Episode 11: German prisoners of war in Northern Ireland

In the later years of the Second World War, Northern Ireland housed thousands of German prisoners of war. Who were they and what was life like for a P.O.W?

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'A Wee Bit Of War' by Scott Edgar

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  • Military History
  • Social History
  • Irish History

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  1. German prisoners of war in Northern Ireland

German prisoners of war in Northern Ireland

Towards the end of the Second World War, German soldiers, seamen, and airmen landed in Northern Ireland. Safely held as prisoners of war in Allied hands, these men - and a few women - spent time in camps across Ulster. Initially, a fraternisation ban kept prisoners well away from locals but some friendships formed. In more recent years, locals spoke fondly of the Germans and their time in Northern Ireland. In this episode, you'll hear of tragic accidents, Nazi ceremonies, and even the odd daring escape.

Transcription

Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode, I’m going solo to begin a journey into a piece of research that has always fascinated me. We’ve covered Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and even the Belgian Army but there was another nationality with several thousand troops in Ulster in 1945, the Germans.

In the early stages of the Second World War, the threat of a Nazi invasion seemed all too plausible to many who lived in Northern Ireland. There were fears that German forces could land in neutral Éire and cross the border. These fears were not wholly unfounded. German authorities had begun to draw up Operation Green, a planned invasion of Ireland, or at least a credible feint to do so. In 1941, the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast but no invasion came. It would be late 1944 before German boots walked on Northern Irish soil in any great number. And those Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe men were safely held in Allied hands as prisoners of war.

Scott 01:21
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, British, American, and Canadian troops captured thousands of members of the German armed forces. Around 13,000 of them ended up in Northern Ireland, held at camps in Belfast, Holywood, Gilford, Portadown, and Cookstown to name but a few. After the war, locals spoke fondly of the uniform-clad Germans with their armbands to denote political allegiance and status.

Locals and prisoners got along well for the most part. There are many stories of friendships formed, and the exchange of goods and gifts between the two groups. While there are some stories of daring escape attempts, it is the craftsmanship and hard work of the Germans that is mostly remembered by the people of Ulster.

Scott 02:01
Northern Ireland was, and to some extent still is, an agricultural country. Towards the end of the Second World War, there was a noted boom in farming harvests, and an equally noted lack of manpower to deal with it. On 28th July 1945, the Mid-Ulster Mail reported:

The Daily Mail says that Northern Ireland farmers with hay and flax crops due to be harvested are faced with an acute labour shortage and representations are being made to the Northern Ireland Government for the allocation of labour from German prisoner of war camps in Ulster.

The government in Northern Ireland had encouraged farmers to grow hayseed. Along with locally grown flax, both were important crops although hugely time-consuming to harvest. By 1945, however, rules restricting prisoners of war to camps full-time had been lifted. Across Ulster, many detainees found themselves helping with the harvest, and repairing roads and buildings. By Christmas of the following year, the fraternisation ban had also gone and German men young and old, once seen as the enemy, were invited into homes and businesses across Northern Ireland. Some evidence of the Germans’ time here still remains. If you’ve ever teed off at the 3rd at Portadown Golf Club, you’ve walked on ground landscaped by the hard work of POWs.

Scott 03:13
It’s in my old hometown of Portadown that we start our German prisoner of war story. Ten years ago when I first began researching the Second World War in Northern Ireland, I heard several mentions of a Prisoner of War Camp at Brownstown on the outskirts of the Co. Armagh town.

Local anecdotes certainly suggest the presence of many German prisoners of war in the area. The land between Fitzroy Street and Brownstown Road was extensively redeveloped in the 1960s. Any trace of military or wartime activity has long gone. Older locals, however, remember Germans working at workshops on the camp, guarded either by Welsh soldiers or bluecaps from the Corps of Military Police.

