Prisoners of War
The History of the Prisoner of War camp system
within the British Isles during the 1940s
This page and posts complement my book ‘Convicted for Courage’.
I aim to load up many more photos and documents of the characters and camps.
This story is very poorly documented. So poorly that I found I needed to write a book. Mine is a full story of the system, told from experiences of people involved, a social history. There are only 2 other books in print, neither of which satisfactorily cover the set-up by Italians.
The camp system was developed as needs arose and not formalised in any way until the end of 1942 – three years into the war, and not declassified from Prisoner of War to Agricultural Camps until 1949.
This formal system was to hold 3 separate cohorts of captured Axis military – Italians from 1942, Germans (mainly) after D-Day 1944, then Ukrainians transferred here in 1947. In total perhaps 750,000 held in over 2,000 ‘camps’.
Since 1989 when I first interviewed Prisoners of War and filmed our local camp, I have accumulated almost 5000 files – life stories, photographs and documents, and used only some to tell of:
- POWs – 8 Italian, 4 German, 4 Ukrainian
- 8 Camp guards and personnel
- 17 farmers and civilians
- 20 camps
The Camp System:
At declaration of war, Britain rounded up all German nationals. 73,000 classed ‘enemy aliens’ were assessed by February 1940 and 569 interned, mostly in prisons.
When Italy declared war in June 1940, exasperated Churchill reputedly ordered ‘collar the lot’ of Italian ‘enemy aliens’ in the country. This totaled around 30,000, held in ‘cages’ mainly racecourses including Ascot and York, before being transported to The Isle of Man, Canada and Australia.
Other Axis Prisoners – shot-down Luftwaffe and captured German sailors – were interrogated here. The first U-Boat captain was held in the Tower of London, before officers were sent to Grisedale Hall, (Camp Number 1) in the Lake District and the men to an old Mill in Lancashire, then sent abroad.
By mid 1941 over 200,000 Italian soldiers captured in North Africa, were being held in cages and camps in Africa, India and Australia. It was decided to ‘invite’ some white (not Italian black colonial warriors) to come here to help with agriculture to replace farm workers who had joined up. An initial experiment worked and within a year 168,000 were living in 80 Standard Camps of up to 1,500 capacity and many lightly guarded and fenced country houses around the British isles. Many slept in tents whilst some built the prefabricated huts and most worked farms.
After Italy’s capitulation in June 1943, the majority of these were billeted out on farms, ‘satellite’ camps and ‘hostels’. Look closely at this photo – only the electric wires, no men. I believe this photo was given to German POWs to send home to show how well they were being looked after. It is Nottinghamshire’s northern main camp.
After D-Day the camps were filled up with German troops brought straight from the European battlefield, 402,000 by the end of the war. Most were heavily re-fortified with guard towers.
All but 11,000 of the Italians were sent home during spring 1946.
The Germans underwent a ‘Re-Education’ programme, to complete before they were deemed to have fully accepted the value of democratic rule, and released, the last ones not until the end of 1948.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, they executed some and enslaved most of the Polish forces, but offered the Ukrainian soldiers the opportunity to fight for them against Russia which had enslaved and starved Ukraine in the 1930s. 89,999 did. (That’s German record-keeping.) When the Allies captured these among German forces, the Russians were executing them. The other Allies held their captives in Italy, before Britain agreed to give 8000 and Canada 70,000 asylum. The UK cohort were held as POWs until late 1947, before being reclassified ‘European Voluntary Workers’. EVWs and hundreds of thousands of mostly East European refugees from countries in the Soviet sector were allowed to remain occupy the camps as ‘Displaced Persons’, DPs.
Camp System records
English Heritage in 2003 commissioned Roger Thomas to record of as many camp sites as could be found. He focussed on 1946 and discovered just over 600 camps, 9 in my county. Though he and they they say it is not a definitive list they are the only ones referred to in the two other books in print. I have discovered 24 more sites which held over 100 men, but most over 300. This can replicated in every county in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, indicating a total of around 2,000 camps.