World War II: Treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs)--Country Trends


Figure 1.--The Germans from the very beginning of the War treated POWs barbarically. Few of the Polish POWs taken in 1939 survided the War. The Soviets also treated the Poles they captured barbarically. The Germans when they invaded the Soviet Union also treated the Red Army soldiers they captured barbarically. This was essentially part of Generalplan Ost and the Hunger Plan to remake the ethnic map of Eastern Europe by killing Jews, Slavs and other unwanted people in the millions. After the Germans failed to destroy the Red Army as part of Barbarossa, the Germans faced some of same barbaric treatment that they inflicted on others. Whether or not these two boys survived being cptured depended primrily on wheter they fell into the hands of the Western allies or Soviet Union.

The treatment of World War II prisoners of war (POWs) varied widely from country to country. Axis and Soviet war crimes included the barbaric treatment of POWS. Some 2-3 million POWs were esentially murdered, primarily by starvation and exposure. Almost all the POWs taken by the Western Allies (American and British) survived the War in good condition (about 99 percent). Few POWs taken by the Soviets survived (5-10 percent). Some were executed by the NKVD, especially the Polish POWs. Fewer Germans were shot, but huge numbers perished because of mitreatment and living conditions. They were used to he help repair the damage done, and surivors did not get back to Germny for years. German policies varied greatly from country to country. POWs from the Western Allies generally survived the War, although not at the same rate as the Germans taken prisiner by the Americans and British. Conditions in German camps deterioratd badly in the final years of the War. There were some abuses such as the treatment of Jewish servicemen and escapees. POWs from Poland and the Soviet Union perished in large numbers. This was in part due to the huge numbers taken orisoner, but was primarily an act of genocide, using starvation nd exposure to kill. The Germans after engenerring massive deaths, eventually improved conditions somehat so the mnen could be used as slave labor. The Italins did not take mny prosoners, but the Germans turned over POWs taken in North Africa to the Italians. The Japanese treated POWs brutally and the death rate was very high, although climate kept survival rates higher than in Soviet camps, at least for the wester POWs. The fate of the Chinese soldiers was different, the Japanese simply killed them. At the end of the war, despite capturing large numbers of Chinese soldiers, thre were noPOWs to turn over to the Chinese authorities, one of the great atrocities of the war and ratherly mentioned.

America

Until the Normandy D-Day landings, most Axis POWs were Germand Italian soldiers taken in North Africa, nost in 1943. Italy surrendered (September 1943). The Americans did not take ,any Germasn POWs in Sicily and Italy. The United States set up more than 500 camps for Axis POWs in America during World War II. Most of the POWs transported to Ameica were from North Africa. German POWs transported to camps in America were amazed at their treatment and diet. Strangely German and Italian POWs were often treated more courtesly than Black U.S. servicemen. The Genevea Convention required that POWs be housed and fed just like the capturing country's soldiers. Thus America provided POWs foods like fresh milk, eggs, and meat that were rationed. This was also better than they food they got before being captured. There was even a beer ration. This changed for the German POWs after VE Day. But they were still well fed. As reports of Japanese treatment of prisoners reached Americn soldiers, American combat soldiers were often brutal with the few Japanese soldiers that surrendered. Some observers have suggested that America was as brutal with Japanese POWs as the Japanese were. This is simply not true. There is no doubt that American combat soldiers shot wouunded Japanese soldiers. Here this behavior has to be put in the context of the mangled bodies of American captives the GIs found as they advanced and the fact that not only were Japanese wounded booy trapped, but wounded Japanese soldiers often attempted to kill Americans attempting to aid them. American soldiers understandably had difficulty understanding the Japanese refusal to surrender. Racism were also undeniablt a factor. This is not to say the shooting of wounded soldiers on the battlefield was aceeptable, but this is very different from the official policies of the Germans and Japanese resulting in the deaths of huge numbers of Allied POWs and civilian detainees. It is unclear how many Japanese soldiers were shot trying to surrender. The number here is probably very small. These attrocities occurred on the battlefield. The same occurred to a lesser extent in Europe, There were incidents in Normandy, especially with SS men after accounts of SS attrocities surfaced. They alsp occurred in Belgium after word of the Malmady Massacre spread. What did not occur was the murder of POWs in rear areas once taken as POWs. Once in camps the American treatment of POWs was almost invariably correct. The United States held 126,000 Italian POWs during World War II. After the War, virtually all were repatriated (99.8 percent). The Americans intetned about 0.4 million Germans in America, men mostly taken in Tunisia (1943) and France (1944). Almost all of these men survived and were repatriated. At the end of the War, the Americans (along with the British and French) were overwhelmed by the number of surrendering Germans. The POW system brokedown. There were too few guards and limited camps with shelter and food. Many guards were severe with the surrendering Germans, especially as news of the liberated concentration camps spread. Only a Small number of Japanese were held as POWs by the Americans. About 95 percent survived. The few deaths mostly resulted from an uprising in a camp with leaders commiting suiside when the uprising failed. Many Japanese had difficulties when they returned to Japan because even their families often thought that surrender was not honorable.

