The German POW who stayed in Berkshire
German prisoners of war reached a staggering 402,000 in Britain by 1946. This is the story of one of those men.
Britain started the war with two camps and had only around 2,000 prisoners until 1944. But after the Allied invasion of Western Europe, its POW population exploded and the total number of camps surpassed 600.
The first German soldiers captured in 1939 were U-boat crews and downed Luftwaffe pilots. Most were transferred to the United States and Canada due to the high risk of an enemy invasion and to conserve vital supplies.
Eugen Clemens was born on 31 December 1906 in the southwestern German city of Kaiserslautern. He moved to Frankfurt Am Main to set up shop as a jeweller, watchmaker and silk importer.
As the Third Reich's position grew weaker, the SS conscripted Mr Clemens into the Wehrmacht. He was captured in Northern France in September 1944 by Canadian forces, who abused him. German prisoners arrived in Britain via one of the major ports along the South Coast. They were screened and classified according to their ideological beliefs as either 'whites', 'greys,’ or 'blacks'.
Berkshire mostly accommodated 'whites' and 'greys', who were considered to be of little to no threat. Meanwhile, 'blacks' comprised the most extreme fascists, including the SS, who were imprisoned in heavily guarded, remote camps in Scotland and Wales.
Mr Clemens docked in Southampton and his first exposure to Berkshire was his arrival at the long-gone Lambourn Railway Station. A lorry then transported him to the site he would call home for the rest of the war. Camp 25, based at Lodge Farm a mile east of Baydon near Lambourn, opened in 1941 to accommodate Italian soldiers captured in the North African campaign.
German inmates fulfilled various tasks inside and outside the camp. Each camp had its own barracks, prisoner hierarchy, newspaper, guest speakers, sports and leisure activities. Many prisoners were employed in agriculture, forestry and repairing roads and railways and received token 'camp money'. 'Good conduct' prisoners could billet with local farmers and earn a real small wage.
As a 'working camp', security was more relaxed. A pig farmer named William Bailey used to smuggle Mr Clemens outside the camp confines. He would turn his POW uniform inside out and cycle around the villages, repairing clocks and making jewellery. He befriended several locals this way, including Walter Hobbs, a Kintbury signalman, who invited him to spend Christmas at his family home in 1946. He was to become his future father-in-law.
After the war, the British Government exploited a loophole to detain German prisoners for another three years. The terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention stated the release of enemy POWs should follow the signing of a peace treaty. However, Germany had declared an unconditional surrender and had no functioning government the Allies could negotiate with.
The Government justified its decision due to nationwide labour shortages and the need to 'de-Nazify' prisoners before their repatriation but eventually ceded to public and political pressure.
The Secretary of State permitted former POWs a brief window to visit Germany and return to Britain between December 1948 and January 1949. Upon their return, they were required to report to the police and resume their wartime professions.
Mr Clemens was finally released in January 1948. He returned to Germany, only to find his parents had perished in a gas chamber, his siblings missing, and his home and business destroyed by Allied bombing. He returned to Berkshire to marry his wife, Joan, an ATS member (Auxiliary Territorial Service), at Newbury Registry Office in 1949. From April 1948, POWs married to English women could apply to release their POW status and become 'aliens', who could then work in any field and set up their own businesses. He obtained his British citizenship in the 1960s, which was a more straightforward procedure for married German POWs.
In the postwar years, Mr Clemens helped construct the sluice gates on the River Kennet near Kintbury Railway Station and to erect the fourth Combe Gibbet in 1950. A time capsule was buried beneath this, though whether it remains there today is unknown.
An estimated 25,000 former prisoners resettled in Britain. POWs in Berkshire formed a social group called the 'German Association'. They first met at each other's houses but soon filled churches and village halls on a monthly basis. Gordon Clemens remembers people travelling from all over the Home Counties.
Locally, the group included Heinz Heimsoth, whose family still run Thatcham Glass; Bruno Zornow, who resided at Thatcham House and developed Turners Drive off Station Road; Herbert Rein, a hairdresser on Russell Road in Newbury; Erich Heyder from Newbury and Erwin Simon from Thatcham.
Mr Clemens never resented the British for his captivity but did sue the post-war German Government for compensation. After his court win, he vowed never to return to Germany and never did.
Early life for former prisoners and their families was challenging. English women married to Germans often became estranged from their families and shunned by their friends and neighbours. Their children were bullied and called 'krauts' by their fellow students and teachers. But eventually, the men became respected members of the community.
Eugen Clemens died on 21 December 1974 at Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading.
Records suggest some of the main camps in Berkshire were based at Newbury, Thatcham, Crookham, Lambourn, Mortimer, Reading, Didcot and Ascot. Thousands of Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians and Russian defectors were also detained in Britain, but how many stayed is unclear.
The information in this article is compiled from extensive documentary evidence and oral testimonies provided by Mr Clemens’ sons. But it scarcely scratches the surface of the topic and Eugen Clemens’ story is just one of many. I am keen to hear from anyone with memories of or family connections to prisoners, guards, or civilians from this period.
Images provided by Gordon Clemens.
Press cutting reproduced with permission from the Newbury Weekly News.