Kriegsgefangenenpost (Prisoner of War Mail) – Part I

After an unintended hiatus, here is the first of a series of posts about prisoner of war mail. Now you may be thinking this isn’t the most exciting subject or the most exhilarating objects (and I don’t blame you) but there is more to it than it may appear!

I have shown a few PoW photo postcards from my collection (here and here) and there are more of these in the header image above but today I’m going to start with the basics.

First, some context. In accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention, detaining powers (in this case, Britain and Canada) were to allow prisoners of war to send letters or postcards back to their friends and families at home. Article 36 of the Geneva Convention describes,

Art. 36. Each of the belligerents shall fix periodically the number of letters and postcards which prisoners of war of different categories shall be permitted to send per month, and shall notify that number to the other belligerent. These letters and cards shall be sent by post by the shortest route. They may not be delayed or withheld for disciplinary motives.
Not later than one week after his arrival in camp, and similarly in case of sickness, each prisoner shall be enabled to send a postcard to his family informing them of his capture and the state of his health. The said postcards shall be forwarded as quickly as possible and shall not be delayed in any manner. As a general rule, the correspondence of prisoners shall be written in their native language. Belligerents may authorize correspondence in other languages.

Now, because the majority of PoWs interned in Canada were actually captured by British or Commonwealth forces, the British provided newly captured prisoners with their first opportunity to let their loved ones know they were safe, albeit behind barbed wire.

Here’s an example of one of these postcards issued to newly captured prisoners. As you can see, the postcard is very simple, allowing the prisoners to fill out all the important details so their families can be tracked down.

Schwieger, Felix 1 copy

Schwieger, Felix 2 copy

The sender, Obergefreiter Siegfried Schwieger, was likely captured during Operation Crusader, as he penned this message to his parents on December 31, 1941. He ended up as a PoW in Canada for the rest of the war.

For those captured in North Africa, like Schwieger, their time in British camps was short. It would not be long before prisoners were loaded onto transport ships and taken across the Atlantic to their new home in a Canadian prisoner of war camp.

Canada imposed a limit on postcards sent by PoWs, as they were entitled to do in accordance with Article 36. For the majority of the war prisoners of war were allowed to send two letters and four postcards every month at no cost. The prisoners were not allowed to send any parcels or packages but they were allowed to receive an unlimited amount of letters, postcards, and parcels.

Sending and receiving letters to and from Germany could be a lengthy process with some letters taking months to arrive. Prisoners did have the option of sending letters and postcards by Air-Mail to speed up the process but they had to cover postage.

Here are some examples. First, a postcard.

Bomeyer, Werner - 133 - Postcard Front copy

Bomeyer, Werner - 133 - Postcard Reverse copy

This type of postcard appears to have been standard for most of the war but the format did change in late 1944 or early 1945. All the pertinent identification information (say that three times fast) was recorded on the front of the card including name, rank, PoW number, and internment camp. The red “A” indicates the sender, Soldat Werner Bomeyer, was a member of the Germany Army (each branch had a letter AF for Air Force, N for Navy, and MN for Merchant Marine). The backside was left blank for the messages and here Bomeyer has informed the recipient that he is doing quite well and asks him to send a photo.

The letters were quite similar to the postcards with the exception that they offered more writing space.

von Neindorff, Henning 1 copy von Neindorff, Henning 2 copy

Quite clearly, this letter has sections that have been blacked out. I’m not sure what the sender, Feldwebel Henning von Neindorff, was trying to say but obviously someone didn’t like it.

To prevent the PoWs from leaking sensitive information or from complaining too much, PoW mail was censored. Anything that did not meet requirements (specific location of camps, discussion of military movements, complaining about treatment, etc.) was blacked out by the censor’s marker. If the censor deemed fit, they could also reject the letter.

Once it arrived in Germany, it underwent a similar censoring (see the brown tape to show it had been opened and re-sealed), presumably to take out any references to Canada being a pretty good place to spend out the rest of the war. Also note the postage stamps, indicating the PoW sent the letter via air mail for $0.30.

That’s it for the first of the PoW mail series, stay tuned for more!

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

9 thoughts on “Kriegsgefangenenpost (Prisoner of War Mail) – Part I

    1. Hi Paul, mail would have been routed through neutral countries like Switzerland, Portugal, and Sweden and shipped, I believe, with the assistance of the International Red Cross.

  1. Do you have any information about the people who were censoring the mail in Canada? Are any personnel records available?

    1. Hi Irving. I don’t have a lot of information on the censors themselves but here is what I can tell you. Incoming and outgoing mail was censored by military censors and intelligence personnel in the internment camps as well as Canadian Postal censors. Usually military personnel only read a portion of mail while postal censors went through everything. PoWs had assigned censors so all of the incoming and outgoing mail for a single PoW went through the same censor – this was to help observe any notable changes, hidden messages, or codes. Military personnel records are held at Library and Archives Canada but you need to make an application to access them. Hope this helps!

      1. Thank you, Michael. My father was one of those censors from 1941 to 1945. Unfortunately, I don’t know if he was postal or military. In the fall of 1945 he went to Germany and was with the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). He was stationed in Hannover for approximately 3 to 4 years. I have not had any success with the BAOR website but I will follow up on your suggestion.

  2. Can you tell me whether or not prisoners in one camp were permitted to write to POWs in other Camps, either in Canada or Britain? For instance, if a man’s family wrote him and said, Oh, your friend So-and-so is in Camp XYZ,” could the two men write to one another, or only to their families and friends at home? Thank you. A plot element in a story hinges on whether or not that was permitted, so any help would be most appreciated.

    1. Hi RK, good question. My understanding is that, generally, correspondence between camps was prohibited. POWs were permitted to correspond with blood relatives also interned in Canada but not friends. I’m not as familiar with Canada-UK correspondence but I imagine it was also restricted. I have seen an example of a POW corresponding with a POW in the U.K. but I can’t recall if it was sent post-VE Day (when some restrictions were lifted).

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