Oswestry is a pretty market town near the Welsh border, surrounded by rolling agricultural land – and in the 1940s the farmers working these fields had extra help from an unusual source: German captives from the local prisoner of war camp. This compound lay just outside the town at Mile End, housing up to 2,000 captured servicemen during and immediately after the Second World War. Although the camp’s buildings were largely demolished in the 1960s and 1970s, its layout is preserved in maps dating from the 1950s. Ghostly outlines of some of the structures, preserved as parchmarks, can also still be seen from the air during extremely dry weather, and the concrete bases of some of the site’s pre-fabricated huts still survive above the surface.
What can archaeologists add to this picture? When a desk-based assessment undertaken ahead of highways improvement works on the A5 indicated that the planned initiative would affect land where the camp once stood, Wessex Archaeology had the opportunity to excavate and record the impacted area. Their investigation (undertaken on behalf of Shropshire Council and WSP) has brought some of the camp’s features to light once more, uncovering tangible traces of some of the site’s inhabitants and their experiences within its bounds.
Signs of structures
Wessex Archaeology’s finds complement an illuminating archive of surviving documentary records about the site. Contemporary accounts and analysis of artefacts attest that the camp was first used from 1940, and its occupation did not end with the conclusion of the war – prisoners were still present until 1948. One of the most detailed insights into what their life was like comes from 1945, when the site was visited by the Red Cross, who were assessing conditions in prisoner of war camps across Europe. In their report, the Mile End camp is described as ‘spacious and made up of scattered barracks on a vast sports field.’ Such a loose arrangement might sound unusual for a military site, but the Red Cross’ words are corroborated by historic mapping, and the buildings excavated by Wessex Archaeology were arranged along straight and curving trackways rather than in tightly regimented rows.
These scattered structures reflect a diverse range of uses. Among the excavated remains, a cluster of three rectangular concrete bases might represent simple, pre-fabricated huts that would probably have served as dormitories. Their wood-and-metal walls were long-since torn down, but their dimensions were broadly consistent with the Ministry of War Supply Standard Huts, which used prefabricated frames and were 18.5ft wide, with lengths in multiples of 5ft or 6ft. Others were more complex structures boasting brick walls (albeit built only a single skin thick, with typical wartime economy). These may have had a more specialised function; one had a central slot in its floor containing iron and ceramic pipes, and was well-connected to the sewer system, which might point to it being a toilet block or a cookhouse, the team suggests. Another building, whose surviving remains indicate a three-sided structure with a substantial concrete forecourt, has been interpreted as possibly having a recreational purpose, perhaps as some kind of sports hall.
On a more practical level, the presence of plentiful drains highlights the site’s good sewer provision, while Wessex Archaeology also uncovered traces of trackways criss-crossing the compound. These were generally rudimentary metalled surfaces made up of crushed brick, fragments of tarmac, and stones – their builders were apparently using whatever hard material had been to hand at the time of their construction.
Evidence of the site’s eventual dismantling was also in abundance; the team uncovered numerous demolition pits containing typical building materials of the period such as concrete, bricks, and asbestos – a material that had been widely used in concrete roofs of the time, and whose presence on site meant that the team carried out their investigations clad in disposable overalls and masks.
What did not emerge, however, was any sign of earlier military activity on the site. This came as something of a surprise, as the Mile End camp was not the only, or the first, POW compound in the immediate area. During the First World War, a large internment site had been built around three miles to the north at Park Hall. This camp was home to some 6,000 captured servicemen, including c.600 officers – among them, Admiral von Reuter and other navy personnel involved in the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney, in 1919. There had been some speculation that the Mile End site might have also made use of already-existing structures from this period, but no trace of occupation from the time of the First World War was identified during Wessex Archaeology’s work.
There were, however, plentiful echoes of occupation at Mile End during the 1940s. Such signs of life included quantities of pottery fragments dating to 1940-1943 – these were standard-issue military tablewares, mainly made in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, and represent an invaluable addition to our understanding of Second World War ceramic assemblages, which have not been studied archaeologically in any great detail (with the exception of two small groups from Salisbury Plain). There were also a number of glass beer bottles, and while it is not known whether these beverages had been enjoyed by prisoners or camp staff, their markings suggest they had contained products from Border Breweries, which operated out of nearby Wrexham.
Finds that could be more confidently attributed to German inhabitants of the site include a 5 Reichspfennig coin, and two V-shaped pins which are thought to have come from a Luftwaffe uniform. There were also more personal items, namely toothpaste containers, the remains of a shaving brush and several toothbrushes (the bristles were missing from all of these but their handles had survived intact), and a packet that once contained Brylcreem. One of the more enigmatic artefacts, though, was a little toy camel, made from lead alloy and standing about two inches high. The Wessex Archaeology team thinks that it was once owned by a prisoner, although we can only speculate as to why the man had carried the figurine with him. Could it have been a memento of a child back at home, a gift with a special meaning, or perhaps some kind of lucky charm?
