Living with the enemy led to growth of strong friendships

Think of a prisoner of war camp and the image of Steve McQueen, spirited British soldiers and imaginative escape plans spring to mind. But during the Second World War, Huntingdonshire was home to a number of camps where, as ROBERT WILLIAMS discovered, thi

Think of a prisoner of war camp and the image of Steve McQueen, spirited British soldiers and imaginative escape plans spring to mind. But during the Second World War, Huntingdonshire was home to a number of camps where, as ROBERT WILLIAMS discovered, things were very different.

MORE than 60 years may have passed since the end of the Second World War, but the legacy of the conflict still lives on in Huntingdonshire.

Despite the distance between the front lines and the county, for some, the enemy was at the gate, housed in the prisoner of war camps in St Neots, Sawtry and Warboys.

Both Italian and German prisoners were brought to Huntingdonshire, but their legacy here was not simply restricted to that of the enemy. Some prisoners mixed with the community, attended churches and even made friends with the people they were at war with.

St Neots was the site of two prisoner of war camps. Beeson House and Wisteria House were both on Huntingdon Street.

Beeson was the camp for Germans, Wisteria was provided for the Italians. Despite being prisoners of war, the locals and the prisoners - at least at some levels - were allowed to interact.

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Jean Hawkins, who lived in St Neots at the time, remembers a man called Günther Mechau.

He had been a prisoner at Beeson House where he was also the postman. Mrs Hawkins met him while working at the sorting office as postal and telegraph officer.

Günther was also a regular at the same church.

"He became a friend of my family and used to love coming to tea and to play our piano," she said. "He was an educated man, being able to speak and write English well."

When the time came for repatriation, however, Mrs Hawkins remembers that the German was reluctant to return home to Salle, in the Russian area of Germany.

"Had it not been for the fact that he had a wife and young daughter, he would have tried to stay in England."

Mrs Hawkins' mother continued to correspond with Günther until her death in 1978. She even sent him parcels of items in short supply in Germany - tobacco, tea and chocolate.

In 1985, the family received a black-edged envelope with a card enclosed with German text. They realised it was a notification of Günther's death.

"We were both saddened by this, but touched that his widow had appreciated our friendship well enough to let us know of his death," Mrs Hawkins said.

Over in Warboys, the church was also providing a link between the locals and German POWs.

On October 27, 1946, there was a united church service in the village, partly in German and partly in English with translations provided for the mixed congregation.

The German prayers were lead by Kurt Schroeder, a minister from Westphalia, imprisoned at the POW camp in Warboys - the English by parish priest, Rev Nelson Trafford.

The aim was to help break down barriers with the Germans after years of fighting.

George Bussen, 70, also recalls the good relationship between the prisoners and locals: "We got on pretty well, really. They were genuinely nice chaps. A lot of them spoke broken English.

"I used to go down there [Beeson House] and watch them play football on Sunday afternoons. I think one of their goalkeepers stayed in St Neots after the war."

Mr Bussen said the Italian prisoners also helped to clear out Hen Brook in Eynesbury.

Houses now stand on the site of Beeson House, following its closure as a prisoner of war camp in 1948.

In Sawtry, the prison camp was located on Wood Walton Lane, about half-a-mile from the village. It had its own chapel and hospital and housed several hundred Italian POWs.

The Italian prisoners were transported to work on local farms, and prisoners were allowed to leave the camp to sell artificial flowers and wooden toy aeroplanes.

However, as John Chance comments in his book About Wood Walton (1996), the POWs "were still viewed with some suspicion by the local people".

Despite some tension between locals and Italians, two prisoners named Joseppi and Nicolini settled in a wooden bungalow in the blacksmith's yard at the end of the war.

About Wood Walton reveals that Joseppi married a woman named Rosa, left Wood Walton, and worked on a farm and a brickyard before his death.

Nicolini married in the early 1970s and returned to Italy with his wife and daughter.

After the war, the camp was used to accommodate local families waiting for council houses. Among the homeless was the family of Harry Joyce, who was born in the camp in November 1951.

Harry told The Hunts Post that his parents, Eric and Monica, moved into two huts at the south west of the camp sometime before the birth of his brother, Eric, in December 1949.

"I have some clear memories of being there as a small child, including of being in my cot when I almost died of whooping cough and of one of my brother's birthdays.

The community spirit was good in spite of, or perhaps because of, the relative poverty."

Their temporary home, which his parents referred to as the "Big Hut" and "Small Hut", was near the officers' mess in the administrative area of the camp. For this reason, Harry believes that the structures might have been more comfortable than the POW huts.

A few years later, the Joyce family moved into a council house in Fen Lane, Sawtry, but Eric and Monica continued to look back fondly on their experiences in the community.

The camp was later used as a fuel dump and many of the buildings demolished over the last 50 years, although two of the huts (pictured) are still standing today.

INFORMATION: Do you have memories of the prisoner of war camps in Huntingdonshire or photographs of the time? Send them to