Prisoners of War
V: Relief Work
V: Relief Work
The miserable position of prisoners at the transit camps in Greece and Crete could have been immeasurably improved if sufficient Red Cross food supplies had been on hand. The generosity of the Greek Red Cross, assisted by grants of money from the International Red Cross Committee's delegate in Athens,1 did much to relieve the immediate wants of the sick in transit hospitals and sick-bays. But this source alone could not be expected to supply adequately the thousands of Allied soldiers who filled the camps, and an attempt was made through the International Red Cross delegation at Ankara to have food shipped from Turkey.2 Then, in early August, rail communication was re-established with Switzerland, enabling four wagons of British Red Cross food parcels to go through to Athens. Although some were distributed at the transit camp and the hospitals in and near the capital, by the time the remainder of this consignment and the first shipload of Turkish food could be got to other camps, most of the prisoners had been moved to Germany.
1 £5000 was sent by the British Red Cross to the IRCC delegate, Dr. Brunel, to be spent on supplementary food. Milk, fruit, and other provisions were supplied.
By the autumn of 1941 medical and invalid comforts (now standardised by the British Red Cross to a milk parcel and a special food parcel) were being distributed from Geneva in accordance with reports and requests received from camp and hospital medical officers. Besides building up an eight weeks' reserve at Geneva and a reserve in each camp and hospital, the plan was to send off weekly supplies on a fixed scale.1 Braille appliances and training material were sent for the blind; hearing aids for the deaf, many of whom were elderly civilian internees; and dental materials according to the requests of captured dental officers. British doctors and dentists had to rely to a very great extent on these supplies received through Geneva from the British Red Cross.
With the large increase in the number of New Zealand prisoners resulting from the campaigns in Greece and Crete, it was obvious that some of the services undertaken for New Zealanders by the British Red Cross would soon entail a very considerable extra volume of work. It was obvious also that the bulk of it should be shouldered by some New Zealand organisation. But although there was in London a representative of the New Zealand Joint Council, Colonel B. Myers, he had no staff for dealing with the administrative task involved. Accordingly a special Prisoners of War Section of the High Commissioner's Office was set up under Mr. C. B. Burdekin to expand the work which had already begun in arranging for the sending of a small number of ‘personal parcels’ and packages of tobacco. Colonel Myers continued to act in an advisory capacity. In July the section begun to handle all inquiries sent to the British Red Cross concerning New Zealanders.
To answer similar inquiries in New Zealand the Joint Council had in May already set up a Prisoners of War Inquiry Office, which was organised to give next-of-kin and friends additional information and advice concerning a prisoner's welfare after government notification of his capture had been received. Shortly after the middle of the year depots were set up at the four main centres for censoring and repacking quarterly next-of-kin parcels, following the methods used by the British Red Cross in conjunction with the censorship authorities in England, and the first batch left New Zealand towards the end of September.
1 Invalid comforts were sent on a scale of 50 parcels to a thousand men in a camp, and 17 for each 50 beds in a hospital. Each of these groups also received one unit of medical supplies.
Meanwhile, owing to the extra time a prisoner would have to wait for his first parcel if it were sent from New Zealand, it had been arranged for the Prisoners of War Section of the High Commissioner's Office in London to pack and send an initial parcel. Moreover, since it often was some time before a prisoner's permanent camp address was known, and as the International Red Cross Committee was unable to undertake the enormous task of redirection, it was arranged that parcels from New Zealand should be sent to the section in London for this purpose. To accommodate the large volume of parcels which would have to be handled,1 extra premises were secured in Charing Cross Road. The Prisoners of War Section in London continued to arrange for monthly supplies of tobacco and cigarettes to be sent to each New Zealand prisoner, in addition to those already being sent in bulk through Geneva. It was felt that the needs for all British Commonwealth prisoners in books, games, music, sport, gardening, and education were being adequately catered for on a camp basis by the British Red Cross.
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While the general behaviour of the German medical corps towards prisoners in Greece and Crete was entirely humane, the same cannot be said of the treatment meted out either by some of their paratroops under the stress of battle or by some of those who took over the control of transit camps. The starvation which led to beriberi at Salonika, the beatings and other ill-treatment during transport to Germany, the indiscriminate shootings on Crete, are all examples of that ruthless subordination of humanity to expediency, of means to ends, with which the Nazi leaders succeeded in infecting a good number of their subordinate commanders.
1 The number of parcels handled rose from seven in December 1940 to 801 in October 1941.
1 Further details of this paper and its method and contents are given in later chapters.
Those who passed through Greece and Crete had been cheered by the fearlessness of most of the inhabitants, their sterling loyalty to the Allied cause, and their generous help to British prisoners, often in defiance of German disapproval. Yet it is hard for men to remain cheerful when they know they are rapidly losing weight, and when their bodily craving for nourishment keeps them thinking constantly of the next miserable meal. No other single factor seems to have restored morale so much as the issue of Red Cross food. Some prisoners of war, like the man who wrote in his diary for June 1941 that he could not agree with his friend's prediction that they would be ‘home by Christmas’ but that Christmas 1942 would be a reasonable hope, seem now to have been touchingly optimistic. But for most people in the heart of an enemy country during a war, cut off from the world by barbed wire and a double censorship, a realistic viewpoint is neither easy nor satisfying. For non-working prisoners, unless they were engaged on some camp duty or escape work (and not everybody could be), the days could become just ‘plain boring’. And the mood of many in this situation varied between acute depression and wild optimism, according to the food supply, a favourable turn to the war, or news from home.
The losses in prisoners of the New Zealand Division in the period from April to June 1941 gave rise in the Dominion to a widespread interest in the position of captured servicemen, and brought the authorities face to face with the problem of organising help for them on a large scale. In leading next-of-kin through the maze of labels, coupons, and lists of prohibited articles which had to be tackled each time a personal parcel was sent, and in generally interpreting the prisoner-of-war situation to relatives, the Joint Council Inquiry Office and its local branches served a most useful purpose. The decision to pack and send food parcels for prisoners gave New Zealand the opportunity to make her most appropriate contribution to the pool of relief supplies now coming from British communities in various parts of the world. The welfare of British prisoners and the custody of enemy prisoners had both become problems for the whole Commonwealth, a fact of which the practical outcome was the setting up in London of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee. For the rest of the war its two sub-committees of British and Dominion representatives were responsible for settling the vast number of administrative problems relating to British Commonwealth prisoners of war.