Sunday, 27 November 2011

World War II POWs

Our afternoon speaker was Chad Martin. Chad is the president of the Brant Historical Society and his passion is WWII POWs. Chad was a wealth of knowledge on POWs and shared with us the daily lives of the POWs in German camps. Chad noted that the primary condition of the POW was boredom and they then became very creative in finding ways to stave off the boredom in an attempt to retain their sanity.

Chad quoted Winston Churchill:

"Prisoner of War! That is the least unfortunate kind of prisoner to be, but it is nevertheless a melancholy state. You are in the power of your enemy. You owe your life to his humanity, and your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess  your soul in patience. Meanwhile, the war is going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away. Also, the days are very long. Hours crawl like paralytic centipedes. Nothing amuses you. Reading is difficult, writing impossible. Life is one long boredom from dawn till slumber. "

In WWII, there were 9,000 POWs:
  • 1946 were captured at Dieppe
  • 1,700 were captured in Hong Kong
  • 26 were taken at Buchenwald
  • 10 were from Brantford
Each POW camp was divided. All those of commonwealth nations were together, those of baltic nations together, french were together. Initially the Americans were put into the commonwealth camps with thoughts that they would irritate the Brits and would create chaos and division. After a year or so, the Americans were housed in a separate camp, just due to sheer numbers.

The POW barracks were densely populated. Each barrack had 12 rooms and a latrine. Each room was 14 x 16 feet and held eight sets of triple-deck bunks, or 24 men. The rooms held a small table and a source of heat/cooking - usually a woodstove. During the winter, each room was alloted 12 peat bricks a day. One peat brick lasted about 1/2 hour. The barracks were uninsulated, draughty and windows were often broken and unrepaired. It was not uncommon to awake in the morning to find snow in the room and the men near freezing. Sanitation and hygiene were unheard of. Bedbugs were rampant. It was very claustrophobic. The men were not given a change of clothes, but sometimes could barter for a new piece of clothing.

Red Cross parcels became the lifesaving items for the POWs. Initially men were issued one parcel each week. As the war progressed, that changed to one parcel for every 12 men once every month. The parcels of each country were packed differently and it was never a given that you would receive a parcel from your home country. The most envied parcels were the Canadian parcels. These contained:

  • 5oz chocolate (usually Baker's chocolate)
  • 32 oz biscuits (these were like Farley's Rusks and would turn to a mushy cereal when hot liquid was added, making them more filling)
  • 3 oz sardines - the cans became useful when made into various "tools"
  • 16oz powdered milk
  • 6 oz prunes
  • 8 oz salmon
  • 12 oz corned beef
  • 7 oz raisins
  • 8 oz sugar
  • 4 oz tea
  • 4 oz cheese
  • 16 oz marmalade
  • 16 oz butter (this became the envy of other prisoners who were reduced to a fat-based margarine)
  • 10 oz spam
  • 3 oz soap
Chad showed slides of some of the household items the POWs were able to make. Items such as various crude "cookers", and household utensils like strainers, coffee percolators, steamers, shaving mugs and saucepans.

Chad's talk was very informative and he gave a remarkable insight into the tedium of the daily lives of the WWII POWs.

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