British PoW camps

Richard Smyth and Professor Bob Moore visit Eden Camp in North Yorkshire, where captured German and Italian soldiers were held prisoner during the Second World War

Italian prisoners of war being escorted under armed guard to work on a farm, 13 September 1941. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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It’s not much to look at: a cluster of 34 tin-roofed one-storey huts, hunkered down on the agricultural flatlands of Ryedale, halfway between York and the coast. The flags surmounting a redbrick tower in the middle of the complex snap in the wind beneath a blustery blue sky.

Eden Camp is an award-winning museum of the Second World War – ‘the people’s war’, as the museum calls it. There are exhibits here covering everything from Bomber Command and the U-boat menace to George Formby and ‘Dig For Victory’. Vintage military hardware and signposts in army stencil crowd the footpaths. But the camp is more than just a museum: as an original, surviving prisoner of war camp it’s a piece of history in its own right.

PoWs first arrived at Eden Camp in 1942. They were Italians, captured in action; their first task was to finish the construction of their new home. When they had finished, the camp would have looked much as it does now (minus the gift shop and adventure playground).

“Eden was one of 487 PoW camps hastily thrown up across Britain to house more than 400,000 incoming prisoners during the Second World War,” says Bob Moore, professor of 20th-century European history at the University of Sheffield. “At first, these were almost all Italians, seized in northeast Africa as the allies gained ground in Egypt, Eritrea, Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. Initially, the vast majority of captured Germans were shipped out directly to Canada; many Italians, too, were dispatched to Britain’s former dominions, to India or South Africa. But those who were taken to Eden and the other British camps weren’t here to see out the rest of the war behind barbed wire; they were here to work.”

The war had created a crippling labour shortage on the home front. Britain’s farms were crying out for more manpower, and the strong young men of the Italian army more than fitted the bill. The PoW camps, initially designed as internment pens, quickly evolved into central hubs from which prisoners could be dispersed across the countryside to wherever they were needed.

Romance and teacakes

“Camps had to be sited away from military bases and the coast,” explains Moore. “East Anglia, for instance, was initially considered an unsuitable location, despite its high demand for agricultural labour, because it had too many air bases and too clear a view of the North Sea. The first camps were concentrated in inland north England, the West Midlands and Wales.”

Surprisingly, though, prisoners’ rural neighbours didn’t always respond to them as ‘the enemy’. “The stereotype of the Italian soldier was one that came straight from Churchill,” says Moore. “Unlike the Germans, who were viewed as inherently militaristic, Italian soldiers were believed to bear the British little ill-will; there was in fact some sympathy for the way in which the country had fallen under the yoke of Mussolini and his Fascists. What’s more, they were, from a 1940s provincial standpoint, hugely exotic. Instinctive aversion – there was a war on, after all – was leavened by curiosity and even compassion.”

Some Britons even tried to actively help PoWs. Mabel Blagborough of Oldham earned the nickname ‘angel of Glen Mill’ for a campaign of support that included throwing cigarettes and teacakes over the camp’s barbed wire fence.

But while the view from the home front was mostly accommodating, the presence of Italian PoWs in England prompted a less than tolerant response on the front line. Photographs of Italians at work in the fields alongside British land girls triggered outrage among many serving British soldiers, who were aghast to see their sisters, wives and sweethearts working cheek-by-jowl with the enemy.

Romantic liaisons between PoWs and British women did happen. Some of these had happy endings: a number of former PoWs returned to Britain after the war to renew romances and even propose marriage. Others had more unexpected outcomes. Moore recalls one woman who, after her mother’s death, examined her own birth certificate and found to her surprise that her father had been an Italian PoW.

Nazi daffodils

Hut 10 houses Eden Camp’s impressive collections of PoW memorabilia, including a map of Britain littered with black dots, each marking a PoW camp. Moore points out a few locations of note: Grizedale Hall in Cumbria, which from 1939 housed senior German PoWs and was dubbed the ‘U-boat Hotel’ because of its large proportion of submarine officers; Lamb Holm on Orkney, where prisoners working on the sea defences constructed the wonderfully ornate Italian Chapel, which stands there to this day; and the aforementioned Glen Mill in Oldham, where an SS private was shot dead by a guard in February 1945.

