Years ago, when I was writing A Time For Silence, I included prisoners from a P.O.W. camp, because I knew there had been one in the area. I knew a former Italian prisoner who had stayed on in Britain, and while looking through local newspapers in the late 40s, I can across several references to German P.O.Ws. One was listed as a winner at a local Eisteddfod. So I set out to research Henllan Bridge Camp, a few miles east of Newcastle Emlyn along the Teifi Valley. I contacted the National Archives and I received a huge bundle of papers, all of which made fascinating reading although I was (I hope) wise enough not to use too much of it in my book. But should anyone else wish to do so, they cast a fascinating insight into the situation with prisoners of war held in Britain after the war, and also with, well, the British.
Henllan Bridge Camp was set up originally to hold Italian prisoners captured in North Africa. The huts still stand and most notable is the chapel built by the prisoners, with paintings by self-taught artist Mario Ferlito, using paints made on site.
But in September 1943, Italy surrendered and switched sides, and the prisoners were now officially allies. The camp was next used, at the end of the war, for German prisoners, and finally closed in the spring of 1948. The practice during the war had been to keep German prisoners as far away from the Channel as possible, preferably across the Atlantic, in the USA or Canada, so many of the Germans at Henllan had been moved there at the end of the war from America. Others were shipped over from Germany where they had quit the forces and gone home, only to be rounded up by the allies. Lt.Col. E.C. Barton was in charge of nearly 2000 prisoners, 576 held at the main camp at Henllan Bridge, 300 billeted on farms in the area and 955 in the various hostels attached to the camp, including Pen-y-Coed, St Davids, Letterston, Llanon, Eglwyswrw, Aberaeron and Portfield on the outskirts of Haverfordwest.
There were, very obviously, two schools of thought as to the purpose of the camp. Lt.Col.Barton was primarily concerned to maintain military discipline and to put the prisoners to work – hence so many being billeted on farms.
“The main concern seems to be a good labour output and smooth running of the camp, adopting ‘ruthless’ discipline to achieve these ends. The camp is run on purely military lines, e.g. if a PW has a good soldierly bearing, then he is a good man etc.”
The other purpose, which was the subject of all the reports I received from the National Archives, was education. It came in two forms: the teaching of English, mostly using a book called “English for All.” The first report, in 1946, states that there were 23 pupils. Not altogether encouraging.
The other form of education was the real reason for holding so many Germans long after the war officially ended. Re-education, as part of attempts to de-nazify Germany. German prisoners were graded as White, Grey or Black (today, they might be encouraged to use other terms). Black were convinced and unrepentant Nazis. White were anti-Nazis, obliged to serve in the army or join the party, but happy to see it all over and keen for a chance to start afresh. The Grey were men who had been sucked into the dream, believing everything that Hitler had told them, and were now having trouble coming to terms with the idea that it might all have been lies. Prisoners were to be screened and graded. If they were judged to be genuinely White, they could apply for repatriation, although not all of them did. Beckmann, the leader of the Eglwyswrw hostel, “is prepared to remain in this country, and has in fact requested to his C.O. not to be repatriated.”
The Henllan camp and its hostels were regularly inspected for re-education and screening, and the reports make up the bulk of my papers. Some suggest that the inspectors were seeing what they hoped to see, rather than what was actually before them.
“Analysis of screening shows a predominant greyness amongst those Ps.W screened, but opportunism and self-pity is very evident. The few whites are good types who are doing their best for re-education. The greys are mainly men of low intellect amongst whom are quite a number of converts from National Socialism, and who are trying to seek a positive way in the future. The revelations of the Nuremberg trials have deeply shocked them and they are trying to grasp at the hope Democracy can offer them. Quite a few feel nauseated at the way in which they allowed themselves to be deceived by Hitler’s bluff. The blacks, mainly youngsters, still fool themselves there was some good in Nazism. There is no evidence of communism.”
Later reports suggest that there less of a desperate grasping at the hope of Democracy and more outright cynicism towards everyone and everything.
“The camp and hostels are, in general, dark grey in complexion. Portfield hostel is almost black. The larger percentage (80%) are either NSDAP [Nazi party members], SA or Waffen SS (many volunteers).
