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Prisoners of War

IV: Escaped Prisoners in Switzerland

IV: Escaped Prisoners in Switzerland

The New Zealanders who escaped into Switzerland after the Italian armistice remained there until October 1944. Owing to their status of évadé,1 they were not placed in military internment camps but like the other British Commonwealth escapers had for the most part to remain in certain allotted areas. This was in accordance with the Swiss plan to maintain perfect neutrality while coping with the large numbers of Allied servicemen and Italians who had sought refuge within her borders. Except for the periods spent at winter sports areas, the living quarters for British escapers were in the north-east corner of Switzerland in the cantons of St. Gallen and Thurgau. The control of British Commonwealth escapers was vested in the British military attaché at Berne and a senior British escaper as executive officer with headquarters at Wil. In practice there was close liaison with the Swiss military authorities and strict control by the latter over all movements of escapers.2

It was to Wil that the escaper was sent after his preliminary period of quarantine and examination by the Swiss authorities. There he received a full-scale issue of British Army clothing released from the International Red Cross stocks at Geneva by authority of the British Red Cross and the War Office. From there he was drafted to one of a number of detachments of about 200 men located in nearby country districts, where they were billeted in vacant buildings such as schools or factories. The men slept on bedboards covered with straw and received the same food as the Swiss civilians. To the surprise of the ex-prisoner food was strictly rationed, for since the outbreak of war Switzerland had had to produce sufficient food not only for her own population but also for the thousands of refugees who crossed the frontiers. The rations, though not lavish in

1 The Swiss term to denote escapers as distinct from military internees; not to be confused with an ‘evader’ in the British sense of a serviceman who avoided capture while in territory overrun by the enemy.

2 In September 1943 the British Government had agreed through their Minister in Berne to the Swiss Government exercising some measure of military control over British escapers. A ‘gentleman's agreement’ on this point was understood between HM Minister at Berne and the Swiss Foreign Minister, and the Swiss thereafter admitted any British escapers who crossed their frontiers. In December the Swiss Government issued regulations for the control of escapers which, in the British view, were more appropriate for military internees than for escapers, the main point of difference being the presence of armed Swiss troops in the escapers' billeting areas to enforce obedience to Swiss regulations. In spite of many representations by the British Minister and the British military attaché in Berne, the regulations were never modified, though they were in practice somewhat relaxed. The result was a confusion in the minds of almost all the Swiss officers concerned between an escaper and an internee, and a good deal of irritation and resentment among escapers. It is clear, however, that the geographical position of Switzerland placed her in a most difficult situation, and it is by no means certain that her action in maintaining severe control on paper and leaving it to the discretion of the Swiss officer on the spot to relax it may not have been the most neutral action and in the best interests of all concerned.

page 435 quantity, were quite adequate1 and very good in quality, and the senior officer at each detachment was allowed to purchase extra fruit and vegetables for the men. Officers were given an allowance and had to find their own lodging and food.

Part of the difficulty of catering for British Commonwealth servicemen in Switzerland was the limited amount of Swiss currency held by Britain, and the necessity of reserving sufficient for local purchases in the Far East in order to mitigate the appalling conditions of prisoners in Japanese hands. In lieu of pay it was necessary to issue pocket-money ‘consistent with reasonable conditions’. Owing to the inflated prices in Switzerland the rates had to be raised three times to ensure that an adequate amount was available, especially to the lower ranks,2 for the purchase of necessities. In addition to pocket-money there was a monthly allowance for postage.3

From the first it was realised that it was important to keep this large mass of men occupied. Those in detachments were restricted in their movements to certain areas, usually the perimeter of the village in which they were billeted, and had to be back in their barracks by ten o'clock each night; but they could obtain weekend leave on an invitation from the Swiss. Fortunately the ‘hospitality and generosity of the Swiss people towards New Zealand escapees was nothing less than overwhelming’.4 But there were dreary and boring periods for the detachments in lonely districts, and the continual presence of armed Swiss soldiers in the area, even though they acted more like military police than guards and even though most of them were relatively unobtrusive, was irksome to men who felt that they had earned their freedom.

Moreover, facilities for games of the kind to which the troops were accustomed were almost entirely lacking, and the winter in the lower parts of the country was usually foggy and wet. An unoccupied mountain hotel at Adelboden was therefore taken over, and large numbers of the men were sent there for a month at a time in rotation to enjoy the sunshine and winter sports. To meet the

1 Approximate daily rations in June 1944:

Bread260 grammes
Cereal23 grammes
Peas, etc.8 grammes
Milk11/30 litre
Butter7 grammes
Lard or oil8 grammes
Cheese12 grammes
Meat22 grammes
Eggs2 a month
Sugar17 grammes
Chocolate3 grammes
Sweets3 grammes
Coffee (or cocoa)8 grammes

2 Between 1 November 1943 and 5 February 1944 the rate for a private soldier had to be raised from 12s 3d to 17s 6d a week. All such advances were debited to the soldier's home pay account.

