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Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War

Before the end of the war in Europe a picked group of officers and men was sent from the 2nd NZEF in Italy and from New Zealand to form a Repatriation Unit in the United Kingdom for released prisoners of war. Six chaplains were on this establishment. At first there was some delay in the arrival of the prisoners and the chaplains went in search of New Zealanders serving with the British forces. One concentrated on men serving with the Royal Air Force and another went to the Royal Navy. In addition to these six chaplains there was a seventh New Zealand chaplain serving in England at this time. He was Padre S. C. Read,16 who after long service with the Division had been posted to the New Zealand Forces Club in London to look after the affairs of the National Patriotic Fund Board, where he did excellent work.

When the prisoners began to arrive they received extra rations in very comfortable surroundings. Some had to enter hospital page 112 because of privations suffered in prison camps and on the forced marches of the last few months of their imprisonment in Germany. The chaplains found work with released prisoners of war unlike anything else they had attempted. Long years behind barbed wire had left their marks on the minds of the men and sympathetic treatment and understanding were needed. They responded magnificently to good food, freedom, and friendliness, and this led one chaplain to assert that men just released from captivity were in better mental and physical health than those who had served for a similar period with the Division in action. The chaplain who said this was an experienced man, but perhaps appearances were deceptive for many former prisoners suffered a severe relapse in health and morale on their return to New Zealand. There was no doubt that imprisonment in enemy hands placed a great strain on body and soul.

All the New Zealand chaplains who had been captured returned safely. Bishop Gerard had been repatriated some two years earlier but the other nine passed through the Repatriation Unit in England. Their experiences had varied. At some times and in some places they had received many opportunities for continuing their spiritual work, being allowed to move freely in nearby prison camps, but on other occasions they were strictly confined in their own prison for officers. Where possible the chaplains conducted regular services in prison camps, and they spent much of their time giving religious instruction and in helping to organise activities which would combat the deadly monotony of prison life.

In his award of the CBE special mention is made of the part played by Bishop Gerard while he was a prisoner of war, and he himself bore testimony to the work of the other chaplains. In one prison the Bishop found a number of Church of England confirmation candidates who had been prepared by a Presbyterian chaplain, Padre Mitchell. This chaplain had an excellent record and was awarded the United States Bronze Star. Another prisoner of war chaplain, Padre Hiddlestone, received the MBE, and Padre Hurst was mentioned in despatches for good work while a prisoner.

The intimacy of life in prison, the perpetual shortage of food, and the other hardships provided many temptations for a slackening in morale, petty selfishness, and despondency. The captured page 113 chaplain had both to conquer these problems in his own life and to help others.

Information on chaplaincy work in prison camps has had to be gleaned from former prisoners of war and the chaplains themselves. These men form a small, exclusive band in the brotherhood of returned men. Their common experience of acute mental suffering and frustration has welded them together and they refer to each other as ‘Kriegies’. Captured chaplains themselves, looking back on their Army life, believe that the most fruitful period of their ministry was the time they spent in enemy hands.