|Belgium needed workers, particularly miners, to rebuild the economy. So they got the idea to use German prisoners of war for that job. Because Belgium had no "own" prisoners, the Belgian government asked the Brits. The Brits agreed and until October 1945 they transferred 16.000 mostly professional German miners to Belgium. The prisoners did a pretty good job in the mines of the Belgian area called "Limbourg" and the Belgian government was encouraged to ask for more workers. For this they asked the Americans now for 30.000 men. Also the Americans agreed and transferred the entire CCPWE #26 at Erbiseul. Not transferred were Officers, war criminals, non Germans, women, men over 50 years and the men who were not fit for labor. But in that camp just 3.000 men were fit for labor and so the Americans transferred prisoners from Italy, USA and other western European countries to CCPWE #26. In the end of September 1945 the transfer of 30.000 men to Belgian custody was completed but of this number were 11.000 not fit for the labor in mines. So they asked the Brits again for more 15.000 laborer. Also this time the Brits agreed and in November 1945 were 64.021 prisoners of war in Belgian custody. 52.150 worked as miner, 1.617 in forestry and 1.560 at mine disposal.|
The prisoners lived near the mines in most cases. The costs for building a camp was charged to the mining company which was interested to use the PW's. The first camps were build in Limbourg and later in the southern coal-areas. It was important to the Belgian government to use the prisoners as fast as possible. Because the construction of camps needed some time the prisoners lived in tents or other temporary solutions. [Details]
The rations of the British Army were of good quality but not enough to feed the hard working miners. Starting August 1945 the Belgians were responsible for food on their own. That caused new problems. Starting mid 1946, canteens were opened in the camps. A special problem was the camp in Erbiseul. The most prisoners in that camp were not fit for labor. The food ration for non working prisoners was lower and they got no payment to buy some extra foot at the canteen. Still in June '46 the ICRC pointed out a dangerous loss of weight of the prisoners in Erbiseul and that a catastrophe could be possible.
The prisoners had just the clothes they wore and the condition was very poor in most cases. If someone had some more or better clothes he lost them to a Belgian guard mostly. A big problem was the supply of clothes for labor. Often a miner got just a hat made from braided and lacked straw instead of a helmet.
It was allowed to the PW's to write 2 letters (24 lines) and 2 cards (7 lines) every month. The mail got censored and sometimes that caused the observation of a prisoner. It was not allowed to write about the place of living, kind of work, to use codes or to criticize the custody power. The prisoners didn't understand what military secrets got protected with that kind of censorship after the end of the war.
A high percentage of prisoners got sick in Belgium. It is possible that one reason was the bad clothing. In the beginning was a lack of anything but later the situation got improved generally. At camp FO VI Elsenborn was still in June '46 no hospital. Very often sick prisoners worked to keep their wages. A sick person got 30% of his wages and patients with work-accidents 80%. Very sick persons were transported to the military hospital Beverloo at Leopoldsburg or to the military hospital in Charloi. For a short time also the hospital in Leiven took care of German prisoners of war. [Deathrate]
Also for the leisure time supply was scarce. There wasn't enough paint, sport equipment, music instruments or paper. Not all prisoners could or wanted to employ their self cultural, mental or in sports and therefore was beer the most sold product in the canteens.
Relationship between prisoners and Belgians:
After the end of war, the Belgians had understandably an anti-German attitude. From this resulted often brutality and power-misuse of single Belgian officers and guards. Also in the mines were often fights. The prisoners had hardly contact with the civilian population.
Because the date of the dismissal was uncertain and the home quite near, 3913 men tried to flee; 2008 successful. The recaptured men were punished roughly and also physical maltreatments occurred. When the Belgian government official published in October 1946, that all prisoners get released in 1947, the number of the escape-attempts decreased rapidly.
Sick persons, disabled men, men with many children, theology-students and Austrians were released in the beginning. The first were 2.226 prisoners in December, who could not work in the mines. They were handed over to the Americans and came into the CCPWE #18 at Jambes (Namur). In February 1946 another 6.500 were handed over to the Americans and they came into CCPWE #15 at Croutoys (Attichy). After that date no men unfit as miner got released but they got other work. In May and June 1946 were 2.008 men released which were due to their injuries not fit for any kind of labor. Sick persons were released very late again in February 1947 because the allied authorities blockaded earlier necessary dismissals.
At 18. March 1946 first concrete plans to the repatriation of all prisoners of war were discussed. The men should be released after they produced 1/2 year 85 - 90% of the performance of a Belgian colleague. Beside that, the possibility should be given to the war-prisoners, to apply as free co-workers. The plan got approved at 31. Octobers 1946 by the government of Belgium. Nevertheless, the USA wrote an official note to induce Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to repatriate the war-prisoners until October 1, 1947 at least. So the Belgians made a plan for the repatriation in several phases;
1. phase 15. May 1947: 10.000 miners
2. phase 15. June 1947: 7.000 miners and 5.000 war-prisoners with other duties
3. phase 15. July 1947: 7.000 mine-seekers and 4.000 others
4. phase August and September 1947: 4.000 miners and 3.000 others
5. phase end of 1974: 3.500 should help with the dissolution of the camps and should get released by the end of the year at least.
These dates were kept in general by the Belgian side. Simultaneously, the Belgians tried to recruit foreign-workers in Italy for their mines.
With their help to the rebuilding of Belgium, the German war-prisoners have contributed a big part to a German recompense. Unfortunately, today this aspect is hardly known by the Belgian and - far shaming - German population.