EastEnders actor Lisa Hammond was shocked to discover that her grandfather, Harry Hammond, had been a prisoner of war during the Second World War.
Between them Germany and Italy captured a total of 142,319 British prisoners, with Japan capturing 50,016.
There were, of course, many thousands more Commonwealth prisoners.
The good news about having a Prisoner of War (POW) relative is that there’s probably more information openly available about them than any other category of serviceman in the Second World War.
Ancestry, TheGenealogist and Findmypast have lists of army prisoners of war held by the Germans, Findmypast has records of those held by the Japanese and Forces War Records casualty records usually mention if a man was a prisoner.
These records usually give the name of at least the POW camp, but there are ways of finding out more.
Finding POW kin
Once you’ve established that someone was a POW, it should be possible to trace their POW interrogation form.
Towards the end of the war MI9 began a mass interrogation of released prisoners and compiled a general questionnaire that each man was required to complete.
The reports are held alphabetically in WO 344 series at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew and are not online.
The series consists of approximately 140,000 liberation questionnaires completed by mainly British and Commonwealth POWs of all ranks and services, plus some other Allied nationals and Merchant seamen.
While plans to question all liberated POWs never materialised, these records represent a large percentage of those still in captivity in 1945.
Files WO 344/1 to WO 344/359 contain reports on POWs of the Germans held alphabetically; WO 344/360 contains miscellaneous reports A to W including army, navy, RAF, air personnel other than RAF, marines, merchant navy and civilians; WO 344/361 to WO 344/410 contain questionnaires for POWs of the Japanese, also held alphabetically.
As well as giving personal details, name, rank, number, unit and home address, these records can include: date and place of capture; main camps and hospitals in which imprisoned and work camps; serious illnesses suffered and medical treatment received; interrogation after capture; escape attempts; sabotage; suspicion of collaboration by other Allied prisoners; details of bad treatment by the enemy to themselves or others.
Lance Corporal Colonel (his real given name) Gordon Appleton, East Riding Yeomanry, recalled sabotaging a German saw mill; another soldier noted the deliberate killing of an RAF flying officer who was recaptured after an escape; another recorded that “no praise is high enough” for his camp ‘man of confidence’ (a prisoner chosen to liaise with the camp authorities) and an Australian doctor.
Though British POWs had a tough time in Germany, particularly towards the end of the war, their comrades captured by the Japanese suffered far more intensely.
Beatings and physical punishments were part of the average Japanese soldier’s life and this culture of beating filtered down to the ordinary soldier who wouldn’t hesitate to take it out on the prisoners he controlled.
“The mood of the guards, usually Koreans, decided whether you got away with a single blow from a bamboo cane or a wholesale beating up from a whole gang of them” wrote one POW.
Japanese rations and medical provision for their own troops were basic so they usually took what they required and left the rest for the prisoners.
Their treatment of prisoners was frequently barbaric and contrary to the rules of war.
If you have a relative who was a prisoner of the Japanese expect to find horrific accounts of suffering.
As well as the interrogation reports (many of which aren’t there, possibly because POWs in Japan were liberated by the Americans or because many men were too ill to complete them) there are a series of POW cards compiled by an unknown central Japanese authority with a degree of Allied assistance.
They’re available on Findmypast. The majority relate to men captured in Singapore.
Once you know the camp where a POW was held, it may be possible to find details of their camp in records at Kew as a number of camp histories were compiled by all three services.
The army ones are in WO 208 series, RAF ones in AIR 40 and Royal Navy ones are scattered through ADM 1 series.
You can search for these reports using the camp name or number on TNA’s website.
Conditions on POW camps varied. Reports on Harry Hammond’s camps, in WO 208/3275 and WO 224/15, reveal that he was quite lucky in where he was sent, with few complaints made to the regular Red Cross inspectors that couldn’t be sorted out quickly.
Hartmansdorf itself was a small central headquarters and the vast majority of men worked in gangs in local factories, in forestry, pipe laying, on the railways and in mines and quarries, usually for 72 hours a week.
Late in the war, rations were cut by 25% but this was the same for local civilians.
Red Cross reports cover all domestic arrangements such as toilets, laundry, canteens, rations and recreational facilities.
Though the work was hard, conditions could have been much worse and there’s little evidence of deliberate cruelty.