War oral history programme

Page 10 – Notes and questions, POWs

Prisoners of War

What did we have for Christmas dinner? Macaroni, and the meat was the grubs that were in it. Weevils. We'd eat anything ... It's an awful feeling, hunger.

George Lockhead, 20 Battalion, in Megan Hutching (ed.), Inside Stories: New Zealand POWs Remember, 2002

Before you interview any veterans who became Prisoners of War, we recommend you read our Guide to recording oral history.

Background notes

The enemy captured more than 8000 New Zealand military personnel during the Second World War. Roughly half were taken by the Germans in mainland Greece and Crete in April–May 1941, and were transported to camps in Germany.

Most of the remainder were captured during the fighting in North Africa. They were taken across the Mediterranean to camps in Italy. When Italy surrendered it was occupied by German forces. About 400 New Zealanders escaped at this time, but the rest were moved to German camps, where they remained until liberated at the end of the war. They were joined by about 500 New Zealanders captured while serving in the RAF and Royal Navy, especially Bomber Command.

About 100 servicemen, plus more than 50 merchant seafarers and around 200 civilians were captured by the Japanese and held in camps throughout South-East and East Asia. Life for the men and women in Japanese hands was especially hard; many endured near starvation, and for some the threat of violence from prison guards was always present.

Conditions in the European POW camps were less severe, not least because of the Red Cross parcels that the men received on a regular basis. But prisoners of both Italy and Germany suffered malnutrition that had long-term consequences for their health. Some men managed to escape or were repatriated in exchange programmes, but most were freed in 1945. Some suffered severely in the chaos of the last few months of the war, especially when forced to march away from the approaching front in the depths of winter.

Learn more about POWs on NZHistory.net.nz.


These questions are suggestions only. It is not necessary that you ask all of them. You can choose those that are relevant to your interviewee, and add your own, too.

Background questions

  • What is your name, date of birth and place of birth (don't forget to spell out names)?
  • Tell me a little about your life before the war (parents, school, childhood and early working life).
  • Did either of your parents serve in the First World War? If so, where? Did they talk about it? What did they tell you?
  • Where were you when you heard about the outbreak of war? What were your feelings?
  • What were your reasons for joining up (enlisting)?

The next set of questions covers your interviewee's service before capture.

If he was captured in Greece/Crete, North Africa, Italy while serving with 2 NZEF or in the Pacific while serving with the NZRAF, refer to the relevant link for questions:

If your interviewee was captured while serving with the RNZAF or the RAF in Europe, the following are suggested questions to cover the time before he was captured:

  • Why did you choose the air force to serve with?
  • Where did you train?
  • What sort of plane(s) did you fly in, operationally?
  • Which squadron(s) were you assigned to? Give the dates.
  • What was your role (pilot, navigator, air gunner, etc.)?
  • Did you enjoy flying? Why?
  • Where were you based?
  • What were your living conditions like? Describe the sleeping arrangements, food, spare time and leave.
  • What do you remember of your first operational flight?
  • How did you deal with fear? How did you deal with tension? How did you deal with tiredness?
  • If you were flying with a crew, were you close-knit?
  • Were you commissioned? If so, when? What was your rank?
  • Describe any particularly memorable operations before your capture.
  • If, before your capture, you had to bail out of your plane, describe what happened. What time of day/night was it? What happened before the order was given to abandon the aircraft? If you were with crew, what happened to the others? Where did you land? What happened then? Describe what happened.

Being taken prisoner

  • How did it happen?
  • What was your reaction?
  • What were your expectations?
  • Had you ever seen a Japanese/German/Italian close up before? What were your first impressions?
  • How were you treated?
  • Were you wounded? How?
  • What happened to you then?
  • Were your friends/mates wounded? If so, how did you cope with them?
  • What sort of supplies were there for wounded? What was the water supply like?
  • What did you do with your dead mates?
  • (If officer/air force) Were you interrogated? Describe this.
  • When and how did your family hear that you had been taken prisoner?

Transit camps

  • Where were you?
  • How did you get there?
  • Describe the prison guards. (What were they like? How did they treat you? How many were there?)
  • What were the conditions like? How many were there in the camp? Were you able to get food? If so, what? Did you do your own cooking? What was the bedding like? What were the washing facilities – for clothes and for yourself? If wounded, what medical facilities were there?
  • How did you fill in your time? Did you try to escape? If so, why and how? What happened?

