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Prisoners of War

V: Relief Work

V: Relief Work

The organisation of relief supplies for prisoners of war and civilian internees had by 1942 become stabilised. Although the Italian ration for prisoners of war was bulkier than that received by those in German hands, analysis showed that it was even more deficient than the latter in certain essential nutritive elements.2 Accordingly, the need for food parcels on the same scale was early recognised by the British Red Cross in the United Kingdom, and the extra quantities were despatched to Geneva for distribution to Italian camps. At the end of 1941, too, New Zealand had begun to contribute in

2 Calcium, vitamin A, animal protein, riboflavin.

page 151 kind to the pool of relief food for prisoners at the rate of three thousand parcels a week. The parcels were standardised and contained chiefly the cheese, milk, honey, and meat that are the staple products of a pastoral country, though the contents were planned dietetically in the same manner as those packed in other countries. The packing was done by teams of voluntary women workers organised by the Joint Council and the whole scheme was paid for by the National Patriotic Fund. By the middle of 1942 these parcels were being sent overseas at the rate of six thousand a week.

The British Red Cross Middle East Commission had arranged through the International Red Cross Committee for food parcels paid for privately to be sent to individual prisoners of war. They were paid for either by friends and regimental comrades, or out of regimental funds, or out of funds made available by the National Patriotic Fund Commissioner in the Middle East. Sub-Committee B of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee had already decided to discourage the sending of private food parcels, as being unfair to those who did not receive them and unnecessarily clogging up the mail services. In addition many were not arriving or were arriving in a badly pilfered condition, especially in Italy, and after the end of 1942 no more were being sent from the Middle East.

The first quarterly next-of-kin parcels1 packed and censored at the Joint Council depots left New Zealand at the end of September 1941. As they were expected to take upwards of five months to reach the prisoner-of-war camps (well over six months after capture), authority was given in November for the depatch of a second parcel from the Charing Cross Road packing centre in London. Free initial parcels2 containing necessities for those newly captured continued to be sent from London as soon as reliable information was received of a prisoner's camp address. In addition there were a number of prisoners and internees with next-of-kin in the United Kingdom, all of whose parcels were sent from London.3 If no next-of-kin were forthcoming either there or in New Zealand, or if next-of-kin could not pay for the parcels, the National Patriotic Fund supplied them or contributed to their cost. Parcels sent in weighing less than the permitted eleven pounds were brought up to

1 See above pp. 13, 46, and 100.

2 The cost of these initial parcels to the National Patriotic Fund for the period 1 November 1941 to 4 March 1942 was £5905, of which £5470 was expended on the contents and £435 on administration. The contents were: shirt, vest, underpants, pyjamas, two pairs socks, two handkerchiefs, pullover, balaclava, gloves, towel, soap, safety razor, four blades, shaving brush, shaving stick, toothbrush, toothpaste, boot polish, bootlaces, comb, two pencils, 1½ lb. slab chocolate.

Later parcels substituted for some of these articles the following: hairbrush, nailbrush, bootbrush, ‘hussif’, pipe and pouch (in every fifth parcel), slippers, gym shoes, kitbags. Items left out would include winter wear when the parcel was expected to arrive in summer.

3 There were about 250 such cases as at March 1942.

page 152 full weight by including chocolate or woollen garments, paid for out of the same fund.

It was obviously uneconomical to send books and courses from New Zealand, except those published there, for which there was a special demand. Instead, our per capita contributions to the British Red Cross Indoor Recreations Fund1 were continued. By December 1941 some 71,000 books had been sent to camps from this source, and a reserve had been established at Geneva to provide for new camps. Great care was devoted to the selection of the right proportions of lighter novels and Westerns and of the more solid reading to which a large number of prisoners' tastes were turning. The co-ordinating ‘Advisory Committee’ set up by the International Red Cross Committee at Geneva2 continued to control the distribution of all these books.

The distribution of material for games and sports, music, and other entertainment was supervised by the World Alliance of YMCAs in conjunction with the International Red Cross Committee at Geneva. Special parcels of games3 were made up for working parties of various sizes. By the end of 1941 eight camps had each been supplied with 14 instruments to make up an orchestra, in addition to hundreds of mouth-organs, ukuleles, and other single instruments. Gramophones and records, sets of sports equipment and team clothing, flower and vegetable seeds were among other types of recreational consignments.

