Inside the Wire: Gloucestershire's POW Camps in the Second World War 1939-48

Inside the Wire: Gloucestershire's POW Camps in the Second World War 1939-48

by Ian Hollingsbee

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Overview

Stalag VIII-B, Colditz, these names are synonymous with POWs in the Second World War. But what of those prisoners in captivity on British soil? Where did they go? Gloucestershire was home to a wealth of prisoner-of-war camps and hostels, and many Italian and German prisoners spent the war years here. Inside the Wire explores the role of the camps, their captives and workers, together with their impact on the local community. This book draws on Ministry of Defence, Red Cross and US Army records, and is richly illustrated with original images. It also features the compelling first-hand account of Joachim Schulze, a German POW who spent the war near Tewkesbury. This is a fascinating but forgotten aspect of the Second World War.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750958684
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 08/04/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Ian Hollingsbee is an established academic author, a retired Senior Lecturer from UWE, a retired psychiatric nurse, and was also a Magistrate. He has written on care for the elderly as well as the history of asylums in Gloucestershire. He regularly gives talks on World War I and World War II history, as well as the history of asylums and watermills of the River Twyver.

Read an Excerpt

Inside the Wire

The Prisoner-of-War Camps and Hostels of Gloucestershire 1939â"1948


By Ian M.C. Hollingsbee

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Ian M.C. Hollingsbee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5868-4



CHAPTER 1

Introduction


Neville Chamberlain, Britain's prime minister, broadcast from the BBC that we were at war with Germany on 3 September 1939. He then appointed Winston Churchill to be the First Lord of the Admiralty.


THE FIRST PRISONERS OF WAR ARRIVE

The first recorded prisoners of war (POWs) in Britain were Luftwaffe aircrew who survived after being shot down or having to crash land, or those submariners who were lucky enough to have survived a Royal Navy or Royal Air Force attack on their German U-boat. Very few U-boat crews that were either torpedoed or depth charged, and subsequently sunk, survived the ordeal. One internet search concluded that out of 40,000 U-boat personnel involved in the Second World War only a quarter lived to see the end of hostilities.

The first U-boat crew to be taken prisoner were in U-boat 27, which was captured in the North Sea with its entire crew on 20 September 1939. This submarine was a type VIIA and had been commissioned on 12 August 1936. The boat had a very short career, however; under her commander, Johannes Franz, she had only one war patrol before being hunted down and sunk, to the west of Lewis in Scotland, by depth charges from the British destroyers Forester, Fortune and Faulknor. Thirty-eight submariners survived that attack and spent the entire war as prisoners of war.

Two POW camps were made available to the War Office in 1939. Camp 1 was situated at Grizedale Hall, Grizedale, Ambleside, in Cumbria. This was a base camp for the reception of captured German or other Axis officers and was described as a 'county house'; it contained thirty huts, with a double perimeter barbed-wire fence and a number of watchtowers. Grizedale Hall was a converted stately home and was, according to reports, both luxurious accommodation and very expensive to run. Colonel Josiah Wedgwood (1872–1943), in a statement to the House of Commons, commented: '... would it not be cheaper to hold them [German POWs] at the Ritz Hotel in London?'

Camp 2 was situated at Glen Mill, Wellyhole Street, Oldham in Lancashire. This was a base camp for other ranks (ORs) and was described as being 'a large cotton mill with its associated weaving huts'. It was later expanded with the addition of a number of Nissen huts.

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill became prime minister of the UK following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain on 10 May 1940. At this time Britain stood alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. History records that it was Winston Churchill's resolve in these dark days that inspired the British people in resisting the German threat and standing firm against the enemy onslaught that was to follow.

The early days of the war saw very little need for any extended plans to build POW camps in Britain. Winston Churchill was most reluctant to house POWs in Britain in these early days of the war and, as a result, most were immediately dispatched to Canada and other Commonwealth countries. Britain might well be invaded by the German Army and it was felt unwise to hold a potential standing army of enemy troops within POW compounds.