Britain

The British treatment of POWs was correct. Mail service was arranged through Portugal. The food rations for the Axis POWs were the same as for British soldiers. The first POWs were Luftwaffe crews participating in the Battle of Britain an U-boat crews. Much larger numbers of Axis POWs resulted from the North African campaign. British took large numbers of Italian POWs in North Africa and Sicily, smaller but substantial numbers of Germans. Very few Axis POWs died in British custody. Overall the British took 420,000 Italian POWs. They repatriated 415,000 men (98.6 percent). They also took German POWs in North Africa and later after D-Day in France. The largest number were taken at the end if the War after crossing the Rhine (March-May 1945). There were difficulties handling the large numbers taken in 1945. The disposition of the Axis POWs varied. Some were held in Britain. Others were held at sites in Arica, Australia and North America. POWs were used for agricultural labor. By the end of the War there were several hundred POW camps. The status of the Italian POWs changed after the Italians surrendered to the Allies (September 1943). The German POWs taken at the end of the War were held at camps in Germany.

British Empire

The British had POW camps in Britain, but large numbers of the POWs they took were held in both the Dominions and colonies and later the United states. The British Dominions, unlike World War I, fought World War II as independent countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa), although they were often organized in multi-national British units such as the 8th Army in North Africa. An exception was Australian Army units fighting the Japanese in New Guinea. The Dominions thus followed British guidelines for treating POWs. And the POWs wee handled through the British Army structure and not individual Domominion units. Many Axis POWs taken by the British were shipped to camps in the Dominions. Most went to Canada. A reader writes, "I hope you are doing a page on British/Canadian/Commonwealth POWs and to mention about the POW camps set up in Canada to house Germans and Italians." We hope to do so, but our information is still limited. In these cases, the Dominion Governments set up offices to deal with the Axis Governments and the Internation Red Cross. British officials handeled the administrative duties for POWs held in India and other colonies. There was a major difference between the Germans and Italians in Europe and the Japanese in Asia. In Europe the Germans and even more so the Italians surrendered in large numbers. In Asia only a handful of Japanese soldiers surrendered. Thus most of the POWs in the Dominions/Empire were German or Italian. A Canadian reader tells us about his father's experiences, "After he volunteered for the Canadian Army in 1939 he was assigned to be a POW guard at the camp in Farnham, Quebec because he spoke Yiddish which was close enough to German. And he did his duty faithfully until 1941 when It finally became public that the British had been since the start of the war been putting German Jewish civilians (who had been in Britain and/or British colonies as foreign nationals) into the same POW camps with Nazis. When that came out it hit my dad so hard emotionally the Army ended up discharging him in 1942. He was not even able to be reassigned to a combat unit. And while he was screwed up for a while the British finally saw the errors of their ways and released the Jewish civilians because of public out cries, much of it from Canadian Jews and some gov't. officials who were also offended by this. The British did not place them in the same camps because of any anti-Semitic feelings but that at the start of the war the British government still did not accept or acknowledge fully what had been happening to the Jews in Germany and based on World War I experience the religion did not matter because during World War I when Jews served openly in the German Army." It should be noted that at the beginning of the War the Germans did not begin killing Jews in large numbers and a full understanding of what was happening in Poland emerged only slowly. The British were in fact the first to uncover the devloping Holocaust because of Ultra. Bletchly Park intercepted the death toll reports from Einsatzgruppen, anxious to report their accomplishments to Berlin. And despite the dangers to revealing the Ultra secret, Churchill spoke out about German killing of civilians in a radio broadcast (August 25, 1941). And when non-Ultra sources becane available wrote publically specifically about killing Jews (November 14). The Germans took note of this and the Einsatzgruppen were ordered not to report their Jewish death tolls electronically. [Gilbet, pp. 186-87.]

