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Prisoners of War

V: Relief Work

V: Relief Work

The miserable position of prisoners at the transit camps in Greece and Crete could have been immeasurably improved if sufficient Red Cross food supplies had been on hand. The generosity of the Greek Red Cross, assisted by grants of money from the International Red Cross Committee's delegate in Athens,1 did much to relieve the immediate wants of the sick in transit hospitals and sick-bays. But this source alone could not be expected to supply adequately the thousands of Allied soldiers who filled the camps, and an attempt was made through the International Red Cross delegation at Ankara to have food shipped from Turkey.2 Then, in early August, rail communication was re-established with Switzerland, enabling four wagons of British Red Cross food parcels to go through to Athens. Although some were distributed at the transit camp and the hospitals in and near the capital, by the time the remainder of this consignment and the first shipload of Turkish food could be got to other camps, most of the prisoners had been moved to Germany.

Although it seemed a long time to hungry prisoners, there was a delay of only a few weeks before relief supplies of food parcels arrived at the new British camps in Germany and Austria. Sometimes there was considerable delay after their arrival in reaching agreement with the German camp authorities regarding distribution, for German ideas of control varied from camp to camp. Some camp commandants insisted on all tins being opened and their contents emptied into the prisoner's containers—usually a bowl and a mug—so that no tins, box, packing, or string should remain in the prisoner's possession. Others contented themselves with puncturing all tins, so that food could not be stored up for use in an escape. The German cut in the rations for prisoners of war in June 1941 served to emphasize the necessity for the regular supply to camps of these parcels. The end of the year saw the British Red Cross weekly output increased to 80,000 parcels, in addition to 22,500 supplied by Canada, 2500 of which were paid for by the New Zealand Joint Council from the National Patriotic Fund.3 The amount of food available for distribution had also been increased by shiploads of bulk food from the British community in the Argentine, the first of which was sent to Lisbon in July 1941. All supplies from whatever source were checked into a bulk store in

1 £5000 was sent by the British Red Cross to the IRCC delegate, Dr. Brunel, to be spent on supplementary food. Milk, fruit, and other provisions were supplied.

2 The first shipload, consisting of 70 tons of food parcels and clothing, left Turkey about mid-October 1941. £10,000 was sent by the British Red Cross to the IRCC delegate at Ankara for the purpose.

3 Canada's output reached 22,500 in October 1941. New Zealand's quota was increased to 4000 early in 1942. The cost was approximately 15s. each.

page 100 Geneva to form a common pool, which could be drawn upon by the International Red Cross Committee according to the demands of the various camps of both prisoners and civilian internees in Italy as well as Germany.

By the autumn of 1941 medical and invalid comforts (now standardised by the British Red Cross to a milk parcel and a special food parcel) were being distributed from Geneva in accordance with reports and requests received from camp and hospital medical officers. Besides building up an eight weeks' reserve at Geneva and a reserve in each camp and hospital, the plan was to send off weekly supplies on a fixed scale.1 Braille appliances and training material were sent for the blind; hearing aids for the deaf, many of whom were elderly civilian internees; and dental materials according to the requests of captured dental officers. British doctors and dentists had to rely to a very great extent on these supplies received through Geneva from the British Red Cross.

With the large increase in the number of New Zealand prisoners resulting from the campaigns in Greece and Crete, it was obvious that some of the services undertaken for New Zealanders by the British Red Cross would soon entail a very considerable extra volume of work. It was obvious also that the bulk of it should be shouldered by some New Zealand organisation. But although there was in London a representative of the New Zealand Joint Council, Colonel B. Myers, he had no staff for dealing with the administrative task involved. Accordingly a special Prisoners of War Section of the High Commissioner's Office was set up under Mr. C. B. Burdekin to expand the work which had already begun in arranging for the sending of a small number of ‘personal parcels’ and packages of tobacco. Colonel Myers continued to act in an advisory capacity. In July the section begun to handle all inquiries sent to the British Red Cross concerning New Zealanders.

To answer similar inquiries in New Zealand the Joint Council had in May already set up a Prisoners of War Inquiry Office, which was organised to give next-of-kin and friends additional information and advice concerning a prisoner's welfare after government notification of his capture had been received. Shortly after the middle of the year depots were set up at the four main centres for censoring and repacking quarterly next-of-kin parcels, following the methods used by the British Red Cross in conjunction with the censorship authorities in England, and the first batch left New Zealand towards the end of September.

1 Invalid comforts were sent on a scale of 50 parcels to a thousand men in a camp, and 17 for each 50 beds in a hospital. Each of these groups also received one unit of medical supplies.

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Meanwhile, owing to the extra time a prisoner would have to wait for his first parcel if it were sent from New Zealand, it had been arranged for the Prisoners of War Section of the High Commissioner's Office in London to pack and send an initial parcel. Moreover, since it often was some time before a prisoner's permanent camp address was known, and as the International Red Cross Committee was unable to undertake the enormous task of redirection, it was arranged that parcels from New Zealand should be sent to the section in London for this purpose. To accommodate the large volume of parcels which would have to be handled,1 extra premises were secured in Charing Cross Road. The Prisoners of War Section in London continued to arrange for monthly supplies of tobacco and cigarettes to be sent to each New Zealand prisoner, in addition to those already being sent in bulk through Geneva. It was felt that the needs for all British Commonwealth prisoners in books, games, music, sport, gardening, and education were being adequately catered for on a camp basis by the British Red Cross.