Scott 03:50
On 10th June 2014, Noel Carville wrote in the Portadown Times newspaper about a P.O.W. camp at Killicomaine Castle in Portadown. Locals will know this as Irwin’s Castle, named after the family who still reside there. The camp ran from Collen’s Row to Killicomaine Road along what was then Collen’s Lane. If you’re looking at a map today, Collen’s Lane has been renamed Princess Way since the development of the Killicomaine housing estate in 1954. The ground occupied by the camp would be beneath the houses of Abercorn Park.

While neither of these sites may have been full-time prisoner of war camps, one site in Portadown was certainly earmarked for use. Carrickblacker House once stood on the main road from Portadown to Gilford. In the early years of the war, British soldiers occupied a camp in Nissen huts. In 1945, after a full refurbishment, the Carrickblacker site became a designated P.O.W. camp.

However, not a single prisoner of war was ever held there and on 8th January 1947, the site and its contents were sold off. The inventory contained everything from huts, to ablutions benches, to wire fencing, and fixtures and fittings.

Scott 04:56
While the Carrickblacker House site was never used as a prisoner of war camp, many prisoners worked the land there. One of their labours, as we mentioned, was the back 3rd tee on the Portadown Golf Club which now occupies the site. The club demolished the grand Carrickblacker House in 1988.

So let’s talk actual camps. The site we just mentioned at Carrickblacker was in close proximity to the rural Co. Down village of Gilford. Further out the road, stood the mid-19th century Elmfield Castle. Built by local linen magnates, the Dicksons, this was a lavish estate and locals will tell you the P.O.W. camp stood on what were once the polo fields at Dickson’s Hill.

By January 1945, a well-established camp at Elmfield was home to members of the Royal Corps of Signals under the command of Colonel Norrish and Adjutant Captain Chitterbuck. Soon, German prisoners began to arrive and under the watchful guard of the signallers, their number grew to around 1,800.

At first, locals both feared and hated the tall, fair-haired men marching through Gilford having unloaded from British Army trucks. Yellow diamond patches sewed on the back of their uniforms denoted their prisoner of war status. Locals would hear them sing as they worked and exercised at the camp. Soon, local farmers would make use of this strong workforce. Some locals would even pass a loose Woodbine or two through the fence to the prisoners.

Scott 06:14
In Gilford, one task given to the German prisoners was the construction of a shooting range in the ground of Woodbank House, a stately home owned by the Sinton family. A pair of septic tanks on the family’s land is said to be the only remnants of the camp.

By the end of the Second World War, prisoners worked and socialised in neighbouring towns and villages under a light escort. On 26th May 1945, a tragic incident took place on a country road between Gilford and Portadown. A transport lorry caring German prisoners of war skidded around a bend and overturned causing the death of a prisoner returning to the Elmfield Camp.

Obergefreiter Wilhelm Jungclaus served in the Kriegsmarine. He was born in Germany on 28th June 1903. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Jungclaus was married and worked as a farmer. In the course of the conflict, he became a prisoner of war, given the number A81180.

Private Alec Twyman of the Royal Army Service Corps was the driver of the lorry that overturned at Knock Road, Portadown. Jungclaus, the 42-year-old German became trapped beneath the lorry along with other prisoners. Local residents and workers rushed to help the injured parties, comforting them until medical help arrived. Jungclaus had sustained serious head injuries, a broken right collarbone, and fractured ribs.

Scott 07:34
An inquest into the death took place on Monday 28th May 1945 overseen by Captain W.A. Coote. A Hungarian Staff Sergeant acted as an interpreter although witness Günther Dieckmann spoke good English. Private P.H. Crowther was in another lorry further ahead in the convoy. He gave evidence that the overturned vehicle was traveling “quite normally”. Lance Corporal S. Gentry corroborated the evidence, estimating the speed of the lorry to be around 25mph before the incident. Head Constable McCutcheon of Armagh P.S.V. Department suggested the occupants of the lorry may have swayed as the vehicle took the bend, causing it to overturn. Coroner Dr. George Dougan M.P. returned a verdict of accidental death.

