It must be the season for reminiscing. David Wales, who has lived in Dulwich for most of his life recalls:
As schoolboys newly back from evacuation in 1945 we used to go around exploring everywhere on our bikes (after school I suppose) and so I have quite a number of recollections of post war Dulwich and its bombed buildings. One memory is of the camp for German Prisoners of War in Croxted Road. So far as I can recall it was not far from where Tesco is now, opposite the end of Ildersley or Acacia Grove.
We used to put our bikes against the wire fence behind which was a yard and huts and grey clothed prisoners sitting or walking and generally pottering around. The most distinctive feature I recall was the model castle or castles they were building with small whitish cubes of some kind of stone; they were fairy tale buildings perhaps no more than three feet high and modelled possibly on Neuschwanstein or some similar place.
There were some of the more than 400,000 German prisoners of war (POWs) who were still being held in Britain long after the war ended, with POW camps on the outskirts of most towns. The British government, aware of the disrupted conditions and lack of any infrastructure in Germany and Austria considered it was the best course of action, despite possibly being at odds with the spirit of the Geneva Convention.
During 1946, up to one fifth of all farm work in Britain was being done by German POWs, and they were also employed on road works and building sites. In Dulwich, German POW’s were employed in clearing snow from post-war Dulwich streets. Fraternisation between the soldiers and the local population was strictly forbidden by the British government, and repatriation progressed extremely slowly. The ban on fraternisation was finally lifted - just in time for Christmas 1946. In towns across Britain, many people chose to put the war behind them and invite German POWs to join them for a family Christmas - the first the men had experienced in years..
By the end of 1947, around 250,000 German POWs had been repatriated, but 24,000 decided to stay in Britain.
The Dulwich Estate records show that on 13 November 1943 there was a report saying that the Lambeth South District Surveyor had said that houses in Croxted Road were to be demolished as they were too badly bomb - damaged to be worth repairing. A notice had already been served two months earlier and Willment Contractors carried out the work in October. The London County Council later requisitioned the vacant sites - telling the Dulwich Estate’s manager that they had been taken under Regulation no 51 of the 1939 Defence Regulations which allowed local councils to requisition properties in order to house people who had lost their homes due to bombing. When he phoned to get a bit more detail, he was told that the sites had been "taken for an important and urgent purpose connected with the prosecution of the war".
There is no specific reference to a prisoner of war camp in Croxted Road in the Dulwich Estate records, although the governors’ annual view of the estate in 1945 revealed that nos 61-67 Croxted Road and 61 Park Hall Road which were also bomb damaged had also been requisitioned by Lambeth Council for the purposes of erecting emergency hutments. The inspection revealed that ‘huts of some sort have been erected’. There is also a minute note saying that the sites of 51-57 (odd) Croxted Road were requisitioned on the 8 September 1944 for use as a POW camp. The prisoners left towards the close of 1947 and the site was returned to the Estate on 21 June 1948 - the Estate Manager reported at the time that he had submitted a claim to the Ministry of Works under section 2 (1) (b) of the Compensation (defence) Act, 1939, in respect of the reinstatement of the site, and had received a cheque for £1250.
Local tradition says that initially the POW’s were Italian and after the Italians were repatriated, German POW’s were moved in where they were occupied with clearing snow from the streets during winter. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wire fence and bordering Rosendale Road, other bombed damaged houses and former tennis courts were cleared and Nissen huts erected to accommodate those with young families from Lambeth who were living in cramped conditions elsewhere.
The area once occupied by the German POW camp and the Nissen huts is now covered with a low-rise housing estate built by Lambeth Council in the early 1960’s.