The ICRC in WW II: Overview of activities


The conflicts of the 1920s and 1930s had shown how warfare was evolving – notably the effects of modern technology and the deliberate targeting of civilians. Nothing, however, could have prepared the ICRC for the challenges it was to face between 1939 and 1945.

Overview of activities


©ICRC/Ref. hist-322/13 
Germany. Munich in May 1945. 
    During the Second World War, only Latin America and a number of neutral European countries were spared by the fighting. For the first time in history, aviation made it possible to bombard enemy territory over hundreds of square kilometres; for the first time too, the number of victims was higher among civilians than among soldiers. From the very beginning, Hitler's regime waged a racial war aimed at subjugating the Slavic peoples and wiping out all Jews and gypsies.

At the time, international humanitarian law included rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war (Geneva Convention of 27 July 1929), but not that of the civilian population.

The ICRC was therefore able to carry out activities to protect and assist prisoners of war, whereas its work for certain categories of civilians -- in particular, civilians held in concentration camps -- was to be very limited, or even non-existent (see The ICRC and the holocaust ).

ICRC delegates during the Second World War


ICRC delegates during the Second World War 
©ICRC/Ref. hist-3207/13 
Germany, March 1945. Red Cross trucks in Leipzig. 
    After the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, the ICRC sent delegates to the main countries at war: France, Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom. But because of the lightning speed at which military operations developed, the delegate who had set out for Warsaw was prevented from entering Poland . The principle task of all ICRC delegates was to visit prisoner-of-war camps.

From the summer of 1940 onwards, with the conflict spreading and millions of prisoners of war captured, the ICRC increased the size of its delegations, especially in Germany, where it was to end up with about 30 delegates. This number was totally inadequate, but Germany refused to allow additional staff to be sent.

Gradually, the ICRC opened up delegations in practically all the warring countries, with the exception of the USSR, which refused to let delegates from the organization onto its territory.


©ICRC/Ref. hist-3214/16a 
World War II. Loading relief supplies for British prisoners of war in Germany. 
    As for Japan and the countries under its occupation, the ICRC obtained authorization to send delegates to Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, the Japanese authorities refused accreditation to delegates in the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies and Borneo (now Indonesia), Singapore and Thailand. Here, deprived of official status, the Swis s delegates recruited locally by the ICRC could act only on a personal basis, and in extremely difficult conditions: without any contact with Geneva, and confronted by all kinds of harassment and hindrances, they were able to carry out only very limited activities, and then only by taking very great risks. In Borneo, Dr Matthaeus Visher and his wife were even accused of spying, because they tried to bring relief to prisoners of war. After a mockery of a trial, they were sentenced to death by a Japanese naval court, and beheaded.

By the end of the war, the ICRC was represented by 179 delegates spread over 76 permanent delegations, and assisted by hundreds of employees recruited locally. In addition, for particularly sensitive or important negotiations, the ICRC carried out 194 special assignments between September 1939 and June 1947.

See list of ICRC delegations .    
©ICRC/Ref. hist-1467/6141 
World War II. The "Caritas I" in Philadelphia. 

During the war, and despite enormous logistical difficulties, ICRC delegates travelled -- by plane, boat, train or car -- a total of over 16 million kilometres, the equivalent of 400 trips around the world.

At ICRC headquarters in Geneva, the maximum number of staff (which was reached in the spring of 1945) was 3,921, almost half of them volunteers.

Throughout the war, the ICRC worked primarily to assist two categories of victims: prisoners of war and civilians.

Prisoners of war during the Second World War


Prisoners of war during the Second World War 

The blinding speed of the major military offensives led to the capture of huge numbers of prisoners of war: over 600,000 Poles in September 1939; almost two million men (Dutch, Belgian, English and French) during the 1940 campaign; some five million Soviets on the Eastern front from the summer of 1941 onwards. Then, in May 1945, Germany's entire army fell into the hands of the Allies after the country's surrender, and finally, in September 1945, the whole Japanese army was taken into captivity.

These prisoners of war were scattered throughout the world. The main camps, which were inhabited by tens of thousands of prisoners, were the size of towns.

The Geneva Convention of 27 July 1929 Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War gave captives a certain number of rights which they could claim from the authorities detaining them. In addition, under this Convention the ICRC was entitled to enquire about what had become of prisoners of war and to make proposals regarding improvements in their detention conditions.    
©ICRC/Ref. hist-1712/8 
Germany, 1940. ICRC delegate interviewing a French prisoner of war in Stalag XVIIA. 
     On the basis of the Convention, in September 1939 the ICRC opened the The Central Agency for Prisoners of War , which performed three tasks: 

- centralizing all information on prisoners of war (notices of capture, transfer, death, etc.);

- handing over this information to the prisoners'countries of origin;

- keeping up contact between the prisoners and their families (passing on family messages).

