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.