Patrick Dickinson knew how to keep himself busy during school holidays. With his neighbour’s husband imprisoned in Germany, he signed up to help pack POW parcels near Brighton. With a and lift, Patrick fetched and carried, seeing the parcels from empty box to much-welcome POW feast.
How did you become involved?
“Grand Avenue, which leads down to the seafront at Hove on the Sussex coast, is now almost entirely made up of large blocks of luxury flats.
In the 1940s, however, it boasted some of the most expensive private houses in Brighton and Hove. One of these was taken over early in the war by the British Red Cross, and became a centre for the packing of POW parcels.
These were then handed over to the International Red Cross for distribution to prisoner-of-war camps all over Europe.
At the age of ten in 1943, I became involved in this work during school holidays.
Another boy, called Henry, and myself were approached by one of his neighbours, whose husband was in a POW camp in Germany.
She was a volunteer parcel packer with the British Red Cross, and said they were very short-staffed and needed help with the “fetching and carrying”, so as to free up the more experienced ladies to do the actual packing.
So for two hours two mornings a week that is what we did.”
What did you do?
“The rooms on the ground floor of the house were filled with long trestle tables at which the packers, many in the W.V.S. [Women’s Voluntary Service], sat with a sack of straw, or maybe raffia, between them.
The contents of the food parcels – tins of fruit, bars of chocolate, and packets of dried fruit etc., were stored in the basement. These had to be brought up on trolleys in a lift, one of the main attractions of the job as far as Henry and I were concerned, and taken round to the packers at their tables, together with flat-pack cardboard boxes.
As each box was filled to a regulation formula it had to be carried by Henry or me and stacked in an adjacent room, and that was the last we saw of them.
In the archives of the British Red Cross, there are statistical records of the parcels and their contents sent to prisoner-of-war camps throughout Europe.”
Luftwaffe air raids did not spare POW parcel packing centres. At the centre where Patrick Dickinson volunteered, German planes dropped two bombs on 14 September 1940. The first bomb landed square on the centre’s basement steps; the second, a delayed-reaction bomb, fell thirty yards away. Although nobody was hurt, the centre closed for the next fortnight so as to allow specialists to remove the delayed action bomb.
Following Dunkirk, the number of British soldiers in POW camps rose rapidly. On 5 November 1940, officials announced that 44,000 British prisoners of war were in the hands of the Germans. The government realised the effect this news might have on children. To reassure and inform young people, government-sponsored comics and films tried to explain the POW situation. A Ripley’s Believe it or not cartoon in 1942 used its trademark language to illustrate the Joint War Organisation’s collection of wool and clothing for POWs as the equivalent of “213,000 sheep”. The children of POWs could write them letters. Find out more about writing to a POW
JWO parcels weighed quite a lot in relation to their small size. Densely packed with tins and small boxes, the parcels each weighed a regulation 11 pounds.