Prisoners of War (Germany)

Part of Regulatory Reform Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 7:12 pm on 5 April 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 7:12, 5 April 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this debate on behalf of his constituent. I was, of course, happy to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

The question of compensation for those held as prisoners of war is a matter in which a number of Departments are concerned. My reply will cover issues that also fall within the areas of responsibility of my colleagues, particularly at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and at the Department of Social Security.

Attention in the House has recently focused almost exclusively on the circumstances surrounding the experiences of our service men who were detained in Japanese hands during the second world war—a matter that we addressed in detail last November. That discussion is recorded at columns 157 to 190 of the Official Report for 7 November 2000, when I announced the Government's decision to make an ex gratia payment in recognition of the collective experience of these men while they were detained.

In the European and middle eastern theatres, the reverses of the early years of the war—in particular, the campaign in France and Flanders in 1940 and the later defeats in Greece, Crete and the western desert—resulted in a considerable number of our service men becoming prisoners of war of the Germans and their Italian partners. When Italy surrendered to the allies in the autumn of 1943, although some of our service men were able to escape from captivity and rejoin our forces as they advanced, many more were quickly detained by the German troops in Italy and then moved to camps in Germany and elsewhere in areas under German control.

Although the tide of war had swung decisively in the allies' favour, there were still instances, most notably after Arnhem, when a considerable number of British service men became prisoners of war, so that by the end of the war, a total of 142,319 British service men had been reported as detained at some stage by the Germans or their Italian partners.

As I said in my statement to the House last November: The Government recognise that many UK citizens, both those serving in the armed forces and civilians, have had to endure great hardship at different times and in different circumstances".—[Official Report, 7 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 160.] I would like to repeat that comment now and apply it specifically to our service men detained in German hands. It is clear from personal accounts and the official records that conditions for those detained by the Germans were often less than ideal. That is especially true of those who were still prisoners of war in the last winter and spring of the war, when the breakdown in the German administrative system, the Germans' enforced movement of prisoners of war away from the advancing allied forces to prevent their liberation, the rigours of the weather and the dangers of the ever-nearing battlefield, made that a particularly hard experience.

However, unlike civilian labourers who were conscripted or otherwise brought into the German labour scheme, the treatment of British service men detained as prisoners of war was protected: it was governed by the 1929 Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, to which Germany was a signatory.

I want to expand on the terms of the Geneva convention because important aspects are sometimes overlooked when that subject, especially the aspect of work for the captor, is considered. Under the 1929 Geneva convention, which was in force during the second world war, prisoners of war of other ranks were obliged to undertake work for their captors; the latter were usually called the "detaining power." The convention required that the work should not be directly related to warlike or military activity. However, many other types of work, including mining and work in quarries, were permissible. Almost all the belligerent powers, including Britain and the USA, made use of that facility, and put enemy personnel held as prisoners of war to work on a range of tasks.

I know that many prisoners of war were, and remain unhappy about some of the tasks they had to carry out and their general conditions. However, the report on prisoner of war matters, which the Foreign Office produced in 1950, concluded that, there were few, if any, really clear breaches of the Geneva convention relating to the employment of British prisoners of war in unhealthy and dangerous work.

Although there were clearly instances of conditions in individual camps or working detachments that were less than ideal, through lack of facilities or because of the attitude of the guards or civilian overseers, those working detachments and camps were subject to inspection by both the neutral protecting power, Switzerland, and the International Red Cross. Those inspections meant that improper treatment or lack of proper facilities did not escape notice, censure and demands for remedial action wherever possible.

The contemporary reports of those inspecting teams demonstrate that they were able to talk at first hand with the POWs' "man of confidence", medical officers or personnel to verify their perspective on the state of affairs against that put forward by the detaining power. Further, on re-inspecting various locations, improvements could often be seen in areas highlighted in earlier reports.

Some former prisoners of war also raise the issue of the inadequacy of then rations. It is accepted that the rations provided by the Germans were based on the lower level of those of a German civilian rather than that of their soldiers and, as the war turned against Germany, the quality of foodstuffs became even poorer.

However, steps were taken to ensure that, while detained, British service men received Red Cross parcels of food and other "comforts" from the UK, which were valuable additions to the sometimes limited rations provided by the enemy. The Government played their part in supporting the Red Cross in that activity, while ensuring that they did nothing to encourage the Germans to evade their responsibilities under the convention to feed the prisoners of war by relying on the provision of such foodstuffs by Britain and its allies.

