Researching POW camps in Britain? - Help for the beginner

Discussion in 'UK PoW Camps' started by Osborne2, Jun 13, 2023.

  1. Osborne2

    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

    Many regular users of this forum interested in POW camps in Britain during WW2 will already be aware of what follows. This post is directed primarily to newcomers to this topic and want to research an ancestor or a location. As a contributor to this forum, and a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic, I can heartily recommend the following two websites to you all to start with, besides ww2talk:

    This has been a labour of love, time, money and dedication for the creator who has not only written a potted history of many of the camps but has signposted useful links and his sources consulted. There is very little in his National Archives, Kew, references that Kew has placed in the digital domain, so his use of them is helpful to us all.

    A second vital source is:

    Images Shot During Module

    It is a section of the SystonImages site. This site has been created like the one above by a member contributing to This site is, too, another labour of love and primarily a modern photographic collection of the former sites of camps.

    However, the 'systonimages' section contains some TNA camp records (immaculately photographed) of a number of POW camp sites. You may be lucky and find some help in these records but it's rare to find personal names.
  2. Martin Richards

    Martin Richards Well-Known Member

    Thanks for reference to my systonimages site which is actually my personal site. Whilst it has a lot of photos of camps and areas the camps were in there is no context that explains what is going on.

    My main site as such is Repatriated Landscape
    This contains a much smaller.number of photos per camp it show the ones for giving a flavour of the camps as they are now

    There various links though the sites and bits do need updating a task I have not been through I'll health.

    Where possible my site links back ro wwpoq.

    Also my site in the Research Section gives references form my research

    Martin J Richard
  3. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Timely update as a snippet about a post-war POW camp near Moreton-on-the-Marsh appeared a few days ago. Able to narrow it down to four camps. Not enough original information to help going further.
  4. Osborne2

    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

    I am adding this below from a post I made on the Weston Lane Camp Weston Lane Camp 164 / 245 / 8??? as it was then written to help others and its highly relevant to this thread.
    Camp numbers were given to the British 'management team' unit sent to the POW camp location to run it, not to the camp location itself. So when the management moved, the number went with them. It's a bit like RAF squadrons having the number but the camp has a name.Therefore camp 180 started at Marbury in Cheshire, moved to Radwinter, then to Trumpington.

    The destruction of almost all POW camp war diaries [WDs] has made the movement of camp units around the country very difficult to trace. However, I suspect there are more sources of information buried in the TNA War Office and Foreign Office files than any of us have yet mined, so there is a bit of hope left.

    Because of the WD destruction, the Historic England list compiled by Roger Thomas is incomplete. Some camps are missing entirely from it. This is not his fault. I believe was working to a timeline and budget. What he did do was give us all a basis from which to work.

    Photographs of hostel gateways sometimes carry the number of the parent main camp and that can mislead you as to camp/hostel status. Some camps had 15-20 attached hostels.

    Even more confusingly, at times a camp can be called by its army selected name, but on occasions, the name the locals had for it was used, depending on who wrote the document you happen to be looking at. Documents written at regional command HQ's / memoirs written much later I find sometimes loosely describe camp locations because the writer has never been near them/ can't remember and just picks the nearest town or village name. That can lead to the kind of confusion that evoked initial question of this thread. One thing you can do to find a location is use the first post war OS 6 inch map you can find to pin down sites by the military hut layouts you can find in the area of interest.
  5. Osborne2

    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

    Background POW Camp reading for the new researcher

    Here are a few books and articles that follow which I have consulted. They might help you to form a timeline and context for the research project you may have.

    This post excludes interned civilian nationals. Italian POWs were here in small numbers from July 1941 growing to around 150,000 in mid 1944. They were prisoners taken in the various north and east African campaigns, brought over as a replacement labour force in place of our conscripted population. Recommended reads on the wartime general overview and also the Italians:

    B.Moore , K.Fedorowich (ed.), Prisoners of War and their Captors in World War II, (Berg, Oxford, 1996). Chapter 1, ‘Axis POWs in Britain during he Second World War’ (Moore); chapter 8 ‘Italian prisoners of war in Great Britain’ 1943-1946. (Lucio Sponza).

