The Red Cross played a very important role in World War Two with the help they gave to prisoners of war. The Red Cross worked within the confines that war puts on it – that the belligerent powers will allow the Red Cross to do its work. If warring nations do not allow this to happen, then the Red Cross can do little.
The first of these conventions involved the sick and wounded. The Red Cross established auxiliary hospitals where they were allowed to and staffed them with Red Cross personnel. They were neutral and treated anyone caught up in a conflict wherever this was. It was an international expectation that warring nations would treat Red Cross personnel in the appropriate manner and that the hospitals were not legitimate targets. The Red Cross also established convalescent homes to look after the sick if they needed long term care.During World War Two, the belligerent nations in Western Europe allowed the Red Cross to carry out its work of supporting those who had been taken prisoner. The same was not as true in the Pacific and Eastern European theatres of war. At the Changi camp run by the Japanese in Singapore, on average, a POW received a fraction of one food parcel sent by the Red Cross in the three-and-a half years that the camp was open. They also received just one letter per year. The Red Cross was linked to the Geneva Conventions on how captured personnel should be treated and Japan had not signed up to this.
The other convention in existence at the time involved POW’s and their treatment. This convention also extended to internees held by a warring nation. In 1934, the International Red Cross had attempted to get all nations to agree to legal safeguards for all civilians in an area where war had broken out. International powers agreed to defer agreement on this until 1940. Therefore, when World War Two broke out, many civilians had no safe-guarded legal rights. The Red Cross never stopped trying to access those who were arrested, deported or sent into forced labour but with little success.
Article 79 of the Convention allowed the Red Cross to pass on information or enquiries about POW’s. These ‘letters’ were restricted to just 25 words and had to be about family news only. All messages were sent to the International Red Cross headquarters in Geneva from where they were sent on to their respective destinations. By 1945, 24 million messages had been exchanged. The International Red Cross was also empowered to collect all information they could about POW’s – such as their whereabouts, health etc.
The devastating impact of Blitzkrieg was first seen with that attack on Poland on September 1st, 1939. In September alone, the Germans captured 500,000 Polish soldiers in just 22 days. It fell to the International Red Cross to collate all the information about these POW’s. By the end of the attack on Western Europe in the spring of 1940, 30,000 British troops were POW’s along with many more French, Belgium and Dutch troops. Combined with this was the vast number of refugees that had been a product of the German attack with families being spilt up. In 1940 alone the International Red Cross was flooded with enquiries as to the whereabouts and health of thousands of people. With so many people involved, the work of the International Red Cross was never ending.
A major test for the Red Cross came when Greece was occupied in April 1941. Before World War Two had started Greece imported a third of its food supplies. Now as an occupied nation it was cut off from all its suppliers. What crops existed in Greece had been destroyed either in the fighting or by bad weather. As a nation, Greece seemed to be on the verge of starvation. It is thought that up to 500 children a day died from the effects of malnutrition. The Red Cross got the agreement of those nations occupying Greece to allow in food supplies and by March 1942, the first 1,000 tons of grain was landed. The German government freed up Swedish freighters that had been laid up in ports since the occupation of Denmark and Norway. The Germans insisted that a member of the International Red Cross had to be on board each ship and the British gave a guarantee of free passage in the Mediterranean Sea. Each boat had a large red cross painted on it and each freighter was also painted in the colours of Sweden. In Greece itself, the Red Cross set up food kitchens and produced over 500,000 basins of soup in just two months.
The Red Cross also paid regular visits to POW camps. These visits were usually done by trained medical staff who checked on the prisoners health and accommodation. The quality of food was also checked. Complaints about the way the POW’s were kept were made to Red Cross officials who then made those complaints known to the relevant authority.
The Red Cross could only operate in countries that allowed it to operate. The USSR had not signed the Geneva Convention. As a result the many Russians who were taken as POW’s did not receive Red Cross visits. The Red Cross did offer its services to all belligerents, but the Germans simply had to point out that as Russia had not signed the Convention, her POW’s were not entitled to Red Cross support. Hence, they received none and were kept in appalling conditions.
Up until ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the USSR had failed to respond to appeals by the Red Cross to set up a delegation in Moscow. After the huge loss of manpower in the initial stages of Barbarossa, the Soviet government agreed to allow the Red Cross to help and an office was set up in Ankara. Its task was to find out about Russian and German POW’s from the conflict on the Eastern Front. In August 1941, the first list of names of Russian POW’s reached Ankara from the Germans. It was to be the last. The Germans claimed that as the Russians seemed unwilling to send them a list, via Ankara, of Germans POW’s, it would also do the same. This also led to the Germans failing to allow Red Cross visits to the POW camps that housed Russian prisoners. The Germans argued that as the Russians did not allow Red Cross visits to German POW’s, it would do likewise with Russian POW’s.
In Germany, the Red Cross visited every other nationality that the Germans held – but not Russians. The first time the Red Cross had formal access to Russian POW’s was in the last few weeks of the war as Nazi Germany crumbled.
The Red Cross also attempted to help those in concentration camps. Here, they met with mixed results. Attempts to get the names of those in the camps met with failure. In 1943, the Nazis did agree that Red Cross parcels could be sent to named non-Germans in the concentration camps. Somehow, the Red Cross got hold of a few names and sent food parcels to these names. Receipts for these parcels were returned to Geneva – sometimes with as many as a dozen names on each receipt. This method allowed the Red Cross to collect more and more names. By the time the war ended, the Red Cross had a list of 105,000 names of people being held in concentration camps and over 1 million parcels were sent out – even to the death camps in Poland. As the war came to its end, to observe what went on in the concentration camps, a Red Cross delegate stayed in each camp.
In the Far East, the Red Cross had little joy with the Japanese government. The Japanese government had signed the Geneva Convention but had not ratified it, so Japan was not bound by its terms. The Japanese did all it could to hinder the work of the Red Cross, from failing to inform it of all its POW camps (they named 42 when there were over 100), to delaying or simply failing to issue the necessary documentation that allowed a camp visit to suspecting Red Cross officials of being spies. In Borneo, the Red Cross delegate was shot, along with his wife, on charges of trying to obtain the names of interned civilians.
In August 1942, the Japanese ordered that no neutral ship, even flying the flag of the Red Cross, would be allowed in Japanese waters. Clearly this meant that food parcels for POW’s held in Japan could not be sent. Food parcels were stockpiled in Vladivostok from September 1943 on, but they remained there until November 1944 when the Japanese allowed one ship to transport parcels to Japan. However, how much of this consignment actually got to POW’s or internees is not known. A second shipment never occurred as the ship was sunk.
The Japanese put a limit on the number of words a POW could receive in a letter. The maximum was 25 words that had to be typed in capital letters. Sending a letter from a POW camp was even more difficult as the Japanese had little time for POW’s who had surrendered. Such indifference meant that very little news came from the camps to families and the Red Cross could do little to change this.