How to look for records of... Prisoners of war in British hands

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find information about prisoners of war captured by the British.

Very few lists of prisoners of war in British hands have survived and documentation providing biographical information is equally scarce. The records held at The National Archives are predominantly records of:

  • general administrative and policy matters
  • the implementation of conventions and agreements

2. How to find records

It may be best to start by contacting another organisation, particularly if you are interested in records from the Second World War (see section 7 for details).

To find records held by The National Archives, search our catalogue using keywords. It is not possible to find records using a person’s name (catalogue descriptions for these records do not include names) so, instead, use any of ‘prisoner of war’, ‘POW’ ‘P.O.W’ or ‘P.W.’ plus one or more of the following:

  • the nationality of the prisoner
  • the eventual outcome for the prisoner (such as resettlement)
  • the place, country or region where the camp was based (for example, Egypt or Bermuda) – there were British POW camps on British territory around the world, not just in Britain
  • the camp number (for example, 306)
  • any other term you think may match a record description

Then filter by date and/or by department to get the most relevant results. Departments responsible for PoWs include Admiralty (ADM), Foreign Office (FO), Home Office (HO) and War Office (WO).

A selection of prisoner of war records are available online via Findmypast (£) however these records are predominantly for British prisoners of war.

3. Second World War

The National Archives does not hold comprehensive lists of ex-PoWs, detainees, displaced persons (DPs), persons released or tried or former forced labourers from the Second World War but does hold administrative records relating to the same. There are other organisations that may prove better places to start your research if you are looking for records of individual PoWs in British hands – see section 7 for details.

Those records that we do hold relating to enemy PoWs include the following:

3.1 PoWs, 1939-1945

  • incomplete sets of interrogation reports for enemy prisoners (mostly German) held by the British – search for the term ‘interrogation report’ within WO 208
  • Control Commission interrogation reports in FO 1050/169
  • interrogation reports for enemy airmen in AIR 40/2394 and captured naval survivors in ADM 186/806-809
  • lists of enemy PoWs in colonial territories in CO 968/35/1-5

3.2 PoW camps and treatment of prisoners, 1939-1945

  • lists of PoW camps and documentation on the employment of prisoners, principally Italian, in WO 199/404-409 (individuals tend not to be named)
  • inspection reports on PoW camps in FO 916
  • files on individual POW camps in the United Kingdom in FO 939
  • reports on the health of POWs and the work of PoW hospitals in WO 222
  • Prisoner of War Information Bureau (PWIB) records in WO 307, and its overseas sub-bureaux in CO 323, FO 916 and WO 32
  • war diaries of a few hospitals, depots and camps in WO 177/1833-1855 – also check British Army Second World War diaries
  • files on the internment of PoWs in HO 215
  • correspondence on the treatment of interned enemy aliens in HO 213/494-498

3.3 Ex-PoWs and displaced persons after 1945

The British Element of the Control Commission for Germany assumed full responsibility for the administration of the British occupied zone from 1945. Their files are in the records of the Foreign Office (FO). To identify records, use the printed volumes of Control Commission for Germany, British Element: inventory 1945-1955, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew, and the associated index to general Foreign Office correspondence. Documents are listed under ‘Displaced persons’ and ‘Prisoners of War’.

3.4 PoW policy records

  • correspondence with US authorities on general PoW policy in CAB 122
  • PoW-related Prime Minister’s Office papers in PREM 3

4. First World War

The National Archives holds no lists of First World War enemy PoWs. For records of individual prisoners it will usually prove more fruitful to contact another organisation (see section 7).

Lists of names of enemy prisoners and internees were routinely forwarded to the Prisoners of War Information Bureau (PWIB) in London, which in turn informed the International Red Cross Headquarters in Geneva. Unfortunately, bombing in 1940 largely destroyed the lists and other documentation compiled by the Bureau.

However, you can find some related records at The National Archives, including:

  • two specimen lists of army, naval and civilian German PoWs in WO 900/45-46: these give the regiment, ship and usually the home address, place of internment, remarks regarding health, and date of transfer to internment in a neutral country
  • a summary of the work and history of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau in WO 162/341
  • occasional mentions of enemy PoWs by name within the card index of the General Political Correspondence of the Foreign Office: if you find an entry you can often convert it into an FO 383 reference
  • files on the employment of enemy PoWs in Britain in NATS 1/567-571
  • correspondence on enemy merchant seamen taken prisoner in MT 9 and MT 23

5. Boer War, 1899-1902

You can find:

  • registers of Boer war prisoners, recorded in prisoner number order and arranged by area of confinement (for example, Natal, Transvaal), in WO 108. Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
  • correspondence on their confinement in CO 537
  • correspondence on Dutch, German and French prisoners in FO 2/824-826

6. Prisoners of war up to 1855

There is no general index to prisoners, so searching for individuals may be hard.

Search our catalogue within ADM 97, ADM 105 and ADM 103 and refine by date.

You can find:

    • lists of prisoners, usually arranged by nationality or by place of confinement or parole, in ADM 103: these often include circumstances of their capture and eventual disposal. Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
    • prisoners’ petitions in ADM 97
    • lists of PoW exchanges, for example WO 40/2 and WO 1/905-16
    • circumstances of capture and incarceration  in WO 1 and WO 4

An alphabetical list of American prisoners compiled by the University of Virginia is available at The National Archives and supplements a general register of American prisoners (1813) in ADM 6/417. Please note, ADM 6/417 is available on Findmypast (£).

Browse lists of enemy prisoners on parole in Britain in HO 28. This is not indexed.

7. Records in other organisations

Visit the International Red Cross website for information on requesting access to their records of PoWs and civilian internees in both World Wars.

Visit the Imperial War Museum website for information on accessing photographs of PoWs in both World Wars.

Contact the International Tracing Service (ITS) at Bad Arolsen if you are searching for people in concentration camps.

Contact Deutsche Dienstelle (for German PoWs) and Ministero della Difesa (for Italian PoWs).

Try searching for details of British PoW camps in local archives around the UK.

You may also find it useful to contact a local history group.

8. Further reading

The following publications are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. There is also a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Birke, Booms and Merker (eds), Control Commission for Germany: British Element, Inventory

Panikos Panayi, Prisoners of Britain: German Civilian and Combatant Internees during the First World War (Manchester University Press, 2012)

Lists of Places of Internment (Imperial War Museum) covers the First World War

 

Guide reference: Military Records Information 29