Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Why None of Britain's Long-Term POWs in Nazi Germany Were Repatriated during World War II

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Why None of Britain's Long-Term POWs in Nazi Germany Were Repatriated during World War II

Article excerpt

Article 72 of the Prisoners of War Convention (Geneva, 27 July 1929) reads: "Throughout the duration of hostilities and for humane considerations, belligerents may conclude agreements with a view to the direct repatriation or hospitalization in a neutral country of able-bodied prisoners of war who have undergone a long period of captivity." (1) During World War II Britain and Germany conducted negotiations over exchanging prisoners of war (POWs) falling into this category, but no such exchange ever took place. On the other hand, there were four exchanges of seriously sick and wounded POWs, protected personnel (doctors, medical orderlies, and chaplains), and merchant seamen in which not only Britain and Germany but also the United States and Italy were involved. (2) This article seeks to explain why none of the tens of thousands of British POWs held in prison for close to five years were repatriated until after the war. It further analyzes the differences that arose over the issue between Britain and the United States and shows that when their interests diverged, cooperation between the two Allies was adversely affected.

Toward the end of World War II there were more than two million Allied POWs in German captivity, among them close to 200,000 British and about 95,000 US army personnel. (3) Tens of thousands of the British POWs had spent as long as five years in prison camps, others had been captured during later stages of the fighting in North Africa, in the Middle East, and of course in Europe. (4) Contacts between Britain and Germany over their respective POWs were conducted first through the US. After the latter joined the war, neutral Switzerland served as the Protecting Power. (5) Throughout the war Britain presented Berlin with protests on deficiencies, but early on in the war London realized that when it came to British prisoners Berlin was more or less adhering to the articles of the Geneva Convention and that there existed no immediate threat to the lives of their men while they were in POW camps. Still, there were confrontations and acts of mutual retaliation, notably the shackling of more than 4,000 British Commonwealth POWs for over a year. (6)

Negotiations between the British and the Germans over the exchange of seriously sick and wounded POWs had begun already in 1940, but the two countries were close to carrying out a first exchange only in the fall of 1941. Shortly before the exchange was to take place, however, the Germans changed their minds, mainly because they were to receive no more than 50 men while the British stood to recover over 1,100 POWs. The British were thus forced to wait until they had captured a substantial number of German soldiers, especially those who had been seriously hurt, before they found Berlin ready to agree to an exchange. This happened in May 1943, when the German forces in North Africa surrendered. In October 1943, the first mutual exchange of seriously wounded and sick POWs took place, involving British, American, and German former prisoners. (7)

I. Opposition of the Admiralty

Meanwhile, calls for the repatriation of long-term captives, especially older soldiers, came from the POWs themselves. In April 1943, for instance, a Major General Fortune, writing to London from Oflag IX A/H (Spangenberg), pressed for the return, or at least for the removal to a neutral territory, of those POWs who had also been prisoners in World War I. A similar call came from twenty-one officers and ratings who had survived the sinking by the Germans of H.M.S. Rawalpindi on 23 November 1939. They pointed out that some of the crew were considerably older than fifty "and naturally surfer deterioration much more rapidly than younger men." (8) In early August 1943, the International Red Cross Committee (IRCC) added its voice, encouraging the belligerents to conclude an agreement on older POWs. The IRCC's President Max Huber reminded the British of an agreement the French and Germans had concluded in May 1917 whereby POWs over the age of forty-eight who had been in captivity for at least eighteen months would be accommodated in Switzerland if they were of commissioned rank, or repatriated outright if of lower rank. …

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