There was one other object which represented a particularly clear link with a specific individual: an ID tag that would have been worn by a German soldier. These tags were designed to be snapped in two along a central line in the case of its owner’s death on the battlefield; one half would then be buried with him, to assist later identification where no grave marker was possible, while the other would be given to his unit’s administrators so that his death could be recorded. The Mile End example was still intact, and has been researched by Wessex Archaeology’s Katie Marsden. As well as recording its owner’s blood type (O), it attests that he was with the 3rd Company, Landesschützen Battalion XI/I, a unit raised from older reservists. This unit was renamed Landesschützen Battalion 211 in April 1940, suggesting that the man who owned this tag had been captured very early in the war. Katie has also identified the soldier’s serial number, and although COVID-19 restrictions have hampered access to German archives to-date, she hopes to do further research into who this individual was, to see if she can identify him and any living relatives to whom his tag could be returned.
Entertainment and escape attempts
While becoming a prisoner of war was a fate that few soldiers would have hoped for, it appears that life within the Mile End camp was not an unpleasant one. The 1945 Red Cross report describes the facilities available on the site, as well as the activities that were put on to keep the prisoners occupied – and, presumably, in a co-operative mood. This account suggests that conditions on the site were relatively comfortable. Prisoners were housed in dormitories (each accommodating up to 50 men in wooden bunkbeds) that had two stoves for heating, and electric lighting. The Red Cross also noted the provision of sufficient toilets, showers, and wash basins, and that each prisoner took two hot baths a week.
The camp had a well-equipped infirmary, a canteen, a church, a small library, and a school for younger prisoners. During the day, inmates were either employed in on-site carpentry workshops or in labour details that left the compound for eight hours a day, six days a week, to work on nearby farms. As for how the men spent their free time, they had access to sports pitches, musical activities including a camp choir and an orchestra, and theatrical productions (which were put on in one of the barracks). There were also film screenings, and an extensive sports programme including football matches and athletics competitions.
That does not mean that all was rosy on the site, however; the Red Cross report records that three prisoners had died during the camp’s operation, six men had been transferred to hospital with diphtheria, and 13 had been repatriated because they were unfit for work. Nor had the facilities on offer managed to tempt all the men to wait out the war in comfortable captivity – documents in the local Historic Environment Record testify to mass breakouts from the camp taking place throughout its occupation.
Given these escape attempts, it is perhaps surprising to read in contemporary accounts that the men sent to work on nearby farms were allowed to do so unsupervised – however, security on the site itself was tight, something that was reflected in the archaeological record. As well as boundary ditches, fragments of the barbed wire that once encircled the camp were found across the excavation site, with indications in places that these defences were being beefed up. Might this reflect an increase in tensions between the prisoners and the staff who were tasked with keeping them in the camp? If so, the discovery of a single spent .303 round could be a possible clue to a dramatic episode that has since faded into history; we do not know the circumstances in which it was discharged, but its presence does testify to a British rifle being fired at some point on the site – could it be linked to prisoners becoming unruly, or one of the documented breakouts?
One of the more surprising discoveries on the site was a Sauer 38H pistol, which had been buried close to one of the camp buildings. This was a standard-issue German gun commonly used by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, Wessex Archaeology reports – but how had it come to Mile End? It would be surprising if a prisoner had managed to keep a gun on their person following capture or had smuggled it into the camp, but if had been in the possession of a POW, what had they intended to use it for? It is possible that it might have been hidden for a future escape attempt, though as the weapon had been buried and not retrieved, it seems that this particular scheme had not come off. Alternatively, could the pistol have been owned by one of the British camp staff, having been taken from a prisoner as a trophy? In a recent online talk about the excavation (see ‘Further information’ below), Wessex Archaeology Senior Research Officer Ashley Tuck suggests another possibility, that the gun could have been a souvenir of the war brought home by a local veteran, who may have later had second thoughts about keeping it and subsequently disposed of it amongst the remains of the by-then derelict camp.
Whatever the explanation for the gun’s presence, however, as it was too corroded to establish whether or not it was loaded, it has since been handed in to the police and destroyed for safety. Further post-excavation analysis of the other finds is set to continue, though, and Wessex Archaeology will also undertake more detailed documentary research. Final publication is expected to come later this year, and we hope to bring you an update on the story of the Mile End camp and its inhabitants in a future issue – watch this space.
Acknowledgements Grateful thanks to John Winfer of Wessex Archaeology, Project Manager of the Mile End excavations, for his help during the writing of this article.
Further information Wessex Archaeology recently released a webinar by Ashley Tuck, Wessex Archaeology Senior Research Officer, about the Mile End finds; you can watch the talk at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkRAmk3oEoY.
ALL images: Wessex Archaeology.