Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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.

Camp routine appears not to have been too hard to bear. Four hours were set aside each morning for camp duties: cleaning out rooms, airing bedding, and cultivating vegetable gardens. This done, the internees were free to apportion their time as they wished. For their convenience there were dining rooms and rest-rooms where continuous fires burned; a piano in the guard hut could be used whenever desired; tennis and bowls were available, and for winter use there was a long hut with facilities for deck tennis, table tennis, quoits, and other indoor games; and each barrack had a small library of fifty novels, in addition to the main camp library. Two-thirds of a long hut was set aside for ‘manual work’, where the Italians in particular ‘do excellent work with shells, make plaster statuettes, wooden toys, models of ships and pretty inlaid tables.’3 The remainder of this hut housed the school, where languages and other subjects were studied, books being supplied by Victoria University College, the National Library Service, and the Protecting Power for German interests. In addition there was a general workshop hut, with barber, watchmaker, and the main library. The clothing provided seems to have given no cause for complaint.4 The canteen sold tobacco, cigars and cigarettes, chocolate, condensed milk, biscuits, wine, beer, and soap, at prices from five to ten per cent lower than the retail price in Wellington. One bottle of beer a day and one bottle of wine a week was the allow-

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.

2 Two German women were held at Point Halswell in Wellington for a short period in 1940, but were released and repatriated through Japan.

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.’

page 51 ance. The visiting International Red Cross delegate was hardly exaggerating when he summed up conditions by saying that ‘the treatment generally’ was ‘excellent’. It was indeed a far cry from the lack of adequate food and clothing, the overcrowding, and the general squalor of the camps at Bordeaux, Sandbostel, and Wülsburg during the same period.1

* * * * *

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….

The fact that comfortless old fortresses and tents were sometimes used for accommodation, that food was ‘just sufficient’, and that there were always delays in arranging for mail might perhaps be excused in an undertaking of the size necessary to cope with the huge influx of prisoners. But in the months that followed the capitulation of France, there is a good deal of evidence of uncompromising refusal by German camp guards to be in any way restricted in their conduct towards the enemy soldiers who were in their power. There were reprisals for refusal by other ranks to work overtime—withholding of mail and standing to attention for hours on end; there were transfers of prisoners' representatives for ‘inciting complaints’; there were long delays before officer prisoners received their pay and other ranks their working wages; there was high-handed action regarding the disposal and distribution of relief supplies sent to camp leaders. As the year drew on, with Britain not only holding out but hitting back, many of the earlier abuses were corrected. The right of prisoners to lay complaints with inspecting officials was grudgingly conceded; the ever-growing stream of British mail and relief supplies was allowed to enter more freely; and in general the traditional German attitude of being korrekt in the observance of paper agreements reasserted itself, perhaps because the permanent rank and file of German

1 For a description of St. Médard, Bordeaux, see pp. 35–6; for Stalag XB, Sandbostel, p. 37; for Ilag XIII, Wülsburg, pp. 8 and 38.

page 52 officialdom was temporarily saved from that complete dictation by the Nazi Party which a final victory might have imposed.

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.