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Category: Discipline

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Prisoner of War Camp Rules: 3rd Geneva Convention

Also see POW Europe & POWs in Australia

By H. Wayne Elliott

In the early 1970s a popular television comedy was set in the most unlikely of places—a German prisoner of war (POW) camp. 

The exploits of Hogan’s Heroes brought laughter to millions. 

The bumbling camp commandant, Colonel Klink, (right) never figured out that the POWs were really running the camp. 

Obviously, the series hardly reflected the reality of life as a World War II POW. 

But, in at least one respect, it was realistic: in almost every episode there occurs a conversation between the prisoners and the guards in which the requirements of the Geneva Conventions are raised. 

Even inside the camp, the law, specifically the Third Geneva Convention, must be obeyed.

The law sets out the duties, responsibilities, and rights of both the prisoners and the guards. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that a real POW camp would be a place where one would find a lot of frivolity. What considerations go into establishing, and maintaining, a POW camp? What should one really expect to find inside a prisoner of war camp?

Prisoners walking around the perimeter in the Exercise Area, Stalag Luft 3, overlooked by a watchtower, or Goon Tower as they were known. Note the thin boundary wire running at thigh-height, beyond which the prisoners were forbidden to go on penalty of being fired upon. Copyright: Special Collections Branch of the USAF Academy Library.

Clearly, prisoners of war lose their freedom. But they are not criminals. They are enemy soldiers for whom participation in the war has come to a halt. The Third Geneva Convention is built around the idea that POWs retain their military status and are entitled to humane treatment. 

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is charged, under Article 126, with overseeing the implementation of the treaty requirements, but others might also visit a POW camp—for example, journalists or humanitarian aid workers.

A person visiting a POW camp should have at least a general idea, if not detailed knowledge, of what the Third Geneva Convention or individual regulations concerning camp activities require. Some knowledge of the law should make it more difficult for a capturing power to present the outside world with a facade of compliance while, in reality, it is violating the fundamental precepts of the law.

An initial consideration in evaluating a POW camp is its location. Is the camp located in an area that is unsafe? The camp should be far enough from the combat area so that the POWs are not endangered (Article 19). It should be located in an area where the environment does not threaten the health of the POWs. There is also a general prohibition on housing POWs in penitentiaries (Article 22). 

The POWs should be housed in such a way as to protect them from the effects of the war, specifically aerial bombardment. If military considerations permit, the camp should be marked with the letters PW or PG (prisoner de guerre), which are visible from the air. The buildings in which the POWs are quartered must meet the same general standards as the quarters made available to the forces of the captor. Women prisoners must be separately housed from the men (Article 25).

For the Third Geneva Convention to have any real utility inside the camp, its contents must be known to those inside—prisoners and guards. Article 39 requires that the camp commander have a copy of the convention in his possession. Article 127 takes this somewhat further and requires that the military personnel who have responsibility for POWs must be “specially instructed” in the convention’s requirements. At the same time, the POWs must also know their responsibilities. Article 41 requires that the full text of the convention, in the language of the prisoners, be posted in the camp.

If the text of the convention is available and known to the POWs and the guards, what sort of considerations go into evaluating compliance? An initial inquiry concerns who is actually in the camp.

  • If the people held are lawful prisoners of war they should have been given an opportunity to fill out and send a “capture card.” 

The purpose of the card is to let the next of kin know of the capture and provide some general information as to the health of the captive. The format for the card is set out in an annex to the convention. Because the card must be filed within seven days of the arrival in camp of a new prisoner, a legitimate POW camp, properly run, should have a supply of the cards on hand. If the cards are not present, a crucial factor in captivity—letting others know—is missing.

Some evaluation factors are obvious. Medical care must be provided for those who need it. There should be an infirmary in the camp and it should be staffed with qualified medical personnel. That does not necessarily mean medical doctors, but at least people with some medical training. In fact, if medical personnel are among the POWs they should be working in the medical facility (Article 33).

The prisoners must be fed and provided with drinking water, but the convention requires that the normal diet of the POWs should be taken into consideration (Article 26). Thus, it would be improper to force Muslim POWs to eat food forbidden by their religion. The POWs should be properly clothed. In most cases this means the POWs will wear a uniform of some type, either their own or one issued by the captor. 

If many POWs are in civilian clothes, there might be cause for further inquiry. First, POWs are generally soldiers and should be in uniform. Second, a POW who has civilian clothes is a greater escape risk. So if a large number of the “POWs” are in civilian clothes, the possibility exists that they may be civilians and not real POWs.

POWs are still soldiers and are expected to act like soldiers. POWs are expected to salute their captors who are higher in rank. Every POW, regardless of rank, must salute the camp commander. This might seem silly at first glance. But it actually helps both the POW and those who guard him maintain their military status and dignity. Of course, discipline is enhanced when such military traditions are followed. The absence of basic military courtesy, such as rendering salutes, can also be evidence that the camp is not being properly run.

Generally, POWs can have contact with the outside world. This means the POWs have the right to send and receive letters from home (Article 71). 

  • The POWs are also permitted to receive relief shipments of food, medicine, clothing, etc. (Article 72).

WW2 Red Cross Food Parcel for Prisoners of War

Food parcels usually contained the following: Tea, cocoa, sugar, chocolate, oatmeal, biscuits, sardines, dried fruit, condensed milk, jam, corned beef, margarine, cigarettes/tobacco, and soap.

Click to enlarge 31.5cm long x 19cm wide x 13cm deep: Received by VX4688 Private R Glanville of 2/7 Infantry Battalion in 1943, while he was a prisoner of war in Silesia (then in Prussia, but now a part of Poland). He later cut the out the base of the box that that it could hold a short wave radio that he had made.

In every camp, there will be problems with discipline. The laws of war recognize the right of the detaining power to maintain discipline in the camp. There is, in the convention, an extensive list of provisions to help ensure that punishment for various infractions is meted out in a fair and humane way. An appropriate question is how violations of camp rules are treated. Generally, the laws of war recognize the right of a POW to attempt to escape and the duty of the detaining power to prevent an escape. 

A "Wanted" poster, published in the aftermath of the Great Escape. The men pictured are (left to right) Walter Morrison, John Stower, and Patrick Welch. Copyright: IWM HU21187.

Article 42 specifically addresses escapes and the use of force in preventing them. It provides that the use of weapons against POWs is “an extreme measure” and their use “shall always be preceded by warnings appropriate to the circumstances.” A relevant question to ask of camp personnel is how attempted escapees are punished. Another area of interest would be the practice of the detaining power regarding POWs suspected of committing war crimes. Are accused war criminals held in the camp? 

If so, with what offence are they charged? What procedures exist for trial? If a trial is contemplated, has the protecting power been notified in accordance with Article 104 of the convention?

The final stage in the life of a POW is release from captivity and repatriation. The camp should have some procedure in place to accomplish that as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The rules governing POWs are extensive, and the Third Geneva Convention and the ICRC Commentary on the Convention fill a 764-page book. The general rule is that the captives must be treated humanely. By setting a strict regime for the administration of a POW camp, the laws of war provide many benchmarks by which the standard of humane treatment can be measured.


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