FEPOWs at Christmas. Credit: Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum
WWII

Christmas In Captivity

How the festive period was marked by prisoners of war on all sides during World War Two

FEPOWs at Christmas. Credit: Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum

The enduring human spirit that sees men and women serve their country in times of war is something that, for many, evokes enormous pride.

Among the groups of those who did, it seems futile trying to prioritise who suffered more than others, who came off the worst. The fact is war is an all-encompassingly terrible experience for everybody involved. 

Within the rungs of that terribleness are stories that genuinely underline that human spirit of putting adversity aside. That brave intent could not be more accurate of the Christmases that fell during the long years of the Second World War.

In the case of captured German prisoners of war held in Britain, that brutal strife of being separated from family at Christmas time continued for some years after 1945 too. 

Here, BFBS explores how Christmases were marked, on all sides, during World War Two and beyond, from the perspectives of prisoners of war.

A Far East Prisoner of War. The captured Allied men, known as FEPOWs, were held in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

The Far East

The Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) experience was truly awful. 

FEPOWs were held in some of the worst conditions imaginable, used as slave labour for the war effort of the Japanese, malnourished and frequently tortured. Among the hard work, captured allied soldiers were put to work in the building of the Burma-Thailand Railway, which from 1942 to 1944 was constructed through the thick, often mountainous jungles of Burma and Thailand. 

Wampo Camp sat on the Burma-Thailand Railway. Below, former FEPOW Jonathan Moffatt recalls how, in Christmas 1942, a festive spirit fell on both the allies in captivity and the officers and guards above them. 

"The Commandant declared Christmas 1942 a special Yasume day. For pay purposes this would also count as a working day. In addition, he made a personal present of about a dozen chickens.

"Isn't it strange how, at the festive season, most of us enjoy a change of mood and personality? It is a temporary phase which lasts just one day only. We are nicer, jollier, and better company. The mood seemed to have infected our hosts.

"We did not rush down to the cookhouse in response to the bugle call, this was not necessary, it was clear there would be no need to even think of a Laggi queue. The cooks had given their all and worked through the night. We ambled down to the cookhouse; everybody had a smile on his face. We wished each other a Happy Christmas. Yes, it was a happier day."

Later in the passage, which can be found on the FEPOW Community website, Jonathan describes a Christmas concert, held that evening on December 25, 1942, for which the captured allied prisoners had made a considerable effort … 

"The stage was shipshape. There was a black cloth probably made from hessian sacks. These had first been stained or painted white and then coloured to give the impression of an Italian villa, complete with the odd statue and trees, painted to resemble poplars or cypresses. Two fires had been lit, one just in front of each corner of the stage. Side drops were provided by using matting of some sort. Before the concert started we could hear the accordion being tuned up or whatever. The audience was given a starter by way of a short singsong and then the curtain was drawn. Craig, the compare, was a natural, a few jokes, an attempt to sing and then the first act. You wouldn't believe it, a troupe of about ten dancing girls in very short skirts, brasseries to top the busty breasts and lovely blond hair. What a lovely chorus line."

The image below was taken by a British FEPOW, Bill Craske, who was captured in the Far East and put to work on the building of the Burma-Thailand Railway, commonly referred to as the Death Railway. 

It is said that for every railway sleeper laid by the POWs, one man gave his life.

The image forms part of a broader collection of photographs that were held by the Dereham branch of the Far East Prisoners of War Association but now are held by the Norfolk Regimental Museum in Shirehall, Norwich.

The image is of British prisoners of war, and their allies, on Christmas Day, 1944, and is believed to be at Lopburi, north of Bangkok in Thailand.

Bill died in 1990 and was the final chairman of the Dereham FEPOW group before his passing.

FEPOWs at Christmas. Credit: Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum
Bill Craske's photograph of Christmas Day, 1944, in Thailand depicting the festive cheer and signature morale of the Allied FEPOW community. Credit: Norfolk Regimental Museum

Another FEPOW who kept a record of his experiences during the war was Julian J. Gates, a Second Lieutenant from Arkansas who was serving in the Army Air Corps. The diaries of his years in captivity paint the pictures of more than one Christmas spent as a Japanese prisoner of war.

