The first German prisoners of war I saw were with a platoon of British soldiers relaxing for a break and a Woodbine cigarette just up the road from our house. One of the soldiers told me that the job of the POWs was to go ahead of the marching patrol and set up a pretend ambush. Being brimful of anti-German sentiment, as you were in those wartime days, I felt this to be a bit dangerous for our soldiers and excitedly quizzed my Tommy friend about those two Huns. He suddenly alarmed me by shouting across to one of the Germans saying “Hey Fritz, little matey here wants to know how Adolph’s getting on”. The German beckoned to me with a crooked finger saying “Kommen sie hier”. I scarpered off down the road as fast as my 9-year old legs could take me, much to the great merriment of the soldiers.
Captured Germans at the beginning of the war, mostly Luftwaffe and U-boat crews, were shipped across the Atlantic to North America, as it was feared that large numbers of POWs encamped in the UK would provide a mightily useful contingent of German servicemen in the event of a successful invasion by the Nazis.
After D-Day, and with the growing success of the allied progress through Europe towards Germany, the number of POWs entering Britain grew to such an extent that the number of camps built to contain them grew from the original 2 to 600.
The numbers of Italian POWs increased dramatically after the collapse of their forces in North Africa. There were so many that the amount captured was reported back to England by acreage covered by the containment pens, rather than a head count.
The use of Italian POWs from the sudden influx on British farms caused great alarm among the senior members of the Women’s Land Army. A cautionary letter was sent to all members of the WLA pointing out that although we would wish to think that the treatment of these POWs would be similar to kindliness we hope are being extended to our forces in similar circumstances, caution must be exercised if one finds oneself working alongside Italian servicemen in the hayfield.
Rules of the Geneva Convention specified that prisoners of war could not be forced to work, they could; however, volunteer to do suitable work if they wished. The majority of POWs opted for work preferring to do so rather than hang about kicking the dust from the floor of prison pens. It was estimated that at one time 25% of Britain’s workforce comprised POWs, 22,000 in the building trade, 169,000 in agriculture.
There was some resentment among the British at the fact that another ruling of the Geneva Convention was that POWs should be given the same ration allowance of food as British troops. This meant that POWs were getting a larger ration of cheese than British civilians. This was also a matter of resentment among the French when it was found that captured Germans were receiving the same rations as American GIs. In the midst of the surrounding turmoil of the Battle of Normandy there was very little food to be had for the civilian population. It should be mentioned here that in 1943 surprising reports were reaching Fleet Street that British POWs were being approached by German civilians begging for food.
German POWs began to be repatriated in 1946. The last being members of the Waffen SS, an organization deemed to be criminal by the Nuremberg War Crime Tribunal, were not repatriated until 1949.
After VE Day restrictions on movement were relaxed for POWs. Like some French POWs during the Napoleonic wars they became a feature of local life in some parts of Britain. Many friendships were formed, Christmas dinners shared and children delighted with wooden toys carved on behalf of Santa Claus. Many of those toys and carvings are cherished to this day.
In 1946 a memorable Christmas service was held in the Honiton Catholic church of the Holy Family. German POWs had gone to great pains to construct a replica of the stable of Bethlehem. Carols were sung by a German choir for half an hour before the celebration of Mass which was then sung by a mixed congregation of English, Scotch, Irish, Spanish, French, Polish and German Catholics. Finally the service ended with the Poles singing some of their traditional carols. The congregation was so large the main doors of the church had to remain open to allow those outside to be present.
Similar Christmas services must have been celebrated throughout Britain at that time. In Burton Bradstock 48 German POWs marched from their hostel to the Congregational church led by their Lutheran Chaplain, the Rev. Helmut Spieth. They sang ‘Silent Night’, and joined with the congregation in other carols. After the service, members of the men’s club at the church entertained the prisoners in the Church Hall with refreshments, and each man was given a gift by the members, who were all British ex- servicemen
Mrs. Valerie Watkins recalls Otto who lived and worked at the Lawrence family’s farm at Andrewshayes in Dalwood when she was a schoolgirl. She still has a small panel of wood worked and finely decorated with hot poker work. It reads, in German “North, South, East, West, home is where one finds the best”. He happily found that his family had survived the war and eventually returned to Germany keeping contact with the Lawrence family for many Christmases thereafter.
Otto had a soldier colleague, Werner, who worked on another Dalwood farm nearby. One day Werner was to hear that his wife had formed a strong friendship with a Scottish soldier of the occupying forces in Germany. Pulling his wedding ring off his finger he threw it with fury into the long grass of the field he was working in. Werner had already suffered the grim experience of hearing that his twin brother had been killed on the Russian front. Eventually he was repatriated back to Germany where he married his widowed sister-in-law.
Many thousands of POWs opted to stay in Britain, especially as their homes in Germany had become overtaken by the Soviet Empire. They became designated as Displaced Persons. One such DP, Henry Thoennissen, domiciled himself in East Devon. Remembered by many for his hard work, sometimes seen making his concrete blocks in the freezing cold and pouring rain, he is still hale and hearty at 89 years of age and living in retirement having established the local Axminster business of Westcrete Precast Concrete Ltd.