Eight-sleeper bunk in Stalag XXI D

Sketch showing life of British prisoners of war in a German camp during World War Two. The sketch was made in Stalag XXI D in Posen, Poland, by Lieutenant J F Watton of the 4th Border Regiment who was captured near the Somme in June 1940. The sketch was passed by the German censor, and shows an eight-sleeper bunk in the camp.

Prisoners of War 1715-1945 was created with records come from The National Archives and include records from the War Office, Air Ministry, Admiralty and Foreign Office. They are the names of those held in camps in Europe during the Second World War (1939-1945). They include both civilians and members of the Allied forces that were taken as prisoners of war. These prisoners of war span many nationalities, in particular those of British, Australian, and American heritage. Discover your ancestor’s rank, regiment, date and location of imprisonment, and much more.

The collection is extensive and comprises:

  • Lists of British prisoners in Germany, Austria, Italy, Africa and Poland
  • Awards of mention to personnel killed while attempting escape
  • Lists of men reported missing
  • List of military personnel and civilians evacuated from France
  • Alphabetical lists of imperial prisoners of war

For a full list of The National Archives records included in this collection go to the The National Archives POW Archival Reference List.

European prison camps usually followed guidelines for the treatment of prisoners created by the Geneva Convention. The prisoners were given a meagre but sufficient diet. To fight the monotony of camp life many of the camps had an athletic field and even theatre spaces. Prisoners received packages from the Red Cross and from home, however the prison guards would release them irregularly. Anyone who attempted to escape was given harsh punishments.

In prison camps in Eastern Europe, Soviet prisoners were not given the same treatment as the British or American prisoners from the German forces. Soviets were treated brutally. The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention and the Germans used this as a justification for the difference in the treatment of prisoners.

In the final months of the war, as the Soviets were approaching from the East, Germany evacuated prisoner of war camps and forced prisoners to walk hundreds of miles. Almost 30,000 Allied prisoners were moved during The Long March or The Black March. They marched in groups of 200-300 prisoners. As the march continued, rations ran low and prisoners were forced to search for food and eat rodents. Others suffered from pneumonia, typhus or pellagra. It is estimated that some prisoners marched up to 500 miles. Eventually, liberation came for all prisoners of war as the war in Europe ended.

When captured, a prisoner passed through the Durchgangslager (or Dulag for short), which was a transition camp where the prisoner was registered and interrogated. Following this, the prisoner was then transported to a designated POW camp.

The records will include German words such as:

  • Kriegsgefangener - German for prisoner of war
  • Stalag Luft - Short for Stalag Luftwaffe, a prison camp for air force service men
  • Stalag - Short for Stammlager meaning prisoner of war camp
  • Oflag - Short for Offizier Lager, a prisoner of war camp for officers
  • Marlags - Short for Marinelager, a POW camp for naval service men

Notorious POW camps

The records include notorious prisoner of war camps. Some of these have been featured in literature and blockbuster films. For example, the German POW camp Stalag Luft III was the site of the famous Great Escape in which 76 prisoners escaped; however all but 3 were recaptured. The records include the detailed report of the investigation by the Military Department into the murder of 50 officers who took part in the escape (AIR 40/2488). German authorities claimed that the officers were killed while they resisted arrest during recapture, but the investigation found that Adolf Hitler had ordered the Gestapo to execute the men. The report found three motives for this action:

  • To set an example to the other prisoners of war from making any further escapes.
  • Fear that the mass escape was part of a larger plan to assist the resistance movements against Germany.
  • Revenge for the bombing attacks on German cities by the RAF.
  • The German authorities found responsible during the investigation were tried for war crimes. In the folder is a full list of all 76 escapees and a description of their escape through the three tunnels: Tom, Dick and Harry.

    In the folder AIR 40/272 are details about Stalag 17B. The camp inspired the play and, later, the film Stalag 17, starring William Holden. The camp held over 4,000 American prisoners. In the records is a report about Leading Aircraftman G Oliver. LA Oliver used his contacts and resources to smuggle in contraband and special tools for escaping. Through his efforts they were able to obtain materials for radio sets. When the camp was liberated there were over 300 radio sets found.

