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Prisoners of War

VI: Relief Work

VI: Relief Work

The necessity for a considerable supplement to the diet provided for our prisoners by both Germany and Italy, if they were to maintain their health, never passed.1 The large increase in the number of British prisoners resulting from the fall of Tobruk and the subsequent Axis advance upset the numerical calculations of those organising British relief, and made it difficult to maintain supplies at the per capita rate which had hitherto prevailed. To avoid any future surprises of this kind, it was decided to maintain a reserve of twelve weeks' supplies both in existing camps and at Geneva.2 This created problems in storage, especially at Geneva, where it was difficult to find warehouse accommodation to house the enormous amount of relief supplies required. The main task, however, was to produce the goods, and the British Red Cross weekly target of 150,000 food parcels was temporarily increased by another 64,000 until the necessary reserves should have been built up. Included in this total were some 80,000 from Canada and (as from the beginning of 1943) 8000 from New Zealand,3 where the packing organisation of the Joint Council had stepped up its output to cover approximately the increase in numbers of New Zealand prisoners.

While arrangements were being made to supply this increased mass of prisoners with outfits of clothing, there came a request from the camp leader at Stalag XXA in November 1942 that

1 On data available to the British Red Cross up to the time of the Italian capitulation, the dietetic position in Italian camps for British prisoners was as follows:

Italian RationRed Cross ParcelTotalFull Diet
Protein (gms)55429770
Calcium (mgms)460533993800
Iron (mgms)1091912
Vitamin A (international units)890327441644000
Vitamin B (international units)260180440600
Riboflavin (mgms)
Nicotinic Acid (mgms)96.115.115
Vitamin C (mgms)7283575
The Italians also allowed the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables to the value of one lira a day.

2 The British Red Cross estimated that in order to assure regular supplies at the standard rate it was necessary to have 29 food parcels for each prisoner somewhere on the line of transport.

3 New Zealanders taken prisoner rose in this period to some 8500, over one-eighth of our overseas servicemen.

page 263 men in working camps should be allowed two suits instead of one. Representations by International Red Cross delegates, who had visited the mining camps and those attached to industrial projects where the work was hard on clothes, were able to convince the War Office that a change of clothing for these men was necessary both for hygienic reasons and for the sake of individual morale. Although employers were supposed to provide working clothes, in fact very few were able to procure them. It was clear that Germany was evading her obligations under the Geneva Convention in this as in other aspects of her provision for prisoners, but it was equally clear that, in the prevailing mood of her leaders, intransigence on our part would have little effect on them and would merely produce additional hardship for our own men in Germany. It seemed likely, too, that economic considerations would be outweighed by the propaganda effect of well-dressed British prisoners on German civilians. At all events 20,000 to 30,000 extra suits of battle dress were allocated for distribution as a change of clothing, under the control of the International Red Cross delegates, at certain camps where it was thought necessary. The maintenance of these additional supplies of clothing was complicated by the fact that Switzerland had objections to holding large quantities of British military uniform.

Similarly it was thought advisable to continue the despatch of medical and surgical material and invalid diets,1 though modified according to the recommendations of repatriated medical officers and the wishes of those remaining in camp infirmaries and prisoner-of-war hospitals. The International Red Cross Orthopaedic Mission made a tour of German camps and hospitals for the purpose of examining amputees in the latter half of 1942, and returned in June 1943 to fit artificial limbs which had been made in Switzerland from British materials. With dental material supplied by the British Red Cross, the surgery at Lamsdorf was able to turn out an average of between forty and fifty artificial dentures a month, besides doing a large number of fillings—only a fraction, however, of the work necessary to restore among all the British prisoners something approaching their state of dental health before capture.

Although the Italian censorship authorities by the severity of their restrictions made the development of educational work in their camps a difficult matter, in Germany, where the authorities had begun to give it considerable encouragement, a great deal

1 The weekly rate of supply in June 1943 was: Medical units, 450; invalid diets, 15,000—apart from special consignments such as cod-liver oil and malt.

page 264 was being done. By early 1943 the British Red Cross Educational Books Section had sent out over 5500 courses and well over 100,000 books. The latter were in addition to books from other sources, including private book parcels, considerable numbers of which were now coming from New Zealand, the censorship being undertaken by a newly formed section of the Joint Council's Inquiry Office. In July 1942 the first results of examinations held in camps were announced, and by the end of June 1943 nearly 500 prisoners had received their results. New Zealanders made up only some 3 per cent of this total, but it must be remembered that at this stage there was no machinery for the taking of New Zealand examinations, and the recognition of London equivalents by New Zealand bodies was, to the prisoners at any rate, problematical.

Recreational material such as general reading matter, indoor games, sporting units, and sets of team clothing reached prisoner-of-war camps in an increasing stream. Camp padres were assisted with religious books and equipment for conducting services. After some early distrust on the part of the British Ministry of Economic Warfare, seeds were sent regularly to bring to camps the pleasure of growing flowers and to make possible additions to camp diet in the form of salads and vegetables. The volume of private parcels of clothing, books, and tobacco to be handled by the New Zealand authorities increased considerably. During this period over 5500 next-of-kin parcels were sent from the packing centre of the Prisoners of War Section in London, apart from their regular monthly consignments of cigarettes and tobacco, and the number of next-of-kin parcels censored at the Joint Council inquiry offices in New Zealand increased from under 1000 a month in 1942 to upwards of 2000 in 1943.

The transport of such an increased volume of relief presented new difficulties, in addition to the temporary hold-up caused by the German occupation of Vichy France. Until the position concerning the use of the land route from Marseilles to Geneva for relief trains had been settled, no further sailings of transport from Lisbon took place. The fleet of six ships was however increased to eleven in 1943, and in the period April to August of that year brought more than six and a half million parcels from Lisbon. Transport of this mass of valuable goods through the enemy countries from Geneva seems at this stage of the war to have been less hazardous than the earlier part of its journey. Acknowledgment from camp leaders showed that in the twelve months ending August 1943 more than six and a half million food parcels, not to mention large quantities of other kinds of relief, were received in their camps, and that only a very small page 265 percentage of their consignments had been lost through pilferage or other causes.1

1 The losses recorded in transit between Geneva and camps in 1942 were as follows:

Food parcels.0013 per cent
Clothing bales.0032 per cent
Tobacco parcels.0035 per cent
Other relief.0016 per cent