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.


British Prisoners of War, Italy

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.

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.

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.

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