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Prisoners of War

V: Civilians in Europe

V: Civilians in Europe

Besides some twenty men of the Merchant Navy, there remained in 1944 about the same number of other New Zealand civilians in European internment camps. The camp at Tost had been cleared in late 1943 and had become a prisoner-of-war hospital in mid-1944, some of the internees being transferred to Kreuzberg in Silesia and others to Giromagny, near Belfort and close to the Franco-Swiss border. In Ilag VIIIH at Giromagny they were housed in several old French military barracks, stone-floored, cold, badly lit, and ‘very uncomfortable’. In the winter following their arrival the men, a number of whom were elderly, had suffered considerably from these conditions, especially as it was some time before they were able to have a hot shower each week.

By comparison the 2000-odd men, women, and children at the St. Denis barracks in Paris were by 1944 well off. The quarters were well heated, and each internee had three blankets and could have three hot showers a week. One hut had been set aside as a restaurant, and food was sufficient to maintain good health in the camp. Flower and vegetable gardens, sports ground, library, orchestra, and school were all flourishing; there were even regular cinema shows and weekly excursions outside Paris by motor-coach.

At the end of 1941 a number of British internees had been transferred from Tost to form a branch camp (Ilag VIIIZ) at Kreuzberg, some 40 miles to the north and about the same distance from the Polish border. In 1944 the quarters, an old three-storied convent, were described by neutral inspectors as satisfactory, and recreational facilities as excellent. What sickness there was seems to have been due to the age of the internees affected. Nevertheless, a number were feeling the strain of long confinement, and there were four detachments of men who had volunteered to go out to work.

In 1944 there were New Zealanders from the Channel Islands at three camps in Germany: Ilag VII at Laufen for men only, and the two ‘family’ camps,1 Ilag Biberach and Ilag Wurzach. Two of these had formerly housed prisoners of war: the hutted camp at Biberach and the old Bavarian castle at Laufen. The camp at Wurzach in Wurtemburg seems to have been the worst. There the internees were put into a broken-down old monastery, which was at first dark and damp, was infested with rats and mice, and was equipped with only the most primitive sanitary arrangements, which brought flies in summer. Considerable improvements were made during 1944, and by then indoor recreation was sufficiently well organised to provide some compensation.

1 At Biberach men and women lived separately but could see each other all day. At Wurzach large families only were allowed to live together.

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A proposal for the exchange of civilians between the European belligerents had been the subject of communications between them as early as June 1942, but no agreement was reached until early 1944. All civilians held by both sides who desired it were to be exchanged, except those serving common law sentences and those whose repatriation would be dangerous to the detaining power. The agreement provided for a series of exchanges on a basis of numerical equality. The first of these took place at Lisbon in late July 1944, when 900 British civilians were handed over in return for the same number of German civilians from South Africa. The Drottningholm brought the Germans to Lisbon on 11 July and took the British repatriates to England, among them a few New Zealand internees from Vittel and Kreuzberg.

Those who remained in Vittel and St. Denis were liberated shortly afterwards by the Allied advance. But those at Giromagny were evacuated to Marlag-Milag Nord, and they and the others in Germany had to see through another winter as internees. Shortage of clothing, overcrowding, and reduction in the amount of relief food all contributed towards making this last stage of a prolonged confinement1 a very trying one. These conditions, combined with the disappointment at not being included in repatriation drafts, had not only most depressing effects on morale, but also a seriously detrimental effect on the health of some of the thousands of civilian men, women and children still interned at the end of 1944.

1 Some of them had been interned since May 1940.