Thursday 29 November 2018

Millions of prisoners were taken captive during the Second World War and their experiences varied according to many factors – from where they had been captured to their nationality, race and whether they were a civilian or serving in the military.    

Though separated from friends and family and living in tightly controlled conditions, some prisoners were able to find ways to mark Christmas and New Year, using their creativity and comradeship to get them through. Explore these items from IWM’s collection to find out more about how POWs celebrated Christmas.

‘Joyeux Noel’

 © IWM (HU 20951) Three French POWs smile for the camera as they hold up their special Christmas food at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, 25 December 1942.
© IWM (HU 20951) Three French POWs smile for the camera as they hold up their special Christmas food at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, 25 December 1942.

‘Joyeux Noel’

The notorious Stalag Luft III was a specially built prison camp on Germany's border with Poland. It held 10,000 Allied airmen of all nationalities during the Second World War and was designed to be escape proof. But for Allied prisoners of war, it was their duty to escape and it became well-known for two notable escape attempts from German POW camps – the ‘Wooden Horse’ escape of October 1943 and the ‘Great Escape’ in March 1944.

Life was on the whole monotonous, cold and hungry. Luft III issued "Non-working" German civilian rations which allowed 1,928 kcal per day, with the balance made up from Red Cross parcels and items sent to the POWs by their families.  This photograph taken on Christmas Day 1942 shows three French POWs smiling with their Christmas rations.

Sharing a meal

© IWM (Documents. 19672/B) Christmas menu from 1944 POW camp
© IWM (Documents. 19672/B) Christmas menu from 1944 POW camp

Sharing a meal

Flight Lieutenant Paul Cunningham’s Lancaster bomber was shot down over Scholven-Buer in Germany during a raid on 21-22 June 1944.  He survived the crash but was captured and sent to Stalag Luft III.

This Christmas menu from 1944 records the meal enjoyed by Cunningham and his fellow prisoners, largely based on the shared contents of Red Cross parcels.

Christmas in Colditz

© IWM (HU 20276) A group of British prisoners of war smile for the camera at Christmas.
© IWM (HU 20276) A group of British prisoners of war smile for the camera at Christmas.

Christmas in Colditz

Colditz Castle was a high-security prison and was the place the Germans sent their most difficult POWs – many of those held there had previously attempted escape from other camps.

In this photo, prisoners pose for a photograph together in front of a Christmas tree.  

‘Breakfast, luncheon and dinner’

©IWM (Documents.7317/A) Illustrated poster made by prisoners of war in Oflag IXA/Z, Rotenburg, advertising Christmas and New Year meals in the camp.
©IWM (Documents.7317/A) Illustrated poster made by prisoners of war in Oflag IXA/Z, Rotenburg, advertising Christmas and New Year meals in the camp.

‘Breakfast, luncheon and dinner’

Food is often at the centre of Christmas celebrations. Prisoners held at Oflag IXA/Z in Germany created this beautifully illustrated poster advertising the Christmas and New Year menu at the camp – in one drawing, a pear in a policeman’s uniform arrests a ‘stewed fruit’.

‘To Peglums’

©IWM (Documents.17928/A) Handmade Christmas card sent by James Buckley to his wife, while a prisoner of war in Shamshuipo camp, Hong Kong.
©IWM (Documents.17928/A) Handmade Christmas card sent by James Buckley to his wife, while a prisoner of war in Shamshuipo camp, Hong Kong.

‘To Peglums’

War separated loved ones but people were sometimes able to find a way to communicate their feelings and seasonal wishes. James Buckley was held in Shamshuipo camp, Hong Kong. He sent this handmade card to his wife Margaret in 1942.

‘From all German POWs of this station’

©IWM (Documents.8587/A) Handmade Christmas card from German prisoners of war still held in Farnborough, Hampshire, in 1947.
©IWM (Documents.8587/A) Handmade Christmas card from German prisoners of war still held in Farnborough, Hampshire, in 1947.

‘From all German POWs of this station’

Despite being imprisoned on British soil, German soldiers were able to exercise their creativity in the camps and designed this Christmas card. 

Xmas Greetings

©IWM (Documents.22679/A) Handmade Christmas card from Changi prisoner of war camp, Singapore, 1944.
©IWM (Documents.22679/A) Handmade Christmas card from Changi prisoner of war camp, Singapore, 1944.

Xmas Greetings

George Charlton was a Staff Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps who was imprisoned in Singapore from February 1942 to the end of the war, mainly in Changi camp until March 1945 when he was moved to the prisoner of war hospital at Kranji. He returned to the UK in October 1945.

This handmade card was addressed to him at Christmas 1944.

Collection licensing

IWM holds over 20,000 individual collections of private papers and nearly 11 million photographs.

Many of the materials from the IWM’s image, sound and film collections are available to purchase and license for use in commercial projects and products.

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.
© IWM (A70 217-3)
Second World War
Christmas in wartime
During the Second World War, film cameras captured how people celebrated the festive season on both the Home Front and the fighting fronts.
'Father Christmas' presenting Winston Churchill’s grandson with a gift at a Christmas party for Allied naval officers' children.
IWM A 13308
Second World War
How Britain Celebrated Christmas During The Second World War
Six years of war brought many changes to familiar festive rituals. Christmas celebrations during the Second World War often had to be scaled down or adjusted as restrictions and shortages took their toll.