Digital Archive – Voss Collection: Background to Dorstone Prisoner of War Camp
In 1946 Dietrich Voss was moved from captivity in the United States and shipped across the Atlantic to Belgium . After a brief stay in a makeshift camp there, he was sent to Britain . Before being moved on to the ‘hostel’ at Dorstone he was held briefly at Prisoner of War camp number 48 at Greenfield Farm, Presteigne, Radnor which opened in 1942 on the site of the present Clatterbrune housing estate. It was built to hold 1000 Italian POWs at first, and later, after the war was over, held about 750 Germans. The camp regime was not excessively harsh and became easier still with the cessation of hostilities. Prisoners worked on local farms and were allowed out of the camp for exercise and recreation. The prisoners had their own band and locals were regularly invited in for dances. Some POW's stayed in the area on their release (particularly those, like Dietrich, from East Germany ). The camp was finally demolished in 1949, though some of the huts were bought by locals and used for other purposes.
[Keith Parker – History of Presteigne; Press cuttings]
A more general picture of the treatment and disposition of German Prisoners of War in Britain can be found at http://www.radiomarconi.com/marconi/monumento/pow/pows.html from which the following extracts are taken [author unknown] :
Although a steady trickle of German prisoners found their way into PoW camps in Britain from 1939 to mid 1943, it was not until the victories in North Africa and later after the invasion of Normandy that the camps in Britain started to fill up with German prisoners of war. After the defeat in Africa, Italian as well as German prisoners were interned in camps across England , Scotland and Wales . After the fall of the Afrika Korps in early 1942 most of the POWs were shipped via the Cape directly to New York . Approximately 25,000 were sent on to two large camps in Alberta at Ozada-Lethbridge and Medicine Hat which held 12,500 POW each.
The first prisoners in Britain were interned in two camps, ordinary soldiers being held at Glen Mill Camp in Oldham, Lancashire (Camp 176) and Officers interned at Grizedale Hall Lancashire (Camp 1). Grizedale Hall was a stately home which at the time was expensive to run and prompted a certain Colonel Wedgewood to complain in a speech to the House of Commons that "...would it not be cheaper to hold them (German PoWs) at the Ritz Hotel in London ?" Soon however more camps sprang up that were a lot more modest with huts, barracks and tents providing the accommodation. The number of camps in Britain was to change drastically though and from humble beginnings of just two camps in 1939 the network of PoW camps was to grow to 600 by 1948.
The camps on mainland Britain varied from site to site but the majority (if not situated in existing premises such as disused factories, hotels, colleges or stately homes etc.) were constructed from corrugated tin and wood. These structures were known as Nissen huts and can still be seen today in rural parts of Scotland and Wales .
After the Allied invasion of Western Europe took place in 1944 prisoners that were taken would be transported on large barges (along with wounded Allied troops) over the English Channel and would dock at a major ports such as Southampton and Portsmouth . Here they would be deloused and board trains which would take them to one of the nine Command Cages which would be set up in racecourses such as Kempton Park Doncaster Catterick and Loughborough in Leicestershire or football grounds such as Preston North End's ground in Lancashire, Northern England . A cage was a place where PoWs would be held before being sent to a PoW camp and during their stay there they would be interrogated by the Prisoner of War Interrogation Section (PWIS) under the command of Lieutenant A.P. Scotland whose main base was in No. 8 Kensington Palace Gardens which was a former stately home. It was near there, in Cockfosters, that prisoners who were thought to have vital information as well as Luftwaffe flying crews were sent for special interrogation. Interrogation methods were very thorough and employed various means to extract information from prisoners. One such method was to "plant" an undercover soldier who spoke fluent German (usually a Pole who joined forces with the British) to glean as much information as possible from other prisoners.
They would be interrogated on military matters and a good idea could be gained of the prisoners’ loyalty to the Nazi regime. They would then be graded by a colour patch which was worn on their uniform. A white patch meant the person in question had no particular loyalty and was indifferent to National Socialism. A grey patch meant that the prisoner, although not an ardent Nazi, had sympathies with the regime. The real hard-core Nazis wore a black patch and this usually included most Waffen SS prisoners (as well as Paratroops and U-boat crews), not necessarily because they were hardened Nazis, but simply because they were ‘elite’ units. They would then be sent to various camps around the country and for the fervent Nazis this would sometimes mean a camp in the wilds of Scotland where they would be put to agricultural work on farms.
The screening process at the holding cages which separated the hard-core Nazis from the moderates was, to begin with pretty thorough but towards the end of 1944 the process was hurried somewhat due to the large volume of prisoners arriving in Britain . This led to some Nazis being mixed in camps with the moderates. Also, another phenomenon was the increasing number of Eastern European troops who had volunteered for service with the Germans as well as many Poles who were pressed in to service with the Germans falling into British hands.
Each camp had what was known as a Lagerführer [leader and interpreter] who would normally be a fluent English speaking "white" German. He was detailed to liaise between the prisoners and the British and also enforce some sort of discipline in the camp.
The ‘interpreter’ at Dorstone camp c.1946
He would often also be in charge of the work detail. Every prisoner could work if he so wished and would usually be detailed to do farm work such as hedging, ditching and harvesting, or construction work or clearing bomb damage. During their working hours they would (if working on farms) be under the direct command of the farmer to whom they were employed. Construction work was also carried out by prisoners who had been tradesmen before the war or had worked in the construction industry. In Britain at the time there was a housing crisis due to the bombing campaign by the Germans and it was estimated that 4 million homes were destroyed which would have to be replaced.
