Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Prisoners of War

VIII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

VIII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

Conditions at internment camps such as Giromagny and Wurzach were a contrast to those for the civilian internees at Pahiatua, where the camp continued to give a neutral inspector a ‘very good impression’. Indeed material conditions continued to show improvement even on the high standard which they had previously attained. The numbers in the camp were reduced by the evacuation in September 1943 of nearly all the Japanese for exchange at Marmagao. The internees received more butter and meat than New Zealand civilians, who were rationed. The recreation barrack and workshop were completed and the furnishing of the camp buildings was improved. Radio, library, piano, billiard table, and other indoor amenities provided good facilities for passing the time. There was plenty of scope for outdoor sports, and walks outside the camp under escort were also permitted. The morale of the internees was described as very good.

Nevertheless there had been some difficulties. News of the Italian armistice had created strained relations between the Germans and the Italians, until in March 1944 the remaining 28 Italians left the camp to rejoin their families on conditional release. There had always been difficulties between the Germans and a small group of so-called ‘internationals’, consisting of some men of Jewish origin and others described as ‘Communists’. Feeling became so high between the Germans and this group that arrangements had to be made as far as possible for them to keep out of each other's way.

In September 1944 the internees were moved back to Somes Island to make way for Polish refugee children whom New Zealand had agreed to take under her charge. They welcomed the return to their former accommodation as there was more freedom for them on the island, and this and the scenic beauty of the view more than made up, they considered, for any winter climatic drawbacks. By this time, too, a number of the Germans from Samoa and Tonga had been sent back on conditional release, and there remained only 87 on the camp strength. The accommodation, which had been improved, was therefore much less crowded, and the release of another 25 Germans to Samoa towards the end of 1944 made it possible for most of the remainder to go into separate cubicles. The internees were able to earn money by doing necessary carpentery and plumbing in the camp. For the rest, they spent most of their time out of doors, fishing, walking, or playing sports. A neutral page 445 inspector characterised the summer conditions on Somes Island as ‘those of a picturesque, pleasant seaside resort’, and the appearance of the internees bore testimony to the healthy life they were able to lead.

* * * * *

The German High Command had just begun to adjust their system of prisoner-of-war camps to absorb the mass of prisoners transferred from Italy when the Allied offensive in the west burst upon them. It was not unexpected since it was heralded by intensive bombing, which continued to batter German towns of any economic or military importance throughout the year. Hampered and disorganised internally by air raids, blockaded by sea, and engaged in full-scale land operations to the east, south, and west as Germany was, it is perhaps surprising that she provided for her millions of prisoners of war and foreign workers as well as she did. She did not, of course, provide sufficient food or any clothing for British prisoners; but, knowing that their own authorities were able and willing to send both, with considerable realism she went out of her way to provide transport for British Red Cross supplies from Geneva to their camps.1 In spite of the urgent calls on her building materials, she made an attempt, though an unsuccessful one, to build accommodation which would house properly the British prisoners of war in her hands and keep peace with the steady increase in numbers.2 Only the devastating air attacks at the end of the year precluded the possibility of continuing such attempts, and so dislocated her transport system that she could not maintain her own low ration scale, let alone spare much rolling stock to supplement that of prisoners of war. That she spared any at all in her desperate situation might have been due partly to the value of prisoners in doing essential work and partly to the move towards conciliation with the Western Allies, of which some aspects have already been noted.3

It was chiefly on behalf of British prisoners doing heavy work that protests had been made regarding the inadequacy of the rations supplied by the German authorities. For in order to eke out the insufficiency of her labour force to cope with a last frenzied war effort, Germany had increased the working time of prisoners to as much as twelve hours a day for thirteen days a fortnight. Extracting

1 The International Red Cross Committee estimated that an average of 900 railway box-wagons a month of relief supplies for British prisoners were transported on the German railway system between June and November 1944.

2 The International Red Cross Committee added 10 per cent to the indents for supplies received from camps in southern Germany and Austria to allow for new prisoners transferred from Italy.

3 See p. 392 et seq.

page 446 the last ounce of work from prisoners and still keeping them hungry might create a situation in which they became difficult to control, and the German High Command felt it necessary to pay special attention to their discipline. While moderate officials of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs still did their best to patch up an Anglo-German understanding, the more ruthless Nazi Party members deplored any tendency towards lenience. Fear of organised violence among foreign workers and prisoners of war became the justification for increased interference by the Gestapo in matters relating to escape, especially in Air Force camps. Over eighty British prisoners were shot in the spring and summer of 1944, most of them recaptured escapers, and there were examples of extreme severity on the part of German officers and NCOs in control of detachments of prisoners.

