It was Christmas at Colditz Castle, 1944. After roll-call, the commandant of the most notorious PoW Camp in the Reich, told the prisoners that he had an important announcement.
“I have some good news, and I have some bad news! First the good news! Today, everyone will get a change of underwear!”
A big cheer rose up.
When the noise had eventually died down, he said: “Now for the bad news. Johnson, you change with Smith … Brown, you change with Forbes … Carter, you change with Jackson…”
That’s an old joke, and it doesn’t quite feel like an authentic Second World War gag, but more like something from a TV or radio comedy script. Anyone got any ideas where it came from?
Anyway, in case you were wondering, the “detaining power” has an explicit duty to provide underwear, along with footwear and clothing to prisoners of war under the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention.
Life for British and Allied ‘Kriegies’ (from the German for prisoner-of-war, Kriegsgefangener) during the Second World War was rarely the sort of overgrown public school romp that it’s sometimes portrayed as in old movies. For many, the most vivid memories afterwards were cold, hunger and crushing boredom.
Conditions were at their worst in 1940 and again in 1945. The German system could not at first cope with the large numbers captured during the battle of France. Men, who had often been captured without all their clothes, also suffered from severe malnutrition because of poor rations.
Things improved from 1941 with the first trickle, and then flood, of the famous Red Cross Parcels. These were cardboard boxes, each weighing around 10lbs, containing tins and packets such as cheese, milk, biscuits, margarine, jam, porridge, tinned meat or stew, tea, chocolate etc. Without these, few, if any, of the men captured in the early years of the war would have survived. By mid-1944, the British, Commonwealth and American inmates of many camps were better nourished than the men guarding them.
Anyone who’s ever been a smoker can’t help but be moved by the words of a Tommy who had been captured at Dunkirk on getting his first proper cigarettes in six months at Christmas 1940: “The ecstasy! I did not wish to speak; I did not wish to move an inch; I just wanted to inhale the fragrance and feel the sense of well-being that spread from my head to my toes.”
From 1941 also, relatives of PoWs could also send a few parcels per year from home, containing essentials such as socks, sewing equipment and, indeed, underwear. The British and Commonwealth governments also later decided to send their men fresh uniforms. Aside from any concern about the welfare of captive servicemen, the Allied governments reasoned that smartly turned-out PoWs would have an important propaganda value.
Fresh uniforms were a particular concern for RAF aircrew: their sheepskin flying jackets and boots were much prized by the Germans for sending to their own soldiers freezing on the Russian front.
Cigarettes and luxury items from Red Cross parcels were also useful for trading with guards or civilians for German currency, various items needed for escape, and for components of crystal radio sets that were carefully hidden and used to keep up with war news from the BBC.
News of the D-Day landings in June 1944 quickly spread around the camps, raising the hope that the War would be over by Christmas. When it dragged into 1945, combined with the collapse of German infrastructure, few Red Cross parcels got through, and there were severe shortages of everything, especially food and firewood. It was, for most PoWs, the low-point of their captivity.
Many would later contrast the grim, pinched Christmas of 1944 with the comparatively luxurious one of the year before, where in many camps illegal alcohol would be brewed up using sugar, yeast, vegetables, fruit and/or jam and raisins.
If the ‘jungle juice’, as it was usually known, was a good batch, instant inebriation resulted, and it was no uncommon thing for PoWs to be utterly paralytic from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.
A family acquaintance who had been a PoW once told how, many year’s after the war’s end, he found himself in a lift in a department store just before Christmas. A harassed woman, laden with shopping, and with children in tow, was cursing her lot and said: “Whoever invented Christmas should be strung up!”
The man felt annoyed when he remembered some of the miserable Christmases he’d endured as a guest of the Reich, but cheered up when a voice from the back of the lift piped up: “I think you’ll find they crucified Him.”