More prisoners were taken during the Second World War than in any other conflict. Millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen – and also civilians – were held in captivity. Their fate depended on when and where they were captured, and sometimes their nationality or race.

Art

British Prisoners of War, Italy

Art

British Prisoners of War, Italy

This oil painting shows the cramped interior of a typical prisoner of war hut. Men lie and sit on the three-tiered bunks, clothed and unclothed. Washing hangs on lines strung from adjacent bunks. The painting reflects the way that life continues for these men even in captivity.

The interior of a prisoner-of-war hut. The space is filled by the receding lines of wooden framed bunk-beds. Men lie and sit on the three-tiered bunks, clothed and unclothed. A seated figure on the central bunk has a red lozenge shape on the back of his khaki shirt. Below him a young man rests with his hands across his chest, a book lying open on the floor beside him. Washing hangs on lines strung from adjacent bunks.
Art.IWM ART 16315 © The artist’s estate.

Many of the famous films about the experiences of prisoners of war (POWs) romanticise their experiences, often focusing on daring escapes. But for most POWs their experiences ranged – from courage, comradeship and compassion, to hunger and boredom, deprivation, cruelty and neglect.

In this total war, civilians were also interned, simply because of their nationality. Either they were people caught in enemy territory when war broke out, or they had escaped persecution and were rounded up and interned by the very countries in which they had sought refuge.

Related Content

Lieutenant Airey Neave.
© IWM (HU 86547)
Heroes
5 Stories Of Real Life Escape Attempts By Allied Prisoners Of War
It was the duty of all Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to try to escape. If they made it home they could re-join the war and fight again, but even those who didn’t make it back to safety still helped the war effort by occupying large numbers of police and soldiers sent to track them down.
Thin men suffering from starvation are shown at work in a valley. In the foreground a man is digging at the face of a bank, with another passing a boulder to a fellow POW, and a chain of men passing rocks behind. To the centre-left a man is hitting a metal pole into the ground with a mallet, whilst another man holds the pole in place. To the far back left, men are working at the face of a hill, and some men shown climbing the face by rope.
Second World War
What Life Was Like For POWs In The Far East During The Second World War
Japan's early successes in the Far East during the Second World War resulted in over 190,000 British and Commonwealth troops being taken prisoner. Conditions varied, but in the worst camps - such as those along the Thailand-Burma ‘Death Railway’ - prisoners suffered terribly.
The Battle of the Lys. Three British prisoners captured in Armentieres, 9-18 April 1918.
First World War
Voices of the First World War: Prisoners Of War
Episode 42: Thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers were captured by their enemies during the First World War. Unable to take any further part in the fighting, they became Prisoners of War, or POWs.