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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Red Cross Provides

page 23

The Red Cross Provides

THE PARCELS of food distributed from Geneva by the International Red Cross* were the prisoners’ life-line. An ex-prisoner of the Germans wrote: ‘This point cannot be stressed sufficiently; as all who were in captivity agree, we literally owed our very lives to the Red Cross and Order of St. John and our thanks must be put on record to these two humane organisations.’ Other prisoners have said that they could never have worked or even kept their health without these weekly parcels. The Germans fully realised their value and gave them transport priority; indeed at some camps they took this extra food into account when fixing the prisoners’ ration issue, even though this was a gross violation of the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The rations issued by the Germans were meagre. They varied slightly from place to place. At an Austrian camp in 1943 the rations issued to each man consisted of one-fifth of a 4-pound loaf of black bread daily, vegetable soup five times a week, and potatoes boiled in their jackets and served with meat sauce on the other two days; there was also a weekly issue of four ounces of margarine and seven dessertspoonfuls of sugar, and on Sundays each man received a slice of sausage about two and a half inches in diameter and half an inch thick. These men preferred to go without tea or coffee (the Germans supplied mint tea and a coffee made from roasted barley) rather than waste the sugar ration sweetening it. In the difficult days at the end of the war, the Germans, short of transport, cut down prisoners’ rations.

The occasions when parcels failed to arrive brought home to those in enemy prison camps how dependent they were on this extra food. Local distribution to working camps was not always perfectly organised, and newly established camps, whether main camps or working ones, sometimes did not get any parcels for months. Towards the end of the war, the period from about November 1944 onwards, the parcel supply in the depths of a particularly bitter winter, dwindled to nothing, mainly owing to the breakdown of communications under bombing, making the last months in enemy hands the worst. In early 1945, however, Geneva began sending out every week a fleet of white-painted motor-waggons with consignments of parcels direct to prison camps or to the columns of prisoners which had begun the terrible marches forced on them by their captors as the Allies advanced into Germany. The relief which could be afforded by these ‘white angels’, as these waggons were called, could only be small. They visited one camp of 7000 men twice in four months, each time bringing 10,000 parcels, a total distribution of less than three parcels altogether for each man. But the German rations were so poor by this time that this relief, brought into Germany at considerable risk, may in many cases have been decisive; it was the weakest and worst-nourished who fell out from the columns of marchers.

The contents of the parcels from England, Canada, Australia, South Africa, or New Zealand varied with the country of origin. The Canadian parcels usually contained one pound each of page 24 dried milk, butter, jam, biscuits, bully beef, and meat roll, eight ounces of salmon, six ounces each of sardines, prunes, and sugar, seven ounces of raisins, five ounces of chocolate, four ounces of cheese, four ounces of tea or coffee, salt, and a cake of soap. This parcel was the most popular, because while four meat and three fish meals could be made from its main contents, the fruit and the dried milk were interesting additions, and the biscuits could be ground up to make porridge or flour. The English parcel had much more varied contents and cocoa as the alternative to tea. The New Zealand parcel was liked for its honey, but the pound of brown sugar (a larger quantity than in any other parcel) and the raisins did not always arrive in perfect condition as our parcels had the longest journey of all to make.

In most camps the Red Cross store had two locks, the key of one held by the Germans, the key of the other by the British man-of-confidence. German orders were that the tins had to be punctured at the time of issue, so as to prevent the accumulation of stores of food which could be used for escapes. In some camps the tins had to be emptied out at once. However, many escapers were recaptured with numbers of unopened tins in their possession, for the strictest system has flaws in it, especially when guards are in greater or less degree corruptible. Although on occasion the Germans withheld the issue of parcels as a disciplinary measure, they scrupulously respected their contents, and pillaging was a rarity. On the other hand, many next-of-kin parcels never reached the addressees.

* In New Zealand the Red Cross and the Order of St. John act as a single body under the control of the Joint Council of the Order of St. John and the New Zealand Red Cross Society for certain purposes. In a specifically New Zealand context the term ‘Red Cross’ refers to the Joint Council, whose magnificent work for prisoners of war and internees, for the wounded of both wars, and for the sick and destitute generally, cannot be too warmly acknowledged. The Joint Council expended funds raised for prisoners of war by the National and Provincial Patriotic Fund Boards.