As a boy my father had a World War II prisoner of war (POW) experience.
Near Heywood, a few miles north of Manchester, there was a POW camp populated by Italians. His memory is of a boiling summer’s day and a column of prisoners being exercised with a walk along the country lanes - he recalls hundreds, maybe thousands, of men but admits childhood memory might be playing tricks.
The Japanese were careless at best of their captives lives and viciously murderous at worst. Here conditions were cruel, food often denied, regulations rigorously enforced and death was often the final release.
There was a single Tommy guarding the Italians, a tiny thing, obviously not suited for active service. The little British soldier clearly didn’t fancy the hot weather either and didn’t want to be weighed down with anything heavy. So an Italian POW was carrying the soldier’s rifle.
“It must have been 1943, the Italian’s were about to change side from the Germans to the Allies,” my dad says. “Everybody knew they didn’t need guarding. But it was amusing.”
He recalls that aside from a few smiles and some chat, most of the prisoners just looked bored, strolling along quietly in the sun, faces blank.
Boredom is a big part of Captured, the POW exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North (IWMN).
Boredom as a theme that is, not because the exhibition lacks interest.
The main focus is on British and Commonwealth prisoners and civilian internees in Europe and the Far East during World War II, with the occasional nod to stories of Italian and German prisoners in the UK.
Boredom for the British POWs was alleviated through sport, cricket, football, rugby: through entertainment, theatre productions, pantomimes, musicals (the revue dress for a female character, pictured here): through religion and fashioning radios out of unlikely materials for any sort of news. In other words through every scrap of human ingenuity that could be extracted from the brain.
A good distraction was to plan escapes. The exhibition at IWMN carefully features these without over-egging the role they played. There’s just enough to illustrate the bravery of those who risked life and limb through often unrealistic attempts at liberation. In this case it’s no surprise to see the German fortress camp, Colditz, featured.
The German camps, for the British and the Commonwealth servicemen, were less harsh than those of the Japanese. The Russians and the Poles would tell a different story of course. But the Japanese were careless at best of their captives lives and viciously murderous at worst. Here conditions were cruel, food often denied, regulations rigorously enforced and death was often the final release.
In the Japanese areas you also get the worst of the civilian internment stories - again from a British or Commonwealth point of view. The tales of families being separated, the letters and other materials on show, are worth dallying over, but upsetting too.
As usual there’s a good deal to do in the exhibition aside from reading the captions and other materials. Hands-on displays allow children and adults to better understand the realities of camp rules and regulations, to try on disguises and send illicit messages. Everybody gets a POW identity card and kids will enjoy a crawl through a mocked-up escape tunnel – as did I when the staff weren’t looking and nearly got stuck. Being caught trying to escape a pretend escape tunnel in a prisoner of war exhibition might have been awkward although my boys would have laughed.
If the exhibition suffers it’s because it probably isn’t big enough to cover such a big theme although there is plenty to get your teeth into. More of a problem might be its over-familiarity.
If you’re a certain age you grew up with film after TV series after film after TV series of POW tales of which The Great Escape and The Bridge over the River Kwai are merely the best-known. There are clips of these two ‘classics’ showing here.
That’s why art might come to the rescue. For me, art gets inside the moment more than the literal depiction of the photographs or the movie clips.
Leslie Cole’s 1946 oil, shown above, and entitled ‘Limbless Officers and Men Checking Out from Changi Gaol’ is a case in point. The picture makes its point through gentle understatement, through the guessed-at quiet chat of the men, through that little flower growing in a ring of carefully white-washed stones. Had the stones been so carefully white-washed because existence was measured out in small details? If your life is caged and on hold - often for years - is it best to concentrate on the small things?
War gets everywhere, even to mill towns in what is now Greater Manchester. That desire to get through, get home was maybe, along with the boredom, also etched on the faces of those Italian prisoners of war my father saw more than sixty years ago. Time had been stopped for them.
The Extraordinary Life of Prisoners of War
Imperial War Museum North, Special Exhibitions Gallery23 May 2009 - 3 January 2010. FREE. www.iwm.org.uk
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