Prisoners of War

Page 8 – Liberation

The prospect of liberation was key to POWs' morale. But a great many had no intention of passively awaiting the arrival of Allied forces, an attitude that was reinforced by the recognition that it was a POW's duty to attempt to escape. Such efforts varied from opportunistic attempts by one or two men to carefully prepared mass breakouts.

Numerous men managed to get away from trains taking them north from Greece and Crete; some escaped from transit camps or hospitals before beginning the journey; yet others broke out of permanent camps.

Some POWs later took advantage of their looser confinement in work camps in Germany or Austria to get away; some of these men managed to reach partisan groups in Yugoslavia, and eventually rejoined Allied forces. Others made it to neutral Sweden after stowing away on Swedish vessels in German ports.

In the Far East, escape was made almost impossible by the fact that Caucasians had no hope of passing for local inhabitants, as they could in Europe. Even so, two New Zealanders made daring escapes from Japanese captivity in Hong Kong, in 1942 and 1944.

Italy's capitulation in September 1943 allowed a large number of New Zealanders to escape. Despite misconceived orders to stay put until Allied forces arrived, many got away before German units took over their camps, while others jumped from trains taking them north. Altogether 447 New Zealand POWs managed to escape following Italy's defection from the Axis, a high proportion of all those who successfully escaped during the war.

Other New Zealand POWs took part in carefully planned escapes from camps. Tunnels were the most common means, and much time was spent planning and digging them. The preparation of materials, papers, clothes and maps to facilitate movement through enemy territory preoccupied the escape committees that co-ordinated such activities. There were several big escapes from camps in Germany, including one later the subject of a popular film, The great escape, in which 76 air force POWs crawled out through a tunnel before it was discovered. Although only a small proportion got clean away, the German authorities had to expend much effort to recapture the rest.

The treatment of escapers who were retaken was covered in the Geneva Convention. Their 'disciplinary punishment' was supposed to be limited to 30 days' imprisonment, but as some POWs found to their cost, the German authorities did not always observe such provisions. They got around the Convention by charging escapers under the German civil code and giving them heavy sentences for such 'crimes' as 'sabotage of the Reich'.

As a consequence a number of New Zealand POWs did time in the grim military prisons at Torgau and Graudenz, where brutal treatment and a poor diet were the norm. Habitual escapers were gathered at Colditz (Oflag IVC), near Leipzig, where conditions were also bad; among the handful of New Zealanders who endured captivity in this forbidding old fortress was one of New Zealand's most renowned soldiers, double VC winner Captain Charles Upham.

For some, however, the consequences of escaping were tragic. Following the Great Escape, the Gestapo murdered 50 of the men they recaptured, in a brutal attempt to deter future escapers. Among the victims of this atrocity were three New Zealand airmen. In the Far East, POWs were under no illusions as to the treatment they could expect if recaptured: a number of Allied POWs were publicly beheaded for escaping.

The long march

POWs who did not succeed in escaping could only await the end of the war for their liberation and repatriation. With Soviet victories during 1944 putting camps in Poland and eastern Germany under threat of being overrun, the German authorities determined to evacuate the POWs to the west. Allied successes in the west in early 1945 forced similar action in western Germany.

For the POWs, these developments initiated a period of great trial. Some were moved by train, but most were forced to evacuate their camps on foot. For POWs whose diet had long been inadequate, such exertion was an ordeal. It was made worse by atrocious weather during the winter of 1944–45. In the confusion of the march, food supply arrangements became haphazard. To add to the dangers, some of the POWs' guards, resentful of the obvious decline in their country's fortunes, took out their frustration on the men in their charge. One New Zealander was shot dead when he bent down to pick up bread thrown to him by compassionate civilians.

Some of these POW movements ended when the groups arrived at large camps in central Germany, which were eventually overrun by Allied forces. Others continued to move until their guards disappeared when Allied units were about to arrive. Those still in eastern Europe were liberated by Soviet forces.

Liberation from the Japanese

In the Far East, British forces advancing rapidly southwards in Burma in the final months of the war liberated several New Zealand POWs. But those held in Japan or Korea, or elsewhere in South-east Asia, regained their liberty only after Japan capitulated in mid-August 1945, following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The POWs knew the war was going badly for the Japanese, but the sudden end of hostilities was all the more gratifying to them because of rumours that their captors intended to slaughter them if the war were lost. The appearance of Allied aircraft above their camps, dropping food, clothing and medical supplies, came as a great relief.

How to cite this page

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