France

France took few POWs in 1939-40 before falling to the Germans. Many of the POWs that were taken were aviators. The British hoped that they would be interned in England, but the French returned them to the Germans after the armistace (1940). Free French units took some German POWs in North Africa and more in France after the landings in Normandy and Southern France (1944). The reconstituted French Army participated in the invasion of Germany (1945). They took large numbers of German POWs. We do not yet have details as to how they were handled. A reader tells us, "You mention that you have little information on the treatment of German POW captives by the French forces at the close of World War II in Europe. About 1980 I was acquainted with Doctor Walter Shilling who at the time was associated with Hoag Hospital in Newport Bech California. Dr Shilling’s family had immigrated to Berlin from South America in the 1930s following the receipt of an inheritance by his father. Before the war, Shilling had attended medical school and was posted as a medical officer with the German Army in Russia, 1942-1944. Later in the war, he returned to Berlin to resume his medical studies and was taken prisoner by French forces in spring, 1945. Walter told me that conditions in his prison camp were terrible and treatment by French jailers inhumane. Diet was very poor, and many Germans became sick especially with stomach disorders. Impacted bowel was nearly universal. A French NCO in charge brutalized German prisoners and personally beat many prisoners to death. Walter confided in me that even in old age he often dreamed of finding this French NCO under his medical care so he could murder him in some most horrible fashion. During the war years, Dr Shilling’s father was assigned Russian POWs to work his estate. Shilling claims that when Berlin was overrun by the Russians, they took his father into custody and he feared he was about to be shot, but the Russian POWs under his care all spoke highly of the treatment they had received and he was spared. They were however forced to quarter a number of Russian officers in their home. Despite being officers they were quite primitive, unfamiliar with plumbing and other aspects of modern life. The family estate fell in the Russian zone of occupation so the family abandoned it as soon as possible and fled to the West, first to Cuba and later California." [Davis] Persoinal testimonials are certainly evidence, but they can not be taken as absolute truth. This is especially as there is a tendency of some Germans to minimize NAZI war crimes by charging Allied war crimes. We are not saying this is hgat is involved here, but it somethhing that has to be considered in weighing historical evidence. We have noted references to French brutality, especially in the immediate aftermth of the War. And it is quite possible hat there were some murders. But the numbers as far as we can tell were small and there is no evidence that there was any offical policy of murder ordered by the French Government. This is ijn sharp contrat toi the NAZI Hunger Plan and Generalplan Ost.

Germany

The Germans were the first country to acquire large numbers of POWs. German policy varied as to the nationality of the POWs. Here a primary factor in the German mind was race. The Germans treated French, British, and later American POWs relatively correctly. The internment of the French and some British POWs was for almost the entire war as they took large numbers of POWs in 1940. I note some reports from American soldiers that they tried separate Jewish POWs from the general POW population and subjected the Jewish POWs to brutal slave labor. I am unsure if they did this to the British and French as well. POWs were also used to some extent as forced labor. The German treatment of Polish and Soviet POWs, however, was barbaric and many died from starvation, exposure, and mistreatment. The German policy was in part a planned method of elimination and in part their inablity to deal with the massive numbers involved. German tretment improved somewhat as they began to use Soviet POWs for forced labor, but it was still brutal. At some camps the Soviet POWs were not even provided barracks and other structures and were exposed to the elements. While in terms of fatalities, the worst time for POWs was in 1941 when the German took huge numbers of POWs. Conditions began deteriirated seriously for all POWs in late 1944. There were in German hands in late 1944 a very large number POWs. Most were Soviet and French. There were also anout 0.3 million American and British POWs. Part of the reason that conditions deterirated in late 1944 was the bitter Winter. Other factors were the Allied air campaign and German policies. Conditions became caotic in 1945. Allied planes were destroying the Reich's transportation network. Compounding the problem was civilian refugees fleeling east from the advancing Red Army and the retreating Wehrmacht. There were also SS columns of starving inmates from the death camps. The Germans were also emptying the POW camps in the east. The Germans in late 1944 also evacuated POW camps in the East about to be liberated. The POWs, many weakened by mistreatment and poor diets, were forced to make long marches in sometimes bitter weather. For the weakened and often emaciated men, these were often death marches. Straglers were shot. [Nichol and Rennell]

