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Re-educating German POWs: British Policy and Public Initiatives

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Authored by Alan Malpass
Published on 20th June, 2024 20 min read

Re-educating German POWs: British Policy and Public Initiatives

On 18 December 1939, Viscount Halifax (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) circulated “an interesting memorandum” among the War Cabinet. Prepared by the Department of Enemy Propaganda, the missive provided information on German Prisoners of War (POWs) and interned enemy aliens in Great Britain. It emphasised that the steadfast commitment to Nazism and the Führer of the 257 POWs would need to be addressed in the future:  

The prisoners arriving straight out of Nazi Germany betray so clearly the effect of their intensive Nazi training and their isolation of recent years from the rest of Europe that it becomes evident that, sooner or later, some sort of political re-education of these German prisoners will have to be seriously considered as part of the preparation for the ultimate settlement of Europe.[1] 

The need to reorient the dogmatic views of German POWs was acknowledged within months of the outbreak of war. It was, however, only with the defeat of Germany that a re-education scheme “became a practical possibility”.[2] One of the many digital primary source collections curated and hosted by British Online Archives (BOA), namely Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, provides fascinating insights into the British re-education programme. The strength of the collection lies not only in what it reveals about the aims and methods of re-education. Rather, the files that the collection contains allow insight into how the British, at least those in charge of re-education, viewed the British nation and the role of Britain in the post-war world. The following essay provides background on Axis POWs in Britain, the administration and implementation of re-education, and public initiatives to introduce German POWs to the “British way of life”.

Some German servicemen, mostly Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, were captured around the British Isles during the period of the “phoney war” (roughly September 1939 to April 1940). Their time in Britain was short. Fears of invasion and fifth column subversion in Britain during the Battle of France (9 May to 22 June 1940) led the Home Security (Defence) Executive to advocate removing POWs and interned enemy aliens from Britain. Beginning in June 1940, German POWs were shipped to Canada. This remained British policy until 1944.[3]

In contrast, from July 1941, consignments of Italian POWs captured in North Africa arrived in Britain to bolster the agricultural workforce.[4] While German POWs were deemed too bellicose to remain on the home front, Italians were perceived as amenable, uncommitted to fascism, and ideal farmworkers. Organised into labour battalions, they supplied Britain with a vital source of auxiliary labour. After the Italian capitulation on 8 September 1943, Italian POWs were offered co-operator status. Co-operators were granted greater liberties and incentives in exchange for working in areas beyond agriculture. Of the 150,000 or so Italian POWs in Britain, around 100,000 volunteered as co-operators by October 1944.[5]

Policy toward German POWs was reversed following the Normandy landings. Due to a combination of factors—the shortage of space on the Continent, poor camp conditions in Belgium and France, and the desire to maximise the use of POW labour—the government were forced to house German POWs in the UK. Despite reservations, the War Cabinet approved the employment of German POWs in August 1944.[6] Around 200,000 German POWs were held in Britain (with approximately 70,000 of them employed in agriculture) when the German Instrument of Surrender was signed on 8 May 1945.

The end of the war in Europe did not mean immediate repatriation for German POWs. The continuation of the Pacific War meant that their labour was still required. Instead, the number of German POWs in Britain roughly doubled. British-owned POWs held in the United States were shipped across the Atlantic. Instead of being repatriated, they alighted at British or French ports and were set to work. More joined them from Canadian and Belgian camps. The number of German POWs in the UK peaked at 402,000 in September 1946, the same month in which their general repatriation commenced. Repatriation was completed in July 1948, with around 32,000 German POWs electing to stay in Britain as civilian workers.[7]

The need to “re-educate” the German people was expressed several times during the war.[8] Efforts with German POWs began in earnest in September 1944. Anthony Eden (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) and Brendan Bracken (Minister of Information) produced a memorandum underlining the “great importance” attached to re-education and which listed the short- and long-term value it possessed.[9] They argued that responsibility for re-education should rest with the Political Warfare Executive (PWE). On 18 September 1944, the War Cabinet approved the proposal that PWE “should undertake the re-education of German prisoners of war and that all possible steps should be taken to facilitate their work”.[10] This included the 30,000 German POWs held in the Middle East.

