Prisoners of War
VI: Relief Work
VI: Relief Work
Manacles used by the Germans on Allied prisoners of war as a reprisal for British action in tying he nads of German prisoners taken in the Dieppe raid
A SWISS FRONTIER POST
Many escaped prisoners of war passed through this post on first reaching Switzerland
ESCAPED PRISONERS' FOOTWEAR AFTER REACHING SWITZERLAND
C.B.Burdekin, OBE, head of the prisoners of war welfare section of New Zealand House, London
AT CRACOW, IN POLAND, BEFORE BEING TRANSPORTED BY THE RUSSIANS TO ODESSA
This group includes two New Zealanders
Outside the Sergeants' Mess at the Reception Group Wing at Folkestone
Letter and parcel mail for prisoners of war, which was on hand in Switzerland or on its way there en route for Italy, was transferred to the International Red Cross Committee for redirection when new addresses should become available.1 Meanwhile the despatch of letters and parcels from New Zealand was not held up for want of a camp address, on account of the time they took to reach Europe; letters were sent to the Prisoners of War Section of the High Commissioner's Office in London and parcels to the packing centre under its control. Although some prisoners lost most of their kit in transit from Italy to Germany, many others were able to take nearly all essential articles with them. An extra clothing parcel was sent from the New Zealand packing centre in London to any prisoner whose remaining kit was sufficiently meagre to warrant a request for one.
The seizure by Germany of some 50,000 able-bodied British Commonwealth prisoners was no doubt of threefold value to her war effort: it cut down British man-power by that figure, it supplied her economy with many thousand more potential workers, and it gave her much extra bargaining power in any future negotiations with her enemies. Moreover, British Commonwealth prisoners were not much of a liability, since their Red Cross organisations supplied them with the extra food necessary to keep them healthy, and their governments supplied them with clothing. The energetic German troops who quickly pushed these prisoners north over the passes into the Reich did a very good service to their country.
1 More than 800,000 letters and 150,000 parcels were so readdressed.
By the end of the year nearly 300 New Zealanders who had got free at the time of the armistice were safe in Allied hands or at liberty in Switzerland, and a hundred or two more were at large in Italy.1 The latter, contrary to what most had expected before the armistice, found the majority of Italians friendly and hospitable, especially the countryfolk. Some have tried to see in this the purely selfish motive of ingratiation with the Allies, now obviously in the ascendant; and certainly Italian civilians were not loath to accept certificates from prisoners indicating the help they had given them. Some have even ascribed this friendly help to motives of immediate gain: the good woollen battle dress and underclothing of the prisoners, their Red Cross food, and other valuables. But there was clearly more to it than this. There was something of the traditional friendship for Britain and distrust of Germany; and there was also clearly much of the pure human kindness of simple, generous souls for a hunted, hungry, and sometimes sick fellow-creature. Whatever the various motives, many Italian people took great risks to help our men, and some paid for it with their lives and homes. The New Zealand officer who wrote, ‘many of them have taken far greater risks for me than perhaps one could expect, even from our own people in similar circumstances,’ was not alone in that view. Amongst ex-prisoners of war who were at large in Italy there is the highest regard for these people.
The news that most of our prisoners of war in Italy had fallen into German hands occasioned a great deal of anxiety among nest-of-kin in New Zealand. It was weeks before most of the notifications of transfer to Germany were received, and months before the arrival of mail from those transferred. Although by mid-November some of the transferred men were beginning to receive mail and parcels readdressed from Geneva, it was much longer before fresh mail from New Zealand could reach them. It was only a short while before those who had reached Switzerland were again in touch with their homes, but those who were at large in Italy for some months remained almost completely cut off. Fortunately for next-of-kin in New Zealand, men who escaped were able on repatriation to reassure anxious wives and parents by relating the manner in which they had been looked after by the Italians while at large, and by explaining that though winter conditions made final escape very difficult, many of their comrades would only be waiting for the spring before going south to meet the Allied forces.