Book review: The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

The sheer reckless bravado of Steve McQueen revving up his motorbike in a bid to power his way to freedom from his German captors has become an iconic film image of the Second World War.

But the derring-do heroics featured in screen productions like The Great Escape and Colditz are far removed from the everyday reality of life for the estimated 170,000 to 200,000 Allied prisoners-of-war in Europe and 90,000 in the Far East.

While some men did undoubtedly make daring escape bids, for hundreds of thousands of other prisoners, the battle against captivity was fought by a more mundane brand of courage which involved turning their camps into a hive of physical and mental activity.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The amazing story of how creativity and ingenuity became the key to survival for POWs takes centre stage in Midge Gillies’ inspirational account of servicemen who turned to sport, recreation and learning to alleviate fear and uncertainty.

Drawing on her own father’s experiences in a European camp and the testaments of other resilient survivors, Gillies’ moving and revealing book takes us from a nine-hole golf course built between huts at a German camp to the Thailand-Burma railway where doctors improvised risky surgical techniques to save men’s lives.

The greatest enemy in the camps was boredom which, if allowed to take a grip, could at best make a man listless and at worst, lead to serious depression and suicide.

Determined not to fall prey to the destructive effects of inactivity, many POWs threw themselves into a raft of pastimes from playing golf, cricket and musical instruments to staging theatre productions, painting, bird watching, horticulture and academic study.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Whatever skills the men took with them to captivity, they managed to continue and adapt whether it was putting together a cricket ball from string used to tie up a Red Cross food parcel or making a flute from 175 separate pieces of scrap at a camp workshop in Singapore.

Many prisoners learned German from their guards (a useful addition to any escape plans) while others, who had abandoned university and careers, either studied a wide range of subjects or passed on their skills and knowledge.

As the war progressed, the supply of books increased and camp libraries expanded to support the educational demands of the inmates. By 1945, the officers’ camp Oflag VIIB at Eichstätt, south of Nuremberg, had an incredible collection of 15,000 books as well as 60,000 that belonged to individual POWs.

Students were encouraged to sit exams, either those set by official boards back home in Britain and sent by the Red Cross or ‘internal’ exams devised and marked within the camps.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One of the major diversions for prisoners was producing plays ranging from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward. Actors like Denholm Elliott, Desmond Llewelyn, who played Q in the Bond films, and Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame all trod the boards at POW camps.

The illustrator Ronald Searle used his experiences in captivity in the Far East as inspiration for his St Trinian’s cartoons and the artist Terry Frost kicked off his famous career by painting portraits of other prisoners at Stalag 383 in Bavaria.

George Haig, son of First World War Commander Field Marshal Haig, said that POWs could be divided into ‘escapers, creators, administrators, students and sleepers.’

Whatever their different coping strategies, thousands of men were able to steal back time from their captors through creativity and, in many cases, it changed their personality, their relationship with family and friends and, ultimately, their ambitions for life after the war.

(Aurum Press, paperback, £8.99)