As one does in the Christmas period, I set a bit of time aside to rummage through stuff in the old family home. Principally, a trunk of my grandad’s writing and exploring paraphernalia. Robert Bentham was a rather exceptional chap, a moderately famous geologist in his time who mapped Arctic regions, killed polar bears and rode dog-sledges over crevices. He was also a scout in the North Africa campaigns of World War 2. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in this old trunk, but a pair of Most Secret information booklets from the war really caught my eye. These cover two lectures, Escape and Conduct as a Prisoner of War and Notes on Escapes of Prisoners of War – and they were apparently (according to an accompanying note) only issued to personnel on secret missions.
The Prisoner of War Notes
The first book appears to be a general guide to conduct as a prisoner of war, and the possibility of escape, with a few examples in it drawn from European campaigns. The second guide is a complementary one, with much more specific advice relating to the desert, so seems to have been issued to those in the North African campaigns, making its content rather eclectic.
Escape and Conduct as a P.O.W.
Here’s the index of the first one in full, including the duties of a prisoner of war, what you can expect of the enemy and general advice to cope with it all. The underlying theme throughout this little journal is that a prisoner of war should never be idle.
Being captured does not mean disgrace, but letting yourself remain captured does. There’s a great sense of honour and duty throughout this guide – an expectation that the prisoner of war is still fighting, and should be gathering information with a goal to return to their regiment. In fact there is only one sentence dedicated to the question of If Unable to Escape: If you are unable to get away, remember that as a POW you are still a member of HM Forces, and act accordingly.
The general do’s and don’ts of the prisoner of war. Common sense ‘keep quiet’ advice, but with the suggestion that one must keep fit and always keep fighting. The guide also contains a few more bits of general advice: don’t despair, get a hobby, do your best to escape and, again, keep fit.
An unfit man has little chance of escaping. An unfit man is liable to be lower in morale than a fit one.
That’s a lesson for everyday life, really.
Notes on Escapes of Prisoners of War
It might be that the escapes of prisoners of war were more common in the desert, or it might be that this guide was specifically geared towards African campaigns. It was, after all, where my grandad was based during the war and where he was, at some point, a POW himself. Either way, the second book is mostly about survival in the Western Desert, with useful Arabic phrases and notes specific to escaping in Arab lands.
Here’s some oddly specific hiding places if you ever find yourself on the run in the desert: a cave by the sea, very derelict vehicles, a dip or hole in the sand surrounded by old petrol tins and a hole in the sand covered by camel scrub. When I lived in the Abu Dhabi desert I’m not sure that I ever came across any of those locations, but perhaps they were more prevalent in wartime.
Some advice that might’ve helped David McCallum out in the Great Escape: how best to do a bit of train hopping across Europe. With the brilliant tidbit that One of our fellows reported quite laconically that he had travelled right across Greece from the Yugoslavia frontier “underneath the carriages” of troop trains travelling east. That is true grit.
The manual contains a variety of other useful bits of advice such as BEWARE OF WATCH-DOGS (with no exposition), and the general assumption that the poorer a civilian looks the more likely they are to help you out. It also has a nice breakdown of how different nationalities are likely to react to British prisoners of wars, noting that most of them are not unfriendly, though the French can’t really be trusted and little is known of the attitudes of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary so they’re best avoided.
Packed together with some handy details about foraging for food and planning for escapes (top tip: make a plan), the second guide concludes with similar advice regarding fitness. Do your utmost to keep fit but do it unostentatiously (ie don’t be smug about it). So again the overall advice that one should take from these most secret manuals, should you ever find yourself a prisoner of war trying to escape, is that you should keep fit. Use this well.