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Prisoners of War

II: Servicemen and Civilians captured at Sea

II: Servicemen and Civilians captured at Sea

Besides those who fell into enemy hands in the course of land and air operations, a number of British Commonwealth subjects were captured at sea. German U-boats and surface raiders had begun their attacks on British merchant shipping in the first week of the war, and by the latter part of 1940 German marauding craft had penetrated into most of the sea-routes of the British Commonwealth. On 25 November of that year it was known that the MV Port Hobart on her way to New Zealand from the United Kingdom had been attacked by an enemy raider. Nothing more was heard of her until a British warship reported sighting and picking up two empty boats belonging to the sunken vessel. It was however some time before anything became known of the fate of those on board, among whom were a number of New Zealanders, both passengers and crew. Slowly the news trickled through in personal letters from occupied Europe and in welfare reports from the International Red Cross Committee. The Port Hobart had been sighted in the Caribbean Sea by the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, which immediately gave chase and fired a warning shell, forcing her to heave to. A boarding party from the Admiral Scheer then took off her complement and laid explosive charges inside her.

After some three months at sea, during which they were several times transferred from one ship to another, the captured passengers and crew were eventually landed on 1 March 1941 at Bordeaux, where they were placed in a transit camp at St. Médard en Jalles, known as Frontstalag 221. Conditions at this camp, which appears to have been a reception camp for personnel captured at sea, were described by a New Zealand member of the crew of the page 36 Port Hobart as ‘terrible’, and he speaks of a ‘lack of adequate food, clothing and sanitation.’ These impressions are corroborated by other men of similar status who came for the first time into contact with the watery soup and the crude sanitary facilities so well known later in many German prisoner-of-war camps. The living quarters consisted of rough wooden barracks, in each of which a hundred men slept, ate and passed their time. Each barrack contained a hundred bunks but four forms only and no tables. On the other hand, two New Zealand women passengers, who had had three months at sea under very difficult and trying conditions, were ‘well treated but had practically no clothing’.1 The latter predicament resulted from the circumstances of their capture and from the lack of any replacements on the raiders. To enable them to remedy this discomfort and to buy a few extras, the United States Consul at Bordeaux had advanced sums of money to the civilian passengers and smaller sums to the merchant seamen. One of the worst aspects of treatment in St. Médard appears to have been the considerable delay before permission was given to write letters. There was an interval of several months before either first letters or International Red Cross ‘capture-cards’2 reached their destinations.

Two days after the attack in the Caribbean just described, two German raiders in the Pacific made their presence felt in waters uncomfortably close to New Zealand. In the early morning of 27 November 1940 the MV Rangitane, bound for England with (among other passengers) a number of recruits for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, was intercepted when only about four hundred miles from Auckland by the German surface raiders Orion and Komet. The Orion shelled and damaged her, took off her complement by launch, and then sank her by torpedoes and gunfire. Wounded brought on to the Orion received immediate medical treatment and the women were very well cared for. But the bulk of the prisoners, after a cursory interrogation, were housed below decks in rather dirty, overcrowded, and unbearably hot storerooms next to the engine-room. Accommodation on the Komet was even worse, and rations were of the poorest.

At the end of a week or so they all had the unpleasant experience for some days of being unwilling passengers on enemy vessels

1 The seven New Zealand women from the Port Hobart were accommodated in a refugee camp at Eysines, some three miles from St. Médard. Here they remained for three weeks under reasonable conditions, except for very poor food and sanitation.

2 By Article 36 of the 1929 Geneva Convention each prisoner was entitled within a week of his ‘arrival in camp’ to send a postcard to his relatives informing them of his capture and the state of his health. This postcard became known as the ‘capture-card’. In May 1940 the IRCC persuaded the German authorities to allow another ‘capture-card’ to be sent direct to their Central Agency at Geneva.

page 37 going into action. Captives in such a position are not only helpless in the face of physical danger, but they are torn between a patriotic desire for the enemy attack to miscarry and a hope that they themselves may escape injury. Just before Christmas 1940 the civilians and some of the servicemen from the Komet were relieved from further trials of this kind by being put ashore at Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago. A little later all those on the Orion were transferred to the German merchantman Ermland in the North Pacific. Leisurely cruising, with the majority of the captives in the hold, brought them round the Horn to the South Atlantic. Here overcrowding was aggravated by picking up a further 400 assorted prisoners from ships sunk by the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, though the prisoners were allowed on deck for a good many hours each day. They were then taken northwards to Bordeaux, where after a four months' voyage they joined the survivors from the Port Hobart and other ships at Frontstalag 221.

