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Prisoners of War

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians in Enemy Hands

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians in Enemy Hands

It had been arranged beforehand that if and when war broke out, the United States should assume the responsibility of protecting the interests of British subjects in Germany. Although there existed international treaties for the protection of prisoners of war, it was not known whether the Nazi Government would accept responsibility for the actions of a previous German Government in signing or ratifying them. Early in September the United States Ambassador in Berlin made approaches to the German Foreign Office in order to determine to what extent Germany was prepared to honour these treaties. By 19 September he was able to quote a German Foreign Office official as saying that, ‘ … as Germany had adhered to the Geneva Convention of July 17th 1929, relative to the treatment of prisoners of war (Reichs Gesetzblatt II April 30th 1934), the German Government would be governed accordingly’. Britain had already given an assurance that she intended to abide by the terms of this Convention. Thus the rights of British prisoners in Germany were guaranteed on paper at least.

One of the first tasks of the United States Embassy staff, as representative of the power protecting British interests, was to trace British civilians in German territory, ascertain their condition, and page 8 if necessary arrange financial assistance for them. From the beginning it had to deal with a constant stream of requests for this kind of action. In addition, as soon as the existence of an internment camp was heard of, one of the Embassy staff in Berlin or a member of the consular staff elsewhere in Germany was sent to investigate and report fully and candidly on the conditions he found. One of the earliest of these reports drew attention to defects in the civilian internment camp at Wülsburg, Ilag XIII.1

It may appear picturesque, but the fact is that the Wülsburg Castle is an old and run-down building which presents a dilapidated appearance…. In my opinion the camp is overcrowded…. The air is bad, the light is bad, there is no space for a man to put his things…. In bad weather the situation is in my opinion next to unbearable….

This system of inspection and reporting kept the British Government informed on the unsatisfactory aspects of German treatment so that the appropriate protest could be made.

Immediately after the outbreak of war the International Red Cross Committee placed itself at the service of all belligerent governments, ‘ … to contribute in a humanitarian way, in its traditional role and with all its resources, towards lessening the evils brought by war.’2 At a time when national hatreds were aroused, it was able as a long-established neutral and impartial body to remind leaders of belligerent states of their treaty obligations and of considerations of humanity towards their fellow human beings even though enemies. In pursuit of these objects it proposed to organise:


a Central Agency for information about prisoners of war, with which it invited Information Bureaux3 to get in touch,


the exchange of sick and wounded prisoners, and of medical personnel,


the forwarding of letters and parcels,


the co-ordination of unofficial relief measures.

So far as civilians in enemy hands were concerned, it invited the belligerents to abide by the Tokyo Draft of 1934.4 It also reminded belligerents of the special position of medical personnel during hostilities. At the same time the Committee wrote to national Red Cross societies to inform them of its appeal to the belligerent governments, and to request their co-operation both in drawing their governments' attention to humanitarian considerations

1 Ilag (Interniertenlager), camp for internees.

2 Letter to all belligerent powers from IRCC (signed by M. Max Huber), dated 2 September 1939.

3 Set up by belligerent powers under Article 77 of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention.

4 See Introduction, p. xxiv.

page 9 and in themselves facilitating the exchange through the Central Agency of news regarding war victims.

As soon as possible the Committee sent special missions to Germany, France and Poland, and permanent delegations to Great Britain, Egypt and the Argentine,1 as the latter countries were less easily reached from Geneva. Besides organising a base for future operations and arranging for liaison with the Central Agency at Geneva, the first task of these missions was to visit prisoners' camps. These visits were usually entrusted to doctors, as, ‘…. Knowing just how much trained men can endure without undue risk, medical practitioners are less easily impressed than laymen by apparent deficiencies not detrimental to health. On the other hand they are able to recognise defects which would escape the inexperienced eye.’2 Similar visits to civilian internment camps, the securing of information through national Red Cross societies regarding non-interned civilians, and the arranging of 25-word family messages through the British and German Red Cross organisations were also part of their duties.

The Central Agency3 for information about prisoners of war was opened in the Palais du Conseil-General at Geneva on 14 September, formal notification of its establishment being sent to the governments concerned and contact made with the bodies doing similar work in those countries. Three days later the first requests for information regarding prisoners of war were received and passed on by International Red Cross delegates, and the Central Agency began the card-indexes, files, and correspondence which developed into the enormous record system for which it became well known.4

Prisoners of war information bureaux were set up in London and Berlin, and from the latter official lists of British prisoners and their particulars were eventually transmitted to the United States Embassy and the Central Agency in Geneva. But as the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention specified that addresses as well as other particulars were to be given, compilation of the lists was held up until the prisoners reached permanent camps. In the meantime the only information obtainable came in reports from the International Red Cross Committee, based on what its own delegates or the local German Red Cross and other bodies had been able to ascertain, or in the prisoner of war's own letters. It sometimes happened that mail from a prisoner in enemy hands reached his

1 The Argentine delegation was to be the base for South America.

2 Report of the IRCC on its activities during the war of 1939–45, Vol. I, p. 66.

3 As laid down in Article 79 of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention, 1929.

4 Up to 30 June 1947 the correspondence alone amounted to:
Inward 59,000,000 pieces
Outward 61,000,000 pieces

page 10 friends or relatives before the two enemy governments were able to communicate officially concerning his capture.