Julian was captured on April 9, 1942, after the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines. His wartime diaries are today held in the Tennessee State Library and Archives …

"Christmas Day 1942

"MERRY XMAS to the world! Have just finished my Xmas dinner. The Japanese dinner was rice, water, and bread. But English Conley had saved a small can of sardines, so Lt. Placko cooked up a sardine and rice loaf. It had two tablespoons of lard (priceless), hot green pepper and black pepper, baked in a pot. It was wonderful! There are two meals prior to this that I always remember, but today, if I live to be 100 years old. I'll never forget this Xmas dinner. My one prayer this Xmas is that these 400 [number of other POWs] won't have to spend another Xmas under these food circumstance."

A year later, the Second Lieutenant detailed his second Christmas as a prisoner of war …

"Christmas Day 1943

"I never realised the old Xmas spirit could be so prevalent in a Prisoner-of-War camp. …As I sit and write I can look around and see all sorts of Xmas decorations. What a difference from that dismal Xmas of a year ago! There are other decorations, so the Xmas spirt is here… today we received two eggs apiece, which are priceless in Japan; also 10 tangerines; also two RC [Red Cross] parcels to three people. Tomorrow we are to get prune pie, milk, bread, noodles, chicken (10), etc…"

And for his third Christmas in captivity, Julian wrote of his hopes that the following year (1945) he and his fellow detainees would be back home in the safety of the United States. Of course, the war would end within the year, and the FEPOWs would be home by Christmas 1945 … 

"Christmas Day 1944

"I can certainly say that this has been my grandest Xmas since a prisoner because any one of the 768 [POWs] of us could have and did get full of good food; also, because to a man we know next Xmas will find us at home (that's what we thought last Xmas)."

Germany

The universally recognised melody of the Christmas hymn Silent Night has found a home across multiple conflicts, sung in the trenches of World War One and beneath the waves of the ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic. 

But its singing by captured American GIs in 1944 may have saved the life of a US pilot. 

The story was recalled by the late Keith Ginther, a former US prisoner of war who passed into captivity following the bloody Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944. He told the tale to journalist Kristen Inbody for an article in the Great Falls Tribune over sixty years later in 2011. 

"In December 1944, Ginther became one of the 23,000 Americans captured or missing by the end of the Battle of the Bulge, Germany's final and ultimately unsuccessful offensive on the Western Front.

"He began a 150-mile march into Germany 67 years ago this month. He remembers feeling humbled in defeat, even more so as the POWs met German artillery pulled by horses or one truck pulling another on its way to the front.

"How could these guys hold the upper hand, the Yanks wondered.

"'We sure wasn't very happy,' he said.

"The column of POWs passed through a countryside devastated by war and damaged by Allied bombing. At one village, the POWs had to clear rubble so German artillery could pass through. An American bomber pilot joined the prisoner ranks.

"'The people seemed to be more hostile to airmen, whom they blamed for being bombed,' Ginther said."

Mr Ginther's recollections of the event progressed. The Great Falls Tribune article continues: 

"Germans harassed the downed pilot. They'd rush the sides of the column, trying to grab him.

"The villagers were starving, exhausted and angry.

"When the hostility was at its worst, all the prisoners had reason to be afraid - though none so much as the captured bomber pilot.

"Yet at that moment, an American in the ranks began singing 'Silent Night.'

"Pretty soon the Germans were singing 'Silent Night' too, so it calmed things down," Ginther said. "Halfway through the first verse, you could hear the German words, too.

"If not for the song, which for one moment brought a measure of peace to a one small corner of Germany, 'I don't really know what would have happened,' he said. 'The guards would have tried, I guess, to protect him.'"

Captured German Prisoners of War arrive in Britain, June 1944. Credit: Crown

Britain 

Some 400,000 German prisoners of war were housed at sites across the UK during the second world war and the immediate years after.

Although strict, the conditions faced by the German POWs were more humane than those in other countries, and the captured men were primarily put to work in agriculture to produce food for a hungry Great Britain. 

After the war, in late 1946, repatriations began for the captured men to return home to Germany to build whatever post-war lives were possible. However, interestingly 25,000 German POWs opted voluntarily to remain in Britain following their release from captivity. 

Their descendants remain in the UK today as British men and women.

Chipping Campden History Society – a group concerned with the local history of the small Gloucestershire market town – feature on their website the translated excerpts of the post-war diary of a captured German prisoner of war, Klaus Behr.  

