Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War at IWM North

By Adam Bambury | 07 May 2009
An airman stands downcast surrounded by men in Nazi uniform

(Above) An RAF crew member from a Halifax bomber, shot down during a raid on Bremen on 27 March 1943, being interrogated by Luftwaffe officers. Picture © Imperial War Museum

Exhibition Preview - Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War, Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, from May 23 2009 - January 3 2010.

From The Great Escape to Bridge on the River Kwai, the plight of prisoners of war during WWII has long captured the British public's imagination. Tales of ingenuity and dogged perseverance, stories of bravery and degradation, all are the stuff of celluloid legend.

But what was the reality of life for those unfortunate soldiers who suddenly found themselves held captive and at the mercy of the people they had previously being trying to kill? How did they feel about their predicaments, what did they do to while away the endless days, and did they really construct a huge glider with which to escape from the infamous castle Colditz?

Captured: The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War attempts to answer all these questions and more. Focusing on the Second World War, and coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the fateful conflict, it is the first major exhibition of its kind ever held by the Imperial War Museum.

A painting of endless rows of bunkbeds with men relaxing on them

British Prisoners of War, Italy, 1946, Paul Bullard Painting, oil on canvas. Picture © Imperial War Museum

A group of men dressed up, some as women, smile for the camera

The cast of a theatre production at Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, Germany. Picture © Imperial War Museum

There is more here than you might first expect. Of course, the experiences of British soldiers caught behind enemy lines are given due consideration, whether they were in Germany or unfortunate enough to have ended up in the Far East, where anyone found surrendering was considered beneath contempt and British and Commonwealth prisoners were seven times more likely to die than in Europe.

But the spotlight also falls on less obvious groups of prisoners. Britain had its own share of captives, including thousands of Italians who were captured in the Middle East and shipped to Britain for their agricultural skills. By the time of the Italian surrender, in 1943, they remained confined to British soil, but those without Fascist tendencies could become "co-operators" and work outside of POW camps.

In terms of prisoners the war did not discriminate – huge numbers of civilians who were visiting enemy countries before they attained that status, and even those who had settled soon found themselves interned until the end of the war as a matter of national security. 130,000 Allied civilian men, women and children were were confined in the Far East alone, with 14,000 perishing in captivity.

Electrical equipment and wires mounted on board

Secret radio made by Captain Ernest Shackleton at Oflag IXA/Z, Rotenburg. Hidden under the floorboards and operated by knitting needles pushed through the cracks, the core of the radio was made from a German film projector. Picture © Imperial War Museum

Two men pushing a wheelbarrow filled with leaves in a large field

German prisoners of war working in the vegetable garden at Glen Mill prisoner of war camp, Oldham, Christmas Eve, 1940. Picture © Imperial War Museum

The exhibition digs deep into the Imperial War Museum's extensive archives to tell all these stories using images, documents, artworks, films, objects and even interactivity – all entrants are provided with an ID card containing a prisoner's details, and have the opportunity to try their hand at disguising themselves or sending and receiving hidden messages.

Despite the crawlable escape tunnel one thing is for sure – it's not all about motorcycling away to freedom.

"People might think they know what it's like to be a prisoner because they've seen the films and they think it's about escaping," points out Researcher Amanda Mason. "What we are trying to show is that there's far more to it than that stereotype. All these extraordinary things are happening to people – they're moved around, they're working, they have to fill their time – the experience is so varied. It is so totally out of the ordinary and hard to imagine."

A picture of a flag showing war terrain

A full sized bed sheet (to be specially conserved for the exhibition and the first time on public display) embroidered by Mrs Day (Daisy) Joyce during her internment in Hong Kong containing over 1000 names of other internees as well as two years' of camp diaries represented by coded words, signs, symbols and colours. Picture © Imperial War Museum

Malnourished topless men queue with plates in front of wooden huts

Prisoners at Kanburi camp on the Thailand-Burma Railway queuing for a meal. Picture © Imperial War Museum

The ingenuity displayed by the prisoners in situations where they had very little or nothing at all is striking. From secret radios operated via knitting needles to photographs of camp theatre productions and boxing matches, these people did all they could to distract themselves from their depressing situation.

"In the Far East section there's a flute made of something like 175 different pieces which took five months to assemble," says Mason. "The chap who made it played it in the camp orchestra that they put together. When you see it, it just looks like any other musical instrument, yet it's made from all sorts of bits and pieces, sections of bicycle and watch springs, things like that. I can't imagine the skill that would have gone into making them."

All fascinating stuff, but despite being a family-friendly exhibition the darker side of being a POW is not ignored. Throughout, the stories of individuals inextricably caught up in the war machine are recounted in detail, making for interesting and often poignant reading.

Men with crutches walk up to a desk where a man sits with an open book

Singapore: Limbless Officers and Men Checking Out from Changi Gaol, Leslie Cole Painting, oil on canvas (1946). Picture © Imperial War Museum

A group of men, some with their arms round each other in a gesture of comradeship, smile for the camera

Imperial War Museum CF 710. A group of men from Manchester who were held as POWs in Changi, Singapore, shortly after their liberation. Picture © Imperial War Museum

Letters sent to and from loved ones at home remind that the psychological cost of captivity was far from confined to the prisoner himself, while images of emaciated men queuing for pitiful rations at Far Eastern prison camps bring home the horror of their situation.

Despite the hardship many people managed to survive their imprisonment, whether they were the tiny proportion who managed to successfully escape or the greater majority who toughed it out until the end of the war.

A contemporary video at the end of the exhibition talks to local veterans about the lasting effect of their imprisonment. Time may have cured all wounds for some, but their stories should not be forgotten.

For more information visit the Imperial War Museum North online.

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