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“We are the little boys the BEF forgot”- British POWs and their Graffiti at Stalag XXA, Thorn

During the Second World War the German Army established a number of POW facilities in the artillery forts in the old Hanseatic city of Thorn (Toruń ) in northern Poland. The camp bore number Stammlager  (Stalag) XXA and held Allied prisoners of various nationalities.

Bridge linking courtyard and entrance gate to Fort XI of Stalag XXA. © IWM DC 552.

Among the first to arrive were Polish soldiers captured during the German-Soviet Invasion of Poland in 1939, mainly from the Hel Peninsula garrison on the Baltic Coast. Then British soldiers from the Narvik and French campaigns followed – around 4900 POWs altogether, mostly from the 51st Highland Division, taken prisoners around Calais and Saint-Valery-en-Caux in June 1940. Soviet POWs were the next to appear after Operation Barbarossa.

Left wall in the “bathroom” showing a whole section of caricatures made by POWs. © IWM DC 561.

The arrival of other nationalities reflected the general progress of the German advance on various fronts of early stages of the war – French, Belgian, Norwegian, Yugoslavian and Australian. There was also a separate POW facility for RAF airmen shot down over occupied Europe. At its peak capacity the camp housed around 10000 POWs. The Red Army liberated Stalag XXA on 1 February 1945 during the Vistula–Oder Offensive.

An individual drawing on the left wall in the ‘bathroom’ – two heads of men called ‘The Two Bath Stewards’. © IWM DC 574.

British POWs were required to work to support the German war effort. One of the railway platforms still in use in Toruń is the result of their work. Germans also implemented quite severe discipline and considerable number of POWs was punished with jail sentences for various degrees of offences. Germans designated Fort XI to be a place of solitary confinement for British “troublemakers”. The graffiti there are the fruits of their frustration, sense of patriotism and defiance as well as common boredom.

Inscriptions written by Private Horace Davies of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) expressing his frustration about being locked up; and by Private Bernard Smith of the 4th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders about his reason to be imprisoned. © IWM DC 714.

There are three rooms in the fort which bear marks of British presence today. First is a large room, probably used as an improvised bathroom, where one of the prisoners drew satirical caricatures of his fellow inmates on the walls. And two solitary confinement cells, “bunkers” as POWs used to call them, where soldiers wrote their personal details in every inch of available space.

Defiant inscription reading: ’10 days for fuck all, we can take it’. © IWM DC 619.

Reasons for writing vary considerably – some soldiers wanted to leave a mark of their presence in the cell and wrote detailed personal information about themselves. Others wanted to commemorate their fallen comrades. And some simply wished to express their anger for unjustified imprisonment or pride at having caused problems and obstruction for camp authorities.

Inscription by a soldier of the 51st Highland Division, captured at Saint-Valery-en-Caux, reading: “We are the little boys the BEF forgot”. © IWM DC 685 .

I first came across the Fort XI of Stalag XXA during my summer holidays of 2011. I visited the site and photographed all the surviving graffiti. Those 254 photographs created during the session are now held in the IWM’s Photograph Archive.

Another task was cataloguing and identifying POWs; this was difficult as most of the graffiti were damaged beyond recognition and unfortunately decaying further. Nevertheless 44 British POWs held in the fort were successfully identified. Furthermore  57 British, Polish and French soldiers whose names were partially identified or some other form of their imprisonment have also now been recorded. In order to identify their regiments, army service and POW numbers, I largely relied on the ‘Prisoners of War: British Army 1939-1945’ publication held in the IWM library.

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