The words prisoner of war conjure up images of harsh living conditions and elaborate escape plans. We would also anticipate that there would be no communication with the prisoner during their imprisonment. However international aid organizations were able to get some prisoners packages and letters from their loved ones during the First and Second World War. The following is an example of one soldier’s experience.
John D. Hills was taken prisoner of war by the Germans after the raid at Dieppe in 1942. He remained a prisoner until his liberation in 1945. In 1943 the War Prisoners’ Aid of the Y.M.C.A. sent Jack a “War-time Log” to chronical his experiences using the medium of his choosing. Suggestions for its use included a diary or journal, letters to loved ones to be delivered after the war, sketches or caricatures, poetry, autographs, or quotes from camp. John chose a mixture of mediums to fill his War Time Log which is now housed in the museum’s collection.
A review of the letter from the War Prisoner’s Aid group reveals the book was to serve as a link between the P.O.W. and their loved ones at home.
“Whatever you do [with this book], let it be a visible link between yourself and the folks at home, one more reminder that their thoughts are with you constantly. If it brings you this assurance, the Log will have served its purpose.”
Captain Hill’s logbook included a short note from his wife Vera, who appeared to have initiated the request to the War Prisoner’s Aid group. Given that today we can instantly communicate with our friends and family, it is difficult for us to imagine how challenging it would have been to craft a short letter conveying all the things she might want to say. What would you put in a letter that may be the only one a loved one received from you for years? Vera’s letter to John highlighted the comforts of their home.
“It’s nice out today for a change. Wayne and Reg are out playing and having a grand time. Mom went to see Ethel this afternoon. Expect to go down and see your mother some day this week.”
We can hope that these words of home and knowledge of his loved ones brought comfort to John. We can also hope when things became difficult for him as a POW that he was able to conjure up the image of a nice day at home where his kids were outside playing and making plans to visit family.
Vera ends her letter with the sentiment that his loved ones are eagerly awaiting his return and how the future will be as great as their pre-war life was. In addition to her love, she sends hope for the future.
Captain John Hills Wartime Diary Entries
The initial entries in the War-Time Log were brief diary entries that chronicled John’s experiences from the time of his capture at Dieppe to his return home at the end of the war. Two pages may seem insufficient detail for the events that he was documenting, however, the sparseness of these entries renders them emotionally very powerful.
During the raid on Dieppe Canadian soldiers suffered a heavy toll. Of the nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers that participated in that raid 907 were killed, 2,460 were wounded and 1,946 were taken Prisoner of War. Given the significance of the battle we might anticipate that John would chronicle his experiences in the battle. However, the entry for Dieppe reads, “Aug 19, 1942: Landed at Dieppe France on commando raid. Boat sunk going back. Taken prisoner by German Patrol Boat.”
The entries that followed detailed his experiences as a POW and appear to be the primary focus with of the log. It wasn’t until his entries in January 1943 that John revealed he had shrapnel removed from his head on two separate occasions. There was no context provided explaining where the injuries were sustained, but there is mention of hospitalization after Dieppe. Did he sustain the head wounds during the battle? If he did live for five months following the battle with shrapnel in his head, one can only imagine how it would have intensified his distress.
The reader gets a sense of the bleakness of being a POW. In October of 1942 he reports that all the Dieppe men were tied together with rope for 13 hours a day even when they went to the bathroom. From rope the prisoners graduated to cuffs with 2 feet of chain. Several of the entries following this description noted that the prisoners were still in chains that weren’t removed until November 22, 1943. The entry for that day was brief, “the chains are taken off after 13 months.” This simple statement draws the reader to imagine what it would be like to be handcuffed for over a year and empathize with John’s experiences.
What was expected of a Soldier taken P.O.W.?
What exactly was expected of Captain John Hills and the others taken prisoner at Dieppe? Second World War archival artifacts in the Museum’s collection help to answer that question succinctly. According to the digest of war bulletins sent to commanding officers, entitled, What do if Captured by the Enemy, the answer first directive was don’t get caught. The document stipulates that it is the job of the solider not to get captured. The instructions allow that there may by some situation where the solider is unable to avoid capture and in those situations their duty then becomes to escape at all costs and return to the Allied armies with inside intel on the enemy that can be exploited.
This directive seems monumental. It held the POW responsible for escaping and returning, no matter the circumstances of imprisonment. Yet, in May of 1943 the POW’s stationed at Lamsdorf Prison camp began digging an escape tunnel while they were still in cuffs and chains. Despite the difficulties they faced the tunnel was completed in July and allowed 16 men to escape. In November of 1943 the Germans discovered the tunnel and filled it in.
John was not able to escape during the operational timeline of the tunnel, but that did not stop him from trying. In 1945 ahead of the Russian advance the POWs were forced to march to another camp. It was during this time that John and two others managed to escape and evade recapture for a week.
John’s War-Time Log details how POWs were liberated by the Russians at Luft 1 in March of 1945. By June of 1945 he was back in Canada where he was welcomed home by his wife and two sons after a four-and-a-half-year absence. Was returning home really the end? How does one reintegrate into the local community after what John had experienced? For John Hills ensuring what the POW’s went through was not forgotten became his pursuit. The post war era had Germany claim that prisoners of war were treated better then they had been. The government was led to believe that they had not been handcuffed during their imprisonment for example. It was John that was able to disprove this with his smuggled POW handcuffs. His fight was not in vain, and he was able to get POW veterans their recognition. Ensuring that the story wasn’t forgotten was important to him and through his War-Time Log his story continues to be heard more than 75 years later.
This post is part four of our Stories from the Front series. Catch all four parts of this series using the tag or category ‘Stories from the Front’.
Abbey Stansfield revised the Stories from the Front program and is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.