A new exhibition case in The Tank Museum sheds light on the experiences of Royal Armoured Corps servicemen as Prisoners of War during World War Two.
Archive Officer Martin Langford assembled items for the display case from the Museum’s store. The items have never been on public display before, but can now be seen in the Discovery Centre.
He said; “By the end of World War Two, around 170,000 British soldiers, sailors and airmen had been held as prisoners of war. In theory POW’s were protected by the Geneva Convention but in reality conditions between camps and regimes varied greatly.”
One item on display is a stark reminder of the brutality and cruelty which some POWs endured. It is a whip used by Italian guards on British Prisoners of War in North Africa during 1941.
“Many prisoners endured terrible treatment and privations at the hands of their captors,” said Martin. “Others struggled with the boredom and drudgery of captivity.”
The result of this boredom can be seen in the handmade items on display. A pair of wooden clogs helped preserve the owners boot leather and a box guitar doubtless provided as much entertainment in its construction as in its use.
Perhaps the most evocative items on display are the artworks produced by Trooper H. Wade of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
“Wade spent 3 years in captivity in Italy. We’ve displayed just a small number of the drawing and paintings he produced during his imprisonment and these offer a fascinating perspective on day to day life behind the wire.”
Red Cross parcels and a small shortwave radio show how desperate inmates were to keep in touch with the outside world.
The radio receiver, taken from a camp in Bavaria and donated to The Tank Museum in the 1960’s, was concealed in a syrup tin and would have allowed its owners to tune in to the BBC World Service to monitor the progress of the war. Items such as this were forbidden and being caught in possession would have resulted in serious consequences.
Martin said; “You can well imagine a hut full of men huddled around this small device, straining to hear its barely audible volume. You can also imagine the comfort it brought to those men as the war progressed in the Allies favour.”
Despite a display of silk escape maps issued to Allied tank crews to help them escape and evade capture, Martin is keen to remind visitors that cinematic interpretations of wartime captivity sometimes give a false impression of the POW experience.
“Films such as The Great Escape and Colditz have given a perception of prison life as one of sporting escape attempts and adventure. In reality, many POWs were too weak from being overworked and too hungry to even contemplate an escape.”
The prisoners experience began by passing though transit camps where they were often interrogated and their details recorded. Conditions would be basic and disease and starvation were widespread.
The next step would be a forced march on foot, or transportation in crammed trucks and train carriages to permanent camps where POWS would spend the rest of the war. Daily routine often included hard labour and camp fatigues.
L/Cpl Edward Pope of 4th Royal Tank Regiment wrote; “Only those who have been prisoners of war have any conception of the horrors of being a prisoner, or of the ineffable joy of release; of the terrible rise and fall of the spirit, the fluctuation between the delirium of happiness and madness of despair.”
Five more large display cases are due to be filled with themed exhibitions in the coming months.