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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

X: Health of Prisoners of War

X: Health of Prisoners of War

It might be surmised that the health of those captured by the enemy suffered by comparison with those who remained in 2 NZEF, but for want of detailed information no accurate survey is possible. Among the wounded there must have been more deaths from wounds in those taken prisoner than was the case among those with wounds of comparable severity who were not captured. Delay in treatment, possible lack of medical supplies and lower standard of surgery, need for early movement, and inadequate hospital facilities must have had their effect. (Of the 1326 wounded some 107 died of wounds.) Those who recovered from their wounds sometimes suffered more than normal disability for want of special treatment or appliances.

Deaths from sickness were not as many as might have been expected, although the death rate per 1000 was over twice as high as that in 2 NZEF. The number seems to have been only 105 out of the total of over 8000 prisoners of war. The causes of death were notified as: pneumonia 12; dysentery 12; meningitis 8; heart 6; neoplasms 5; pulmonary tuberculosis 4; diphtheria 4; toxaemia 4; nephritis 3; peritonitis 3; enterocolitis 3; malaria 2; cachexia 2; other causes 25; with causes not notified in the case of 12 deaths.

The figures show that there was no epidemic responsible for numerous deaths. Probably the greatest threat was from typhus, especially as large numbers of Russian prisoners in Germany died from this disease. The energetic action taken by British medical officers when typhus cases occurred in Lamsdorf camp, with its page 152 10,000 prisoners, in November and December 1941 prevented an epidemic and undoubtedly saved many lives. It is likely that had sulphonamides and penicillin been available freely to the medical officers they would have been able to save the lives of some of those who died from pneumonia, dysentery and other diseases. Altogether the figures reflect great credit on the British medical staffs caring for the prisoners of war, but the importance of the Red Cross food supplies in maintaining health should not be overlooked. Some of the deaths would have occurred in the natural course irrespective of whether the men were soldiers serving within their own force or prisoners of war or civilians.

In spite of the constant overcrowding of prisoners of war in the camps there was no major outbreak of cerebro-spinal meningitis, although there were occasional cases. Nor was there any major outbreak of typhoid fever, for which the annual injection every May of German standard TAB vaccine must have been responsible, in part at least. Inevitably, there were some cases of dysentery, and amoebic infection was reported to be more common than bacillary. Sporadic cases of diphtheria, scarlet fever and pneumonia occurred.

There was always a small but steady incidence of tuberculosis, bone and joint as well as pulmonary cases, 22 New Zealanders being admitted to the special hospitals at Königswartha and Elsterhorst in Germany, and 20 more cases being diagnosed in England in 1945 after repatriation. Other cases were diagnosed in New Zealand and elsewhere after repatriation. A survey made by War Pensions Branch in 1949 showed that there had been 155 cases among men who had been prisoners of war (omitting the four deaths overseas), of whom 115 were diagnosed by 1945 and 40 in the next four years. The figures are higher than the overall army rate, but apart from privations a contributing factor was that many prisoners of war came from the First and Second Echelons who had not been X-rayed on enlistment. (Eighty-two of the 155 cases were of these echelons and were not X-rayed on enlistment.)

Skin diseases, particularly boils, frequently developed even in otherwise fit men. On working parties it was the commonest complaint, and the incidence of boils was about 50 per 1000 men per month. The main causative factor was thought to be the lack of fresh milk, fresh fruit and vitamins. Speaking generally, diseases of malnutrition were not very common, though many cases did occur after lengthy periods in places such as Salonika transit camp and after the 600-mile march west from Silesia. The psychoneuroses were not uncommon, but in general appeared to be related to home conditions and domestic difficulties, as disclosed in letters, rather than page 153 to environmental conditions. Cases of suicide were few, and some of these arose after actual liberation in men who had previously exhibited no evidence of mental instability.1

Deaths other than those from sickness among prisoners of war seem to have been confined in the main to drownings and deaths from air attacks on shipping in the Mediterranean, shootings during escapes and casualties from air attacks. There were 292 deaths other than those from sickness, and over half of these, some 148, were from drownings or wounds as the result of the torpedoing of two ships en route across the Mediterranean from North Africa in December 1941 and August 1942. Some twenty-five were shot attempting to escape from camps or in making their clandestine way across Europe, and some twenty-four were killed as the result of air attacks, presumably Allied, on localities where they were held prisoner, while two were killed in battles between the Germans and Russians. A few were killed in railway accidents and a few in mines, etc., while on working parties. As there is no record of cause of death in over fifty cases, it is not possible to classify the causes of death in detail, and the figures quoted in the categories above might be increased if all the causes of death were known.

Net Weights of Food in Standard Parcels
Commodity British (Average) oz. Canadian oz. New Zealdnd oz. American oz. Argentine (Parcel Equivalent) oz.
Biscuits 10 16 7 14
Cheese 4 13 8 17¼
Chocolate 4 5 6 8 5
Fish 8 11¾ 8
Fruit, etc. 13 6 15 7
Preserves 10½(Jam or syrup) 16 (Jam) 14 (Jam) 11¼ (Honey or jam)
Fats 8 (Marg. or butter) 16 (Butter) 16 (Butter) 16 (Margarine) 13½ (Butter or marg.)
Meat 35 22½ 28 24 38
Milk 14 (Condensed) 16 (Dried) 14 (Av. of milk, honey, and syrup) 16 (Dried) 8¾(Condensed)
Milk with coffee 13½
Sugar 4 8 8 8
Tea 2 4 4 (Coffee) 2
Cocoa 3 3
Condiments 1 1
Eggs, dried 1
Oatmeal, etc. 6
Liver paste 6
Orange concentrate 4
Sweets ½
Total net weight 125½ 133¼ 131 124 129
Soap 4
Cigarettes 4
Boxes, tins, and packing material 50½ 42¾ 45 44 ?
Total gross weight 176 176 176 176 ?
page 154
Nutrative Value of Parcels plus German Camp Rations
Catoritt Protein gr. Calcium mg. Iron mg. Vit. A i.u. Vit. BI i.u. Riboflavin mg. Nicotinic Acid mg. Vit. C mg.
New Zealand parcel 2022 49 824 7 2876 87 1.0 3.0 0
German rations* 1750 63 270 15 1120 580 1.1 15.0 124
Total 3772 112 1094 22 3996 667 2.1 18.0 124
Optimum requirements 3000 70 800 12 4000 600 2.2 15.0 75
Shortage or excess +772 +42 +294 +10 +4 +67 -0.1 +3.0 +49

1 Diseases of prisoners of war are dealt with in more detail in the clinical volume, War Surgery and Medicine.

* Figures of camp rations up to April 1944 supplied by War Office.