Internees and POWs


I shall not feel happy, either as an Englishman or as a supporter of this Government, until this bespattered page of our history has been cleaned up and rewritten.

The MP Peter Cazalet, speaking about internment in the House of Commons during the war.


The Manchester Italians: wonderful information

Italians in Britain (Spartacus site)  

Sheila Lahr's story: very detailed

The tragedy of the Arandora Star


Life in Britain for German POWs: BBC site

Children of the Blitz - Prisoners of War: children's stories collected by Robert Westall



There were 60,000 Germans and Austrians living in Britain.   The government was worried that they might be spies.  

         Actually, this was highly unlikely.   In the event, only 16 people were executed during the war under the Treachery Act of 1940.


The government called these people 'aliens' and it divided them into three categories:

•   Class A (high security risk) – 596

•   Class B (doubtful cases) – 6782

•   Class C (no risk) – 66,002

Class A aliens were rounded up and put in internment camps immediately, but most Class B and C aliens were imprisoned by the summer of 1940.   When Italy entered the war in June 1940, Churchill ordered that all 15,000 Italians living in Britain be arrested as well.  


In many cases, this was unfair – some of them were refugees from Nazi Germany who had left Germany because they hated Hitler.   Renate Scholem, a 17-year-old schoolgirl at a boarding school in Kent - whose father was a German-Jewish communist in a Nazi concentration camp, and who had fled with her mother to England to get away from Hitler - was arrested because she was living in a sensitive area and had been seen talking to a man in RAF uniform.   In the camp, she met a nun who had lived 20 years in an English convent, and a number of Jewish Germans who had fled to England from the Nazis.


Many aliens were sent to camps on the Isle of Man.   Some – who had fled to England to escape persecution – were in such despair that they committed suicide rather than be arrested.


Some vital aliens – for instance those working on the atomic bomb – were allowed to stay free, but they were not allowed to own a car, a bicycle or a map.


After the panic of 1940–1941, restrictions were relaxed.   The internees were allowed to receive letters, and eventually many of them were allowed to return home.



Source A

Why should 70,000 aliens be allowed to go about freely in this country?   I know from German servants that they idolise Hitler.

      The Germans interned Englishwomen of 70 years and more in Poland.   The time has come when all persons of German origin should be looked upon as potential enemies and interned.

      There is no such thing as a friendly German.

Letter in the Daily Sketch, 10 April 1940


Source B

I was interned.   Just like that.   Two policemen came and fetched me.   People stood lining the streets, throwing stones at you, spitting at you and shouting ‘Spies!’   That was horrible.   Everyone thought it would be a concentration camp like it is in Germany.

      Several of them wanted to jump into the water, because they didn’t know what was in front of them.   When we arrived on the Isle of Man, we had pictures taken with our number on.   We already had the feeling that we were criminals.

Mrs Hilda Wolfgang, remembering later.

Hilda was an ordinary housewife and was completely loyal.


Source C

The conditions in these internment camps were often appalling.   In some camps refugees and foreign aliens were housed in tents without mattresses.   Men and women were sent to different camps and so husband and wives were separated.   Internees were refused to right to read newspapers, listen to the radio or to receive letters.   They were therefore unable to discover what had happened to family members.

John Simkin

John Simkin is a modern historian who runs the Spartacus website.


Source D

I think the government of the day panicked.   Of course there may have been a few spies.   But I can’t believe it was necessary to lock up thousands of people, some of them great scientists and engineers who could have been useful.   Surely a couple of days checking backgrounds would have revealed that we had more reason to hate Hitler than the British.

Claus Moser, remembering in 1983

Claus and his family were refugees from Hitler’s Germany.


Prisoners of War

During the war, many prisoners were captured, and they had to be put in prisoner-of-war camps.   There were 75,000 Italian POWs in Britain in 1943.   At the height of the war, there were 600 internment and POW camps.   The prisoner-of-war camp at Harperley (County Durham) appeared on the TV Restoration programme, and Eden Camp near Malton in Yorkshire is now a museum.     


Conditions were never as brutal as in the Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, and the POWs were allowed out under escort to go and work on local farms.   Where the Nazis used torture to try to extract information, the British allowed POWs to mix and talk freely, and merely recorded their conversations using secret microphones!   Few POWs tried to escape – most were much happier to wait safely until the war ended.  


As time went on, conditions relaxed even further.   Artistic Catholic Italian POWs in Camp 60 on Orkney decorated one of their Nissen huts as a chapel (you can visit it today).   The POWs arranged concerts and night-classes (the internees on the Isle of Man set up a University).   Some POWs made friends with local families, and some even married local girls – after the war 25,000 POWs chose to stay in Britain.  


Not all relations were good.   Some POWs remained ardent Nazis.   A re-education programme was laid on which included footage of Nazi concentration camps.


The Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm, Orkney, decorated by Italian prisoners-of-war.   It is hard to believe that this is the inside of a corrugated iron Nissen hut!



Source E

Life at Eden Camp

The general feeling of camp life among the many prisoners confined to Eden Camp during their captivity was, considering its nature, a happy one, with a reasonable degree of comfort and an almost surprising amount of freedom.   However the usual amount of discipline was observed by the camp authorities, with roll calls every night and morning.

      It was more of a ‘home from home’ with all the modern conveniences available at that time…   Each prisoner was allocated a certain quota of bread and meat per day, the rations would be collected by the British troops from their supply dump at Amotherby, near Malton, then brought back to the camp where they would be distributed to the P.O.W.s’ own cooks who would then prepare the food.

      The day to day organisation of the camp was under the control of a Sergeant and an Orderly Officer but the general overall discipline of the prisoners themselves was the responsibility of their own N.C.O.s and Officers.

      Prisoners provided their own services which included a doctor, dentist, tailor and shoe repairer.   At the far end of the camp a hut had been constructed as a drying area for washing on wet days. This hut contained heated pipes and here the prisoners would hang up their wet clothes and do their ironing.

      … For many prisoners this was a far better life than they had experienced when they were fighting for their country.   There was no vindictiveness, no one was badly treated and there was no cause for the Guards to use their truncheons.   The prisoners accepted the situation because they knew they were being well looked after, had good warm sleeping accommodation and plenty of good food.

      It was a camp rule that random spot checks would occasionally be carried out on one or two selected huts by the Orderly Officer and a Regimental Police Sergeant to see if any prisoners were in possession of items that were against camp regulations.   Any prisoner who did misbehave himself ended up in the "sin-bin" or jail, or what the Italians called the ‘calaboose’, the length of time being at the discretion of the Commanding Officer.   Roll-calls took place twice a day, after reveille in the morning and again in the evening.   The prisoners never knew exactly when other roll calls would take place.   A Regimental Policeman, along with a Sergeant in charge would commence the ritual at the camp's hospital, accompanied by the P.O.W.s’ Commanding Officer and a Sergeant Major.   They began by checking the number of sick and the number of Italian staff on duty, then on to the cookhouse and carried on until all the huts had been checked and all prisoners accounted for.   Once the count was made and tallied with the number of prisoners in the camp, the Orderly Officer would sign the roll as ‘All present and correct’.

      … No one really tried seriously to escape from the camp except for one occasion when an Italian prisoner made a bid for freedom.   He had been refused the newly agreed two hour freedom which had been granted after the Italian forces had surrendered.   It was one of those ‘spur of the moment’ actions, he was unable to bear his captivity while his comrades left for a short taste of freedom.   He tried to get under the barbed wire but became entangled and was discovered weeping over the hopelessness of the situation.

Anne Jacques, Eden Camp: the People's War 1939-45 (1997)