Information

British Prisoners from Calais, 1940


British Prisoners from Calais, 1940

A long line of British POWs captured by the Germans at Calais after the 1940 siege.


Captured at Calais: A Kings Royal Rifleman

My father, Henry William Tyrrell (always known as "Harry"), was in the 2nd Batallion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps at the outbreak of WW2. Formerly a territorial, his regiment formed part of the 'diversionary' force at Calais immediately before the evacuation at Dunkirk. Unlike the troops at Dunkirk, the defenders of Calais were not evacuated, mostly being either killed or captured.

Out of ammunition and with his rifle full of sand (and, if you've seen the painting, "The Defence of Calais" by Terence Cuneo, you'd understand why!) my father was taken prisoner when Calais fell. On the march through the German lines, Harry and his mates were struck by the lack of mechanised transport possessed by the Germans. They all felt that, had they known the real situation of the Wehrmacht, they could have given the Germans "a bloody good hiding".

He never forgot the reception they received when they first marched into Germany at Aachen. So bad was the treatment they received at the hands of the civilian population that my father, thereafter, never forgave the people of Aachen. Years later, while travelling across Europe, we were forced to go into Aachen for petrol. The petrol pump attendant tried to engage my father in conversation but (he confessed later), it was all my father could do to stop himself from hitting the pump attendant.

According to my father, on the march across Europe, many soldiers died of the effects of dysentery. It seems the Germans simply didn't feed them. What made it worse was the smells of cooking on those occasions when they marched through towns and villages. The march ended for my father at a coal mine in Silesia, southern Poland. He estimated that only about 250 made it to the end of the march. It seems he only survived because of his robust physical condition (apparently, my grandma had been feeding him particularly well to build him up after he had his appendix removed!).

It was while he was down the mine that my father lost his thumb when his hand was smashed between two coal trucks. He told me that many workers died in those mines, very often as a result of infection from relatively minor wounds received while underground. My father had a narrow escape when, having come off his shift, the next shift (250 men) were all killed as a result of an explosion. Apart from a single Englishmen, the dead were all Poles my father's shift was all-English. He never forgot seeing the bodies lined up on the ground as they were brought out.

When my father injured his hand, his first reaction was to get out of the mine immediately. He almost died from blood poisoning, spending three months in a hospital as a result. During this time he learned German, subsequently becoming very fluent. Always a scholar, in later years he used to read poems by Goethe and other German writers.

When he recovered, Harry was sent to Zabreh in Czechoslovakia this was some time in 1943. Zabreh, then known by its German name of (I believe) Hohenstadt, is in northern Moravia, the eastern province of what is now the Czech Republic. There he met my mother, Anna Horvat. The first thing that struck her about him was how sad he looked.

Housed in a small camp of 15 or 20 men (allied soldiers of all nationalities, so it appeared to my mother), the prisoners in my father's camp were put to work as labourers in a pottery in Zabreh. A converted pub(!), the camp itself had only two guards. Although this seems a ludicrously small number, it begins to make sense when you realise that, in those days, Czech towns often had sizeable German populations (it was not unusual to find one village with a German population while the next village was all-Czech). Zabreh was not unusual in this respect: it would have also had a German garrison.

The camp was at the other end of the town from the pottery so, every day, Harry and his mates would march through the town each day for work. The popular image of PoWs wearing assorted items of apparel didn't apply here these men looked after their uniforms and tried to present themselves as soldiers should. According to my mother, it was a fantastic sight watching them march each day and slightly unreal in that they always seemed to march as if they were on a parade ground. My mother says the other PoWs seemed to show my father an unusual level of respect which was what brought him to her notice.

Towards the end of the war, some of my father's camp-mates escaped to join the partisans in the area. Harry stayed behind because of my mother. He may also have stayed for other reasons. As the Germans retreated, they took their PoWs with them resulting in the death of many along the way. At some point, a dozen or so dead Russian soldiers were deposited in the mortuary in Zabreh and left there, apparently for some time. Eventually, my father and his mates were given the job of burying them. This seemed to affect my father very badly for some time afterwards, he was constantly washing his hands and it seemed to him that he couldn't get rid of the smell of the bodies.

Despite the escapes of some of his mates, my father still appears to have been allowed out, at times unsupervised. When Zabreh was liberated, he was walking along the road towards town alone with my mother. Some German soldiers, pursued by Russians, came running down the road towards them, apparently intending to escape into the hills. According to my mother, bullets were flying both ways. My mother became very worried when she realised that Harry's uniform resembled that of a Russian and she was scared that the Germans would shoot him, thinking him a Russian. Thankfully this didn't happen and the soldiers all ran past them.

The Russians were all Mongols and, to a man, drunk almost all of the time. According to my mother, they would steal paraffin from sheds and out-houses to get drunk on. My mother always felt she was lucky not to have been raped by them (many Czech girls were).

