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Prisoners of War

VII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

VII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

The German civilians interned at Somes Island also presented an evacuation problem, since a number of them had expressed a wish for repatriation to Germany. Transport difficulties and the chaotic state of Germany in the immediate post-war period made it necessary to postpone any such moves. In the meantime the internees were kept in the camp on Somes Island. The subsidy of £15 a year which they had been receiving from the German Government had however ceased, and the complete defeat of Germany and their own rather hopeless position caused a serious deterioration in morale.

The New Zealand authorities finally decided that all these internees should have the option of remaining in New Zealand. When the camp was disbanded in mid-October 1945 they were permitted to take jobs in the civilian community. In his final report on the Somes Island camp, the New Zealand delegate of the International Red Cross Committee paid a tribute to the excellent conditions under which alien internees had been permitted to live in New Zealand, and to the ‘humanitarian principles’ which had been the ‘guiding factor’ in the attitude of the New Zealand authorities towards their treatment.

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The way in which captivity would end had been for a long time for those held prisoner in Germany the subject of endless conjecture. The situation as it would affect the recovery of these men had been carefully studied by the Allied High Command. It was also the subject of careful consideration and detailed planning by camp leaders. An ‘Operation and Administrative Order’ issued in one of the large stalags made detailed provision for a situation in which the prisoners, in the event of an armistice, would have to march out under their own arrangements. Men's attention was called to the danger of leaving the camp independently and being at large in the country of a defeated enemy, where there might be no proper form of control. The plans at one of the larger oflags envisaged several alternatives to an armistice and covered the action to be taken in the event of a forced move of the camp, or its abandonment by the guards, or an attempt by SS personnel to use officer prisoners as hostages. Most of these plans were designed to secure the safety of the camp occupants and not to offer active military assistance to the Allied forces, since it was clear after the invasion that the latter did not require any. In the same way escaping was regarded in the spring of 1945 as not likely to be of help to the Allied cause, and some camp commanders forbade it.

Had it been necessary to put all the camp schemes into operation, it is problematical how many men would have carried out their instructions. Many of those who had been rounded up in their camps in Italy and transferred to Germany were resolved that, no matter what instructions were received about remaining in camp, they would trust their own judgment in a future emergency. As it turned out, the speed of the Allied advance precluded the necessity for most of the arrangements, but in some camps which were abandoned by their guards the planned organisations took over and seem to have functioned well.

The degree to which some elements of the German military organisation cohered until the very end was a matter of amazement to many prisoners of war inside Germany. As late as mid-April officers were moved from reception centres north towards Lubeck and south towards the Austrian redoubt. No doubt some of the guards and their commanders still believed that Germany would pull something out of the fire—some super-weapon—and save the situation. Others were more and more openly expressing the view that Germany was finished. Some prisoners mention that many guards became more ‘lax’ and ‘friendly’, more ready to take a ‘reasoning attitude’, and one man talks of a ‘general softening up’; others found little change. But whether or not their attitude towards prisoners of war changed, most of the guards continued to the last to carry out orders to move, to prevent prisoners escaping, to page 490 send them out to work and even to pay them, as if the German military machine was intact and in perfect running order. An entry in a New Zealander's diary for 21 March reads:

Definitely the end of our long, weary march; we start work at the factory tomorrow. We protested we were in no condition to work; it didn't mean a thing; we start tomorrow….

It was only when they were near enough to the Allied forces to be overrun that the German guards ceased to care about carrying out their orders. Though some of the guards who had consistently shown brutality were pointed out to the liberating troops, there seems to have been little vindictiveness on the part of our released prisoners and no active measures of revenge. Some guards who had been considerate to the prisoners in their charge had been given certificates to present to the Allied forces when they surrendered. For many of these it must have been a relief to be able at last to present them.

Most prisoners seem to have expected their food situation to deteriorate in the period immediately preceding their release. The shortage of food in 1945 was of the same degree as that experienced by many prisoners in the transit period following their capture, but men who were just completing several years of captivity were probably in a less fit state to endure it. Besides the food shortage there was the mental tension created in the period of waiting for release. With the Allied forces so near, the uncertainty as to whether they would be moved, or abandoned, or handed over to the SS involved a strain on prisoners rather similar to that of a person playing a desperate game, who sees victory within his grasp yet does not know what last-minute moves his opponent may make to reverse the position. The tension was often relieved when a camp was moved; for men's minds were then distracted by the business of moving, and while on the move, of grimly keeping going. But the physical effort involved in the marches across Europe put a tremendous strain on the constitutions of many of those who took part in them. A New Zealander writes at the end of one of the marches:

So here we are, after eight weeks on the road and covering 700-odd kilometres, marching from winter into spring, leaving many a comrade in his last sleep, destined to still exist until the end of the war, which, we pray God, won't be very long.

The long-term effects, both physical and mental, of captivity were recognised in the efforts made to exchange those who had been prisoners the longest. These effects and those which would be the inevitable result of the marches were at the time also being taken page 491 into account in the arrangements for the treatment of ex-prisoners of war in the reception centres on the Continent and in the United Kingdom.

The events of 1945 created an anxiety on the part of next-of-kin of prisoners and internees in Germany similar to that of people with prisoner-of-war relatives in Italy at the time of the Italian armistice. It was not for some time that the details of the marches across Europe became known. By the time that reliable information on these transfers was available, the war was in its last stage and camps were being liberated. Although provision had been made for the documentation of prisoners on the Continent, the Allied authorities judged that it was more important to evacuate ex-prisoners from the Continent to the United Kingdom with all possible speed rather than to delay their movement until certain ‘processing’ had been carried out. A spell of bad weather at the beginning of May held up the air-lift, but when it ceased ex-prisoners were being flown to the United Kingdom at the rate of 10,000 or more a day; by the end of May more than 154,000 British Commonwealth ex-prisoners alone had been flown across. Many of our men sent cables to New Zealand from the Continent, but next-of-kin were understandably impatient to receive official confirmation, which was usually not possible until accurate lists had been complied in the United Kingdom. It is clear from the statements of prisoners of war how much they appreciated the speed and efficiency with which they were evacuated from their camps and flown to the United Kingdom, and the absence of red tape and hard-and-fast procedure which might have caused delays. Besides military operations and the occupation of an enemy country, the Allied forces had to cope with 2,250,000 ex-prisoners of war, as well as a mass of displaced civilians. The promptitude with which our released prisoners and internees were evacuated is proof at once of the high priority accorded to their welfare and of the efficient co-operation of the various services whose task it was to handle them.