About 10% have a limited interest in re-education. 10% still nourish, but not openly, the Nazi spirit; about 80% are either negative or critical of everything in a destructive fashion – not openly in discussion but more in private. A few (20) are very interested in Communism and have formed a cell, led by Schroeder P. These are not intelligent men, but grumble and criticise everything British in private. Their influence on the camp is negligible.
About 5% have or are beginning to have a Democratic outlook; owing to lack of information the PW are very ignorant of any Democratic ideas. An overwhelming majority have been violent Nazis in the past and owing to lack of help and attention have made no constructive progress from the negative state of disillusionment, by which the collapse of Nazism left them.”
What all the reports made plain was that Lt.Col.Barton and his officers had no interest whatsoever in re-education and couldn’t understand what it or the inspectors were about. All the re-education was in the hands of the German prisoners themselves. “There is only one outstanding man, Dr. Witthoft, who is bearing the brunt of the re-education programmes. He is a Training Centre product, but has very little help.” Later reports suggest that Dr Witthoft finished up doing everything – running classes, discussion groups, the camp newspaper, lectures. The problem was spelled out in a report in 1947. “The British staff do not take a great part in re-education. The Germans run it themselves and make a good job of it. They are handicapped by losses due to repatriation.” Goodbye, Dr Witthoft.
Repeated appeals were made by the inspectors for an increase in the number of newspapers, books in the library (less than 100) and paper and ink for newsletters. They had conflicting ideas about the state of morale in the camp. It seemed to be a matter of luck whether they found it good or bad. News from a divided Germany, suffering devastation and shortages of every description, made things worse. Working on the local farms seemed to improve things. And work was what it was all about to Lt.Col.Barton.
However indifferent the commanding officer was to re-education, civilians in West Wales were more than happy to pitch in and help. This resulted in an unfortunate situation, which an inspector was faced with in March 1947, as a result of which he wrote this heartfelt and frustrated letter to the War Office.
“I am sending this note about Portfield Hostel ahead of my report in the hope that you will take what action you can in the matter.
The position briefly is this. Last year, the Rev Rees, Vicar of Haverfordwest, working in conjunction with Kotscher, the chief English teacher [at the hostel] and with the British sergeant in charge, started a series of lectures and discussions in the hostel. He enlisted the help of the whole of the Rotary Club and most of the leading citizens, including the most important lawyer, the Town Clerk and extra-mural Tutor of the University of Wales, the Inspector of Taxes and the head of a motor industry. One woman who spoke German also helped. None of these people was, or is interested in being paid for the work. It was probably one of the best education services in any P.O.W. hostel England [sic] has ever had. All this was done in ignorance of the War Office rule forbidding civilians to enter compounds. So soon as Mr Rees discovered this, he wrote to the commandant, asking him if he would ask W.O. to give permission to carry on. W.O. said they would have to carry out an enquiry about all the people involved. Shortly afterwards, one of the voluntary lecturers was visited at his place of work by a police officer and two detectives. This caused such embarrassment that Mr Rees decided he would not submit all the leading citizens of Haverfordwest to such an enquiry, even if it meant stopping the scheme. As he told me, he himself is a Welfare Officer, accredited by W.O. and should have been trusted. In addition, he could not say ahead whom he would ask to lecture next, as the most responsible people were often busy. As a result the whole thing was stopped.
Mr Rees is a highly cultured man, and is doing what he can to help Kotscher (a professional teacher and scholar), and Kotscher, as I could see for myself, was re-educated by this contact, which is important because Kotscher runs all the education at the camp.
Mr Rees asked me today if he could start the scheme again, and I was bound to say that he must get in touch with you first. (I must point out how particularly annoying it was in this case, not to be able to make a decision, especially as I had travelled over a hundred miles through sleet and floods to visit this hostel). He said he could start again tomorrow if the official position was cleared up. I could see that there was no chance of getting his help again if he or any of his friends were treated as the W.O. treated them.”
Unfortunately, the papers do not include a reply, so I don’t know whether British pluck or British bureaucracy won in the end.
Repatriation, which had been very slow to start with, speeded up at the end, and the camp was closed in April 1948, all remaining prisoners being transferred to other camps. The final report is far more detailed than previous ones, and very enlightening, both about events at the camp and about attitudes on both sides. But that’s for the next post.