Italy

We do not have details on Italian treatment of POWs at this time. A Brirish reader writes, "Accounts I have read by former British POWs held by the Italians suggest that Italian treatment of British POWs was generally correct." We have no information on how they treated Greek POWs (1940-41). Nor do we know how they treated Soviet POWs on the Eastern Front (1941-43). We suspect that they generally turned Soviet POWs over to the Germans, but have no details on this. Also we are not sure what happened to the Allied POWs after the Italian surremder/armistace and the Germans seized control of Italy (1943). A British commando who later became a travel writer, gives an interesting account. He was captured by the Wehrmacht in Sicily, while Italy was still in the war, and handed over to the Italians (standard practice, apparently). When Italy dropped out of the war, the Italians opened the gates of the camp, and told the prisoners the Germans were coming to take over. Newby was one of those who chose the risks of running to safe captivity in German hands. He spent months on the run, being sheltered by Italians (one of who he married after the war, and is still married to - both aged over 80), before being recaptured by the Germans. He was betrayed by a local Fascist, who got a promise (which was kept) from the Germans of no reprisals against those who had sheltered him. The book doesn't cover his time in a German PoW camp, but Newby had no complaints about his treatment at the hands of either the Germans or Italians. Worst he describes was a bit of rough handling while being captured. [Newby] Large numbers of Italians were captured by the British in North Africa (0.4 million). Most of Italians taking by the Western Allies survived the War. The survival rate in American camps was 99.8 percent. Ironically the largest numbers of Italian POWs were taken by the Germans (over 0.6 million), after Italy surrendered to the Allies (September 1943). The German shot thousands of Italians at this time. Once transported to the Reich, the chances of survival was relatively good, about 94.5 percemt. It would have been slightly higher, however, the Soviets "liberated" some of the POW camps. Few of the Italians captured by the Soviets (0.1 million) survived the forced marches and camp conditions. About 86 perished in the Soviet Union.

Japan

Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention. The Japanese martial code did not permit surrender and thus the Government saw no need to acceed to the European standards of warfare relected in the Geneva Convention. The Japanese treatment of POWs in World War II was barbaric. The most severe treatment was directed at the Chinese who were killed in large numbers by a variety of brutal means. American, Australian, and British POWs were starved, brutalized, and used for forced labor. The construction of the Burma-Thai railroad was a particularly horendous project in which malnourished British and Australian POWs were forced to do hard labor undervthe most extrene conditions. POWs were used as slave laborers, working in brutl conditiins, in many others areas such as Manchurian coal mines. Some were even used for medical experiments, including live vivisections and assessments of biological weapons. Some POWs were shot at the end of the War in an effort to prevent accounts of their mistreatment to become public. We are unsure how extensive such incidents were. We know of one such incident in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese shot about 100 American contract workers on Wake Island. The fate of the Chinese soldiers was different, the Japanese simply killed them. At the end of the war, despite capturing large numbers of Chinese soldiers, thre were noPOWs to turn over to the Chinese authorities, one of the great atrocities of the war and ratherly mentioned.

Soviet Union

Soviet tretment of German POWs was also brutal, but not as genocidal as German policies. In fact German POWs fared better than domestic prisoners in the Soviet Gulag. It is unclear why. Some belive that Stalin wanted to influence POWs that were to be repatriated. Although mosdt did not survive to return home to Germany. A German reader writes, "I don‘t know whether PoWs were allowed to chose to went back to East or West Germany. I think that there is an international convention (Geneva convention) for PoWs that they may return to their home country when dismissed from the camp. So, it probably depended where their family was living after the war. In the fifties it was not too difficult and dangerous to travel/move from the former DDR to West Berlin and then further on to Western Germany." One would think after 10 years in Soviet labor camps that the POWs would want to get as far away from the Soviets as possible.The Soviets also took large numbers of prioners from German allies (Italy, Hungary, Romania, and others). I am not sure what happened to these men. Nor do I have much information about what happened to the Japanese taken in Manchuria (1939 and 45). Unlike the Japanese army in Okinawa, the Japanese in Manchuria apparently surrendered in large numbers to the Soviets. I am unsure why there was such a differece. One report suggests that many of the POWs taken in 1945 spent up to 10 years in Soviet camps.







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Created: 6:49 AM 6/2/2015
Last updated: 6:49 AM 6/2/2015