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Prisoners of War

VII: Relief Work

VII: Relief Work

It was as well that in the summer of 1943 a reserve of Red Cross supplies had been built up in Geneva,1 for in the course of the following year there were serious dislocations of the system of transport to camps in Europe. The International Red Cross Committee's fleet operating between Lisbon and Barcelona had one ship sunk by a floating mine in October 1943, another bombed and sunk in March 1944, and a third bombed and damaged in May 1944. The last two incidents each caused a cessation of sailings of all such vessels for one month pending reassurance by the Allies that the Red Cross emblem would be respected. From June to November 1944 the route through southern France was out of action, for even after the Allied capture of Marseilles in August it was some weeks before the port was again workable. By June 24,000 tons of supplies had accumulated at Lisbon and ships were being diverted to Casablanca or sent directly to Barcelona, where their Red Cross cargoes were unloaded and stored. In September a northern route was opened, ships going direct to Gothenburg, where their cargoes were transhipped to Lubeck. But the Allied offensive in the west made German rail transport progressively more devious and difficult, and between September 1944 and February 1945 only 210,000-odd food parcels a month were received in camps for British prisoners and internees on the Continent, as compared with 640,000 a month for the year immediately preceding.

In June 1944 a German High Command order forbade the holding in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany of more than a month's reserve of food, and in September another order forbade any reserve whatever, as the Germans feared that the food might be used to supply invading forces or subversive elements inside the country. Under this order existing camp reserves were to be used up and new supplies were to be issued immediately on their arrival, the rule concerning the piercing of tins being strictly enforced. Camp leaders were not slow to protest, and in many camps agreement was soon reached with the Germans that a reserve might be held outside the prisoners' compound. In October the difficulties of getting supplies through made the maintenance of a reserve of any size virtually impossible and necessitated an instruction being sent to camp leaders that only one food parcel between two should be issued each week. There was, however, no slowing up at the parcel packing centres,2 and a huge volume of supplies was built up ready to be used as soon as the problems of transport should be solved.

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Although in 1944 there was need for a continual supply of replacements for uniforms and footwear, most men had received sufficient private parcels to prevent any serious hardship from a breakdown of supplies in clothing. Many men wrote requesting the maximum of chocolate and the minimum of clothing in succeeding parcels, and in October the despatch of private clothing parcels was temporarily discontinued. It was resumed in November and ceased finally in February 1945.

In late 1943, on the basis of recommendations of repatriated medical officers and of representations already received, the medical supplies for prisoner-of-war camps were replanned. Thenceforward the medical supply unit consisted of two packages, one medical and one surgical. By September 1944, 210 of these units were being despatched each week, as well as 10,000 invalid food parcels. Specially urgent supplies were sent by plane via Sweden. For limbless men still remaining after the repatriation of October 1943, materials were sent to hospitals in Germany for the making of artificial limbs on the spot. In spite of a shortage of dental supplies in the United Kingdom, a large quantity was sent to camps to cope with the vast amount of dental work necessary in prisoner-of-war camps, both fillings and dentures.

By 1944 there was ample evidence of the value in prisoner-of-war camps of the recreational and educational material distributed to them from bulk supplies sent from the United Kingdom to Geneva or bought in neutral countries with British Red Cross funds. The variety of entertainment provided by camp theatres at this time, from light opera to broad pantomime, would not have been possible without the librettos, the scores, the acting editions of plays and the make-up, either sent from England to Geneva for distribution by the World Alliance of YMCAs or bought by the latter with funds supplied by Commonwealth Red Cross organisations. The music festivals could not have been organised unless the instruments and sheet music had been sent. The art exhibitions depended on the supply of art materials. Sports would have been much more restricted and primitive but for the supply of footballs, team clothing, cricket sets, and the other items of sporting equipment that were sent. Even the camp gardens were largely the result of the seeds selected by the Royal Horticultural Society.

As a result of the books and courses sent to camps, thousands of British prisoners of war enjoyed educational advantages which would otherwise have been denied to them. Apart from the obvious gain to those who attended courses and passed examinations while prisoners, the effect of the serious reading that well-selected camp libraries made possible, though neither obvious nor measurable, page 444 cannot be otherwise than ultimately of great benefit to many individual ex-prisoners, and indirectly to the communities in which they live.

1 The reserves at Geneva included large quantities of food in bulk instead of individual parcels, sent by the British Committee Council in the Argentine.

2 Weekly figures: UK, 92,000; Canada, 80,000; New Zealand, 8000.