Prisoners of War
THIS book is an attempt to set down an accurate, objective, and impartial account of captivity as it affected New Zealanders in the Second World War. Effort has therefore been concentrated on the checking of evidence and the avoidance of facile generalisation; on an impersonal presentation of the facts as they emerge; and on the achievement of a perspective and balance which might be fair not only to the author's compatriots and comrades but to former enemies as well.
A good many unofficial accounts of individual experiences during captivity and of escapes have already been published. But conditions varied a very great deal in different places and at different periods of the war; and individual accounts which often depict only certain exceptional aspects of life in captivity give only a fragment of the whole picture. It is this whole picture which the author has tried to achieve, in the form not of a vague impression but rather of a mosaic built up from a multitude of individual experiences.
It is obvious that an account of the life of prisoners of war and civilian internees from capture to repatriation will tell little of a country's military achievements. But the fact that nine thousand or so New Zealanders were living in enemy territory for periods of up to five years is an aspect of our participation in the Second World War which cannot be ignored. People should be able to get an idea of what happened to their countrymen when they were captured; how the event of capture affected their lives and those of their next-of-kin; what it was possible to do to help them during the war; and what were their needs for rehabilitation.
1 The total number of New Zealand prisoners who escaped from captivity was approximately 718, including 110 who made their way to Switzerland. Of these, approximately 236 were from German hands, approximately 480 from Italian hands, and 2 from Japanese hands. The countries from which the original successful breaks were made were: Greece 44 (approx), Crete 150 (approx), Libya 25 (approx), Italy 455, Germany 12, Austria 27, France 2 (civilians), Hong Kong 2.
G. M. Trevelyan once wrote that ‘the sum total of social history … could only be mastered if we knew the biographies of all the millions of men, women and children who have lived….’ and that the ‘generalisations which are the stock in trade of the social historian must necessarily be based on a small number of particular instances, which are assumed to be typical, but which cannot be the whole of the complicated truth’. Because the events described in this book are more recent, and because modern records are more voluminous, it has been possible to select those instances which are likely to be the most reliable, and to check doubtful ones with others of the same time and place. Quite often there are not just a few instances but dozens, of fairly certain authenticity, dealing with the same topic, time, and place.
This is not to claim that the book gives the whole story in complete detail. It is obvious that an exhaustive record of more than nine thousand captives, split into hundreds of groups, which lived for up to five years under a bewildering variety of conditions in many different parts of Europe and the Far East, and often moving from place to place, would demand not one but some dozens of volumes of this size. It has therefore been necessary to select from this vast mass of experience that part which is common to the majority of the people concerned. Priority has been given to conditions in camps where large numbers of our people were detained. For the same reason, an effort has been made to avoid devoting too much space to exceptional aspects of life in captivity and over-emphasizing cases of unusual ill-treatment. It has been thought necessary, however, to include some reference to more exceptional sides of the life, in order to give an idea of what an almost infinite variety of experience there was. Since our people usually shared most stages of their captivity with large numbers of other British Commonwealth captives, the conditions for British captives in general have often been given as a background against which to set the individual experiences of New Zealanders.
Many ex-captives may find their own particular experience not set down in detail. It is inevitable also that not every creditable page xi exploit can be described, if only because some of them are not recorded. Only successful escapes1 have been mentioned, unless an unsuccessful attempt had something particularly noteworthy about it. Only those whose capture had been recorded in some way have been regarded as within the scope of this history. ‘Evaders’, who avoided capture but eventually got back from enemy territory, are excluded. In general, people who helped our escapers, and sometimes even villages where they were helped, are purposely not named lest even now they suffer any harm from having once helped British soldiers.
It early became clear to the author that the best way to make intelligible what was selected from this enormous mass of widely varying experience was to fit it into a chronological framework, presenting it stage by stage against a background of events. Each chapter therefore coincides broadly with a period of the war, either in Europe or the Far East. Nearly all begin with a brief account of the main events likely to affect prisoners of war and internees, and go on to give in more detail events which led up to capture, those immediately following, treatment of wounded and interrogation. At this point there is often a subdivision according to the category—Navy, Army, Air Force, or civilian—to which the captive or group of captives belonged, and an attempt is made to trace the journey of each group of captives as far as their first permanent camp. Permanent camps are dealt with in geographical groups according to the country in which they were situated, subdivided according to the categories of captives. The concluding sections of each chapter deal with negotiations and relief work on behalf of those in captivity, and each chapter ends with a brief general summary which attempts to draw together all the threads of the period covered.
1 The names of those who received awards, together with others whose escapes seemed sufficiently noteworthy, have been mentioned either in the text or in footnotes.
The author has carefully sifted material available in category (b). Where possible, the contributor has been interviewed in order to gain a better idea of his reliability; diaries written on the spot have been given more credence than more polished narratives and impressions written some time after the event. Occasionally this eye-witness material has tended to conflict with official reports, and one version has had to be modified in the light of others.
The collection and thorough processing of the considerable mass of material available on New Zealand prisoners of war and internees alone could have kept a research team occupied for several years. For one person, it has been a question of using what is most ready to hand and in most convenient form. There are gaps which might have been filled by further research and for some of the topics covered better material might possibly have been found. Some errors in matters of detail have already been pointed out and corrected, but the author realises that in a work of this nature and size there may be others. There is reason to hope that they are few and that the overall picture is a true one. The author's thanks go to all those, too numerous to mention here, who by checking portions of the book helped towards this end; in particular, his thanks go to Brigadier W. H. B. Bull, OBE, NZMC, Mr K. W. Fraser, Vice-President of the New Zealand Returned Servicemen's Association, Mr R. H. Johnston and the New Zealand Prisoners of War Association, who checked the complete text, and to Mr E. N. Hogben, who read the proofs and gave much valuable comment and advice.
An impersonal presentation was the one least likely to distort the picture, but the impressions of individuals are introduced where, in the light of all other information, they seem to be fair commentary or at least typical statements of the point of view of the captives. The author has also tried to take into account the point of view of the captors, and to weigh one viewpoint against the other. It is sometimes complained that in official histories objectivity and perhaps even complete accuracy are sacrificed to expediency. There is no foundation for such criticism here. In writing this book the author has had the fullest support in constantly striving to determine the facts of captivity and to present them in a balanced account.
15 March 1953