POWS AND CIGARETTES

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Cigarettes were an important part of the POW camp economy. In the 1940s the link had not yet been made between smoking and lung cancer and it was very unusual for soldiers not to smoke. My father didn’t but that didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in being sent cigarettes because cigarettes were a form of currency.

The aim of the Red Cross was to send each man 50 cigarettes every week. From 1941 to the end of March 1945 the Red Cross sent 6 million ounces of tobacco and almost 1.5 billion cigarettes to Italy and Germany.

As well as these, families and friends could also send cigarettes to POWs using tobacco companies which held special permits. The favourites were Woodbine, Players and Craven A.

Most things could be bought with cigarettes and a sophisticated Exchange and Mart system developed and as the war went on only cigarettes and food held their value. In gambling cigarettes were used as chips. Even the packets were used. They could be turned into packs of cards which were popular because they were easily portable.

If there was no tobacco, dried leaves, coffee grounds, grass and even manure was smoked and the leaves of a Bible or Pears Encyclopaedia were used because they were particularly thin. The aim was to produce something that gave the pretence of a cigarette.

Towards the end of the war when deliveries became more sporadic the value of cigarettes rose. A watch was worth 30 cigarettes, a gold ring 20 cigarettes and a safety razor 1 cigarette.

My father never did smoke cigarettes but he did take pleasure in the odd cigar. There was a phase when an ex-student of his used to supply him with Montecristo Cuban cigars, which he enjoyed very much despite being on the other end of the political spectrum to the Castro regime. The cigars came in wooden boxes which, when empty, were handed over to his children. I loved the smell  and the colourful labels  and used them as  pencil boxes or as a store for marbles.

LETTERS HOME: POWS – SECOND WORLD WAR

I’m publishing my book FAR AWAY this year, a novel based on my father’s memoirs of being a POW in Italy and then escaping,  so this post is about POW letter writing in general and his letters in particular. As far as I can tell from the numbers of letters and postcards I have, officers were allowed to write four letters and four postcards a month. There was a magazine called The Prisoner of War, produced by The Red Cross  for the next-of-kin of POWs and in this suggestions were made as to what one should and shouldn’t write about. The concern was naturally for the men’s morale. The resulting lists are rather quaint to today’s eyes and the not list seems altogether more interesting than the first one:

WHAT TO TELL HIM

  • film you saw
  • book you read
  • sermons you heard
  • flowers you grow
  • skirt you made
  • money you saved
  • words baby learnt

WHAT NOT TO TELL HIM

  • dinner you ate
  • cold you caught
  • bomb you dodged
  • fright you had
  • pound you lost
  • vase you broke
  • ration book loss

Letters that were sent to POWs which contained thoughtless comments were known as ‘mail bag splitters.’ Here are a few examples quoted by Midge Gillies in her fascinating book The Barbed-Wire University (Aurum Press).

Darling I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.

From a complaining wife: Here I am working myself to death and you are leading a life of luxury.

Do you get out to do much shooting?

From a wife:You have just bought me a silver fox fur – aren’t you glad?

Written in September 1940:Keep your chin up – it won’t be long now. 

Can you buy beer over there or do they only sell wine?

I am having an affair with a Canadian airman and he is having cigarettes and parcels sent you from Canada

Letters were censored and if you ignored that then your relative was likely to receive a letter that looked something like this:

Dear Buddy






Love Nana

This was exactly what happened to Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame when his gran sent him a letter. He didn’t seem to mind, suggesting that the hilarity it produced was much better for morale than the crossed out contents could ever have been.

Some people used code words or expressions that might slip under the censor’s pen. Uncle Joe for example was code for Stalin and therefore a reference to what was going on in Russia. Bill Murray, who was captured in North Africa, used a coded message relying on a sequence of letters to his mother informing her that his boots had been taken and they had no suitable footwear for the bitterly cold Italian winter. She went to the Glaswegian branch of the Red Cross and they arranged for 2000 boots to be delivered to the Italian POW camp where her son was being held.

In a letter to his sister Jill on 6/7/43 my father wrote:

‘I shall be writing my next letter home in French as they say letters written in a foreign language get home quicker. It will be good practice for you to correct the grammar!’ 

In fact he wrote one letter in French and an almost identical one in Italian. Here’s the French one.

My dear Mother

Imagine how happy I felt to receive four letters from Brundall (the village in Norfolk where he was born). However I feel very sad at the news of Colin Pitman’s death. Many of my best friends have died since the beginning of the war – Bill Garnet, Christopher Cadogan and now Colin. It’s very sad. I can’t help but wonder what life will be like after the war and I can come to no real conclusion other than to think it will be very different to the life we have at the moment. I am quite well. The censor prevents me from giving you all the details you ask for or from speaking of the war. I pass the time reading and taking a bit of exercise. I recently read a biography of Catherine of Aragon which I found very interesting. It is written by an American and consequently the style is rather barbaric! I must finish now. Tell Jill as far as I’m concerned she shouldn’t worry too much about exams! My love to Jill and Daddy

Love Bobby

It’s interesting that this is one of the few letters in which he expresses his feelings. Maybe writing in another language gave him permission to do that. I remember once when I was quite young saying to my mother wasn’t it lucky that neither she nor my father had anyone close to them killed in the war. She came out with some rather vague response. How naive I was. Of course they had losses but like many of their generation they simply chose never to talk about them.

 

A VERY IMPORTANT POSTCARD

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This Red Cross postcard falling through their letterbox was the moment when my grandparents knew for certain that my father was alive. He had been taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942. Unfortunately the postcard is not dated but I have two letters from the War Office. One dated the 17th July stating that my father was missing-in-action and then one on the 7th September stating he was a prisoner of war. So it was at least two months before they knew he was definitely alive.

This is what it says:

My dear Mummy,
I am alright (I have not been wounded). I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well.
Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address.
Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply
With love from Bobby

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What a relief it must have been for them to receive this. It’s not surprising that they could never bring themselves to throw this postcard away. Nor could my mother when she was clearing out the house after my grandparents died. These kinds of documents come down through the generations for a reason.

I can’t help but find it incredibly touching and I love the Italian version of ‘with love’ – SALUTI AFFETTUOSI.

Their son was alive!