World War II military internees

I have some questions about military internees, mostly about WWII but in any war in general.

As I understand it, if a military man was “captured” by a neutral power he was interned. This was pretty much the same as being a POW of a hostile power. Is this correct? (If I’m completely wrong about this, ignore the following questions.)

If this is true, was there ever any legal/diplomatic arguments made that a neutral power lacked the authority to hold citizens of a country whom they were not at war with as prisoners? Was internment for the duration of the war or just until the internee could be sent back to his own country? What would happen in a case like Switzerland, which was surrounded by hostile territory? Suppose somebody decided they didn’t want to go back and preferred to sit out the war in a neutral country; could they be forcibly deported?

If internees were sticking around for awhile, who paid for their upkeep? Were they kept in detention areas like POW camps or was the confinement looser? Were internees allowed to meet with other citizens from their country who weren’t internees? Were internees expected to try and escape like POW’s were? Could internees use force to escape? Could internment officers use force to prevent internees from escaping?

The possibility of internment in Switzerland was discussed by members of my group from time to time. The consensus was, as I recall it, that it was a no win situation. I think the Army examined each case quite thoroughly to see if there was any convenient “engine trouble”, or “low on fuel” on missions near the Swiss borther.

I can’t answer the other questions but I suspect the Germans wouldn’t have liked the repatriation of internees and Switzerland had to be leery of what Germany didn’t like. And I would WAG that Switzerland billed the US for the internees keep cut I have no idea whether or not we paid.

I have a hard time seeing anyone present such a case. After all, we’re talking about armed men - legal representatives of a foreign government - entering a nation’s sovereign territory without permission. As their very presence could be considered an act of war, interning them until further notice is the very least a neutral nation can do to them.

I believe internment by a neutral country is covered by the Fifth Hage Convention “respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land”, specifically by Article 11 and Article 12. It seems internment is not only a right but a duty of a neutral country.

I couldn’t say much about the legal aspects, but this practice was well established long before WWII. At least since the 19th century.

And it makes sense for at least two reasons If it’s a couple downed pilots, it might not be a major issue, but it happened that whole defeated and surrounded armies entered a neutral country. In which case you can’t really let them go back home without pissing off in a major way the other side that could logically assume you’re aiding and helping its ennemy. Besides you don’t want foreign armies to pick the habbit of entering your country when it’s convenient for them.
And as for the authority to hold them, having a bunch of armed foreigners entering your country without being invited seems to give you a quite good argument to detain them.

During the war, my grandfather’s bomber accidentally crossed into Ireland during a training mission and was forced to land low on fuel.

They managed to convince the local authorities to let them leave, basically by begging them and telling them they’d all be court-martialed if they didn’t. The Irish seemed to agree. Fuel was provided, and whiskey was consumed.

I seem to recall from a book I read (Mighty Eighth, by Geral Astor ) that what would tend to happen is they’d be put under house arrest, kept away from the German internees, and every once in a while they would be repatriated back to the US in a hush-hush manner (apparantly as they were boarding the American transport plane, they could see a group of German internees boarding a German transport plane a short distance away)

Also, a group of American airmen involved in the Doolittle raid who got interned in Vladivostok supposedly were allowed to escape into Turkey, but I don’t know if that one’s true.

But suppose a USAF pilot was flying a training mission over California last week and a mechanical error forced him to bail out and he landed in Mexico. Would the Mexican government announce that the United States was at war in Afghanistan and Iraq so it was interring the pilot for the duration? What if the incident had occurred in 1942? Or in 1949, when the US wasn’t at war?

Just because a government can do something, doesn’t mean that it should.

It would depend on the “neutral” countries relationship with the two enemy countries. The neutral country interns soldiers because they wish to remain neutral. If they allow side A’s soldiers to conduct operations on their soil, then side B will quickly begin to treat the neutral country as an ally of side A. If they let both sides operate on their soil, the neutral country becomes a battleground.

Internment is simply a way for the neutral country to stay neutral and enforce its neutrality. Of course, in practice many supposedly neutral countries in fact favor side A or side B, like the neutral US covertly helping the allies in WWII before Pearl Harbor. And if a neutral country doesn’t have a realistic fear of side A or side B, there’s no particular reason to intern soldiers from side A or side B. So in a US-Afghanistan war, other countries might be worried about the actions of the US, but they aren’t going to be worried about annoying Afghanistan, or treated by Afghanistan as a co-belligerant.

I am pretty sure that internment was supposed to be for the duration of the conflict. That said, IIRC RAF pilots who ended up in Ireland tended to “escape” from custody remarkably easily, especially compared with Luftwaffe pilots who ended up there.

As to the Mexico question - in peacetime I think the issue would be more of espionage and why the US was flying military missions over Mexico than anything to do with internment. In WWII Mexico was one of many countries in Central America at least nominally at war with the Axis (June '42 on). Nowadays I think that most countries would have far more to lose by declaring their neutrality with respect to the war on terror than they would gain. (Though I guess I could see Syria and/or Iran jerking us around a bit should a mission over Iraq end up crashing in their territory)

Internment wasn’t like being a POW. You were a “guest” of the country, and IIRC were usually installed in a pretty nice hotel. From my readings of WW2, I recall some stories of pilots who worked on escaping from the Swiss to return to the war, and their stories of internment. No work details, no torture. Restricted movement around town, and boredom seemed to be the chief characteristics of an internee’s life. Much better than life in a Stalag.

A Stalag was like Club Med compared to This .

While checking the Geneva Convention for a cite in another thread, I indeed noticed in passing a reference to a requirment to intern members of the armed forces of other (warring) countries. I didn’t check any further, but indeed interning them might be some sort of duty, at least in theory.

Maybe someone will be willing to dig into this in a more detailled way.

It was a binding obligation for neutrals to intern belligerent forces (although accepting refugees such as evadees and escaped POWs was still considering nonbinding by many states). The argument that emerged during the war was not whether neutrals had to intern, but rather what protections applied to internees. While the internment system was similar in design, there were few formal protections that applied to internees (the 5th Hague Convention of 1907 offerered few details, and the 1929 Geneva Convention said almost nothing about them). The ICRC tried to apply the GCs to internees at the outset of the war, but Switzerland and Sweden, while agreeing that the GCs applied “by analogy,” made the reservation that they should not be obligated to apply the protections afforded to POWs because it would be too difficult for neutrals to do so. This led directly to massive problems in Switzerland, where special punishment camps were erected to punish escaping internees, primarily from the Allied forces. Conditions in some of these camps far exceeded what was permitted under the GCs, but a conflict of interest prevented the ICRC from inspecting camps within Switzerland until early 1944 (due to the Swiss Army refusing to grant access until the ICRC allowed the censorship of their inspection reports). After the war, POW protections were granted to internees in the 1949 GCs as a direct result of these problems in Switzerland.

Naaaw. . . In Ireland? Get outta here! (Yeah, it’s an old thread.)

I miss David Simmons.

Some links of interest:

Switzerland in WWII (including some discussion of internment)

Swiss Internees Association

Remembering US Airmen Interned in Switzerland

Yes, I didn’t realize it was a zombie thread till I looked up at the name; "That sounds like the B-24 pilot…:


Ireland had a policy that favored the Allies. De Valera allowed the release of British internees, and made an agreement with the U.S. Minister, David Gray, to allow the release of all American airmen who landed in Ireland on the grounds that they were on training flights rather than operational missions (which was not true on many occasions). As a result, no Americans serving under the US flag were interned, even temporarily, despite the fact that over 270 landed in Ireland. Some British airmen were interned, but most were released in late 1943 and the remainder in 1944. The German internees, on the other hand, were never released.