Posted by on 19 August 2011 in General, Guest Bloggers

Andrew Dawrant, Royal Aero Club Trust
Guest blogger Midge Gillies, author of The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War

I grew up knowing that my father had been a prisoner of war but it was not until his death that I began to realise that being “in the bag” was about much more than tunnelling or the glowering silhouette of Colditz castle.

I had no idea until I found this certificate that my father had played rugby as a POW. The document gave me the valuable information that in May 1944 he was held at Stalag 357 (originally in Poland but later moved to near Hamburg). An application for information to the International Committee of the Red Cross’s website and my father’s army records from the Scots Guards filled in more details: he was captured in north Italy in February 1944 and held in Stalag 357 and Stalag IVB before escaping in the dying days of the war. 

There’s a glaring error in the certificate – and one that family history researchers will be all too familiar with – my father’s name is misspelt (Gillies has an “e” in it). It amuses me to think how cross this would have made him.

The certificate hints at the activities that went on in a typical POW camp. As I researched the subject I found that, with the help of the Red Cross who sent out sports equipment, musical instruments and 240,000 books, POWs were playing all sorts of games, entertaining each other with concerts and plays and even studying for exams. One man was called to the Bar in absentia and eleven POWs sat the ordination exam for the Church of England. 

POWs in the Far East, of course, had a much harsher time because of the cruelty of their guards, the dearth of Red Cross parcels, starvation and illness. But still some managed remarkable feats of creativity, putting on plays to raise morale, performing medical operations with very few resources and learning languages. You can hear some of their stories at www.captivememories.org.uk, a website featuring extracts from an oral history project run by The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Writing my book was never depressing and, I hope, it pays tribute to the POWs who kept going – day in, day out.

To purchase a copy of The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War, click here.

4 Comments

Simon Bird 

My dad’s uncle, Hugh ‘Pop’ Benson, was captured at Tobruk fighting for the South African forces in June 1942 and was in Stalag 1V B up until his death, aged 62, in July 1944. Does the author of the book (which I have just ordered) know if these rugby games were also played between countries i.e England v South Africa ?

22 August 2011 at 1:20 pm
Midge Gillies 

Hi, Simon. How sad that your father’s uncle died at Stalag IVB. I talk a lot about sport in my book as it was very useful for maintaining morale among POWs and the Red Cross sent out sporting equipment. Men also adapted the rules of, say, cricket to suit their own circumstances. There were a lot of “international” games between different nationalities within the camps at all sorts of sports, for example, a Test series for cricket. International sides were made up of POWs from South Africa, Canada, France, Scotland etc There were also a few professional sportsmen who were held in captivity. I hope that helps and thank you for buying my book.

22 August 2011 at 2:29 pm
Jenny James 

Midge is right when she said that Far Eastern P.O.W s were treated much harder. My own father was killed in action on Friday February 13th.in Singapore just 4 weeks and one day before I was born. He has no known grave. After the war my Mum married an ex-F.E.P.O.W. He was kept in hot and uncomfortable conditions and was given many cruel punishments. On one occasion he was put in a deep hole in the ground for 12 or more hours,it was extremely cold. In contrast, another time he was stuck in a very small tin hut in the full glare of the blazing sun,he almost died of heat exhaustion.

Part of the time he worked in a canning factory in Tokyo. I’m pleased to say that the prisoners added more that fish or meat to the cans they were processing,let us just call it bodily fluids. He came home minus most of his teeth,partly due to malnutrition and the rest to beatings. He only weighed 6 stone,he was six feet tall.

One of the Camp Commandants had been educated at Oxford.My step-father always said that the Commandant had it in for him when he found out that he had been living in Cambridge prior to his going overseas. My poor Step-father was actually born in Yorkshire! He died when he was 57.

22 August 2011 at 6:19 pm
linxiaobu 

International sides were made up of POWs from South Africa, Canada, France, Scotland etc There were also a few professional sportsmen who were held in captivity. I hope that helps and thank you for buying my book.

30 August 2011 at 10:57 am