In order to obtain as much information as possible on prisoners of war, the ICRC relied mainly on lists sent to it by the warring countries that had captured the prisoners, but it supplemented this information with enquiries conducted in the camps by its delegates.

From the time hostilities began, ICRC delegates visited prisoners of war. The first visits were made between 23 and 26 September 1939, when an ICRC delegate entered three camps for Polish prisoners of war in Germany .

Throughout the conflict, ICRC delegates continued systematically to visit prisoner-of-war camps: their main concern was to monitor what was happening to the captives and to improve their conditions of detention.

The delegates soon realized that the Axis powers were in no position to provide for the upkeep of the millions of Allied prisoners who had fallen into their hands. The shortages that prevailed throughout Europe made it impossible to obtain the supplies needed for them. The ICRC therefore entered into negotiations to get authorization to procure goods for this purpose outside Europe.

©ICRC/Ref. hist-3187/23a 
USA, 1942-1945. ICRC delegate Alfred Cardinaux interviewing a German prisoner of war. 

On 29 August 1940, the British gover nment agreed that collective relief could be sent to prisoners of war, on condition that the way this relief was being used would be subject to strict monitoring designed to guarantee that it was not going to help the Axis war effort. Thus, each relief consignment sent had to receive special authorization, each time requiring new negotiations on the part of the ICRC.

Owing to the dismantling of all transport networks, the ICRC had to set up a vast logistical operation for dispatching the relief supplies: chartering ships on the open sea under its own emblem; setting up huge warehouses at each stage, in Lisbon, Marseille, Göteborg, Lübeck, Geneva, and so on. From Switzerland, the supplies were sent on to Germany in sealed railway wagons. After the German railway network was destroyed, the goods travelled in convoys of trucks. A combination of strict bookkeeping of the receipts signed by persons trusted by the prisoners of war, together with spot checks carried out by ICRC delegates during their visits, made it possible to ensure that the relief was not diverted.

Thanks to the supplies sent to the ICRC by the countries of origin of the prisoners of war, each according to its means, the organization managed to provide four standard five-kg parcels per month to each American and British prisoner, and one or two parcels per month to prisoners of other nationalities. This meant monthly trips made by around 2,000 railway wagons, involving a total of 430,000 tonnes of supplies, or 90 million individual parcels.

These supplies improved the living conditions of millions of prisoners of war .

During the war, the ICRC also negotiated the repatriation of disabled prisoners. It succeeded in bringing 35,000 people back home -- half of these were war wounded, while the others were medical personnel and civilians.

The ICRC also visited German prisoners of war in the hands of the Allies , except in the USSR.

 The ICRC's failures  

The USSR was not party to the 1929 Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. At the start of the conflict, on 27 September 1939, the ICRC therefore decided to undertake negotiations with the Soviet authorities and suggested sending a delegate to Moscow, but the USSR refused. The ICRC repeated its offer on 26 October 1939, to no avail. It then approached the USSR's ambassadors in Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, also in vain.

On 22 June 1941, German troops invaded the Soviet Union. The ICRC asked the belligerents to apply the Convention's principles, which they agreed to do. However, the ICRC received no list of captives from either side, with the sole exception of a list of 300 Soviet prisoners of war held by Germany, which was sent to the organization in August 1941. 

Meanwhile, the ICRC was hearing more and more disturbing accounts of what was happening to Soviet prisoners in Germany: they lacked basic necessities and were dying in large numbers. The Allies had agreed to send relief to these prisoners only on condition that the distribution of the supplies was monitored. Germany, however, refused to allow any visit to the prisoners by delegates as long as the ICRC did not have access to German prisoners of war in the USSR. The situation was therefore deadlocked. Throughout the war, the ICRC was to continue, in vain, to try to get the USSR to agree to receive one of its delegates. So at no time during the Second World War was the ICRC authorized to visit German prisoners of war in the USSR, any more than it could visit Soviet prisoners of war in Germany.

