Lancashire At War.co.uk
Exploring the hidden history of War sites in Lancashire
Warth Mill, POW camp, Bury
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
UPDATE: December 2017
Local Historian, Ken Howarth, very kindly sent us the following from an unpublished book of his. The following is Ken's work. Our huge thanks to him.
Warth Prisoner of War Camp
The outbreak of the Second World War saw Mellor's Mill converted into an internment camp and then into a prisoner of war camp, similar to the one at Burrs.
A former guard recalls:
`... We formed number 8 POW camp in September 1940, Pioneer Corps. The first intake was 3000 prisoners arriving at Knowsley Street Station, Bury.'
A camp driver recalls:
`... we only had one truck, I used to go up to the food depot and draw the rations for the prisoners and for ourselves. There was that much food that I had to go up there three times a day! The first time I would go up it was for bread. They used to throw the bread in my truck just like bricks there was that many loaves. I used to go up then for the vegetables, potatoes, carrots, onions - come back and then go up again for the meat. The food those prisoners was getting was far superior and more in quantity than our own people outside was getting.
You've seen these long tin baths they used to use in the olden days? We used to have one of those and we used to bring the German or Italian cooks out and they used to slice the bacon and put it all in this bath and they used to carry it in. The Italians used to make their own spaghetti.'
A guard remembers:
`We used to patrol inside the camp at night with a revolver. A guard walked round the perimeter carrying a rifle and there were look-out posts, the exercise compound for the prisoners was on the Bury side in a field. We used to go over the River Irwell. They made a swing bridge by the side of the ordinary stone bridge. (Radcliffe Road Bridge) We could cross over the river without going on to the road. it was like a rope bridge. We used to have fun with that with any of the lads coming in late.'
The Great Escape
But then came a drama on Wednesday 21st May 1941 the `Bury Times' carried the following story
"NAZI PRISONERS RE-CAPTURED ON MOORLAND"
`With police and mobile Home Guard Units scouring the countryside over an area of many miles, the last of the five German prisoners of war who escaped from a north-west internment camp on Friday were re-captured in the early hours of Sunday morning after having been at liberty for more than 48 hours. Cutting their way through a thick barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp, the five men, four of them air pilots and the fifth a naval wireless operator in civilian clothes evaded capture and headed into the open moorland countryside. There at once began the largest and most dramatic manhunt the north has ever seen. Police with bloodhounds to track down the escaped men, military and members of the Home Guard including mobile attachments, threw a cordon over a wide area. Messages giving the ages and descriptions of the men were flashed around and in less than 12 hours two of the men were re-captured about 12 miles from the camp.
The search was intensified, the already strong cordon tightened and some two hours later, two more were taken into custody. The fifth, stated to be wearing a prison uniform with a distinguishable white star on the shoulder and a gold star on the back eluded capture for a few more hours, but was eventually caught by a policeman patrolling a country road. Tired and hungry he offered no resistance. ... One theory of how the men eluded capture after cutting through the fence is that they boarded a slow-moving goods train and jumped clear as soon as they were in open country.'
A camp driver vividly recalled the event:
`I remember very well, first of all the adjutant came in. He shouts, "Platt, Platt - get up". "Yes Sir. Yes Sir."
Get in that lorry right away - and we were off. That's all he said and he was in his pyjamas. So I gets the lorry out and off we go over the moors to Bacup. So we gets to Bacup police station and he says, "Right pull that tail-board down." They (the guards) went into the police station and I was outside with the tail-board down and they brought these prisoners out. And they didn't half belt 'em with the butts of their rifles. The women up the valley were saying `leave 'em alone'. One had a patch over his eye didn't he? We brought them back to Bury.
What was that officer called? He kicked him right up the backside and went sprawling. He took them into the cells. And he didn't half lace 'em. He sprained all his hand with hitting them.
What they'd done, they'd got a string from round the edge of a blanket and put the string round their forehead with the blanket across their back and crawled under the wire and snipped the main wires. . As far as we could tell they made for the Monkey Bridge because when the police came they had these dogs, and the dogs made straight for the Monkey Bridge. They (the men) tried to follow the railway line up to Bacup.'
Ken Howarth sent us the above three drawings by an unnamed internee of Warth Mills POW Camp. They are possibly courtesy of the Jewish Gazette and are titled: 'Camp Guard Area', 'Barbed Wire' and 'Hospital'.
Ken Howarth, added the following details to us via email:
"Incidentally the reason the escapees were following the railway lines to Bacup, is because they went the wrong way they thought they were heading for Liverpool."
'Warth at War' by Ken Howarth - extract from unpublished Mss 2016:
The outbreak of the Second World War saw Mellor's Mill converted into an internment camp and then later into a prisoner of war camp, similar to the one at Burrs.
Such was the completeness of wartime secrecy; the notorious story of the first part of Warth Camp’s history remained untold until well after the end of the Second World War. I was born within a mile of the Warth, yet my parent’s and all those local people I have asked knew nothing about what happened during Warths days as an internment camp.
Details came to light in an extraordinary article in the Jewish Gazette Friday 17th August 1990 entitled “The dark satanic mill of despair WARTH”. The article details how Warth became a temporary internment camp in the summer of 1940 for ‘wartime aliens’ many of whom were Jewish. Werner Mayer (a man I knew well) was housed cheek by jowl with Nazi sympathisers – all classified as ‘enemies’ even though many had fled from Nazi persecution. Many local men too were categorised as friendly aliens and as Werner Mayer recalled “I was ready when the detectives came for me, suitcase packed for the journey ... it least this was better than my journey to Dachau. ... Amongst us were professors, professional musicians, men of many distinctions.”
This is confirmed by another internee at the time “The large majority were German and Austrian Jews, intelligent, educated, volatile middle-class people, from school boys to the old and inform. ... Part of one floor was given up to the ‘University’ where a large group of professors from Oxford and Cambridge and other centres of learning got together to give lectures and lead discussions on mathematics, philosophy, history, science and English.”
Many men interned at the camp were worried for another reason apart from the conditions, the petty brutality and the theft from prisoners - what would happen to them if Hitler invaded Britain? They were real concerns.
Conditions at the old mill were appalling. In a book by Francois Lafitte “The Internment of Aliens” Warth Mill is described as ‘falling to pieces, rat infested with rotten floors, broken windows, and a broken glass roof’. An internee recalls ‘... there were 60 buckets in the factory yard for 2000 inmates – after a protest they succeeded in getting some lime.’
Another internee recalls “We were given coarse canvass palliasses and two blankets and taken to the stores to collect straw. We filled the palliasses and joined the throng – row upon row of palliasses stretching the length of the mill floor. ... Food was abominable. One day I remember a large barrel was rolled in – it contained salted-herrings. That was our dinner.”
There were many protests about the state of the camp and how it was run, including the fact that Nazi sympathisers were amongst those detained. In July there was a visit to the camp by a Red Cross delegate whose final report was damning for “... its dilapidated condition, lack of hygiene, absence of hot water, and the fact that there were beds for only 30 sick people at a time whereas 250 needed treatment.”
Petty theft and intimidation was common place, in fact after the camp’s closure, the camp’s commander Major Alfred Braybrook was actually imprisoned for stealing from internees. (1941)
The Warth Mills Project -
"Sharing the untold story of
Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, this project explores one of Britain’s largest Second World War internment camps."
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