As the war progressed and the threat of invasion receded, the number of German prisoners on British soil was allowed to increase, including at Eden Camp, which housed Germans from 1944–49. D-Day and its aftermath saw the numbers skyrocket: by March 1945, 70,000 German PoWs were at work in Britain; in September 1946, with the dust finally settling on the conflict, the figure peaked at 402,200.

“The numbers, when considered as a whole, are mind-boggling,” says Moore. “A world war is in many ways a mass migration. PoWs – whether shipped out via the Cape to the Canadian prairie, or bundled back to Britain in returning D-Day troopships – were a considerable component in the Second World War global transit networks of men, materiel and resources.”

Eden Camp originally comprised 45 huts, 18 of which served as housing (64 men per building), with the remaining huts serving as workshops, kitchens, mess and recreation halls, and even a hospital. Conditions, although basic, were generally acceptable.

“Both sides of the war knew that breaches of the Geneva Convention might be met with retaliation, so prisoners were treated pretty fairly,” says Moore. “For Germany, the question was more acute in respect of its increasingly brutal war with the Soviet Union: Germany’s war of annihilation on the eastern front led to the deaths of 2 million Soviet PoWs in 1941–42, which would have made the Germans aware of what could happen if the tide of war turned.”

In Britain, although prisoners were put to work, they weren’t especially overworked. Six days a week, working nine to five, was usual, in line with a normal working week for a British labourer.

Hut 10 showcases an array of handicrafts and memorabilia whittled, sculpted, painted and polished by inmates in their free time. Other diversions included lectures, theatre and sport – Bert Trautmann, a paratrooper, found his way from internment at Camp 50 near Wigan to footballing glory with Manchester City.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. British authorities deemed it important to ‘re-educate’ – that is, de-Nazify – German captives, prior to their repatriation.

“At one level, this involved the deployment of intelligence officers to weed out the most fervent or influential Nazis,” says Moore. “At another, it saw an increase in the fraternisation permitted between PoWs and local people – a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign designed to build bridges between Britain and the new Germany that was to take shape in the postwar years.”

Not all German PoWs were ready to give up their extremist political beliefs, though. A woman whose family had taken in a German prisoner to work in the gardens of their home on the south coast told her local newspaper that he seemed a very nice young man – at least until the spring after his relocation, when the daffodils sprouted and the flowers were seen to spell out the words ‘HEIL HITLER’.

“In fact,” says Moore, “the authorities identified a clear generational divide among the Germans: the older PoWs, who could remember a Germany before Nazism, tended to be more amenable to re-education. But those who had never known anything other than Hitler’s Reich and the non-stop indoctrination of Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine were often beyond reach.”

From camp to chicken shed

Today the bustling canteen does a roaring trade in burgers and cappuccinos, a far cry from the rations doled out to PoWs. A typical prisoner would have made do with bread, margarine and tea for breakfast, pork and potatoes for dinner, and a supper of milk, soup and bread. Over a cup of tea Moore tells me how modern historians treat the history of our PoW camps. It seems that it’s sometimes overlooked in popular narratives of the war.

“Social historians don’t like it because it’s about people in uniforms,” he comments, “and military historians don’t like it because it’s about losers. Another problem is that few camps remain intact in any form. Most passed back into private ownership after the war, and either reverted to whatever they’d been before or were put to new commercial uses (as chicken sheds, in one instance).”

Eden Camp did time as an agricultural holiday camp, and was earmarked as the site of a potato-crisp factory, before the owner was persuaded to turn it into a museum. Today the mossed brick and corrugated iron huts of Eden Camp tell a story of their own – and it’s one we aren’t told often enough.

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Bob Moore is professor of 20th-century European history at the University of Sheffield. Words: Richard Smyth.