The Malta Independent 14 July 2024, Sunday
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Prisoners Of war in Malta in the First World War

Malta Independent Sunday, 1 April 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Study Paper 44 of the Malta Study Circle entitled “Prisoner of War Mail” (June 1991), gives invaluable information on the history of the prisoners-of-war mail of enemy nationals, pro-German Maltese as well as seaman serving in ships then at Malta who were interned in Malta.

Anthony Zarb Dimech writes

The earliest records of prisoners of war in Malta are those of Turkish prisoners captured by the Knights of St John. The prisoners were locked up in dungeons around Grand Harbour – many of them serving as gallery slaves during their captivity. In 1812, during the Napoleonic war, there were approximately 1,200 French prisoners about half of whom were at Fort Chambray in Gozo with the rest at Verdala Palace.’

During the First World War enemy prisoners were assessed and internment camps were established. Very few records of individual internees survive in the National Archives of the Home Office of the United Kingdom. Prisoners of war (POW) in Malta were mainly held at Verdala Barracks, St Clement Camp and adjacent camps (Zejtun), Salvatore Fort and Polverista Barracks until March 1920 and guarded by officers and men of the Royal Malta Artillery and the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia. By the middle of 1916, there were no less than 1,670 prisoners from Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece.

The international agreements on the treatment of prisoners sprang from the founding of the Red Cross in Geneva in 1863. The first agreement, established in 1864 and eventually accepted by 48 states, dealt briefly with the ‘Amelioration of the Wounded’. The second, concluded in 1906, extended protection to the sick and wounded, to those treating them, and to the treatment of wounded and sick prisoners of war. Twenty-three years later (10 years after the end of World War One), a third convention was signed that included a separate section covering the rights and treatment of prisoners of war.

Standing Orders

In 1918, the Governor of Malta and Commander-in-Chief approved for information and guidance the “Standing Orders for the Prisoners of War, Camp, Malta”. The Commandant’s Office of the Prisoners of War Camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Neale, in turn published these standing orders on 1 February 1918.

The prisoners of war were by Article 8 of the Annex to the Hague Convention, 1907, “subject to the laws, regulations, and orders in force in the Army of the state in the power of which they are”. These laws, which were contained in the Army Act and various books of regulations that govern the English army, were enforced as regards prisoners of war in order that they comply with all rules and regulations deemed necessary for their safety, good order and discipline.

The standing orders covered general and special orders as follows:

General Orders

These orders covered every aspect of life in the camps from rules whereby prisoners of war would be fired at, improper or derogatory language, salute, mustering, damage to property (rooms tents etc,), cleaning, bedding, election of mess president or captain, permission to send letters and other formalities on writing letters, newspapers and receipt of parcels, smoking, possession of personal property, lighting of camp, hospital visits, and the drawing of money.

Special Orders

• Regulations to be observed in Special Messes

• Instructions for the Permanent Fatigue Party in Verdala Barracks

• Abstract of the regulations relating to the treatment and conduct of prisoners of war undergoing close confinement

• Undeliverable parcels for prisoners of war

• Power of attorney

Captain (then Major, later ADC to the Governor) William Raphael Gatt was appointed Commandant, Prisoners of War Camp by the War Office on 19 May 1920.

At first, the atmosphere in the camp was relaxed but the successful escape from Verdala and Malta by Ensign Fikentscher and an Austrian civilian internee led to more restrictions and a more vigilant guard. All privileges were denied and for the next two years the prisoners were not allowed out of Verdala despite the lack of exercise space for a camp population of 400. Until the entry of the United States into the war, the United States Consul in Valletta officially represented the prisoners. Afterwards the Swiss Consul looked after their interests.

The hundreds of prisoners of war and civilian internees hailed from all nations allied to the Kaiser’s Germany and these included Egyptians, Arabs and Greeks suspected of being German sympathisers. The following are some of the most ‘illustrious’ prisoners of war.

The captain crew of the German cruiser ‘Emdem’

This warship under the command of Captain von Muller was sunk after a successful commerce-raiding cruise in the Indian Ocean. The Captain and the ship’s officers – including Lieutenant Franz Josef, (Prince) Von Hohenzollern of the German Royal Family (nephew of the then King of Romania) – were locked up in Verdala Fort while the crew were interned in a nearby fort.

In 1915, the prisoners set up the German-Austro-Hungarian aid organisation, which the Turks joined later. Von Muller was president of this organisation set up to help those prisoners who did not have any resources. In 1917 Von Muller was transferred to Britain but the rest remained in Malta until the end of hostilities.

Karl Donitz

One of the most famous German prisoners in Malta was Karl Donitz, who in the Second World War (April 1945) oversaw the last major operation conducted by Hitler’s navy: the evacuation of over two million civilians and soldiers from the Eastern Front. Karl Donitz was Grossadmiral, Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine under Hitler’s command. Donitz also planned the Nazi German submarine campaign during the Second World War.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Donitz was serving on board the light cruiser Breslau. Donitz asked to be transferred to the expanding submarine fleet, showing the verve and courage of an ambitious youth concentrating on his career. He joined U 39 in January 1917. He sailed on five war patrols when the German Imperial Naval resumed ‘Unrestricted Submarine Warfare’ on 1 February 1917. This was a policy of indiscriminately attacking Allied and suspicious natural shipping, both military and merchant, with submarine torpedoes.

