When war started in September 1939, there were many thousands of British civilians living in Nazi Germany and also in what were to become occupied countries. These British civilians were to become internees – not prisoners of war, but civilians who had been caught up in the speed of Germany’s Blitzkrieg advance across Western Europe.
For example, about 500 British civilians lived and worked in the Netherlands. In the spring of 1940, the Netherlands was overrun by the Germans. These 500 civilians were rounded up and sent to Schoorl on the Dutch coast. The camp at Schoorl was a sorting camp. From the 500, 300 were sent east to the upper reaches of the River Oder where they were placed in Oflag VIII-D, which eventually became Ilag VIII-H. Though not POW’s, the internees still had a daily routine of searches and roll-calls. The 300 internees from the Netherlands were joined by 600 British internees from Belgium and France. A number of these people had been employed by the War Graves Commission. All 600 had been kept in squalid conditions for three months at the citadel at Huy, near Liège, before their move to Ilag VIII-H.
The British internees were kept under the conditions as laid down in the Geneva Convention. They had access to the International Red Cross and Red Cross food parcels arrived on a regular basis. Internees were allowed to send money home to their families. The British government lent each internee 10 marks a month. This could be spent in the camp itself but Red Cross food and tobacco effectively killed off any use the internees had for the shop in terms of food. If they managed to get a job in the locality of the camp, this money could also be sent home.
A cricket pitch and a miniature golf course were built at Ilag VIII-H.
In April 1942, a new internment camp was built at Kreuzburg, fifty miles north of Ilag VIII-H. The first occupants were those internees who were Jews (or, at least, considered to be Jews by the Nazis) or internees who were considered by the Germans to be troublemakers. However, though the camp at Kreuzburg was considered to be a punishment camp by those who remained in Ilag VIII-H, it seems that it was no worse than Ilag VIII-H.
In November 1942, 80 British internees arrived at Ilag VIII-H from Belgium. In January 1943, Americans started to arrive at the camp. Also in 1943, married men kept at the camp were moved to Vittel in France where their wives, if they had been interned, were.
1943 was also the year that Ilag VIII-H was shut down and those who remained in it were moved to Giromagny in France. By the end of November 1943, all the internees at Ilag VIII-H had been moved.
Ilag Giromagny was near to the Swiss border. Therefore, there were escapes from the interment camp usually assisted by the French Resistance. However, a tunnel that was planned and was in the process of being built was discovered by the Abwehr.
After D-Day and the Allied breakout from Normandy, it was only a matter of time before the internees of Ilag Giromagny were freed. However, the Germans pre-empted this by exchanging the British internees at Giromagny for German ones held in Britain. The exchange of internees went via Sweden.