The work of the Educational Books Section set up at the New Bodleian in Oxford soon began to bear fruit. Requests for books and study courses reaching the New Zealand Prisoners of War Section in London were referred to the specialists at the New Bodleian. Italian censorship regulations forbade study courses, but over 3500 had been sent to Germany by the end of 1942; and in addition to the many study books sent from England, a reserve of 50,000 was established at Geneva so that time might be saved in delivery. At Oflag VIB educational activity had been organised as a ‘university’ with six faculties and twenty sub-divisions, the language branch alone catering for instruction in 22 languages. A similar type of organisation was later found to be suitable in other officers' camps.

Although the stalags did not have as much free time nor as many highly qualified instructors, the organisation at Stalag VIIIB already mentioned indicates what could be done. Examinations had at first been thought impracticable, but an agreement on the matter had

1 Formerly called ‘Fiction and Games’ Fund.

2 See p. 43.

3 As an indication of the quantities involved, over 15,000 packs of cards were sent by the end of 1941.

page 153 been reached with Germany by autumn 1941,1 the machinery had been arranged through the External Registrar of the University of London, and by the middle of 1942 the first results had been announced. It was now possible for men not only to occupy their time usefully in captivity with study, but also to qualify themselves academically for whatever career they intended to pursue in the post-war period.

The monthly despatch by the New Zealand House Prisoners of War Section of two hundred cigarettes or eight ounces of tobacco for every prisoner or internee was now done directly from the tobacco companies, who were supplied with the required names and camp addresses.2 The British Red Cross bulk supplies of tobacco and cigarettes were now handled in the same way. In addition to regular consignments of medical supplies and invalid comforts, a braille letter service for blind prisoners3 was established towards the end of 1941, and about the same time material for the manufacture of artificial limbs was sent to Switzerland to be made up on the measurements of Swiss orthopaedists, who had been given permission to visit amputation cases in the camps. The despatch of all these relief supplies from England had to be carefully watched4 in order that the enemy should not escape his responsibility for feeding and caring medically for prisoners of war; and the real needs of prisoners, together with the propaganda effect of British goods in Germany, were constantly being weighed against any possible economic advantage achieved by the enemy.

* * * * *

In this period the war was extended so as to involve the greater part of the world. At the end of 1941 Japan had begun her aggressive sweep southwards and eastwards, which by May 1942 had brought almost all of South-East Asia into her hands. The United States had declared war immediately following the Japanese attack, and in January 1942, 26 nations (henceforth the United Nations) had pledged themselves to employ their ‘full resources, military or economic’ against the three Axis powers. Russia had gained herself breathing space by her winter counter-offensive, followed by further efforts in the spring at Leningrad and the Black Sea. And during the last months of 1941 the British had made their second thrust into Libya, rather neutralised by a German

1 Italy never permitted either study courses or examinations.

2 The cost to the National Patriotic Fund of this service for the quarterly period 1 January to 31 March 1942 was £3210.

3 Assembled first in Obermasfeld hospital and later in Kloster Haina.

4 By the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

page 154 counter-thrust which by May 1942 had regained much lost ground and ended in a stabilised position at Gazala. So far from being near a decision, the war had reached a secondary and more intense stage, described by the Germans as ‘total war’.

In these circumstances Germany probably decided, as her labour force needed no immediate reinforcements other than those pouring in from the Russian front and the millions of foreign workers already available in occupied Europe, that Italy should take her share of looking after the troublesome British. At all events it seems clear that Italy had not expected to receive British prisoners in anything like the numbers that arrived at her southern ports in November and December 1941. There was a lack of camps, and the disinfestation centres near Naples, Brindisi and Bari, intended for moderate numbers of the Italian armed forces returning from overseas service, were far too small to cope with the shiploads of prisoners which were marched into them. Improvised accommodation was very crude, and the position became serious on account of the length of time prisoners were kept in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions through lack of permanent camps to which they might be sent. It is fairly safe to say that at this stage Italian intentions towards British prisoners were humane if not kindly. But shortage of materials, the over-centralisation which necessitated the reference of a vast number of matters to ‘Rome’, and a tendency on the part of some camp staffs to postpone action even on matters of urgency combined to prolong situations in no way complying with the humane provisions of the Geneva Convention, in spite of the eagerness of most Italians to show that they accepted its provisions and that they treated their prisoners in a civilised way.

