Elmfield prisoner of war camp stood in the grounds of Elmfield Castle on the outskirts of Gilford, Co. Down. The house dated back to the mid 1800s and featured a lake, a rockery, a cultivated walled garden and an area known as The Glen.
Scottish architect William Spence designed the grand stately home for linen magnate James Dickson. The Dicksons were instrumental in establishing a thriving linen trade in the Gilford area. Indeed, locals say the location for the prisoner of war camp was in the polo fields at Dickson’s Hill.
From January 1945, many captured German troops came to the Co. Down camp. The camp extended between the main roads to both Portadown, Co. Armagh and Lurgan, Co. Armagh, with both routes running through the compound.
Local boxing and hunting legend Master Albert Uprichard and family owned both the Elmfield and Bannvale estates. Camp Commander Colonel Norrish and Adjutant Captain Charles Chitterbuck knew the family well.
The Elmfield prisoner of war camp held around 1,800 men. Guards kept lookout from several posts around the perimeter and mainly came from the Royal Corps of Signals. Other British Army regiments helped with guard duties, exercise duties, and prisoner transportation. The Royal Corps of Signals had a base at Elmfield before the prisoners arrived.
The Germans in Gilford
On their arrival, locals feared and reviled the German prisoners. The observed rows of tall, blonde haired men marching through the town or large batches of prisoners in British Army trucks. A yellow diamond patch on the back of their khaki uniforms denoted their prisoner of war status.
The prisoners would often exercise in the prison yard and locals heard them sing as they worked. Some of the younger men had stronger Nazi views than the older prisoners. There were few high-profile fanatical Nazis in Northern Ireland due to its proximity to neutral Eire. Local farmers made great use of the prisoners as they worked the land. Prisoners helped cut down plantations, trim hedges, and gather in potato harvests. Occasionally locals wood offer the prisoners loose Woodbines as they felt sorry for some the captured young men.
Another task given to the prisoners was to prepare the shooting range at the old quarry in the grounds of Woodbank House, Gilford, Co. Down. The stately home belonged to the Sinton family and the children there would talk to the prisoners as they set up sandbags on the target range.
The Not-So-Great Escape
In 1945, 4 prisoners managed to escape from the Elmfield prisoner of war camp. Having only arrived 48 hours earlier, the escape was an embarrassment for authorities. Soldiers, local police, and even schoolchildren aided in the search. Luftwaffe airman Martin Wolff and soldier Heinrich Westermann sought refuge in the home of Michael Callan at Cordrain, Tandragee, Co. Armagh. He alerted the police after noticing the men studying a map. A further 2 days later, the police and army captured Horst Zimmermann and Ferdinand Kanowski. The two had made it to Poyntzpass along the railway lines and were bound for the Irish border. With all prisoners returned to Elmfield, the guards tightened security.
With heightened security, few civilians visited the camp. Those who did required documentation signed by the Camp Commander for authorisation. Sentries checked documents of everyone arriving at Elmfield. Two soldiers escorted visitors to the camp at all times. One regular visitor to Elmfield was the mother of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. She worked with the Red Cross during World War Two and worshipped regularly at a church in Gilford.
The War's End
In early 1945, the transport of prisoners was carried out under armed guard. As the war drew to an end, security relaxed and by VE Day in May 1945, prisoners were allowed into neighbouring towns under a light escort. Relations between the locals and prisoners were good. Often the prisoners would carve toys for local children from pieces of wood in appreciation of the kindness of the Gilford people.
After the war ended, prisoners could gradually returned home. Numbers of Germans in Gilford, Co. Down declined but the camp remained until 1948. Authorities sold off the Nissen huts at auction. The Bord na Mona turf company bought many of them but others remained on local farms. Reports suggest that one hut contained a map showing escape plans and details of Irish ports.
As the last of the Germans vacated the camp, they presented a gold thurible to Canon Doran of St. Patrick and St. Coleman’s Church, Lawrencetown, Banbridge, Co. Down. He had often said Mass at Elmfield for the Catholic prisoners.
The owners of Woodbank House say two large septic tanks on their land are all that remain of the old Elmfield prisoner of war camp.