* * * * *

While the general behaviour of the German medical corps towards prisoners in Greece and Crete was entirely humane, the same cannot be said of the treatment meted out either by some of their paratroops under the stress of battle or by some of those who took over the control of transit camps. The starvation which led to beriberi at Salonika, the beatings and other ill-treatment during transport to Germany, the indiscriminate shootings on Crete, are all examples of that ruthless subordination of humanity to expediency, of means to ends, with which the Nazi leaders succeeded in infecting a good number of their subordinate commanders.

The increasingly overt hostility of the United States, confirmed by the mid-Atlantic meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941, and the surprise of the Russian counter-offensive in September dispelled the German optimism of the summer, based on hopes of a quick victory in the East and a new onslaught in the West before America was ready. By late autumn the German leaders knew that they were launched on a long and exhausting struggle. While committed to being korrekt in their observance of the Geneva Convention,2 it became the policy of the Nazi Government to use their prisoners to the utmost and to make them as little of a drain on the national economy as possible. As many as could be used were pushed out into farm work, coalmining, factory work, and

1 The number of parcels handled rose from seven in December 1940 to 801 in October 1941.

2 Hitler made a pronouncement to this effect in 1939.

page 102 any unskilled tasks that would free Germans for a more active part in the war effort. On the other hand, to conserve Germany's national resources, expenditure of materials for prisoner-of-war accommodation was kept as low as possible; lighting, heating, and feeding were reduced to the lowest possible scale, and their canteens were so depleted as to be little more than tokens. Some attempts were made to employ prisoners on military work, but the vigilance of British camp leaders and the action of visiting neutral inspectors forced such projects to be abandoned. Under pressure of this kind many of the worse defects of the prisoner-of-war camps were remedied. On occasion, however, the Germans were prepared to completely ignore the Convention, as their demand for a numerically equal exchange at Dieppe and their reprisals on the British officers sent to Poland clearly showed. Indeed, considering the Nazi Government's record of cynical disregard for pacts and treaties, it is remarkable that the Prisoners of War Convention survived the first three years of the war, when Germany held so many of our men prisoners and we held so few of hers.
Used to an iron discipline which repressed the slightest deviation from an order once given, the average German prisoner-of-war camp guard failed to understand how British soldiers could question the orders of his superiors. Still less could he understand how prisoners could want to disobey camp orders by trying to escape. However, seeing that the British prisoners were incorrigible in the matter, security measures must be enforced to prevent them: locking up the barracks at night, restricting the issue of clothing so that none could be used for making civilian clothes, meticulous examination of all parcels arriving by post. Although it took the German authorities some time to realise that an uncomfortable camp and harsh discipline often provided the incentive to escape, propaganda to convert the prisoner to the German way of thinking was thought worth while from the start. We find anti-Semitic pamphlets distributed at Stalag IXC, and others at Dulag Luft on atrocities committed by the Poles. For general distribution to camps there was a small four-page newspaper in English—The Camp—which in the autumn of 1941 was pointing out to its as yet ‘unenlightened’ British readers the solidarity of Germany and Italy and the exploitation of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ by ‘world Jewry’.1 Over the camp radio loudspeakers came the voice of ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ expatiating on British losses and difficulties in England. Camp leaders took a firm line in combating such propaganda, and so effectively did they build up a resistance to these German advances that both printed and broadcast propaganda

1 Further details of this paper and its method and contents are given in later chapters.

page 103 became for the vast majority of British prisoners matter for derision, often lifting morale rather than lowering it.

Those who passed through Greece and Crete had been cheered by the fearlessness of most of the inhabitants, their sterling loyalty to the Allied cause, and their generous help to British prisoners, often in defiance of German disapproval. Yet it is hard for men to remain cheerful when they know they are rapidly losing weight, and when their bodily craving for nourishment keeps them thinking constantly of the next miserable meal. No other single factor seems to have restored morale so much as the issue of Red Cross food. Some prisoners of war, like the man who wrote in his diary for June 1941 that he could not agree with his friend's prediction that they would be ‘home by Christmas’ but that Christmas 1942 would be a reasonable hope, seem now to have been touchingly optimistic. But for most people in the heart of an enemy country during a war, cut off from the world by barbed wire and a double censorship, a realistic viewpoint is neither easy nor satisfying. For non-working prisoners, unless they were engaged on some camp duty or escape work (and not everybody could be), the days could become just ‘plain boring’. And the mood of many in this situation varied between acute depression and wild optimism, according to the food supply, a favourable turn to the war, or news from home.

The losses in prisoners of the New Zealand Division in the period from April to June 1941 gave rise in the Dominion to a widespread interest in the position of captured servicemen, and brought the authorities face to face with the problem of organising help for them on a large scale. In leading next-of-kin through the maze of labels, coupons, and lists of prohibited articles which had to be tackled each time a personal parcel was sent, and in generally interpreting the prisoner-of-war situation to relatives, the Joint Council Inquiry Office and its local branches served a most useful purpose. The decision to pack and send food parcels for prisoners gave New Zealand the opportunity to make her most appropriate contribution to the pool of relief supplies now coming from British communities in various parts of the world. The welfare of British prisoners and the custody of enemy prisoners had both become problems for the whole Commonwealth, a fact of which the practical outcome was the setting up in London of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee. For the rest of the war its two sub-committees of British and Dominion representatives were responsible for settling the vast number of administrative problems relating to British Commonwealth prisoners of war.