Yorkshire camp housed 11,000 PoWs, including Hitler’s successor

Yorkshire camp housed 11,000 PoWs, including Hitler’s successor

Covered in moss and ferns in a forested area to the west of Sheffield are the remains of stone walls, a few rusty twists of corrugated iron, a flight of broken steps leading nowhere and the concrete foundations of at least 80 World War II barracks buildings.

This is all that is left of Britain’s biggest Prisoner of War camp, home to more than 11,000 German, Italian and Ukrainian prisoners at its peak in 1944. 

Conditions were appalling, food was served out of dustbins, the inmates were housed 70 to a shed — double the recommended capacity — and escape attempts ended in bloodshed.

Lodge Moor PoW camp has been forgotten for decades. It was swept away by a demolition team that never quite finished the job.

But recent research by Sheffield University Archaeology students, working with the Sheffield Lakeland Landscape Partnership, has revealed that the camp was home to some of Britain’s most dangerous and fanatical prisoners, not just from World War II but also the Great War.

German naval Commander Karl Dönitz (right), who was an inmate and Lodge Moor in 1918, is received by Hitler (left) on 23 June 1942

One inmate of Lodge Moor — also known as Camp 17 — from the first war turned out to have a huge role in the second. 

The notorious German U-Boat commander Karl Dönitz was captured by Allied forces when his vessel, U-68, was forced to surface in October 1918. Dönitz, later an admiral, is thought to have formulated his dreaded rudeltaktic (pack tactic or ‘Wolfpack’) U-boat raids during his six-week stay here before feigning mental illness.

He was duly dispatched to Wythenshawe Hospital Psychiatric Unit in Manchester before eventually being released back to Germany where, his mental health miraculously restored, he much later went on to command Hitler’s World War II U-boat fleets. 

He put his Wolfpack tactics into operation to dreadful effect, nearly bringing Britain to her knees by sinking so many Atlantic convoys. He headed the German navy and, eventually, following Hitler’s suicide, succeeded the Fuhrer as leader of the Third Reich, briefly at the end of the war.

Thanks to its crucial role as a transit and interrogation station for some of the more fanatical and dangerous German prisoners, Lodge Moor was one of the most important and, according to many of its temporary inmates, also the ‘unhappiest camp in Britain’.

But it didn’t start like that. Today, from camp records, witness statements and site visits that have been analysed by students, we know more about the day-to-day living conditions at Camp 17 which, in the early war years and safe from bombing raids, was not such a bad place.

Guards marching manacled Ukrainian prisoners to a train at Lodge Moor Camp, near Sheffield, for deportation to Germany on December 31 1948. Many of them are convicted of violent crimes and are classed as desperadoes

Food was plentiful, the prisoners had access to education and everyone had their own bed (according to the Red Cross, which conducted inspections).

To begin with, most of the prisoners were Italians, or Ukrainians fighting on the Germans’ side, and were marched along the roads by guards to work on local farms or brickworks in exchange for pocket money which they spent on cigarettes and beer.

Even so, it must have been quite a shock to some to adjust to the life. One account by an Italian inmate — who grew up on a citrus farm on the slopes of Mount Etna — recalls the cold, damp, mud and isolation of winter.

But the Italians got on surprisingly well with their Yorkshire neighbours. They managed to communicate with the farmers and help out where they could. Their English friends, meanwhile, would often share their tea rations and supplement the captives’ monotonous diet with home-grown goodies.

Local residents’ memories paint a picture of surprising trust and freedom.

Britain’s largest Prisoner of War Camp – Lodge Moor near Sheffield – housed 11,000 inmates at its peak in 1944

The remains of Britain’s biggest prisoner of war camp that once housed Hitler’s successor and have been unearthed by archaeologists

There are several accounts of a German submarine captain who used to turn up for a pint at The Three Merry Lads, one of the local pubs, wearing full uniform. He’d given the camp commander his solemn word that he would make no attempt to escape while out on his jolly, but that all bets were off once he was back behind the barbed wire.

