Chapter 10 - Red Cross Repatriation
Articles 68 and 69 of the 1929 Geneva Convention - often called the "Prisoner of War Code" - set out the rights and obligations of the Detaining Power (a belligerent country) together with the rights and obligations of representatives of the Protecting Power - those neutral countries representing the belligerents.
Article 68 states:
“Belligerents shall be required to send back to their own country, without regard to rank or numbers, after rendering them in a fit condition for transport, prisoners of war who are seriously ill or seriously wounded. Agreements between the belligerents should determine as soon as possible, the forms of disablement or sickness requiring direct repatriation and cases which may necessitate accommodation in a neutral country."
Article 69 states:
"On the opening of hostilities, belligerents will come to an understanding as to the appointment of Mixed Medical Commissions. These Commissions shall consist of three members - two of whom shall belong to a neutral country and one appointed by the Detaining Power. One of the medical officers of the neutral country shall preside. These Commissions shall proceed to the examination of sick or wounded prisoners and shall make all appropriate decisions with regard to them. The decisions of these Commissions shall be decided by majority and carried into effect as soon as possible."
The actual operating procedures and logistics of these Mixed Medical Commissions however were not specifically set out. It was expected that Commission members would always be doctors but in practice this could not always be arranged. Often Swiss doctors were called upon by neutral countries who could not supply their own. In remote Australia, for example, all three members of an MMC may have been Australian medical doctors, who acted as proxies with the agreement of Retaining Powers. Immediately after the outbreak of WWII, the British Government established the structure and the operating procedures of their MMC‘s. Representatives of MMC‘s as well as other delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross, were permitted to have open access to all places in which POW were held by belligerents.
When America entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, Britain invited the Americans to join their MMC network. At the same time, the USA relinquished its position as Protecting Power for Britain - Switzerland assuming that role.
Neither Japan nor Russia signed or ratified the 1929 Convention, although Japan attested they would.
From the very outset of WWII, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sent a circular letter to the belligerents informing them that it was the intention of the ICRC to concern itself immediately with the repatriation of seriously wounded and sick prisoners of war under the protocols of the 1929 Geneva Convention. It opened negotiations between Britain and Germany for a protected ferry service between the two countries to cross the English Channel - a war zone - for the repatriation by clearly marked Hospital ships. The Germans demanded that the hospital ships should also be used for the transport of women and children who were anxious to return to their own countries. The exchange point was to be Dieppe (France). At that time the numbers were 50 German nationals to 1,600 British. Britain reluctantly agreed.
But at the last moment, when some repatriates had already left their detainment camps, the German Government demanded that the number of Germans returning to the Reich should be equal to that of the British returning to Great Britain. This number was also to apply to the exchange, per capita, of invalid POW while merchant seamen were to be included in the exchanges - a flagrant contravention of Article 68. This unexpected and petulant action pulled the rug under an exchange that was already planned and about to be put into operation. It postponed the first exchange of British and German POW until October 1943.
By this time the battles at El Alamein had been fought and Rommel pushed out of North Africa leaving 250,000 of the Afrika Korps behind as POW. Even so, despite the large number of German POW now in Allied hands, sick and wounded British POW outnumbered sick and wounded German POW some 3 to 1.
The pragmatic among the German Higher Command, finally compromised on reducing this disparity by including merchant seamen, customs agents, border guards and civilians as Protected Persons. To the Italians, the Protocols of the 1929 Convention were more acceptable than they were to their Axis partners.
When the British Government proposed an Anglo/Italian exchange of sick and wounded POW, it was to be done without any conditions added to those of Articles 69 and 68. Thus on January 12, 1942, the first Anglo/Italian exchange agreement was reached. This provided that an ICRC delegate would sail with the repatriates, and when completed, a report on the exchange would be given by them to the Geneva Headquarters of the ICRC.
This exchange was carried out without hitch at the port of Smyrna (Izmir), Turkey on April 8, 1942.
This initial exchange was successful in the eyes of both sides as well as to the ICRC. It stimulated the planning for a series of Anglo/Italian exchanges in April, May and June 1943.
It also caused a practical research problem.
In its records, the ICRC treated each one of the exchanges as a separate entity. The famed British historian Oliver Clutton-Brock has covered all three of the Anglo/Italian 1943 exchanges as one exchange. Thus, while the total number of individuals involved in each exchange more or less tallies, the description of them by the exchange number is different and confusing.
In ICRC records, there were 4 distinct Anglo/Italian exchanges and an aborted fifth exchange.
The first exchange in which the German Government participated is that of October 1943, a few months after the Anglo/Italian exchanges ceased when Italy surrendered to the Allies in early September 1943. This is the Sixth Exchange as recorded by the ICRC. There are also source differences in actual numbers, depending perhaps on whether the numbers were agreed upon or were those planned for, or which actually did take place.