Of course, while detained, British service men continued to receive their service pay from the British Government, usually credited to their home pay account. When they carried out work for the detaining power outside their military skills, as required by the Geneva convention, they were entitled to a certain amount of "working pay" from the Germans. In general, it is clear from contemporary records that that requirement was met by the Germans, the pay usually being credited to the prisoner of war working camp account or issued as camp money, the so-called Lagergeld. Any remaining credit balance in this German account was redeemable from the British authorities on the POWs' repatriation at the end of the war.

It would be wrong for me to suggest that the scheme of inspections by the protecting power and the Red Cross, coupled with protests from Britain, were able to remedy all the shortcomings of the Germans' treatment of our service men at their hands. However, it is clear from the contemporary reports by the protecting power and the Red Cross who visited POW camps, including POW working detachments, that the conditions in such camps in the European theatre and the general treatment of British and Commonwealth POWs in such circumstances were in no way comparable to those of civilian personnel who were forced by the Germans to undertake labour tasks, and clearly in no way comparable to that of slave labourers in the German concentration camps and their outlying work camps.

That view is supported not only by the contemporary reports from the inspection teams and from debriefings of our ex-prisoners of war, but by the hearings of one of the allied war crimes courts which considered the matter of the treatment of labourers at the IG Farben factory near Auschwitz. A POW working detachment, held in a routine POW working camp, also worked in the factory area. This brought the prisoners of war into contact with slave workers from the Nazi concentration camp nearby at Auschwitz. However, the court having heard the evidence, including testimony from ex-prisoners of war, found that the British POWs were generally treated better than other workers in all respects. [Interruption] I accept that that does not mean that they were treated well. However, they were treated differently and in a different order from civilians or detainees in a concentration camp.

During the Nazi regime and the second world war, approximately 8 million people in German-controlled territory were subjected to forced labour under, for the most part, inhumane conditions. The German Government and German companies who used such labour have therefore created a new fund to compensate such individuals. Claims by former slave and forced labourers now living in the United Kingdom are being administered by the International Organisation for Migration.

The British service men detained by the Germans do not fall within the category of slave labourers, and the German authorities have made it clear that former prisoners of war do not qualify under the German forced labour compensation fund. While we accept that as a general point for the reasons that I have explained, we would not consider that claims could not be presented by British service personnel, but it would be remiss of me to encourage the belief that they might succeed. I would add that a small number of British service men detained in Nazi concentration camps received compensation under a special fund paid for by the Germans in the 1960s to victims of Nazi ideology.

The Geneva convention itself did not specify any penalties on the detaining power for ill-treatment of prisoners of war or the imposition of bad conditions. We in the United Kingdom sought to address and deter ill-treatment and actions that clearly and wilfully breached the conventions and that broke the laws of war by bringing the individuals thought to be responsible to justice before war crimes courts.

Further, as hon. Members will recall, it has been the long-standing policy of successive British Administrations not to compensate service men for the fact of detention as a prisoner of war, but rather to seek to help them through war disability pensions and appropriate health care where their health has suffered as a result of military service, which includes any period spent as a POW.

I must remind hon. Members, as I told the House in November, that we believe that it is generally accepted that while endorsing this policy, the collective experience of those of our service men who were detained by the Japanese during the second world war was unique. That is reflected in the fact that about 25 per cent. of those prisoners of war in Japanese hands died while in captivity. I am happy to say, while not in any war minimising the anguish and problems of captivity, that the equivalent death rate for those detained in European camps in the second world war was about 5 per cent.

It is because of the uniqueness of these circumstances that we instituted the ex gratia payment for British groups formerly detained by the Japanese which I announced last year. I regret to say that we have, however, no plans to make any such payment to former prisoners of war from other theatres from the second world war or from other wars.

I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful to the hon. Member for Twickenham. He has raised his constituent's point with great passion and sincerity. If I was presented with any new evidence, I would be very happy to consider it. Indeed, because of the interest in such historical matters, I frequently study such issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock quite rightly points out that there is great interest in such matters, and—who knows?—someone might turn something up. However, the record stands that this was very carefully looked into during the contemporary period immediately after the war, and I see no reason to change that position at present.