Amanda Mason
Monday 18 June 2018

More than 170,000 British prisoners of war (POWs) were taken by German and Italian forces during the Second World War. Most were captured in a string of defeats in France, North Africa and the Balkans between 1940 and 1942. They were held in a network of POW camps stretching from Nazi-occupied Poland to Italy.

The experience of capture could be humiliating. Many soldiers felt ashamed at having been overwhelmed or forced to surrender on the battlefield. It could also be traumatic. Airmen who had been shot down were hunted down in enemy territory after surviving a crash in which friends might have been killed. Sailors might be hauled out of the sea after watching their vessel sink.

The Geneva Convention rules - which lay out protections and standards of treatment of POWs - were not always followed, but on the whole the Germans and Italians behaved fairly towards British and Commonwealth prisoners. Even so, conditions were tough. Rations were meagre. The men - but not officers - had to work, often at heavy labour.

As with the prisoners of the First World War, the days dragged and there was a constant battle against boredom. Prisoners tried to overcome this by staging entertainments and educating themselves. Contrary to the popular myth, most men were too weak from hunger and work to escape. Those who did get beyond the wire ran the very real risk of being shot.

Souvenirs and ephemera

Bible of Gunner C Hedley

Souvenirs and ephemera

Bible of Gunner C Hedley

Gunner C Hedley kept this bible with him during his captivity in Stalag VIIIB. The inscription records that he was captured at Calais on 26 May 1940 during the British Army's retreat to Dunkirk.

Between 1941 and 1945, German forces took six million Russian prisoners of war. Jewish soldiers and suspected communists were usually shot out of hand. Large numbers of the Russian prisoners ended up in special sections of German POW camps. Held by the Nazis to be racially and politically inferior, they were starved and brutalised.

The appalling suffering of these POWs was witnessed by British and Commonwealth prisoners held in separate compounds. At Stalag VIIIB alone, in Lamsdorf, eastern Germany, over 40,000 Russians perished. In total, three million Russian POWs died in German captivity.

Souvenirs and ephemera

Canadian Red Cross food parcel

Souvenirs and ephemera

Canadian Red Cross food parcel

As food became short in Britain, the help of Commonwealth countries in supplying POW food parcels became increasingly important. By October 1941, the Canadian Red Cross was sending 22,500 parcels a week.

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