While there were detailed embarkation rolls, the problem of extracting the actual names of the Anzac POW invalids from those enormous rolls become impossible in practice.
To the ICRC, all British servicemen - whether Imperial or Colonial, Canadians, South Africans, Indian, Cypriots, Australians or New Zealanders - were British. So even an examination of those rolls would present difficulties in abstracting the names of Anzac repatriates
A more practical approach would be to identify the ships in which Anzac POW repatriates were brought back and examine the disembarkation lists. But ships changed their name, or were given convoy numbers or security codes only. Allied or Axis repatriates were also carried on one particular ship. Seeking official files for “Repatriated POW” is just as likely to yield German, Japanese or Italian POW names when finally located.
Again for the purposes of research, this recorder has opted for what disembarkation rolls are officially available and to check through unit and other service records to compile a Nominal Roll of individual names. Once a name is available, this can be checked against a card index system held by the Australian Red Cross.
Thus the records of the ICRC, both of names as well as numbered exchanges has become the main source of data. The chronology of exchanges also follows the ICRC numbering not that of Oliver Clutton-Brock.
It is hoped that those names of repatriated sick and wounded ANZAC POW included in the data base for the Nominal Roll of “Free Men” posted on www.anzacpow.com will be checked, and if necessary corrected, by interested viewers.
(“Footprints in the Sands of Time” - Oliver Clutton-Brock Ch.15.
IRCC Report - “Activities During WWII - September 1939 to June 1947 - VOL I)
In March 1942, the ICRC was informed by the British and Italian Governments that the first Anglo/Italian exchange would take place on April 7 1942 at the Turkish neutral port of Smyrna (Izmir).
First Exchange - April 1942
Smyrna (Izmir) was confirmed as the exchange point, while marked hospital ships, each with an ICRC delegate aboard, would supervise actual exchange operations.
The ICRC delegate in Ankara travelled down to Smyrna to discuss this first operation with his colleagues to report back to Switzerland.
340 Italian invalid POW were exchanged for 60 British ones. It is possible that the British involved included 31 Medics of the 2NZEF taken POW at Sidi Rezegh.
However, it was evident that the Italians had not sent all the Commonwealth wounded passed by the Mixed Medical Commissions, while the Protected Persons among them included some very dubious civilians.
Although the British still retained some doubts about fit merchant seamen being included in exchanges, this inclusion was agreed upon for future transfers.
The success of this first Anglo/Italian exchange stimulated the planning and execution of the second, but probably pre-occupied with the battles raging in North Africa, the British delayed any actual action for a year.
Second Exchange - April 1943
Mainly because of shipping convenience, this second exchange was planned to use two neutral ports - Smyrna in the Mediterranean and Lisbon fronting the Atlantic. ICRC delegates again supervised the transport of Italian POW invalids, accompanying medical staff and some civilians, from Liverpool to Lisbon, while their British counterparts were brought from Italy to Smyrna.
In Lisbon, 409 Italian POW were exchanged for 450 British.
In Smyrna, 199 Italian POW invalids and 12 Protected Personnel (PP) were exchanged for 150 British POW invalids and 200 PP.
129 New Zealand invalids and PP may have been involved in this exchange.
Third Exchange - May 1943
With the escalating numbers of suitable repatriates growing as a result of the fierce fighting in the Mediterranean, a third exchange in Smyrna saw 2,411 Italian invalids exchanged for 400 British.
Fourth Exchange - June 1943
This quickly followed the Third Exchange again using Smyrna as the exchange point. By this time it was very obvious that the Italians were bending the rules in the MMC selection procedures for their own purposes. They were deliberately preventing many who has been assessed for repatriation by an MMC from actually joining an exchange or preventing some POW from being assessed at all.
Moreover, the number of Italian repatriates far exceeded the number of their Allied counterparts. This did not bother the ICRC - their humanitarian duty lay with sick and wounded from both sides.
The Italian hospital ship Gradisca kept shuttling between Italy, Alexandria and Smyrna.
2,676 Italians (447 disabled or invalids, 2,229 PP ) for 435 British (142 disabled or invalids,293 PP)
These last three exchanges had thus seen 9,114 Italians exchanged for 2,861 British personnel.
Fifth Exchange - September 1943
Meanwhile a proposal by the Italians for a fifth exchange involving their personnel captured in North Africa, was not considered by the British Government until July 23, after the fighting in North Africa was going their way. The Italians were offered an exchange of 500 invalids for 170 British. The Italians would be taken to Lisbon, while the British would be taken from Italy by train for the physical exchange there.
This planned exchange, although having actually commenced, was scuttled by the declaration of the Italian Armistice on September 9. But the Germans continued the fight in Italy, appropriating the whole of the Italian railway system. The chaos in Italy prevented the two repatriation trains at Bergamo from completing their journey to Lisbon.