But with the changing fortunes of war, everything changed. The surrender of the enemy forces in North Africa in May 1943 left the Allies with around 260,000 enemy prisoners of war — mostly Germans — on their hands. After D-Day in 1944, Britain was awash with German prisoners.

They arrived in their thousands, transported by ship to England and herded onto trains to transit camps like Lodge Moor where, over a period of months, but often longer, they were interrogated and classified according to the passion of their allegiance to the Nazi cause. Fanatical nationalist socialists were classified as ‘black’, non-believers as ‘white’, while the majority were ‘grey’.

The infamous U-Boat commander Otto Kretschmer — who sank a record 47 ships and was very much a ‘black’ — is rumoured to have spent some of his seven years as a PoW at Lodge Moor. It was the ‘blacks’ who were the most enthusiastic about escaping and the remains of attempted tunnels can still be explored near the camp walls to this day.

Today the south Yorkshire site is popular with dog walkers and people just going for a stroll

Lodge Moor was home to the worst fascists of the Second World War – including Germans, Italians and Ukrainians

On December 20, 1944, a group of German prisoners successfully breached the perimeter, only to be captured in nearby Rotherham 24 hours later.

A second endeavour was rather bloodier.

Suspected of tipping off prison guards about a planned break-out in March 1945, German Gerhardt Rettig was chased around the Nissen huts by hundreds of inmates before being beaten so badly he died in prison. Two of the mob were later put on trial in London, found guilty of his murder and hanged at Pentonville prison in November 1945.

Conditions had become appalling in the camp. Robert Johnson, 22, one of the archaeology students who surveyed the site, says: ‘The prisoners were fed food out of bins, had to stand outside in the mud, rain and cold for several hours a day during roll call, and since it was so overpopulated, they were squashed into tents or the barracks with little personal space.’

Corrugated iron barracks designed for 30 were grossly overcrowded with between 70 and 80 prisoners and new inmates were arriving all the time.

The beautiful, thick woodland on the edge of the Peak District hides a dark history, say archaeologists

At least 20 men lived in each of the tents, often sleeping on the damp earth right through the winter where, at 1,100ft above sea level, the bitter wind howled and snow piled up in 6ft drifts.

There was no privacy, no peace, very little warmth and appalling personal hygiene.

‘They wore the same clothes all the time,’ says Johnson. ‘They were like cardboard.’

There was a small hospital area that was always full — many were ill due to the poor diet. There were also countless German reports of bullying — partly by prisoners but mostly by guards armed with canes and eager to use them.

In 1944, the Red Cross reported ‘very poor’ dental hygiene on the site. ‘Toothbrushes were not provided — nothing was provided,’ says Johnson.

The end of World War II did not mean the end of the camp.

Today all that remains are concrete foundations, collapsed sewers, sections of the perimeter wall and the odd twist of corrugated iron

The repatriation of German PoWs didn’t start until September 1946 — partly because the Italians were repatriated first. But also because the economy of bombed-out Germany was in such a mess it couldn’t support an extra 400,000 returning soldiers.

So they stayed on. But now things had changed.

A church service was held at Christmas 1946 in Sheffield Cathedral for the PoWs. The Bishop of Berlin came and the PoW choir sang. And by the end of the year, locals were allowed by law for the first time to invite prisoners to their homes for Christmas and many close friendships were made.

By 1947, restrictions on the prisoners were almost completely removed and, finally, they could leave the camp unescorted and mix with civilians, visit cafés, cinemas and attend church services.

Although there was initially a national ban on ‘liaisons’, men were in short supply and the law was routinely flouted, and a few Anglo-German babies resulted.

Today all that remains are concrete foundations, collapsed sewers, sections of the perimeter wall and the odd twist of corrugated iron, avoided by dog walkers. The howling wind seems to have carried away so many thousands of dismal stories.

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