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Prisoners of War

IV: Organisation of Relief for Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

IV: Organisation of Relief for Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees

At the beginning of the war British nationals in German hands depended almost entirely on the British Red Cross for all the little comforts that made life in captivity more bearable; later they were to depend on its relief supplies very largely for the essential elements of their survival. The British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem had acted jointly in carrying out relief for prisoners of war, missing, and wounded in the 1914–18 War, and the War Organisation then set up had remained alive in the interwar period in the form of a committee which cared for the disabled. Acting on this experience of the First World War, it formed in September 1939 an Emergency Committee, which organised a Prisoners of War, Wounded, and Missing Department. This Department was approved by the British service authorities in October as the body through which parcels might be sent to British prisoners of war. It began its work, including the packing of parcels, in St. James's Palace, which the King had placed at its disposal as a headquarters.

The Department's original plan of relief for each prisoner comprised an ‘initial parcel’ containing personal clothing and necessities for the period immediately after capture; three eleven-pound food parcels each fortnight; an eleven-pound ‘personal parcel’ every quarter in which relatives could send articles and medical comforts; and bread parcels, though these were soon discontinued because of the time taken in transit. All parcels were at this stage addressed to individual prisoners1 in accordance with Article 372 of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention, and so could not be sent off until the British Red Cross had received notification from the War Office of the prisoner's place of detention. However, in October 1939, at the request of the Air Ministry, some initial parcels were sent off to Geneva by air, for distribution to captured airmen as soon as the International Red Cross Committee should learn their locations. They were followed by food, invalid comforts and warm clothing, including some personal kit, and the first of them reached the prisoners within a month. This was the beginning of a service which was to continue until the end of the war, though later on parcels usually took very much longer to arrive. As the war progressed, the British Red Cross parcel service became a vital factor in the health and welfare of all British subjects in enemy lands.

1 Collective consignments as envisaged in Articles 43 and 78 were not started until later in the war.

2 Article 37 reads: ‘Prisoners of war shall be authorised to receive individually postal parcels containing foodstuffs and other articles intended for consumption or clothing. The parcels shall be delivered to the addressees and a receipt given.’

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Early in the war the British Government stipulated that all food parcels should be sent through the British Red Cross, which devoted considerable effort to devising an optimum content for a standard parcel.1 It is laid down in Article 11 of the 1929 Geneva Convention that ‘the food ration of prisoners of war shall be equivalent in quality and quantity to that of depot troops.’ But it was taken for granted that, even if this provision were adhered to, differences between the prisoners' own normal diet and that of the nation holding them might justify making the despatch of food parcels a first priority. The first letters from prisoners in Germany, especially other ranks, left no doubt of their need for supplementary food.

The remainder of the British Red Cross relief plans quickly took practical shape. An Invalid Comforts Section was set up in October to provide medical supplies and invalid foods for sick and wounded prisoners. A reserve of greatcoats was established at Geneva, to be sent on by the International Red Cross Committee to each newly-captured prisoner, and an initial parcel2 was sent as soon as the name and location of the prisoner was received. Relatives were then asked to let the British Red Cross have any items of clothing that they wished to send. If nothing was forthcoming, another parcel3 containing clothing and toilet necessities was sent off. Limited by the British Government to one every three months, these parcels, some of which contained gifts from relatives, were the beginning of what came to be known later as ‘next-of-kin parcels’. From December 1939 these were all sent through the British Red Cross, for the postal censorship authorities asked the latter to undertake the examination of all parcels from relatives. Cigarettes and tobacco too could only be sent ‘under Red Cross label’, and so were at first included in every food parcel. Although the original relief plans included books to enable men to study while in captivity, transport difficulties delayed their despatch. But early in 1940 an attempt was being made to determine the precise educational needs of each camp so that a scheme could be worked out to cater for all.4

No serious difficulty arose at this stage over the transport of all these parcels: the General Post Office accepted them for transmission by post, and they were shipped to Ostend and through neutral Belgium into Germany. At the beginning of the war,

1 The estimated number of British prisoners before the battle in France was 1500 from all Commonwealth countries. Even when prisoners were as few as this, the items were analysed by a dietitian and approved by Lord Dawson of Penn as comprising the right proportions of starch, protein and sugar to keep a man in health.