115 disappointed British selected repatriates on the trains were sent on to Germany instead, the Germans having refused an offer by the Swiss to have the trains diverted through their rail system to Lisbon.
The Gradisca had already picked up an Axis party of 474 invalids, 40 merchant seamen and 36 assorted civilians. It had to return to Algiers, where the Germans were looked after, but the Italians had to make their own way back to Italy.
With Italy of no further consequence, and a quarter million German POW left behind in Tunisia by Rommel, the Germans were forced to re-consider their attitude to equal numbers in exchanges.
Moreover the skill, experience and moral support by the neutral nations developed by the ICRC in POW exchanges, together with its shipping resources were now also turned against further German intransigence.
This change of circumstance and the huge numbers of their POW in Allied hands, finally convinced the Germans that all suitable repatriates passed by the various MMC’s including their own, were entitled to humanitarian repatriation under Article 68.
Sixth - Exchange October 1943
This was, in reality, the first exchange to be planned with the active co-operation of Germany.
It built on the planning and selection of repatriates of the doomed fifth exchange, and included many of those POW denied repatriation in that September exchange.
Despite the vastly increased number of German POW now in Allied hands, only 1,400 German qualified medical “repatriates” had been cleared by MMC’s as against 4000 British POW held in Germany. Finally, with the agreement of the USA, a plan was accepted for exchanges to be made through neutral ports in Sweden, Turkey, and Tunisia.
German POW from UK and Canada, would be exchanged at Gothenburg for British and Commonwealth POW held in German controlled territory: German POW in the Middle East would be exchanged in Smyrna for Indian and Australasian POW; those held in Tunisia would leave from Oran.
Due mainly to shipping difficulties in the Mediterranean, Barcelona (Spain) replaced Smyrna (Turkey). The date chosen for this Sixth Exchange was October 20, 1943.
For the Mediterranean sector two German hospital ships - Tairea and Cuba brought 1,009 German invalids from Alexandria to Barcelona.
From Lamsdorf in Germany a sixteen coach train left on October 20. It brought 454 Anzacs, Indian, Palestinian and other repatriates to Marseilles. There they were loaded on to the Aqueila and brought to Barcelona.
A second German train followed with another 582 Australian medical personnel. These were embarked on to the Djenne. Both ships reached Barcelona, where they tied up on the opposite side of the wharf to the German Tairea and Cuba from Alexandria.
At 09.00 on October 27, the physical exchange began.
The two German ships left for Marseilles that evening arriving back in Marseilles the following morning. There they were joined by the Italian Gradisca to sail to Oran to effect the exchange there. The two British ships left for India with a total of 1,036 repatriates (47 fewer than the agreed number). This was the first significant major exchange involving Anzac POW invalids
At Gothenburg, 4,159 British (2,658 disabled 1,244 PP’s, 152 merchant seamen and 105 civilians) were exchanged for 1,273 Axis (403 disabled, 199 PP’s, 176 merchant seamen and 504 civilians).
At Barcelona, 1,036 British (454 disabled, 582 PP's).
At Oran, 3,867 Germans (432 disabled and 3,534 PP’s)
44 AIF and 2 RAAF invalids were included in this exchange, known to them as the “Barcelona Exchange”. The Bristish ship taking these in a convoy to Liverpool was the Arundel Castle. At Liverpool they were transferred to the Dutch Hospital Ship Oranje for the trip to Australia.
Seventh - Exchange May 1944
ICRC delegates involved in exchanges had long built up their expertise and their own prestige. Written instructions were given to them as follows.
1. Request and obtain two copies of embarkation rolls of invalid POW.
2. Travel to the place of assembly of POW, assist is the their embarkation and verify that all POW named had really been put on board.
3. See that all useful measures were taken to carry out the transfer in the best material conditions possible.
4. Serve as an intermediary between those in charge of the convoys and the POW and if necessary act as interpreters.
5. Travel with the POW as far as the point of exchange. Exchange lists with colleagues accompanying the convoy from the adverse country. Offer services to the official in charge of the convoy and the neutral country where the exchange took place, in order to help forward the practical business of the exchange.
6. During operations see that all POW named in the lists were in fact exchanged.
7. Send complete report as soon as possible concerning the number of men exchanged and give a brief account of the work done.
8. Accompany the convoy on its return journey and hand over to the official in charge the list of repatriates.
Send to Geneva a complete report on the list of repatriates.
On the war fronts, preparation was being made for the re-invasion of Europe by the Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy. This involved round-the-clock bombing of the French railway system.
Nevertheless the Seventh Exchange was planned for the 17/18 May with Barcelona again to be the port of Exchange. To this end the special German Holding camp to house repatriates at Annaburg was visited by the ICRC on May 6, 1944. It was planned to send four hospital trains from Germany to Marseilles, but perhaps it was understandable that there was little co-operation from the Germans to identify them as hospital trains nor to disclose their route and timetables.
