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Prisoners of War

V: Protection of Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

V: Protection of Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

By January 1945 there were about 40,000 British prisoners of war more than half-way through their fifth year of captivity. The idea of exchanging long-term able-bodied prisoners had been first brought to the notice of the belligerents in a letter by the International Red Cross Committee, circulated in August 1943, which suggested the accommodation in a neutral country, firstly, of ‘those whose mental and physical condition appears to be seriously endangered by prolonged imprisonment’, and secondly of ‘aged prisoners who have endured long imprisonment’. The matter was considered at a meeting of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee in March 1944, when it was decided to negotiate for the exchange of prisoners aged 42 years1 or over, whose captivity had lasted 18 months or longer. No reply was received until the beginning of March 1945, when the Germans suggested that the numbers of such prisoners exchanged from each side should be 25,000. There were doubts as to the practicability of such a large exchange at that period of the war, and though there were efforts to make arrangements for a smaller number, no details were ever finalised. The rapid Allied advances of the ensuing weeks soon obviated the necessity of proceeding further with the negotiations. Thus the humane conception embodied in Article 722 of the 1929 Geneva Convention bore no fruit in the Second World War,3 beyond raising hopes which were constantly deferred and adding yet another to the crop of prison-camp rumours.

The matter which gave the Allied authorities most concern in 1945, and which was the subject of most of the negotiations on behalf of their nationals in captivity, was the welfare of the latter during the large-scale transfers which the German High Command seemed determined to carry through until the end. As the first reports page 485 concerning the conditions for the marching columns came through, they were made the subject of protests to the German authorities through the Protecting Power. It was pointed out that the prisoners on the march were encountering far more danger and hardship than they would have done if left in their camps. The protests met with promises to take immediate steps to improve food and accommodation for prisoners of war, not only during transfer but also in the assembly centres at which they arrived. In particular there was a promise that sick and weak prisoners would in future be transported by train or lorry. Swiss investigations were able to reassure the Allies that no reprisals on prisoners of war would be taken by the Germans on account of the intense aerial bombardment of Germany and the devastation and loss of life it was causing. There was, it was considered, no intention on the part of the German authorities to ill-treat Allied prisoners.

It soon became apparent, however, that with the increasing disorganisation in Germany there was no guarantee of proper supervision of the marching columns, nor were the Germans capable of carrying out their promise to provide adequate food and accommodation. In the circumstances it was decided to attempt to get food and other supplies to the prisoners by lorry, and that representatives of the Protecting Power and the International Red Cross Committee should maintain the closest contact possible with lines of march and assembly centres in order to be on the spot to protect the interests of prisoners as need arose. The Swiss representative who arranged the release of the ‘hostages’ from Oflag IVC, and the one who remained at Stalag 317 during the difficult period at the close of hostilities are examples that have already been mentioned. The provision of relief supplies by lorry is dealt with in the next section.

In order to prevent further unnecessary hardship to prisoners of war, the British and American governments had early put forward a proposal that the Germans should be asked to leave them in their camps in eastern Germany if the Allies gave an assurance that they would not after recovery be again used on the battlefronts. To this the Soviet Government had not agreed. On 12 April the German Government made an almost identical proposal regarding prisoners of war in all camps, provided the Allies undertook not to return them to active duty. The offer was accepted on 23 April by the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR. At the same time, in order further to safeguard prisoners remaining in enemy hands, the Prime Minister, the President, and Marshal Stalin issued this warning:

The Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, on behalf page 486 of all the United Nations at war with Germany, hereby issue a solemn warning to all commandants and guards in charge of Allied prisoners of war, internees or deported citizens of the United Nations in Germany and German-occupied territory and members of the Gestapo and all other persons of whatsoever service or rank in whose charge Allied prisoners of war, etc., have been placed whether in the battle zones, on the lines of communication or in rear areas.

They declare that they will hold all such persons no less than the German High Command and the competent German military, naval and air authorities, individually responsible for the safety and welfare of all Allied prisoners of war, etc., in their charge.

Any person guilty of maltreating or allowing any Allied prisoner of war, etc., to be maltreated whether in the battle zone, on the lines of communication, in a camp, hospital, prison or elsewhere, will be ruthlessly pursued and brought to punishment.

They give notice that they will regard this responsibility as binding in all circumstances and one which cannot be transferred to any other authorities or individuals whatsoever.

The Allied forces were deep into central Germany from both east and west; Berlin was the scene of an artillery and infantry battle. Such a warning was calculated to make all but the most fanatical think of the future; and it seems probable that, in the period following, this combined with the cessation of further moves prevented much additional hardship and brutality. A fortnight later the German forces surrendered unconditionally.

1 The total number of Commonwealth prisoners involved was 3351, and the New Zealanders totalled 78. The oldest New Zealand Army man then a prisoner of war was born in 1891 and captured in May 1941.

2 ‘During the continuance of hostilities, and for humanitarian reasons, belligerents may conclude agreements with a view to the direct repatriation or accommodation in a neutral country of prisoners of war in good health who have been in captivity for a long time.’

3 In March 1918 the French and German governments negotiated such an agreement for men over 48 who had been over 18 months in captivity.