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History of prisoners of war in Kent

By Chris Britcher

Around a year after the end of the Second World war a remarkable 400,000 German prisoners of war remained captive in this country.

Scattered at locations across the UK, there were more than a dozen camps which held prisoners across Kent.

And despite all hostilities worldwide coming to an end by the end of the summer 1945, many would remain in the county for up to three more years.

American soldiers search German prisoners from Normandy in the wake of the D-Day Landings of June 1944
American soldiers search German prisoners from Normandy in the wake of the D-Day Landings of June 1944

It is even estimated by some that in 1946 they made up a quarter of the county's workforce.

Many would be put to work on roads and other infrastructure projects, or out in the fields.

Some even found themselves working on the Kent home of war time leader Winston Churchill on his Chartwell estate in Westerham.

The numbers peaked near the end of the war as the Nazis were on the retreat.

In the early years of the conflict, when it was feared a German invasion was imminent, the UK did not want enemy forces to be able to free prisoners and swell their numbers, so many were sent to other nations in the British Empire or to the US or Canada.

Conditions in each camp could vary greatly - depending on the facilities.

German prisoners of war help to right an army lorry that skidded on the Canterbury to Dover road in 1947
German prisoners of war help to right an army lorry that skidded on the Canterbury to Dover road in 1947

By 1944, following the Allied invasion of western Europe, boats would bring prisoners to the UK where they would be graded, depending on their commitment to the Nazi cause, before being assigned a camp.

Each camp would have a fluent English-speaking German who would bridge the language gap.

PoWs would also receive the same rations as the British troops.

Space would be limited - especially as numbers began to swell - and many were made to work to help local communities clear both bomb damage and help reconstruct the local areas.

From farm work to house building, the labour force provided by the prisoners was enormous and, as the war ended, many locals came to resent them for taking jobs they could otherwise have.

But it appears the prisoners generally integrated well and many would opt to stay in the UK after the war ended.

Lady Churchill's Rose Garden in Chartwell which PoWs helped to maintain after the war
Lady Churchill's Rose Garden in Chartwell which PoWs helped to maintain after the war

Yet, in a major survey conducted by English Heritage, attempting to identify the sites was no easy task.

Explains author Roger Thomas: "We were provided with a list of sites drawn from documentation held at the National Archives and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Archives in Geneva.

"Defining exactly what constitutes a PoW camp is difficult because of the immense variety of types, sizes, and classes of buildings used.

"The number and types of camp varied throughout the war.

"In addition to the base camps, a large number of semi-autonomous hostels were established out in the country, and a large number of PoWs were billeted on farms."

The English Heritage list lays claim to any site or building used to house military prisoners captured by the Allies and which were given an official PoW camp 'number' by the authorities.

The PoW camp next to the Weald School
The PoW camp next to the Weald School

Among those in Kent were facilities in Folkestone, Ashford, Medway, Tonbridge, Maidstone, Dover and Dartford - as well as Bromley and Chislehurst, when both were still part of the county.

It is thought other sites existed, but on a far smaller scale.

When the war ended, repatriation started in 1946 and would continue until 1948.

Extracts from a German PoW's diary

Courtesy: Tonbridge Historical Soceity

German solider Vinzenz Fetzer, a gardener before the war, was captured in France in October 1944, aged 39, and spent three years at the Somerhill camp in Tonbridge.

He did not return to Germany until early in 1948 and compiled a diary.

German solider Vinzenz Fetzer spent three years at a PoW camp in Tonbridge
German solider Vinzenz Fetzer spent three years at a PoW camp in Tonbridge

Here are some extracts:

On April 1, 1945 I arrived, with other comrades, at work camp 40 in southern England near Tonbridge.

This area is called the Garden of England because of its mild climate and well-tended orchards, hop fields and oast houses.

For several days now I have been travelling with my work party by omnibus to a farm about 35 kilometres away and every time it is a pleasure for me to drive through such thriving activity.

In the towns you can see in front of most of the houses a neat and pretty front garden filled with flowers.

The lovely English lawn is prominent. You also find tastefully arranged rock gardens with flowering plants.

The orchards in blossom are also a splendid sight – mainly apples, also damson plums, some cherries and pears.

May 8, 1945: English farming has been greatly mechanised since the beginning of the war.

You find few horses but tractors and cars everywhere. Most farmers are good stockmen but bad husbandmen.

English farming has much to make up if it is to be on a par with ours. The many large concerns have the advantage since here machines can be profitably used.

The people are very angry and hostile towards us which can only be attributed to propaganda.

Children are for the most part friendly, if at first fearful.

I can see straight away whether they are affected by the old people's views or whether they regard me as a human being.

