Hitler’s Last Army
German POWs in Britain
Stroud: The History Press, 2015
Hardcover. 253 p. ISBN 978-0752482750. £17.99
Reviewed by S.P. MacKenzie
University of South Carolina
Is the story of German prisoners-of-war (POWs) held in Britain during and after the Second World War one that needs to be retold? The author of this work, an independent radio producer and writer, certainly thinks so, quoting the senior historian of the Imperial War Museum to the effect that “many young people would be surprised to learn there were German POWs living here [in the United Kingdom] at all” . Doubtless this is the case; though it is worth noting that, contrary to what the list of cited sources at the end of the book would suggest, there have been a fair number of other popular histories published on this very subject in recent years.(1)
This does not mean, of course, that there is no room for another narrative account. Though the chapter divisions are sometimes somewhat arbitrary, and the origin and meaning of the occasionally enigmatic chapter titles are often not revealed for some time, Quinn develops the story of German POWs in the United Kingdom for the most part in logically chronological fashion. The central sources for this book are the dozens of interviews of former prisoners undertaken by the author and other researchers. This means the emphasis throughout is on the experiences and attitudes of the prisoners themselves and, to a lesser extent, those in Britain with whom they interacted. The development and evolution of policy in Whitehall is thus of only secondary interest here; though attention is still paid to the causes and consequences of key decisions at various junctures, and the role of both parliamentarians and the press is suitably highlighted.
Subjects covered include: surrender, transportation, and interrogation for the large number of Germans captured in the last year of the war and sent to Britain; the sometimes rather haphazard classification and division of POWs according to a supposed degree of adherence to the Nazi regime; aspects of the reeducation effort; particular escape attempts; the evolution of living and working conditions as prisoners were kept on after the war to solve an agricultural worker shortage; romantic relations with the opposite sex in the face of rules against fraternisation; and the dispatch of the captive labour force back to Germany in 1946-1947. Though not particularly representative, the motives and life stories of those ex-POWs who chose to remain in or return to Britain after their postwar release are of particular interest to the author, since these were the people he could most easily interview: though it should be noted that, unlike some who write about prisoners in the Second World War, his foreign language skills are good enough to allow him to utilise recent German studies as well as relevant volumes in the massive State-sponsored history of German POWs published forty or more years ago.(2)
For the most part, Quinn keeps his views to himself and relates the stories of those who were there or quotes their opinions without much comment. He does, however, have a couple of points to make in a postscript. The first thing he wishes to assert is that the Western Allies were morally culpable in what he calls the “Repatriation Deceit” [112, 222], whereby in early 1946, instead of being shipped home to Germany from camps in North America as they were told would be the case, well over a hundred thousand Germans found themselves landing in British ports and being put to work until as late as the spring of 1948. In his view, the resulting disappointment might have been lessened if the men concerned had been told the truth. However, it is worth noting that in fact German prisoners in the United States had been informed late the previous year that some of them—though it was not indicated which men—would be shipped to France or Britain as labourers, news which had generated a good deal of anger.(3) At the time the transports were being loaded or while at sea, it must have seemed to the Allied authorities that to tell particular shiploads of German captives that, unlike many of their compatriots, they were not after all going home just yet would be to invite dangerously mutinous behaviour. The second point Quinn wants to emphasise is how critical these men, and those already at work in the United Kingdom in the fields and elsewhere, were to the country’s economic survival. “It would be no exaggeration to say”, he argues, “that the German prisoners played a pivotal role in saving Britain from economic collapse and famine” . Indeed, as late as the summer of 1947, when the overall number had declined from a peak of over 400,000 since the summer of 1946 due to monthly repatriation shipments to Germany, well over 200,000 Germans were still at work in Britain, constituting a quarter of everyone working in agriculture.(4)
It is individuals, though, rather than numbers, which lie at the heart of this book. Perhaps the most important contribution Quinn makes to the literature on German POWs is to illustrate how varied individual German experiences in Britain during and after the war could be.
(1) See e.g. Free, Ken. Camp 186 : The Lost Town at Berechurch. Stroud: Amberley, 2010; Jackson, Sophie. Churchill’s Unexpected Guests : Prisoners of War in Britain in World War II. Stroud: History Press, 2010; Risby, Stephen. Prisoners of War in Bedfordshire. Stroud: Amberley, 2011; Sutherland, Jon & Diana. Prisoner of War Camps in Britain during the Second World War. Newhaven: Golden Guides, 2012.
(2) Maschke, Erich (ed.) Zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Bielefeld: Gieseking, 1962-1974. See also e.g. Held, Renate. Kriegsgefangenschaft in Großbritannien : Deutsche Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkriegs in britischem Gewahrsam. München: Oldenbourg, 2008.
(3) Krammer, Arnold. Nazi Prisoners of War in America (1979). Lanham: Scarborough House, 1996 : 242-243.
(4) Weber-Newth, Inge & Steinert, Johannes-Dieter. German Migrants in Post-War Britain : An Enemy Embrace. London: Routledge, 2006 : 20, 22.
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