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German POWs

The History Press

By February 26, 2015No Comments

My blog post about German prisoners of war in britain during WW2 is now available on the History Press website:

Here’s a sample of the text – and on the History Press blog there are several photos from the book.

In 1945, when the war in Europe came to a close, 150,000 German prisoners were already being held behind barbed wire in POW camps in Britain. Most had arrived within the previous twelve months, following Allied gains after the D-Day invasion.

But the end of hostilities did not mean that the Germans were to be immediately sent home. On the contrary, the last ones to be repatriated would not see their own country until the end of 1948 – more than two-and-a-half years after war’s end. In fact, their numbers increased in 1946, when a further 130,000 were brought to the UK from North America, where they had been held on Britain’s behalf.*

Britain had several reasons for wishing to keep the prisoners. Most importantly, they provided an indispensable workforce – especially in agriculture. The nation had been forced to double its agricultural output during the war, and the German prisoners accounted for 25 to 50 per cent of all agricultural labour across the country. Others were employed clearing bomb-sites and helping to rebuild the nation’s shattered infrastructure.

British politicians believed that while the Germans were still in the UK they might as well be taught to reject the Nazi doctrine they had grown up with and converted into peace-loving democrats. “Re-education” – as it was called – met with some success, though it was later acknowledged to have been a hopelessly over-ambitious plan, with results that were seen as “patchy and qualified”.

A distinct shift in public attitudes towards the prisoners became apparent as time passed. Residents of Chatham, Kent, protested at first when they learned that a POW camp was to be built near their homes. But when prisoners were allowed in late 1946 to mix with the public, many of the same local families invited the Germans to their homes for Christmas.

POWs engaged in agriculture frequently lived as part of the farmer’s household: to his dying day, one former prisoner referred to the farmer and his wife as “my English parents”. And the prisoners quickly gained a reputation for being industrious and reliable: ‘We felt that working is good for you,’ one German said. ‘We met the farmers, we met English people and liked them as human beings and there were often really friendly relationships. And we didn’t want to let the farmers down so we worked hard.’

[* The final count was just over 400,000 POWs, which includes 120,000 others, not mentioned above, who arrived between the end of the war and 1946, when prisoners from the USA were shipped to Britain].


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