The movement of German POWs and their Axis partners by ship provoked some very violent demonstrations; they were afraid, and rightly so, that they might be sunk by their own U-boats whilst in convoy across the Atlantic Ocean. Questions were asked in the House of Commons over the legality of taking such a risk under the terms of the Geneva Convention but eventually consent was given to their removal on the grounds of national security.

The Geneva Convention, whilst having no legal safeguards, did provide a framework of rules and expectations on how a prisoner of war was to be treated. The Convention generally worked well because much of a nation's compliance relied on other nations' reciprocity; it was signed by Britain, America, Italy and Germany but not by Russia. The Swiss government, as a neutral nation, provided the inspectors that would keep records of the treatment and facilities faced by the prisoners; this group was known as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The author has relied a great deal on these reports to give a picture of the POW camps within the county of Gloucestershire. One of the key features of the Geneva Convention, made evident in the camp reports presented here, is the neutral status of the military medical personnel, allowing them to be known as protected personnel. These protected personnel were generally of the rank of officer, in charge of the day-to-day running of the POW camp and given much greater freedom of movement than other POWs. The second point the reader should be aware of is that 'other ranking' prisoners could carry out paid work but it could not be directly connected to any war-related operations. Each camp held a copy of the Convention printed in the appropriate language.

The German Government did appeal to the British authorities to reveal the location of POW camps, so that they did not accidentally bomb them, but their request was refused and they were never given this information. It transpired after the war that the German Government had significant knowledge from several aerial reconnaissance photographs they possessed, many of which included the location of POW camps.


ITALY JOINS THE AXIS

Benito Mussolini, against the advice of his ministers, took Italy into the war on 10 June 1940 and thus became part of the Axis with Germany and her partners. History records that the reason Mussolini and his Fascists decided to go to war was to gain territory through Algiers and Greece, and then to confront the British colonies in her bases in North and East Africa where the Italian and British Imperial territories often shared a common border.

The Italian Army, striking from Abyssinia, mounted raids into Sudan, Kenya and Somaliland with some 91,000 Italian troops and an additional 182,000 from their African territories. They made great advances, including inroads into British Egypt, before their fortunes took a turn for the worse.

In December 1940, what was for the Allies to be a small exploratory raid by 7th Australian Division supported by British forces, codenamed Operation Compass, turned into a full-scale rout. In just a few days, over 38,000 Italians were captured. As if this were not enough, the 13th British Corps then encircled the retreating Italian 10th Army, taking a further 25,000 prisoners. As the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was reported as saying: 'Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.' This first influx of Italian POWs created a big logistical problem for the British Government.

In 1941, Germany formed its 'Africa Corps' under Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel (1891–1944). He was well respected by his men and treated all Allied prisoners under the terms of the Geneva Convention. The Italian Army was very poorly led and the German Africa Corps was sent to bolster up the Italian campaign and to get them out of the mess they found themselves in. By August 1941, however, there were well over 200,000 Italian prisoners.

America declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941 and Hitler then declared war on the US on 11 December, due to Germany's treaty with Japan. American forces joined the British in invading French North Africa in an operation codenamed Operation Torch on 8 November 1942, which again resulted in a significant number of Axis POWs.

With America joining the push into southern Italy it was not long before Marshal Badoglio, who had seen the overthrow of Benito Mussolini's Fascist government, surrendered on 8 September 1943. One report states: 'They were all too willing to surrender to the British troops.'

With so many captured it became essential to build suitable camps to house them. At the start of the North African campaign, Operation Torch, most captives were sent to camps in South Africa and other African British dependencies such as Uganda, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Kenya and Tanganyika. In addition some were sent as far away as Australia, Canada and India. Initially this was for logistical reasons in an effort to reduce the cost of feeding such high numbers. It should be remembered that there were 130,000 Germans taken prisoner after the surrender of Tunisia on 13 May 1943.