In early April, about a fortnight after their arrival there, the whole batch of ‘saved from the sea’ then at St. Médard were sent off to Germany. Civilian passengers and officers travelled in third-class carriages, but most of the others except the women1 had an uncomfortable five-day journey in cattle-trucks, followed by an 11-kilometre march which brought them, filthy and many of them none too fit, to the gates of the huge Stalag XB at Sandbostel, near Bremen. After a two-hours' wait in pouring rain they were allowed to pass through. Inside was a population of 25,000 prisoners of all nationalities housed in overcrowded, drab, ill-lit wooden barracks, laid out in long rows with ‘streets’ between. Food was as bad as it had been at Bordeaux, if not worse; clothing issued consisted of dirty garments previously worn by other prisoners. Sanitary conditions were bad and medical supplies poor. The newly-arrived servicemen were forced to work digging a rifle range, but received some compensation in the form of a slightly higher scale of rations. Their stay at Sandbostel was comparatively short, and by the middle of the year they had been sent to their appropriate permanent camps.2 Members of the Merchant Navy, however, including several New Zealanders from a number of different merchantmen, were to remain in a separate ‘Navy’ compound until the middle of 1942.

Two members of the Merchant Marine escaped while on the way to Germany from Bordeaux on the night of 3 April. They jumped from the train as it was passing through a cutting at night. Being still in occupied France, they made their way south and

1 The British women, now nine in number, made this trip in a lorry.

2 Most of the Air Force trainees went to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, passing through Dulag Luft for interrogation en route.

page 38 crossed the border into Vichy territory. One of them, a New Zealander, Bernard Cooper, succeeded in getting free of the Marseilles police and reaching Spain. After 52 days in an unsavoury political prison and another 32 in a concentration camp, he made his way to Madrid and eventually to Gibraltar, reaching England in January 1942.

The civilians from St. Médard, including the women, were kept at Sandbostel for a short while before being sent off to internment camps. By that time several such camps for civilians had been established. For, although the Germans in the first months of war had allowed the repatriation to England of a good many British women from Germany and Poland,1 most of the men, married or single, had had to remain. Of the British women who stayed none had been interned up to March 1940, but most of the British Commonwealth male subjects (married or single) had been brought to Ilag XIII at Wülsburg2 before the end of 1939.

Mention has already been made of this old converted convent enclosing a large park-like area, where prisoners of war had been housed in 1914–18. In its early days it had only 142 inmates (mainly British) in dormitories of twenty to thirty beds. The main worries of the inmates at first concerned lack of mail from their families or the financial position of their wives if still on German soil. But by June 1940 the invasion of the Low Countries and the Norwegian campaign had crowded the camp out with Belgians, Dutch and Norwegians, besides the original British, Egyptians and French—a total of 972 men. Three-tier bunks took the place of beds in the packed dormitories, which had always been used for eating as well as sleeping. In succeeding months the numbers increased and the camp became still worse: lack of proper sanitation, insufficient heating, insufficient water, no soap, and food, as a visitor put it, ‘just enough’. Life was difficult for the internees, and the control of such a heterogeneous mass of civilians under such conditions doubly so.

The German occupation of large areas of Western Europe in the spring and summer of 1940 had brought further numbers of British and Commonwealth civilians into enemy hands. The Low Countries being no longer neutral, the repatriation of civilians was much more difficult, quite apart from the German unwillingness to arrange further exchanges. While men of military age appear to have been interned almost immediately, British women in France, Holland,

1 1611 British and Commonwealth persons were repatriated before the frontiers were closed on 5–7 September 1939. A further 539 were repatriated between then and the end of February 1940.—IRCC Revue, April 1940, p. 304.

2 See page 8. The camp was originally called Stalag XIIIA and then Zweiglager (branch camp) XIIIA to distinguish it from a prisoner-of-war camp of the same number.

page 39 and Denmark seem to have gone on living for the first few months at their former addresses. Students, teachers, evangelists, nurses, wives—some of them remained uninterned for the rest of the war; others were interned about the end of the year either in France or Germany. For those at liberty, financial assistance up to £10 sterling a month was available through the United States consulates everywhere except in the Channel Islands. And these people were able to communicate with the outside world either by means of the 25-word messages that could be exchanged through the International Red Cross Committee, or by using a communications scheme operated for a time on their behalf by Thomas Cook and Son.