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Prisoners of War

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

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

Keeping track of the thousands of British prisoners who were one moment safely at camps in Italy and the next scattered over various camps in Austria and Germany, at liberty in Switzerland, or at large in Italy or Yugoslavia, suddenly provided all those agencies engaged in notification with an additional major task. Although nominal rolls were handed to the Germans for despatch to Geneva by many camp leaders, only a few names of those transferred to Germany had been received in London by early November, and the notification of these transfers had not been completed six months later. The names of several hundred New Zealanders were still outstanding at the end of the year, but these included men at large in Italy and Yugoslavia.

New Zealand prisoners of war and civilian internees were by late 1943 scattered over a good part not only of Europe but also of the Far East. The complicated task of maintaining up-to-date information about prisoners as well as escapers in Europe, and of obtaining any information at all about those in the Far East, made desirable the creation of a new central authority to receive and dissect all incoming information about New Zealanders missing or in enemy hands. At a meeting on 13 October 1943 of the appropriate service and civilian officials it was decided to set up a New Zealand Missing and Prisoner of War Agency within the existing structure of Base Records. The task of the new agency was to receive all relevant information, to verify and record it, and to distribute it without delay to the service departments concerned, for notification to next-of-kin. It was also to maintain an up-to-date card index of all New Zealanders who were missing, prisoners of war, or civilian internees. The Prisoner of War Information Bureau established at Army Headquarters was to continue to handle information regarding enemy subjects held in New Zealand.

The new agency began to operate immediately, and by the middle of the following year had taken over all its allotted functions. Thus the Prime Minister's Department, which had been acting as a clearing house for all notifications of missing and captured New Zealanders, was relieved of an ever-increasing burden of detailed work; and the delegation of this work to an already thoroughly experienced organisation assured the greatest possible speed and accuracy in notification of this type of casualty.

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Negotiations between Germany and the British Commonwealth were still delicate in the latter half of 1943 on account of the reprisal incidents of the previous year. Although shackling had been relaxed to the extent of being symbolical, and although many German officials wanted to see it at an end, they had to tread very carefully when broaching the subject with their political leaders, who still maintained an uncompromising attitude. Moreover, such relaxations as had taken place had to be kept from the notice of these leaders, for fear of a strict reimposition of the order. The importance of this was realised by prisoner-of-war camp leaders, who asked prisoners to be especially careful not to refer to these relaxations in their letters. It was also realised by Allied governments, which maintained a strict control over publicity connected with the whole question of reprisals. On 21 July 1943 the Prime Minister of New Zealand made a statement in the House of Representatives, in which, although he could not mention that shackling had become merely symbolical, he indicated that it was not so serious as it had been. The statement provoked indignant protests from distressed next-of-kin, who were still receiving letters from prisoners giving no sign of any relaxation, and much care and tact were necessary in reassuring them.

Meanwhile the Swiss Minister in Berlin and the International Red Cross Committee never ceased their efforts to arrange for the shackling order to be rescinded. In August 1943 it appeared that Hitler was the only one needing persuasion that it was desirable to terminate shackling. In early November Dr. Burchardt of the International Red Cross Committee negotiated an assurance that it would in fact cease as from the 22nd of that month, even though the order might not be rescinded. From that date it did cease, though publicity concerning this was carefully toned down; for German officials had indicated to the Swiss Minister in Berlin that any ‘malicious comment’ in the British press might be prejudicial to the interests of British prisoners.

There were other indications that the German authorities (if not their political leaders) were prepared to be conciliatory on prisoner-of-war matters. Conditions for British prisoners undergoing judicial sentences in the German military prisons had for some time up to the middle of 1943 been so rigorous that few prisoners could have stood up physically or mentally to sentences of any length. It was usual to receive only one letter and to write only one every six weeks, to receive no Red Cross or private parcels, to have no books in English, and to be allowed only half an hour's walk in the open air every day. But by late 1943 conditions at the Graudenz military prison, at least, had been improved by the permission of three food parcels a month, as a result of representations by the page 321 Protecting Power. British proposals for making the other restrictions less severe were under consideration by the German Government.

