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Prisoners of War

V: Work of Relief Organisations

V: Work of Relief Organisations

Throughout the period under review the British Red Cross was still almost alone in supplying and organising the sending of relief in kind to Commonwealth prisoners of war and internees. The increase in numbers resulting from the land operations of 1940 had a profound effect on its work. It involved a huge expansion of output, necessitating the training of new staff and the establishment page 45 of new packing centres at a time when the bombing of Britain began seriously to affect the whole life of the country.

With thousands now to cater for instead of hundreds, it was essential that the best use should be made of the funds and the forwarding space available. As a first step, further attention was devoted to determining the optimum content of food parcels from all points of view. Nutrition, packing space, keeping quality, the lack of cooking facilities in camps, and the satisfaction of requests from camp leaders were all taken into account. This work became the responsibility of a special committee, comprising not only representatives of the relevant departments of the British Red Cross but also dietetic advisers from the War Office and the Ministry of Food. Average diets were worked out from the camp ration scales and menus reported by the Protecting Power and International Red Cross Committee representatives. Food parcels were then planned, which when added to the camp rations would produce a satisfactory diet in calories, vitamins, and other essential food constituents.

Rationing and cost too began to play a part for the first time. As time went on it was found that the amount of food sent could be reduced. After some experiment it was cut down in August 1940 to one 11-pound parcel each week, which remained standard for the rest of the war. The value of ten shillings a parcel1 fixed in early 1940 was not however reduced, as it was felt that anything lower would not give sufficient nutritive value; and even rising costs in the later war years were not allowed to interfere with this. In October 1940 the British Board of Customs and Excise allowed dutiable goods for prisoner-of-war parcels to be purchased duty free, thus helping to offset the increasing prices. In January 1941 the Canadian Red Cross began shipping small quantities of its own food parcels direct to the distribution route. This was the beginning of a form of Commonwealth aid which was to greatly relieve the strain on Britain's home food resources. To cater for the many sick and wounded, quantities of invalid food to supplement their diet, together with medical and surgical supplies, were sent to Geneva and to camp infirmaries and hospitals.

The increased numbers confirmed the impracticability of addressing food parcels to individuals. With the notification machinery on both sides in its formative stage, it took considerable time for all names of prisoners and their locations to come through; and the sorting-out process in Germany made camp addresses quickly out of date. There resulted a great deal of inequality of distribution, which with a primary necessity like food was the cause of much ill-feeling, for not all camps had adopted the principle of pooling.2

1 This cost included food, soap, cigarettes and tobacco, packing materials and freight.

2 For similar reasons a ban had been placed on the sending of food by private individuals.

page 46 In August 1940 the practice was begun of consigning food parcels in bulk to the International Red Cross Committee which, by keeping in close touch with the present and probable future situation at camps, could ensure a prompt and adequate distribution.

Clothing had now become a serious problem. Early in 1940 the matter of clothing for prisoners had been under consideration by service departments, for the German supply under Article 121 of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention had been found inadequate if the prisoner was to maintain his morale and self-respect. An attempt had been made to negotiate an agreement by which the prisoner's country of origin would supply his uniform, as it was felt that the supplying of large numbers of prisoners with appropriate uniforms might prove embarrassing to both sides. In the meantime service departments had begun to supply uniforms for other rank prisoners to the British Red Cross for onward transmission, officer prisoners having to pay for their own. Faced now with catering for an additional forty-odd thousand, the War Office supplied this number of greatcoats and battle dress in bulk;2 and these were despatched by the British Red Cross before the end of the year, together with smaller quantities of clothing for sailors and airmen. In addition the British Red Cross supplied and sent 24,000 sets of underclothing and other articles similar to the contents of an ‘initial parcel.’3 This emergency coped with, it was obvious that the British Red Cross could not continue to finance such a project. After inter-departmental conferences early in 1941, it was decided that it should be responsible only for the provision of socks and toilet articles; uniform, underclothing, and blankets were to become the responsibility of the service departments.4

The examination, repacking, and despatch of ‘personal’ parcels from next-of-kin also began to develop into a task of alarming size; but after inter-departmental discussion it was felt that this could still be most economically undertaken by the British Red Cross. Accordingly a special Next-of-kin Section was set up at St. James's Palace to maintain card-indexes for all prisoners and next-of-kin, and to send the latter the necessary instructions, labels, and documents. At the same time a Next-of-kin Parcels Centre was established at Finsbury Circus to examine and re-pack all the parcels sent in. By the end of December a highly efficient organisation had been evolved with a staff of 65, and some 41,000 parcels had been dealt with and sent off.

1 See p. 26, note 1.

2 At a cost of £206,000.

3 See Chapter 1. The cost was £85,000.

4 A supply of uniforms alone for two years for 50,000 was budgeted at £692,007.

page 47

The problem of finding someone to act as next-of-kin in the United Kingdom for the sending of parcels to Dominion prisoners was solved in New Zealand's case by giving the task to Mr. C. B. Burdekin, OBE, of the High Commissioner's Office in London. The arrangement was to supply regular parcels for those without next-of-kin in the United Kingdom, and to make up the weight in any parcel sent in by next-of-kin or friends which was short of the maximum allowed. Any articles so provided were purchased by the New Zealand War Services Association,1 reimbursed by the National Patriotic Fund, and the New Zealand Joint Council's representative in London was consulted when necessary on matters of policy. The parcels were packed at the New Zealand Forces Club in Charing Cross Road, and on 7 December 1940 the first parcel was despatched.

