Armed soldiers are alert as the recently captured German U-boat prisoners disembark from HMS Starling. Submariners were deemed to be among the most supportive of the Nazi regime, and in the colour classifications that were given to German prisoners for political re-education after the war (black, white and grey) were regarded as 'black'.
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The first Second World War captives taken in Britain were German pilots or aircrew who had parachuted to safety and naval personnel brought ashore. In the first few years of the war, their numbers were small as they were generally sent further away to parts of the British Empire rather than being held in Britain, where they might pose a security risk.
From July 1941, Italian prisoners captured in the Middle East were brought to Britain. This was the first major influx of prisoners of war to the country. Italian POWs presented one way of alleviating labour shortages in Britain, particularly in agriculture. Following the Italian surrender in 1943, 100,000 Italians volunteered to work as 'co-operators'. They were given considerable freedom and mixed with local people.
German prisoners flooded into Britain from the summer of 1944 following the D-Day landings in France. Although there was an initial reluctance to employ them for labour, 70,000 were working in Britain by March 1945. The peak number of German prisoners reached 402,200 in September 1946, housed in hundreds of camps all over the country.
The last prisoner did not return to Germany until 1948. Twenty-five thousand elected to stay, preferring to remain where they had made a new life (since Christmas 1946 Germans had been allowed to visit British homes, and friendships and relationships had developed) to returning to a war-damaged divided country.
In this photograph, members of the Home Guard learn basic German phrases, c. 1940. There was an awareness that communication would be a problem for those who found themselves face to face with the enemy. The Home Guard would often be the first on the scene in the event of a plane coming down or German parachutists descending. 'Halt' and 'Hands Up' are the first phrases they are seen learning in this photograph. IWM
Italian Prisoners-of-War Working on the Land, 1942, by Michael Ford. In this painting, a lone British soldier guards the Italian prisoners harvesting the crop. The manpower shortage and need to maximise home-grown food meant that prisoners of war had to be used for labour. The large red circles on their clothing indicate that they are prisoners of war. This symbol would make them conspicuous in an escape attempt.
Photograph showing Italian prisoners of war at a church service in a prisoner of war camp in Britain, 1945. The conspicuous marking of POWs clothing, this time in the shape of diamonds, can be seen on some of the prisoners.
Photograph of a German prisoner of war Nissen hut, with an information display relating to British democracy, 1945. It was regarded as important to the Nazi re-education process for the Germans to learn a different system to the one they were familiar with. Note the decoration on part of the curving ceiling, which was presumably done by the prisoners.
This photograph shows a concert taking place in a German prisoner of war camp recreation hut, December 1945. A proscenium arch has been added to the stage, and the backcloth is decorated with foil stars. The decorative fir branches in the hut indicate that it may be a Christmas festivity. Prisoners everywhere made their own entertainment.
Cigarette case engraved by an Italian prisoner of war at Hawick in Scotland, c. 1941. Made from shiny silver-coloured metal, both sides feature glamorous skimpily clad women, though the interior features floral engraving and a bird carrying a letter addressed to 'Anna'.
souvenirs and ephemera
Mrs I M Corry 'May I hope that some day I can marry you...', Note proposing marriage sent by an Italian prisoner of war, 1943. This handwritten letter, proposing marriage, was received by Irene Lang, a member of the Women’s Land Army in Wiltshire during the Second World War. It was sent by one of the Italian prisoners of war she must have worked alongside. Irene rejected the offer.