If captured in Greece

  • Where were you collected en route to Salonika?
  • Were you put to work?
  • Were you interrogated?
  • What happened to the wounded?
  • Describe the transit camp at Corinth – living conditions, sanitation, guards and food.
  • Describe the Salonika camp – guards, heavy physical work.

If captured in North Africa

  • There were transit camps at Bardia, Benghazi and Derna – ask about conditions in each, depending on where the interviewee was held.

For each subsequent POW camp your interviewee was in, ask the following suggested questions

Note: the European winter in 1941–42 was especially severe.

  • How did you get to the POW camp(s)? Describe the journey.
  • What, if any, advice were you given if arriving at a camp where there were already other New Zealand prisoners?
  • Describe delousing. What other formalities were there when you arrived at camp? (Registration?)
  • What was the layout of the camp (perimeter, barbed wire, sentry boxes, machine guns, dogs, lights)?
  • Who commanded the camp?
  • Who organised the POWs in the camp? How was this person chosen (e.g., most senior rank)?
  • Huts – how many people were in a hut? How were the huts arranged in the camp? What were they like inside (beds, bedding, stoves, windows)?
  • Who commanded the hut? How were orders received?
  • Was there any chance of complaining? If so, how was this organised? What were the results?
  • Describe the kitchens, latrines and recreation huts.
  • What sorts of work activities were organised (e.g., fatigue parties to clean up camp)?
  • Was there a system of roll-calls? If so, describe what happened. Note: in Japanese camps, prisoners had to number off in Japanese – did this cause problems, i.e., remembering the numbers?
  • Were there searches? If so, how often would these occur? What were guards looking for? Describe the process.
  • Did you ever have Anzac Day parades? If so, describe these.
  • Do you remember visits from the Red Cross/YMCA/German inspectors? What happened? Was there any chance to talk to them?
  • Did you have any experience of work camps? If so, what was their size? How many people were in them? How were you chosen? What nationalities were included? Was there any contact with other nationalities? Was there any contact with civilians? If so, what? Were you able to get out of camp? How? What did you do? Why did you go back? Was there any difference in work practices? Was there sabotage? If so, what sort of things? Was there retaliation if it was found out? What? Did you ever come into contact with women while on working parties?


  • What food were you given? Describe this.
  • Was there anything you wouldn’t eat?
  • If extra rations were available, how did you decide who got them?
  • Was there a canteen of any kind? Describe this.
  • Did you get Red Cross parcels? Where from? What did they have in them? Did you ever trade contents with other POWs? How and for what? What were you feelings about the Red Cross? [Note: some also received clothing parcels from Red Cross.]
  • Did you ever have access to extra food? If so, explain how and describe it.
  • Did you have stoves or other cooking devices? Where did you get the fuel for these (e.g., hut rafters, bunk slats)?
  • What effect did hunger have on you? (Did it make you or anyone else irritable or suspicious?)
  • Did hunger or competition for food ever lead to violence?
  • Did you think about food obsessively?


  • Did you suffer from any illness or disease? (conjunctivitis, beriberi, dysentery, pellagra, tropical ulcers)?
  • Were there ever outbreaks of disease (e.g., typhus)?
  • Did you have problems with teeth, your eyes or your skin?
  • Were you ever sent to hospital? If so, what were the conditions like? (Staff? Drugs and equipment?)

General camp life

  • Did you smoke cigarettes?
  • What would you use if there was no tobacco?
  • What would you use instead of cigarette papers?
  • Did you get mail? How often?
  • What did it mean to you to get/not get letters from home?
  • Did you write letters to family and friends?
  • How was mail organised in the camp? What sort of censorship existed?
  • What sort of recreational things happened in your camp (housie, card games, gambling, sports, plays, musicals, orchestras, lectures, quizzes, crafts)? Describe these.
  • What were your relations with guards like (nicknames, rackets, bribing guards, swapping cigarettes for food, etc.)? Did they get drunk?
  • Were there any particular characters among the other POWs? How much solidarity and comradeship existed? How did you deal with those who didn’t fit in (e.g., hoarded or stole food, informed to guards)?
  • Did you ever witness violence either from guards or among prisoners? If so, describe this.
  • What other nationalities were there in the camp? How did you get on with them?
  • What was the role of religion in camp life? Did you attend church services? What was your opinion of the padres/chaplains?
  • Were you ever involved in any secret committees in camps or in resistance activities? If so, describe this.