Thus the war ended for Harry Tyrrell. He stayed with my mother's family and married her on 4th June 1945. Like many brides across Europe at that time, she wore a wedding gown made from a parachute. Harry flew back alone to England after their honeymoon in Prague, Anna following four months later. Having been away from Harry for so long, when the time came she didn't want to leave: her mum had to almost force here onto the plane! She still likes to boast about the fact that she flew in a Dakota. She still remembers how wonderful her first taste of fish and chips was and how astonished she was that it was never rationed.

Harry and Anna lived in West London (in Greenford, Southall and Wembley) for many years, producing seven children (John, Ivan, Anne, Vera, David, Mark (me) and Simon). Sadly, Vera died at two days old. Together with Anne and David, she was one of the 'Coronation Triplets' (so called by the press), being born in 1953.

Over the years, we have returned to Zabreh to see my mother's family on countless occasions, one trip coinciding with the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Thus, my mum and dad witnessed a Russian invasion TWICE!

Harry died in 1991. He lived just long enough to set eyes on his first great grandchild and to find himself singularly astonished at the CNN TV coverage from Baghdad as it was attacked in the first Gulf War.

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2. What types of records does The National Archives hold?

  • some records of those held captive by German, Italian or Japanese forces
  • some questionnaires which may reveal personal information as well as details of experiences in the prisoner of war camps
  • some individual reports which may reveal details about capture or escape attempts from prisoners of war camps in central Europe
  • selected records of Merchant Navy prisoners of war
  • documents which reveal information about some prisoner of war camps
  • records of enquiries into missing personnel and POWs&rsquo recommendations for awards to civilian helpers (Europe only)

Our records are incomplete, so you may not find the information you are looking for.


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British Prisoners of War

British prisoners of war were held in all theatres of war from 1940 to 1945. The British POW’s held in German camps run by the military had a tolerable time as Nazi Germany was a signatory to the Geneva Convention and the Red Cross had reasonable access to German camps. Those held in Japanese POW camps in the Far East faced huge problems not experienced by their comrades in Germany and were kept in appalling conditions – and many died in these camps.


Those British POW’s who were habitual escapees could be sent to Colditz – a POW camp touted by Goering as being escape-proof. It was British POW’s at Colditz who came up with the idea of building a glider to escape – though the glider was not finished by the time the prison was liberated in April 1945.German POW camps were usually run fairly. As the men in these camps were from the military and German military personnel ran these camps, there was a degree of empathy between both sides. The British government had made it clear that they expected British POW’s to try to escape and the Germans would have been well aware of this – especially as German POW’s in Britain were also expected to do likewise. The delicate balance between captive and captor was only usually broken by an intervention by the SS or Gestapo. Cases of poor treatment of prisoners by the military staff at a German POW camp were rare, though they undoubtedly existed. So-called ‘goon bating’ was rare as it would only serve to antagonise those who worked in the camps and make life for the POW’s even more difficult. The Red Cross was usually given good access to German POW camps and communication between families at home and POW’s in Germany was as good as it could have been given the circumstances of war.

Much has been written about the conditions for all POW’s kept in Japanese POW camps. Japan had signed the Geneva Convention but its government had never ratified it, so technically Japan did not have to adhere to what was contained in the Convention.

The training for Japanese troops was brutal and effectively brutalised them even before they went into combat. The notion of not surrendering became implicit in this training as it dishonoured your family, your country and the emperor. This philosophy was beaten into each recruit and therefore the whole idea of surrender became abhorrent to a Japanese soldier. Therefore men who did surrender in combat were viewed on by the Japanese with disdain and contempt. Accordingly, these men deserved no better treatment than they got. To the Japanese, the British POW’s they captured were to be used as they wished and many were worked to death. Disease and malnutrition were rampant in Japanese POW camps and many British POW’s had reason to fear the brutality of their captors. At Changi POW camp, north of Singapore, medical treatment was organised by a Major McLeod. He was forbidden to use anaesthetics by the Japanese and had to carry out operations – including amputations – without the use of them. The most necessary of medicine was withheld by the Japanese – seemingly deliberately. To get around this at Changi POW camp, the POW’s there made tablets that they convinced the guards would cure VD. These were sold to the guards and, in turn, the money was used to buy medicine from the men who had refused to give it out in the first place!

The Red Cross was faced with enormous difficulties in getting to these camps and inspecting them. All too often the necessary documents needed for a visit were not issued and, as an example, the Japanese did not even tell the Red Cross how many POW camps they ran. The Red Cross were told by the Japanese that there were 42 POW camps when there were over 100. Getting any type of communication back to Britain was made all but impossible by the Japanese, so that families in Britain had no idea as to what was going on with regards to their loved ones in the Far East. The Red Cross received a degree of criticism for this after the war, but given the circumstances they found themselves in (their Borneo delegate and his wife were shot for trying to get a list of prisoner names off of the Japanese) such criticism was harsh.