The hodgepodge of acronyms for departments associated with re-education and POWs can be perplexing. Those exploring this history should forgive themselves for the initial confusion. PWE staff sometimes lacked a clear understanding of which department they worked for.[11] Re-education was carried out by the Prisoner of War Division (POWD). POWD began life within PWE before being transferred to the Control Office for Germany and Austria (COGA).[12]

Established in 1941, PWE was a clandestine department tasked with undermining enemy morale.[13] The POW section of PWE collected intelligence from Axis POWs which informed propaganda aimed to encourage enemy troops to surrender.[14] In February 1942, PWE sent a mission to India to explore the creation of a Free Italian force composed of anti-fascist Italian POWs. The attempt to raise an armed Italia Redenta (Italy redeemed) failed, but the lessons learned aided the re-education of German POWs.[15]

The organisational history of PWE is itself complicated. This body was created to solve ministerial infighting over the control of propaganda. PWE was chaired by Robert Bruce Lockhart and reported to the Foreign Office. Along with Lockhart, the executive committee initially included Reginald “Rex” Leeper and Brigadier Dallas Brooks. The ministerial committee at first included Anthony Eden (Foreign Office); Hugh Dalton (Ministry of Economic Warfare); and Brenden Bracken (Ministry of Information). In 1942, the PWE underwent a sizable reorganisation, with Lockhart installed as Director General. When Lockhart resigned in August 1945, Major-General Kenneth Strong succeeded him.[16]

The existence of the secretive PWE was acknowledged in Parliament on 11 September 1941.[17] PWE operated under the cover of the Political Intelligence Department (PID), a small and overt section of the Foreign Office.[18] Having first existed between 1918 and 1920, PID was replicated in 1939 and produced weekly intelligence summaries. In 1943, the PID merged with the Foreign Research and Press Service of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) to create the Foreign Office Research Department. While the “real” PID closed, PWE continued to use the cover name. On 29 June 1945, after Germany surrendered, PWE was officially renamed the Political Intelligence Department.[19] POWD initially operated as a PID Department. When PID was itself gradually wound up, POWD was transferred to COGA on 1 July 1946 [20]

The aims of the British re-education scheme were outlined by PID to camp commandants in a December 1945 pamphlet:

  1. To eradicate from the minds of the prisoners a belief in the military tradition and the National Socialist ideology, of which the basis is that might is right and that the necessity of the State knows no law. 
  2. To impart to the prisoners an accurate understanding and a just appreciation of the principles of democratic government and their implications for the conduct of men and nations; in particular, to encourage the application of democratic principles to German conditions as a basis for the peaceful re-absorption of Germany into the European Community, which is a vital British interest. 
  3. To present the British Commonwealth of Nations as an example of a democratic community in action, while avoiding the projection of Britain as a model to be slavishly copied. 
  4. To remove German misconceptions about European history of the last 50 years and especially about the origin, conduct, and results of the two world wars.[21] 

Initial efforts were focused on creating an atmosphere within camps that encouraged open discussion among German POWs and reflection on the past. An essential step was the isolation of pro-Nazi elements. Initiated in July 1944, the screening of German POWs was initially organised by the War Office. Once interviewed, POWs were graded between A+ and C- and labelled “white”, “grey”, or “black”. Ardent Nazis were categorised as “black” and anti-Nazis “white”. Identifying and removing Nazi POWs was done to protect anti-Nazis from abuse. POWs were beaten and sometimes murdered for airing anti-Nazi views. Pro-Nazi elements also prevented POWs from volunteering for working parties. Systematic screening in aid of re-education, carried out by POWD Segregation Officers, began in April 1945.[22]

Re-education was almost dealt a catastrophic blow days after Germany had surrendered. On 18 May 1945, the War Office proposed repatriating  “black” POWs, with “whites” and “greys” from Germany replacing them. This would maximise POW employment as “blacks” were barred from working. PWE opposed the plan, pointing out the disastrous consequences that returning Nazi POWs to Germany would have for denazification. The decision was reversed in October and the repatriation of “white” POWs was prioritised under Plan Oberon.[23]

The War Office proposal was resisted by Air Commodore Percy Groves, PWE Deputy Director. Groves was central to the development of POWD. His pessimism toward War Office scepticism of re-education led him to resign in August 1945. Groves had a strenuous relationship with Major General Cyril Gepp, the head of the Directorate of Prisoners of War (DPW) at the War Office. Groves was replaced by his deputy, Wing Commander E. H. Hitch. Taking the title of POWD “Controller”, Hitch appointed Cyrus Brooks as his Executive Officer.[24] Brooks is considered the father of British re-education efforts.[25] It is likely that he was the author of the memorandum quoted at the start of this essay. Another key figure is Lieutenant Colonel Henry Faulk. Reports of his talent for working with German POWs as an interpreter at camp #181 (Carburton, Nottinghamshire) soon reached Wing Commander Hitch. Seconded to POWD, he was appointed head of the Field Section.[26]

POWD consisted of two parts. The Field Section carried out work in the camps, including screening and encouraging re-education activities. Progress reports were compiled by Training Advisors. They outlined recommendations to promote re-education in particular camps. The Field Section also organised the teaching of English for All, monitored by a team of English inspectors. The Re-education Section was responsible for supplying resources including literature, films, lecturers as well as producing Die Wochenpost, a weekly newspaper written by the POWs. Participation in re-education activities was voluntary bar one compulsory component: all German POWs were compelled to attend a screening of a film showing the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald concentration camps.[27] The Report on the Re-education of German Prisoners of War in Great Britain is a useful starting point for understanding the organisation and implementation of re-education.[28]

