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Prisoners of War

VII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

VII: Enemy Aliens in New Zealand

The camp for civilian internees on Somes Island described in an earlier chapter remained in use until the end of 1942. Since the entry of Japan into the war, 47 Japanese and three Thai civilians had been evacuated from various Pacific islands to New Zealand for internment. These and a further 53 German civilians, mostly merchants and planters from Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, brought the numbers on Somes Island at the end of 1942 to 185. Some of the internees were elderly, and an attempt was made to give these men more privacy by the erection of private cubicles. The internees were left fairly free to organise their own domestic arrangements and recreation. Outside they had a tennis court and a bowling green, and they could move freely over the island except to the beaches, where however they were permitted to fish and swim under guard. Inside they had billiard tables and other indoor games, a good library, an orchestra and film shows. On the other hand, there was no opportunity on the island to earn pocket money by doing paid work, the camp was exposed to southerly storms which made winter weather conditions damp and bleak, and Wellington Harbour was rapidly becoming an important centre of naval and military activity and, therefore, highly dangerous in case of enemy attack.

At the end of January 1943 the internees were moved to a new camp on the former racecourse two miles south of Pahiatua. Here, if they could not escape the wind entirely, they were less exposed than on Somes Island. The camp was already well equipped with dormitory, mess, and hospital buildings constructed of concrete blocks, and recreation barracks and grounds were being prepared. There were wire and kapok mattresses, sheets, and up to six blankets for each internee. Food and drink were on the same liberal scale as previously, and separate menus catered for the different tastes of Germans, Italians, and Japanese. Here the internees were able to work on jobs for the completion of the camp and in vegetable gardens outside; for this work they were paid at the rate of five shillings a day. They were able also to continue their hobby of making small articles ornamented with paua shell and to sell these to certain institutions which disposed page 266 of them on the New Zealand market. The internees were on cordial terms with the camp authorities, and there can be little doubt that the general treatment at Pahiatua was, as a neutral inspector described it, ‘excellent’.

* * * * *

The Italian transit camps in North Africa were in this period even worse than those of the preceding campaign. But although there were a few vicious and anti-British commandants, there were others who did their best, and there was probably on the whole no intent to maltreat. The standards of food, clothing, sanitation, and medical care for the Italian soldier were lower than those for the British, and what passed for a temporary transit camp by their standards failed by a long way to satisfy our own. It seems likely, too, that the Italian military authorities really intended to evacuate the prisoners from North Africa to Italy almost immediately after their capture, and not to leave them rotting in filthy desert cages as they did; but Allied sea and air activity in the Mediterranean reduced sea transport to a minimum and delayed the process of evacuation so much that it spread over many months.

In the same way, on the mainland, although there were some shocking transit-camp conditions (the mass of our men did not experience the worst), the intention was on the whole to treat British prisoners well. One or two of the officers' camps provided luxuries which not even the most optimistic prisoner expected, even if at the same time they lacked some of what we regard as the most elementary necessities. There might be no adequate water supply (and most Italian prisoner-of-war camps suffered from this deficiency), but officer prisoners were seldom without wine and could often buy the more expensive varieties through their canteens. Italy is of course a wine producing country, while her agricultural population has never been accustomed to the standards of sanitary engineering that our local bodies would demand. Perhaps this and other similar anomalies are also indicative of the contrast between a Latin love of enjoyment and our more sober pursuit of health and cleanliness.

In some respects it was clear that Italy simply did not have the supplies: timber for buildings and furniture, fuel for heating, staple foods—especially meat—and warm clothing and blankets. But the climate of Italy is such that once the three winter months have been surmounted, life can be lived largely in the open air. Whatever could be supplied seems to have been made available to British prisoners. There were bed sheets for every British other page 267 rank, until it was realised that British authorities were unable to supply them for the vast numbers of Italian other ranks in their hands. On the other hand, instead of socks there were only square pieces of cotton cloth. There is little doubt that after our men were supplied with British Red Cross food, British Army clothing supplemented by parcels from home, and the cigarettes and books that came through relief channels, they were better off by far in these respects than the average Italian soldier and great numbers of Italian civilians.

