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Prisoners of War

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

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

It often seemed to prisoners and internees, particularly in those periods of depression with which now and again most of them appear to have been afflicted, that nothing much was being done about their requests and complaints either by Allied governments or by the neutral agencies entrusted with the task of seeing that they were properly treated. In point of fact, every piece of evidence from whatever source that indicated any departure from agreed standards of treatment was the subject of careful investigation by the War Office Directorate of Prisoners of War in conjunction with the Foreign Office, Red Cross, and other interested welfare bodies. If the sources of information were letters or interrogation reports, in fact any reports other than those of the delegates of the Protecting Power, the latter was asked to verify them before taking action. If they were found to be true and to justify a protest, the Protecting Power almost invariably made one, and in the experience of the Directorate of Prisoners of War, this usually achieved some amelioration of the conditions. On the rare occasions when no protest was made, the Protecting Power was immediately asked to make one; and if this was not considered to be strong enough, it was asked to protest in specific terms, demanding the closing of a camp or the punishment of those responsible for bad treatment. When a series of Protecting Power reports from different camps showed that one of the enemy powers was consistently ignoring some article of the Convention, a general protest was sent. Matters of sufficient importance were discussed by the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee and agreed page 257 upon by the various governments represented before action was taken. A time lag before the results of these measures were seen in camps was inevitable, and was probably the reason for the commonly held opinion among ex-prisoners of war that little was ever achieved. The deplorable conditions that could obtain in camps not subject to inspection were a measure of the solid though unspectacular achievement of this patient work of protest and negotiation.

Though not the official channel for protests and other communications between belligerents, the International Red Cross Committee played an important part in assisting the betterment of conditions through the information supplied by its visiting delegates, through its official representations to belligerent powers, and through its unofficial contacts with national Red Cross societies. The volume of its work in this field, together with the distribution of relief supplies and the forwarding of information through the Central Agency, had raised its expenditure to such an extent that by June 1942 it was running a monthly deficit of 300,000 Swiss francs. In response to an appeal addressed to all interested governments, the New Zealand War Cabinet decided in January 1943 on the payment of an annual contribution of £2000 sterling, an amount which was later to be increased.

By far the most serious matter for mediation between the belligerent powers that had so far arisen concerned the application of reprisals, and in particular that of binding or shackling prisoners. For a good many months the Allies had been conducting a publicity campaign against any actions by enemy powers, such as the German execution of hostages in France, which came under the heading of ‘war atrocities’. This culminated in a solemn declaration by the Allied governments in January 1942, which was followed up in July and August of that year by preliminary steps towards the formation of a commission to deal with atrocities and their perpetrators as ‘war criminals’ as time should allow. It is not difficult to understand that the Axis governments concerted their propaganda to meet this situation and were alert to seize upon any Allied action which could give the slightest grounds for criticism. An atmosphere was created which was not propitious to calm negotiation, the personal interest of national leaders was aroused, and the former polite suggestions through diplomatic channels that ‘reciprocal measures’ might have to be taken hardened into the immediate application of reprisals.

A report of irregularities in the treatment of German officers on board the SS Pasteur was followed immediately by severe reprisals on the British officers at Oflag IXA/H in September. page 258 Then, after the Dieppe raid in August, the German authorities discovered that some of their men taken prisoner by the landing forces had been bound temporarily, for security reasons, in accordance with a brigade operation order, a copy of which fell into German hands. Germany protested in terms of Article 2 of the Geneva Convention, which laid it down that prisoners ‘shall at all times be humanely treated …’, and Britain in a War Office communique published a statement that there were no general instructions for the tying of prisoners' hands and that ‘any such order if it was issued will be cancelled’. Unfortunately similar tying of prisoners occurred in a commando raid on Sark in early October, and on 7 October the German Government threatened to place prisoners taken at Dieppe in irons. Britain in a declaration published next day protested that such reprisals were expressly forbidden by the Convention, but went on:

Nevertheless should the German Government persist in their intention, His Majesty's Government will be compelled in order to protect their own prisoners of war, to take similar measures upon an equal number of enemy prisoners of war in their hands.

The tying and shackling of prisoners already described at Oflag VIIB, at Stalag VIIIB, and at Stalag 383 then followed. Britain shackled an equal number of German prisoners, and Germany shackled three times the previous number.

There was no knowing where this might end, and clearly if it was a game of numbers the advantage rested with the Germans. The situation had rapidly developed into one in which the whole question of the treatment of prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention might be jeopardised in order to satisfy the prestige of governments. Moreover there was a fear, expressed by the Australian Government, that the controversy might affect the treatment of prisoners by the other Axis powers, notably Japan. Germany gave a hint that inhumane treatment of Germans by any one of the Allied powers, Russia for example, might have repercussions on the whole body of prisoners taken by Germany irrespective of nationality. There was a good deal of public feeling in England against the shackling of German prisoners, and our men in Germany were taken aback to find that the Allied authorities had descended to reprisals. By 13 October, however, the British Government had offered to withdraw these counter-measures if Germany also desisted from shackling. The Swiss Government and the International Red Cross Committee were well aware of the seriousness of the threat to the future welfare of prisoners of war, and both offered their services in any form of mediation that page 259 might be practicable. The ordinary means of negotiation having failed, they were asked to take whatever action they thought fit.