The most notable evidence of a change of heart on the part of the Germans was in the negotiations for the repatriation of sick and wounded and protected personnel. Since the fiasco of 1940, when an exchange had been stopped on the eve of its completion, Germany had remained adamant in her refusal to resume negotiations except on a basis of numerical equality. No effort had been spared by the Allied authorities through neutral channels to pave the way for a repatriation agreement. By the spring of 1943, as a result of successful operations in North Africa, the number of German prisoners in British and United States hands was sufficient to persuade the German Foreign Minister that it was worth while, and Germany made a proposal which became the starting point of successful negotiations. This time there was consultation between Britain and the United States1 before the agreement was finalised. Britain wished the exchange to include protected personnel in order to make the German numbers nearly equal with the British, for fear that, if they were not, there might be as before a last-minute breakdown in arrangements; and the United States, though at first opposed to any additional complications, agreed. In its final form the exchange agreement also included civilians and merchant navy prisoners. Great care was taken to see that the success of the project was not prejudiced by premature or excessive press publicity.

The fact that no exchange agreement could be reached with the German authorities until 1943 had not prevented the examination at regular intervals by Mixed Medical Commissions in Germany of those cases put forward by Allied prisoner-of-war doctors as eligible for repatriation. These medical officers sometimes had a difficult task in selecting the most deserving cases, and in dissuading well-intentioned would-be escapers from trying to take a place in a repatriation draft which might give a very sick man his only chance of recovery. Over fifty of the men passed by the earlier Mixed Medical Commissions died in captivity before the end of 1942, and to many it seemed as if the whole business was doomed to failure. Prisoners selected for repatriation became more and more sceptical as the months dragged on without result, and they resigned themselves to seeing the war out in a prison camp.

But in late October 1943 camps received the order for these men to move. Some of them have recorded their incredulity and elation,

1 Representatives of the United States Embassy and military authorities in the United Kingdom attended meetings of the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee Sub-Committee A from its twenty-eighth meeting on 29 October 1943 onwards. British representatives in Washington attended similar meetings there.

page 322 and have described the details of packing, farewells, final search by the German Abwehr, and the march to the railway station for those who could manage it. Then followed a journey by rail and sea to the ports of exchange, Gothenburg and Barcelona. Most of the New Zealanders travelled by comfortable hospital train to Marseilles and thence by the Italian hospital ship Aquileia to Barcelona, where the majority of the Dominion personnel were to be exchanged. The exchange took place there on 27 October, the sick and wounded leaving in the hospital ship Tairea and the protected personnel in the Cuba. During the voyage the repatriates were supplied with comforts by the British Red Cross, and after their arrival at Alexandria on 3 November the New Zealanders were looked after in that respect by the New Zealand Red Cross organisation in the Middle East. The 390-odd New Zealanders expressed their appreciation of the efforts of the Red Cross on their behalf since their capture by a donation of £1815 to the funds of the New Zealand organisation.

Further repatriation parties, mainly men from the United Kingdom and United States but including eight New Zealanders, were brought from Gothenburg in the Atlantis, the Empress of Russia, and the Drottningholm. The International Red Cross Committee had supervised the operations at both Barcelona and Gothenburg, which had taken place simultaneously and had involved the exchange of over 5000 British and United States prisoners for over 5000 Germans.1

The British repatriates brought practically the first eye-witness evidence of the treatment of prisoners in Germany, and Military Intelligence reports based on their statements added considerably to the information already collated from escapers, from letters, and from neutral reports. No time was lost in embarking the Army repatriates for New Zealand, since manpower conditions in New Zealand were such that every available man was required either for service with the Army or in some other sphere.

1 The total of New Zealanders exchanged at Barcelona and Gothenburg was 395 (169 sick and wounded and 226 protected personnel).