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Prisoners of War

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

The creation of new internment camps for civilians as well as additional prisoner-of-war camps for British Commonwealth soldiers captured in Greece and Crete,1 involved a further increase in the work of visiting representatives of the United States diplomatic staff and of the International Red Cross Committee. The German authorities limited the latter to three visits a year for each camp, in view of the fact that there were also visits from the Protecting Power, the World Alliance of YMCAs, and from German inspectors. The Germans apparently found this aspect of their adherence to the Convention something of a nuisance.

The criticisms of the delegates, the text of the reports, and the conclusions of the covering letters did not always suit the camp commandants, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There was a certain tension from time to time….2

Moreover, the existence of so-called ‘transit camps’ where, as has been seen, conditions were usually primitive, was not reported by the German authorities until some time after their establishment; and a visit of inspection was arranged only as a result of long negotiation. Yet prisoners were kept for months at Salonika and at Galatas, the latter camp receiving no visit of inspection during the whole of its seven to eight months' existence.3

Not only was the circuit of camp visits enlarged, but welfare matters were constantly cropping up which entailed negotiation with the detaining power. Whereas it was the usual practice of the inspecting United States consular official merely to record complaints and criticisms for transmission to the government of the detainees, the International Red Cross Committee found it expedient to discuss many such matters on the spot and if possible effect a settlement there and then.4 There were, for example, from late 1940 onwards almost continuous negotiations regarding prisoners' rations; for although they were entitled by the Convention to the rations of ‘depot troops’, in practice they received less than those allotted to the civilian population.5 There was constant dispute as to whether Germany should provide clothing in addition to that sent by the British Government through Red Cross channels. It took time to persuade the German authorities to distribute chap-

1 The number of British prisoners had risen to over 80,000.

2 International Red Cross Committee Report on Activities during the 1939–45 War, Vol. I, p. 244.

3 An International Red Cross delegation had been set up in Athens in 1940.

4 In view of the increased expenses of the IRCC an appeal for funds was made, to which the New Zealand Government responded with a donation of £2500 in June 1941.

5 There was a general reduction of the ration for prisoners of war in Germany on 3 June 1941.

page 96 lain prisoners among the various camps so as to give the greatest possible number of prisoners an opportunity for the practice of their religion. Neither Britain nor Germany could make up her mind to exchange information regarding the location of prisoner-of-war camps, in spite of air-raid casualties among prisoners of war on both sides of the Channel. Prisoners in working camps had to be protected as far as possible against excessive working hours, lack of proper medical attention, and inhumane conditions coupled with exposure to danger at work such as obtained in the Silesian coal mines.

The complaints on which such negotiations were based reached the International Red Cross Committee and the Protecting Power in a variety of ways. Their visiting delegates were entitled on each inspection to a private interview1 with a ‘camp leader’—the senior officer in an oflag, the ‘man-of-confidence’2 in a stalag, the senior medical officer in a hospital and often in other camps too. These camp representatives made it their business in the interview to bring to light all matters on which they were in dispute with the camp authorities. Complaints often came also in letters either from camp leaders or from individual prisoners of war; still others came in letters from prisoners' next-of-kin. If during a visit nothing could be done to settle the matter on the spot, it was communicated to the British Foreign Office so that it could be examined by the various British departments, Dominion governments and committees concerned, before a formal complaint was made to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The inter-governmental committee on prisoners of war announced by the Dominions Secretary on 30 April 1941 never met. Its Sub-Committee B3 continued the meetings concerning pay, allowances, and other financial matters which it had begun as the Inter-departmental Committee. Sub-Committee A met once on 26 June 1941 and took note of its terms of reference:

To consider such questions affecting policy and general administration of prisoners of war as concern more than one Government within the Empire with a view to avoiding undesirable differences of treatment.

After broaching the knotty questions of whether the Dominions should act in the custody of enemy prisoners as agents for the British Government, and whether they should canalise all their communications to enemy powers through the British Foreign Office, it adjourned for a month But no further meeting was

1 Geneva Prisoners of War Convention.

2 See p. 87, note 1.

3 Sub-Committee B never at any time ceased to conduct regular meetings no matter under what title it went.

page 97 called for some considerable time, as the Canadian Government, which had been in the habit of communicating direct with enemy governments through the State Department at Washington, was pressing for a revision of the whole system of committees. The present system, it claimed, mixed policy with administrative detail and allowed the committees to be swamped with a mass of British Government officials. The view of the New Zealand representatives was that the presence of the British Government experts saved time that would be lost by having to refer matters back to them, and that they had noticed no tendency on the part of the British representatives to exercise undue influence on the deliberations of any committee.

