Oral History at a POW camp in Hampshire

For my day of Archaeology I picked up an elderly neighbour, drove to the suburbs, then had lunch in a country pub. It was absolutely exhausting.

My neighbour, John Miller, was born in Germany, on the Czech border, in 1922. He came to Britain in 1945 as a prisoner of war. Captured in the Netherlands in February he spent the rest of the war under canvas in Yorkshire. In August he was moved to Portchester where he was held until 1948. He managed to get a message to his parents in 1947, but he never saw them again. When repatriation was being arranged he realised that his home was now in East Germany, and what that meant. He, with many others, was given leave to stay in Britain as an agricultural worker. It didn’t feel like a choice.


From:L. Burton and B. Musselwhite, 2006 the Book of Fareham Halsgrove, Tiverton. Mr. Miller (standing centre) 1946

Most of our conversation is about his life in post war Portsmouth. His careful life, slowly improving jobs, marriage, buying a house, raising children bears similarities to those of his new neighbours. When I met him, it was as the longest established resident of my terrace, with the least altered house. It was many years before I felt confident to use his experience to help me understand the Heritage and Archaeology Prisoner of War camps. There is a lot a military heritage in the Portsmouth area but there are aspects of that heritage which are overlooked and on the road to being forgotten. I don’t want his story to be forgotten.

Today was the second session of oral history recording for us. In the first I learned the sequence described above and got some sense of where the experience sits in his perception of himself (a long way from the centre). In this session we went to the site of the camp he was held at. I had two hopes for this trip. Firstly, that he could help me understand the site, and the second that being on the site might elicit different memories for him. I was concerned that bringing him to site would be distressing (He’s 92 and undergoing chemo) But he said “I can go back anywhere I’ve been, because I have always behaved as an honourable man”

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There is very little remaining at the site from its use as a Prisoner of War camp. All that remains above ground is the street pattern. Mr Miller brought a sketch map to help him remember. “Here was the guard house, here the British cook house, here the huts, here the church, the fence was over there”. We stop outside the house that has replaced his hut. The hut was number 26, the house, number 47.

His memories are different from the ones we discussed in his sitting room a week ago. Sharper, more concrete. We talk about the clothes he wore as a prisoner, and particularly hats. He remembers the first hat he bought on release so clearly, a blue homburg. He couldn’t afford a new suit, but being able to tip his hat in greeting, take it off indoors, and put it on to leave made him feel respectable.


From:L. Burton and B. Musselwhite, 2006 the Book of Fareham Halsgrove, Tiverton.

On the way there and the way back he pointed out places he had worked, both as a prisoner, and as a free man. “I ploughed that field” “All those factories are pulled down now” “When we built those roads, we wondered ‘why the gap’, it was for the Motorway we didn’t know about” His knowledge of the landscape is very rich and complex. Yet it retains a sense of being an outsider. He describes changes, but doesn’t comment on them.

All the way through our conversation I am thinking. I try to keep hearing the story that he wants to tell. Not to drift off into the story I want to ‘uncover’. I try to listen for his unanswered questions, the places where my research can offer something more once we’ve finished. I try to stay open to the counter view of WWII heritage. This is why I am so tired.

We go for lunch in the Golden Lion Pub in Southwick, at his suggestion. Eisenhowser drank there while planning the D-Day Landings and it has been themed with propaganda posters and photographs of Churchill. He orders a German lager.