The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Prisoners of War in the Second World War

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Quarto Publishing Group USA, May 25, 2011 - History - 511 pages
“A moving and eye-opening account of the lives of second world war PoWs by the daughter of a man who was captured . . . a riveting collection of stories.” —The Guardian

Feature films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape have created the stereotype of the Second World War prisoner of war. But, as Midge Gillies shows in this groundbreaking work of social history, the true experiences of nearly half a million Allied servicemen held captive during the Second World War were nothing like the Hollywood myth—and infinitely more extraordinary.

The real lives of POWs saw them respond to the tedium of a German stalag or the brutality of a Japanese camp with the most amazing ingenuity and creativity. They staged glittering shows, concerts and elaborate sporting fixtures, made exquisite ornaments—even, amid the terrible privations of the Thailand-Burma railway, improvised daring surgical techniques to save their fellow men’s lives. Whatever skills or hobbies they took with them to captivity they managed to continue and adapt—to the extent of laying out a 9-hole golf course between the huts of one German camp. They took up crafts and pastimes using materials they found around them: even the string from a Red Cross food parcel was used to make cricket balls, football nets and wigs for theatrical performances. Men studied, attended lectures, learned languages, sat for qualifications and exams, on such a scale that one camp was nicknamed “The Barbed-Wire University.”

Drawing on letters home, diaries and interviews with redoubtable survivors now into their nineties, Midge Gillies recreates the daily lives of a truly remarkable group of men.

“Astonishing tales of improvisation, ingenuity and courage.” —The Spectator


University of Kuching
Languages and Communicating with the Outside World
Hidden Wireless Sets
The Magic of Letters from Home
The Changi Murals
Reading for Profit

Uses for a Red Cross Parcel Number 2 Cigarettes
Stalag Happy Imaginary Worlds and Other Ways of Escape
Uses for a Red Cross Parcel Number 3 Tins
POW Artists
Food and Cooking
Make Do and Mend
Youll Never Get Off this Island
Recording Captivity Through Art and Photography
POW Doctor
Escape Through Birdwatching
Survival Teams
Escape Through Study
Gardening and Birdwatching 29 Study
Music and Theatre
The ThailandBurma Railway
Art and Medicine on the Railway
Archaeologist on the Death Railway
Entertainment and Ingenuity in Thailand
Changi Gaol
The POW Diaspora
Somewhere Near the
Victory in the Far East

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About the author (2011)

Midge Gillies has written six books including highly acclaimed biographies of the record-breaking pilot Amy Johnson, and Edwardian music hall star, Marie Lloyd. In Waiting for Hitler, Britain on the Brink of Invasion she recreated the tension and fear that permeated the summer of 1940. She studied at Cambridge University and has written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Independent and the Los Angeles Times. She is a part-time tutor for the University of Cambridge's Institute of Continuing Education. Her father was a prisoner of war in Europe and she is married to the prize-winning crime novelist, Jim Kelly. They live in Cambridgeshire with their daughter, Rosa.

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