anzac POW freemen in europe

Part Three - Neutral Countries

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The diagram above shows those countries that were either part of the Axis forces in Europe (asterisked) or countries occupied by Axis (1).
Many countries declared their neutrality, but a declaration was no protection. It seems that if Axis felt it was in their interests to invade a declared neutral country, it did so.
Holland, for example, declared neutrality in both world wars. In the first, it's neutrality was respected by the combatants, in the second, it wasn't.
Neutrality in effect was "allowed" by Axis and a list of those countries in summarised in (2).
There are a set of "rules of war" established and administered by the Red Cross that apply to combatants - the so-called "Geneva Convention and Rules of War" (3). Of particular interest here are the aspects that cover the treatment of POW (4).
There are another set of rules called the "Hague Conventions" that apply to the behaviour of neutral countries (6). Both the Geneva and Hague Conventions are discussed in greater detail on this page. It is important to note that every country, combatant and neutral, had their own interpretations of their applicable Conventions, which may also have changed over time as each country responded to the ever-changing circumstances of the day.

 (4). The Geneva Conventions

The so-called "Geneva Conventions and Protocols" establish the International Red Cross as a neutral and impartial organisation wherever there is armed conflict. They lay down the international rules of war, protecting the wounded, prisoners of war, displaced persons and suffering non-combatants. The following abridged extracts are taken from the I.R.C. publication:

"Understanding Humanitarian Law - Basic Rules of the Geneva Conventions and Their Additional Protocols", International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, September, 1983 (M38).


Rules relating to the conduct of combatants and the protection of Prisoners of War. Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
(Convention 111 of 12th August, 1949.)

Additional Protocol 1 Part 111

Section 1


The status of prisoner of war is governed jointly by article 4 of the Third Convention and by articles 43 and 44 of the Protocol. The general principle is the following: any member of the armed forces of a Party to a conflict is a combatant and any combatant captured by the adverse Party is a prisoner of war.

P.I, 46 47 - Spies and mercenaries are not entitled to the status of prisoner of war.

P.I, 77 - Children under the age of fifteen shall not be recruited into the armed forces.

Section 11


The fundamental principle forming the basis of these rules is that the right of the Parties to the conflict to chose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited.

P.I, 37 -  It is prohibited to kill, injure or capture an adversary by resort to perfidy. The enemy who is hors de combat, or who has surrendered, or who shows his intention to surrender, or who has parachuted from an aircraft in distress, shall not be made the object of attack. If the capturing party is unable to evacuate its prisoners from the fighting zone, it must release them and take all feasible precautions to ensure their safety

Section 111


1. Rights and Obligations

111 12 14.  Regarding the rights of prisoners of war, the principle specifying that prisoners of war are in the hands of the enemy Power, but not of the individuals or military units who have captured them, should be borne in mind. Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour. Women must be treated with all regard due to their sex and shall in all cases benefit from treatment at least as favourable as that granted to men. Finally, it should be noted that prisoners of war retain the full civil capacity they had at their time of capture. Within the limits imposed by captivity, they therefore continue to enjoy their civil rights according to the law of their country of origin. In particular they can marry by proxy.

As for the duties of prisoners, they are generally derived from the laws of war and the rules of military discipline.

111, 17 - Some of these duties are formally stated in the Convention; thus article 17 relating to the questioning of the prisoner specifies that he is bound to give his name, first names and rank, date of birth and army, regimental, personal or serial number, or failing this, equivalent information (these particulars will be reproduced on the identity card which the parties to the conflict are required to issue to the prisoner of war 111,17,18).

However, the same article adds that no physical or mental torture, nor any form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to obtain from them information of any kind whatsoever.

2. Protection and Treatment

111 13 16 Prisoners of war must at all times be treated humanely.

3. Physical Conditions of Internment

The Detaining Power assumes general responsibility for the life and welfare of prisoners of war, who must be kept in good health.

4. Moral and Psychological Conditions of Internment

The Convention is not only concerned with the physical conditions of internment. A great number of articles are devoted to moral and psychological conditions. They deal not only with religion, intellectual and sports activities, but also with the kind of work considered suitable to maintain prisoner's self respect and mental well-being and protect them from boredom and idleness. In application of these principles, the Convention includes a number of provisions on Religion, Intellectual and Sport Activities, Work, Property and Working Pay, and Correspondence.

5. Aid

The Convention affirms the right of prisoners to receive relief. Relief supplies may be individual or collective but the Convention indicates a preference to relief parcels of a standard model, intended for all prisoners in a camp and shared out among them by prisoners representatives. All relief shipments are exempt from import, customs and other dues and the experience by the ICRC and National Red Cross Societies in the course of two World Wars is implicitly recognized.

6. Discipline

To ensure discipline in accordance with military honour, every prisoner of war camp is placed under the immediate authority of a responsible commissioned officer belonging to the regular armed forces of the Detaining Power. This officer must be fully acquainted with the text of the convention. These texts must also be posted in each camp, in the prisoners own language, in places where all may read them. The wearing of badges of rank and nationality, as well as decorations, shall be permitted in due respect for the dignity of the persons concerned.

The Convention has several provisions relating to escapes or attempts to escape. These are accepted as being consistent with military honour and patriotic courage. Punishments incurred in cases of escape are consequently limited. Weapons may be used against prisoners who escape or attempt to escape, but such use should only be made as a last resort and must always be preceded by warnings appropriate to the circumstances.
The institution of prisoners representatives is very important. He not only supervises the distribution of relief supplies but also does all he can to mitigate the severities of discipline to help prisoners in their difficulties with the detaining authority.

