Prisoners of War on Wanstead Flats

Friday, 4 July 2014

A fascinating booklet, recently published by the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, records Wanstead Flats' intriguing role as a Prisoner of War (PoW) camp during World War 2. The article that follows is based on the booklet, for details, see footnote.

Wanstead Flats played a number of key, strategic, roles during the Second World War, including housing anti-aircraft batteries and barrage balloons, as well as being an important assembly point, prior to the D-Day invasion of June 1944, whose 70th anniversary has recently been commemorated.

The Flats were also home to a large number of PoWs during the war, initially mainly Italians, and later, mainly German. Although the exact details are sketchy and difficult to determine - certainly from official documents, many of which were, for understandable reasons, classified.

The main location of this PoW camp was within the triangle boarded by Centre Road, Lakehouse Road and Dames Road, now more familiar as the fairground site, near Jubilee Pond (see detail from contemporary RAF aerial photo).

RAF photo of Wanstead Flats, 1944,
with POW camp to the right of the pond
Some older local residents remember Italian PoWs being held there from December 1940, following the Allied North African campaign, during which upto 100,000 Italians were taken prisoner. One local resident, according to the booklet, recalls bus trips to see them on the Flats, early in 1941.

Prisoners were initially housed in Nissen huts (see photograph), while others were held in tents on Tower Hamlets Road, following bomb damage to the area. Another local resident recalled going to the pond at the Flats every Sunday, to feed the prisoners, most of whom were described as being "very cheery and talkative".

Evidence of the Italian PoW presence on the Flats survived until the 1990's in the shape of what had become known as "The Italian Goalpost" (see photograph from here, with thanks).

"Italian goalpost" on Wanstead Flats,
photo taken in 1994

According to The Newham Story, there was also an Italian PoW camp on Whipps Cross Road (see photo), and possibly another on the site of what is now Forest Gate school, in the early years of the war.


VJ party outside PoW camp Nissen huts,
Whipps Cross Road
After the Allied invasion of Europe, in the summer of 1944, many thousands of Germans were captured and held prisoner in hundreds of camps, throughout the UK - including on Wanstead Flats.  Many continued to be held there until 1946.


The Italian prisoners who were still held there began to enjoy greater freedoms from this period.  Italy had surrendered from the war the previous year, although it was a further two years before all of their prisoners were released and repatriated.  They were, in the interim, as a consequence, given more freedoms: to visit local people in their homes and go to church and the cinema etc, unaccompanied.

German prisoners seemed to dominate the camp, numerically, from this time.  The Stratford Express, however, reported hostilities between prisoners of different nationalities breaking out, in 1944. The report also described community singing by the prisoners in the floodlit camp, at night.
The camp was surrounded by a wire fence and patrolled by members of the Home Guard; but security was hardly severe.  No details exist of any escape attempts, successful or otherwise.

The original 60-feet long Nissen huts were unable to cope with the increased demand brought about by the influx of German prisoners, so upwards of 200 bell tests were erected on the Flats to accommodate the increased numbers.
Few official records survive, or are accessible, about the Wanstead Flats camp, which was, in fact a satellite of the larger Camp 30, on Carpenter's Road, Stratford, where more than 1,500 German prisoners were held from 1944.

Nissen huts on Queen's Road,
similar to those used on The Flats
Among the few surviving details is a response from the Minister of War to concerns from local MPs, whom he assured (in 1944) that the facility was a temporary one, which would be closed by the end of the year (it wasn't). There were still at least 10 German prisoners there, as late as July 1946.

There was some attempt at the "political re-education" of prisoners, particularly those assessed has having very pro-Nazi sympathies. Unfortunately no records seem to exist detailing how the prisoners found the conditions and their treatment within the camps.

Many of them were employed, locally, on work to rectify war-related damage, such as clearing up bomb sites, and constructing prefabs for East Enders displaced by the Blitz and later V1 and V2 raids (see future blog for details of this).

Other attempts at occupying/re-educating the camp's inmates included regular trips to Upton Park to watch West Ham play, where an enclosure had been built to accommodate the prisoners (see photograph). Cue lots of jokes about punishment enough, inhumane torture etc...

PoWs being escorted to a football match at Upton Park
The prisoners seemed, for the most part, to have been reasonably well treated by local people and the Stratford Express reported, in 1944, that local girls would go to the site and throw sweets over the wire to them, much to the chagrin of local, jealous, young men.  In a slightly different account, on the Newham Story website, however, one local resident recalled going down to the camp regularly and throwing stones and rocks at it
.
Unfortunately, we have no details of how and when the camp was decommissioned and the last accommodation removed. There was a post-war follow-up, however, to the human occupation of Wanstead Flats, which we will detail in next week's blog.

Footnote, with grateful thanks to: Behind The Wire: Prisoner of War Camps on Wanstead Flats, pub 2013 by Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, 85 Forest Drive West, Leytonstone E11 1JZ, priced £3.00, website.


We would very much welcome any recollections or reminisces readers may have about this fascinating episode of our relatively recent history.  Please feel free to comment, below, or e.mail.

1 comment:

  1. I lived in tylney rd, forest gate, we saw the tanks going along capel rd, d day landings. I was 5 1/2. most of the women were cheering the men on, lifting their tops and showing their boobs.
    a tank hit the kerb the granite rock is still out of place.I have a photo taken, late 1998.I'm nearly 80 but my memories are as sharp as yesterday, many stories to tell

    ReplyDelete

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