One train left Annaburg on May 13 with a total of 1,043 personnel. Simultaneously, a 15 coach train left from Berlin. It collected repatriates from Stalag VIIIB (Lamsdorf) Stalag XXID (Posen) and more from a hospital at Neu Stettin. Two more trains joined in.
The four trains followed each other along the same line at intervals of an hour until they crossed into France. They then took different routes through France to collect other repatriates, but all met up at Marseilles, where their passengers were loaded into the waiting Gradisca. She sailed to Barcelona where eleven hours later she tied up at the same wharf as Gripsholm, who had brought German POW from New York and Algiers there a hour before.
The exchange was facilitated by using a warehouse on the wharf. Gradisca sailed with her German POW cargo back to Marseilles. Gripsholm sailed to Belfast rather than Liverpool, which was closed due to the Normandy invasion.
1,043 British (979 disabled and merchant seamen with 64 civilians) were exchanged for 900 German disabled and PP’s. German POW held by French Forces were included in the exchange without any equivalence demands.
Eighth Exchange September 1944
From German prison camps scattered throughout Europe MMC’s compiled their repatriation lists, for designated assembly points.
Two Baltic ports - Saasnitz and Swinemeunde - were nominated to take the chosen repatriates to Gothenburg.
On October 16, a German hospital train delivered 570 sick and wounded Allied POW to Saasnitz. A second train arrived in the evening. A third train arrived next morning with 433 medical orderlies followed by two carriages containing 53 POWs. This was followed by a fifth train from Frankfurt.
Under the supervision of the Red Cross, a total of 1,302 repatriates under the care of British orderlies embarked on two waiting ferries - the Swedish Victoria and the German Deutschland.
The ferries took them to Trellenborg, where a special Swedish hospital train of thirteen coaches, with a Hospital, Diner, Kitchen and Baggage coaches was waiting to take them to Gothenburg.
The two empty ferries returned to Sassnitz to pick up a second load of POW and civilians.
In total 3,503 repatriates were ferried from Saasnitz to Gothenburg.
The 600 repatriates assembled at Sweinemuende moved directly to Gothenburg by two German ships - Reugen and Meteor.
Waiting in Gothenburg for the next repatriation link were the hospital ships Atlantis, Drottingholm and Empress of Russia.
On October 21, with a total of 4,419 British and 23 American repatriates on board, 178 fewer than the agreed number, the three ships, clearly identified and well lit, were escorted to an agreed point on the Norwegian coast by German destroyers. There, Beauforts of the RAF Coastal Command took over escort duties, the German destroyers turned back for home, the convoy escorted to Liverpool by the Beauforts.
2,136 German POW (1,553 repatriates including 83 merchant seamen, 34 sisters of the German Red Cross and 538 civilians) were exchanged at Gothenburg for 2,560 Allied POW (1,998 POW invalids, 583 civilians and 83 merchant seamen).
This became known to the repatriates as the “Gothenburg” exchange.
The Ninth Exchange - November 1944
Just as Gothenburg had been considered the only practical exchange port in 1944, it was generally agreed that the epi-centre of exchange could now be shifted to the country without a port - landlocked Switzerland.
Switzerland had always been the hub of the European rail system.
Allied POW repatriates could be taken by rail from the German controlled assembly points to Swiss ones, and from there taken to Marseilles for further maritime transport back to their own countries.
The empty Swiss trains could then be loaded again with German repatriates assembled in Marseilles and brought back to Germany proper.
This exchange was exceptional as it was all carried out through Constance in Switzerland entirely under ICRC control. The repatriation was approximately on a per capita basis - 863 Germans for 841 French.
Tenth and Final Exchange - January 1945
At Kreuzlingen in Switzerland, 5,000 Germans were exchanged for 25,000 Allied POW.
A repatriation between Germany and France was made superfluous because of the approaching capitulation by Germany. The French Government wished to include in this repatriation those French Generals, whose attendance before the MMC’s was not permitted by Germany, together with those POW of colonial origin who suffered severely from the climate in Germany.
General Repatriation of All Allied POW after VE Day May 1945.
Repatriation of the thousands of Allied POW released from German Prison Camps was a much more haphazard a process. Much depended on which country’s soldiers liberated the camps. Worst off were those liberated by the Russians.
Organised evacuation were made from Odessa only after much diplomatic wrangling.
Many POW liberated themselves commandeering German cars and driving to enticing destinations like tourists to Paris. Many hitched rides on empty Allied bombers and supply aircraft direct back to the UK.
Most were ferried back to Britain by the RAF, where the liberated Australians were inducted into the Reception Camp at Eastbourne in Sussex, while their New Zealand cobbers went on to Brighton, where they were billeted into the empty seaside hotels.
For them, the International Committee of the Red Cross had already played its part.