The Swiss Minister in Berlin concentrated his efforts on the concluding of an agreement for the termination of shackling at a mutually agreed time. There were many in the German Foreign Office and High Command who would have liked to see shackling at an end, but the political leaders were adamant and difficult of approach, especially when the war turned against them. Meanwhile, in order not to exacerbate feeling, the whole matter was given as little publicity as possible. It was hoped that the large number of German prisoners captured during the Alamein offensive might have some influence, but a German reply to overtures in December talked in terms of ‘confessions’ by the British Government and demanded the issue by them of strict orders forbidding tying of prisoners in all circumstances. Hearing that the Germans intended to remove prisoners' shackles during Christmas week, the Swiss Government and the International Red Cross appealed on 8 December to both belligerents to continue this concession for an indefinite period afterwards. The British and Canadian Governments took the opportunity to free their prisoners from chains on 12 December and never rechained them. In Germany prisoners were freed for Christmas Day and New Year's Day and then reshackled.

Meanwhile, although Britain would not agree that tying of prisoners in the field might not be necessary from time to time under stress of circumstances, new War Office orders in February 1943 forbade the general tying up of prisoners and made it incumbent on all ranks to know and observe the terms of the Geneva Convention, especially in the treatment of prisoners immediately after capture; and these new orders were adopted by the New Zealand War Cabinet. In February there were indications that the German High Command had begun to regard shackling as symbolical of their opposition to the British view that tying of prisoners might sometimes be justified, and by March this attitude was confirmed. Some commandants began making efforts to treat shackled prisoners well, and by April ‘symbolical’ shackling consisted of no more than the issue of the required numbers of handcuffs in the morning at half past eight and their collection in the evening at half past seven. It was clear that German officials were seeking a way out that would save face and at the same time not inflict hardship on British prisoners.

Another reprisal measure taken by the German authorities during this period concerned prisoners' mail. Because of delays in receipt of mail by German prisoners in Canada and Australia, British page 260 prisoners in Germany were to be allowed inward and outward mail only in proportion to that being received by the former.1 This reprisal lasted from August until October 1942, by which time the delays in our own service had been corrected. It had become clear, however, that the Germans were short of censors. As from 1943 communications to organisations or to regimental headquarters were allowed by the Germans only through the camp leader. Letter mail in Italy too suffered long hold-ups in the censor's office. And in order to avoid cluttering up the mail service any further in both countries it was found necessary to appeal to the public to cease writing to ‘lonely’ prisoners as penfriends—a practice which had been general in the earlier part of the war.

Reprisals so far as the Italian Government was concerned took the form of the red patches and the exorbitant additional charges for officers' messing already mentioned. As the latter was in response to an additional messing charge imposed on Italian officers in British hands, negotiations on the matter ended in April 1943 with all of the extra amount being refunded to both sets of officers concerned, and an undertaking by the Italian authorities that messing charges for British officers would be kept down to 15 lire a day.

Mention has already been made of German attempts to force NCO prisoners to work, either by declining to recognise their status and proceeding against them for refusal to work or, if their status was recognised, by withholding issues of Red Cross clothing and in other ways making their position in the stalag uncomfortable. There were sometimes complaints among the men that voluntary NCO workers occupied places in the good working camps (for they could very often nominate the Arbeitskommandos to which they wished to go), instead of remaining in the stalag and maintaining their right not to work at all. But in 1941 and 1942, when conditions at numbers of work-camps were bad and men, no matter how sick, were forced out to work by the use of arms, some NCOs went out to work-camps from a sense of duty in order to try and protect the men's interests. And as labour in Germany became shorter and hours of work increased, many of these camp leaders were able greatly to help the men under them. Until September 1942 those NCOs who elected to work had to sign an undertaking to do so for the duration of their captivity; after that date, however, an agreement was made whereby the work could be relinquished at any time, the same conditions being applied to German NCOs in British hands. At about that page 261 time non-working Army NCOs, with the exception of those in administrative positions in the stalags, were moved to Stalag 383. Air Force NCOs, who had long been debarred from work owing to numerous attempts to escape, remained in Stalag VIIIB and other camps pending their transfer to special Air Force camps.

Medical orderlies who had been captured without any evidence to show that they were protected were similarly coerced, and some who persisted in their refusal to work served sentences of imprisonment, which sometimes continued even after their protected status had been established. Many who had proved their identity as members of the Medical Corps assisted in camp infirmaries, hospitals, and work-camps, but a good many others who had not been allowed to perform medical duties chose to do some other kind of work. In their efforts to extract the greatest possible labour force from the prisoner-of-war population, the German authorities would not accept a British typewritten statement concerning a soldier's protected status; and even when individual certificates were sent according to a special agreement between the two powers, they declined to deliver them unless reason could be shown why the addressee did not possess his original proof of identity. With negotiations again in progress for an exchange of protected personnel, recognition became a matter of some urgency for those who were eligible for repatriation, and by May 1943 most of the certificates had been distributed. Up till the end of this period, however, Germany had given no indication whether she would agree to a set scale for retention of protected personnel similar to that arranged between Britain and Italy; and it seemed clear that, certificates or no certificates, she intended to retain as many British medical personnel as she thought were necessary.

A large amount of the negotiations during this period dealt with repatriation of sick and wounded and of protected personnel. Although they did not bear fruit in Italy until April 1943 the negotiations were still more protracted in the case of Germany, as the bitterness arising from the reprisals made negotiation on almost anything a delicate and difficult matter. To deal more expeditiously with this particular branch of prisoner-of-war work, two Repatriation Committees were set up in London, one to handle the terms of negotiations with the enemy powers and the other to make administrative arrangements for carrying out any projected repatriation operations. The committees were separate from the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, although provision was made for reference to the latter ‘where necessary and where time permits’. Provision was also made for the co-option ‘as and when required’ of Dominion representatives who were omitted page 262 from the composition of Committee No. 1; in practice, however, they attended the first meeting in June 1942 and all subsequent meetings, and in September they were invited to sit as permanent members.

1 In some Arbeitskommandos outward mail was restricted to one letter and one postcard every two months.