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!
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,
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.
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.
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.
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!