In the Far East, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Japanese army succeeded in conquering almost half of Asia, capturing tens of thousands of prisoners of war. Although Japan was not party to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, the ICRC nevertheless asked the belligerents to apply the principles enshrined in the Convention. Despite a positive declaration of intent by the Japanese government, the country's authorities put up often insurmountable obstacles to the ICRC's attempts to take action. The lists of prisoners they passed on to the ICRC were incomplete and arrived after a delay of several months; ICRC delegates were not authorized to enter most camps, and when they were, the duration of the visits was limited and the delegates were not allowed to talk freely with the detainees; and finally, the ICRC was not authorized to send the prisoners relief in sufficient quantities.

Thus, in the conflict in the Far East, the ICRC's achievements were fragmentary and negligible compared with the needs of the prisoners and the efforts made by its delegates to provide them with protection and assistance (see ICRC activities in the Far East during the Second World War )

The ICRC'S work to help the civilian population during the Second World War


The ICRC'S work to help the civilian population during the Second World War 

During the Second World War, the civilian population was affected just as much, if not more so, than the members of the armed forces on land, at sea or in the air. Unlike the situation with prisoners of war, the ICRC had no specific legal basis for acting on behalf of civilians.

Protecting civilians in enemy hands
©ICRC/Ref. hist-3089/33 
United Kingdom: bombing in the City of London. 

From the outbreak of hostilities, the warring countries interned most enemy civilians who happened to be on their territories. The ICRC managed to arrange for these foreigners, who had been interned solely because of their nationality, to be treated in conformity with the provisions governing the treatment of prisoners of war.

Some 170,000 people had the benefit of this protection -- French nationals in Germany, for example, or, later on, Japanese citizens in the United States. As these civilian internees were put on the same footing as prisoners of war, the ICRC did the same protection and assistance work for them as it did for POWs.

In Germany and the German-occupied countries, a regime based on arbitrary arrests, deportation, hostage-taking and summary executions prevailed. The ICRC was almost powerless in the face of these kinds of persecution: it was unable to send delegates either to Poland (except for two short visits) or to the USSR and, consequently, was unable to help either the Polish population or that of the USSR.

 Protecting civilians from bombardment  

From the outbreak of hostilities, with the bombing of Warsaw, air warfare led to the destruction of entire cities and the death or mutilation of countless civilians.

Faced with this situation, while German bombs were destroying Warsaw and the rest of Poland, the ICRC submitted a memorandum to the governments of the warring States on 9 September 1939. The memorandum recommended the signing of ad hoc agreements aimed at setting up security zones, where civilians who took no part in the fighting could find shelter. But this initiative met with no response. 

After Warsaw came the bombing of Rotterdam, London and Coventry, followed by Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin and Tokyo, to mention only the most devastating. 

On 12 March 1940, the ICRC launched an appeal in which it recommended to the belligerents that they sign bilateral agreements banning, among other things, any attack directed against the civilian population as such and, in particular, bombings intended to intimidate.

The ICRC renewed this appeal on 13 May 1940, three days after the unleashing of the German offe nsive against the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. This appeal had no effect and the bombardment of cities continued. On 24 July and 30 December 1943, the ICRC launched fresh appeals against mass bombings -- these again met with no response.

©ICRC/Ref. hist-1330/32a 
Germany: Dresden in ruins. 
     In August 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a few seconds, over 100,000 people were irradiated, wounded or killed. The ICRC delegate who arrived in Hiroshima on 29 August 1945 could do no more than witness the horror. He informed his colleague in Tokyo, who alerted the staff of General MacArthur. The latter supplied the ICRC with 15 tonnes of medical supplies and, on 8 September, the delegate in Hiroshima distributed these supplies to the hospitals there (read more on this  ). 

In parallel with this, on 5 September 1945 the ICRC launched an appeal in which it drew the attention of States to the irreversible dangers of weapons of mass destruction.

 Protecting civilians from famine  

The civilian population also fell victim to famine. To bring relief to starving people, the ICRC and the League of Red Cross Societies (now called the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) decided to set up a body together, The Joint Relief Commission of the International Red C ross, which got emergency supplies through, especially to Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

For its part, the ICRC organized operations to bring supplies to the Channel Islands  and pockets of resistance on the Atlantic coast, as well as to the Dodecanese. But it was in Greece, from 1941 to 1945  , that the ICRC conducted its largest relief operations. This work in Europe enabled the ICRC to save hundreds of thousands of civilians. But the situation in the Far East, particularly in China, was just as appalling, if not more so. The ICRC, however, had no resources for undertaking major operations to help the population there, and its delegates were able to carry out only very limited activities (see ICRC activities in the Far East during the Second World War  ).