2 Contents of an initial parcel: vest, pants, shirt, scarf, pyjamas, jersey, balaclava, socks (3 pairs), mittens, handkerchiefs (4), boots or blanket.

3 Contents of the second parcel: vest, pants, shirt, pyjamas, slippers, braces, socks (2 pairs), towels (2), handkerchiefs (2), boots or blanket.

4 From the beginning of the war the World Alliance of YMCAs, the IRCC, and other bodies in Switzerland all sent books to prisoners of war and civilian internees.

page 14 therefore, the maintenance of a steady flow of relief to prisoners of war in Germany was as simple as it had been through Holland in the First World War. But the events of succeeding months made it necessary to provide relief on a scale not before experienced nor foreseen. Moreover the German occupation of the Continent so complicated the transportation of these relief consignments that it created a supply problem of major proportions.

In New Zealand the Joint Council of the Red Cross and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem,1 which had been in existence since 1934, followed the example set by the equivalent joint body in England. It formed a War Committee soon after the outbreak of war along the lines of the War Organisation formed by the Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in England. In November 1939 it cabled the British organisation for advice on how it could best assist. To help co-ordinate the national war effort and to prevent waste and overlapping, the Patriotic Purposes Emergency Regulations (introduced by the New Zealand Government in October 1939) had placed the raising and spending of all funds for patriotic purposes in the hands of a national advisory body.2 The National Patriotic Fund Board, in whose hands was placed the administration of all moneys raised under this scheme, appointed the Joint Council one of its collecting agents. It also appointed it the sole agent for expending funds on behalf of sick and wounded, prisoners of war, and civilians in distress as a result of hostile action. Although no organised campaign for funds was launched until May 1940, some sixty cases of clothing were forwarded to overseas Red Cross organisations for the relief of refugees on the Continent and evacuees to the United Kingdom, and some parcels were also sent for prisoners of war.

Considerable detail has been given in order to show that from the first a number of governmental and other agencies were watching over the welfare of those in captivity and taking steps to ensure that relief supplies reached them. There was also the problem of coping with the requests of their relatives and friends. Prisoners and internees were at times worried about their own situation; but many of their relatives and friends, especially those on the other side of the world from the war theatres, were in a more or less constant state of anxiety. Many of them felt they could visualise the life of their son or husband on active service, but his possible fate as a prisoner was, in the early stages of the war, something unknown and frightening. For relatives the initial shock of receiving a ‘missing’ notification (however tactfully

1 For the sake of brevity this will be referred to in the text as the New Zealand Joint Council, or simply the Joint Council.

2 With eleven provincial branches.

page 15 worded) often gave way to a period of mingled depression and hope, during which they tried every expedient to get information. People wrote to the ‘Red Cross’, to their Member of Parliament, to the High Commissioner in London, to the Prime Minister in Wellington. Often all that could be done was to send a sympathetic and reassuring answer, for it was at first some time before any definite information could be given, owing to the long delays in official notifications of capture. Relatives and friends of a civilian in an enemy country had a similar period of anxiety in the early days of the war, until welfare reports came through from either the Protecting Power or the International Red Cross Committee.

Official news that a man was a prisoner of war and in good health did something to relieve the anxiety of relatives about his safety, but could not prevent further anxiety about his future welfare. Relatives and friends often pictured him as continually hungry, cold, and comfortless; and they wanted to know what food, clothes, books, tobacco and money they could send. Knowledge that the British Red Cross was catering for his immediate needs, though reassuring, did not weaken their desire to make their own personal contributions, or at least to do something practical to help. As the war progressed, the Joint Council harnessed this desire to the war relief effort, by inviting relatives and friends to help on local committees and parcel packing organisations. Such work often had a value beyond the number of man-hours supplied towards war relief. For many of those who took part felt less despondent and frustrated once they became engaged in practical tasks which they knew would be of use in bringing help to their own men in captivity.