Corporal Wilhelm Jungclaus’ is buried in Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery, Staffordshire. He was first buried on 30th May 1945 in the Glenalina Extension of Belfast City Cemetery. He was repatriated on 16th July 1962. His grave now is next to Rudolf Blume and August Kreinbring of the German Wehrmacht who died following a road traffic collision near Markethill, Co. Armagh the previous day.

Following the end of the war, the numbers of Germans around Gilford dwindled. When the last of the Germans departed, they presented a gold thurible to Canon Doran of St. Patrick and St. Coleman’s Church in Banbridge. He had regularly said mass for the Catholic prisoners during their time at Elmfield. The camp remained until 1948 at which time authorities sold off the site and contents. The Bord na Mona turf company purchased many of the Nissen huts. Local farmers made use of the rest. Reports suggest that one hut contained a crudely drawn map showing possible escape plans and details of Irish ports. Was an escape a viable option for the captured Germans? Events would seem to suggest no.

Scott 09:21
On 20th January 1945, the Portadown News reported on the escape of 4 German Prisoners of War from the Elmfield Camp at Gilford. The 2 members of the Wehrmacht, a Fallschirmjäger, and a Luftwaffe airman staged their breakout only 48 hours after arriving at the camp.

The bid for escape took place on Sunday 14th January 1945. The 4 prisoners, aged between 20 and 25 years old, used a contractor’s plank to lift the bottom strand of a barbed-wire fence. They then crawled beneath it to short-lived freedom.

Authorities noticed their absence at the 0900hrs roll call and an intensive manhunt began. Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Special Constabulary, and the Military Police began the search.

By that evening, Luftwaffe airman Martin Wolff, and Wehrmacht soldier Heinrich Westermann were under guard of members of the R.U.C. at Tandragee. Michael Callan, a farmer and retired member of the Royal Irish Constabulary from Cordrain near Tandragee, spoke to the Portadown News:

Scott 10:17
Mr. Callan said about seven p.m. on Sunday, the two prisoners entered his home, and speaking in broken English, gave away their identity. Mr. Callan made them tea, and as they were partaking of the meal at the kitchen table, he observed one of the men, whom he described as “innocent-looking lads”, studying a small map.

Mr. Callan quietly locked all the doors and windows, and slipping out unobserved, contacted a neighbour, who in turn informed the Tandragee police. Mr. Callan returned to the house and engaged the Germans in conversation until the arrival of the R.U.C. One of the prisoners told Mr. Callan that he had an uncle residing in Dublin.

Meanwhile, the search was continuing for Horst Zimmerman and Ferdinand Kankowski.

Scott 10:54
Early on Monday 15th January 1945, Michael Mackle, a railway signalman at Poyntzpass, Co. Armagh heard heavy footsteps on the road. On looking out of his cabin, he saw the two escaped Prisoners of War approaching the level crossing. Mackle shouted, and the prisoners turned, running back towards Co. Down.

About a mile from Poyntzpass, farmer James Boyd found a well-made straw bed in his barn and supposed the Prisoners of War to have spent the night there. Zimmerman and Kankowski’s bid for freedom came to an end with their recapture on Tuesday 16th January 1945.

Let’s return briefly, however, to the burial of Wilhelm Jungclaus. His grave lies next to two fellow prisoners of war, also killed in tragic circumstances in Northern Ireland.

Gefreiter Rudolf Blume served in the German Wehrmacht. He was born in Roßlau, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany on 4th December 1910. In 1945, he came to the village of Markethill in Co. Armagh as prisoner of war number B4534 and found himself detained in Camp 10 at Gosford Castle. On 25th May 1945, Blume was part of a prisoner transport involved in a road traffic collision on the outskirts of Markethill.

Scott 12:03
A German Officer named Schuller attended the inquest into the incident. He told authorities of his disgust at learning about the Nazi concentration camps. He went on to thank the people of Northern Ireland for their hospitable treatment of German prisoners. In particular, he thanked those who had tried to help save the lives of Blume and August Kreinbring.

Stabsgefreiter Kreinbring was also a soldier of the Wehrmacht. He was born in Bulzenow in Germany on 17th November 1915. By 1945, he was prisoner of war B4246 at the Gosford Castle Camp.

