An order from British military intelligence allowed the Germans to seize 50,000 Allied prisoners of war from the Italians during the Second World War and transport them to camps in Germany and Poland.
Order P/W 87190, issued on 7 June 1943, stated that “in the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units.” As a result, the German army was able to walk into dozens of camps and round up the POWs. According to War Office records, more than 50,000 Allied soldiers were transported from Italian camps by cattle train to far worse conditions in Germany and Poland during the summer of 1943. Thousands are estimated to have died, either shot while trying to escape from the trains or in the camps over the course of the following two winters.
By midsummer 1943, as German troops poured into Italy, it became clear that the country was going to take months to conquer. Despite this, MI9 continued to transmit the order. Its unofficial history states proudly: “It is a tribute to the efficiency [MI9] had attained that almost every camp’s SBO [senior British officer] received the message in time.” Brigadier Crockatt, the head of MI9, “was happy at what was being done”. Later, MI9 tried to blame the order on Montgomery, claiming that Monty “probably gave his directive… in late May or early June when nominally on leave in London”, but no evidence has emerged to confirm this.
MI9 did not inform Churchill or the War Cabinet of its actions. Churchill wanted all POWs to be released immediately in the event of an Italian surrender and insisted that the condition be inserted in the agreement. Article 3 states: “All prisoners or internees of the United Nations to be immediately turned over to the Allied commander-in-chief and none of these may now or at any time be evacuated to Germany.”
The Italian War Ministry fulfilled the agreement on the day of the surrender, telling camp commandants to remove their guards, but because of MI9’s order thousands of Allied prisoners failed to take the opportunity to run. When the commandant withdrew his guards at Camp PG57 near Trieste, the senior British officer, loyal to the “stay put” order, kept the gates closed and ordered the men not to leave. Within 24 hours, the camp was surrounded by Germans and the window of opportunity had closed.
The Italian guards abandoned Camp PG21 in Chieti in the middle of the night. When the SBO, a Colonel Marshall, threatened to court-martial any POW who left, there was a near mutiny, so he appointed his own phalanx of guards and ordered them to man the watchtowers. German paratroops were astonished to discover the prisoners milling around inside the camp compound. Some 1,300 soldiers were transported to camps in Poland and Germany.
However, at PG49 in Fontanellato near Parma, On 9th September 1943, after the Italian armistice, all 600 men marched out with the connivance of the Italian commandant and guards an hour before the Germans arrived.
In all, 50,000 soldiers were seized by the Germans. What happened to most of the remaining 30,000 is a mystery. After the war, the MoD estimated that 11,500 escaped, by risking a perilous crossing of the Alps into Switzerland or getting through German lines to reach Allied forces.
Of those captured by the Germans, at least 4% to 5% are believed to have died in captivity. After the war, several families threatened to sue MI9.
The original order has disappeared from the War Office archives at Kew, perhaps destroyed by someone who did not want to be linked to the blunder. The truth of who was responsible for creating one of the untold scandals of the Second World War may never be known.