Holding German POWs in Britain was still a state of affairs that many feared, especially as German invasion remained a great threat and real possibility, but there was also a growing need for labour as more and more people enlisted into the armed services. German POWs were quickly transported to Canada and later, after America joined the war, to the USA.

The armed services had helped in Britain with the annual harvest but they were now required for war duties. With some reluctance it was decided, after much persuasion from the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, that the Italians should be used to fulfil this labour shortage. The officers, however, who did not have to work under the terms of the Geneva Convention (1929), were sent to camps in India and other Commonwealth countries.

It is perhaps necessary to look at the stereotypical view of the Italian POWs as poor peasant types who avoided work, based not on facts but on the prejudices of the 1940s. Italians generally were seen as a docile labour force who could be used to fill labour vacancies in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and it was with this attitude that the records now show that there was a great reluctance to repatriate captives after their countries had surrendered.

The truth of the matter was that the Italians were just as effective in combat as any other soldier but it is also true that they were poorly led, poorly equipped, and many were conscripted and reluctant to join their Fascist leaders. It was only after the defeat of Germany had allowed German POWs and others to replace them as a labour force that the Italians were eventually repatriated. (See Chapter 5)

Taking that Italy surrendered in 1943, there were to be 157,000 Italian captives sent to Britain during this stage of the war. With such vast numbers it is interesting to note that there were to be 666 POW camps in the USA and twenty-one in Canada before the war was over. The largest Italian camp was at Zonderwater in South Africa, which was so vast that it has been described as the size of a city; it was the largest Italian POW camp, holding nearly 100,000 prisoners of war before it eventually closed down on 1 January 1947.

This early victory in North Africa produced 50,000 prisoners to be housed in Britain, 3,000 to be sent by 8 July 1941 in order to help build the POW camps to house these new prisoners. One of the reasons Churchill had decided to accept them was the extreme shortage of labour. Two camps were prepared as transit camps: one at Prees Heath, Shropshire (Camp 16), and another at Lodge Moor in Yorkshire (Camp 17).

The accounts about these prisoners refer to their very poor state of health and that they were commonly lousy. The Minister of Health was concerned for public safety regarding prevalent infectious diseases including malaria, typhoid and dysentery, not to mention the infestation of body and hair lice.

Seven more labour camps were then built, the nearest to Gloucestershire being Camp 27 at Ledbury in Herefordshire.


THE GERMANS ARRIVE 'EN MASSE'

Germany surrendered on 7 May 1945 and most German and other Axis POWs thought that they would be repatriated back to their homes in Europe, but this was not to be. Britain was desperate for labour after the war and with no further hold over the Italian POWs, now repatriated, the Germans were seen as an ideal replacement to fill this labour shortfall. Some of the German POWs were held in Gloucester until the final camp closed on 28 March 1948. Those that were seen as essential labour in rebuilding Germany were more fortunate in acquiring earlier release to civilian status.

On 5 July 1945, Churchill lost the general election and Clement Attlee became the new Labour prime minister of Britain. Attlee made it clear to all the Axis partners that POWs were to help rebuild Britain, as it was their countrymen who had caused the destruction in the first place. Such was the need to rebuild Britain that Germans and others were also transported back to Britain from holding camps in Canada and the USA, as well as Belgium and other European countries. There are several accounts of German personnel being told in America that they were being repatriated home, only to find themselves arriving at the port in Liverpool. POWs were immediately put on trains to various parts of Britain, where some found themselves arriving at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire.

Following the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 a large number of German POWs arrived from holding camps in France, Italy and Belgium. On arrival at British ports they, like the Italians before them, were firstly deloused and then taken by train to one of nine 'command cages'. Here the prisoners would be interrogated by army specialist officers, some of whom were Polish and fluent in the German language. Those considered to hold more important information were sent to special interrogation units where a number of methods were used to extract the information via hidden microphones, sleep deprivation or undercover informers.

