World War II--Prisoners of War (POWs)

Figure 1.--The German High Command was staggered at the numbers of Soviet POWs. Photographs show longlines of POWs being marched back from the front, often lines often against a vast flat steppe. The long lines of POWs helped convince the Wehrmacht that the Red Army was a degeated force. Little provision was made to care or adequately feed these men. Often they were simply confined with barbed wire without any shelter. Those POWs taken in the early months of Barbarossa had no idea of the genocidal policies of the NAZI regime. Tragically the Spviet POWs who managed to sirvive the NAZI camps were treated as tritors by Stalin when they were liberated.

The treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) varied widely from country to country. 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. They did try to separate Jewish POWs from the general POW population. 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. British and American treatment of POWs was correct, although there were difficulty handling thelarge numbers in 1945. German POWs in camps located in America were amazed at their treatment and diet. Strangely German and Italian POWs were often treated more courtesly than Black U.S. servicemen. I'm unsure about Italian policies. Soviet tretment of German POWs was also brutal, but not as genocidal as German poliies. In fact German POWs fared better than domestic prisoners in the Soviet Gulag. It is unclear why. Some belive that Stlin wanted to influence POWs that were to be repatriated. The Japanese treatment of POWs was barbaric. POWs were starved, brutalized, and used for forced labor. Some were even used for mediucal experiments, including live vivisections and assessmrents of biological weapons. American combat soldiers were often brutal with Japanese soldiers, but once in camps the treatment was correct.

World War I

World War I histories tend to give less attention to Prisoners of War than is the case of World War II. This is in part because the major beligereant countrirs generally treated POWs correctly following the Geneva Convention to the extent possible given war time conditions. Here the major exception was the Ottoman Turks. The Austrians and Germans also tended to treat the Serbs harshly. There was, however, nothing of the barbarity exhibted by the Germans and Russians during Wotld War II. Quite large numbers were involved. Offical statistics tend to combine POWs and missing in action. The two countries with the largest numbers of POWs were the Russians with 2.5 million (mostly taken by the Germans) and thecAustro-Hungarians with 2.2 million (mostly taken by the Russians. There were also 1.2 million Germans (mostly taken by the Western Allies). Other countries with relatively large numbers were: Italy (0.6 million), France (0.5 million), Ottoman Empire (0.3 million), Britain (0.2 million), and Sebia (0.2 million). Only 4,000 Americans were POWs or missing. Given the recruitment policies of the beligerant nations, there were many children and teenagers among the POWs. The Red Cross played a major role with POWs during World War I. This was a category of war victims that had not previously been protected by the Geneva Conventions. The International Prisoner of War Agency in Geneva compiled a an index of seven million file cards. They documented 2 million prisoners held in the POW camps of the 38 belligerents nations.

Geneva Convention (1929)

The rules concerning the treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) were different during World War II than those in force during World War I. The reason for this was the negotiation of the Geneva Convention during the inter-war period. The Geneva Convention was negotiated at various times and covered different aspects of war. One of the most important covered Prisoners of War (POWs). The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments (1929). Two countries which did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan after launching the Pacific War (1941), indicated that with qualifgications that they would abide by the Convention (1942). The Soviet Union did not adhere to the Geneva Convention and instead pledged to observe the terms of the Hague Convention (1907). There were major differences between the two documents. The Hague Cinvention unlike the Geneva Convention does not provide for neutral inspection of prison camps, exchange of prisoners' names, and permitting correspondence. The Geneva Convention provided extensive protections for POWs. POWs could be questioned, but they could not be compeled to disclose information beyond their identity (name, rank, and serial number). The country holding POWs had to provide adequate food and medical care. POWs had the right to send and receive mail, including parcels. A POW was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy. The attempt to escape was seen as a legitimate action and such attempts should not be punished. Officers were to receive their and could not be forced to work. Countries could force enlisted men to work, but they had to be paid. They could not be used for work associated with military opneration nor could they be used in areas exposing them to danger. POW camps were subject to inspection by neutral powers. Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers during World War II. The International Red Cross based in Geneva served as a clearinghouse for the exchange of POW information. No country perfectly followed these provisions, especially at lower levels and during actual combat. The United States and Great Britain generally honored the terms of the Geneva Convention during the War. Japan committed terrible atrocities such as the Bataan death march. After 1942 few additional Allied POWs fell into Japanese hands. There treatment of the POWs taken in 1942 continued to be barbaric. German treatment of POWs varied. Race and nationality was a major factor. Some effort to treat American, British, and French POWs correctly. Polish and Soviet POWs were treated savegly. Here treatment depended on who was holding the POWs. The Wehrmact and Luftwaffe generally attempted to abide by the Geneva Convention. Some POWs got into the hands of the Gestapos and SS and in some cases were murdered. The Germans also selected out Jewish POWs who were subjected to inhuman treatment in concentration camps.


