When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.
On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.
As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.
If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.
On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.
Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:
Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.
The Blitz, rationing, evacuees, home guard, women’s land army are all such familiar parts of the story of the Second World War. The home front is well documented, the setting for popular television programmes, taught in primary schools and part of our collective narrative for the Second World War, but most people know very little about the home front during the First World War. Prompted by this year’s centenary and the production of a resource pack for schools, volunteers and staff have been looking into the archives for documents about the Great War. At the request of teachers, we looked into the role of children in the war researching the school log books to find out how the war affected their lives.
As an MA student from Bath Spa University, on placement here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, my first task has been to search the archive for First World War documents and photographs.
The opportunity to spend hours in the midst of archive documents is, for a history graduate like me, a complete joy. I’ve been impressed at the speed with which the production team retrieve items from the store rooms, and the helpfulness and expertise of the staff. The Centre is a wonderful facility.
Amongst many other papers, I came across a box of hundreds of letters, sent to a Miss Frances Baker, in her capacity as Honorary Secretary of the Salisbury branch of Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, and dated from 1914 to 1919. The Guild was part of a national charity of ladies who raised money and used this to make and supply garments for the needy of their area. During the First World War, their focus shifted to service personnel of the British Army, Navy and Air Force, and in all theatres of war. Wiltshire people served in many different places, as far flung as the North Sea, France, Salonika, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Palestine. Later in the war, the Guild also took responsibility for sending parcels to Salisbury men who were prisoners of war in Germany.
As I travel from Corsham to Chippenham by bus to work at the History Centre, I often think of what past local inhabitants might make of the ‘Sainsbury’s Roundabout’, the Methuen industrial park or the sprawl of post-war housing leading into Chippenham itself. Local artists have often recorded changes to the environment in their art, not always intentionally but as a consequence of the time in which they have been working. Wiltshire’s museums contain hundreds of such drawings, sketches and paintings of the people and landscape that makes this county so special.
One such local inhabitant was Robin Tanner (1904–1988) who was born in Bristol but grew up in Kington Langley, near Chippenham. Whilst training to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College in London during the 1920s he studied etching during the evenings. This etching was to become the means by which he expressed his deep appreciation of the countryside. Later returning to Wiltshire - moving into a house at Old Chapel Field, Kington Langley, where the diarist Francis Kilvert's ancestors are buried - to earn a living as an artist, his etchings show the strong influence of Samuel Palmer, the visionary Victorian romantic painter, depicting a world of thatched ricks, hedges, gates and stiles.