3 Six Swiss francs a month (approximately 7s).

4 Report on New Zealand Escapees (ex-PW) in Switzerland by Maj R. S. Orr (20 Bn) and others.

page 436 additional personal expenses1 they incurred while staying at a luxury hotel (though not nearly up to peacetime standard), the men were given a ‘winter sports’ allowance of ten Swiss francs a day for the period they were there. One prisoner wrote: ‘We are having such a pleasant life with ski-ing, tobogganning, dancing, etc., that I think it is almost as good as old New Zealand….’ This is high praise indeed from a New Zealander; and it is clear that these excursions to the mountains were of very great advantage to the men both physically and mentally.

In January 1944, by way of an experiment, a contract was let by the Swiss authorities to British headquarters for forest clearing and land drainage in Thurgau. There was no compulsion on escapers to work, but men were encouraged to volunteer for their own good and in order to earn Swiss currency for the British Commonwealth pool. The camp at Bornhausen, one of those set up under the scheme, contained 18 New Zealanders and was commanded by a New Zealand officer. The work was hard and dirty for 50-odd hours a week, sometimes in extremely cold weather; but the contract was completed up to time and some 70 acres of land were made available for crop-bearing. At Bornhausen and most of the other working camps the men lived in comfortable, specially built barrack huts.

A number of our men also volunteered for ordinary farm work, especially in the harvest season. Although the hours worked at this were longer, it was much more popular, for the soldier lived with the farmer and was in most cases treated as a member of the family; and so far as our men were concerned, the farmers were glad to have them, both for their work and for their good behaviour. For each day's work of any kind the soldier received two Swiss francs, and six Swiss francs were paid into the British Commonwealth pool for the expenses of escapers.

In addition to weekend leave, a scheme had early been arranged whereby each man could go on leave for ten days every three months, with a free rail fare to any part of Switzerland and a ration allowance of seven Swiss francs a day. But in March, for political reasons, further restrictions on leave were introduced by the Swiss Government. Weekend leave was cancelled and the quarterly scheme mentioned above was allowed to apply only to organised parties. Finally all leave was stopped after the Allied invasion on 6 June. It was a pity that the men were denied further opportunities of seeing a beautiful country; but the news of the invasion brought mental compensation, for as one man put it, ‘every heart beat fast’ in anticipation of final freedom.

1 Beer, for example, was twice the normal price.

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In mid-1944 conditions in billets were improved by the provision of palliasses from the Swiss authorities and of pyjamas from the International Red Cross stocks at Geneva. By this time camp amenities had been fairly well organised: there were canteens,1 dance bands, a magazine for escapers, inter-camp sports, and cinema programmes. Summer camps2 were opened at Arosa and Caux on a similar basis to the winter camp at Adelboden, and finally the smaller detachments were closed. University and trade training courses were made available, material and equipment for the latter being in some cases provided by Swiss firms. The men who attended had to wear civilian clothes and were given a special allowance to buy them. The mail service to Switzerland was good, though to avoid clogging the service to prisoners of war and internees no personal parcels were sent to escapers.

Not the least of the escapers' interests was the progress of the Allied invasion forces in the west. On 15 August 1944 the Allies landed in the south of France, and by the end of the month the blobs of red colour on the maps moved north and east until they were in contact with the Swiss border. It was thus at last possible for Switzerland to repatriate 4600-odd British Commonwealth escapers,3 and arrangements were put in hand without delay.

On 23 September a special train started from Wil and picked up detachments of New Zealanders and Australians from Adelboden, Arosa, and Caux as it moved south, until at Geneva it transferred some 500 escapers (including a hundred New Zealanders)4 to a French train which took them on to Marseilles. From there they were transported by tank landing craft to Naples and, after a short time in the Allied Repatriation Unit centre there, went by sea to Egypt and home to New Zealand in time for Christmas 1944.

Some of the repatriated men had spent nearly a year in Switzerland. In spite of administrative difficulties their stay had been of great benefit to them, both in shaking off the demoralising effects of prison-camp life by getting back to something like normal living, work and health, and also in gaining a broadened outlook through living among the people of a European country closely associated with international collaboration. All were high in their praise of the Swiss families who ‘so generously opened their homes to us’,5 and the senior New Zealand officer felt that the good conduct of our men had done much to foster friendship between their country and ours.

1 From December 1943, 200 cigarettes weekly (or tobacco equivalent) had been made available from IRCC stocks at Geneva.

2 A ‘summer sports’ allowance of ten Swiss francs a day was paid to other ranks.

3 Including 105 New Zealanders.

4 For various reasons five New Zealanders were unable to leave at this stage but came later.

5 Report by Maj Orr and others.

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