The attempt on Hitler's life in July confirmed the fears of his subordinates that there was a real danger of a rising inside Germany, and gave Himmler and the police he controlled an excuse for asserting supreme control over all matters inside Germany, even of the Army. In August came the announcement of ‘total war’, orders for a six-and-a-half-day working week to meet its demands, and dire threats of punishment for defeatist talk. In the same month the Nazi salute took the place of the normal military salute among home troops. SS replaced Wehrmacht officers in posts of administrative control, except in the camps themselves. So far as British prisoners were concerned the German fears were exaggerated. Nearly all the plans being made by prisoner-of-war camp leaders were not for insurrection, sabotage, or guerrilla activities, since it was felt that the Allied military forces would have no need of such assistance and might find it an embarrassment, but for the protection of prisoners amid the chaotic conditions that would result from Germany's collapse. This was also the attitude of the Allied commanders, who saw no point in dropping arms by parachute to prisoners of war, but agreed on the issue of a solemn warning to anyone responsible for their custody not to ill-treat them and a declaration that the competent German authorities would be held responsible for their safety and welfare.

The effects of the invasion of France on the prisoner-of-war camps in Germany were in the first stage more psychological than material. It had been fairly obvious to most prisoners from the intensified bombing and the general progress of the war that the much talked of Second Front would come in the spring of 1944. When it did come, in June, the air of expectation that had preceded it gave way to unqualified optimism, and hope ran high that the war would be over that year. By November, however, this hope was seen page 447 to be false, and prisoners had to resign themselves to another winter in Germany. The disappointment brought a deep mental reaction, and in some respects the last winter for prisoners of war in Germany was the worst of the whole period of their captivity, a period which had already lasted over three and a half years for many of them. Food from whatever source was short and uncertain of delivery; fuel was equally short; lighting was poor. Existing accommodation was being more and more overtaxed by a constant trickle of new prisoners. Under these circumstances what would normally be considered trivial irritations, discomforts, and differences of opinion sometimes assumed a disproportionate size, and there was in many camps an atmosphere of considerable nervous tension.

This was more particularly so in officers' and NCOs' camps. In one officers' camp over half the officers had been in captivity for more than three and a half years. By November 1944 there was a waiting list of fifty for the German ‘holiday camp’ at Steinberg, all cases of strain through excessive study for examinations, of worry over domestic and private matters, or of a generally rundown condition. The number of cases sent to mental hospitals from this camp was large enough to be disturbing, and it was in such camps that the proposed repatriation of long-term prisoners (if it had been brought to fruition) would have had most beneficial effects.

Throughout this period, when fluctuations in food supplies, the weather, and the progress of the Allied armies had such marked effects on prisoner-of-war camp morale, there were a number of other influences that tended to maintain stability. Most camps had an excellent news service, which sifted material derived from both German newspapers and from the BBC heard over a concealed radio, and made its own, often cautious appreciation of the situation. This was an invaluable counter-agent against rumours and against excessive optimism or despair. In many camps prisoners had made large maps of the battle zones which were used to illustrate these summaries.

The progress of the war became the most engrossing interest of almost all prisoners. But those who were forced to work had little time or energy left for worrying about it. After long hours at their forced job, sometimes enlivened by air raids or by an argument with an oppressive guard, they were occupied with the business of feeding, keeping clean, and the other barest essentials of a decent existence. ‘We live from day to day’ is the summing up in one such prisoner's diary of this period.

On the other hand those in non-working camps had only too much spare time to think about the time and manner of their release and their subsequent activities. One man wrote, ‘The page 448 waiting is almost unbearable’. Well-established camp activities, theatre, sports, and music continued with their existing momentum to distract large numbers of performers, helpers and spectators. A New Zealand diarist wrote of the camp theatre, ‘It is a great help and keeps you from thinking.’ Educational work, on the other hand, although it had reached a high standard of organisation and activity in the early part of the year, declined as the year wore on, material conditions worsened, and men found it more and more difficult to concentrate on reading and study. For those with little interest in these pursuits there were other distractions: at one camp gambling for large stakes and at another consumption of home-made spirits were sufficiently marked to warrant special comment in neutral inspectors' reports. Attempts to escape seemed pointless with liberation so near, and much thought went into the working out of possible plans of action for the period which would immediately precede it.

At the end of 1944 there still remained 6500 New Zealand prisoners of war and civilian internees in Germany, and others were still being captured both in Western Europe and in Italy. The work required to look after their welfare was as great as ever. Packing and despatch of food parcels by the Joint Council organisation in New Zealand had now become almost machine-like, and next-of-kin were just as experienced in knowing what to send in their quarterly clothing parcels. What information they lacked on this or other matters connected with those held in captivity was available from the Joint Council inquiry offices. To this body, to the British Red Cross which still supplied New Zealand prisoners with medicines, invalid foods, most of their books and educational material, and to the International Red Cross Committee, large sums of public money continued to be allocated.1 It was obvious, however, that the war in Europe was in its final stage. Some repatriates and successful escapers had already arrived home, and people in New Zealand were getting ready to welcome home the remainder of the men they had farewelled anything up to five years before.

1 The New Zealand Government voted £2500 to the funds of the International Red Cross Committee in September 1944. In 1944 the National Patriotic Fund contributed approximately £250,000 to the Joint Council, which settled with the British Red Cross for services supplied by the latter to each New Zealand prisoner.