How Were Prisoners of War Treated in Britain During (and After) the Second World War? | History Hit

How Were Prisoners of War Treated in Britain During (and After) the Second World War?

Sophie Gee

16 Nov 2020

Many of the official documents regarding prisoners of war taken by the British during the Second World War have been lost or destroyed. However, just like any other warring nation in any other war, the British army did take prisoners during their advances.

Whilst many of these prisoners were kept interned elsewhere in the British Empire or by other allied nations, almost half a million prisoners of war were being held in Britain in 1945.

1. Who were the prisoners in Britain?

Initially, the number of prisoners of war kept in Britain remained low, consisting mainly of German pilots, aircrew or naval personnel captured within its borders.

But with the war turning in the Allies favour from 1941, increasing numbers of prisoners were brought across. This began with Italian prisoners taken in the Middle East or North Africa. They participated in constructing some built-for-purpose camps, such as camp 83, Eden Camp, in Yorkshire.

As the British continued to push the Axis powers back, prisoner numbers increased, and included soldiers from not only Italy and Germany, but from Romania, Ukraine and elsewhere. During and after the Second World War, over 470,000 German and 400,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in Britain.

Original caption: ‘When a group of Italian prisoners captured in North Africa arrived in London on their way to a prison camp, one of them sported a tennis racket… these captives will probably be used for agricultural work.’ 15 June 1943

2. Where were they imprisoned?

The British prisoner of war internment camps were numbered – the list extends to 1,026, including 5 in Northern Ireland. A prisoner would be assigned to a camp depending on their classification.

‘A’ category prisoners wore a white armband – they were deemed to be benign. ‘B’ category prisoners wore a grey armband. These were soldiers who had some ideals sympathetic to those of Britain’s enemies, but did not pose a major risk.

‘C’ category prisoners were those believed to maintain fanatical national socialist ideals. They wore a black armband, and were thought likely to attempt an escape or an internal attack on the British. Members of the SS were automatically placed in this category.

To reduce any chance of escape or rescue, this final category of prisoners were held to the north or west of Britain, in Scotland or Wales.

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3. How were they treated?

According to the Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, signed at Geneva on 27 July 1929, prisoners of war had to be kept in conditions equal to those that they would experience on their own army bases.

There was also no guarantee in 1942 that Britain would eventually win the war. In the hope that Allied prisoners would be granted equal treatment, those interned in Britain were not maltreated. They were often better fed than they would have been fighting at the end of a supply chain.

Those in lower risk camps were permitted to leave for work and to attend church alongside the British congregations. Depending on the camp, prisoners might be paid in real currency or in camp money – to further prevent escape.

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Prisoners at Eden Camp were able to fraternize with the local community. Skilled labourers among them would make ornaments and toys to barter with the community for items they could not otherwise obtain.

When prisoners worked for and with British civilians, the animosity towards them tended to wear off. On Christmas Day, 1946, 60 prisoners of war in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, were hosted in private homes after an outreach by a minister of a Methodist church. Prisoners also formed football teams and played in the local league.

In their spare time, the Italian prisoners of camp 61, the Forest of Dean, built a monument to Guglielmo Marconi – the inventor and engineer. The monument, on Wynol’s hill, was completed in 1944 and not demolished until 1977. Remaining both in the village of Henllan, Wales, and on the Island of Lamb Holm, Orkney, are Italian chapels converted from camp huts by prisoners in order to practice their Catholic faith.

The Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, Orkney (Credit: Orkney Library & Archive).

The experience was very different for category ‘C’ prisoners, who would not be trusted with local communities. In addition, the Geneva convention specified that prisoners could only be assigned work fitting with their rank.

At camp 198 – Island Farm, Bridgend, Wales – the 1,600 German officers were therefore not only entirely confined, but also exempted from manual labour. Without the opportunity to engage with the local population, animosity between the guards and the prisoners remained high. In March 1945, 70 German prisoners of war – having stockpiled provisions – escaped from Island Farm through a 20-yard long tunnel which had its entrance under a bunk in accommodation hut 9.

All of the escapees were eventually captured, some as far away as Birmingham and Southampton. One prisoner was idenitifed by his cohort as having been the guards’ informant. He was put through a kangaroo court and hanged.

Island Farm camp, 1947 (Credit: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales).

4. What work did they do to help the war effort?

Almost half of the prisoners of war in Britain – 360,000 people – were working by 1945. The nature of their work was limited by the Geneva convention, which stated that prisoners of war could not be set to work in war-related or dangerous tasks.

Italian prisoners in Orkney declared a strike when it emerged that their work on the island of Burray appeared to be intended to close off to invasion access to the four sea straits between the islands. The Red Cross Committee reassured them 20 days later that this assumption was incorrect.

For other camps, this convention meant farm work. Camps that were built from scratch, such as Eden Camp, were often placed in the centre of agricultural land. In 1947, 170,000 prisoners of war were working in agriculture. Others were engaged in rebuilding bombed roads and cities.

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5. When were they repatriated?

There were prisoners of war interned in Britain until 1948. Due to the heavily depleted labour force and the requirements for food supplies and rebuilding, they were too useful to let go.

According to the Geneva convention, seriously sick or injured prisoners should be repatriated immediately. All other prisoners should be released as part of the conclusion of peace. The Second World War, however, ended with unconditional surrender – meaning there was no full peace treaty until the 1990 Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany.

The number of German prisoners actually peaked after the war ended, reaching 402,200 in September 1946. In that year, one-fifth of all farm work was being completed by Germans. Repatriation only began in 1946 when Prime Minister Clement Atlee announced – after public outcries – that 15,000 prisoners of war would be released per month.

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24,000 prisoners chose not to be repatriated. One such soldier was Bernhard (Bert) Trautmann, who had become a member of the Jungvolk aged 10, in 1933, and volunteered as a soldier in 1941, aged 17. After receiving 5 service medals, Trautmann was captured by Allied soldiers on the Western Front.

As a category ‘C’ prisoner he was initially interned at camp 180, Marbury Hall, Cheshire. He was downgraded to a ‘B’ status and eventually placed at camp 50, Garswood Park, Lancashire where he stayed until 1948.

In football matches against local teams, Trautmann took the position of goalkeeper. He worked on a farm and in bomb disposal, then began to play for St Helens Town. He was offered a contract for Manchester City in 1949.

Bert Trautmann catches the ball during the Manchester City game against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane 24 March 1956 (Credit: Alamy).

Though he initially faced some negativity, Bert played 545 matches in his 15-year career for Manchester City. He was the first sportsman in Britain to wear Adidas, received a standing ovation at his first match in London – against Fulham, and played in the 1955 and 1956 FA cup finals.

In 2004, Trautmann received an OBE. He is unusual in his reception of both this and an Iron Cross.


Sophie Gee