During the Second World War, Germany and Italy captured a total of 142,319 British prisoners of war, with Japan capturing 50,016. There were, of course, many thousands more Commonwealth prisoners of war from countries such as Australia and Canada.
If someone in your family fought in the Second World War and was captured, the good news is that there’s probably more information openly available about prisoners of war than any other category of serviceman.
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 prisoner of war camp, but there are ways of finding out more.
How to find prisoner of war records
Once you’ve established that someone was a prisoner of war, it should be possible to trace their interrogation form.
Towards the end of the war MI9 began a mass interrogation of released prisoners of war 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 prisoners of war of all ranks and services, plus some other Allied nationals and Merchant Navy seamen.
While plans to question all liberated prisoners of war 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 prisoner of war of the Germans held alphabetically; WO 344/360 contains miscellaneous reports A to W including Army, Royal Navy, RAF, air personnel other than RAF, marines, Merchant Navy and civilians; WO 344/361 to WO 344/410 contain questionnaires for prisoners of war of the Japanese, also held alphabetically.
As well as giving personal details, name, rank, number, unit and home address, these prisoner of war 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 prisoner of war 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.
Once you know the camp where a prisoner of war 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.
You can search for these reports using the camp name or number on TNA’s website.
What was life like in Japanese prisoner of war camps?
Though British prisoners of war 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 of war 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 prisoner of war.
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 of war.
Their treatment of prisoners of war 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 prisoners of war in Japan were liberated by the Americans or because many men were too ill to complete them) there are a series of prisoner of war 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.