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Prisoners of War

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

It will be seen from these glimpses of the life of our people in enemy and neutral countries, either as prisoners of war or internees or civilians at liberty, that the problem of watching over their interests had in 1940 suddenly become one of major importance. The rapid spread of the conflict and the increase in the numbers of those in enemy hands1 necessitated greater efforts on their behalf and made relief work for them much more complicated. Those external relief agencies whose initial efforts were outlined in the preceding chapter found their work suddenly increased out of all proportion. Not only had they to cope with this emergency, but they had to make long-term plans for relief in what was now recognised as a world war whose dimensions had already in some respects eclipsed those of its predecessor.

The United States of America continued to represent the interests of British Commonwealth countries in Germany: her representatives continued inspections of internment camps, making special inquiries on our behalf, and conveying to the German Foreign Office protests and other communications from the British Government. On Italy's entry into the war the United States became our Protecting Power in Italy as well. The increase in the number of camps to be visited and the enormous number of inquiries for information regarding individuals both interned and at liberty threw a heavy burden of work on the United States diplomatic and consular staffs.

It was perhaps as well, therefore, that their work to some extent overlapped that of the International Red Cross Committee. Both agencies carried out camp inspections, forwarded lists of prisoners, and generally tried to see that the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention was observed. Sometimes a United States consular official and an International Red Cross delegate would carry out a camp inspection together, though their impressions were of course conveyed in separate reports; and points that were perhaps missed by one visitor were noticed by the other. Apart from the improvements achieved on the spot, there seems little doubt that the right of inspection was one of the greatest safeguards of the welfare of the inmates of these camps. As the International Red Cross Committee saw it, ‘some infringements of the elementary laws of humanity are too grave for a state, even though it has little concern for the respect of such laws, to dare expose before the eyes of neutral witnesses’.2

1 By the end of the French campaign Germany had claimed over 3,000,000 prisoners, many more than she took in the whole of the First World War.

2 IRCC Report on Activities during the Second World War, Vol. I, p. 222.

page 42

A detaining power might sometimes indulge in considerable window-dressing before an inspection in order to favourably impress a visitor. But the effect of this was often counterbalanced by a discussion with the prisoners' representative. What is now known of certain camps where no neutral visitors were permitted is convincing evidence that inspection put an effective brake on any tendency toward neglect and ill-treatment.

The work of the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva which saw most rapid expansion in 1940 was that of the Central Agency for information. By July it had a staff of 1400 (1200 of them voluntary) and by August it was sometimes handling 50,000 letters a day. In addition to the transmitting of official lists of prisoners and internees between belligerents by photostat copies, the Central Agency had its own file for each individual. From this a card-index1 was kept up to date with the latest information so as to answer inquiries without delay. ‘Capture-cards’ were often sent to Geneva first and gave notification long before the official lists from Berlin were made up. Telegraphic communication of this news to London after June 1940 was often the first word received there, and in the case of Air Force personnel was averaging about fourteen days after capture. Inquiries were legion, sometimes as many as twenty-one for the same person, each inquiry often a letter of several pages. A large staff of linguists, retired officials, and teachers were taxed to their utmost simply to read and mark this flood of correspondence for those who wrote the replies. In addition there were the numerous letters destined for those interned, which had to be reduced to 25-word messages before being sent on.

The Committee itself did not have the financial resources to supply relief in kind to the mass of war victims resulting from the European blitzkreig of 1940. After the breakdown in communications in June 1940, it bought on behalf of the British Red Cross many tons of Swiss food to bridge the gap in supplies sent from England. But it concentrated mainly on collating requests from prisoners in the camps, sending these to their national Red Cross societies, and facilitating the despatch of whatever relief supplies the latter sent. The transport, storage, and distribution of the food, medicine, and clothing sent to British Commonwealth prisoners alone became an enormous task for its relief department. Besides the large-scale undertakings involved inside Switzerland, it necessitated the setting-up of offices in Lisbon and Marseilles which were in effect large shipping and forwarding agencies.