This had a good deal to do with the high morale which prevailed among our men in Italian prisoner-of-war camps, together with a sunny climate and opportunities for healthy outdoor exercise both in sport and later in work on the farms and in the hills. The Italians, with few exceptions, made little attempt to depress morale or convert British prisoners to Fascism. There was a news sheet in English—The Prisoner of War News—a half-hearted affair after the style of The Camp in Germany, edited in Rome and distributed to camps. Some Italian officers, in addition to those who were kindly disposed in any case, set themselves to leave as good an impression as possible with the British who were temporarily in their custody. But the initiative in propaganda activity lay rather with the prisoners, who found it easy to work on the soldiers and civilians of a nation which was becoming more and more weary of what now seemed a futile war against Britain and America.

By the spring of 1943 the treatment of British prisoners at most of the permanent camps in Italy was such that, when allowance was made for material shortcomings remedied by relief, there was little room for serious complaint. There were still long delays in the censorship of letter mail at the central office in Rome; and the same office by withholding large numbers of books, mutilating others, and refusing to admit study courses or allow the conduct of examinations, greatly hampered the library and educational facilities which camps were trying to organise. This suspicious zeal in carrying out security measures could even extend to the inhumanity of forbidding braille material for the blind. The central military authorities which ordered the sewing of red patches on British prisoners' uniform also did little to help their own security, and a good deal to confirm the prisoners' opinion that they were hardly to be taken seriously. But these were minor annoyances, often largely mitigated by Italian camp staffs, many of whom were becoming more and more openly friendly; and this in spite of the hostility of local Fascists and occasional anti-British outbursts in the press. On the whole, prisoners in Italian camps at this stage were in good health and high spirits. The continued successes of the page 268 Allied forces in North Africa, culminating in the Tunisian campaign, helped to enhance a feeling that they should be giving the orders rather than taking them, and to engender a feeling of exaltation that the trials of captivity might soon be over.

Although for prisoners in Germany there were no indications of approaching liberty, their morale had steadily increased until it began to give the German authorities serious concern. The latter were in a difficult position. On the one hand they needed the work done by prisoners of war in order to make up for the depletion of their civilian labour force; in early 1943 this became so acute that it was necessary to increase the hours for all workers and to recruit more prisoners for mines and other essential industries. A German official statement of this period runs:

In view of the shortage of man-power, the fullest use (within the limits of the Convention) must be made of prisoner-of-war labour, thus obtaining maximum benefit from their capture.

On the other hand the German propaganda campaign, which was designed to present Germans as humane and ‘chivalrous’1 in their treatment of prisoners in order to give the lie to the Allied accusations about atrocities, forced them to make numerous improvements and concessions and to listen to prisoners' complaints in a way that mystified their own subordinate guards. A German report from Graz stated, ‘It often happens that the guards are arrested on the strength of a British report’. A German guard NCO wrote, ‘It's no wonder the British get cheeky, as the officers listen to their complaints privately, and simply send the German soldiers out of the room’.

Thus many such occurrences could be traced to the general international situation; but other underlying factors were good leadership of the prisoners in the camps concerned and high morale among the prisoners generally. Although the improved strategic position of the Allies did a good deal to strengthen and increase morale, British prisoners had from the first not only stood up to their captors but kept up what the Germans described as ‘the British tradition of behaving as Herrenvolk’. A factory foreman who tried to dictate unreasonable working hours and conditions was told by a British man-of-confidence that he might be able to impose such terms on prisoners of other nations, but that he must remember he was now dealing with the British. Another detachment of British prisoners going to a new place of work had no difficulty in

1 In the declaration of the German Supreme Command concerning the reprisals at Oflag IXA/H, occurred the following passage: ‘…. up to now it has always been the earnest endeavour of the German Supreme Command to treat the British POW with chivalrous consideration.’

page 269 hiring some German boys with a few pieces of chocolate to carry their luggage. Another group demanded that the Fuhrer's portrait should be removed from the dining room which had been allotted to them in the factory where they worked. Germans complained that British prisoners marched along singing ‘a rude song’ to the tune of Deutschland uber Alles. Although the extent of sabotage caused by British prisoners during work is unlikely to have been sufficient to have had any appreciable effect on the German war effort, they speak of British prisoners doing railway maintenance work so badly that they had to be taken off it for fear it might lead to the derailment of trains. They speak bitterly too of British ‘swinging the lead’ by having as many as 50 per cent on the sick list at one time; though it is known that this sometimes resulted in an irate guard commander picking on the really sick men to send out to work. Broadly speaking, German opinion was that the British did just enough work to avoid being penalised—an opinion which is confirmed by numerous statements of New Zealand ex-prisoners.