Perhaps a certain natural dilatoriness was linked to a desire for the creation of an artistically perfect plan before taking any action; the plan was usually excellent, but the interim chaos before it was executed, or even worked out, was allowed to take care of itself. Thus there could be no pay credits issued to the officers at Campo PG 38 until an elaborate system had been detailed and fine-looking account books headed up, though officers were meanwhile prevented from buying the clothing and toilet articles they needed. Bulk Red Cross consignments had to be sent to Milan, where a new Italian distributing depot was set up, in spite of the International Red Cross Committee having all the machinery for sending direct to camps. No parcels of any kind could be sent to camps until they were all given numbers at the end of January 1942, though men were hungry and short of cigarettes and clothing. All mail had to be sent to a central censorship office at Rome before going on to its camp address; and from Campo 57 at any rate, letters which page 155 arrived uncensored were sent back to Rome. The effects of bureaucratic control were sometimes mitigated by a reasonable attitude on the part of the local camp administrative staff; but where the latter were intractable or worse, there resulted much real hardship, especially among other rank prisoners, which could easily have been avoided.

The interest of carabinieri in the guarding of prisoners and their presence on many of the camp staffs threw a great emphasis on security measures. At the camps and during all moves there was a large proportion of guards to those guarded. Censorship of mail, carried out in Rome, was more strict than in Germany. At one stage there was a prohibition on receiving playing cards, at another on printed music, and there were unpredictable bans on books, presumably through fear that they might be used for messages that might conceivably convey undesirable information. Though the average Italian officer did not greatly care about such matters, still less the soldier, constant police supervision saw that in general these strict regulations were adhered to. The severe punishments awarded by Italian military authorities to camp staffs after successful escapes were a measure of the importance attached to their prevention.

After the somewhat chaotic conditions and the exceptional cold of the winter, men began in the spring sunshine to adapt themselves better to their new environment and to understand better the temperament of their guards. Though by our standards technically backward in their sanitation and their medical facilities, there was little doubt of their respect for the Red Cross and what it stood for, and for the Church in all its manifestations. There was little doubt too of their desire to be friendly and of their lack of interest in a war with Britain. Many commandants of permanent camps did what they could to improve them, and in some, tolerable conditions were soon achieved. Prisoners who had at first wondered what sort of a future their captivity held in store for them, felt after a few months in Italy that they knew how to secure fairly civilised treatment in Italian hands.

Those in Germany had by the end of this period been prisoners for about a year. For them, under the lean conditions provided by the German authorities, the winter had been a severe one, made all the harder by a shortage of Red Cross supplies. Though this was in part due to difficult winter transport conditions in Germany, the chief cause was a breakdown in shipping both between England and Lisbon and between Lisbon and Marseilles. Of the ships on the latter run one had gone aground and another had suffered a breakdown in machinery, so that there was an accumulation at Lisbon of a million parcels. The importance of maintaining the page 156 shipping service from Lisbon to Marseilles was recognised in the establishment during April 1942 by the International Red Cross Committee of a distinct organisation for buying and chartering vessels to carry relief supplies.

There was, however, no certainty that new consignments of clothing would have been promptly distributed, even had they arrived before the winter. The German attitude was that, in view of the conditions of total war, they were entitled to consider bulk clothing and footwear from Red Cross consignments as part of their own issues. The distribution of battle dress, underclothing, and boots sent from the United Kingdom was therefore controlled almost as strictly as if it were being supplied by the German Quartermaster-General. In spite of all its efforts, the International Red Cross Committee was never able to obtain full recognition of the right of prisoners to consider clothing and footwear from relief consignments as supplementary to the issues due to them from the detaining power.1

Blankets were treated similarly; in some camps the issue was reduced to one per man. There was in this period an acute shortage of bedding and warm clothing in German-occupied Europe, aggravated by the winter campaign in Russia. German leaders were moreover keenly alive to the effects of well-clothed and well-fed British on the morale of the ill-provided civilians among whom the prisoners worked and travelled. It is probable that this consideration, as well as that of preventing escape, was behind the prisoners' low ration scale and the restrictive orders regarding the issue of clothing.

It is generally recognised that Red Cross supplies of food and smart new clothing had much to do with raising prisoners' morale, both by helping to maintain their bodily and mental health and also by giving them a sense of independence of the enemy for their basic everyday needs. In this respect British prisoners appear to have been better off than those of other nationalities, and even than many German civilians. Their living quarters, however, still remained crude and overcrowded. And just as a period of food shortage gave rise to the hobbies of planning menus and collecting cooking recipes, so many men turned, after months of living in sub-standard accommodation, to planning the ideal home they would live in after the war. The Cinderella pantomimes common in the camps at Christmas also seemed to strike a sympathetic chord.

