The first prisoners of war (POWs) taken in Britain during the Second World War were German pilots, aircrew or naval personnel.

In the first years of the war their numbers were small - rather than being held in Britain, they were generally sent further away to parts of the British Empire.

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, 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.


Local Defence Volunteers learn basic German phrases

The Local Defence Volunteers: Members of the Local Defence Volunteers being taught simple German phrases.
Local Defence Volunteers learn basic German phrases, c. 1940.

The LDV (later the Home Guard) would often be the first on the scene in the event of a German plane coming down or parachutists descending. 'Halt' and 'Hands Up' are the first phrases they are seen learning in this photograph.


Italian Prisoners-of-War Working on the Land, 1942

View across an onion field in autumn with sixteen Italian prisoners-of-war gathering in the crop, supervised by a single British soldier at the near edge of the field. The PoWs are wearing clothing marked with a distinctive red spot on the jackets and trousers. On the horizon a tractor loosens a furrow of earth for the prisoners to gather the crop into wicker baskets. On the right stands a horse and cart where the crop is being loaded.
Italian Prisoners-of-War Working on the Land, 1942, by Michael Ford.

The manpower shortage and need to maximise home-grown food meant that POWs had to be used for labour. The large red circles on their clothing indicate that they are prisoners, marking them in case of an escape attempt.

The peak number of German prisoners reached 402,200 in September 1946. They were housed in hundreds of camps all over the country.

From Christmas 1946, Germans had been allowed to visit British homes and had developed friendships and relationships with locals.  After the war, 25,000 elected to stay in Britain, preferring to remain where they had made a new life to returning to a war-damaged and divided country.

The last prisoner did not return to Germany until 1948.

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