Regardless of whether you were fighting for the Allies or the Axis, there was a danger of being captured, and subsequently becoming a Prisoner of War (or ‘POW’). It is generally agreed that conditions were overall better for Axis POWs captured by the Allies than for Allies captured by the Axis. Red Cross parcels, flown over to Axis POW camps, were intended to help ease the problem of hunger for the captured servicemen. Food supplies for POWs in German camps varied in portions and quality depending on how well the Germans were doing, so the theory was that the Red Cross parcels would provide an extra 1,000 calories a day. This was, however, not always achieved in practice. When in short supply, prisoners fought over parcels, but many of them found ways to transport some of the Red Cross goods over to Soviet POWs or even the concentration camps (Levine, 2000: 85). Condensed milk cans sent over by the Red Cross were used for cooking, and later by prisoners in escape attempts. This tactic was used during ‘The Great Escape’ from Stulag Luft III in 1944, in which there were 76 escapees, 73 of whom were captured, and 50 executed (Carroll, 2010: 279). However, escapes were not common, with most prisoners deciding that a bid for freedom was not worth the risk of execution, especially as it became more and more apparent as the war progressed that the Allies were going to win. “Dedicated escapees were a minority, and most men consumed their energy in day-to-day survival” (Levine, 2000: 82).
A primary problem for the majority of Western POWs was boredom: “Prisoners led a monotonous existence, so dull and empty that it was aptly characterised by one veteran who declared that he always subtracted the four years he had spent in prison camps from his age; he felt he had not really lived those years” (Levine, 2000: 82). To combat the boredom, many activities and ‘diversions’ were arranged, based on what the guards at each camp could provide – “some camps put on plays and burlesques, occasionally with POWs and guards interacting. Many others held classes in whatever fields of expertise were on hand, from accounting to ornithology to zoology and languages” (Zabecki, 1999: 1249). Life in a POW camp was still unpleasant despite this, with no room for oneself or personal freedom: “In practically all camps, throughout the war, living conditions were crude and crowded; there was no privacy, and the camps stank” (Levine, 2000: 84). Morale was often very low, despite the impression given in films such as ‘The Great Escape’, and few prisoners were at all provocative towards the guards – of those who did push their luck, most were British (Levine, 2000: 87).
Interrogations never amounted to much, since few POWs knew anything of any worth for the enemy. Questioning by the Germans upon imprisonment was usually limited to one’s name, rank, and service number. Very few instances of this progressed to a formal interrogation: “Usually these were quick affairs, over in a matter of minutes. POWs usually gave up what they knew after a few simple, direct questions” (Zabecki, 1999: 1248). The German guards learned quickly that physical torture during questioning did not yield any results, serving only to breed resentment amongst prisoners. The brutality of punishments also fluctuated over the course of the war, and was, of course, dependent on the individual guards inflicting them. “Isolation from fellow POWs was a common punishment for minor infractions. Execution was also common for assaulting or killing guards, or for unsuccessful escape attempts” (Zabecki, 1999: 1249).
Allied POWs captured by Axis were, by and large, treated in accordance with Geneva Convention (a peacetime agreement compiled in Switzerland in 1929), but only if they were Western; Soviet and Eastern European POWs were treated with intense cruelty. “The Nazis did not care how many Poles were killed” (Levine, 2000: 85). A very small proportion of Western Allies were sent to concentration camps – with the suspicion of their being Jewish just one of many different ‘reasons’ given – but Communist ‘spies’ or ‘informants’ were prime targets for such punishment. Out of an estimated 5.7 million Soviet POWs captured by the Germans, 3.3 million died in captivity. In 1944, the course of war began to change drastically, and it became clearer that Germany was losing the war. As a result, Soviet POWs were moved inward towards Germany on what were known as ‘Death Marches’. Many of the prisoners died during the marches because of poor conditions and/or exhaustion, or were shot along the way.
More than 140,000 Western POWs were captured by Japanese during World War Two, and these unlucky servicemen were exposed to some of the most extreme and inhumane treatment that occurred during the war. Japanese traditions viewed surrender as weak and dishonourable, and so the Japanese forces did not consider POWs worthy of their mercy. They had little to no regard for the Geneva Convention, treating the prisoners exactly how they pleased. POWs captured by Japan suffered similar brutality as Holocaust victims, such as horrific medical experiments, enforced cannibalism, forced labour, and murder. Starvation was a huge issue, with a maximum intake of 600 calories per day for the prisoners. No Red Cross parcels made their way to the POWs. Many died during the building of the infamous Burma-Thailand railway, which stretched some 260 miles. “The railway, which would link Thailand to Burma and would enable Japan to reinforce its Burma garrison over land, eventually took the lives of some sixteen thousand Allied prisoners, who fell to starvation, abuse, and disease.” (Charles, 2006:10) After the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the repatriation of POWs was a slow and complicated affair, with many servicemen not arriving home until well into 1946.
Whilst the Allies are generally regarded as demonstrating more humane treatment of POWs, there were some instances of ill-treatment. The Dachau Massacre is one example of this: the U.S. soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau executed all SS personnel found on site, even though they were allegedly surrendering. Upon their arrival at the camp, the American soldiers had been reduced to tears at the sight of dead, destroyed bodies discarded around the site, and so there are arguments to suggest that the murders were triggered by an intense anger and distress upon discovering the conditions in the camp: “the American soldiers were completely unprepared for what they saw when they first entered Dachau concentration camp” (Marcuse 2001: 50). Generally, however, POWs held by the Americans enjoyed the greatest level of comfort of any POWs: “The German, Austrian, Italian, and Japanese prisoners of war who were held in American hands during World War II experienced the best treatment of any nation’s prisoners in that conflict or probably any other” (Krammer, 2008: 58).
German prisoners captured by the Red Army suffered greatly; approximately 91,000 were captured at end of Battle of Stalingrad but few returned home, being sent instead for work in labour camps. At the end of war, POWs are usually repatriated swiftly , which was relatively straightforward for Allied POWs in Germany. “Axis POWs, however, were not so lucky, some being held in forced labour until 1948” (Zabecki, 1999: 1250).
“This struggle has nothing to do with soldierly chivalry or the regulations of the Geneva Conventions.” Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.
- Carroll, T., (2010), The Great Escape from Stulag Luft III: the Full Story of How 76 Allied Officers Carried Out World War II’s Most Remarkable Mass Escape. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
- Charles, H., (2006), Last Man Out: Surviving the Burma-Thailand Death Railway: A Memoir. Minnesota: MBI Publishing Company.
- Krammer, A., (2008), Prisoners of War: a Reference Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.
- Levine, A., (2000), Captivity, Flight, and Survival in World War Two. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group Inc.
- Marcuse, H., (2001), Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Towle, P., (ed.), (2000), Japanese Prisoners of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Zabecki, D., (1999), World War Two in Europe: an Encyclopedia. (Volume 1). Abingdon: Routledge.
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