Opening Norfolk homes to a wartime enemy

A hut from part of the former German PoW camp near Matlaske. Picture: Henry Fuhrmann

A hut from part of the former German PoW camp near Matlaske. Picture: Henry Fuhrmann - Credit: Archant

Shortly before they had been our sworn enemies. But Norfolk people opened up their homes and their hearts for German and Italian prisoners of war for Christmas, as Henry Fuhrmann explains.

'I accept with pleasure your kind invitation for Christmas day.' These were the words of PoW Hans Dittrich written to a Mrs K Stalham on December 20 1947 on a letter now held in Norfolk Record Office.

It seems strange that a wartime enemy would be invited over to Christmas so soon after the war – but this was the case across Norfolk. Hans was held at the Mousehold Heath PoW camp after the war, in a similar manner to more than 400,000 Germans and Italians across the country.

Few realise just how significant these people were in Britain, particularly agricultural areas such as Norfolk, where they were largely used as labourers.

After the Second World War, many individuals found themselves in PoW camps across Europe. Makeshift huts were constructed to house these individuals in various places across the county, in North Lynn Farm, Diss, and Marham to name but a few.

These places were often airfields used during the war, which were usefully converted into temporary PoW camps, such as at Weston Longville.

Some of these camps were rather crowded, some of these camps were rather crowded, although camp size could vary anywhere from under 100 prisoners to more than 1,000 – in December 1946, just 16 months after the war had finished, there were 336 individuals detained in Matlaske alone.

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In Norfolk, the sight of German prisoners working the land would have been a common one, as they proved vital to aiding the recovery of the crippled British economy following the war.

There were plenty of opportunities to work, as the war-torn British economy needed rebuilding.

Mines needed to be cleared from beaches, food needed to be grown, and the general workforce, which had been depleted by more than six years of war, needed to be replaced.

For example, the winter was cold and bitter in 1947, and many country roads throughout Norfolk were blocked with snow. Clearing it was a task which was vital to complete, and many German PoWs were called out to deal with it.

Prisoners would not always be told to work where they based; they would often be carted around from camp to camp, working many miles away from where they where their original camp was.

Social activity was also common for PoWs – local teams would play football against local PoW teams, and PoWs would play football amongst other local camps.

Such sporting activity was evident across the country, as shown by the famous Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who himself was originally a PoW captured by the British.

There was opportunity to watch films of the time, such as Gone with the Wind, and they could even join choirs, of which Matlaske had its own who would tour Norfolk churches performing for the local community.

Despite this, strict fraternisation policies were in effect to prevent any members of the public interacting with the prisoners.

But few would have abided by these harsh rules, as the prisoners were young, interesting and provided something different to the otherwise restricted lifestyle one had in a rural Norfolk village.

As time went on, these policies were relaxed and many prisoners maintained close friendships with the local communities they were based in, with some going on to marry and even live there – one figure reports that as many as 796 women went on to marry German PoWs across the country.

According to the Salthouse Local History website, the press and the radio reported that PoWs should be invited into British homes for Christmas - and many did just that.

There was very little anger from the locals towards prisoners, and by 1948, the majority of them had been repatriated to their homes.

PoW camps were common across Norfolk, popping up in areas where work was needed most – as a result, many communities encountered the prisoners, both Italian and German, which changed the complexion of local attitudes to Germans from fear to friendship.

For Hans, it is difficult to say what happened to him after the 1940s, but it is clear that he left a lasting positive impression on the locals in Norfolk, as so many others did.