Sexual relationships between female British civilians and prisoners of war (PoWs) in the 1940s prompted government fears of a rise in ‘immorality’, new research suggests.
In a study published in the Journal of Contemporary History, Professor Bob Moore from the University of Sheffield explores archive documents revealing that the British government attempted to limit fraternisation between female civilians and Italian and German PoWs employed to alleviate the Second World War domestic labour shortage.
The UK played host to more than 150,000 Italian and 400,000 German PoWs between 1939 and 1948. Their day-to-day contact with British women sparked fears of “undesirable relations”, and “advances of a sexual nature”, and some figures in government became concerned about an apparent need to control female morality at a time of crisis – when women were expected to uphold respectability.
Moore also discovered that clandestine relationships between PoWs and the native population did occur, and were more common than previously thought – a fact that sparked a debate about female liaisons with enemy prisoners, whose comrades were still engaged in fighting and killing British soldiers in Europe.
PoWs were seen as the demonized enemy who had been actively trying to kill Allied servicemen only a few weeks before, the study found.
In August 1942 the MI5, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Home Office met to discuss the question of fraternization with prisoners by members of the public.
The state created a legislative framework through amendments to the Defence Regulations in order to minimize the possibilities of civilian contact.
A Home Office circular published in 1944 prohibited attempts to “establish relations with women of a sexual or amorous character”, and PoWs were warned of the “rigorous and exemplary” action that would be taken against any attempts to engage in sexual or social encounters with women or girls.
Prohibitions were enforced until well after the conflict ended, and by the end of 1945 the War Office was beginning to register cases of “undesirable women” associating with prisoners.
However, the study concluded that the increased proximity of PoWs to female workers during the course of their employment created opportunities for contact that legislation could never entirely eliminate.
“The relationship between enemy combatants and civilians is a rather more complicated one than most people recognised at the time or subsequently,” Moore told historyextra.
“The popular perception of Italians was also different from that of Germans. There was never the same animosity towards Italians that was reserved for Germans.
“I was surprised by the disjuncture between state and public opinion. In the early stages of the war there seemed to be a great deal of public unease about people having anything to do with prisoners of war while their brothers and uncles were serving on the front.
“But there developed a greater degree of public sympathy for the PoWs in their midst, and the state carried on with prohibition much longer than generalised public opinion would suggest was necessary.”