    B.Moore , K.Fedorowich. The British Empire and its Italian prisoners of war 1940-1947, (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2002).

    Germans were captured from autumn 1939 onwards and were mostly Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine U-boat crews, before a couple of thousand Heer arriving before the fall of France. Until D-Day the highest number of Germans held in Britain was probably 3,800 in mid-1941. Hellen J. (below) gives a breakdown of Germans 1941-1948 but time catches up with us all and it’s possible some of his figures could be disputed these days but it is a fact that German numbers were kept low, basically because the opportunity to capture large army numbers in battle did not arise until 1943 (Tunisia). After interrogation had wrung as much as possible from them, most were shipped to Canada for fear that large numbers escaping might run amok and more food had to be imported to feed them.

    The POW camp system was set up to house both Italian and German prisoners. I stand to be contradicted, but there were no major camps numbered above 200 before VE day 1945, except those numbered over 600. Therefore any camp numbered 200-300+ was founded post VE day. As Hellen J. indicates there were no accurate figures held on how many camps were founded and the only pretty accurate lists are the War office generated lists that were circulated now and again when they got round to updating them. A big warning here, (the original reproduced in Hellen J.) that it was estimated there were 1,500 camps at peak. These will include main camps as well as minor ones administered by a main camp. These were either quite large satellite camps and the most numerous were hostels. The hostels might only comprise as little as one Nissen hut. A photograph I have seen is of a hostel site with a gate sign saying camp XXX. This can mislead you as to it’s status. It’s most likely that if you going to find any documents about a hostel in the National Archives you will have to find the local main camp records. Hostels opened and shut as the local demand for labour varied. The Hellen, I. article is a lively look at camp newspapers. Thomas is the best collection of main camp names and numbers we have but it is incomplete. It shows that some camp numbers changed. For instance camp 2 moved regularly. This is because camp numbers were in effect held by the core management team in charge of the location and not given to the permanent location itself. This has confused more than one writer in these individual camp reading recommendations further down below.

    Articles of use:

    Hellen, J. ‘Temporary Settlements And Transient Populations The Legacy of Britain’s Prisoner of War Camps: 1940-1948’, Erkunde 53 (1999) 191-219.

    Hellen, I. ‘The Boy’s Own Papers: The Case Of German POW Camp Newspapers in Britain, 1946-8’, German Historical Institute London, Bulletin, Vol. XXX, No. 2 (November 2008), 38-79.

    Thomas, R. Prisoner of War Camps (1939 - 1948) Twentieth Century Military Recording Project, (Historic England, 2003).

    The classic overview books below, Faulk and Sullivan, will never be beaten for first hand British author participation in the German POW camps stories. Faulk ran a camp Foreign Office inspection team and Sullivan was very clearly high up in the FO dealing with the POW politics and international diplomacy issues. While the army administered and guarded the camps, the FO were responsible for the re-education process. This was an attempt to ensure, if possible, that prisoners eventually went back to Germany as democratically minded as possible rather than authoritarians, as so many were. This policy was called re-education and was a regular source of friction between the FO and Faulk’s ‘training advisers’ as they were euphemistically called. Army War Office camp records now at the National Archives are very sparse and many were destroyed but FO records are more intact. This fundamental driver in British camp policy (which began with the Italian fascisti prisoners) is largely ignored by many of the individual camp authors. Kochan has many first hand accounts and Quinn is the best recent overview that I know of to date.

    Faulk, H. Group Captives The Re-education of German Prisoners of War, (London, 1977).

    Kochan, M. Prisoners of England, (London, 1980).

    Quinn, R. Hitler’s Last Army (Stroud, 2015).

    Sullivan, M.B. Thresholds of Peace German prisoners and the people of Britain 1944-1948, (London, 1979).

    Camp specific books include those below. Timelines are not apparent in several of them which makes it difficult to fit events into a credible developing picture. Re-education in Britain was having growing success until 1946 when the US and Canada released all their prisoners and nearly 200,000 (my memory) returned to Britain untouched by re-education in the main and often duped by the US that they were going back to Germany. This caused great upset in many British camps. There are some really inaccurate statements among the general wider commentaries of some authors below because they have repeated errors and opinions derived from secondary works. One cannot argue however about the solid original material in their books when it is derived from individuals who were actually present. Some books are stronger than others because they have also used original British material, (where it exists) drawn particularly from Foreign Office records. See post #1 above for solidly grounded internet access to original sources.

