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Shackled Australian Prisoners of War: A Weapon Behind the Wire

Throughout the Second World War, the management of prisoners of war was a complex issue. In 1942 and 1943, shackles were used by belligerent governments away from the battlefield in prisoner of war camps. It was an unusual reciprocal reprisal method implemented to politically manipulate the behaviour of the enemy government, exposing the lengths governments would go to in order to gain the upper hand over the enemy outside the field of battle. Hence, the shackling crisis became the most well-known instance of reprisals in the European theatre of war.

Generally discussed from a British and Canadian viewpoint, the shackling crisis has not been examined from an Australian government perspective. My doctoral research establishes that the Australian government sought to adopt a different response from that of British authorities, as revealed in the Australian and British archives. They disclose the exchanges between the Australian government, the British government, and the other Dominions, together with the responses from War Cabinets and parliamentary debates. These documents highlight the tensions between the British and Dominion governments and the position of each Dominion regarding international conventions, POW policy, and how POWs were managed.

Government documents confirm that the Australian government watched the negotiations from the outset of the shackling crisis. A cable from the Australian Prime Minister’s Department to the Dominion Office, London, in October 1942 addressed their concerns, ‘…we have little faith in the value of reprisals, especially in cases where [the] burden falls on helpless captives on both sides and where competition in cruelty can be carried on indefinitely with far more embarrassment to us than to the enemy.’[1] They had started to see a pattern emerge from the information in letters written to prisoners’ families around October 1942, and Canberra was made aware that Australian prisoners were involved in the shackling reprisal by Australian censors in January 1943.

Although Churchill was considered a great wartime leader, he and his Cabinet were slow to acknowledge the Dominions’ sensitivity over the fate of their prisoners. Churchill also misjudged the mood in the Dominions regarding how far they were willing to present a united front when the humane treatment of their captive countrymen was at risk. As a result, the reprisals in 1942 and 1943 placed great strain on the common unity approach usually shown by the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, established early in the war to deal with POW matters. This led to a split in Allied support throughout the dispute and forced Dominion governments to look more closely at the affair.

My research examines how reciprocity was used during the shackling crisis to undermine prisoners’ morale and manipulate belligerent governments. Moreover, it shows how reprisal was unusual because it was initiated by belligerent governments. As such, it can be used as a case study to examine the treatment of prisoners of war during World War II through international laws and national policy, making it an important story of POW treatment and management.

[1] NAA: A981/4 TRE 742 External Affairs Department, Treaties Red Cross – Chaining of Prisoners of War, cablegram from The Prime Minister’s Department to The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, London, 11 October 1942.

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