Internment, incarceration and escape

Craig Moore reports on The National Archives’ new exhibition, dedicated to profiling the diverse aspects of wartime incarceration in World War Two

The title Great Escapes – Remarkable Second World War Captives suggested to me that this exhibition would be all about World War Two POW breakouts. I expected to see a 1963 movie poster of Steve McQueen on a motorcycle preparing to leap over a barbed wire fence! Instead, I found a thoroughly researched and diverse exhibition. It was not a superficial study of different escape methods, interesting as that would have been, but rather covered all aspects of wartime incarceration – including the experiences of civilian internees.

Hundreds of thousands of people were held in captivity during World War Two – military POWs as well as civilians, including women and children. Few managed to escape and those forced to endure captivity usually lived in desperate conditions.

‘Records show that the British Government began to prepare to handle captives as soon as war was declared ...’

Records show that the British Government began to prepare to handle captives as soon as war was declared, based on the international agreements in the 1929 Geneva Convention. In September 1939, 73,000 German and Austrian civilians living in Britain were assessed as to the threat they might pose to national security. At first, most were considered to be of ‘no threat’, but after the fall of France, the rescuing of the defeated British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, and the fear of a German invasion, cases were reviewed and thousands of people were sent to internment camps. Once Italy declared war on Britain and her allies, many Italian residents were also assessed.

Want to read more?

This is a premium article and requires an active subscription.

Existing subscriber? Sign in now

No subscription?

Pick one of our introductory offers