Thus the first report about a missing New Zealand airman came over the German radio a few days after his capture. Many such notifications were broadcast in the years following, usually in the ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ and similar sessions,1 to induce friends and relatives to listen to interpolated propaganda. But the Air Ministry took no official cognizance of these early messages about captured airmen, and their distrust was later justified when many were proved inaccurate or out of date. The next information usually arrived about six weeks later in the form of a letter from the man himself. But although this was accepted by the Air Ministry for practical purposes, it was still not regarded as official confirmation of capture. It was not until about eight weeks after capture that the Central Agency of the International Red Cross was able, in answer to an inquiry, to supply authentic information regarding a man's condition and location. This aspect of the prisoner-of-war problem was kept constantly under review by governments and service ministries, and means were found later to make some reduction in the time taken.2

It had been early decided in the United Kingdom that, following the precedent set in 1914–18, the Army authorities should have the task of dealing with enemy prisoners and civilian internees. By reason of the experience it gained in these matters, the Prisoners of War Branch of the War Office became the body best qualified to advice generally on anything to do not only with enemy prisoners in our hands but also our own in enemy hands. However, as matters relating to Navy and Air Force prisoners often needed the expert opinion of their own services, as the Home Office had to be consulted about civilians, as Treasury opinion was necessary on financial matters, and as the Foreign Office was the channel of communication with the Protecting Power, an inter-departmental committee with representatives of these departments was set up in 1940. This committee dealt primarily with financial questions. It held its first meeting in May 1940 and continued until May 1941, when it became a sub-committee of a newly-formed Inter-governmental Committee on Prisoners of War.

Meanwhile, in the first days of the war, British Commonwealth civilians in enemy-occupied territory were an urgent claim on the energies of the Foreign Office. The latter accepted the responsibility3 for making inquiries about them through the United States

1 Broadcasts in English over the German radio during the war by a British subject working for the enemy under the radio name of ‘Lord Haw-Haw’.

2 See Chapter 3, p. 98.

3 The British Red Cross also undertook inquiries through the International Red Cross Committee representatives in enemy countries.

page 11 Ambassador in Berlin. In addition to individual inquiries, the Foreign Office was also concerned with the broad questions of repatriation and internment, with the arrangement of funds for those without means of support, and with arranging for messages and letters from relatives to reach those in the German-occupied portion of the Continent. In this it was often merely acting on requests from the Home Office or the Dominion governments concerned, and serving as the channel of communication (through the Protecting Power) with the German Government. But the Foreign Office also accepted the responsibility for determining the international implications of all messages sent through it to enemy powers. And in order to assist the co-ordination of Allied strategy, New Zealand adopted from the first the principle of communicating with the enemy only through the Foreign Office, though this principle was not formally stated until November 1941.1

The departmental arrangements in New Zealand followed the pattern of those in the United Kingdom. The Army was the service branch made responsible for the custody of enemy nationals in New Zealand. Partly through this experience and partly through direct contact with the British War Office by means of the New Zealand Military Liaison Officer in London, it became the main advisory body on all matters relating to the treatment of prisoners of war and of interned civilians. The Prime Minister's Department at first handled in detail all inquiries regarding New Zealand missing and captured personnel, but as the task grew it became merely the co-ordinating body in this field, as it became in all others relating to the country's war activities. It kept in close touch with the British Government through the Dominions Office in the interests of consistency of action within the Commonwealth.

Many of the inquiries concerning civilians in enemy territory or missing servicemen came in the first instance to the High Commissioner's Office in London, and many others, which could be more easily dealt with in England, were referred there from New Zealand. In London information was gathered through diplomatic and Red Cross channels, and passed on to those requesting it. Arrangements were also made in London for the translation of money gifts into relief in kind. This was done through the British Red Cross, which was at that stage the only body empowered to send parcels to prisoners of war and civilian internees. The High Commissioner's Office in London, by thus acting as an intermediary between the agencies in closest contact with New Zealanders in enemy hands and their relatives and friends, was able to keep a constant eye on their interests.

1 Minutes of meeting of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee held on 5 November 1941, para (5).

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