Gosford Castle stands near the village of Markethill, Co. Armagh. In modern times, the property has fallen into disrepair and changed hands many times. The Norman-style frontage of the grand country house also featured as a setting for the hit H.B.O drama ‘Game of Thrones’.

Built in the 19th-century for the 2nd Earl of Gosford, the house design is ‘Norman Revival’. The designer was London-based architect Thomas Hopper. Today, the building remains one of Ulster’s largest Grade A listed buildings. The Earls of Gosford continued to occupy Gosford castle until the death of the 4th Earl of Gosford in 1922.

Scott 13:10
During the Second World War, authorities commandeered the large house and grounds for use by British and American troops. The grounds also saw use as a German Prisoner of War Camp towards the end of the war.

Little remains of Prisoner of War Camp No. 10 on the grounds of Gosford Castle. In the public car park stands a small stone tower constructed by prisoners. A plaque tells more of the story:

This tower was built by German Prisoners of War who were confined here at Gosford from 1942 to 1945. It was originally built as a model windmill but was never finished.

Scott 13:39
On 27th November 1946 and 28th November 1946, an auction took place at Gosford Castle. For sale was the contents of the former military site and Prisoner of War Camp.

Blume, Kreinbring, and indeed Jungclaus would not get the chance to return home following the Second World War. As a result of injuries sustained in road traffic incidents, all three died at a military hospital on the site of Campbell College in East Belfast.

The school served as a military hospital from 1940 – 1945. By the end of the war, the staff was used to treating German prisoners. Only four years earlier, in May 1941, Luftwaffe bombs had rained down on the East Belfast site causing a number of military deaths of members of the Pioneer Corps encamped there.

Among other deaths of German prisoners of War at the Campbell College hospital was Unteroffizier Gerhard Geier. He served in the Luftwaffe in a role similar to a Corporal in the British military.

Geier, with P.O.W. number B19042 died on 25th March 1945 aged 27 years old. He had received treatment at the East Belfast military hospital for a fractured skull.

As well as injury, other Germans received treatment in Northern Ireland for illness. Alfred Rinn had served in an infantry regiment in the Wehrmacht. Born in Gießen in central Germany on 3rd July 1900, he was the son of August Ludwig Rinn and Elise Franziska Rinn. As a prisoner of war in Northern Ireland, he was given the number B71040. Rinn died aged 44 years old on 5th February 1945 as a result of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Gefreiter Wilhelm Thoene was born on 22nd June 1903 and during the Second World War, he served in the Wehrmacht. Awarded the German Gold Cross for bravery in 1942, he would in Northern Ireland, become P.O.W. B24399. Thoene died on 7th March 1945 aged 42 years old.

Scott 15:33
One of the more interesting cases from Campbell College Military Hospital is that of Herbert Lisser. Lisser was an Obergefreiter in the Luftwaffe. Born in Bremen the 21-year-old German became Prisoner of War number A58170.

Official records from the then No. 24 British General Hospital, Campbell College, Belfast suggest he died as a result of cardiac arrest aged 21 years old on 22nd March 1945.

The following short write-up appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on Saturday 24th March 1945. Although Lisser is not named in the article, the dates and places are consistent with his death and burial.

Scott 16:08
The Nazi salute was given by more than 100 German soldiers and airmen who stood on the steps of a hospital at a Northern Ireland prisoner of war camp today, and watched the funeral of one of their comrades, an army corporal who was fatally wounded when attempting to escape from a camp.

The coffin, draped with a Swastika flag was carried by six members of the Luftwaffe. Included in the small party who walked behind the coffin were two German nursing sisters who, with a number of others, were taken prisoner in a Brussels hospital. At Belfast City Cemetery, where the interment took place, a brief service was conducted by a German chaplain.

The funeral arrangements were carried out by Wiltons of the Crumlin Road, Belfast.