Klaus was held at nearby Springhill Camp from capture on September 4, 1944, until repatriation in February 1948. Below are two sections of his diary concerning Christmases in the small Cotswolds town in 1945 and 1946. His records of the period paint a detailed picture of what life looked like, on both sides, in the immediate post-war years …

"December 12 1945 – 'Sniffle-time' for the soul

"The time leading up to Christmas feels like 'sniffle-time' for the soul. This occurs in different form over and over again. When you are travelling through lit-up villages and see a brightly-lit living-room window covered with a curtain one is overcome, from the depths of the soul, by a deep longing for domestic cosiness. You would so much like to take refuge from rain and cold, from mud and wind in a comfortable house, where you can shut out all the unbearable things, where you can just breathe normally and escape from the constant whirling mass of humanity, (and) really enjoy being alone.

"Oh, if only I could do this again!! Instead you stand in the mist, wind, cold and wet on a field and dig ditches or do other things whose monotony gradually begins to weigh on you like a nightmare and hope that it is soon time for the next meal, while experiencing this too as a disgrace and unworthy of mankind to have to bring yourself so close to the level of an animal. When you survive your eight hours you are transported, as a lorry load, in just under an hour, through the darkness, where the only glimpse of light comes from the streets and houses of the villages, but that is only the kind of glimpse of light which brings the realisation, after the initial cheerful impression, that this is now just a memory from history for us, and that the future will be seen in terms of ruins and managing as best one can in all areas of life.

"And when you get to your barbed-wire home when you have left behind the darkness of the roads cut through by the spheres of vehicle headlights, then your pockets are searched and you feel so miserable, like a criminal! And when you get into the area which is fenced in, the next 'feed' happens and you again lose irredeemably all individuality until you fall asleep, wrapped up in your three blankets, with the feeling that you have stolen a day of your own life."

Klaus Behr, right, with the Haines family of Chipping Campden. Credit: Chipping Campden History Society

A year later, Klaus appears to hold a little more morale, at least while recounting his activities onto paper. The below is from December 30, 1946 …

"A fairy tale has become true! It happened to me, yesterday, when my Sunday came to an end with a truly unique experience. The time in which one had to learn how little a man was worth has been overturned in favour of the opposite view. Our camp orchestra played music from Handel as the penultimate item in the setting of an evening service in a full church in Chipping Campden, and Karl May sang arias from the Messiah. Naturally, we all went with them. It was such a beautiful experience to see members of both communities worshipping God in unity and then to experience this prayerful music illuminated only by the light of a few candles around the music stands of the performers as they filled the whole vast expanse with its vaulted ceiling and the sound flowed through and swelled to a glorious crescendo. It was uniquely beautiful and unsurpassably atmospheric."

Klaus' details of that day in December 1946 continue and include references to the respect he and his fellow-German POWs held for their English counterparts, their captors …

"I sat in a pew with a friend, next to an Englishman, who, however, left the church soon after the beginning of the concert. It is thanks to this really trivial occurrence that I owe my fairy tale experience. Soon an Englishwoman came from the church doorway and took the place which had been vacated. I asked her whether she needed more space for people accompanying her, and she answered in the positive with reference to the two women who were standing in the church doorway, so we gave up our seats to them. 

"I then saw that there was again quite a crowd of English people standing around the church doorway, among them a number of older women and ladies, who were standing listening to the music. 

"This rather went against the grain with me, so I asked some friends who were seated in the back row whether they would give up their seats for the women, at which point the whole row emptied and the women took the proffered seats with grateful thanks."

Chipping Campden History Society informed BFBS that the extracts about Klaus' time at the Prisoner of War Camp in Gloucestershire are just a snippet of the more expansive diary the German Officer kept from before the war in 1938, right up until 11 years after the war, in 1956. 

The diary had remained hidden for almost 40 years until its discovery by Klaus' daughter following his death in 1994, but due to the style in which it had been written, German Gothic Script according to the Chipping Campden History Society, a style outlawed by Hitler in 1941, Klaus' diary was not translated into Latin script until as late as 2008, and then into English between 2010 and 2011 by the society. His story could have very easily been lost forever. 

 

Thank you to the FEPOW Community Website, Kate Thaxton at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum, Norwich, and Carol Jackson from the Chipping Campden History Society for making their archives available to BFBS for this article. 

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