  • How often did you talk about the possibility of escaping?
  • Were you ever involved in a plan to escape?
  • If so, how many were involved in escape plans? What was the plan? How long did the escape take to plan?
  • How did you time when to make the attempt?
  • Describe any disguises, forged papers, photographs, food, maps or compasses you had. How did you get hold of these?
  • If your attempt was unsuccessful or you abandoned the plan, explain why.
  • If your attempt was successful, describe what happened.
  • Did you stay with any families? How long? Where were you hidden? Did you have any narrow escapes? How long were you on the run? Did you receive any help from the Resistance (in Europe)?
  • If you were recaptured, explain/describe what happened.
  • If you reached safety, describe how? How did you link up again with Allied units/New Zealand Division/your own unit?

Impact of the war and its end

  • How much knowledge did you have of the war? Describe any means of communication with the outside world (e.g., newspapers, radio).
  • Did you know about D-Day? How?
  • If in Italy:
    • Describe what happened at armistice (September 1943). Did things go on as usual? Did you expect to be repatriated? What preparations did you make for escaping? What was your reaction when you heard the news of armistice? What was the reaction of the guards?
    • When did you realise that the war would not be soon over? How did you cope when you realised this (emotionally and practically)?
  • Where were you when you heard that the war had ended?
  • What was your reaction?
  • Who liberated you? When? Describe what happened. How did you respond to being free?
  • If in Europe, Did you take part in the long march at the end of the war? If so:
    • Where were you at the time you left? How much notice did you have of leaving? What did/could you take with you?
    • Where did you go?
    • Where did you rest/sleep/camp?
    • What was the attitude of the guards on the march?
    • What was the attitude of civilians on the march?
    • How did you get food (from German Army, from civilians, steal it)?
    • Did POWs steal food from each other?
    • Did you receive any food parcels on the road? If so, where and how (Red Cross vans: White Angels)?
    • Were there German refugees on the road, too?
    • Were there prisoners from concentration camps, too?
  • If in a Japanese prison camp:
    • How did you hear about the end of the war?
    • What was your reaction?
    • What was the reaction of the guards and prison authorities?


  • When did you you get back to the United Kingdom/New Zealand? How did you get back?
  • What did you do in the United Kingdom before returning to New Zealand?
  • What did processing involve?
  • Were you hospitalised? Did you receive any dental treatment?
  • What was the attitude of British people?
  • How did you cope with having women around again?
  • How difficult did you find the adjustment to life outside?
  • How did you get back to New Zealand (if in the United Kingdom)?
  • What was your arrival in New Zealand like? Who met you? Were you given any sort of welcome home?
  • How did it feel to see your family again?
  • Did New Zealand seem different to you after your time away?

After the war

  • Did you experience any problems getting benefits or pensions?
  • How was your health when you got back to New Zealand? Did you have any trouble with depression, boils, bronchitis, malaria, stomach trouble, hookworm?
  • Did you experience any nightmares? If so, how long did they go on? Do you ever have them now?
  • Did you drink much alcohol after the war?
  • When did you go back to work? Describe how it felt to be back at work. Did your health have any effect on your career?
  • Did you feel as though you had anything in common with people who had not been fighting/imprisoned?
  • Did you experience any restlessness and inability to settle? Or any dislike of crowds and queues?
  • Did you dislike being told what to do?
  • What was your attitude towards rehabilitation services?
  • Did you join the RSA on your return? (Reasons?)
  • Did you join the ex-POWs Association? (Reasons?) What were the differences between this and the RSA?
  • Do you have any feelings of resentment/dislike/hatred of former captors? If your feelings towards them have changed over the years, explain how.
  • What does your experience of having been a POW mean to you now?
  • What do you do on Anzac Day? Has that changed over the years? What does Anzac Day mean to you?
  • What are your feelings about war in general?
  • What has been the impact of your war experiences on your life?
How to cite this page

'Notes and questions, POWs', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/hands/from-memory/notes-and-questions-pows, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012