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Prisoners of War

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

IV: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

The machinery of negotiation on behalf of prisoners of war had now assumed the form which, broadly, it retained for the remainder of the war. In London the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee co-ordinated the views of the British and Dominion governments on prisoner-of-war matters as they arose; the British service Ministries, especially the War Office, worked out the details of their application; and the Foreign Office communicated them to the Protecting Power for action or transmission to the German Government. The British Home Office similarly co-ordinated matters relating to civilian internees, and they were similarly communicated.

Besides making representations on our behalf the Protecting Power, as well as the International Red Cross Committee, acted as our informants on conditions in prisoner-of-war and internment camps. There were other sources of information—prisoners' letters, accounts by escapers or repatriates, sometimes giving aspects not page 147 obvious to a visiting inspector; but the reports of the experienced observers of the United States Embassy and the International Red Cross Committee remained, on the whole, the most thorough and reliable. Many of the letters of complaint written by camp leaders, even though addressed to these neutral agencies, were not being sent on by the detaining power but merely marked ‘not necessary’ or ‘not of interest’; so that the three-monthly visits, although felt to be infrequent enough, were essential even to gain an uncensored version of the prisoners' view of the situation. When in December 1941 the United States became a belligerent, Switzerland took over her duties as Protecting Power for British interests in both Germany and Italy.

As the result of our losses in the Libyan campaign, considerable numbers of British and Imperial prisoners were for the first time transported across the Mediterranean for detention in Italy. The torpedoing of the Jantzen, though so far the only such incident involving New Zealanders, was not the first occasion on which ships conveying prisoners had been lost or damaged at sea; and in February 1942 the International Red Cross Committee was led to propose to the belligerents safety measures for minimising these dangers. It suggested the use of sea transport only for imperative reasons, a special recognition signal for ships carrying prisoners of war, and adequate provision of lifebelts and boats; if possible these ships were to sail in the company of other vessels capable of picking up survivors. But practical difficulties in the way of these measures and dangers of their abuse prevented any basis of agreement being reached.

Reference has already been made to the agreement reached between the British and Italian governments regarding the treatment of protected personnel, and especially regarding their repatriation.1 The German Government maintained that the 1929 Sick and Wounded Convention2 gave them the right to decide which protected personnel were to be repatriated on the grounds that their services were not required for the care of their fellow prisoners; and the rather loose wording of the relevant Articles in this Convention certainly made such an interpretation possible. There was thus little action that could be taken other than insisting that protected personnel should receive the extra letter-cards and walks on parole3 to which their status entitled them, and establishing

1 See p. 125.

2 Convention for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded in Armies in the Field, signed at Geneva in 1929.

3 They were entitled by bilateral agreements between belligerents to twice the number of letters and cards given to ordinary prisoners. The number was fixed with the Italian Government in December 1941 as two letters and two cards a week.

page 148 with detaining authorities the identity of British protected personnel in their hands, by forwarding lists and Red Cross identity certificates to those who had lost them.

Notification of capture had during this period begun to operate smoothly and expeditiously, and it was decided not to send any one to Geneva to report on the working of the system. Instead of the International Red Cross cables going direct to New Zealand, however, they were sent to the High Commissioner's Office in London, whence they were sent on to Wellington, any corrections being cabled later. This involved a delay of only a few hours and effected a considerable saving in cable costs.1 The International Red Cross Committee had arranged with the Italians for the Ufficio Prigioneri di Guerra in Rome to telegraph all captures to the Central agency in Geneva, which passed them simultaneously to London and to their delegation in Cairo so that they could inform the military authorities there. Only twenty-four hours elapsed from the time the message left Geneva until it had been checked by our Army Records and was ready to send on to New Zealand. This plan worked with the same efficiency that had been attained in notifications from Germany, but Italian notice of transfers to permanent camps was unsatisfactory ‘owing to the notorious inadequacy of the information given by the Italian military authorities’ to the Bureau in Rome. In addition the Vatican City broadcast lists of the names of prisoners of war and also transmitted by wireless through the papal delegate in Australia short messages between prisoners and their next-of-kin. By May 1942 over 6000 New Zealanders had been officially notified as prisoners of war.