It is clear that the German authorities were specially concerned about the effect of such behaviour on the civilian population. In a secret report1 the SS summed up the situation thus:

The manner in which the British behave to the population leaves no doubt of their confidence in victory. They take every opportunity to show that they will soon be masters of Germany. This assurance of victory and self-possession does not fail to impress the people, who think they see in these qualities the symbol of British strength.

According to the German view, British prisoners on farms were ‘particularly arrogant to the local population’; they acted as though they were ‘lord of the manor’, were ‘waited on hand and foot’, accepted no orders and did exactly as they liked. Though this is an extreme statement, ex-prisoners' own accounts make it clear that they were given a great deal of latitude. The German account goes on to complain bitterly:

The prisoners are particularly well-treated by the womenfolk, who believe the political prophecies of the British and think it clever to ingratiate themselves.

A great number of the prisoners had taken advantage of their enforced stay in Germany to learn the language thoroughly; many could converse with fluency and seldom lost an opportunity in their speech and their manner to spread disaffection among civilians and guards.

1 The quotations in this and the preceding paragraph are from a captured German secret report by the SS on internal security, dated 12 August 1943, section entitled Herren Englander. The term ‘British’ is used here, as elsewhere in this book, to denote those from all British Commonwealth countries.

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Another factor responsible in large part for the high morale of British prisoners and for their demoralising effect on some of the German populace was the good health and tidy appearance resulting from regular and complete relief supplies through Red Cross channels. A report from Görlitz complained that the British were ‘undoubtedly healthier’ than the average German worker but that their output was 50 per cent lower. A report from Klagenfurt reads:

Of all the prisoners of war in this district, the British are the most respected and discussed by the local population. The reason for this lies in the smart appearance of individuals, as well as the smartness of organised units of British prisoners. The British are always decently dressed, their uniforms are always in faultless condition, they are shaved, clean, and well-fed. Their attitude is extraordinarily self-possessed, one could almost say arrogant and over-bearing. This, combined with the good impression they give of the nation, influences the German people in a way that should not be underestimated. When they march in formation, they frequently look better than our own German replacement units. You can see that the uniform they wear is of much better material than the German uniform.1

Prisoners were always careful to display the contents of their food parcels when going among the German public, especially those articles which were very short in Germany; and children were often given small presents of chocolate to show how much better off people were in British countries. The diary of a New Zealander in an Arbeitskommando at Gleiwitz shows progressive steps in the attitude of German people. In December 1942 he records: ‘Civilians won’t argue with you now; things have changed a lot'. In January he notes that ‘guards and civilians now come and listen to what we say’, and, at the same time, that a notice was posted up in the camp, warning prisoners not to spread propaganda by spoken word or by drawings or by writing. By March civilians are making a practice of saying Guten Morgen, children are friendly, and Englander are the ‘most popular prisoners’. The March entry concludes with, ‘What a change in the last year!’

The German propaganda machine was bound to take some action to counteract all this, at least to restore the waning faith of civilians in the Nazi way of life, even if British prisoners appeared more hopelessly sceptical and materialist than ever. In an attempt to throw the atrocity accusation back at the Allies, the slightest departure from ‘correct’ treatment by the latter was seized upon and magnified. In October 1942 Völkischer Beobachter devoted a great part of one issue to a discussion of these incidents and a comparison with the ‘correctness’ of German treatment. Unfortu-

1 Herren Englander, Op. cit.

page 271 nately the indignation thus stirred up became a runaway horse, which carried off political leaders too. At an early stage of the ‘shackling’ dispute it looked as if prisoners might be used by the Axis powers as hostages for the Allied conduct of the war.1 The hastily conceived reprisal measures, however, not only became a matter for disgust among those who had to apply them, but did much to counteract the whole propaganda campaign. At all events in the period under review they did little to lessen the goodwill towards British prisoners growing among German civilians.

