Prisoners of War

Page 3 – Incarceration

The incarceration of most New Zealand army POWs began in transit camps where facilities were rudimentary in the extreme. Generally little more than holding pens, they were invariably overcrowded, lacked shelter, and had insufficient ablutions for large numbers of men. In these insanitary conditions, dysentery was rife. Lice and, in places, bedbugs added to the prisoners' torment. The supply of food and water was also inadequate.

The process of capture ended with the POW's arrival at a permanent camp, the relative organisation and comfort of which usually came as a pleasant surprise to men whose expectations had been lowered by their treatment in the transit camps. Where this camp was located depended upon the theatre in which the POW was taken. For those who surrendered to German forces in Greece and Crete, the destination was Germany or German-occupied territory in central or eastern Europe. Men taken in the North African fighting, however, were incarcerated in Italy (with the exception of a few airmen flown directly to camps in Germany).

When Italy capitulated in September 1943, there were more than 70,000 Commonwealth POWs in the country. After the camps were rapidly taken over by German forces, about 3200 New Zealand POWs were transported north to Germany.

In the Far East a few of the New Zealand POWs were held in Japan itself, but most remained in camps throughout South-east Asia.

In Germany and Italy a POW's arm of service and rank determined the type of camp in which he was held. Officers were usually segregated in special camps. New Zealand airmen captured in Western Europe went first to an interrogation centre at Oberursel, near Frankfurt, and then to a nearby transit camp, Dulag Luft. The handful of non-Fleet Air Arm naval POWs were held initially in the Marlag-Milag Nord, a section of a very large camp at Sandbostel, near Bremen. In mid-1942 these men were moved to a newly built camp at Westertimke.

Commonwealth POWs were conspicuous by their high morale. Although the enemy attempted to influence POWs' attitudes through propaganda conveyed by radio broadcasts and publications, such efforts were generally futile. They were undermined in particular by the clandestine means by which POWs kept track of events. Hidden radios provided vital boosts to morale. Those who operated them often took big risks, especially in the Far East.

How to cite this page

'Incarceration', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Nov-2023