The Convention specifies the sanctions that prisoners of war shall be subject to the laws, regulations, and orders in force in the armed forces of the Detaining Power.
7. Repatriation

Even during hostilities, the Convention prescribes the direct return to their own countries of the wounded and sick. No sick or injured prisoner of war may be repatriated against his will during hostilities. No repatriated person may be employed on active military service.

8. Death

Prisoners of war are entitled to make wills.

9. Information Bureaux and Central Tracing Agency
10. Assistance by Relief Societies and the ICRC
11. The Rights of Protecting Powers and the ICRC to Visit

Representatives of the Protecting Powers shall have permission to go to all places where prisoners of war may be, particularly to places of internment, imprisonment and labour. They shall have access to all premises used by prisoners. ICRC delegates shall have the same prerogatives.

(6). The Hague Conventions

The history of organised international attempts to define the rules of war, began with the Treaty of Paris which ended the Crimean War (1853-56). In 1854, Great Britain and France adopted a "modus vivendi " that neither would seize enemy goods on neutral vessels, nor neutral goods on enemy vessels.

Although originally intended for the Crimean War only, the rules laid down for Maritime Law were incorporated into General International Law and were signed into force in Paris on 16 April, 1856. Switzerland signed its accession on 28 July, 1856.

Over the next half-century, a series of international conferences and resulting agreements culminated in the final signing off of the First International Peace Conference in the Hague on 29 July, 1899. This First Hague Peace Conference had been convened on the initiative of Nicholas II, the Czar of Russia "with the object of seeking the most effective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and, above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments".  Her Majesty, the Queen of the Netherlands, invited all interested governments to assemble at the Royal House in the Woods, at the Hague, on 18 May 1899 for the Conference. 26 Governments accepted her invitation.

The Conference adjourned on 29 July, 1899 having failed to reach agreement on the primary object for which it had been called, namely the limitation or reduction of armaments but did agree on three Conventions, three Declarations and six Resolutions to guide a second international peace conference which also would be convened in the Hague. Among the six Resolutions was "the wish that the questions of the rights and duties of neutral countries may be inserted in the programme of the next Conference".
This second Peace Conference assembled on 15 June, 1907 in the Hall of the Knights, also in the Hague. It endorsed the Conventions, Declarations and Resolutions of the first Peace Conference and added two Conventions No. 85, respecting the rights and duties of neutral powers and persons in case of war on land, and No. 86, concerning the rights and duties of neutral powers in a naval war.

Convention No. 85 is divided into 5 Chapters and 25 Articles as follows:

Chapter I: The rights and duties of neutral Powers - Articles 1-10
Chapter II: Belligerents interned, and wounded tended - Articles 11-15
Chapter III: Neutral persons - Articles 16-18
Chapter IV: Railway material - Article 19
Chapter V: Final provisions - Articles 20-25

Article 11 states - "A neutral Power which receives on its territory troops belonging to belligerent armies shall intern them, as far as possible, at a distance from the theatre of war. It may keep them in camps and even confine them in fortresses or in places set apart for that purpose. It shall decide whether officers can be left at liberty on giving their parole not to leave the neutral territory without permission".

Article 13 states - "A neutral power which receives escaped prisoners of war shall leave them in liberty. If it allows them to remain in its territory, it may assign them a place of residence. The same rule applies to prisoners of war brought by troops taking refuge in the territory of a neutral power".

Switzerland, the United States of America, Germany, and Great Britain were all among the 44 countries which signed this Convention on 18 October, 1907.

Before the Conference disbanded, it recommended that a third International Peace Conference be held, but due to the outbreak of the First World War, this third conference never took place. Nevertheless, the rules which were codified at the First Peace Conference, and revised in 1907, operated through both world wars and subsequent conflicts. The Hague rules still govern the conduct of belligerent powers involved in armed conflicts today.

Although Japan had not ratified the Geneva Convention of 1929 concerning the treatment of prisoners of war, as their martial philosophy was that to die in battle was honourable but to be taken prisoner brought only shame and dishonour, the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 replaced the 1929 Convention with very clear and precise rules for the protection of POW.

The fundamental principles underlying the Third Geneva Convention were based on the Hague rules, which confirmed that POW are war victims not criminals, and should be treated humanely throughout their period of captivity. Atrocities such as the illegal medical experiments that the Nazis inflicted on many POW and civilians held in their concentration camps, the massacre by the Japanese of Australian nurses, and their use of troops as slave labour on the Burma-Siam railway, had appalled the world and like the use of poison gas in WW I, was explicitly banned in the 143 Articles of the Third Geneva Convention.

Article 41 required the text of the Convention to be posted in all POW camps, the rules simply but comprehensively written out so as to be clearly understood by all parties.

While most Australian POW were informed in a general way, about their rights under the Geneva Conventions, those who escaped to Switzerland were not aware that Switzerland had not ratified the Geneva Conventions (as neither had the Japanese). The Swiss rationale was that Switzerland was a neutral country, not one at war, and their military code and conduct was only governed by the Hague Conventions.

With hindsight, this difference should have been made clear to allied POW by the War Office in London, through the Military Attaches of the Allied Embassies in Bern. To this day most of their service men, both officers and other ranks, both "evades" who were "free men" and "internees" (who weren't) probably still think it was their service duty to escape any form of incarceration and endeavour to rejoin their lines and thus their unit. This responsibility was expunged when "held" on Swiss soil. They were then subject to Swiss Federal laws and the Hague Conventions which the Swiss Government had ratified.


M41 "The Laws of Armed Conflicts - A Collection of Conventions, Resolutions and Other Documents", edited by Dietrich Schindler and Jiri Toman. Henry Dunant Institute, 1988.
M12 "Even Wars Have Limits", Gretchen Kewley, Faculty of Law, Monash University, Melbourne.

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