In August, too, there was established the ‘permit’ system by which anyone could send cigarettes and tobacco through an English firm which held the required government permit to export in this way. Many New Zealanders were thus able to receive parcels from friends or relatives in the United Kingdom. The British Red Cross as a permit holder continued to send also on its own account cigarettes and tobacco in bulk, and no longer included them in food parcels. As from March 1941 cigarettes and tobacco were also sent each month by the New Zealand War Services Association through a London firm, with whom the arrangements were made by the High Commissioner's Office. In a similar way members of the public could now send books, music, games, cards, and sports equipment. And in the late autumn of 1940, after the more urgent matters of food, clothing, and invalid comforts were well in hand, a new Fiction and Games Section2 of the British Red Cross made itself responsible for regular consignments of lighter books and material for indoor recreation.3 It began the task of selecting and despatching books for building up camp libraries to satisfy all tastes.

The despatch from England of educational books and correspondence courses for prisoners of war had been postponed. The former, it was felt, might prejudice the despatch of urgently needed food parcels. The latter might restrict correspondence with relatives and might impose a strain on British censorship if German and Italian prisoners were granted similar privileges. By the end of the year, however, the Educational Books Section of the British Red Cross was reorganised and transferred to the New Bodleian Library

1 Formed in London in November 1939. This Association, the Joint Council, the National Patriotic Fund Board, and the High Commissioner's Office co-operated in all matters relating to relief for New Zealand prisoners of war and interned civilians.

2 Called at first the Indoor Recreations Section.

3 The New Zealand Joint Council reimbursed the British Red Cross for this service from the National Patriotic Fund at the rate of 5s. a year for each New Zealand prisoner of war.

page 48 at Oxford, to cater for the large response to the questionnaire regarding study sent to camps early in 1940 and for the needs of the thousands of new prisoners. It aimed at enabling the prisoner of war to spend the enforced leisure of captivity in fitting himself by study for peacetime work after his release. Besides satisfying individual requests for books and courses, it helped the organisation of educational facilities in the camps and made arrangements for prisoners to sit examinations there which would further qualify them in their chosen vocations. Under the chairmanship of the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, the section's advisory committee in 1941 persuaded more and more educational bodies and professional institutions to provide study facilities and to recognise examinations held in prisoner-of-war camps.

The invasion of Belgium by the Germans in May 1940 caused the abandonment of the Ostend-overland route for relief consignments and the establishment of a new one to French ports, overland through France to Switzerland, and so on to Germany. A month later the collapse of France put an end to this too, and considering the uncertainty then prevailing in England regarding the future of the war it is not surprising that for a month and a half no despatches were sent off by the General Post Office. By 24 July the best that could be arranged for bulk consignments was a complicated route to Lisbon, through Portugal, Spain, Vichy France, to the International Red Cross Committee in Switzerland, and so to camps.1 Gift parcels from friends and relatives were able to avoid the most difficult stage of this route, as they could simply be sent through any neutral country.

It was soon realised that, owing to the time now taken and the interruptions in transit, needs would have to be estimated if possible some time in advance; and to secure smooth delivery, reserves would have to be built up at nodal points all along the route. For, although between 500,000 and 600,000 parcels were shipped by the end of the year, the many rail changes and the slowness of the new route prevented sufficient deliveries to camps and caused a vast accumulation at Lisbon. A British Red Cross official was sent there to investigate and succeeded in chartering a Portuguese vessel to go to Marseilles, whence the International Red Cross Committee guaranteed transport to Geneva. With the consent of the British postal authorities, a relief shipment sailed on 22 December. This temporary expedient to relieve the bottleneck at Lisbon was soon recognised as the only practical route. Four more ships sailed in

1 The gap in supplies thus created was partly met by purchase of bulk food in Switzerland and Balkan neutrals. But this was not before there had been a period of acute shortage of food in camps, resulting in much concern among next-of-kin and demands for the right to send personal parcels of food.

page 49 January 1941 and by April Lisbon was clear of parcels, with three ships on a regular run to maintain the flow.1 By mid-1941 camps in Germany were getting regular and adequate supplies.

There was at this stage little point in attempting to organise relief in New Zealand when the necessary machinery was already so well established in England. The Joint Council kept in touch with its British counterpart, passing on such information as might help next-of-kin and friends in communicating with a prisoner or in sending gifts to him.2 By an arrangement made with the British Red Cross in May 1940, the National Patriotic Fund was to meet the cost of the food and clothing sent to New Zealanders.3 In May, too, the Joint Council launched an appeal for funds in New Zealand which in just over a month realised more than £500,000, some of which was immediately donated to the British Red Cross in recognition of the work it was doing.4

1 In fact there was established a steamship service under a neutral flag between Lisbon and Marseilles. The crews were neutral and the ships bore the Red Cross emblem and carried an IRCC convoy agent. The ships were chartered by the national Red Cross societies and running costs were apportioned.

2 The Joint Council, besides being in direct postal communication with the British Red Cross, had a liaison officer in London, Colonel B. Myers, CMG.

3 At that stage the annual cost for one prisoner of war was:

Food£41 12s.

4 £10,000 was paid in June to the Lord Mayor of London's appeal for the British Red Cross.