As to influencing the prisoners themselves against their own country, the latter had for some time past been supplying them with much of their food, all their clothing, and most of the other main essentials of a civilised existence, and was now piling up successes against the Axis powers. Here the German Ministry of Propaganda faced a wellnigh impossible task. To a German officer who told him that the Red Cross parcels for British prisoners were sent as propaganda, a prisoner replied that at least you could eat the British propaganda. In mid-1942 the Germans had not failed to rub in the apparent hopelessness of the Allied position. The fall of Tobruk, the German advance in the East, and Germany's claim to have repulsed an invasion at Dieppe had set men wondering, but most gave no sign of it to the enemy. A year later, however, The Camp and Lord Haw-Haw were having a struggle to appear convincing. They began to concentrate on the denigration of Russia, both to goad their own people into greater efforts and, if possible, to engender suspicion among prisoners of their Russian allies. Thus, besides the publication of articles and photographs depicting the massacre of Poles and their burial in the ‘Katyn ditch’, an endeavour was made to force numbers of British officers in May 1943 to go and see the actual exhibits at the scene of the atrocity. But even if the German propaganda had not been always so blatant and obvious, the BBC news bulletins, to which most camps had access through a secret radio, would have been sufficient to nullify it.

This period was one of anxiety for next-of-kin in far-off New Zealand. Apart from earthquakes and the constant threat of Japanese invasion, there were again long delays in receiving news of sons or husbands taken prisoner, for the large numbers of new prisoners captured in North Africa again clogged the machinery of notification. Delays were always caused not only by sudden increases in numbers, but by the necessity of transportation to permanent camps, and (for the sick and wounded) by a period in hospital,

1 It would no doubt have been greatly to Germany's advantage if ‘Commando’ methods could have been ruled out at this stage of the war. Japan, too, feared United States reprisals for the execution of American airmen shot down over Tokyo.

page 272 where things were seldom properly organised for the taking of particulars. However, the reciprocal agreement between Britain and Germany for telegraphing captures of airmen to Geneva was in this period extended to naval and army prisoners. By this means, when the numbers captured were not great and when there was no other impediment, official information reached next-of-kin on the average four or five weeks after capture. There were many sources of unofficial information: British Legation lists, capture-cards, escapers' accounts, Vatican broadcasts and lists, enemy broadcasts; and these were passed on but subject to confirmation. By a new British Army Council order of December 1942 (adopted by New Zealand War Cabinet in February 1943) prisoners were forbidden to broadcast. Information was often transmitted or received inaccurately, and in any case the use of the German radio helped enemy propaganda by encouraging the public to listen in—an aspect of the matter which most prisoners did not fully appreciate. As against the early delays in notification and the mail reprisals of 1942, there were two improvements in communication both in Italy and Germany: the institution of an airmail letter service1 and permission to send home personal photographs taken in camp, the latter of considerable value for the morale of next-of-kin.
Repatriated men who had arrived home brought first-hand news to many families, and generally did much to allay anxiety and uncertainty about the lot of prisoners in Italy. For a time they were able to answer a great many of the questions with which parents and wives had been bombarding the Prisoners of War Section in London and the Joint Council inquiry offices in New Zealand: questions about health, living conditions, reprisals, and the delivery of mail and parcels. These organisations, like the British Red Cross, were also kept busy answering numerous questions from prisoners: about their family troubles, about births and deaths, about their non-receipt of mail, and about the dangers to New Zealand from invasion. The newsletters sent out to camps from New Zealand House in London did something to keep prisoners in touch with what was happening at home. The arrival of repatriates in New Zealand stimulated interest there in the possibility of further exchanges; but in spite of the public demand for information on this subject the Government had to preserve a strict silence, lest negotiations should be prejudiced as they had been in 1940. With the position of Italy in 1943 becoming more and more shaky, hopes were raised that there might soon be repatriation of a different kind.

1 Under this scheme letters were flown from Germany to Lisbon and from Lisbon to USA, whence they were taken by sea to New Zealand.

page 273 This ‘post-war’ repatriation, as it came to be called, had been the subject of detailed planning by the military authorities since September 1942.1 It was to have been a large-scale operation, for British Commonwealth prisoners in Italy had risen to a total of some 63,000.2 By the middle of 1943 it looked as if these carefully laid plans might soon be put into effect.

1 Dominions were being consulted on the subject as early as January 1942.

2 New Zealanders made up 3500 of this total.