After some months agreement was reached by letter to a reconstituted committee, and on 5 November 1941 there met for the first time the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, whose terms of reference were:

To secure co-ordination of the action of His Majesty's Governments in regard to matters relating to prisoners of war both in our own and in enemy hands.

It consisted of the Dominion High Commissioners or their representatives1 under the chairmanship of the Financial Secretary of the War Office, with expert departmental advisers co-opted as was thought necessary. Two sub-committees similarly constituted were to carry on the work of their predecessors. They met regularly throughout the remainder of the war and between them controlled the administration of prisoner-of-war matters within the Commonwealth. The suggestion that the British Foreign Office should act as a common channel of communication with the enemy was approved (without prejudice to the rights of the Dominions as separate signatories of the Geneva Convention) as a practical expedient to prevent the Axis governments from playing off one member of the Commonwealth against another.

One of the matters considered at the first meeting of the main Imperial Prisoners of War Committee was the notification of capture and of subsequent moves of prisoners. In addition to the official lists (with addresses)2 sent ordinary mail by the German Government to the United States Embassy and the International Red Cross Committee, a third copy was by arrangement sent to the War Office3 in London through the prisoner-of-war post. After the fall of France in June 1940, the transmission of all these lists to London

1 The main Committee met only three times and High Commissioners were present in person at only one of these meetings. It also included a representative for India.

2 See above pp. 9–10.

3 The Prisoners of War Information Bureau of the War Office passed all relevant information on to the New Zealand High Commissioner's Office in London.

page 98 was subject to severe delays owing to the interruption of mail services which has already been noticed. It was arranged, therefore, that the International Red Cross Committee would telegraph to the War Office in London short particulars as soon as the list reached Geneva. For the same reasons this arrangement was later extended to New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries, telegrams being sent to New Zealand Base headquarters in Cairo for checking and onward transmission,1 and also to the prisoner's home country in answer to a special inquiry.

For some time this proved the quickest route for information. But the subsequent speeding up of the prisoner-of-war post by flying it from Stuttgart to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to London, meant that a postcard from a prisoner often reached his next-of-kin before official notification of his capture, owing to the time taken to assemble official lists in Berlin. The receipt of personal mail and of answers from Geneva to cabled inquiries before any official casualty notice caused many next-of-kin in New Zealand to be highly critical of governmental channels of communication; and so long were the delays in notification of prisoners from the Greece and Crete campaigns, that many relatives spent money on reply-paid cables to Geneva. There were on 1 October 1941 still 2400 missing servicemen unaccounted for.2 As a result of many representations on the matter, the New Zealand Government investigated the possibility of appointing a liaison officer to work with the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva in facilitating the transmission of New Zealand names. The Committee, while pointing out that only neutrals were eligible for appointment to its staff, suggested the visit of a New Zealand Red Cross representative to Geneva to see at first hand the working of the Central Agency for Information. Meanwhile it was arranged for notifications to be cabled to the Prime Minister's Department in Wellington3 as well as to Cairo, and for the lists of New Zealand missing to be immediately sent to the International Red Cross Committee. In October, to discourage next-of-kin from continuing to spend money on cables to Geneva, the International Red Cross Committee was asked to hold replies to individual inquiries for sixty hours to give time for an official government notification to reach the inquirer's address. By the end of the year, most of the prisoners having arrived at permanent camps in Germany, their names had been notified and the current difficulty was largely solved.

1 The only delay occurred in the checking of details at Cairo, which was necessary to ensure accuracy. The information was also sent to the War Office, whence it was passed to the New Zealand High Commissioner's Office in London.

2 In general the German authorities would not include the name of a prisoner on an official list until he had reached a permanent camp. For those taken in Crete especially this was not for anything up to six months after capture.

3 The first of these cables was sent on 10 September 1941.

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