Saturday, 9 December 2017

Christmas as a Prisoner of War... #Christmas #history #WW2 @Suzy_Henderson

Christmas in Captivity
By Suzy Henderson

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Much has been written of Christmas in World War Two, especially on the homefront. Making do and mend became a household slogan. The war brought much hardship and misery but, as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, Christmas was still a time to look forward to for many. The approaching festive period was a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark world, although for some it was still a difficult time. People worried about loved ones who were away fighting while others mourned the fallen. But overall, many looked forward to the festivities or at least tried to, hoping for a little respite from war.

But what of those who found themselves to be guests of the enemy?

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The captured British and Allied forces faced a hard life inside a German pow camp. Food was limited and the diet poor while disease was rife, conditions and treatment harsh. One American PoW recalled how the Jewish-American’s at his camp mysteriously vanished and when the German commanders could not determine whether a man was Jewish, he would vanish anyway simply to fulfil a quota.
Nothing was certain, and death waited in the wings, yet even in the darkest of days, Christmas shed a little glitter for all those imprisoned too. It brought purpose and meaning to their everyday mundane lives, providing an opportunity to keep busy, to plan and create for the day. Those who had been imprisoned for a while looked forward to a hearty meal on the day, given that they had squirrelled away provisions from their Red Cross parcels for some time in preparation for the festivities.
Improvisation was key, and toilet paper made good streamers, coloured by hand with crayons and hung in the huts from wall to wall. Menus created from pieces of card saved from the Red Cross parcels graced tables.

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The troops had to make the best of their lot and Christmas was an excuse to ensure there was a little festive cheer for all. The Red Cross parcels were such a treat at this time and brought more than a little cheer to each prisoner, bolstering their meagre provisions.

John Crook’s war ended during the 1943 Allied landings in Italy. The former Cambridge University academic was serving as a private with the 9th Royal Fusiliers when he was captured and taken to Stalag Luft VIII-B camp in Poland. He was there for two years, and although it was harsh, letters he wrote home were wholly positive, no doubt as he tried to reassure his parents and allay their worries. In letters home he mentions December 1943, and talks of singing carols, putting on a concert, decorating the barracks with paper chains and a pantomime.

Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

He refers to “very Xmassy weather” which no doubt points to the extreme cold temperatures in their barracks, exacerbated by a lack of appropriate bedding and clothing for winter. In a letter he wrote home on Christmas Day 1944, he talks of how the men organised a dance and a concert and even put on “their best khaki slacks” as they dressed for the occasion.

As the Soviets advanced in the later stages of the war in 1945, Crook was one of 80,000 POWs, forced to march west in the harshest winter. He was lucky to survive the “death march” as many of his comrades succumbed to the cold and hunger along the way.

One example of a Christmas menu from Rotenburg Camp, Germany 1943:

Breakfast: porridge and eggs
Lunch: cold corned beef
Dinner: steak and onions followed by Christmas pudding.

The American Red Cross packed and shipped around 75,000 Christmas parcels in the summer of 1944 which contained items such as canned turkey, fruit cake, tobacco, games and Christmas decorations. In Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Garmany, the POWs were allowed to roam freely around the grounds on Christmas Eve and Christmas day night. Alcohol had been made in various camps by fermenting raisins procured from aid parcels. At Stalag Luft III there was a Christmas pageant. In some of the camps, guards gifted small Christmas trees and dinner was served in the barracks.

Conditions for Germans captured by the Allies were better than those offered by the Russians, mainly because the Allies complied with the Geneva Convention and the Soviets did not. After the D-Day landings in June 1944, there was an influx of German prisoners of war into Britain. Initially, although Britain urgently needed more labour, especially on farms, Italians were used rather than Germans. However, by March 1945, around 70, 000 Germans were working around Britain. While allowed to celebrate Christmas in the camps, from December 1946 they were invited as guests in British homes for the festivities, developing friendships with the locals. A number of them would opt to remain in Britain rather than return to their now devastated homeland.

Image By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For one German soldier, an 18-year-old captured in Normandy earlier in 1944, Christmas was particularly difficult as he was so homesick. Here is an extract from a diary he kept:


On 24 December 1944, we celebrated German Christmas, the festival of joy, behind barbed wire. Everyone looked forward to the festival, and the preparations were in full swing. We had the most beautiful Christmas tree in the camp, and we had decorated our hut with pictures and fir-twigs. When the Holy Eve arrived, the preparations were complete. Outside on the camp square, the Christmas tree lights were lit, the choir sang carols and the camp leader spoke some appropriate words. Then we all went into the huts, each to celebrate the Christmas feast.

Assembled under the glow of the Christmas tree we sang the most beautiful songs about Christmas and about home. One of the comrades spoke about home and about our fate, and brought us so near to home that all of us had tears in our eyes, and thus many went out silently into the holy night. At every bedside the candles burned and every one of us dreamed of home, and in our thoughts we were at home in the midst of our loved ones.

When the Commandant went around the huts to pick out the three best ones, ours got the second prize out of 25 huts. He was very pleased with the cleanliness and tidiness of the huts with their Christmas decorations. We had shown him a real German Christmas.

Suzy Henderson

SuzyHenderson was born in the North of England and initially pursued a career in healthcare, specialising as a midwife. Years later, having left her chosen profession, she embarked upon a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at The Open University. That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother in her WAAF service uniform that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. Her grandmother died relatively young in 1980, and her tales of war vanished with her forever, stories she never had the chance to share. When Suzy decided to research her grandmother’s war service, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories, and tragedies, and it is such discoveries that inform her writing today.

Having relocated to the wilds of North Cumbria, she has the Pennines in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and "The Beauty Shop" is her debut novel, released 28th November 2016. She is currently writing the next book.

 The Beauty Shop

War changes everyone, inside and out. The remarkable true story of the Guinea Pig Club.

England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy.


  1. What a fabulous post, Suzy! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. What a wonderful read! So meaningful. I've love Suzi's book, The Beauty Shop. A brilliant read!

  3. Really enjoyed this, Suzy. It has me counting my blessings.

  4. So informative. Thank goodness for those Red Cross food parcels.

  5. Thanks so much,Mary Anne. I enjoyed writing this and thanks everyone for your comments - so glad you all enjoyed reading. Best wishes to you all & Merry Christmas.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx