Living beyond the barbed wire: the familial ties of British prisoners of war held in Europe during the Second World War


  • The author would like to thank Joanna Bourke and the journal's anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice. Thanks are also due to the trustees of the Second World War Experience Centre, the Mass-Observation Archive, the council of the National Army Museum and Leeds University Library for permission to reproduce the extracts held in their collections; and to the trustees of the Imperial War Museum for access to each of the copyright holders and the copyright holders’ assent in using their relatives’ material. While every effort has been made to contact copyright holders for the material used in this article, the author and the Imperial War Museum would be grateful for any information which might help to trace the families of Capt. R. L. Angove, Sgt. E. G. Ball, Dispatch Rider L. F. Barter, Greaser C. E. Bloss, Regimental Sgt. Maj. J. F. Dover, Chief Petty Officer J. W. Evans, Gunner J. Glass, Warrant Officer H. M. C. Jarvis, the Revd. J. S. Naylor, Gunner E. E. Parker, Pte. W. Richards and the Revd. R. D. F. Wild. The author would also be grateful for any information which might help trace the family of Regimental Medical Officer T. Gibbens.


All existing histories on the lives of British prisoners of war held in Germany and Italy during the Second World War focus inwards on life in the prison camps. This article looks outwards, beyond the barbed wire. It examines the material exchange of letters and parcels between prison camp and home, as well as how home was conceived in P.O.W.s’ imaginative realms, to demonstrate the importance of loved ones in enabling prisoners to make sense of their captivity. It also shows how this dependence resulted in the reconfiguration of P.O.W.s’ roles within their families.

‘I've finished one life, am having a visit to hell where I'm learning and experiencing a lot that's good and, if I'm not careful, also a lot that's harmful, and afterwards I'll start a new life. Family ties, or shall I say loves, will be the only connection’. [1]

Private Keith Panter-Brick wrote these words to his sister on 21 May 1944 upon entering his fifth year of captivity in Germany. He was among the 172,592 British servicemen taken prisoner during the Second World War and one of 41,000 to be held in Germany for over four years. [2] This experience of thousands of men, cut off and isolated from home for many years, and the microcosmic societies that they created have long fascinated writers and academic historians. This focus is unsurprising given that, for so many in the armed forces, imprisonment was a part of their wartime experience. During the Second World War, more than one third of combatants found themselves in captivity. [3] In the British army, more soldiers were taken prisoner than were killed while serving. [4] Studies that chart the continuing resistance put up by prisoners, particularly in the form of escapes, have been most popular. [5] Other works have looked at the facets of camp life that helped P.O.W.s to survive mentally and physically: the education and exam system created across a continent, the sporting events, the arts and crafts or the resourceful theatrical performances. Aspects of the trials of imprisonment have also been explored: life in working camps, the brutality meted out by guards or the gruelling marches into or out of captivity. [6] Either purposefully or inadvertently, in choosing to prioritize such features, these studies all project a particular impression of the existence of P.O.W.s: that they lived within some sort of barbed-wire vacuum. To expose how they adapted in this vacuum has been the primary aim of the authors of these studies. [7]

This research takes a new approach. It looks outwards from the camps to reveal how prisoners of war lived mentally and emotionally beyond their barbed wire enclosure. Increasingly, cultural historians of warfare have acknowledged that there was a shared experience of war between the battle front and home front. [8] Most recently, this thinking has informed Michael Roper's The Secret Battle, which shows how First World War servicemen drew upon their relationships with their mothers in order emotionally to survive the violence on the western front. [9] This approach is equally relevant for prisoners of war. As the opening epigraph suggests, the lives of captured servicemen could be divided into three phases: pre-captivity, the damnation of imprisonment, and a future post-captivity world. ‘Family ties’ were often the only link stretching between these three existences and were one of the few ways in which P.O.W.s could achieve a sense of continuity between their past and future existences. [10]

This article explores how prisoners of war drew upon their relationships with their loved ones at home to help them make sense of, and cope with, their imprisonment. [11] A wide survey of P.O.W.s’ letters and diaries has revealed this to be a recurrent theme dominating these personal narratives. The article draws upon a small sample of these accounts: nineteen diaries and sixteen sets of letters written by sixteen officers, seven senior non-commissioned officers (N.C.O.s), three junior N.C.O.s and seven other ranks, held in Oflags, Stalags and working-camps in both Italy and Germany. [12] Since the most introspective and articulate sources have been cited here, commissioned ranks are over-represented in this smaller sample. Officers were more likely to be drawn from the educated middle and upper classes [13] and, since officers and senior N.C.O.s were exempt from working, they had the time and energy to invest in letter and diary writing. [14]

By focusing on what we might refer to as the ‘intimate dimension of war’, [15] this article demonstrates the primacy of home in the imprisoned lives of British P.O.W.s, and how home both positively and negatively affected their psychological composure. In doing so, it adds further evidence to suggest that the opposition between home and front during the Second World War is ‘more of a construct than a reality’. [16] The article explores how a captive's relationship with home was conducted both in the material world, through the tangible exchange of letters and parcels between home and P.O.W. camps, and in the imaginative realm. Historians have tended to marginalize the role that the imagination plays in constituting experience and negotiating a lack of fixed identity. [17] The imaginative or fantastic is far harder to grasp through primary sources than material life; it requires a certain depth of autobiographical introspection. However, prisoners of war provide extremely fertile ground for such interrogations. ‘Escapism’, rather than ‘escapes’, was absolutely crucial to how P.O.W.s made sense of their imprisonment; as psychiatrists noted at the time, they showed ‘a great increase in phantasy life involving dreams of home and loved ones’. [18] This research also demonstrates the need for historians to consider their sources as tangible objects beyond simply being sites for the words that they contain. Diaries and letters were not only a place for prisoners of war to record experience: they were also a place to live out experience. Finally, although this article focuses on the emotional world of P.O.W.s, it reveals how the material and imagined cannot be clearly separated. While it seems obvious to state that physical lives affected mental well-being in prison camps, this evidence illustrates that the faith invested in fantasies of home was so strong that it was represented as replenishing physical resources.

Canon John H. King, captured in June 1940 at St. Valéry-en-Caux, along with the rest of Fifty-First Highland Division, spent his first few months in captivity eagerly anticipating the arrival of his wife's letters. For three months he was constantly troubled by when, and how, his wife had found out about his fate. On 23 September 1940, when the first few letters began to arrive in his camp, he was able to establish 10 August as the date when news of their capture had reached loved ones at home. Just under two months later, 700 letters arrived at Oflag VIIC. King had ‘a 1–2 chance’ of receiving some mail, ‘but had no luck’. On 15 October, a letter came for him from a friend in the U.S.A. Receiving this, he wrote in his diary, had ‘shaken’ him ‘more than I would have thought. The feel of a letter in my hands, and the news it brings, stirs up the mud’. Then, on 28 October, his first two letters from friends in the U.K. arrived. He initially complained that they were ‘full of nothing but local domestic gossip. They assumed I have had plenty of letters already, so neither breathed a word to the anxious prisoner about his wife, children, parents or brother & sisters. Which is most provoking!’ Finally, just under two weeks later, on 7 November 1940, at midday, the long-anticipated letter from his wife arrived. It was not the first she had written, but the first to be delivered. It was ‘full of news’ which he ‘greedily devoured’. However, for King, this news ‘seemed somehow the least important part’. [19]

King's attitude towards the ‘news’ in his wife's letter is unsurprising. Letters sent to and from P.O.W. camps were limited in length, subject to stringent censorship and sometimes long time delays. Prisoners of war were entitled to the periodic exchange of correspondence through provisions made in the 1929 Geneva Convention, which had been signed by Great Britain, Germany and Italy. These belligerents agreed that prisoners could send home between two and five letter-forms a month, depending on their rank, plus four postcards. Each letter-form consisted of just twenty-four lines, a postcard only eight. [20] Relatives writing to P.O.W.s were advised not to exceed two sides of notepaper and to correspond only once or twice a week. [21] This was in the interests of minimizing delays, which were incurred not only in transporting letters from the U.K. to Rome or Stuttgart and then delivering them to camps throughout Italy and Germany, but also in the censorship of the two sets of correspondence by the British and German governments. In total, mail could take anything from two or three weeks to several months to reach the intended recipient. [22] Censorship meant that relatives were instructed to discuss purely personal matters, [23] while some prisoners of war could only guess at what constituted permissible content. [24]

Typically, historians have examined letters for what they, in Samuel Hynes's words, ‘simply report’. Hynes has written of how their main value lies in providing us with the ‘purest, most unmediated version of war, the least shaped, the least reflective’. [25] However, as Martha Hanna reminds us, ‘letter writers knew in ways that historians have forgotten that the letter itself was a physical artefact that could cultivate intimacy by making the absent correspondent seem almost palpably present’. [26] Hanna's words follow Carol Acton's observation, on the discourse that moved between home and front in the First World War, that the ‘tangible objects were as much part of the dialogue as the words themselves’. [27] This thinking is particularly informative for prisoner of war correspondence, for which there were so many limits as to how much, and what, could be said.

King's conclusion that the ‘news seemed somehow the least important part’ indicates that the significance of his wife's letter lay more in its physical form than in its textual content. Far more than a material link with home, these letters were, in Margaretta Jolly's words, ‘a physical token of the absent other’. [28] The first letter from Captain Richard L. Angove's mother, which reached his camp in Italy three months after he had been captured at Tobruk, was described as ‘the next best thing to being you’. [29] He experienced the letter as a maternal substitute, albeit an inferior one. For other prisoners of war, letters from their wives were an equal replica of the ‘absent other’. Shot down in April 1942, Flight Lieutenant Robert Fairclough explained to his wife that her character was expressed ‘so vividly, naturally, + desirably’ in her letters that, far from being an inferior replacement, they ensured he ‘never … lost touch with you at all in the essentials’. [30] Lance Bombardier Stuart Campbell, meanwhile, also captured at Tobruk, metaphorically described his wife's letters as living beings who provided him with ‘breaths of hope and home’. [31] In being ascribed one of the basic processes of life, these letters took on a sustaining vitality all of their own.

Such fantasies of the presence of home were also evoked through the only item that could be enclosed within surface mail: ‘snapshots or unmounted photographs of a personal nature’. [32] A photograph is, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, ‘not only an image (as a painting is an image), an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stencilled off the real’. [33] For P.O.W.s, these ‘traces’ embodied relatives back at home to such an extent that they were kissed and talked to. Sergeant Ernest G. Ball, shot down in August 1941, and a member of the ‘Posthumous Parents’ Club’, favoured one particular portrait of his wife holding their son in her arms: this was the one ‘I always say goodnight too [sic]’. [34] Six months after he was captured in north Africa, Gunner Edward E. Parker recorded that he would always wish a ‘good night darling’ to the photograph of his wife. [35] These photographs were also depicted as replying back. The ‘gallery of portraits’ over Major George B. Matthews's bed would ‘greet me when I wake up & … bid me good-night’. [36] When combined, letters and photographs would magnify their individual, fantasizing potential. Not only would Parker say goodnight to his wife's photograph every night, but he kept her photographs in front of him when he wrote home, so that it would ‘feel as if Im [sic] telling you instead of writing because after every couple of words I write I stop and look at them’. [37] Equally, Captain John W. M. Mansel would read letters from his parents and siblings with photographs of them at his side. This made ‘letters seem so much more real and lessen[ed] the feelings of make-believe that one gets during the few moments it takes to read them’. [38]

The vital importance of mail to these men is evident not just in their words, but in the idiosyncrasies and iterations that can be seen in their letters, diaries and logbooks. Men meticulously enumerated the letters they had sent and received, demonstrating, as Luisa Passerini has pointed out, their ‘great importance …the symbolic value [they] had as an object’. [39] For prisoners of war, given the great length of time it sometimes took for correspondence to reach home, keeping track of the progress of each letter was particularly crucial. Some men chose to spend their spare time rewriting and meticulously cataloguing their letters. Mansel transcribed every piece of correspondence he sent home in an exercise book, and for each one he noted in the top-right-hand corner ‘written’, ‘received’ and ‘acknowledged’, with dates filled in accordingly. [40] The inclusion of ‘acknowledged’ illustrates how important it was to Mansel not only that his letters should reach home, but also how much he valued hearing news of their receipt. Major Alexis T. Casdagli kept a record of the letters he sent to his wife, and asked her to give him the dates of those she had received, so he could cross these off. [41] For other men, the way in which they represented mail in their diary entries symbolized its significance. When Corporal Eric Barrington wrote one of his rationed letters home, he noted this activity in the margins of the relevant diary entry, rather than incorporating it into the body of the text. [42] Similarly, when Sub-Lieutenant H. R. Taylor wrote a letter home to his wife, he would also make a note of this fact, and underline it, at the beginning of the relevant diary entry. [43] These textual representations suggest that writing home was an experience that somehow transcended, or was predominant in, the daily routine. Numerous P.O.W.s, such as Sergeant Major Andrew Hawarden, created tables at the back of their diaries, which set out all the letters that they had received from friends and family. [44] Meanwhile, those P.O.W.s who were unlucky enough to have to suffer long intervals without any mail made their preoccupation and obsession evident through constant repetitions. [45] Private Ernest W. Abbott, who received his first letter from his wife on 14 February 1941, seven months after he was captured in France, spent one quarter of the 326 diary entries that made up the rest of that year in imprisonment simply reiterating the fact that there was ‘No mail yet’, he was ‘still waiting for mail’, or ‘no mail worse luck’. [46]

There is no doubt that letters provided these men with ‘emotional sustenance’. [47] But perhaps more noteworthy is that the strength they gained from this correspondence was considered to be so powerful that it was deemed to verge on physical sustenance. This is shown by the metaphors of food that the P.O.W.s used to describe their mail: a highly significant choice for men whose lives were dominated by hunger. For example, Matthews wrote to his wife that ‘letters mean more than food & physical comfort’; [48] according to Barrington, ‘letters fill the stomach’; [49] Gunner John Glass described the first letter from his mother as ‘better than all the Red Cross Parcels and all the big feeds in the World’. [50] Mansel compared the arrival of letters in his camp to a feeding frenzy. He wrote to his mother on 27 October 1940:

Visualise feeding time at the Zoo and you have a fair picture of the scene here when the letters arrive – visualise also the poor animals that weren't thrusting enough & you can complete the scene with those, greedily eager a moment before, walking away despondent. Today I had a good meal – two from you …one from George Banks, one from Tim. [51]

Meanwhile, at Stalag Luft VI, the emotional sustenance contained in letters was literally replaced with physical nutrition. Here, a square of chocolate was put away and given to the prisoner who had the least mail at the end of two months. [52]

Among the men cited here, the letters they received are generally characterized as embodying their loved ones at home, bringing a piece or impression of them into the camps. For example, although King described his first two letters as ‘most provoking’, he added that they also ‘brought England deliciously close’. Eighteen months later, he probably had one of the biggest single deliveries of letters for any prisoner of war: forty-eight arrived for him in just one day. This time, instead of the mail bringing England ‘deliciously close’, he explained how this bulk pulled him ‘miles away from Stalag XXIA in everything but fact’. [53] This volume of correspondence immersed him so completely among his loved ones at home that, mentally, he disappeared from captivity. This is the only occasion among men in this sample on which letters could carry P.O.W.s towards their relatives, rather than the other way round.

More commonly, the men in this sample relied on pure fantasy to incorporate their lives within those still being lived on ‘civvy street’. These fantasies tended to take two forms. The first involved P.O.W.s drifting out of their camps in all but body. Unsurprisingly, this was particularly common on landmark dates. Parker told his sweetheart how his only consolation on Christmas Day was ‘the thought of you and everyone else at home really enjoying themselves. I spent most of the day in bed, trying to keep warm and I was thinking of you and home all the day’. He later added that he ‘imagined’ he was at one of the Christmas parties, a fantasy that was powerful enough to conclude that ‘we all had a marvellous time’. [54] On one of the five wedding anniversaries that Hawarden spent in captivity, he wrote the following in his diary: ‘(Friday, December, 19th, 1941) Being my Wedding Anniversary, I bracket this day. I should say that my thoughts have been straying homewards, a little more than usual’. [55] The rest of Hawarden's diary does not dwell on home, but charts the activities of a defiant N.C.O. held in Stalag 383, the camp for all N.C.O.s who refused to work. But, on the day of his wedding anniversary, his preoccupations changed: his mind was outside the P.O.W. camp, and he used his narrative representation to reflect this fact. Both he, and his diary entry, only existed in parenthesis on that date.

Sundays were a particularly popular time to drift back home. Most men in civilian life would normally have spent that day with their families, [56] and it was also the day when P.O.W.s could most realistically predict their family's routine, and so incorporate themselves within it. For Mansel, going to church was one of the ‘few quiet places and few quiet opportunities of really thinking of home 100% and the one place I can do it is home [sic]’. His slip of the pen, writing ‘home’ instead of ‘church’, demonstrates the extent to which those thoughts of home actually transplanted him to that physical place. [57] One prisoner in Oflag VIIC apparently dreaded Sundays. King reported in his diary how,

All the week long, he says, he can keep sentiment at arms [sic] length. But on Sunday the Church Service and a long tedious day make him think too much of home. In peace time he works in a bank, and Sunday for him is the one day he spends in his home. Here, he still spends Sunday at home – in his imagination. ‘It's just about the time when my Missus would come down the garden with a cup of tea to wake me after my afternoon nap.’ And so forth.

King concluded that ‘Nearly everybody spends the day re-living an English Sunday’. [58]

Similarly, on Sunday 16 August 1942, a couple of months after he had been captured at Tobruk, Angove wrote in his diary, at ‘half past eleven’, of how his family would now be in chapel: ‘I can picture it all so clearly in my mind, how I wish I could slip in quietly beside you & walk up the hill after the service, holding Janet's hand. I would then sit in the armchair as of old & switch on the wireless while Madeline gets the lunch’. The following Sunday, at church, he saw ‘dear old Mr Jenkin is in his seat & of course Miss Troureson as always is in hers, Mr & Mrs Whingales are there & Mr & Mrs George in their usual pew. I look up to the choir for Madeline, Kay & Gwen are in their old familiar places’. Later on, it was time for lunch, and he pictured: ‘you all at home sitting down to your mid-day meal & somehow my name will come up & there will be a pang of regret that I'm not there, there will be a pause in your conversation, then you will start speaking quietly and it will pass & you will carry on as you must carry on’. [59] Here, both Angove and Mansel demonstrate how P.O.W.s used diaries not just as a site at which to tell a more immediate, less-digested story of the material life of prisoners of war, but also as a place where they could exist and survive in an alternative reality. [60]

One of the reasons that Angove would ‘especially’ picture his relatives on Sundays was because ‘it is the day when I know you have more time to think of me & wonder what I am doing & probably say “If Dick were here, wouldn't he enjoy this” & many other such remarks’. [61] This brings us to the second form of fantasy: synchronized behaviours between camps and home. These were the times not only when P.O.W.s would think of home, but when they, in turn, could also be guaranteed that those at home would be thinking of them. Sometimes this was orchestrated to occur at daily moments. Chief Petty Officer John W. Evans, for example, invited his wife to ‘Think of me at 08.30, 12.30, 16.00 and 19.00 hrs’, for these were ‘the most disappointing moments’. [62] Evans believed that he would derive comfort from just knowing that, at those times of day, his wife's thoughts would be dwelling on him, since he gives no indication to his wife as to why those moments were so burdensome. [63] Ball, presumably with somewhat less melancholic thoughts in mind, advised his wife that his bedtime at Stalag Luft III was 11pm, ‘that will be ten in England so I hope you are in bed by then’. [64] Others synchronized their weekly letter-writing activities, thus also achieving proximity with their loved ones through a common experience. When Matthews wrote his ‘regular Sunday letter’ to his wife, he concluded that it was ‘good to be writing to each other at about the same time’. [65]

Synchronicity also allowed men to ensure that they continued to be incorporated into familial occasions. Second Lieutenant Frederick J. Burnaby-Atkins told his mother how, on his birthday, he had ‘thought of you all a lot … as [I] felt sure you'd all be thinking of me’. Three years on, he was ‘having a wonderful birthday & thinking of you all as I know you'll be thinking of me’. [66] Ahead of his first Christmas in captivity, Matthews reminded his wife that ‘We are still on Summer Time here so remember on Xmas day that 1.0.p.m. Greenwich Time is here’. [67] On his wife's birthday, Abbott announced ‘I wish her many happy returns of the day … I know she has thought a lot about me today’. [68] On Mansel's birthday, he drank to his family's health at home and was ‘sure they were drinking mine! – at 8.45pm prompt’, while at Christmas, he expected his parents and sister to follow his lead by informing them in advance that he would ‘drink your healths [sic] at 9.0 p.m. precisely here, but am far from certain what time this will be at home’. [69] One year after Ball last saw his wife, he claimed to ‘know you will be thinking about it as I am writing’. [70] On the occasion of their fourth wedding anniversary apart he believed ‘we shall both be thinking of the same thing today’. [71] Not only did Ball believe he had achieved synchronicity with this wife, but he invoked a common memory to form the basis of their shared and continuing experience. [72]

All these mental musings provide examples of the ways in which P.O.W.s imagined themselves living in their civilian worlds even while in captivity. Unlike other histories dealing with servicemen's relationship with home, which have concluded that combatants and civilians either lived in parallel or different worlds, [73] P.O.W.s seem to have jumped back and forth between the two. This becomes remarkably literal in Angove's fantasies. Angove's diary is entitled ‘Letters to my mother’ but not only are his mother and his family the real audience of his diary, in the sense that he intended them eventually to read it, but he wrote his diary entries as if he was in the imagined company of his family. [74] As his time in captivity wore on, his fantasies progressed from the fly-on-the-wall style of fantasy, indulged in during his initial few weeks behind barbed wire, to boarding a ‘magic carpet’, on which he would fly home and ‘flit from place to place’. On one such occasion he wrote in his diary of how he had

breakfast with Madeline & Janet … We talked our heads off as you can imagine, then I went to see Mr & Mrs Street & enquired about the boys. I lunched with Kay & family & was surprised to see how the children had grown … I had tea with Gwen & Doug and laughed until I cried at her for quips and sallies. Of course mother was with me on this magic carpet … [75]

Angove invested in these fantasies in order, in his own words, to ‘get away from the atmosphere of this place & create an atmosphere of my own & I do that best when I write to you or in imagination come home & share the day with you’. [76] They provided him with a ‘psychic retreat’, a refuge, a safe place, a haven where, in psychoanalyst John Steiner's words, ‘reality does not have to be faced, where phantasy and omnipotence can exist unchecked and where anything is permitted’. [77] But for Angove, this fantasy could not exist ‘unchecked’; of crucial significance is the way in which his magic carpet rides are framed within the confines of his P.O.W. camp in Italy. [78] On one occasion, when he visited his sister Gwen, he had to explain how ‘I was only on a brief flying visit in imagination from Capua & that I had to get back as quickly as possible or I shouldn't be allowed to come again’. [79] Even in his fantasies, Angove could not allow himself complete liberation from captivity. A similar pull came through in the Reverend John S. Naylor's dreams. He recalled, writing in his logbook in July 1944, how a ‘fairly common dream’,

scattered over practically the whole period of captivity was of being at home on leave from prison camp. Never once was I quite free, but always had to return. I went home once on leave for a week to be married, but remarked during our honeymoon that I should be going back to Italy at the weekend. During a fortnight's holiday at Saltburn I told some friends I was shortly returning to a P.O.W. Camp, and several times in dreams I informed people I was only on short leave. Even if I did not say so in so many words, I always knew I was coming back, or that my freedom was only a dream. [80]

Just as captivity intruded on these men's fantasies of home, for other P.O.W.s, their thoughts of home impinged on their lives in captivity in sometimes uncontrollable, disruptive ways. On 8 November 1942, Taylor suggested the upset that remembering home could cause when he wrote in his diary that he missed his wife ‘more than I can say. Just have to keep my mind off the thought of wife and home’. [81] Parker may have spent Christmas 1941 thinking about home, but he was ‘glad when it came to night time and went to sleep’, although, even then, his sweetheart ‘haunted my thoughts’. [82] While Teddy Edwards would ‘spend Sundays at home’, King added that ‘for most men here a Sunday ration of sentiment is all they can safely allow themselves in the week’. [83] King used his diary to try to control his thoughts of home at Christmas, another example of how diaries were not just used to reflect experience, but also to organize it. He explained, on 25 December 1941, how

By running away from thoughts of Christmas at home, I've had a very happy Christmas. But its [sic] impossible to stop thinking about children. A childless Christmas is barren. S & J in the nursery at OH beholding the tree: the family sitting down to dinner: R. filling small stockings the evening before: the Abbey at 8am. Drop your guard for a moment and these pictures jump in. It's not that I don't love thinking about these things: it's simply that I daren't, more than I can help it. [84]

For King, writing down his thoughts in the diary was a permissible and controlled way to think about home at Christmas time. [85]

Indeed, home did not solely serve as a support in helping P.O.W.s to endure their imprisonment. Captivity also entailed an unavoidable reconfiguration of the prisoner's role within his family, which sometimes served to threaten P.O.W.s’ psychological composure. This can be seen in the absolute dependence P.O.W.s now had on those at home for the receipt of parcels and letters, which altered the way in which the men conceived of themselves. As well as letters, P.O.W.s were also entitled to receive one Red Cross food parcel per week and one next-of-kin parcel, containing clothing and other sanitary and personal items, every three months. The initiative now lay with those at home, wives or parents, to provide their husbands or sons with food, clothing, mail and news, creating a role reversal in the familial responsibilities of the adult male.

Michael Roper has argued that parental support for sons in wartime circled around their basic bodily needs and ‘encouraged mothers to see them as child-like’. [86] For prisoners of war, the receipt of parcels encouraged them to represent themselves as children, revealing how their self-conceptions were altered from that of family provider to filial dependant. This reversed the transition from child to adult that is normally associated with men in combat. [87] For example, according to Hawarden, ‘One of the greatest joys of a Prisoner of War is the opening of his parcel – all his own and the thoughts of what is going to be in it reminds one of Christmas time when a child begins to unpack his Christmas stocking’. [88] Commander Geoffrey Lambert reported how ‘all the chaps are just like kids at Xmas, when parcels come for them’. [89] In anticipating his next-of-kin parcel, Mansel described himself as ‘like a child waiting for Christmas – Christmas four times a year’; [90] he explained to his father that ‘the excitement aroused by the arrival of a clothes parcel is indescribable & the unpacking of it exactly reminiscent of Christmas morning & the magic stocking!’ [91]

Such feelings of dependency and frustration were equally experienced on the receipt and sending of mail. First, the initiative for correspondence almost always lay with the relative or friend, rather than with the prisoner of war, given that prisoners were limited in how much, what and to whom they could write. Warrant Officer Harold Leslie Hurrell wrote to his wife-to-be: ‘I do so wish I could write you more often … you can imagine how I feel when I received yours, written, in numerous cases every three or four days always so sincere and cheerful – and then consider the measly amount you receive in return – I could tear the place down’. [92] Such restrictions in correspondence for P.O.W.s may have limited the way in which letter writing could be used by them as a means of preserving or restoring their sense of self, as has been argued for other Second World War correspondents. [93] Second, when faced with an abundance of correspondence, there was a dilemma as to which loved one most deserved to receive the precious few cards and letter-forms available. This was most acutely felt by some of the married other rankers in this sample, torn between writing letters to their wives and mothers. This could also provide an insight into the strength of the relationship that continued after marriage between working-class men and their mothers during this time. [94] Third, interesting and exciting news was also more likely to be generated from home than in the P.O.W.s’ sphere. Men such as Second Lieutenant Francis John Stewart found they simply had little to say in their letters: ‘Either I've got a lot to say + there's not enough room, or (much more commonly) I've got nothing to say and there's too much’. [95] As a result, men relied upon incoming mail in order to be able to construct an outgoing letter. [96]

More gravely, with the delay between receiving and sending letters, one could never be sure that the sender of the letter was as well when the letter was received as when it had been written. It was generally accepted that relatives, not P.O.W.s, were now the ones in danger-as Panter-Brick noted in his diary in early 1941: ‘May you all be safe; I am out of this war and my turn to worry for your safety’. [97] Mansel was also plagued throughout his time in captivity by thoughts of those at home being ‘in a far more dangerous position than we are’. [98] A delayed letter led to anxiety over a family's safety. When Abbott received his wife's first letter, he expressed his relief in his diary ‘to know that wife and kiddies are safe and well’ and then rectified this assumption with the clause ‘or were when it was posted on November 10’. [99] Greaser Claude Bloss told his wife, in 1943, that her ‘letters are reassuring but they are always about a month old when I get them and it's that month that worries me’. [100] He became particularly anxious in 1944 when he heard about a ‘new weapon’ that the Germans were ‘shooting’ over Britain and ‘anxiously wait[ed] for your June letters’. [101] Mansel was also ‘worrying’ ‘like hell’ over the V-1, and was ‘terribly anxious to get letters written after the darned thing was put into commission’. [102]

Not only were relatives now on the ‘front’, but P.O.W.s could no longer fulfil their role as family protector and defender. When Bloss heard news of it getting ‘noisy’ where his wife lived, it made him ‘restless and worried, and above all so darn helpless’. [103] Reverend Robert D. F. Wild described P.O.W.s as ‘just spectators, standing among the opponents’ supporters, and not even able to see the game’, who could only ‘wait for you to win through for us all’. [104] Mansel, even though he was heavily involved in escape attempts in his role of camp forger, felt undeserving of any leisure time in captivity. Whenever he contemplated playing sport, he was immediately pricked by his conscience, and would ‘think of so many of my friends and relations who can't indulge in sport and who are working like hell at home and abroad’. [105] When King received a letter from his wife, which gave the impression that she was ‘happily busy in her police work’, he feared this was how his role in the war would be remembered. He mused that ‘while she helps to win the war, I just sit about the place here, & wait! I fear I shall be able to give no sort of reputable answer when my children ask “What did you do in the great war, Daddy?” Mamma will have done all the doing’. [106]

As well as P.O.W.s having to endure gender reversals in regard to their status as family provider and protector, some also experienced role reversals when it came to sexuality. It was accepted that husbands in the armed forces would engage in sexual activity, indeed contraceptives were distributed for this purpose. [107] Although British soldiers posted on long overseas service also feared increased infidelity among their female partners, [108] the difference remained that non-working P.O.W.s, confined in camps, had no opportunity to indulge in promiscuity. This sense of sexual powerlessness is most commonly reflected in the pervasive references to ‘mespot’ letters throughout P.O.W.s’ diaries and logbooks. These letters took their name from the mail sent to officers posted in Mesopotamia in the inter-war years. This was a two-year posting that had the advantage of counting as a full overseas tour of five years and, while these officers could not be accompanied by their wives and families, they could live on the local service allowance, thus saving all pay. One of the reasons why some young officers volunteered to serve in Mesopotamia was to save money in order to get married, but those engagements might be broken off in what was called a ‘mespot’ letter. [109] Numerous P.O.W.s in this sample diligently reproduced extracts from these mespot letters in their logbooks, such as these examples found in merchant seaman Edwin Tipple's logbook: [110]

Dear Jim, I hope you won't take this too bad, but I have decided to marry a young soldier who is doing something for his country, not like you wasting your time behind barbed wire for four years.

Darling Joe, You may be surprised to hear after you're [sic] being away two years. I have given birth to a baby boy. You may have some doubt about this, but don't worry the doctors says it is after the same style as a delayed action bomb. P.S. You will be glad to hear there is a Canadian officer sending you some cigarettes.

Or these two examples among a number copied out by Petty Officer Herbert Cyril Macey in his logbook: [111]

(from wife to POW, who had been a prisoner 3 years). Darlingest, I've just had a baby, but don't worry, the American officer is sending you cigarettes regularly.

You'll be pleased to know that I'm getting married now, but look forward to our happy reunion when you come home. It'll be too bad if my husband doesn't agree, because I'm going to see you anyhow. If he is away you can stay at my house. If he is home we will go down to my mother's and not tell him. We can give the family 5 /- each to keep their mouths shut.

It is of no significance whether or not people at home were actually writing such cruel things – these may all be replicated rumours – but it is noteworthy how frequently these comments were copied into logbooks. [112] They reveal P.O.W.s’ fear of being forgotten or maligned by their loved ones at home.

To understand fully the emotional proximity and distance that appear simultaneously to have characterized P.O.W.s’ relationships with their loved ones at home, one other unique circumstance of captivity needs to be understood: the unknown duration of their incarceration. Had P.O.W.s known the date when they would return home, it may have been easier for them to separate out, and order, their captive and civilian existences. However, prisoners knew no such luxury. This did not mean that they saw imprisonment stretching out in perpetuity before their eyes; rather the opposite. One of the most striking features in P.O.W.s’ letters and diaries is the constant anticipation of these men that they would imminently be returning home, a homecoming that would take place in time for a celebrated familial occasion. For example, the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk was not enough to dampen the hopes of Sergeant A. Brett. He wrote to his parents, just three months later, of how he was ‘hoping to be home for Xmas’, so much so that he had ‘even ordered a turkey from a fellow here who works at Smithfield Market’. [113] In January 1942, Mansel put money on the end of the war being 6 September 1942, his father's birthday. If he had taken out a second wager, he would have chosen 12 June, his parents’ wedding day. [114] At the beginning of 1943, as the collapse of Italy neared, Barrington reckoned that 1 June would be his ‘day of freedom’, his third wedding anniversary. [115] The retreat of the Axis powers in Tunisia was enough to cause Warrant Officer Hilary Charles Morton Jarvis to implore relatives at home that ‘it cannot last much longer, with the news as it is from the desert’. [116] In 1944, Angove bet on the armistice date being 20 April, ‘for no other reason than the fact of it being mother's birthday’. [117] In June 1944, after D-Day had finally arrived, Bloss told his wife: ‘I can't see this country lasting another winter. Just think of it darling, you, baby and I will be together again before Christmas’. [118] In August 1944, following the Allied invasion of southern France, Regimental Sergeant Major John F. Dover recorded in his diary: ‘Fresh landings in South of France – Good work – it should soon be over’. The following month he insisted that ‘We should at the outside be home for Christmas – hope this is not being over-optimistic’. [119] When Christmas 1944 came, and the men found themselves still in captivity, Dispatch Rider L. F. Barter summarized the collective mentality: ‘We all have hopes of this being the last xmas out here. (Ive [sic] said the self same thing for 5 years now, I must be right sometime)’. [120]

These anticipations of an early homecoming fly starkly in the face of retrospective assumptions made by historians and sociologists that one of the hardships facing P.O.W.s was the prospect of an indefinite imprisonment and the knowledge that their incarceration would be a long one. [121] Socialist Erving Goffman reflected upon the ‘demoralizing influence of an indefinite sentence’ in his study of total institutions. [122] Similarly, Adrian Gilbert assumed that ‘for those men captured in the early stages of the war … the indeterminate nature of the “sentence” undermined hopeful thoughts of freedom’, [123] while Neville Wylie supposed that among officers captured in 1940, ‘the knowledge that unless Britain sued for peace, their period of captivity was likely to be a long one, only compounded the sense of torment and loss of self-respect’. [124]

However, an indefinite sentence is only a hardship if one takes the pessimistic view that indefinite actually means interminable, whereas, for these prisoners of war, indefinite meant imminent. There is little doubt that such optimism provided a coping mechanism. This observation follows Alexander Watson's insightful work on the resilience of First World War soldiers who, he argues, ‘simply refused or were unable to recognize the high level of unresponsiveness and danger of their surroundings’. [125] P.O.W.s were equally unwilling passively to contemplate the potential longevity of their captivity. This point was recognized by medical officers, as well as by prisoners of war themselves. Regimental Medical Officer Trevor Gibbens, who worked in the Lazarette attached to Stalag 344, believed that the uncertainty of the duration of captivity had been ‘greatly over-emphasised’. According to him, ‘Both the convicted prisoner and the prisoner of war … have a tendency to blind themselves to the future and elaborate false hopes’. [126] When Barrington looked back at the ‘Benghazi rumours’ that circulated soon after his capture at the fall of Tobruk, he explained this mentality more fully:

during those miserable days they did definitely help us to bear our troubles & give us some light in our darkness. We would be feeling tired, hungry, and depressed & suddenly we would hear a rumour that the invasion had started or that the 10th Army was on its way to release us, & we would cheer up wonderfully, discuss the news cheerfully forgetting our surroundings & go to bed hoping we should not be moved before our army could catch us up! Silly I know now, but many of those nights we slept better on a full stomach of rumours. [127]

Barrington's words echo the nutritional metaphors that P.O.W.s also used to describe the arrival of mail, providing further evidence that the emotional endurance that was encompassed in fantasies was so vital that it spilled over into physical survival.

It could be argued that these men did not really believe they would be returning home, that they wrote with such optimism to keep the hopes of their wives or parents alive, or that such aspirations were unrealistic fantasies only to be lived out in their diaries. Such a conclusion would make sense in light of how post-war memoirs treated the subject. In contrast to the optimism that Jarvis professed in his letters about an early homecoming, in his memoir he foregrounded the ordeal of an indeterminate sentence. Some twenty years after the end of the war, he wrote: ‘One could reconcile time on a limited sentence, knowing that remission for good conduct would reduce it by one third – but this captivity ended in freedom depending on victory – it could continue forever more’. [128] Other post-war memoirs similarly stressed this challenge. [129] This may also explain why historians have emphasized the test of the indefinite sentence that P.O.W.s faced: they mirror the structure of P.O.W. memoirs, rather than that of contemporary accounts of captivity.

However, it appears that unfulfilled hopes of homecoming led to far more pain than optimism led to pleasure, indicating that it is unlikely P.O.W.s would have misled their relatives with hopeful predictions of their return date. Matthews, who had been captured in May 1940, had, by the end of 1942, ‘learnt long ago never to become elated or depressed but to expect events when they happen’. [130] The following month he contrasted this attitude to that of the ‘newer Kriegies’ who were ‘convinced that the war will end at any rate so far as Europe is concerned this year. The older ones like myself have seen too many waves of optimism & pessimism for our opinions to be affected by current events’. [131] It took longer for Angove, captured in 1942, to be so nonchalant but, by 20 January 1945, having heard news of the Russian advance, he declared his refusal ‘to get too elated, we have soared to the heights before, only to be cast to the depths & so I shall maintain a calm equilibrium & carry on with my daily routine as before’. [132] This alteration in P.O.W.s’ mindset as their time in captivity lengthened is quite visibly captured in King's diary. On 20 April 1942 he wrote: ‘Two years ago I left England for France. Shall I cross the channel again before two more years from now?’ Alongside this entry, on 20 April 1944, he scribbled ‘No, you poor fool!’ This communication crystallizes the extent to which King saw such naivety as belonging to a different person. [133] This, again, may explain why the post-war memoirs emphasized the unlimited longevity of captivity: they reflected the psychological upheaval that prisoners of war had been through by the end of their incarceration, rather than the optimism they held at beginning. [134]

The way in which P.O.W.s constantly linked their homecoming to their next anniversary, birthday or Christmas also demonstrates how the men made sense of their period of internment not in terms of the progress of the war, but in terms of their domestic arrangements: another way in which P.O.W.s remained closely connected to home. These preparations for return not only enhanced the anticipations of homecoming, but also provided a means of achieving ‘immediacy’ with loved ones ‘through contemplation of a meeting in either flesh or spirit’. [135] For example, just one month after he had been captured, Angove was deciding between sending a telegram home to announce his arrival, telephoning his family as soon as he landed or just walking in and surprising them (he considered this last option thoroughly enough to realize that it would deny his family the pleasure of anticipation). [136] Barrington, nine months after he had been captured, and what turned out to be twenty-five months before his release, wondered where he would first see his wife Eileen: at ‘some railway station or convalescent camp, or perhaps on the doorstep of no. 27?’ [137] Likewise King, being one of the protected personnel, many of whom, due to their combatant status, expected to be repatriated regardless of the state of hostilities, was more affected by these optimistic expectations than others. When he heard rumours about being sent home, he was ‘set … off day-dreaming. “What will England look like when I get there?” [“]Will R. be at Waterloo to meet me? Will it be Waterloo? And shall I be able to warn them I am coming? Where shall we go: to O.H.? And then what?” And so it goes on & on’. [138] Such plans and imaginings were common enough to be coined ‘garden gate phantasies’ by army psychiatrists and were considered to be have been such a crucial element of captivity that, towards the end of the war, when instructions were drawn up for relatives on how to deal with returning P.O.W.s, they advised ‘Let him meet you at home. As a rule, that's where he's always imagined you’. [139] The need to issue such advice indicates the attachment that P.O.W.s had to these fantasies, and their desire concretely to realize them.

In conclusion, this article has argued that in order to understand servicemen's experiences in warfare historians should pay closer attention to the extent to which they remained immersed in their civilian worlds. It has shown how integral were relationships at home to P.O.W.s’ experience of captivity, which suggests that historians of prisoners of war should rethink the way in which they approach the ‘spatial configurations’ of the prisoner of war camp. [140] The affinity between prisoners of war and their loved ones at home, which was primed and maintained throughout captivity, has been brought to life here by focusing on P.O.W.s’ material and imagined worlds. Letters, far from simply supplying news from home, were seen, along with photographs, as the embodiment of loved ones’ presence, bringing home into the camps. Pure fantasies allowed prisoners of war to escape the barbed wire in all but body. Daily, weekly and yearly events provided specific opportunities when families could come together as simultaneous sharers in the captives’ experiences. These fantastic qualities were so powerful that they helped P.O.W.s not only to overcome the emotional hardship of captivity, but also some of their material trials: the emotional sustenance contained in letters was described as replenishing physical resources.

Yet, at the same time, P.O.W.s’ relationship with home also threatened their psychological composure. It is also possible that the efforts made by prisoners to remain part of their civilian worlds were driven by fears of being usurped or forgotten. [141] As a prisoner, a man was deprived of his role as protector, defender and provider to his family. He was now dependent on home for letters and parcels that were considered to be vital to his mental and physical survival. Those at home were now thought to be in greater danger: a danger from which P.O.W.s could do little to protect them. This role reversal was acutely felt when it came to sexual activity. Wives, rather than P.O.W.s who were held in central camps, had the power to be unfaithful and promiscuous. The preoccupation of P.O.W.s with this behaviour reflects the insecurity and grievance that many seem to have faced.

One of the unique challenges facing P.O.W.s, when separating their captive and civilian existences was the unknown date of their homecoming. Rather than contemplating an eternity in captivity, they repeatedly professed their optimistic anticipations of an early return, in time for a celebrated familial occasion. Reading that a P.O.W. ordered a turkey in 1940, with the intention of sharing it with his family at Christmas, or that men were planning out their moment of reunion with their families in July 1942, provides us with vivid and pitiful examples of how prolonged was the experience of captivity. This sense of longevity tends to be absent from existing cultural histories on servicemen's experiences in warfare. These studies examine their material thematically, rather than chronologically, which, of course, provides far more opportunity for analysis. However, as a result, they inadvertently collapse four or six years of warfare into a series of repetitive days, so failing to convey a sense of the utter protraction through which combatants lived.

The way historians have treated P.O.W.s’ homecoming as a climax, rather than an ongoing event, results from the type of source material that they have prioritized. All existing monographs on the experiences of P.O.W.s fail to distinguish between the use of memoirs, oral histories and contemporary primary sources. [142] Elsewhere in cultural history, historians have debated, and still seem preoccupied with, the question of whether retrospective or contemporary accounts of emotional experience should be privileged. [143] This research has shown that diaries and letters are such fundamentally different sources from memoirs that it misconstrues their nature to interchange, or even compare, the two. They differ not only in their temporal construction, but also in their material and functional sense. The textual representation of the diary tells us much about the preoccupations of the author, beyond his prose. The physicality of the letter embodied far more than the words it contained. Diaries and letters were not simply a place to record experience: they were a place to create and live out an alternative, imagined experience. [144] This imagined experience, the living outside captivity as much as within, is as important as material existence in informing us about how P.O.W.s made sense of their imprisoned lives.