Scott 16:47
This story has always piqued my interest for several reasons. Firstly, the potential inconsistency in the records, although I suppose a fatal gunshot wound sustained in an escape bid is something of a precursor to a cardiac arrest. Secondly, the vivid imagery of the Nazi salute being given in East Belfast as a swastika-draped coffin makes its way from the hospital conjures up all sorts of feelings. Third, and finally, this is the only report I have found to date that suggests that there were also German women held in Northern Ireland.

Campbell College and its surrounds were not the only places to find German prisoners of war in East Belfast. Records suggest that a small camp also existed in Orangefield Park, where a military hospital also operated.

On 29th May 1945, 53-year-old Obermaat Rudolph Schwartz, prisoner number A939273, of the Kriegsmarine died at Orangefield. Another casualty at the Orangefield hospital was Obergefreiter Friedrich Selbach. Born in Bonn in eastern Germany, he died on 26th July 1945 aged 38 years old. He was part of a prisoner transport involved in a road traffic collision in Larne the previous day.

Scott 17:56
An inquest was held and fellow prisoner Edward Jouck gave evidence in English. Jouck was on the same transport as Selbach, leaving from Larne Railway Station to work at a coal dump along with 13 others and 1 escort from the British Army.

While travelling at approximately 25mph, the lorry struck the kerb at the side of the narrow street. The jolt saw Friedrich Selbach crushed between a telegraph pole and the iron support of the lorry’s hood.

Scott 18:17
The escort was Gunner W. Thompson of the Royal Artillery. His evidence corroborated that of Edward Jouck. Belfast City Coroner, Dr. H.P. Lowe returned an open verdict after considering the evidence. The Larne Times and The Ballymena Weekly Telegraph carried the story on 9th August 1945.

Closer to Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast, the Taughmonagh Prisoner of War Camp stood on an area of vacant land near the 3rd fairway of Balmoral Golf Club. Throughout the Second World War, celebrities including boxing heavyweight Joe Louis and fighter pilot Douglas Bader enjoyed a round of golf on the Balmoral course. Meanwhile, across the barbed wire, German military men awaited their fate as the war in Europe drew to an end. Enterprising locals would bring cigarettes to the prisoners in return for golf balls that found their way into the camp.

On Friday 3rd January 1947, the Belfast Newsletter carried details of a letter received by Reverend A. Martin. It came from the Commanding Officer of the prisoner of war camp. The commander expressed thanks to the church and congregation in Finaghy, Co. Antrim for: The very kind interest taken in their welfare over Christmas.

Members of the church had sent gifts and decorations for the camp Christmas tree to the detained Germans. One local woman who sent a gift was the mother of a young man who had spent 5 years in a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

Scott 19:31
On the other side of Belfast, prisoners of war could also be found in and around Holywood, Co. Down where Germans were noted at Palace Barracks, Kinnegar Barracks, and on the coast at Rockport. Again, the deaths of some prisoners of war took place at these camps, including that of Oberkanonier Wilhelm Dalbeck at Palace Barracks on 23rd July 1945.

On 7th February 1945, the Belfast Newsletter reported on an escape attempt from Kinnegar Prisoner of War Camp in Holywood.

A total of 9 German prisoners of war escaped from the complex on Saturday 3rd February 1945. Members of the Ulster Special Constabulary and Royal Ulster Constabulary captured 5 of them near Comber, Co. Down. The remaining 4 escapees did not make it far from the Kinnegar camp. This was not the first such escape attempt.

On 19th January 1945, three German Prisoners of war staged an escape from the Kinnegar camp. By the end of the following day, however, all were returned to captivity.

The tale of the recapture of a pair of German prisoners is well-known among the Gracey family who kindly sent us their story. William John Thompson “Jack” Gracey served in the Ulster Special Constabulary during the Second World War. He lived in the townland of Ballyrush – a quiet, rural spot. On 20th January 1945, Jack apprehended a pair of young men on Ballygowan Road, only a few hundred yards from the home where he had spent his entire life.