German prisoners with the required skills were put to work on the construction of new homes within the localities of their camps and they were paid the current union rates of pay which worked out at around a shilling a day or between three and six shillings for a 48 hour week. This worked out fine until some of the local population became annoyed at what they saw as foreigners taking their jobs and as a result in London repair gangs went on strike, in Newcastle men volunteered to work two hours per day extra rather than receive help from the German PoWs and dockers threatened to walk out if German PoWs were sent to work at their docks. Eventually these fears were calmed when the government assured the locals that PoW labour would only be used when local labour was not available.
Even today many people recall men in dark uniforms with the letter "P" painted on their trouser leg working on the construction of houses or repairing roads. By 1946 116,000 prisoners were involved in construction and “other useful work” in Britain and around 169,000 prisoners were involved in agricultural work – about a fifth of all farm labour in the country at the peak. What should be remembered though is that under the Geneva Convention officers could not be put to work and the British chose not to let ardent Nazis work either. Only good conduct prisoners were allowed to work outside the camp.
Life in a British POW camp was not easy but compared to other nations’ treatment of POWs was on the whole fair. One account of camp life is given here:
"About eighty men lodged in each hut. Apart from the beds, the only furniture consisted of two tables and four benches. Prisoners squatted on the edge of the bed or lay in bunks. There was not a single moment of real peace because one was surrounded by games of cards, stories, discussions, lessons and other noises...always the same faces".
A scene inside a Nissen hut. Note the wooden bunks and the heater in the middle of the room. This was the only source of heat in the hut and in winter temperatures dropped considerably inside.
Also ongoing on the camps were lectures, concerts, gardening and handicrafts and particularly carving (sometimes of the bedposts!). Sport was popular with football, boxing and wrestling being the main activities with chess and playing cards also proving popular pastimes. There were opportunities for education as well in some camps with lessons in English (which proved very popular), shorthand, mechanics, physics and forestry. Paper was in short supply but the inmates of the camp improvised, using blackout material for blackboards, toilet paper and the backs of labels from tinned foods as exercise books. There were jobs to be done in the kitchen and in health care too and letter writing and the making of toys for the local children were another feature of life as a POW. Work was optional but most elected to as it passed the time more quickly.
Another strange aspect of life in a British prison camp was the fact that prisoners received the same amount of daily rations as British servicemen, which turned out to be more than the civilian population received. So in effect the German POWs were better fed than the civilian population of Britain . The German working prisoner recieved weekly: 42ozs of meat, 8ozs of bacon, 5½ lbs of bread, 10½ ozs of margarine as well as vegetables, cheese, cake, jam and tea. These amounts were increased slightly in June 1945. A typical daily menu (this one came from camp 197) consisted of the following:
Breakfast: A quarter of bread, margarine and tea.
Dinner: Pork with potatoes
Supper: Milk, Soup and a fifth of bread.
The physical condition of prisoners was on the whole pretty good with regular meals and reasonable medical care being available to all. The mental condition of a lot of prisoners was however a different story. Not knowing when they would be released had a demoralising effect on prisoners who also had little knowledge of the welfare of their families and relatives and the state of their homeland. Many also suffered from nightmares and other symptoms of what is now known as post traumatic stress disorder.
With the war’s end many prisoners were soon on their way back home but a programme of re-education was devised to supposedly prepare the prisoners for a new life in a different Germany . The full horrors of the Holocaust were put on show and one prisoner who was at the time a hard-line Nazi remembers that many of his comrades did not believe that the Holocaust had taken place thinking it was British propaganda designed to shame the German people even more. This process of re-education determined whether a prisoner would be sent home early or not and interviews took place to determine the prisoner’s attitude. Many who at first showed contempt for the British realised that the war was now over and the only way to secure their release was to change their attitude. Many did and the first repatriations took place in 1946. Some were less flexible however and at these interviews (which took place every six months) would show their loyalty to the Nazi regime by marching in to the interrogation room and giving a Nazi salute to the British officer present which would mean a further six months in captivity. Among Waffen SS prisoners this was common and later after the Nuremberg trials when the Waffen SS was deemed a criminal organisation many prisoners were held for longer periods simply for being a member.
The last prisoners’ repatriations took place in 1949 but many whose hometown was in the Soviet sector did not want to return to Germany . Fearing another spell of imprisonment in Soviet hands, they decided to stay in Britain where they became known as "DPs" or displaced persons. The opportunity to mix with local people was given to the German PoWs after the war; for example Christmas could be spent with a local family and regular visits would be made to present local children with toys that had been carved from wood during their spare time. By all accounts there was little animosity towards the German prisoners who by this time had become a familiar sight in towns and villages in Britain . Some married local girls and stayed in Britain .
In addition to pay by the British and American government for work done by prisoners while in captivity the German government passed a POW compensation bill which awarded those imprisoned after 1st January 1947 one mark per day and increasing to five marks per day after 1st January 1949. Financial settlements were not always straightforward, however.
A more detailed academic study entitled “Employing the Enemy - The Contribution of German and Italian Prisoners of War to British Agriculture during and after the Second World War” by Johann Custodis is available for download as a PDF file.
Other documents and photographs relating to Dorstone Prisoner of War Camp and its occupants can be accessed from the Index page of the Voss Collection .