BY RICHARD MADDOX
THE LIBERATED PRISONER OF WAR QUESTIONNAIRE files at the United Kingdom National Archives at Kew are arranged in many – more than 1500 (1) – hardback files, some centimetres thick.
The questionnaires, from all the armed services as well as the Merchant Navy, consist of three sides (two sheets) of paper and are from prisoners held in Europe and the Far East.
As an example of how many individual files there are, those from RAF Bomber Command (just part of the wartime flying element of the Royal Air Force ) number almost 10,000.
The first side contains biographical information on the prisoner, their name, unit and service number, date of birth, when they enlisted, their civilian trade or profession and home address. It also contains where and when they were captured, which PoW camps they were held in, for how long and whether they were used on work parties, injuries at the time of capture or during their time as a prisoner and if so whether they received adequate treatment.
Sides two and three look in detail at their PoW experience by posing questions about whether they had a security briefing before capture, whether any attempt was made to escape, they engaged in sabotage or were aware of any acts of collaboration or War Crimes.
I have seen only a small fraction of those available and (as would be expected) they are very interesting and can yield a vast amount of information. They can also be frustrating (the words ‘NO’, ‘None’ or phrases like ‘Minor things’ appears often), heroic – occasionally funny – and sometimes very humbling.
They are also interesting for what is NOT stated in them but implied.
I often felt that the person filling out the form didn’t regard as important what they did as a prisoner, may even have been slightly ashamed or was simply frustrated at more form filling. Above all there is often a feeling of just wanting it all finished and to go home.
Here are a few brief examples…
Driver Hector Raven of 2/1 Australian Field Workshops, a greengrocer and baker in civilian life was capture at Derna, Libya on 7 April 1941, when German troops captured the city from the British, after Australian troops had captured it in January of that year.
He was imprisoned in three camps in Italy and Germany and from October 1943 until May 1945 was a labourer in a stone quarry.
His questionnaire is dated 29 May 1945 and in response to the question concerning sabotage he wrote:
Also working in a quarry was 850844, Private Frederick Read, RAOC. Enlisting in 1935 he was captured on 29 April 1941 at Kalamatra in southern Greece.
In answer to the sabotage question he writes that he threw a steel girder into a stone crushing machine at Work Camp A/22 GW (gewerbliche Wirtschaft – a trade or industry camp) (2) at Leitendorf near Leoben in Austria and ‘broke the motor for several days’. He also attempted to escape from the same camp, making it to nearby woods. As a punishment he received bread and water only for 21 days.
Private Read would find himself in a variety of camps – including a spell of four months in a disciplinary camp at Waldenstein, Austria.
As can be seen above, he singled out the family on an Austrian farm for the help they gave him.
William John Rayner enlisted in May 1938 at the age of 18. Rifleman 6896401 Rayner was from Barking in Essex, near London was captured on Crete in May 1941 while serving with 1 Battalion Rangers, King’s Royal Rifles, 7th Armoured Division, 8th Army.
Imprisoned in three camps, used for railway and factory work he had diphtheria, malaria and ‘stomach’ problems.
He made four escape attempts – the last from a punishment camp.
Either MI-9, the part of the British War Office responsible for liaising with Resistance networks in Europe or its ‘sister’ branch MI-19 (concerned with evaluating information from captured enemy prisoners of war) asked him to submit further information. The detailed two-sided handwritten page he submitted (signed off with ‘I am Sir, your obedient servant’ – the customary military wording to a senior officer) is enclosed with his original questionnaire.
A New Zealander, Private 36573 Tuia Edward Rayner, serving with 19 Battalion, New Zealand Expeditionary Force was captured at Kalamata in Greece on 29 April 1941. In civilian life a ‘contractor’ he spent time at two camps in Greece and Work Camp 1735/L(3) near Oberrakitsch in south east Austria, where he was a farm labourer.
On 31 March 1945 he and fellow New Zealander Eric T Blackbourne escaped from 1735/L.
Having previously prepared a hide-out the previous winter, the two men waited until dark and according to his questionnaire ‘made our way into Yugoslavia and got in touch with bandits in the hills’.
The two prisoners ‘operated with them [the bandits] for one month’ before returning to the Oberrakitsch area but as ‘the enemy was still in the locality’ they went to back to their hide-out, staying there until the Russians arrived on 8 May 1945. They made their way to Graz and Köflach and at some point were able to contact British forces.
A note in a different hand records that they were flown from Udine in northern Italy to Ancona and then travelled by rail to Naples before completing his questionnaire on 29 May 1945.
A brief internet search suggest that Mr Rayner may have died in 1976 in his native New Zealand (4).
(1) http://www.rafcommands.com/archive/20295.php retrieved 10 July 2017
(2) http://www.stalag18a.org/workcamps.html retrieved 10 July 2017
(3) http://www.stalag18a.org/wc1735L.html retrieved 10 July 2017
(4) https://billiongraves.com/grave/Edward-Tuia-Rayner/7175137 retrieved 10 July 2017
All images in this post © R Maddox 2017.