History 3 - Site of WW2 Italian POW Camp

Approximate location of Italian POW Camp - 282 Brissenden Green


During the Second World War, an Italian prisoner of war camp (no. 282) was located near Brissenden Green. According to an English Heritage report, the precise location was not identified although the camp was associated with another at Woodchurch, Ashford (no. 86A). This failure may have resulted from some of the key information being incorrectly recorded with the town being called Ashchurch instead of Ashford. Following discussions in 1990s with the children of the owners of Potters Farm at that time, it was confirmed that Italians were held in a camp in 20 acre Wood (to the East of the Farm) and that these prisoners made the children on the farm necklaces of coloured beads. This is in line with experience at other Italian camps were the internees created chapels as well as colourful and creatively decorated camp accommodation. Like many other camps, no remnants from the camp remain as these were dismantled at the end of the war when the land was returned to agricultural production.

At the beginning of the Second World War, there were around 70,000 Germans and Austrians living in Britain. The government was worried that they might be spies (which was highly unlikely when only 16 people were executed during the war under the Treachery Act of 1940) and therefore ordered that these non-British people should be interned during the war. They were called 'aliens' and divided into three categories: Class A (high security risk) – 596; Class B (doubtful cases) – 6782; Class C (no risk) – 66,002. Class A aliens were rounded up and put in internment camps immediately, but most Class B and C aliens were not imprisoned until the summer of 1940. Some key aliens – for instance those working on the atomic bomb – were allowed to stay free, but they were not allowed to own a car, a bicycle or a map. 

Text Box: On 12th May, 1940, John Anderson (see footnote), who was in charge of national security, ordered the arrests of over 2,000 male aliens living in coastal areas. A few days later all 'B' class aliens were rounded up and placed into internment camps. Winston Churchill defended this policy by claiming that it was necessary to "collar the lot". The Daily Mail, a newspaper that had supported Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, now led a campaign to have all aliens in Britain interned. Some employers began to sack all foreigners. There were even cases of people losing their jobs because they had foreign ancestors.

When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th May 1940, angry mobs attacked Italian restaurants and ice-cream parlours and Churchill ordered that all 15,000 Italians living in Britain be arrested. This included 4,000 people with less than twenty years' residence in Britain. By 1943, there were 75,000 Italian POWs held in various camps all over Britain and at the height of the war, there were 600 internment and POW camps. Amongst those interned were Mussolini's left-wing opponents who had fled to Britain after being involved in anti-fascist activities in Italy.

After the panic of 1940–1941, restrictions were relaxed. The internees were allowed to receive letters, and whereas previously they had been refused the right to read newspapers, listen to the radio and receive letters. Eventually many were allowed to return home.

Conditions were never as brutal as in the Nazi prisoner-of-war camps, and the POWs were allowed out under escort to go and work on local farms. Where the Nazis used torture to try to extract information, the British allowed POWs to mix and talk freely, and merely recorded their conversations using secret microphones. Few POWs tried to escape – most were much happier to wait safely until the war ended.  The day-to-day organisation of the camp was under the military, but the general overall discipline of the prisoners themselves was the responsibility of their own N.C.O.s and Officers. For many prisoners this was a far better life than they had experienced when they were fighting for their country. The prisoners accepted the situation because they knew they were being well looked after, had good warm sleeping accommodation and plenty of good food. Prisoners provided their own services which included for example a doctor, dentist, tailor and shoe repairer.

An example of the work undertaken by the Italians is illustrated in the drawing below (Italian Prisoners-of-war Working on the Land (Michael Ford - War Artists Advisory Committee purchase) and also in the Pathe video http://www.britishpathe.com/video/italian-prisoners

View across an onion field in autumn with 16 Italian prisoners-of-war gathering in the crop, supervised by a single British soldier at the near edge of the field. The PoWs are wearing clothing marked with a distinctive red spot on the jackets and trousers. On the horizon a tractor loosens a furrow of earth to assist prisoners to gather the crop into wicker baskets and then load them onto a horse and cart on the right.

The typical British autumnal landscape with the horse-drawn cart, the new tractor technology and the busy workers (Italian prisoners). Harvesting was traditionally a time when everyone worked together but the British soldier in this painting stands resolutely apart, emphasising the wartime dislocation of traditional agricultural life. The urgent need for increased wartime production and the lack of manpower in the countryside meant that many PoWs in British camps worked on the land. They were paid a small amount which allowed them to buy cigarettes and extra food. However, their ambiguous role as co-workers/ enemies caused unease in rural communities which can be felt in this painting.

Footnote: John Anderson ( 1882) Biography (spartacus-educational.com)

John Anderson, the son of a publisher, was born in Edinburgh on 8th July 1882. After studying at Edinburgh University and the University of Leipzig he entered the Colonial Office in 1905. He was later posted to Ireland where he served as joint undersecretary. In 1922 he was promoted to permanent undersecretary at the Home Office and in 1926, he was chairman of the committee that dealt with the problems caused by the General Strike. In 1932 he was appointed governor of Bengal in India. After returning to Britain in 1938, Anderson was elected to the House of Commons and in November of that year, Neville Chamberlain placed Anderson in charge of Air Raid Precautions (ARP). He immediately commissioned the engineer, William Patterson, to design a small and cheap shelter that could be erected in people's gardens. Within a few months nearly 1.5 half million of these Anderson Shelters were distributed to people living in areas expected to be bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Made from 6 curved sheets bolted together at the top, with steel plates at either end, they measured 6ft 6in by 4ft 6in (1.95m by 1.35m) and the shelter could accommodate six people. The shelters were half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top. The entrance was protected by a steel shield and an earthen blast wall. Anderson shelters were given free to poor people. Men who earned more than £5 a week could buy one for £7. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, over 2 million families had shelters in their garden and by the time of the Blitz, this had risen to two and a quarter million.