European Theatre of War

The European theatre of war opened with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. In response to this act of aggression, France, Britain and the British Commonwealth nations declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. After Germany invaded Poland from the West, Soviet troops entered Poland from the East, creating a division of the Second Polish Republic. Polish forces surrendered and the Polish resistance movement went underground. The Soviet Union continued to expand its hold on Eastern Europe and annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and invaded Finland who conceded in 1940.

Germany continued to expand and invade more European nations including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Denmark and Norway. The German offensive was to invade countries through Blitzkrieg (lightening war): short, fast and powerful attacks with armoured and motorized infantry with air support. In the ocean, the Battle of the Atlantic had begun. German U-Boats targeted convoys of Allied ships transporting troops and supplies. By May 1940, the British public were discontent with the progress of the war and, as a result, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the Prime Minister.

In France, the Allies found themselves trapped when the German military moved through the Ardennes region, an area which had been thought to be a natural and impenetrable barrier against armoured vehicles. Thousands of British and French were evacuated at Dunkirk, but many more were taken prisoner. Churchill stated at the House of Commons that, ‘the whole root and core and brain’ of the British Army were stranded. The Dunkirk evacuation known as Operation Dynamo lasted over a week under the heavy bombardment of the German Luftwaffe (air force). The British Expeditionary Force abandoned most of its equipment, vehicles and tanks. In total, 68,000 lives were lost.

Italy entered the war by invading France and declaring war on both France and Great Britain. In France, Paris was surrendered to the Germans on 14 June 1940. In Britain, the Germans had started their aerial attack. It became the Battle of Britain, fought entirely in the skies by the British RAF and the German Luftwaffe. The Germans were not able to gain superiority and this lead to Hitler abandoning his plan of a full invasion of Britain. The Luftwaffe continued to strategically bomb the United Kingdom in the Blitz until the following year. During the Blitz, the German Luftwaffe bombed London and other parts of the UK for months. As the Blitz continued, the British won a significant victory when they destroyed the German naval flagship *Bismarck* in the Denmark Strait on 27 May 1941.

In September 1940, the Tripartite Pact was signed by the Axis powers, formalising the alliance between Japan, Italy and Germany. The alliance was extended to Hungary, Slovakia and Romania a few months later. The Soviet Union was not in the pact but still enjoyed non-aggression from the Axis powers. The Soviet Union had signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in 1941. Germany tried to get the Soviets to enter the Tripartite Pact, but found their terms to be unacceptable. On 18 December 1940, Hitler gave the order to prepare to invade the Soviet Union and the invasion took place on 22 June 1941.
Germany’s initial offences were successful and the army advanced further into Crimea. In July, 1941 the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union formed an alliance against Germany. Germany made serious gains by October and had reached the outskirts of Moscow, but the troops were exhausted from months of fierce fighting. Soviets mobilised fresh military reserves in early December and a counter-offensive started.

After Italy entered the war in June 1940, war opened up in the Middle East and North Africa between Italy and Britain. By November 1941, the British Commonwealth forces gained back losses to the Germans and Italians in North Africa. By 1942, 26 nations, including Great Britain, Soviet Union, United States and China, signed the Atlantic Charter, agreeing not to negotiate separate peace deals with the Axis powers.

Germany continued to make gains in the Soviet Union in 1942 and launched a summer offensive in June 1942 to capture oil fields in Caucasus. The German army was split between the lower Don River and the Volga River where the Soviets made a stand at Stalingrad from August 1942 until February 1943. The battle ended with a German surrender and one of the biggest defeats of the German army during the war. The Soviets forced Germany out of Leningrad and continued their offensive through Crimea, Ukraine and Romania.

In 1943, the momentum was growing for the Allies. They invaded Sicily on 9 July and arrested Mussolini a month later. By 3 September they had invaded and liberated mainland Italy. In retaliation, Germany seized control of Italian areas, rescued Mussolini and established the Italian Social Republic, leading to a civil war in Italy. The newly liberated Italian government and the Royal Italian Army declared war on Germany. The Soviet army continued to make progress through central and south Eastern Europe.
On 6 June 1944, the Allies landed in France at Normandy during the DDay invasion. They pushed through Europe and by October they had liberated Paris, Pisa, Calais and Greece. The Germans launched a final offensive at the Battle of the Bulge to try to re-capture Belgium, but the battle ended with a German retreat. In early 1945, the Soviet army had liberated Warsaw and Krakow and by April they had encircled Berlin. To avoid capture, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April. Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on 8 May and thus ended the war in Europe.