Although re-education activities were practically identical in all German POW camps in the UK, progress depended on local conditions and dynamics within the camps. As Faulk summarises: “The combination of variable factors among British staffs, POW, camp conditions, civilian contacts and duration and intensity of the re-educational effort was infinite, and the results varied accordingly.”[29]

Among the 1,500 camps and additional sites that accommodated POWs in post-war Britain, there were two that POWD ran for its own purposes.[30] Camp #180, “The Youth Camp”, was initially located at Wimbish, five miles from Saffron Walden in Essex.[31] The idea was that it would be a combined working and education camp, providing the lost generation of the Hitler Youth with direction and new hope following the defeat of Germany. Unlike older POWs, they had known little beyond Hitler, Nazism, and war. Opened on 26 July 1946, it held POWs aged 17 to 26. They were employed in agricultural work, but a sixth of the inmates stayed in camp every working day to attend classes including world history, citizenship, geography, and languages. There was no barbed wire preventing escape and ranks were not used.

In January 1946, approximately 300 specially selected “white” POWs were sent to camp #300 at Wilton Park, near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.[32] Overseen by the Jewish émigré Heinz Koeppler, it was known as the “Training Centre”. Wilton Park ran a total of 15 courses for some 4,000 German POWs. This included a number brought from camps in the Middle East.[33] During the war, as Assistant Director of the German Section of the Foreign Office, Koeppler emphasised the need to include Germans in building a democratic Germany after the conflict. The POWs were encouraged to attend lectures on German history, citizenship, and international affairs. Guest lecturers included Bertrand Russell, William Beveridge, Lady Astor, and Richard Crossman. Lectures were combined with seminars, discussion groups, and Oxbridge-style tutorials.[34] When addressing the POWs during the intake for the second course in March 1946, John Hynd (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for Germany and Austria) stressed the role that Wiltonians would play in the rebuilding of Germany.[35]

It was not only military and political authorities that were concerned with POWs and the future of Germany. The continued captivity of German POWs vexed sections of the public who were uncomfortable with the sight of the defeated toiling in the fields and streets of post-war Britain.[36] Campaigns were organised, most notably by Victor Gollancz’s Save Europe Now, pressing for their repatriation and decrying the use of “slave” labour.[37] The duplicity of preaching the values of democracy while keeping POWs indefinitely interned was called out by the press, in Parliament, and by the POWs themselves.

As Christmas 1946 drew closer, a temporary relaxation of fraternisation regulations was called for.[38] The government relented and the public were allowed to invite German POWs, at least well-behaved ones, into their homes during the festive period. At Saffron Walden, the Reverend Roy Sinker dubbed the POWs “ambassadors in chains” and encouraged people to invite those at the Wimbish “Youth Camp” in for Christmas Day.[39] Fraternisation regulations were relaxed further and in June 1947 marriages between British women and POWs were permitted. With the relaxation of fraternisation regulations, POWD Training Advisors helped organise visits to British institutions to encourage discussion back at camp.

Groups and individuals desired to reach out to the POWs and foster Anglo-German understanding. Those championing contact with German POWs believed it was an excellent opportunity for them to experience something of the “British way of life”. In July 1947, the Essex Chronicle reported that the first session of the “Braintree Experiment” had been held.[40] It brought together like-minded people from Braintree who believed it important that POWs should have the opportunity to observe the function of British democracy and law.

The first session of the Experiment involved 40 POWs from the Youth Camp being taken to Braintree police station. They were given a tour by an inspector. The POWs were then driven to Crittall Social Club in the village of Silver End. The clerk of Braintree magistrates’ courts talked about the English judicial system. An open discussion followed with refreshments before the POWs were chauffeured back to camp. Subsequent trips included one to a local factory. Due to interest in trade unionism, union representatives were invited to the camp to speak on their role in society. The Experiment was envisaged as something that would supplement official re-education. British democracy was not presented “as something to be slavishly or mechanically copied in Germany or elsewhere”.[41] There was hope, however, that the “civic consciousness and enlightened adventure” of Braintree citizens would be imparted to the POW so that, “in spirit if not in name, a future Germany may have its Braintrees”.[42] The experiment “was so successful that it was widely imitated throughout the camps in Britain”.[43] There was a desire to demonstrate that the “British way of life” went beyond concerns with the morale of the POWs and post-war reconstruction. Following another destructive world war, public initiatives seeking to introduce POWs to British institutions and ideals allowed the British people to persuade themselves of their strength and continued existence.  

Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union all implemented re-education programmes for German POWs. France also introduced a programme based on the POWD model in February 1947. Compared to the Soviet Antifa campaigns, British efforts were much smaller in scale.[44] None of the programmes were altruistic. In the British case, re-education aimed to stimulate at least a modicum of commitment to democratic principles.

So, were the British successful? Scholars are tentative when estimating the long-term impact of re-education. Systematic research into the attitudes of repatriated POWs was limited. Whether the combination of open discussion of the past and first-hand experience of the “British way of life” led to a fundamental “re-education” is impossible to quantify. The “white” POWs who took the special course at Wilton Park vanished upon their return. What impact they, and the broader re-education scheme, had on the development of the Federal Republic of Germany has been questioned, and even belittled.

The attitudes of the POWs themselves to re-education varied. POWD screening data suggests a general shift in opinions, especially among younger POWs. Then again, POWs came to understand what they needed to tell their interviewer to be classified as "white”. Furthermore, delays to repatriation led to bitterness among German POWs. POWD reports express concerns that some remained pro-Nazi or were turning to communism. There is, however, clear evidence that a proportion did not look back on their captivity in Britain as time wasted. Captured after D-Day, 17 year old Heinrich Steinmeyer was a member of the Waffen SS, classed as an ardent Nazi, and taken to the POW camp at Cultybraggan (Comrie, Perthshire). In his will, Steinmeyer left a sizable donation to the village of Comrie in recognition of the “kindness and generosity” that he was shown during his captivity.[45]

[1] London, The National Archives (TNA), CAB 67 3 45, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, “Memorandum Respecting German Military and Civilian Prisoners of War in Great Britain,” 18 December 1939.

[2] Henry Faulk, Group Captives: The Re-education of German Prisoners of War in Britain 1945–1948 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1977), 52.

[3] Bob Moore, “Axis Prisoners in Britain during the Second World War: A Comparative Survey,” in Prisoners of War and their Captors in World War II, ed. Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich (Oxford: Berg, 1996), 22–27.

[4] On the fate of Italian POWs see: Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich, The British Empire and Its Italian Prisoners of War, 1940–1947 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

[5] Moore, “Axis Prisoners,” 27–33.

[6] Ibid., 34–37.

[7] Bob Moore, Prisoners of War: Europe: 1939–1956 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 429–435.

[8] Michael Balfour, “In Retrospect: Britain’s Policy of ‘Re-Education” in The Political Re-education of Germany and Her Allies (Oxford: Croom Helm, 1985), 140.

[9] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/445 - War Cabinet Memorandum on Political Re-Education Policy”, available at

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ellic Howe, The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the Germans During the Second World War (London: Queen Anne Press/Futura, 1982), 2.

[12] Faulk, Group Captives, 219.


[14] David Garnett, The Secret History of the PWE: the Political Warfare Executive 1939–1945 (London: St Ermin’s Press, 2002), 443.

[15] Kent Fedorowich, “Political Warfare and Italian POWs, 1940–3,” in Prisoners of War and their Captors in World War II, ed. Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich (Oxford: Berg, 1996), 139–141.

[16] Garnett, The Secret History of the PWE, 78, 431.

[17] Available at

[18] Garnett, The Secret History of the PWE, 81.

[19] Ibid., 431.

[20] Available at

[21] Faulk, Group Captives, 58.

[22] Ibid., 79–88.

[23] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/467 - Repatriation Questions and Policy ‘Oberon’”, available at

[24] Matthew Barry Sullivan, Thresholds of Peace: German Prisoners and the People of Britain 1944–1948 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979), 93.

[25] Faulk, Group Captives, 20.

[26] Available at

[27] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/72 - Concentration Camp Film: Broadcast and Reactions at Internment Camps”, available at

[28] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/409 - Report on Re-education of German Prisoners of War”, available at

[29] Faulk, Group Captives, 175.


[31] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/350 - Youth Internment Camps Re-education Reports”, available at

[32] Available at

[33] Faulk, Group Captives, 90.

[34] David Welch, “Citizenship and Politics: The Legacy of Wilton Park for Post-War Reconstruction,” Contemporary European History 6, no. 2 (1997): 209–18.

[35] British Online Archives, Building a New Germany: Denazification and Political Re-education, 1944–1948, “FO 939/411 - John Hynd, Minister for Germany and Austria: Speech to Prisoners of War at Wilton Park Re-education Centre”, available at

[36] See Alan Malpass, British Character and the Treatment of German Prisoners of War: 1939–1948 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[37] Available at

[38] Available at

[39] Sullivan, Thresholds of Peace, 319.

[40] Essex Chronicle, 25 July 1947, 1.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Faulk, Group Captives, 104.

[44] Arthur L. Smith, The War for the German Mind: Re-educating Hitler’s Soldiers (Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1996), 202.

[45] Available at

Authored by Alan Malpass

Alan Malpass

Alan Malpass is a Lecturer in Military History at Bishop Grosseteste University

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