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Navy prisoners

12 July 2010 by stepheng

poster titled 'These men went through hell for you' with images of merchant seamen

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.

They say art can be very therapeutic and this must certainly be the case for prisoners of war.

Putting it down on paper not only fills time but also provides an opportunity to be creative in grim surroundings. I can well understand how even the most functional building or everyday situation was carefully recorded.

My father, a military policeman, was never captured but I treasure his wartime sketches from Italy and North Africa. He said opportunities to sketch were rare but not to be missed.

Many British and Allied merchant seamen became prisoners of war as a result of the Battle of the Atlantic with its large losses of shipping.

This was due mainly to the activities of German warships and armed auxiliary cruisers in the central and south Atlantic.

Crews were taken off sinking ships and from the sea and lifeboats in this vast arena of war. Most of the prisoners were held at Milag Nord and Marlag internment camps near Bremen in northwest Germany.

On display in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s Battle of the Atlantic gallery are postcards sent by British merchant seamen from the camps.

One from Christmas 1941 carries seasonal greetings from Stalag XB Marlag and features a windjammer ship in full sail.

There are sketches made by British merchant seamen at Milag Nord. They show wire fences and a watch tower, and accommodation hut labelled Barrack 7 and dormitory accommodation with men eating and relaxing on their bunks.

An Admiralty publication called Warwork News (pictured) shows 13 dishevelled men with the caption: “For 23 days these men were adrift in an open boat … their ship had been sunk by a German raider in the Atlantic … there were 82 men crowded into a boat built to hold 50 … one of the boats finally reached São Luiz, Brazil, where the men fell exhausted on the beach.”

In a rallying call to workers at home, Warwork News adds: “The men of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy ask you to give every ounce of effort to speed up production.”

Dramatic photos show shipwrecked seafarers at the point of being rescued from the sea.

More than 5,000 Allied merchant seamen were taken prisoner by German forces during the Second World War – most were held at these two camps which also accommodated Royal Navy personnel.

Marlag was used as a location for the 1946 film The Captive Heart starring Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1 p&p UK).

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