One important task in this interrogation was to establish the degree of loyalty the prisoner had for the Nazi regime. The POWs were then graded as to their Nazi sympathies and issued with a coloured patch that was to be worn on their uniform: white or category 'A' for those with little loyalty to National Socialism and not seen as a security threat; grey or category 'B' for those that had no great feelings either way; and finally black or category 'C' for supporters of the Nazi philosophy or members of the Waffen SS. Efforts were made, sometimes without success, to keep the ardent followers apart from those that had no strong political views.


THE POW CAMPS OF GLOUCESTERSHIRE

The POW camps within the county developed primarily with the compulsory requisition by the War Office of land on which to build them, or the re-use of existing army and air force accommodation. Some large properties were also requisitioned such as Quedgeley Court, Swindon Manor Estate and Leckhampton Court.

America entered the war in December 1941 and many new army camps were built to accommodate the vast number of American 'GIs' arriving in the UK. Gloucestershire received many thousands of these troops in places such as Tewkesbury, Daglingworth, Cheltenham and the north Cotswolds, and all these troops and support staff had to be housed. Many logistical bases were set up in preparation for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944, with units based in and around Moreton-in-Marsh, Blockley and Northwick Park. Some of these camps were later utilised as POW camps, after being vacated by the American forces.

In addition to the 'GI' accommodation, the Americans also built military hospitals in and around Gloucestershire, with one at Northwick Park eventually being re-designated by the International Red Cross as a hospital for German casualties only.

Other smaller hostels were built by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food just prior to the war in order to accommodate agricultural workers, but they were used instead to house small numbers of POWs. Some of these hostels were greatly enlarged.

The Geneva Convention allowed for the POWs to undertake work of a non-military nature only. Officers were exempt from working but other ranks were often grateful for work, reporting that it alleviated the boredom and waiting that was experienced during confinement in a POW camp. Prisoners would usually be detailed to do farm work, which would involve hedging, ditching and harvesting, or construction work. They were later employed at some RAF stations in the county. If working on farms, they would be under the direct command of the farmer by whom they were employed. POWs housed at farms were to have the same accommodation expected by a British soldier, such as a room, hot and cold water and a suitable bed. The prisoners undertaking this work received a wage initially paid into their account to spend at the camp shop.

After the German surrender, many Germans who had been tradesmen were used in the construction industry. The bombing campaign by the Germans meant that, after the war, there was a drastic housing crisis in Britain; it was estimated that some 4 million homes had been destroyed which would have to be replaced. Work and working conditions had generally to be approved by the trade unions, who were also concerned that troops returning to Britain and needing employment should be given priority.

Whilst work was essential in rebuilding Britain, the authorities quickly realised that Germany itself needed rebuilding – as well as re-educating away from the Nazi philosophy and towards a more democratic regime. Officers commanding prisoner-of-war camps were asked to appraise their captives to identify men who had provided essential services before the war, such as policemen, builders, miners etc. These men were given preferential treatment in repatriation.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Inside the Wire by Ian M.C. Hollingsbee. Copyright © 2014 Ian M.C. Hollingsbee. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents

Title,
Dedication,
Acknowledgements,
List of Abbreviations,
Foreword,
Preface,
1 Introduction,
2 Camp 37: Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe,
3 Camp 61: Wynols Hill near Coleford, Forest of Dean,
4 Joachim Schulze: An account of his time as a POW in Newtown Hostel,
5 Camps 649, 554 & 555: Company (Coy) Working Camps for Italian Co-operators Swindon Village Camp 649 Woodfield Farm Churchdown Camp 554 Newark House Hempstead Camp 555,
6 Camp 157: Bourton-on-the-Hill,
7 Camp 185: Springhill Lodge, Blockley,
8 Camps 702/7 & 702/148: RAF Staverton and RAF Quedgeley,
9 Camp 142 Brockworth and Quedgeley Court,
10 Camp 1009 Northway Camp, Ashchurch, near Tewkesbury,
11 Camp 327–232 Northwick Park German POW Hospital,
12 Camp 263 Leckhampton Court, Cheltenham,
Notes,
Copyright,

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