Q: Everyone hears a lot about how Germany and Japan treated captured enemy troops. But what happened to German and Italian POW’s captured by the British and United States? Where did they keep them? How did they live? I’d ask the same about Japanese troops but they really didn’t surrender that much.
– Tara, Pretoria South Africa
You got that right, it was anathema for Japanese soldiers to surrender. It is estimated only 19,500 to 50,000 Japanese troops surrendered to the Allies prior to Japanese capitulation at wars end. It pales in comparison to the Axis troops that surrendered in the 100,000’s at various engagements during the war in Europe.
The experience of Axis troops being held as POWs depended on which of the Allies took them prisoners and when they were taken during the war. From an official standpoint, POWs were the responsibility of the nation whose military accepted their surrender. Therefore, if a prisoner was captured by the British, US or Soviets, it was those nations responsibility to assume the cost of those prisoners captivity. These factors lead to widely varying experience for POWs, for better and worse.
Axis POWs held by the British in the UK
The British, the longest participant in the war among the Grand Alliance, did not take a significant number of German and Italian POWs until late 1942 and early 1943. It was during that time the British and United States did the lion share of fighting, leading to Germany and Italy’s expulsion from North Africa. This first significant wave of POWs began at the British victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942, culminating with the Axis surrender in Tunisia in May 1943. Consequently the Western Allies captured over 350,000 Axis troops.
Prior to that time, POWs in British captivity were mostly comprised of downed Luftwaffe airmen from the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Other prisoners included captured U-Boat crews taken by the Royal Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic, and the Italian 10th Army prisoners following Mussolini’s misadventure invading Egypt from Libya in 1940.
Though Axis prisoners could end up in the UK during the war, as some did, another option the British pursued was sending POWs to Canada.
Canada was a British dominion, and it too fought the Axis powers from the conflict’s onset. Additionally, the dominion proved a desirable location for POW captivity. Canada was an enormous landmass far from the war that was never threatened in a significant way – save possibly the Japanese capture of the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
Still, maintaining POWs anywhere was a tall order for the resource strained British Empire and the battered British Isles themselves.
Therefore as another avenue to ease British burden, when the US entered the war against Germany, the British negotiated an agreement with the Americans to keep some of their captured Axis POW’s in the United States.
The agreement stipulated that those prisoners taken by the British were still officially the responsibility of the UK – but would be kept in the US until the end of hostilities. After which time they were shipped back to Britain, and the prisoners experience continued from there.
Like those prisoners that were officially the responsibility of the US, many British prisoners were shipped across the Atlantic to ports on both the east and west coasts. Once in the continental US, prisoners were sent by train to their assigned camps.
Axis POWs held in the United States
During the US participation in the war, there were no less than 400,000 Axis prisoners kept in the continental US at its height. POW camps dotted the map from coast to coast, mainly in areas a fair distance from major metropolitan areas.
The US was well suited for this role in ways the UK simply could not be, despite their lack of preparation and experience in keeping POWs. America could generally afford to properly keep that many prisoners. The size of the country made escape and return to Axis lines impossible, and, unlike the UK, the US had not been blown to pieces from German bombing.
The comparative conditions of captivity for POWs kept in the UK and those kept in the US were not terribly dissimilar. Both were signatories of the Geneva Convetion, and did their best to meet that standard. The biggest difference between the two many times boiled down to the resources of the nations keeping them.
In the UK, civil food rationing had been rigorously exercised for years and could hardly be given to mouths of their captured enemy at the expense of their own people. Nor were there many excess materials to build and maintain POW camps.
During the initial phase of the war, the British used vacant estates and mansions throughout Britain to hold their German and Italian captives. It was a solution that could not however accommodate the flood of prisoners captured later in the war.
The United Stated initially experienced similar problems regarding lack of POW camps, but to a much lesser degree. They were issues the US quickly overcame.
Camps in the US scrupulously maintained the standards outlined in the Geneva Conventions for prisoner facilities. From proper living space to food rations, and conduct by their captors, the rules were closely observed. Many camps were newly constructed and specifically designed for the purpose of keeping POWs.
Most prisoners that were kept in either the US and UK generally recalled favorable experiences. POWs kept in the US thought the experience to greatly exceed their expectations. Though given the treatment by Germans toward many of their captured prisoners, the bar was very low.
It is well noted that some German troops were taken aback by luxury of the Pullman railcars in which they rode to their destinations following arrival. Some even commented that when they saw cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago for the first time, showcasing US industrial capacity at work, they knew the war was lost for Germany. All this was in addition to the amazement of being in a country totally untouched by frontline fighting or aerial bombardment.
Everyday life for Axis troops kept in the US once again was dictated by Geneva Convention standards. Once in the US and at their location of permanent detainment, enlisted prisoners would work in any number of ways, and officers could choose to work if they wished.
Prisoner labor often included a great deal of agricultural work for private citizens open and willing to take them on. Those who took on POW labor would pay the US government for the prisoners services, helping to offset the government’s cost detaining them. Prisoners themselves were paid for their labor, equivalent to their military rank for the rank of the nation’s keeping them in captivity. For example, if a prisoner were a German corporal, they would recieve the same amount paid to a corporal in the US Army.
