Prisoners of War
VI: Germans and Italians interned in New Zealand
VI: Germans and Italians interned in New Zealand
Reference has already been made to the New Zealand Government's decision to intern a number of Germans and Austrians whom it was thought unwise either to leave at liberty or to repatriate. The entry of Italy into the war entailed further security measures, this time involving Italians living in New Zealand, some of whom it seemed desirable to intern. In June 1940, partly to allay public uneasiness, special alien tribunals were set up, on the pattern of those in the United Kingdom, to examine police evidence concerning aliens and to decide what precautionary action should be taken in each case. The small Italian communities scattered throughout New Zealand, most of them engaged in fishing or farming, were found to contain a number of Fascist Party members. A branch of the party had been set up in New Zealand in 1927 and had been fostered by the Italian consulate. By 1941 it had been found necessary to detain on Somes Island some 86 men, of ages ranging from 22 to 63 years, and grouped broadly as 58 Germans or Aus- page 50 trians, 25 Italians, a Norwegian, a Pole, and a Russian.1 No women or children were ever interned.2
It has been shown that from the first the authorities in New Zealand were resolved to be above any possible reproach in their treatment of enemy nationals; and it is clear that every effort was made subsequently to minimise the discomforts of those interned. The originally high standard of the internment camp diet was more than maintained, and we hear from an International Red Cross visitor that ‘Italians make as much as 75% of their own meals. They make spaghetti with eggs and flour, go fishing and smoke their fish in a special shack put up on the beach.’ To guard against undernourishment each internee was given half a pint of fresh milk a day, exclusive of that used in cooking.
1 Of the Germans twelve were naturalised and two were ‘Germans but not identified as such’; of the Austrians one was naturalised; of the Italians eight were naturalised.
3 Report of the IRCC delegate. This work was not allowed to be sold, nor were any arrangements made for the internees to do paid work. On the other hand, all their creature comforts were amply provided for, and many of the internees had independent means, amounting in some cases to £4 or £5 a week.
4 The clothing provided included for each man: woollen pullover, woollen underpants, woollen vests, flannel pyjamas, military boots (2 pairs), serge suit. To quote the IRCC report, ‘All these articles are of good quality, especially the suits.’
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The events of the war referred to at the beginning of this chapter had made Germany the master of the western continental Europe, with Britain left struggling to preserve the integrity of her shores. In the exultation of victory many Germans thought the defeat of Britain only a matter of time—and not a very long time at that. Such a situation might well breed arrogance towards the prisoners of enemy countries already defeated or about to be so, and an inclination to disregard treaty obligations in respect of them.
In May 1940, before the French collapse, an International Red Cross delegate was able to say:
A great effort is being made everywhere in Germany to lodge the hundreds of thousands of prisoners…. The authorities show a fine spirit of understanding….
Against the oppressive weight of German restrictions and the harshness resulting from a tendency on the part of some German guards to exploit to the utmost their power as captors, the British prisoner in time found weapons. There was his own native stubbornness which left him unmoved after torrents of screaming abuse; there was his sense of humour which made him laugh at his misfortunes and brought the sting of ridicule to the enemy's raw spots; there was the cheering news of the Battle of Britain brought in by newly-captured prisoners; there were the gifts of food, clothing, and other comforts which restored his physical energy and gave him a sense of pride in belonging to the country which had sent them; there was the organisation of escapes and anti-propaganda measures which made him feel he was carrying on the fight in some small way. On their side, governments and relief agencies immediately shouldered the burden of supplying him with the extra food and clothing necessary to keep him in health and good heart, until such time as he would be again free to make his contribution to the nation's economy. And lastly, his next-of-kin were at pains to follow the special postal regulations for sending the letters and parcels from home which would bring him the best mental comfort of all.
The beauty of the Italian scene and the volatile lightheartedness of many of its people brightened the first months for prisoners in Italy. Moreover, the Italians were eager to show their civilised attitude towards their fellow-beings, even though prisoners—perhaps especially to the British. In those days of few prisoners it was no great strain on their economy to treat British officers much as they did their own, and to reduce considerably for British other ranks the wide gap that existed between the traditional standards of living of their own officers and other ranks. Then, too, the surrender of their armies in East Africa and the later British successes in Cyrenaica placed a mass of Italians in British hands which far exceeded the number of prisoners they had any prospect of taking. Whatever the value of international conventions, treatment of prisoners tends to be reciprocal; and the nation with a preponderance in numbers captured is placed in a favourable bargaining position. Whether or not such considerations had any restraining influence on the Fascist Government, it seems that many Italians were only too willing to show friendliness to their British ‘guests’. Many next-of-kin in New Zealand felt happier when they heard that their sons or husbands were prisoners of the Italians and not in German hands; and it is clear that in the early stage at least their attitude was justified.