Monday 31 October 2016

Down the road from Wetherby

A few hours after writing the last post – on Wetherby – I met someone whose mother came from Knaresborough, which is just 8 miles from Wetherby, and whose father was a German prisoner-of-war in Knaresborough. I had no idea this POW camp existed (nor any of the several others located in Yorkshire), even though it wasn’t finally empty until after I was born (after the war it served as a camp for displaced persons).

The POW camp at Scriven Hall, Knaresborough, was an internment camp for low-risk prisoners – no watchtowers, no barbed wire, and the prisoners were generally able to wander in and out. The camp was home to Italian POWs from 1941, and later Russian and German ones. Extracts from an online research paper on the Knaresborough camp:

‘Under escort, [the Russians] were allowed to visit the nearest “local”, which was the Royal Oak on Bond End, where they sold beautiful hand-made wooden toys to supplement their income … The Russians were well thought of by local farmers and endeared themselves further at Christmas 1944. The local paper recorded: “For some time a number of Russians have been working on the land in the Knaresborough district, and have won golden opinions from the farmers who have employed them. Although the men receive only a few shillings a week, they have expressed a desire to make some contribution to the Christmas festivities of evacuated children in the town and have subscribed in small amounts a total of £16, which was presented by their representatives at a special meeting of Knaresborough Urban District Council on Tuesday afternoon. The men have also sent about 100 toys for the children. This is a thoughtful gesture that is very much appreciated.”

‘German POWS seem to have arrived after this and were not repatriated until two or three years after the end of hostilities … Otto Feltz was in the Luftwaffe, captured in France a short time after the outbreak of war. He spent the rest of the war in sixteen internment camps in Europe and the UK, including Scriven. During the winter of 1947 he was sent into York to clear the streets of heavy snow and where he encountered some hostility from the Jewish community who “poured hot drinks into the freezing snow so that we could not drink ...”. Nevertheless, Otto chose to remain in the UK after the war and farmed at Brereton … Heinz Emmerich had commanded a German minesweeper before it was sunk in the English Channel in 1944 and he was captured. Speaking good English, he became an interpreter in British POW camps, moving from camp to camp throughout Yorkshire and he spent some time at Scriven. Disregarding the rules, and trusted by the authorities, Emmerich used to drink in pubs and had English girlfriends. His First Officer had been the son of a brewer and whilst they were held in a Rotherham POW camp, they began to distil illicit spirits which were sold at £1 per bottle to both prisoners and the public outside the camp on the black market, the alcohol being marketed by British army drivers. By the time of his release in 1948, Emmerich had accumulated an impressive total of £800 in savings from this illegal activity. He was repatriated to Germany but found that it was not the country he had known and so he returned to marry an English girl.

‘By the end of the war, more than 400,000 Germans were being held in POW camps on the outskirts of most towns and by 1946, these prisoners were responsible for 20% of all farm labouring in Britain. They also made significant contributions to the major rebuilding programmes of roads and housing.

‘One resident recalls the POWs selling slippers door to door around Knaresborough and remembers how “they were mostly nice people who fitted well into the community” … At Christmas 1946, about one hundred POWs were invited to spend Christmas Day in the homes of local residents, a number of whom travelled by car to the camp to pick up their guests. The remainder of the prisoners were allowed liberty from the camp during the day and groups of them, in their uniforms of blue or brown with the distinctive POW patches, were to be seen about Knaresborough. In the evening, the men put on an impromptu concert which included pieces played by their own band … In January 1948, The Germans hosted a party at the Methodist hall in Knaresborough High Street for 100 local children as a return for the hospitality they had received in the area. The children were given gifts of hand-made toys, described as “miracles of ingenuity and improvisation”, from old pieces of wood, tin and wire, painted in bright colours.

‘POWs apart, there were many people at the end of the war who were, for various reasons, unable to return home. Some of these displaced persons (DP) were also accommodated at Scriven. From 1947, under the European Volunteer Workers (EVW) scheme, citizens of any state, including “defeated hostiles”, could apply to come and settle within the UK. This was an effort to aid those who had been rendered homeless during the war and to help alleviate the chronic labour shortage in essential services within Britain immediately thereafter. Although most successful applicants were single, EVWs could subsequently invite close relatives to join them in the DP camps and a number of children were born in UK camps … Only the Poles were welcomed into the UK as a group of immigrants, being allies who often could not return to Poland. They were offered naturalisation, language training, help with housing and vocational courses to help them settle here. Some 300,000 Poles settled in the UK after the war … Vacated by the European Volunteer Workers, the camp was empty in August 1952.’

I find the above oddly moving: the acceptance – not unanimous, of course: if you’d had a son or husband or brother killed in the services, or relatives killed in the Blitz, it can’t have been an easy thing to have captured enemy soldiers walking the streets of your town: but in general, acceptance, yes – by a largely rural, conservative community of outsiders dumped on their doorstep. The making do, the getting on with life, the bonds formed. The absence of political rhetoric.

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