Aside from work, prisoners were allowed to take up many different activities. Most camps had competitive sports leagues, libraries, could earn education credit for completing college correspondent courses, and much more. There were even instances of granting prisoners limited liberty in local towns once a certain amount of mutual trust was established.
The inner workings of the camps were often organized by the prisoners themselves. Officers and NCO’s assumed the role of leadership they held in their own militaries ranks. Most prisoners took pride in being able to organize and discipline themselves within the barbed wire fences.
That isn’t to say there weren’t problems that arose from prisoners. There were definitely segments of the prisoner population that continued to cherish Nazi values, secretly celebrated Hitler’s birthday, and would abuse those they felt were too cozy or open to their captors. Those prisoners believed to be particularly problematic, such as staunch Nazi’s, were transferred to facilities to keep them specifically.
More surprising yet was that over time, many prisoners developed positive relationships with those they worked for, and the communities they worked in. As one might initially expect, many Americans were frightened at the prospects of having so many enemy prisoners being kept in the US mainland. Yet this seemed to wane with time, and friendships did flourish between wartime enemies.
Axis German POWs and the Proccess of Denazification
During the captivity of German POW’s, the Allies took the opportunity to try and re educate their prisoners to break them from their Nazi totalitarian norm. The Allies effort in re education was most poignant when showing footage of the extermination camps uncovered during the Allied advance into Germany. It was a jarring experience for many German captives, and was a hallmark of their time in Allied captivity. Denazification was considered critical by the Allies to help build a successful democratic post-war Germany, and was a major step on the prisoners long journey home.
Axis POWs Post-War Repatriation
The issue of post-war repatriation was a major issue in Britain. The Geneva Conventions directed that all POWs were to be repatriated to their country of origin at wars end. However significant repatriation did not occur in earnest for prisoners under British jurisdiction until 1948.
The Clement Atlee Labour government in power after the July 1945 General Election was managing a serious manpower shortage in agriculture and reconstruction projects after six years of war. Therefore the British were in dire need of the labor that prisoners provided.
Many times official British prisoners being kept in the US by agreement were shipped from the US to Britain in late 1945, and then kept in the UK to perform these tasks. Eventually the Atlee government conformed to public pressure to repatriate Axis prisoners.
Keeping all this in mind, Axis POWs were not all a matter of the operational, and resource intensive demands of their internment. Nor the politics regarding their repatriation to Europe. POWs had considerable value to the Allies far beyond the labor they could provide.
Axis POWs Unwittingly Providing Critical Wartime Intelligence to the Allies
Holding POWs was not all just a matter of the operational concerns regarding their interment, it also had very tangible benefits beyond prisoner labor. When capturing high level officers, their ability to provide intelligence during interrogations could prove vital. However the Allies never just took prisoners at their word, they were also quite interested in what prisoners were discussing on their own time.
The most prominent wartime example is the work of MI19, the British secret service arm that bugged POWs living facilities.
Nor did MI19 place recording devices in prisoners personal quarters alone; they exhaustively outfitted entire camps with microphones. This practice is most well known for its role recording high ranking officers languishing at Trent Park. Trent Park was then an empty British estate once owned by the Sassoon family toward the north of London.
Over the course of the war, especially as the British began taking more POWs, MI19’s eavesdropping cultivated a myriad of vital intelligence. As well as gaining a clearer picture of Nazi genocide.
When MI19 transcripts were declassified by the British government long after the war, the contents were filled with prisoner talk of how the Germans were thinking about the war, and the high ranking officers impressions of Hitler himself. They also unwittingly divulged significant information about the German wonder weapons, specifically the V1 and V2 rocket development at Peenemünde.
Yet it was their unconscionable accounts of the holocaust that proved most disturbing. Prisoners spoke about everything from the Einsatzgruppen in the East, to whispers of the extermination camps. The information gathered from these recordings secretly informed a great deal of post-war tribunals, such as those at Nuremberg. Though the recordings were never officially submitted as evidence. Needless to say, should one possess anything less than an iron stomach, the transcripts are a very difficult read.
Axis POWs held in the Soviet Union: A Footnote
While this question specifically asked about POW’s in American and British hands, it is important to at least note the experience of those prisoners taken by the Red Army.
If Axis troops were taken prisoner by the Soviets while fighting on the Eastern Front, it was a very different and harsher scenario compared to the US and Britain. Axis prisoners were used as forced labor, had very poor living conditions, and most were not repatriated to Germany or other former Axis nations until the early 1950’s – no less than six or seven years after the wars end. Long story short, those Axis POWs taken by either the US or the British were considered among the very lucky few.
“The Barbed-Wire College: Reeducating German POWs in the United States during World War II” by Rob Rabin
“Men in German Uniform: POWs in America during World War II” by Antonio Thompson
“The Germans we Kept” Timewatch, BBC
“Bugging Hitler’s Soldiers” Secrets of the Dead, PBS
Want to hear more from Paul K. DiCostanzo? Listen to his D-Day interview on KFAB 1110AM about if the D-Day Invasion Failed with Gary Sadlemyer!
Do you have a WW2 question? Then email the Brain Bucket!
Write to Paul K. DiCostanzo at email@example.com