    Individual camp books known to me of varying quality:

    Campbell, V. Camp 165 Watten Scotland’s Most Secretive Prisoner of War Camp, (Dunbeath, 2008).

    de Normann, R. For Fuhrer and Fatherland (Stroud 2009). Principally camp 23.

    Free, K. Camp 186 The lost town at Berechurch, (Stroud, 2010).

    Fry, H. The M Room, (ebook, 2012). MI 19 camp for very senior German officers.

    Hollingsbee, I. Inside the Wire, The Prisoner of War Camps and Hostels of Gloucestershire 1939-1948, (Stroud, 2014).

    Mayne, R. In Victory, Magnanimity, in Peace, Goodwill: A History of Wilton Park, (London, 2003). This is camp 300.

    Porter, K., Wynn S., German POW Camp 266 Langdon Hills, (ebook, 2012).

    Perhaps other folk would add their recommendations and advice to this thread?

  6. Osborne2

    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

    An Overview of Italian and German POW Camps in Britain

    Britain recognised its demographic crisis in 1941. The cabinet told the army it could not keep conscripting men as if there was an endless stream of men. The demands of all services had balance with the needs of the civilian war effort to support the services. Ukraine is having the same crisis currently with a population not much different than the UK had in 1939.

    Bringing Italian labour in the form of POWs to the UK was one way of plugging the gap particularly as many British agricultural workers were now in the armed services. The manpower shortage meant that many of the first Italian POW camps were not constructed by the British. The Italians would have to build their own camps and so the prisoner sifting across the empire concentrated on those with some building, painting, joinery etc skills. They lived in tents until they had built their own camps.[1]

    Some agricultural labour did come in from early on. The location of early Italian camps in Britain was keeping them away from sensitive military locations, ports and coasts. The sinking of HMS Royal Oak in 1939 in Scapa Flow, as a result of a German submarine getting in through a shallow unmonitored, not blocked waterway to the open ocean, caused 1,300 Italian POWs early 1942 to move to Orkney to form the labour force to build the ‘Churchill Barriers’ to block these channels.[2] The Geneva Convention stated that prisoners should not be asked to undertake work directly assisting war operations. The British, later copied by the US in Europe, chose to consider that constructing military camps and airfields was not directly supporting the war. Some Italians worked on the completion of a former British army camp in Cheshire in 1943 ahead of the arrival of US troops. There is evidence that a few Italians helped extend Burtonwood airfield and others worked salvaging and repairing military items, such as tents, left behind in UK camps by departing US troops in 1944.

    While the end result was that while the substantial majority of Italian POWs came to Britain to work in agriculture, everyone and his dog made a bid for prisoner labour. Railway wagon salvage yards, brick and tile factories, Cornish mines, chemical factories, you name it they asked and sometimes got Italian POW labour.

    The longest list of main POW Camps in Britain was published in 2003 by Historic England.[3] There are some camp locations totally missing from this list and some large satellite camps of the numbered main camp are not recorded. There were also hostels which, but not always, held small numbers of prisoners. They were located in areas of usually agricultural need remote from the main camp. Hostels, across the UK, far outnumbered the main camps. The WW2POW Camps in Britain website is attempting to systematically identify and describe all camps and their hostels.[4]

    Unpublished camp lists, sometimes including hostels, exist in Italian POW records in The National Archives at Kew. It is usually that the lower the main camp number, the earlier it was founded from 1941onwards. However, Camp 1 was a camp for German officers. There were a small number of other German camps for other ranks elsewhere in Britain from 1939-44. German prisoners were not used as labour until later on in 1944 as the War Office considered the risk to the public from German prisoners was too great. Once their intelligence value to the British ended, they were shipped to Canada or retained in North Africa and across the empire. Another caveat for the unwary, camp numbers did not represent the location, they applied to the ‘management team’ running the camp. This is why in the listings mentioned below that some camp numbers, for instance Camp 2, appear in several places. The ‘management’ number was reassigned elsewhere when the prisoner of war department in the War Office decided to change it. I have yet to discover the criteria they used to make a number change.