Pay for our officers and other ranks while in enemy hands had from an early stage of the war been the subject of much discussion in Sub-Committee B of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee and of the exchange of a considerable number of notes between the British and both the German and Italian governments. Article 23 of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929 laid it down that officer prisoners were entitled to receive in captivity the pay of their equivalent rank in the army of the detaining power, provided this did not exceed the rate paid by their own country. In Italy the rates paid were high compared with those in Germany (though not as high as the British), and it was found that there was often an insufficient balance left in officers' home accounts to provide

1 A saving of 5s 7d a word.

page 149 for their dependants, or even to pay necessary expenses such as subscriptions and insurance premiums.1

As reciprocal free messing had been agreed to, and as the amenities provided by Italy in 1940 and early 1941 were good, it was felt that extra pocket-money was not needed there. The British Government accordingly suggested a considerable reduction in rates of pay for officers of all three services.2 A corresponding reduction of the pay granted to the large numbers of Italian officers in British hands would also effect considerable saving in public expenditure. For the same reasons, and also because so little could be bought in German canteens, a similar suggestion was made to the German Government. Both countries in reply indicated their willingness for a reduction in the rates paid to British officers in their hands but not in those paid to their own prisoners in British hands. As messing in Germany was free and their rates were not greatly in excess of our own, it was decided to let the suggestion to Germany drop.

The problem in Italy was more difficult. It was soon established that in Campo PG 78 at Sulmona officers had always had to pay not only for their food and fuel but also for all mess equipment and replacements. A steady rise in prices had raised an officer's mess bill from 420 lire (about £5 14s.) in August 1941 to 630 lire (about £8 15s.) in January 1942.3 Furthermore, the slowness in arrival of tobacco and clothing parcels and the breakdown in the deliveries of food parcels often necessitated local purchases over and above this amount. The same position obtained in other camps in early 1942. Many officers would not buy the extra fruit and sweets that would to some extent have compensated for the meagre diet supplied by the Italians, for fear of exhausting their pay balances through the exorbitant prices charged. In order to relieve their position it was found necessary at Campo PG 38, Poppi, for example, to agree at a mess meeting that messing charges

1 The comparative rates of pay for officers were:

Italian (basic ?)German (basic ?)British (basic)New Zealand (inclusive)
Second-Lieutenant£10 8s 4d£4 16s£16£24 15s
Lieutenant£13 3s 11d£5 8s£26 5s
Captain£15 5s 7d£6 8s£31 10s
Major£18 1s 2d£7 4s£41 5s
Lieutenant-Colonel£19 8s 11d£8 0s£57 10s
At these rates a second-lieutenant prisoner in Italy would have only £5 10s a month left in his home account. The Italian Government had agreed in principle to remittances of pay to the prisoner's home country, but no definite arrangements had been made.

2 The rates suggested were: Subalterns, £3 a month; Captains, £4 a month; Majors and over, £5 a month. It should be noted that both in Germany and Italy pay took the form not of local currency but of coupons redeemable at a prisoner-of-war camp canteen.

3 It will be seen that the exchange rate of 72 lire to the £ sterling was no longer realistic.

page 150 should be on a sliding scale proportionate to rank. In May Sub-Committee B agreed that a messing allowance of three shillings a day should be credited to the home account of each British Commonwealth officer in Italy.

No provision was made in the Geneva Convention of 1929 for the pay of other rank prisoners, but merely for their remuneration for any work they did for the detaining power. In Germany full advantage was taken of this, and in order to secure the necessary funds for essential canteen purchases such as tooth powder, or for airmail charges, the prisoners were forced to work, even if as NCOs they were exempt. The net pay for most work in Germany was 0·70 Reichmarks (about 11d) daily, though special rates were paid for some special types of work; and this was thought to be adequate for out-of-pocket expenses. For those in Italian hands an agreement had been made with the Italian Government for advances of pocket-money, as distinct from earnings,1 commencing from 1 October 1941 at the rate of seven lire (1s 11d) a week to corporals and below and ten lire (2s 9d) a week to those over this rank. A proposal for similar reciprocal rates had been made to the German Government in June 1941, but the latter had rejected it on the ground that the rates were too low. As they had, however, agreed in principle to the remittance home of prisoners' credit balances, a second proposal with higher rates was made to them. The pay for those in Italian hands seemed on the face of it to be sufficient in view of the fact that the Italian Government was supplying food, clothing, and tobacco. In point of fact, as has been seen, these were all on an inadequate scale, and additional funds in the period at the end of 1941 and beginning of 1942, before the flow of relief parcels properly began, would have made things a good deal easier.

1 At this stage almost no British prisoners in Italy were employed on outside jobs, but merely on camp or construction fatigue work.