Christmas Behind the Wire
When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.
On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.
As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.
If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.
On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.
Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:
Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.
After Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, George became a prisoner of the German forces occupying Italy; as a result the men were soon moved out of Italy, away from the advancing Allied troops, and into Germany. By 6 November George was in Brux, now Most in the Czech Republic. George was probably part of an Arbeitskommando (work detachment – a sub-camp for PoWs to be used as labour) camp called Stammlager IV-C. Stalag IV-C was attached to the Sudetenländische Treibstoffwerke ("Sudetenland Fuel Works") which worked to process oil from coal to supplement the Nazis’ shortage of fuel, and as such became a key target of the Allied bombing campaign in the latter stages of the war.
George was put to work in the factory, which proved a welcome relief from the boredom he had experienced in Italy. The work seemed to improve George and the other men’s morale (though not as much as when the factory was destroyed in a bombing raid), and Christmas 1943 was an altogether more cheerful affair for the men than 1942. On Christmas Eve the men were allowed to finish work early, and George’s German foreman gave him and the other members of his work party “a drop of whisky each”, and in the evening they received their Christmas Red Cross parcel, which to George’s joy also contained 100 cigarettes. Christmas Day got off to a much better start than 1942, with a breakfast of eggs, bacon, bread and jam. Things got even better by mid-morning, when George and his friends took a trip to the camp canteen to spend some of the money they had earned by working at the factory: “we bought a barrel of beer for 30 marks, about 12 gallons, and rolled it up from the canteen … so we had plenty of beer”. Christmas dinner was a tin of meat from their Red Cross parcels, with whole fresh potatoes from the camp cookhouse, followed by Christmas pudding; there was so much food that George could only eat half his serving. In the afternoon the men drank beer and ate biscuits before “a concert in the concert hall given by our own lads” and games in the evening. George was in a much happier mood that he had been one year previously: “so that was Xmas day. We had plenty to eat it was a very much better Xmas than last year”. Boxing Day was spent finishing off the barrel of beer and the remains of the Christmas Red Cross parcel. The men were festive and happy, but the realities of their situation were never far from their minds; George wrote in his diary “I hope we shall be home next Christmas Day”.
Unfortunately this was not to be, and on the 25th of December 1944 George spent his final Christmas as a PoW. The day began quietly enough – George didn’t record in his diary what the men were able to do in the morning, but it’s unlikely by this stage of the war that they had access to Red Cross Christmas Parcels. It was a dreary day, cold and quite foggy. Before the men could settle down for their lunch, the air raid warning siren sounded, “much to our surprise”. George and many other men ran out of the camp and towards the coal mine that was by this point being used as a makeshift air raid shelter, which George described as “a great big hole in the ground with tunnels leading in, thousands of people [from the nearby town] get in them”. George only managed to get about a quarter of the way to the mine before the planes were overhead and the bombs began to fall. “Our lager [camp] got hit pretty bad,” George wrote, “one block burnt down, ten men killed & many injured. That was Xmas day. What a day”.
George was to remain in Stalag IV-C until the end of the war. George’s last diary entry was on the 2nd of May: “We hear Berlin is finished & Hitler is dead there, we hear a lot of rumours about the peace plan but the war is still on & we are still working. The flag was flying at half mast today so it must be true”. The camp was liberated soon after by the advancing Russian army.
We don’t know what happened to George after he was liberated, but we can hope that Christmas back home in Wiltshire was much more enjoyable than those he had endured ‘behind the wire’.
Tom Plant, Community History Advisor
- Tags: 21st Panzer Division, 9th Armoured Brigade, air raid shelter, Allies, Arbeitskommando, bombing, boxing, Brux, camp, Christmas dinner, Czech Republic, diary, Germany, Hitler, Italy, Most, Operation Supercharge, PoW, Prisoner of War, Red Cross, Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, Second Battle of El Alamein, Second World War, soldier, Stammlager IV-C, Sudetenland Fuel Works, Sudetenländische Treibstoffwerke, Trooper George Sweetman, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, WW2