As I go through the process of editing the draft of my novel, a few thoughts are starting to emerge about things I need to do. Regular readers of this blog may recall that one of my central characters, Herbert, was a prisoner of war during WWII and later, when he moves into a nursing home, starts to believe he is in a POW camp (see Prisoner of Memory).
Conscious that there are so many myths about POW camps, spawned by films like Colditz and The Great Escape, I thought I’d better do a bit of research, to make sure that Herbert’s experience as revealed in the book is true to life. I’ve been reasonably reassured that I’ve not committed any howlers, but have also picked up a few details which should add a bit of texture to the novel.
As a downed airman, Herbert would have faced his greatest ordeals before he even got to the camp – that is, assuming he was one of the mere 15% of Lancaster aircrew who survived the loss of their plane. The civilian populace were understandably hostile to bomber crews, calling them Terrorflieger or Kindermorder (terror flyer, child-murderer). They might be pelted with stones or worse, beaten up or even lynched. Their troubles were not over once in the custody of the regular armed forces. Unlike the majority of allied prisoners of war, most airmen were interrogated before being sent to a permanent camp. They were not generally tortured as such, but to encourage cooperation they might subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes in cells heated to uncomfortably high temperatures. Tricks were also used to obtain information, such as fake Red Cross officials asking them to fill out forms purportedly to be sent to relatives.
Once he had been transferred to a permanent POW camp – for an airman, normally a Stalag Luft operated by the Luftwaffe – he would be relatively safe. It is an odd fact about the war that Nazi Germany, so contemptuous of international law and common decency in many other respects, did for the most part (with some significant exceptions – such as the murder of 50 of those who broke out of Stalag Luft III in the ‘great escape’) adhere to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Prisoners of War in respect of captured personnel of the western Allies (the position for Soviet prisoners was very different indeed). The Convention provided for prisoners to be treated humanely, allowed to communicate with relatives, to be given adequate food, clothing, housing and medical attention, and to receive packages of food, etc. from relatives and the International Committee of the Red Cross. As a result, only some 3.5% of British prisoners of the Germans died – compared with a quarter of British prisoners of the Japanese – and a staggering 57.5% of Soviet prisoners of Germany.
Once in their camps POWs now faced a rather different set of problems: crowded, basic living conditions, variable rations and above all, boredom. The films give us the impression that they addressed this by constant efforts to escape – and it’s true that many POWs did feel some sort of duty to do so (as does Herbert in my novel). However, only a minority were actively involved in escape attempts. A few hundred did succeed in escaping the camps, but the vast majority of these were quickly recaptured. Nor did those escapes – even the ‘great escape’ itself – have any significant impact on the war.
For all that POW camps have spawned an entire genre of exciting films, the reality of life, for the vast majority of prisoners, was one of years of separation from loved ones and undending monotony.