The Committee had from the first interested itself in spiritual and intellectual help for prisoners of war and civilian internees, and

1 By July 1940 alone there were 700,000 names indexed.

page 43 when numbers were small had taken upon itself to send books to the camps in Germany. In the spring of 1940 when this was no longer practicable, it began the co-ordination of this type of relief through various religious and lay organisations which had hitherto all been active on their own accounts. It presided over an ‘Advisory Committee on Reading Matter for Prisoners’, which centralised the activities of six such organisations1 and to which the appropriate requests from camp leaders were passed on. Economic and censorship restrictions had made it a more difficult task than in 1914–18, and this centralisation of effort made the best use of available resources.

Besides these tasks the Committee, by virtue of its recognised neutral status and the expert knowledge it had accumulated through visits to camps and through correspondence with camp leaders, accomplished a great deal by negotiating with belligerents for reciprocal improvements in conditions. It played a leading part in fostering the agreement for setting up the Mixed Medical Commission2 in Germany, which in June 1940 began examining sick and wounded with a view to the repatriation of those incapable of again taking up arms. It negotiated too in such matters as free postage for the mail of civilian internees, exchange of correspondence between prisoners, and the fixing of pay and upkeep allowances in prisoner-of-war camps. These many and varied war activities placed a heavy strain on the modest financial resources of the Committee and necessitated an appeal to governments and national Red Cross societies.3 Although the Committee had to resort to a voluntary collection in Switzerland to balance its 1940 budget, the appeal met with a progressively increasing response as the war went on and as the indispensable nature of its relief work for those in enemy countries came to be realised.

In England the prisoner-of-war branch of the War Office also expanded considerably during this period, becoming the Directorate of Prisoners of War. The Inter-departmental Committee4 on

1 The organisations were: The World Alliance of YMCAs, the International Bureau of Education, the Ecumenical Commission for Assistance to Prisoners of War, the European Student Relief Fund, the International Federation of Library Associations, the Swiss Catholic Mission for Prisoners of War. The relief included the sending of school and university textbooks, periodicals, articles for use in religious services, artists' materials, games and sporting gear.

2 Article 69 of the 1929 Geneva Convention provides for the appointment of Mixed Medical Commissions of three members (two neutral and one appointed by the detaining power) to examine sick and wounded with a view to their repatriation.

3 The New Zealand National Patriotic Fund sent a first contribution of £500 in December 1940. From 1 September 1939 to 31 December 1946 the IRCC spent 55 million Swiss francs on war work, of which governments and other agencies contributed 27 million; a special Relief Department for dealing with relief supplies cost 15 million, all raised by national contributions.

4 See p. 10.

page 44 prisoners of war and civilian internees met regularly. It was concerned primarily with financial matters such as fixing the rates of exchange for prisoner-of-war pay in enemy countries,1 and limiting the use of British currency on goods sent to prisoner-of-war camps. Nevertheless the more pressing general problems relating to prisoners of war in Germany—such as the supply of relief food—came in for full discussion; and general policy had often to be thrashed out before financial detail could be settled. Moreover, as the Committee dealt also with problems relating to the custody of enemy prisoners, of whom some were being accommodated in Canada by January 1941 and others were likely to be transferred to Australia, South Africa and India, Commonwealth governments became involved in its work. The necessity for some central body to lay down general policy on all prisoner-of-war matters2 concerning the British Commonwealth gradually came to be recognised; and early in 1941 an inter-governmental committee was set up under the chairmanship of the financial secretary to the War Office. Two sub-committees were to attend to detail:

Sub-Committee A, to deal with general questions,

Sub-Committee B, to deal with financial questions, thereby superseding the Inter-departmental Committee.3

Commonwealth governments were to be represented on the new main committee and Sub-Committee A.4 Through the High Commissioner's Office and the service liaison offices in London, the New Zealand Government was kept in touch with any arrangements being made on behalf of British Commonwealth prisoners and internees. The information was passed on to relatives and others interested in New Zealand by the service branches concerned, or by the Department of Internal Affairs in the case of inquiries relating to civilians.

1 The rates agreed on finally with enemy governments were:

Germany15 RM = £1
Italy72 lire = £1

2 A similar body for civilians was not set up until 1944, though Dominion governments were consulted when necessary.

3 The ‘United Kingdom Departments of State concerned’ were, however, to be represented on the inter-governmental committee.—Army Council memorandum of 23 June 1941.

4 By July 1941 they had representatives on Sub-Committee B as well.