During the war, Cornwall hosted many thousands of visitors of many kinds, from child evacuees escaping the Blitz on London, to American G.I.s who were training and preparing for their role in the liberation of Europe. We very often don’t consider another group of people who came to Cornwall, initially, against their will. They lived and worked here for many years, in many cases, providing a valuable service to local communities, assisting the local war effort and serving the country as whole.
The county, like almost every other region of the United Kingdom, hosted enemy prisoners of war (POWs), both Italian and German. It is possible that as many as 5,000 or more prisoners may have been interned at the four main POW camps established by the military authorities for which there is an official record: White Cross Camp at St Columb Major, Consols Mine Camp, which was located in the vicinity of Tywardreath and Par, and Pennygillam Farm Camp and Scarnecross Camp, both of which were in Launceston. Our team at the museum have also identified at least four more POW subcamps and worksites, in Penzance, Roseland, St. Erth and even one near Helston.
Unfortunately, we are no closer to knowing, concretely, how many POWs were interned in Cornwall over the duration of the war. Remarkably, it seems that tallies of enemy POWs, who were either incarcerated in military camps or billeted in special camp facilities next to a quarry, a mine, a farm or any other form of worksite throughout the UK, were not maintained by the military authorities. Even finding an official record of individual camps has proved challenging.
Due to the reopening of archives and museums, in recent months I have been researching records pertaining to the POW population in wartime Britain at the National Archives, Kew, in London. From this research, I have learned that were over 1.5 million enemy POWs in Britain by the end of the war in 1945. These prisoners were Italian and German, although I have not encountered solid information as to what proportion the prisoners of either nationality accounted for, but it’s safe to say that the majority were Italian.
90% of the Italian POWs interned in Britain were put to work in agriculture, industry and other areas important to the war effort, compared to 25% of German POWs who were similarly employed. There was a deep suspicion that the Germans were likely to be far more volatile and less trustworthy than the Italians. Italian POWs were considered to be far less ideologically-driven than their German comrades and were trusted by the authorities and the population to do war work assigned to them. The German POW population, on the other hand, was suspected of harbouring large numbers of fanatical Nazis bent on causing as much damage to the British war effort through sabotage and subversion.
The valuable research of Harriet Steward, a Public History undergraduate student with the University of Exeter, who has worked with us to uncover the forgotten story of Cornwall’s enemy POW community, has shed further light on the presence of a substantial German and Italian POW population in the county. We know, for instance, that White Cross Camp at St Columb Major, officially designated as POW Camp 115, housed around a thousand POWs. Originally these were Italians, but later most of them were moved out and it held German POWs. The camp was constructed next to a railway track and covered an area of approximately 12 acres, with blocks of white concrete huts dominated by a tall water tower.
According to one Italian internee at the camp, the POWs were well-treated and ate the same food as the locals. The Italians built their own elaborately decorated Catholic Chapel with an ornate altar, but this was later destroyed by the German POWs who took over the camp. Eventually, the Italians were allowed to level ground and construct a football pitch. The Italian prisoners organised themselves into five teams and ran their own local league. Many of the German POWs interned at White Cross Camp also engaged in sports and athletics. One of the most famous German prisoners was Herbert Klein, a future 1952 Olympic bronze medalist and four-time world record holder in the breaststroke. During his time as a POW, he trained in a mud pool next to the camp.
We also know of the existence of other camp facilities, mainly through oral and written testimonies, as well as photographs. The primary function of the camps was, of course, to confine enemy POWs in one central location, where they could be monitored. They were fed and sheltered quite well, and were often provided with new tailored uniforms to replace their old and dirty battlefield uniforms – these uniforms had the usual insignia and rank of the Italian and German armed forces sown on. They were able to avail of luxuries such as cigarettes and alcohol on occasion, and received Red Cross parcels from their families filled with goods from home.
However, there was considerable need for labour in wartime Britain. The Geneva Convention permitted belligerents to utilise their captured enemy prisoners, excepting officers, for manual labour. In Cornwall, German and Italian POWs laboured in mines, quarries and on the farms. The POWs also made up work parties for many local engineering projects of a non-military nature, and in some camps, special craft workshops were set up. Famously, German soldiers in a POW camp in Penzance manufactured toys for free distribution at Christmas time to orphan children of servicemen killed in action, as well as children whose fathers became disabled in combat.
German POWs who came to Britain were often moved on to Canada and the United States. Millions of German POWs were captured by the Allied forces towards the end of the war, especially in 1944-45 as the Allies conquered north-west Europe. The decision to move them to North America was more to do with capacity, rather than anything else.
Contrary to what is assumed, POWs also interacted with local women; in Cornwall, there are two specific examples of this. One is found in the oral testimony of a land girl from Leeds named Mildred Bowman, known as ‘Mickie’. She worked for a short time at a Women’s Land Army camp at Penzance before being posted to Place House, a requisitioned country house on the Roseland, and stated that there were a few hundred German POWs billeted there, housed in Nissen huts at the front of the property.
Here, at Place House, the land girls and the POWs worked together on local farms, especially at Harvest time. The POWs worked alongside the land girls harvesting crops, bringing in the hay and operating the heavy machinery. Mickie was a driver for the Land Army, and her main job often involved driving lorries loaded with groups of land girls, as well as POWs, to their locations of work, which changed regularly depending upon which farms required their service.
Mickie recalled that, while she was based at Carnegie Drive in Penzance, there were Italian prisoners working there. She was placed in charge of a group of them, and was responsible for taking them to work and also for dispensing their food rations. She immediately noted that the rations the Italians were allocated were insufficient.
As Mickie remembered: “I looked at it and I thought, I can’t feed all these fellas on this for lunchtime. So I used to get extra food from my hostel, where we were allowed to just help ourselves. I used to get several tins of sandwich material and cake and all sorts of stuff to feed the prisoners.”
As she herself attested, the Italians were highly courteous, trustworthy and friendly: “I got on quite well with the Italian prisoners, and when I left to go to Place House, they made a cigarette case for me and they had it imprinted, and it said: ‘Live and let live’”.
And then Mickie thought to herself: “I hope someone is doing this for our lads in Germany or Italy or wherever they are.”
The second example of interaction with local women is given in the story of Rudi Mock, one of the most well-known enemy POWs interned in Cornwall. Rudi was a German soldier who was captured by British forces and brought over to England to be interned. He was interned in a POW camp at St. Erth and put to work on farms, which was how he received his first experience of Daffodil farming. Rudi became so enraptured with south-west Cornwall that he volunteered to stay after the war, in 1948, when he was paroled.
Rudi made his home in Crowan, Praze, not far from where he had been held as a POW, buying himself an old railway station building, which he converted into a bungalow. In 1951, he married his love, a local woman who had been a land girl during the war. Together they set up a Daffodil farm, which was a highly successful venture that ultimately made him a millionaire.
Rudi published a memoir about his life, his wartime experiences and his love affair with both his wife and Cornwall. The book is called A Cornish Rhapsody: From a Penny Halfpenny an Hour to a Fortune.
His story, and those of many other German prisoners who were interned in the county, is testament to Cornwall’s spellbinding effect upon the enemy soldiers who became our guests during a time of war – enemies who, in some cases, became dear friends and came to call the county home.
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