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Prisoners of War

III: Civilians in Europe

III: Civilians in Europe

The breakdown of this first effort at repatriation in October 1941, which was to have been the prelude to further exchanges of servicemen and civilians, wrecked all immediate hopes for negotia- page 94 tion in this field. At the end of 1940, or early in 1941, a good many of the British Commonwealth civilians in occupied Europe were placed in internment camps. The German occupation force made use of French camps for the purpose. New Zealand men, for example, in France on business at the outbreak of war or working for the War Graves Commission, were taken to La Grande Caserne, St. Denis, on the outskirts of Paris. This was a huge old-fashioned barracks, with part of the grounds enclosed by barbed wire to allow space for exercise.

Overcrowding in Ilag XIII at Wülsburg having made conditions steadily worse, in October 1941 the German authorities transferred the British internees to a camp at Tost, not far from Lamsdorf, in Silesia. Known as Ilag VIII, it already held over 1000 British internees, including 200 of the crew of the SS Orama. They were housed in a group of large institution-like buildings of brick and concrete. Many were still short of clothing, though their needs in food and tobacco were being well catered for by supplies from the British Red Cross. As early as the end of 1940 there had been a well-organised education system and a camp orchestra. In spite of this, about a quarter of the internees expressed a desire for paid work to relieve the demoralising boredom of internment camp routine, and a start had been made by the employment of a few in forestry work.

Some of the women were interned at the end of 1940 in a French camp at Besançon, Doubs, renamed Frontstalag 142. Of those who had come under its control by February, 2400 were crowded into the Vauban barracks and 500 old and sick into the St. Jacques hospital. A thousand of those originally interned had already been liberated and several hundreds more were to follow. In June the British internees were transferred to Vittel, a French watering place near Epinal, Vosges. This ‘camp’, although given the forbidding label Frontstalag 121, consisted of first-class hotels and later accommodated families as well as single persons of either sex. From Vittel a young New Zealander, Miss Olga Marks, and two British women were able to escape in August 1941, making their way to Switzerland and eventually to England in January 1942.

Other women were taken to Germany, where they were accommodated in a spacious old convent at Liebenau, near Lake Constance in Wurtemburg. Those captured at sea who had been temporarily held at Sandbostel were also brought to Ilag Liebenau. Here they seem to have been ‘well situated and kindly treated’. There was at first the same shortage of clothing and other necessities which was evident in other internment camps, though a fortunate few always seemed to have been able to move with a large amount of their personal belongings.

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