Internment, Escapes and Nazis in Bury
When I found out there were POW camps in Bury, I started researching them, not knowing what a dark part of our history I was about to uncover. And it was this reference: "The most infamous camp was a disused cotton factory at Wharf Mills in Bury near Manchester" that really pulled me in. The statement came from Stefano Paolini, a British born Italian, who had been researching Britain's internment of Italian Enemy Aliens.
Difficult decisions need to be made in wartime - who can you trust? Britain had already drawn up lists of those within Britain it considered might be dangerous, including immigrants from countries we were at war with. But those listed were not the only ones who found themselves locked up without charge. On June 10th 1940, when Italy joined Nazi Germany, Churchill chose to "collar the lot" which meant locking up over 4000 Italian men within two weeks, simply because of their nationality not because of their perceived threat. 400 plus were actually British born. And they were not the only nationality who were a perceived threat, even German and Austrian born Jews were interned at Warth. People who happened to be in Britain at the time of war or who had even fled Nazi persecution were arrested and detained indefinately because of their nationality - 27,000 in total. The fight for democracy and freedom meant, temporarily at least, freedom and democracy would not be extended to all.
The internees were soon replaced by "real" POWs, but not before they had dealt with the worst of it and then suffered a disaster that would claim hundreds of lives.
Kenneth F. Sheridan (AJR Information, June 1990) describes how early German internees (many of whom were Jewish) of whom he was one, had to endure appalling conditions:
"When I arrived, Warth Mill had been in operation as an internment camp for just a week or two. First arrivals had a horrendous task, clearing the floors of oily cotton waste, sludge and general filth. We were given coarse canvas palliasses and two blankets and taken to the store to collect straw; we filled the palliasses and joined the throng - row upon row of palliasses stretching the length of the mill floor. We also collected a mess tin each, spoon, knife, fork and a tin mug. A new life had begun. The building held 2,000 people, we learned, and these were served by twenty taps and basins, and twenty latrines."
The Arandora Star
But a worse tragedy awaited many internees. Warth Mill was one of many short-term internment camps - future permanent ones would be The Isle of Man and even Canada and Australia. During the war ALL shipping was at risk of the German U-boats. The Arandora Star (a former luxury cruise ship designed to carry a few hundred) was employed to carry Italian, Austrian and German internees to Canada, more than a thousand people over its capacity. On July 2nd 1940 it was torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 841 lives.
The 586 survivors had not finished their journey yet though. Those fit enough were sent to internment in Australia just 8 days later!
To read more about the Arandora Star, you can read THIS INTERVIEW with Stefano Paolini.
The dark shadow of internment is often forgotten when the Second World War is discussed today.
Over the course of the war over 100,000 internees and POWs passed through Warth Mill!
Above: The original Warth Cotton Mill is still visible amongst later buildings (courtesy of Google Earth
Escapes from Warth Mill
The first German POWs arrived at the camp in January 1940, Italian POWs followed. These were all moved on in 1944 in expectation of an influx of POWs as a result of D-Day. When these arrived, there was a certain amount of interest from the local population. No doubt wanting to see the enemy who they had seen reported on the newsreels up close. According to Inman and Helm's book 'Bury and The Second World War': "A column of prisoners were marched out of a private exit of the station, down Knowsley Street, Manchester Road, and RadcliffeRoad, to Warth Mill for internment. Most looked sullen and dejected, which is not surprising considering the hostile looks and occasional shouts of abuse which they received. However, most of the onlookers seemed merely curious. It was observed that a few arrogant-looking men were obviously under special guard, these were perceived to be 'real Nazis', who marched as though victors".
Occasionally, there were escape attempts.As early as 1942 a prisoner was captured in Heywood. Most escapes came later in the war, two made it as far as Kendal and two more even made it to London. One was caught in Stubbins (Ramsbottom) while his two colleagues got only as far as Haslingden at Alley Cross Farm in the Grane Valley:
"On a misty day in November 1944, the old farm witnessed the recapture of two Germans who had escaped from a prioner of war camp near Bury. A local farmer noticed smoke coming out of the semi-derelict pigsty and went to investigate; he was greeted by a man dressed in civilian clothes who claimed he was a Pole. However, when the stranger asked how far off was there an aerodrome, the farmer realised there was something suspicious about the man and his companion. Leaving a shepherd to keep watch, he called in the police who surrounded the farm and recaptured the prisoners." from 'Grane Revisited - Four Walks Around Haslingden Grane' by Arthur Baldwin, David Dawson, David Openshaw and John Simpson.
Stefano Paolini's book 'Missing Presumed Drowned' on Italian Internment and the Arandora Star,which has a chapter on Warth (Wharf) Mill, is available on the link (Left) from Amazon.co.uk