5. Boer War, 1899-1902

  • registers of Boer war prisoners, recorded in prisoner number order and arranged by area of confinement (for example, Natal, Transvaal), in WO 108. Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast ( £ ).
  • correspondence on their confinement in CO 537
  • correspondence on Dutch, German and French prisoners in FO 2/824-826
  • lists of prisoners embarked from or returned to South Africa, with correspondence relating to them in the records of the Admiralty, Transport Department, MT 23

What Life Was Like For POWs In Europe During The Second World War

More than 170,000 British prisoners of war (POWs) were taken by German and Italian forces during the Second World War. Most were captured in a string of defeats in France, North Africa and the Balkans between 1940 and 1942. They were held in a network of POW camps stretching from Nazi-occupied Poland to Italy.

The experience of capture could be humiliating. Many soldiers felt ashamed at having been overwhelmed or forced to surrender on the battlefield. It could also be traumatic. Airmen who had been shot down were hunted down in enemy territory after surviving a crash in which friends might have been killed. Sailors might be hauled out of the sea after watching their vessel sink.

The Geneva Convention rules - which lay out protections and standards of treatment of POWs - were not always followed, but on the whole the Germans and Italians behaved fairly towards British and Commonwealth prisoners. Even so, conditions were tough. Rations were meagre. The men - but not officers - had to work, often at heavy labour.

As with the prisoners of the First World War, the days dragged and there was a constant battle against boredom. Prisoners tried to overcome this by staging entertainments and educating themselves. Contrary to the popular myth, most men were too weak from hunger and work to escape. Those who did get beyond the wire ran the very real risk of being shot.


POW 1940-45, captured Calais 1940

My father, Frank Waller, was the eldest of five children and was a rifleman in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, aged just 21. His regiment was sent to Calais in 1940 but following the fighting there, and huge loss of life, he was amongst those captured and taken prisoner.
They were marched on foot to Poland over the following weeks and he remained a POW until the end of the war. He escaped on a number of different occasions but was always recaptured and returned to different camps.
My grandmother received a `missing-believed dead` telegram soon after his capture, and was obviously devastated by this news.
Sometime later, when a camp photograph got through to England, she was sent a copy.
Pouring over the postard sized picture, she spotted a young soldier at the end of a row, near the back. She sent back the picture with the message `please enlarge this soldier`. A grainy passport sized picture duly arrived and confirmed that Frank was alive and well!
My mother has the original postcard, with the message on the back, together with the enlarged photograph.
My father was in Stalag 357 in Orbke, Germany at liberation.

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Today in World War II History—May 27, 1940 & 1945

80 Years Ago—May 27, 1940: Germans take Calais, France.

The FBI receives 2900 reports of espionage and sabotage after President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat warning about “fifth columnists” the night before.

British weekly sugar ration cut from 12 oz to 8 oz per person.

75 Years Ago—May 27, 1945: Due to mines, Tokyo harbor is closed for the duration of the war.

US Sixth Army takes Santa Fe, Luzon, securing the Villa Verde Trail.

US Marines take Naha, the capital of Okinawa.

Sherman tanks of US 6th Marine Division at Naha, Okinawa, Japan, 27 May 1945 (US Marine Corps photo)


Airey Neave was a man who was willing to do whatever it took to end his time as a POW. In February 1940, he was assigned to the 1st Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery in France. He was wounded at Calais in 1940 and was taken captive by the German Army. He made short work of escaping from his first prison camp, but was recaptured a few days later. He was interrogated by the Gestapo after he was recaptured, an experience that he solemnly rememebered as &ldquounpleasant.&rdquo

Unwilling to risk another escape, the Germans transferred Neave to the &ldquoescape proof&rdquo Colditz Castle. From the moment he was imprisoned at the castle, he had a fanatical desire to escape. His first attempt came a mere six weeks after his imprisonment. Neave thought if he could convince the guards he was one of them, he could get past the gates and out of the prison. So, using materials from the theater department, he made himself a German uniform. However as soon as he made it out of the castle, the scenery paint he had used to make his clothes shone a very bright green under the searchlights. After another long interrogation, Neave was returned to the prison at Colditz.

The conditions at Colditz were not ideal as Neave was poorly fed and badly treated during his stay. He never stopped trying to come up with a way to escape and ended up working with a Dutch prisoner named Anthony Luteyn. The pair improved upon Neave&rsquos original escape plan with both of them wearing German uniforms that they had created. Working with the theater gave them the perfect cover for their uniform creation, and a way out.

During a Saturday-night prison revue the two escaped through a trap door in the stage. Once outside the walls of the castle, Neave managed to make it 400 miles to the Swiss border. From there he managed a boat to England and became the first British officer to escape from Colditz and make it all the way back home.


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