Confronting Captivity

Confronting Captivity: Britain and the United States and Their POWs in Nazi Germany

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 392
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Confronting Captivity
    Book Description:

    How was it possible that almost all of the nearly 300,000 British and American troops who fell into German hands during World War II survived captivity in German POW camps and returned home almost as soon as the war ended? InConfronting Captivity, Arieh J. Kochavi offers a behind-the-scenes look at the living conditions in Nazi camps and traces the actions the British and American governments took--and didn't take--to ensure the safety of their captured soldiers.Concern in London and Washington about the safety of these POWs was mitigated by the recognition that the Nazi leadership tended to adhere to the Geneva Convention when it came to British and U.S. prisoners. Following the invasion of Normandy, however, Allied apprehension over the safety of POWs turned into anxiety for their very lives. Yet Britain and the United States took the calculated risk of counting on a swift conclusion to the war as the Soviets approached Germany from the east. Ultimately, Kochavi argues, it was more likely that the lives of British and American POWs were spared because of their race rather than any actions their governments took on their behalf.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0363-6
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Sailing back from the Russian port city of Odessa on the Black Sea after having spent nearly five years as a British prisoner of war (POW) in German captivity, David Wild relates how ‘‘[a]fter four days theDuchess, which had so far carried no more than three hundred ex-prisoners, was filled to capacity with hundreds of homeward bound troops of various units which had been fighting their way northwards through Italy all through the winter. Confronted with this horde of battle-hardened professionals, we retreated into anonymous obscurity. They were mostly fairly exhausted, not to say suffering from delayed shock, and...


    • 1 Whitehall and British POWs
      (pp. 9-39)

      World War II broke out on 1 September 1939 with Germany’s invasion of Poland. Turning westward after the winter, the German armies during May 1940 invaded the Low Countries, where they met little or no resistance. In effect, the thrust of the German attack was such that it forced British and French troops to beat a hasty retreat from southern Belgium and northern France. Between 26 May and 4 June, approximately 220,000 British and 120,000 French troops were hurriedly evacuated from the beaches near Dunkirk across the English Channel to Britain. About 34,000 British Commonwealth troops failed to make it...

    • 2 Years of Long Captivity
      (pp. 40-70)

      On 19 August 1942, a joint British-Canadian commando launched a major raid on the French port of Dieppe. Five thousand Canadians and 1,000 British troops took part in the operation, which ended disastrously with more than 1,000 of the Allied soldiers killed and about 2,000 taken prisoner, most of them Canadians. The Germans lost no more than 345 men; 4 Germans were taken prisoner and brought to Britain.¹ Two weeks later, on 2 September, the OKW ordered all British Commonwealth soldiers who had been taken prisoner at Dieppe to be shackled as of 2 P.M. the following day. This measure...

    • 3 Washington and American POWs
      (pp. 71-102)

      Four days after Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, on 7 December 1941, Germany declared war against the United States. ‘‘The long known and the long expected has thus taken place,’’ President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in the message he sent to Congress the same day requesting it ‘‘to recognize a state of war between the United States and Germany, and between the United States and Italy.’’¹ As had happened in World War I, the responsibilities of the protecting power were transferred to Switzerland, which was to remain neutral also throughout World War II. The United States...


    • 4 Exchanging Seriously Wounded and Sick POWs
      (pp. 105-147)

      Within a few weeks of the outbreak of World War II, the German government issued a proposal to ensure the repatriation of seriously wounded and seriously sick POWS.¹ Soon thereafter German Foreign Office officials informally advised the American embassy in Berlin that the German government had already appointed the people who would serve on the mixed medical commission (MMC) that was to help implement the agreement in Germany and had asked the ICRC to name the neutral physicians who were to be part of each commission.² The Germans were ready to place a hospital ship at the disposal of the...

    • 5 Long-Term POWs Kept in Abeyance
      (pp. 148-168)

      When, in October 1942, the Red Cross asked the British whether they would want to consider a mutual repatriation of POWS in long-term captivity, several months passed before London even reacted.¹ The Geneva Convention did not make such an exchange binding,² and Whitehall was pressed to first arrive at concrete arrangements for the repatriation of seriously injured and sick POWS (which the convention did oblige the two sides to effect).³ It could also be reasoned that even for those who had fallen into enemy hands almost immediately, two years into the war made it too early to speak of a...


    • 6 Prisoners’ Safety and the Collapse of Germany
      (pp. 171-202)

      Neither in London nor in Washington, until the end of 1943, did the physical safety of British and American troops who had fallen into German hands appear prominently on the agenda of government officials. Initial apprehension in Britain that the Germans might act against British prisoners in an openly brutal fashion gave way quite soon to the perception that Berlin would abide by the 1929 Geneva Convention and treat POWS in the manner to which the convention’s signatories had committed themselves.¹ The Americans—until December 1941 the protecting power—had reached the same conclusion. Inevitably, some POWS were killed while...

    • 7 Forced Marches
      (pp. 203-222)

      It was general German policy to hold POWS in camps located as far away as possible from the front on which their compatriots were fighting so as to prevent prisoners who had succeeded in escaping from rejoining their own forces. Russian and Polish pows were largely concentrated in western Germany, while British and U.S. prisoners were retained in the east.¹ On 12 January 1945, after months of preparations, the Soviets began a major offensive that stretched along the entire eastern front, from the Baltic in the north to the Carpathians in the south, and in which more than 6 million...


    • 8 An Anglo-Soviet Bargain
      (pp. 225-254)

      Within a few days of D-Day, 6 June 1944, British and American military commanders discovered that among the German troops they were capturing there were unexpectedly large numbers of men who had originated from the Soviet Union proper but also from the Baltic republics, which Moscow had annexed in 1940, and eastern Poland. For the Kremlin, these men were all Soviet citizens whom it expected London and Washington to repatriate without delay. Some of these men had actively served in the German army out of choice—fearing for their very lives if sent back, they now demanded that the Allies...

    • 9 A U.S.-Soviet Package Deal
      (pp. 255-279)

      ‘‘My darkest days in Russia,’’ Major General John R. Deane wrote in his memoirs, ‘‘were in the winter of 1944–45, when I was trying to arrange for the best possible care and speedy repatriation of American prisoners of war liberated by the advance of the Red Army.’’¹ Deane was head of the U.S. Military Mission in Moscow and as such in charge of the negotiations with the Russians over the mutual exchange of POWS. He soon discovered, as did his British counterparts, that the Soviets had decided to exploit the large numbers of Allied POWS they were expected to...

    (pp. 280-286)

    Barely one month into the war British intelligence had warned: ‘‘It appears very probable that the Germans will fight this war on no rules whatsoever, and that our conceptions of the treatment of prisoners of war will have to be entirely revised. It is even possible that certain Prisoners of War camps in Germany will be in the hands of the Gestapo, in which case no human feelings on the part of the camp staff are to be expected and discipline will be enforced by sheer brutality.’’¹ With hindsight the assessment appears realistic enough—it certainly proved true for the...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 287-348)
    (pp. 349-364)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 365-382)