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Prisoners of War

VI: Protection of Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

VI: Protection of Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

The administrative machinery for the protection of the interests of prisoners of war underwent practically no change in this period. Time and experience improved the co-ordination and efficiency of the various channels of inquiry and negotiation. Neutral inspectors knew what to look for when they visited a camp, and the form of their report was planned to cover all the points on which there had previously been complaint or controversy. By May 1944 arrangements had been made for them to meet the responsible German officials in Berlin and discuss outstanding matters. At the end of November officers from the prisoner-of-war branches of the British Foreign Office and the War Office were able to visit Berne and Geneva to discuss with representatives of the Swiss Foreign Office and of the International Red Cross Committee the matters with which they were all concerned, and possible further developments.

As many of the problems presented by interned civilians differed from those presented by prisoners of war, it became advisable to set up a separate committee in London to handle matters relating to page 440 the former. An ‘Inter-governmental Advisory Committee’ met for the first time on 31 March 1944, and thereafter met regularly as the ‘Commonwealth Civilians Committee’. It was composed of the High Commissioners for the Dominions and the Secretaries of State for the remaining portions of the Commonwealth, and was presided over by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In practice their places were occupied by representative officials, and meetings of the committee were also attended by technical advisers from the War Office and other British departments. The committee's terms of reference were:

To exchange information and advice on matters affecting the protection, welfare and property of:


British Commonwealth civilians in enemy, enemy-occupied or recently liberated territories, and


enemy civilians in British Commonwealth territory, and to make recommendations for co-ordinating policy within the Commonwealth.1

When civilians were involved in exchange operations, the committee sat in conjunction with No. 2 Repatriation Committee to co-ordinate the necessary administrative arrangements.

A good deal of negotiation in 1944 concerned arrangements for the exchanges of prisoners of war and civilians taking place in that year and for future exchanges. Apart from the essential painstaking work of Swiss doctors on the mixed medical commissions who examined thousands of prospective repatriates in the preliminary stages, the agreeing of date and place, the provision of shipping, and the ensuring of medical facilities were some of the problems which involved an enormous exchange of messages over the weeks immediately preceding the operation. No less in their demands on the tact and patience of negotiating officials were the reconciliation of the sometimes differing attitude of the United States and the always unsympathetic attitude of Russia, whose consent was necessary for a safe conduct, though she disapproved of a measure which returned to Germany people who she felt might assist the German effort on the Eastern Front.

The arrival home of considerable numbers of exchanged prisoners of war demanded the fixing of a policy with regard to the personal pay accounts they brought back from the enemy country in which they had been detained. Some credit balances were found to be very large and to be due to profits derived from services rendered page 441 to fellow prisoners, from trading and sometimes from gambling. To avoid the difficult task of deciding which of the sources of income were fair and thus calculating how much of a prisoner's credit balance should be recognised, the New Zealand Government decided in 1944 that no deductions for German pay, or credits for savings of German pay, would be made against an ex-prisoner's service pay account. This decision was reinforced by the likelihood that insufficient documentary evidence would be available for accurate computation of balances, and by the desirability of treating ex-prisoners from Germany on the same basis as those from Italy.

The other matters affecting British prisoners and civilians in Europe which required close attention in this period arose mostly from the difficulties forced upon Germany by Allied operations on the Continent. No agreement was ever reached between belligerents for the exchange of information regarding the exact locations of prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps, though in practice both sides received information incidentally in the reports on camps in which their nationals were held. This information was used by the Air Ministry in the briefing of aircrews before operations over the Continent, and no doubt prevented many casualties. But it did not include the locations of camps reported as containing only nationals of other Allied countries. Some thirty camps in Germany and occupied France were bombed, and notified loss of life among prisoners of war through this cause totalled about a thousand. There was a continual struggle with the German authorities to have camps removed from locations likely to be in danger from air attack, and also to allow sufficient air-raid shelter accommodation in all camps. By late 1944 it was apparent that the Germans did not have the material to build new camps, and effort was concentrated on securing adequate shelters. It was also thought at the time that they lacked sufficient rolling stock to move prisoners, but subsequent events showed that if necessary they could move them with or without transport.

The invasion of the Continent and the desperate military situation of Germany resulting from exhausting campaigns and destructive air attacks brought about an increasing tendency on the part of the German authorities to approximate the working conditions of prisoners of war to those of their own civilians. Working time at some Arbeitskommandos increased to ten or eleven hours a day, and men were sometimes forced to do overtime in excess of the period worked by German civilians. Conditions of work in coal mines and attempts to make prisoners work during air raids were two other matters related to Germany's desperate last effort on which representations had constantly to be made.

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1 Commonwealth Civilians Committee paper dated 27 March 1944.