Training in POW camps

Allowing Prisoners of War to continue their professional studies was a matter taken seriously by the three largest professional engineering bodies of the time; the IMechE, the ICE and the IEE (now part of the IET). In December 1941 the Secretaries of the three Institutions met with the POW department of the British Red Cross Society and Order of St. John to see how far it might be possible for the Institutions to assist their members.

During the war some British prisoners were able to take the opportunity to continue their professional engineering training.  The British Red Cross had a specific Prisoners of War Department which could send books and journals.

Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE)

Correspondence in the ICE archive between the Red Cross and the ICE Secretary sheds some light into studying that occurred between civil engineers.  The Red Cross had received a letter from a Major E. Vinney, Education Officer at Oflag VI B, a German POW camp for Officers. He stated that Captain L. G. Pritchard had set up a Highway Engineering Study Group for 18 officers, all of which were highway engineers, including six who were ICE members.

Some were studying for the ICE or Institution of Municipal Engineers exams which they hoped to take in the camp. The group planned to study bridges, culverts and retaining walls amongst other things, we wonder if this information was put to a more immediate use; planning escape!

As well as arranging for the ICE Journal to be delivered, ICE Secretary Graham Clark sent a letter of advice and a list of suggested books.

Correspondence thanking the ICE for their list of suggested books, September 1942 [ICE Archive ICE 0311]

Perhaps surprisingly the Journal could be sent without being censored. Not all books, however, were passed – one was returned by the Red Cross as its Jewish author was unlikely to pass the censor and as it was an expensive book they did not want to take the risk. Four more had to be passed by the censor and ‘Principles of Road Engineering’ failed as it was seen to come under the category of guide books.

Correspondence regarding the rejection of ‘Principles of Road Engineering’, October 1942 [ICE Archive ICE 0311]
Correspondence regarding books by Jewish authors and German censors, October 1942 [ICE Archive ICE 0311]

A note from Captain Pritchard, dated 4th March 1943 confirmed the books had arrived and the Journal was being received regularly and

“help us to understand the vital value of establishing the basic principles for post-war reconstruction”

well before peace was in sight. He signed off with:

“All are in fine fettle. Good humour dominates, with warmest wishes”

This correspondence shows a terrific strength of character at a time when the outcome of the war was by no means certain.

Postcard from Captain Pritchard expressing his gratitude to the ICE for their support, March 1943 [ICE Archive ICE 0311]

Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE)

Other information sent through the Red Cross included updates on membership. In 1943, S. C. Davis wrote from Stalag XXA, thanking the Institution for its letter confirming he was now a Graduate member. He also asked if it was possible to send the Journal, noting that he wanted ‘fresh ideas for compiling lectures’, suggesting that he was helping other engineers to continue their professional education in the camp.

Correspondence sent to the IEE from S.C. Davis passing on is thanks for their confirmation of his achieving the class of Graduate Member, June 1943. [IET Archive]

Of course, not all POWs had access to support via the Red Cross, especially those in camps not considered subject to the Geneva Convention.