Hopes of early liberation held by many of those taken in Greece and Crete were seen to be illusory as Christmas 1941 saw the war still no nearer conclusion, and most men had begun to adapt themselves

1 It did, however, arrange for a double issue of underclothing.

page 157 to the circumstances of prisoner-of-war camps. They had already had experience of the closely communal life of the services, though a prisoner-of-war camp was a wider and harder school than a regimental mess. As prisoners they were learning not to obey all orders implicitly but to consider them first in the light of their own and their country's advantage. Whereas their regimental duties had previously given them plenty to do, in captivity those who did not work had to devise occupations for filling in the long waking hours. Accommodation and weather and shortage of materials did not always make it easy to study. But though at first any book would do, as time went on there was a keener demand for the more solid type of reading and an increased interest in serious study both for its own sake and with a view to sitting examinations.

Those who had chosen escape as their main activity gradually developed a technique and even a routine: transfer to a suitable work-camp, break out in the spring, move at night or in disguise by day, make for a neutral border or partisan-held territory, or try to contact an underground organisation. On recapture there would be two or three weeks in solitary confinement, followed by a period at a ‘disciplinaire’ work-camp, and then perhaps an opportunity to try again in the autumn or the next spring. In some of the officers' and NCOs' camps the business of escape was becoming highly organised and controlled, for much more skill and planning were necessary there to achieve successes on account of the fewer opportunities offering and the stricter security measures employed by the guards.

During this period the number of New Zealanders notified as prisoners of war and internees rose to over six thousand. Dealing with the mass of inquiries concerning the capture, camp addresses, and welfare of such a substantial number of people in many different countries imposed considerable strain on the agencies involved. Official notifications from Geneva still went first to the Prime Minister's Department, whence they were distributed to the appropriate service branches; the Casualty Section of Base Records was kept especially busy as most of the new notifications were of Army personnel. The four Inquiry Offices, run by the Joint Council and financed from the National Patriotic Fund, had to expand their staffs to cope with the increasing tasks of keeping next-of-kin informed on welfare matters and of running the machinery for the despatch of relief supplies from New Zealand.

Besides the keeping of a personal file for each prisoner of war and the maintenance of card-indexes, there was a first letter to each next-of-kin following a prisoner's capture, explaining what could be done for him, particularly in the way of sending parcels. There page 158 often followed a good deal of correspondence and sometimes personal interviews for those living near an Inquiry Office. In November 1941 the Joint Council issued free to next-of-kin a pamphlet giving translated extracts from the Revue of the International Red Cross, including reports by neutral delegates on various camps and also extracts from prisoners' letters sent in by recipients as of general interest. In February a Prisoners of War Relatives' Association, formed on the model of a United Kingdom organisation of the same name to assist prisoners' relatives and keep them informed, brought out its own news sheet. Three organisations in Britain already had similar publications and the British Red Cross brought out a fourth in May 1942. There was no lack of information for next-of-kin either in New Zealand or in the United Kingdom. It was suggested that the publication of letters and reports showing favourable treatment, while intended to reassure relatives, might weaken morale and encourage the attitude that getting captured was not a bad thing after all. But the more unpleasant aspects of prisoner-of-war camps were also publicised, though not prominently enough to create anxiety.

For the rest, the new airmail letter services via Lisbon and the Atlantic, both to and from camps, meant that next-of-kin were more closely in touch with prisoners, and permission in March 1942 to send home photographs made them seem still closer. The preparation of the thousands of quarterly next-of-kin parcels and the packing of the weekly three thousand food parcels became minor industries. Hundreds of women did voluntary work in the food-packing centre at Wellington and the four next-of-kin parcel centres as a contribution to the war effort. Indeed the portion of the war effort relating to prisoner-of-war relief was costing all those concerned some £50 a prisoner per annum and was using up a large number of man-hours. Prisoners and internees now made up well over one-ninth1 of the New Zealanders serving overseas, and the preservation of their safety and welfare had become a task of considerable national importance.

1 As at May 1942 there were roughly 53,000 New Zealanders on active service overseas, including over 6300 prisoners of war.—Statement of Strengths and Losses in the Armed Services and Mercantile Marine in the 1939–45 War, War History Branch, 1948.

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