New book on the overlooked role German Prisoners of War had in Britain after World War II
PUBLISHED: 10:48 17 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:48 17 April 2015
Growing up during the Second World War, my father can remember German Prisoners of War quickly getting over the misery of defeat and working on the land in Berkshire, writes Jan Raycroft.
In particular he recalls how his father, an ex-serviceman himself, seemed to get on very well indeed with the prisoners while they worked at Horton near Wraysbury, chatting away as best he could with the language barriers, and sharing cigarettes. It seems that much of the local population bore few grudges towards the former enemy, blaming Hitler and his henchmen rather than ordinary people like themselves.
Some defeated troops much preferred to be here rather than back in devastated Germany. Eventually 25,000 decided that a new life in Britain was their best choice. Among those prisoners who decided to stay here rather than go home when permitted, were those who had forged relationships, in some cases leading to marriage, with British families.
My mother, then a young girl living just over the border in Staines, says that there was little hostility between the newly-arrived prisoners and the local population. Instead she remembers her father coming home chuckling because the only regular trouble was between German and Italian prisoners, who seemed to dislike each other much more than their captors. One day of the week was allocated for prisoners to attend the town’s cinema, but it became necessary to separate the Germans and Italians as fights often broke out between them.
There were actually 400,000 German troops in some 1,000 camps on British soil by the end of war, with many in Newbury, Reading, and Windsor. Among them was a Winter Quarter Camp at Ascot, complete with football pitch, and work camps at Lodge Farm Camp, Baydon, Newbury; Stratfield Mortimer; Stanbury Park, Spencers Wood, Reading; Lower Basildon, Pengbourne; and Crookham Common, Thatcham. With so many prisoners being brought to Britain – especially after D-day – a lack of accommodation became critical. At Windsor the headquarters of Bertram Mills Circus were used as a temporary POW camp, with some prisoners later recalling how they had lived in the elephant house.
Now Robin Quinn, an author who has made more than 60 radio documentaries for the BBC, has produced Hitler’s Last Army, a book on this often overlooked legacy of the war. The book includes exclusive interviews with the former prisoners, from the shock of being captured to their final release long after the war had ended. “Being taken prisoner was for the other side, not us,” one man remembers. “A strange new existence was about to begin,” another says. “We were in a kind of limbo, a vacuum between the old life and whatever the future held.” Their role was pivotal in saving Britain from economic collapse and famine after the war as we had lost much of the workforce that tended the land.
It’s recommended by no less than my father who, not normally one to have his head in books, preferring an hour or two in the garden, read it from cover to cover.
Hardback £17.99, also available for Kindle, www.thehistorypress.co.uk.
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