Constable Gracey was unarmed and returning home from duty. He observed the men from a distance before concealing himself by the side of the road. The two young men were German airmen, both aged around 20 years old. Having captured the pair, Jack brought them up the road to the family home where his mother Eliza Jane Gracey waited.

Scott 21:09
Betty remembered one of the escapees having an open wound on his hand, perhaps an injury sustained during the escape. He walked over to the fireplace and held his hand over the open flames to cauterise the wound. Having been on the run, the Germans were hungry and soon Eliza Jane began making them an Ulster Fry. Meanwhile, Jack took his bicycle and made off towards nearby Ballygowan.

In Ballygowan, he sought out Joe Gibson. Joe was the Sub-District Commandant of the Ulster Special Constabulary. As well as holding that position, he also owned the only telephone in the area. Jack and Joe alerted the authorities to the whereabouts of the German escapees.

Scott 21:44
From the comfort of the Gracey household, Jack brought the prisoners to the Post Office in Ballygowan, where Gibson also held the position of Postmaster. There, they awaited the authorities. Soon, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and military from Saintfield arrived to return the Germans to custody. There was no resistance from the re-captured Germans, one of whom spoke good English.

A third member of the escapee party was also returned to the Prisoner of War Camp. An employee of Mr. J.L.O. Andrews – son of former Prime Minister John Miller Andrews – of Ballywilliam House, Comber, Co. Down had found him asleep in a pile of hay in a cattle byre.

The employee had entered the byre at around 0800hrs, causing the young German to sit upright and say ‘Good Morning’ in English. The farm hand notified the local police, while another made a cup of tea for the shivering prisoner who made no attempt to escape. Constables McKee and Stevenson returned the young German to Kinnegar.

The Gracey family always remembered the two young German airmen. After the Second World War, Jack named a pair of family dogs after the two airmen.

Scott 22:43
It wasn’t only a tale of death and foiled escape attempts for German prisoners of war in Northern Ireland. Those in the Rockport camp seemed to enjoy at least some of their time in Ulster.

A list of Prisoner of War Camps published by Historic England lists Camp 173, a Base Camp at “Rockport, Belfast” and Camp 681, a German Working Company at “Rockport”. Over time, the exact whereabouts of the camp has become something of a mystery.

Concrete bases of Nissen Huts remain standing in woodland near the sewage treatment works at the coast. Many other holding areas for Prisoners of War in Northern Ireland were close to railway halts. This Co. Down site would have been a short march from Seahill Railway Station. Contemporary newspaper reports suggest the camp was on the other side of the village to where the hut bases stand.

In April 1946, trucks brought Germans from the Rockport Prisoner of War Camp to the site of a gun emplacement at Lisnabreeny in the Castlereagh Hills overlooking Belfast. They worked at dismantling the site with pickaxes, shovels, and drills. From early morning to 1200hrs, they worked before breaking for a meal in the nearby military huts. After lunch, they continued working until the Army trucks picked them up later in the evening to return to the Rockport camp.

During the evenings, the Prisoners of War at Rockport played football, chess, and other amusements to pass the time. The following comes from the Belfast Telegraph on Monday 29th April 1946.

Football is the favourite pastime of the Rockport Camp. Most of the prisoners are newcomers to the game but it is extraordinary how quickly they have mastered it. There is one youngster who is considered to be the equal of Davy Cochrane, and another who has the technique of a Joe Bambrick. Some of them, it is said, can almost make the ball talk.

Scott 24:21
We have only begun to step into the world of German prisoners of war in Northern Ireland in this episode. This is just the very beginning of a story, inspiring us to look in much greater depth at this topic. And, that’s before we even think about the Italian P.O.Ws, and the internment of foreign nationals who already lived in Northern Ireland at the outbreak of war. Ending with that story of prisoners enjoying a game of football has also reminded us that there’s an apocryphal tale of Manchester City and German international goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, known for his F.A. Cup Final heroics in 1956. Locals will tell you that he graced the sportsfield at the Elmfield Camp during his time as a prisoner of war but perhaps that is a story for another day.

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