Dent’s first command was a small minelayer UC 25 in March 1918. His next command was UB 68 but disaster stuck on 4 October 1918 as he attempted to attack a convoy in the Mediterranean. The escorts were on their guard and the sloop Snapdragon blasted the submarine with her guns to such effect that Donitz had to scuttle his boat and surrender. He and most of his crew were taken prisoner. He spent the rest of the war in Malta and in Britain.

Liman von Sanders

General Liman von Sanders was in command of the Turkish Army on the southern front in Syria until Field-Marshall Allenby defeated him in 1918. He handed over the command to Kemal and returned to Constantinople where he surrendered to the Allies, and was interned in Malta until the summer of 1919.

Von Sanders was the head of the German Military Mission sent to Turkey by Germany in 1914 and the author of many changes in the Turkish Army. German officers, technicians and instructors began to appear at first in scores and then in their hundreds, taking over the control of the munitions factory in Constantinople and many guns along the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

Von Sanders was a calm and steady man and was an inspired choice for implementing these changes. He was genuinely interested in the technique and tactics of strategy and had impressive authority and intelligence. The army was his life and was not distracted by politics.

Turkish prisoners of war

In the first months of the war, the Armenians in Turkey suffered religious persecution from the Turks resulting in massacres and deportations. According to British Foreign Office Dossiers on Turkish War Criminals, a collection of British documents on various perpetrators and agents of the Armenian Genocide rounded up by the British and interned on Malta pending trial, were published by Vartkes Yeghiayan.

Unfortunately, the internees were given to Mustafa Kemal’s Nationalist Government to secure the release of British officers and soldiers held by the Nationalists.

Geo Furst

Born in Nuremberg in 1888, Furst was in Malta as secretary to Baron Max von Tucker, the German consul who built Villa Luginsland on the Buskett Road. The Baron had married Victoria Maempel, the previous consul’s daughter, while the architect of Villa Luginsland was Francesco Zammit whose descendants are the Zammit Maempels. The German consul left Malta before the outbreak of hostilities as diplomats had the facility of leaving to avoid being interned.

Furst married another architect’s daughter, Helen Debono, but this did not prevent him from being interned at Verdala during World War One and repatriated in World War Two. Furst produced several books about Malta that are illustrated by his wonderful photographs.

Rudolf Hess in Malta?

War Rudolf Hess was Hitler’s deputy during the Second World. He is famous for his flight to Scotland on 10 May 1941 where he parachuted down to negotiate peace with Britain. He was tried at Nuremberg after the Second World War, found guilty and imprisoned in the Allied Military Prison in Berlin – Spandau – until his death in 1987 aged 93.

The claims that Rudolf Hess was interned in Malta are extremely debatable and questionable because according to the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), Rudolf Hess’ son, Wolf Rudiger Hess, in a videotape presentation at the Eleventh IHR Conference of 1992, gives the front line combat service of his father. Nowhere in the presentation is it mentioned that Rudolf Hess was ever a prisoner of war, let alone in Malta, during the period covered by the documentation and sources provided by Malta at War.

“…The start of the First World War in 1914 found the family at its holiday home in Bavaria. Rudolf Hess, then 20 years old, did not hesitate a moment to volunteer with the Bavarian Field Artillery. A short time later, he was transferred to the infantry, and by 4 November 1914, he was serving as a poorly trained recruit at the front, where he took part in the trench warfare of the first battle of the Somme.

“Along with most young Germans of that time, Rudolf Hess went to the front as a fervent patriot, acutely conscious of Germany’s cause, which he regarded as entirely just, and determined to defeat the British-French arch enemy. After six months of front-line service, my father was promoted to lance corporal. To his men he was an exemplary comrade, always the first to volunteer for raids and reconnaissance patrols. In bloody battles among the barbed wire trenches and shell craters, he distinguished himself by his cheerful composure, courage and bravery.

“By 1917, he had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. But he also paid the price of this ‘career’ advancement. He was gravely wounded in 1916, and again in 1917 when a rifle bullet pierced his left lung.

“Scarred by the hardships and wounds of front line duty, on 12 December 1918 – that is, after Compiegne – Rudolf Hess was ‘discharged from active military service to Reicholdsgrun without maintenance’, as the official army record rather badly puts it. This is, without pay, pension or disability allowance.

“Already during the war, the family had lost its considerable holdings in Egypt as a result of the British expropriation.”

Internees’ mail and newsletters

Internees kept contact with family and friends by means of letters and cards that were censored by the British military authorities.

Some internees’ mail:

• 1915 (21 June) Postcard from Niederdorf to Verdala Barracks, Cospicua, Malta, addressed to Hans Gungenhauser, prisoner of war at this camp. The postcard shows the Niederdorf postmark flanked with the “POST FREE PRISONERS OF WAR”.

• 1916 (February) Cover sent by G. Hurzar prisoner of war at Verdala Barracks to an addressee in Zurich. The cover was sent “free from the Prisoner of war” camp.

• 1916 (30 July) Postcard sent free by Prisoner of War Wilhelm Rustemeyer from Verdala Barracks to Germany.

Internees and POWs also had their own newsletter distributed, especially the German-speaking ones. These were presented in such a way as to give a humorous touch to raise the spirits of the men in captivity.

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