September 23, 1945: On the 18th I celebrated my birthday, the second in captivity.

I think there’ll soon be a third. In the morning, on wakening, my thoughts were with the loved ones at home.

Whether they celebrate birthdays at home?

December 12, 1945: Christmas is over. Thank God, many will say.

It’s precisely this family festival which weighs heaviest on the mood of the prisoners.

It was worst for those who still have no news from home and for those from the Russian-controlled zone who up to now are not allowed to write.

Kitchen and bakery have done their best to make Christmas as pleasant as possible for us.

There were German-style pastries, Christmas Stollen, cigarettes and good simple food.

March 30, 1946: Today we had to finish our work at Churchill's place [Chartwell].

Yesterday he came to his country house with his wife. He came back from America a few days before. It's a lovely place in a sunny situation.

December 31, 1946: If it weren't in the calendar, we wouldn't notice it. The weather is spring like and warm.

The past year brought us many a disappointment and some surprises.

The biggest disappointment was the slow rate of repatriation, which pans out at 15,000 per month over 25 months.

In the last few days we also learnt that Group 15 can reckon on going home by the end of June. A bad outlook for Group 21.

January 29, 1948: It's even emptier in the barracks, one after another goes off, never to be seen again.

Today the folk went to the Russian zone, a transport to the hotel in Mereworth, and we, the returnees to the French and US zones are alone with a part of the work force and some of the staff who work on building sites. All is a bit confused.

Nearly 3 years spent here, with 18 months 'interval' in Horns Lodge hostel and I am now among the last to leave the camp, to make room for homeless people from Germany.

It's been spoken of in fact that the town of Tonbridge is against it, they don't want strangers any more in their town but want the camp grounds to revert to their former purposes, sport, above all golf and other general activities.

For years we’ve lived together here, worked, shared our worries, always our thoughts on our homeland and our sights ahead to the point in time when we’ll go home, when our army time is over and we can again lead a civilian life, free.

Even VE Day did not bring an end to captivity for those held at Kent's PoW camps
Even VE Day did not bring an end to captivity for those held at Kent's PoW camps

For most, this time has come and for the rest it’s within reach.

It seemed strange when one was invited the first time to an English family – to a table laid with plates and all the usual cutlery. Reminders of times long ago surfaced.

But in the pleasant cosy setting, one quickly settled and then the longing for home, family and homeland was all the stronger.

Now we shall soon have this back again, see this all again.

God grant that all comes to a good end and a happy beginning.

  • Vinzenz Fetzer returned to his parents' farm in south west Germany and set up his own nursery garden. He died in 1978.

List of Second World War prisoner of war camps

Source: English Heritage

Camp No33

St Martin's Plain, Shorncliffe Camp, Folkestone

Large pre-existing military camp which remains a military site today although is in the process of being developed.

Camp No40

Somerhill Camp, Tonbridge

Described a a German working camp, it is now on land which forms part of the Weald of Kent Grammar School.

Camp No86

Stanhope Camp, Ashford

A standard German working camp, the site is long since demolished and been replaced with housing.

Camp No86a

Woodchurch, near Ashford

Camp No282

Hengherst House, Woodchurch

Both were German working camps, Hengherst House is part of a farm estate.

Camp No117

Walderslade Camp, King George Street, Chatham

A German working camp. The field opposite the Poacher's Pocket pub was once part of the camp's grounds.

Camp No154

Ministry of Works Camp, Swanscombe Street, Swanscombe

German working camp. The site is now housing.

Camp No233

Summer House, Ravensbourne, Bromley

Believed to be part of the Beckenham Place Park estate with outlines of the camp visible during spells of hot weather.

Camp No237

Coed Bel Camp, Lubbock Road, Chislehurst Kent

German working camp at what was previously a school and First World War nursing centre. Building now replaced with homes.

Camp No267

Mereworth Castle, Mereworth, near Maidstone

German working camp at a country mansion which is now Grade I-listed.

Camp No282 (shares same number with Woodchurch)

Brissenden Green Camp, near Ashford

Believed to have been sited on land close to Potters Farm and was used for Italian prisoners.

Camp No629

Mabledon Park, Tonbridge

A large, standard site situated between Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. The site was, and still is, a private country house occupied by the military which constructed a number of buildings on the site which still remain today.

Camp No654a

Wouldham Bridging Camp, Rochester

A long-time military camp which taught soldier how to build bridges, the footprint of the camp exists today.

Camp No670

St Radegund's Camp, Dover

A German working camp in the grounds of St Radegund's Abbey - now often spelt St Radigund's - which was taken over by the military during the war.

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