Depite the Geneva Convention of 1929, the treatment of POWs in World War was very different than that of World War I. The basic difference was the policies of NAZI Germany, the Soviet Union, and Imperial Japan. The policies of each of these countries varied, but with Germany and Japan racism was a central matter. This was not the case for the Soviet Union. Here the treatment of POWS went more to the barbaric nature of the Soviet regime. NAZI Germany embarked on World War II with a racist mission as Hitler explained in Mein Kampf. We commonly think of the NAZI Holocaust of the Jewish peopke as the principal result of NAZI racism. It was not, the NAZIs sought out to gain Lebensraum, in the East. And along with the acquisition of the land was the reduction of the Slavic population. Thus the NAZI policies for Polish and Soviet POWs was race-based genocode. Racism was not a major motivating factor for the Soviets. The Soviet treatment of German POWs was mopt radically different thn that of Soviet citizens commited to the Gulag. Racism was a factor with the Japanese. They pomoted a racist doctrine similar to the German veneration of the Aryan race. It was somewhat different than the NAZIs in that the Japanese master race was lovated in Japan. The NAZIs on the other hand found suitable Aryan stock in many conquered countries. Another factor for the Japanese was preceived national slights by arrogant Westerners.

Country Policies

The treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) varied widely from country to country. Almost all the POWs taken by the Americans survived the War (about 99 percent). Few POWs taken by the Soviets survived (5-10 percent). German policies varied 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. There were some abuses such as the treatment of Jewish servicemen and escapees. Conditions in the German camps deteriorated at the end of the War. POWs from Poland and the Soviet Union perished in large numbers. The Japanese treated POWs brutally and the death ratewas very high, although climate kept survival rates higher than in Soviet camps.


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.


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 OPOWs they took were held in both the Dominions and colonies nd 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 Jaoanese 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 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.


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]


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 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.

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.


Age is another factor which needs to be accessed concerning the treatmet of POWs. Here we are talking boys meaning individuals under the age of 18 years and eldrr men meaning well above military age, mostly men in their 50s. We do not think very many men in their 60s outside of top commanders were involved in combat. There are two countries which employed boys in combat, the Gerams and Soviets. And one country employed older men, the Germans. The Germans in the last year of the War, mobilized boys and older men up to 60 years of age in a people's militia--the Volksstrum (September 1944). The Volksstrum was authorized to conscript boys 16 and 17 years of age. Earlier the age of conscription was 18 years of age. And men up to 60 years of age could be conscripted. In additioin to 16 and 17 year olds, many younger boys took up combat roles asthe conerging Allied and Soviet armies entered the reich, including some preteens. We also notice boys in the Red Army. Here we are not entirely sure why. The age of conscription before the War was 21. With the German invasion (1941) the age was loweed to 18 years. But we notive many obviously younger individuals in the Red Army. Apparently younger individuals were allowed to enlist. This increased exponentially with the German invasion. German genocidal policies forced boys anf girls into the military. Here patriotic fervor was a factor. Another factor was severe food shortages after the German occupied much of the most productive agricultural land of the Soviet Union, including the Ukraine. Childrn were given special rations until they turned 12 yeatrs of age. Children who did not get a job in the war industry or join the military had to survive on very low rations. Another facor was the partisans. Here in addition to patriotism children. especially boys but some girls as well, may have witnesed their family being killed and took to the woods. What we do not know at this time is how these younger and older indviduals were treated if vcaptured as POWs. Here we are looking for policies of the different beligerent countries, including America, Britain, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. We have not yet been able to find any specific regulations issued by military authorities to deal with this problem. We have read that American GIs in the front lines sent the younger boys home. But we do not yet have any real evidence shedding light on this question.



Davis, Prentiss. E-mail message, October 12, 2014.

Gilbert, Martin. Churchill and the Jews: Aifelong Friendship (Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2007), 359p.

Newby, Eric. Love and War in the Appenines.

Nichol, John and Tony Rennell. The Last Escape: The Untold Story of Allied Prisoners of War in Europe, 1944-45 (Viking, 2003).


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Created: October 30, 2003
Last updated: 6:20 PM 4/11/2014