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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: In Scottish POW Camps

Looking Back

Friday January 21 2022

Looking Back: In Scottish POW Camps

Writing in January 1947, the story of how the Church took the Gospel to prisoners of war in Scotland



DR. H. GOLZEN tells a story of Christian fellowship under difficulties.

WHEN the influx of the German prisoners of war began in 1944, little provision was made for their spiritual needs. The German Air Force and the S.S. had no chaplains at all, and the German Army no more than one in a whole division. Thus there was among all the prisoners then in Scotland only one army chaplain, and ministers taken prisoner as combatants lived more or less unknown among the crowds.

It was clear that here was both a duty and an opportunity for the Church; woe to her, if she did not preach the Gospel.

The Continental Committee of the Church of Scotland and the Chaplains Department of Scottish Command recognised their responsibility, and thus, as a minister of the Church of Scotland of German origin, I was appointed to organise the religious work among German Protestant prisoners of war in Scotland.

War prisoners’ Aid of the World Alliance of Y.M.C.A.s, the very same organisation that had done unforgettable work among the Allied prisoners in Germany, gave me a car and an office. I travelled last year more than 21,000 miles from Dunnet Head to the Mull of Galloway in my double capacity as a chaplain who preaches the Word of God and as a Y.M.C.A. welfare worker who distributes sports gear and books.

From small beginnings

Of course, no prisoner ever refused a football or a pack of playing cards; but how did they react to the preaching of the Gospel? The beginning was not easy. I held the very first service in a camp which contained 4,000 men captured in France not long before. The only available place for Divine Service was a large garage; the iron doors had to be kept open to let the light in, and their rattle threatened to drown my voice. An early winter gale blew from the North Sea, driving sleet and rain into the open hangars. Here only 70 men were assembled, but these few men would have been the pride of any Christian congregation, for they had kept their faith under danger and against the will of the Nazi party, men who bore the marks of Christ on their lives and faces.

Such men were found in every camp. The ministers among the prisoners were distributed to the various camps, and with the help of the faithful few Church life began everywhere. It was a humble beginning. No church buildings, no hymn sheets, no Bibles, and small the number of men who came to the services! Little by little things improved. We started with handwritten hymn-sheets and have now printed books. We started with services in garages and dining-rooms and have now in most of the camps in Scotland beautiful chapels. We started without Bibles and have now everywhere well-attended Bible classes. We started without music and have now choirs and orchestras.

In Scottish Kirks

But new difficulties have now arisen. The prisoners are no longer all in their big base camps; many live with farmers, others in small hostels. Neither have the camps the transport nor the camp-chaplains the time to look after these scattered men. The War Office realised this and gave permission for these prisoners to attend the local church if the congregation agreed. Thus you see up and down the country the men in field-grey worshipping with Scottish folk.

For the chaplains we have gone one step further and arranged courses for them at two of our Divinity Colleges. The chaplains were accommodated in camps near the college. From there they came every morning and shared the life and work and worship of the students the whole day long. The friendly reception which they got on all sides showed some of them for the first time that the brotherhood of all Christians is a living reality. It was only appropriate that these weeks culminated in Holy Communion celebrated together by the free and the prisoner.

We see the fruit of all this in the camps. Certainly the camp congregations are not large (attendance varies between one-third and one-tenth of the Protestant prisoners). But these congregations do not contain people who are just on the roll; everyone is an active member of the Church and knows what he believes; and many a man amongst them has found his way to Christ behind barbed wire. It is interesting and important that members of our camp congregations are often repatriated first, as they are regarded as the most reliable men. True, Church life in the camps suffers from that, but we know that the Church in Germany gains. The men have learnt here in Scotland what Church means, and they go home with the resolution to contribute to building a strong and sound Church in Germany.

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