    After D Day the War Office had to decide what to do with the vast number of German prisoners pouring in to Britain. At first it wanted to keep the ‘fanatics’[5] Germans away from the south and east of Britain to avoid prison outbreaks near the ports. Thus base camps for them were often in Scotland, NW and N England and parts of Wales. At the same time, the War Office wanted as many Germans as possible to work in agriculture after strong representations by the Ministry of Agriculture. The problem was that most Germans were now located away from the areas of high agricultural production and where labour was needed. There was now a secondary screening of German prisoners in the north and west identifying previously those labelled as fanatical to be volunteers to work for the British. They moved to displace Italians from POW working camps in the south, east and midlands. The Italians then moved into main camp hostels and the Germans into the main camp itself. These camps then became mixed camps overall but in accordance again with the Geneva Convention, although the camp was mixed, the nationalities were segregated and separated at least in separate caged ‘stockades’ within the main camp or by distance in the remote hostels.

    The British also tried, in accordance with the convention, to segregate other nationalities from the mass of German prisoners from 1944 into 1946. These included Russians,[6] Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Poles,[7] Spaniards and Hungarians who had fought for the Germans, now held in separate camps. Toft Hall Camp 2 eventually held small numbers of around thirty nationalities after the war’s end when the Geneva Convention did not apply.[8] Many Spanish were seemingly unfortunately held as prisoners. They had escaped to France, having fought against Franco, but had been forced into the German Army against their will but the British did not pick up this and kept them as prisoners.

    [1] The Geneva Convention 1929 permitted use of tents for prisoners at times of the year when the holding power’s own troops were expected to use tents and not necessarily heated huts.

    [2] B. Moore and K Fedorowich The British Empire and its Italian Prisoners of War 1940-1947, (Palgrave 2002) for the other countries holding Italians.

    [3] Prisoner of War Camps (1939 - 1948) | Historic England

    [4] Camps listed under lowest number allocated. – WW2 P.O.W. Camps in the UK

    [5] The War Office term for certain categories of prisoners deemed automatically as devoted Nazis, such as SS, parachutists, Luftwaffe or U Boat crewmen, or ones who were too aggressive during screening interrogation on arrival in Britain.

    [6] Largely located in Yorkshire. Shipped back to the USSR where many were executed.

    [7] These were German speaking Poles who did not want to declare themselves as members of post war Poland.

    [8] Britain wanted to repatriate them but many governments did not want them back.
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2024
    Kasia OBrien and davidbfpo like this.
  7. Osborne2

    Osborne2 Well-Known Member

    International Committee of the Red Cross
    The Internet Archive site has reproduced the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) three volume report covering its activities during WW2 on behalf of prisoners and civilian internees and displaced persons. These volumes are not indexed, but the chapter contents of each volume are listed at the end of each one. The link below takes you to a page from which you should be able to select each volume you wish.

    Report Of The International Committee Of The Red Cross On Its Activities During The Second World War (September 1, 1939 - June 30, 1947) Volumes 1-3 : The International Committee of the Red Cross : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

    In volume two the work of the German Section overseeing German POWs, pages 163-192 indicates the chaos in communication due to the millions of prisoners and DPs, the distractions of the Allies trying to deal with them and the feeding of a starving continent, the suspension of mail services until April 46 and the constant movement of prisoners.

    The ICRC employees in the German section could not cope either with literally millions of requests from prisoners or their families. Prisoners did not know where displaced families were or whether they were dead and families did not know whether their sons were in Russia , France, Belgium, Britain Canada several other countries or the US or whether they were dead. This unholy situation persisted to some degree right through to when the report was compiled in 1947.

    It is no wonder that in POW camps in Britain that there were prisoner suicides because of despondency having no news. (There were also murders nothing to do with the lack of information but fanatical Germans murdering those other POWs bad mouthing Hitler.The fanatics attempted to make these look like suicides).
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2024

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