Voices from the Past

A Prisoner of War Medic

Life as a medic in the 6th Field Ambulance was fraught with danger and for William Wilson of the Wairarapa, his role as a Medic on Crete may have contributed to his fate of spending much of the war as a prisoner in Stalag VIIIB. His signature can be found on display in the National Army Museum’s POW wall.

6 Field Ambulance was one of the larger medical units that served with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) during World War II. These people were sometimes trained medics, nurses, doctors, stretcher bearers or similar so generally were unarmed as per the Geneva Convention. This meant that they were regularly required to venture out under very heavy enemy fire to bring aid to and recover the wounded, all the time with no method of protecting themselves.

It was also very difficult to carry a stretcher while also trying to carry a weapon. The other members of the unit ran medical casualty clearing stations and even hospitals a very short distance behind the front line.

Private William George Wilson was a Medic with 6th Field Ambulance, New Zealand Medical Corps during World War II when he was captured on Crete and taken prisoner at Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf on the Austria/Italy/Yugoslavia border (later renamed Camp 344).

It was a very fluid situation on Crete with the Germans parachuting in over the entire island and so it was impossible to say where the front line was. Consequently a lot of the hospitals were overrun because they couldn’t move rapidly with all their critically injured soldiers.  Many of the 6th Field Ambulance medics volunteered to stay behind to look after the wounded and were therefore taken prisoner.

The Geneva Convention in 1906 stated that “as a matter of principle medical personnel must be unconditionally repatriated (because they were technically non-combatants). If they fell into enemy hands, they were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but sent back to their own armed forces as soon as their presence was no longer considered indispensable to the wounded in their charge.” Some countries had agreements that allowed them to retain one doctor and ten orderlies for every 1500 prisoners.

In the 1929 Convention some of these concessions were amended. After confirming in Article 9 that medical personnel were not to be treated as Prisoners of War (POWs) it reaffirmed in Article 12 that such personnel were not to be retained after they had fallen into the hands of the enemy. However, it then went on to say “that members of the medical personnel were to be sent back to their own forces as soon as military considerations permitted in the absence of an agreement to the contrary”.

Article 14 authorised belligerent nations to conclude special arrangements for the retention in the camps of doctors and medical orderlies to care for their prisoner compatriots. Many nations took this to mean that they could retain two doctors, two dentists, two chaplains and twelve medical orderlies for every one thousand prisoners (way more than were accepted as reasonable in World War I).

So, theoretically, Private William Wilson should have been repatriated early, however the realities were often somewhat different but it did happen. In this case Wilson was still a POW at the end of the war. He would have almost certainly been part of the Long March where the Germans moved thousands of POWs ahead of the advancing Allies sometimes covering between 800-1000 miles in thick snow in the middle of winter.

Grant Hays, a Custodian at the National Army Museum has been working on a large project researching the hundreds of POW’s on the Museum’s database that have signed the Museum’s POW wall, including William Wilson. Grant says, “It is difficult to accurately fill the holes of the POW’s time as their service records only provide sketchy information from the time they were reported missing believed a POW, until when they were repatriated and reported safe. In fact it often simply appears as a big gap in their records and this is where it is so important to get the family information to help fill in the gaps. They often relied on Red Cross reports from Geneva, radio reports from the Vatican and returns sent in by Camp leaders from the various camps to identify who and where these soldiers were.”

The Museum’s POW Wall was built in the 1980s and POWs were asked to come in and sign their names and details. The Museum is working to develop a database of information about the service details of each of these 625 names who appear on the wall. William Wilson’s signature can be found on panel 26 of the wall.