camps had neither the facilities nor the opportunities for study and recreation on this scale. But they travelled, sometimes widely, in enemy and enemy-occupied countries, and they made contact not only with local foreign populations but with fellow prisoners from many of the Allied countries, either at work or in the large holding camps from which working parties were drawn. Living together in the British compounds of these camps there were usually men from a number of Commonwealth countries, and the close intimacy of crowded prison-camp life gave them an almost unrivalled opportunity to learn something of each other's characteristics and foibles.

Apart from sharing captivity with their Commonwealth colleagues, there was more or less close contact with a majority of the peoples of Europe and the Far East. Among New Zealand ex-prisoners of war one could find large numbers who lived and worked among Austrians, Germans, and Italians; others who, while captives or fugitives from captivity, spent periods of time with Belgians, Dutch, French, Greeks and Cretans, Poles, Russians, and Yugoslavs. Most of our nationals who were captives in the Far East had been living there before the war, but captivity often widened or intensified their contacts with the varied populations: with the Burmese, the Thais, the Malays, and the Chinese of South-East Asia; with the Dutch and the indigenous peoples of what is now Indonesia; with the Chinese and the Manchurians of the mainland; and, above all, with the Japanese. It is not page 532 surprising that New Zealand ex-prisoners speak of having lost for ever the ‘insularity’, which some regard as one of the less fortunate but almost inevitable consequences of our geographical position, and to have gained not only an increased knowledge of languages but a ‘broadened international outlook’.

An ex-prisoner priest wrote in 1947 that he had learnt more of human nature in three years of captivity than he could have done in thirty years of normal life. The majority of ex-prisoners hold a similar opinion, and it may be of interest to examine briefly what it was about the prison camp environment which made men feel that they had learnt so much about the mentality of their fellow humans. One man explains it by saying that he was able to observe ‘a cross-section of all types of men under duress’. If physical discomfort and chronic shortage of what most people regard as the essentials of civilised life provide tests of men's unselfishness, then there was ample opportunity for prisoners to observe how their fellows stood up to these tests.

But most repatriates would say that on occasions the tests went deeper, and that intense hunger, or the threat of death by some other means, showed the ‘heights and depths’ of which human beings are capable. Some men noticed ‘how easily one can die, yet what a terrific amount the human body will endure’. Under conditions where men were ‘just striving to exist’, prisoners of war saw the ‘thin veneer of civilisation’ being shed to reveal men ‘in the raw’. Some of them, on occasions men of apparently impeccable probity and respectability, showed themselves ‘almost beasts’ or ‘little removed from animals’; others, often those ‘from whom one expected nothing’, ‘did things of great kindness and bravery’, and some of them showed ‘leadership, courage, generosity, patience and self-control’. A judge found that the effect of ‘hunger with a capital H’ on ‘humanity in the mass’ was ‘salutary but somewhat terrifying’. A majority of men felt that in the prisoner-of-war community the effect was on the whole salutary, and that the better aspects of human character predominated. There were few who did not speak rather nostalgically of the ‘real comradeship’ of their days of captivity; and the ex-prisoners of war associations which have been formed since 1945 are no doubt born of a mutual understanding that grew up from the common experience of captivity and a desire to continue the mutual help which so many men found to be its main redeeming feature.

Some of these men admitted to being chastened by their own first reactions to fear and hunger, and there were few who did not feel that they came out of the experience with a better sense of their own worth and of life's values in general. Nearly all spoke of entering civilian life again with a better appreciation of the page 533 ordinary things of life, especially freedom and food. Some spoke almost ecstatically of the joy of clean sheets, clothes, water from a tap, privacy, books. At the same time they knew that they could easily again do without many things which others regarded as necessities, that they could ‘rough it with anyone’; and some felt that they could have ‘no fear of the worst’, and even that they could ‘never be unhappy again’. Having tasted the misery of hunger, cold, and lack of those comfortable things which insulate civilised man from the world of nature, many felt a great understanding with the ‘poor’ and a sympathy for ‘those who suffer in the world—the homeless, hungry, naked, sick and dying’. But they realised that wealth and material possession were not the secret of happiness. ‘These things matter little, but the state of one's mind matters a lot’ was one man's summing up; and a woman internee felt that the ‘human soul transcends one's possessions—one is freer without them’. It is not the first time in history that captivity, with its attendant privations and persecutions, has led people to rethink their philosophy.

These are the things which our men and women who were prisoners of war and internees feel they have learnt from their captivity. Except for professional training, they are in the main intangible, and describing them in some detail does not make it any easier to estimate their carry-over into the life of the New Zealand community. Yet, if a large number of our people of middle years, amounting to one in every two hundred of the population, have gained a knowledge of and sympathy for people of other countries; if they have probed deeper than most beneath the surface of human beings in general and have seen more of their psychological make-up; if they have learnt contentment and patience and tolerance above the average, then many may feel that, whatever the loss New Zealand suffered by their capture, she has been repaid with interest by their return. During their captivity it was New Zealand's policy to ensure by the expenditure of money and effort that these people were kept as physically healthy and as mentally alert as circumstances allowed, so that they might after repatriation again become useful citizens. There is no reason to suppose that this policy has not been amply justified. There is, on the contrary, a good deal of evidence to show that the majority of repatriates are on balance mentally the richer for their experience of captivity. And, while their influence as individuals may vary, what they have gained individually should, in the long run, enrich the New Zealand community as a whole.

page 534