How WWII Italian POWs built Eden prison camp in Yorkshire

Mussolini’s men who helped Britain ‘dig for victory’: How Italian POWs built their own prison camp in Yorkshire… and loved it so much that NO ONE even tried to escape

  • Inmates finished the construction of Eden prisoner of war camp in Malton, North Yorkshire, in 1942
  • The camp first housed Italian troops captured in North Africa, before making way for Germans in 1944
  • They were sent to work during the day on local farms and were trusted to return each evening
  • Archivist Jonny Pye said there were no recorded escape attempts, because camp was a ‘fairly happy place’  

Smiling broadly as they pose for a group photo, 12 smartly-dressed men look as though they could be work colleagues. 

But it is the huts behind them which betray who they really are: ‘happy’ Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa in the early years of the Second World War.

The men were among more than 500,000 German and Italian troops who were taken prisoner by Britain in World War Two and housed in a network of 1,500 detention centres across the country.

Whilst most former camps now lie hidden beneath shopping centres, car parks and decades of shrubbery, one – Eden in North Yorkshire – has been preserved and is now a museum.

After captured Italian soldiers helped to finish its construction near the town of Malton in 1942, Eden housed around 1,200 inmates.

The camp featured last night in UKTV’s latest episode of Buildings That Fought Hitler, which delved into how inmates were put to work on local farms, helping Britain to ‘dig for victory’ in the war.

Eden’s archivist Jonny Pye said there were no recorded escape attempts, because the camp was a ‘fairly happy place’.

He said the only occasional ‘bit of bother’ was with prisoners who had ‘popped out’ to see girlfriends and had returned late to the camp.

Smiling broadly as they pose for a group photo, 12 smartly-dressed men look as though they could be work colleagues. But it is the huts behind them which betray who they really are: ‘happy’ Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa in the early years of the Second World War and housed at Eden camp in Malton, North Yorkshire


Whilst most former camps now lie hidden beneath shopping centres, car parks and decades of shrubbery, one – Eden in North Yorkshire – has been preserved and is now a museum. Pictured: The camp during the war (left) and more recently

As part of the Geneva Convention – which governed the treatment of prisoners of war – Britain was able to make inmates work in agriculture and even in mining.

After thousands of Italians were captured in North Africa and elsewhere in 1941, most were sent to Britain to work.

With nearly all young British men forced to enlist in the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force, the war had created a devastating labour shortage on the home front.

Camps which had initially been designed simply as prisons evolved into hubs from which prisoners could be sent to work in the countryside, wherever they were needed.

Historian Professor Juliette Pattinson said: ‘There were over 550,000 prisoners of war that were on mainland Britain.

‘Over 150,000 of those were based in agriculture. So Germans, Italians and Ukrainians.

‘By 1946, they actually comprised a fifth of the agricultural workforce. So they were hugely significant in Britain’s attempt to be self-sufficient and to the dig for victory.’

The men were among more than 500,000 German and Italian troops who were taken prisoner by Britain in World War Two and housed in a network of 1,500 detention centres across the country. Pictured: German inmates at the camp  

After captured Italian soldiers helped to finish its construction near the town of Malton in 1942, Eden housed around 1,200 inmates. The camp featured last night in UKTV’s latest episode of Buildings That Fought Hitler, which delved into how inmates were put to work on local farms, helping Britain to ‘dig for victory’ in the war

Today, Eden is among only 12 surviving prisoner of war camps in Britain. It was originally made up of 45 huts, 18 of which were for housing

Eden initially solely housed Italian inmates. They then made way for German prisoners in the summer of 1944, after the successful Allied invasion of Normandy. Pictured: German prisoners pose for a group photo

The British soldiers who guarded the camp are seen above posing for a group photograph with their two dogs. As part of the Geneva Convention – which governed the treatment of prisoners of war – Britain was able to make inmates work in agriculture and even in mining

With nearly all young British men forced to enlist in the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force, the war had created a devastating labour shortage on the home front. Pictured: Eden camp store staff

Eden is one of the few World War Two prisoner of war camps which have not been redeveloped or covered over. Pictured: The camp during the war

Today, Eden is among only 12 surviving prisoner of war camps in Britain. It was originally made up of 45 huts, 18 of which were for housing.

The rest served as workshops, kitchens, recreation halls, a hospital and a camp shop.

There would be a roll call each morning, where prisoners were counted. They would then be sent off to farms to work before being re-counted when they returned.

Pye said: ‘The prisoners in the camp would have worn yellow diamonds on their backs and on their trousers as well.

‘Each prison camp tended to have a different insignia on the back of the prisoners. It could be circles, it could be red circles, tartan squares, whatever.’

He said many of the inmates at Eden had been craftsmen before the war, so would spend their time making things.

‘They had lots of talented people here. So a lot of the prisoners would make objects,’ he said.

‘They would make toys for the children that they had befriended on local farms. And they would make items to trade as well. More useful items like slippers and baskets, things like that.’

Eden’s archivist Jonny Pye said there were no recorded escape attempts, because the camp was a ‘fairly happy place’. He said the only occasional ‘bit of bother’ was with prisoners who had ‘popped out’ to see girlfriends and had returned late to the camp. Pictured: Camp staff

There would be a roll call each morning, where prisoners were counted. They would then be sent off to farms to work before being re-counted when they returned. Pictured: An inmate poses with two pet cats at the camp 

Mr Pye said many of the inmates at Eden had been craftsmen before the war, so would spend their time making things. ‘They had lots of talented people here. So a lot of the prisoners would make objects,’ he said. Pictured: A German inmate on a bicycle

Eden initially solely housed Italian inmates. They then made way for German prisoners in the summer of 1944, after the successful Allied invasion of Normandy.

As for inmates forming relationships with British women, historian Guy Walters said: ‘You also had quite a complicated interface between these people.

‘Because you’ve got local women falling in love with attractive young German squaddies working in fields.

‘And of course you know, that happened. And it’s kind of one of those great unsaids, because it obviously doesn’t reflect well on anybody who is having an affair with an enemy troop.’

Walters added that the legacy of the prisoner population in Britain is visible today.

‘You’ve got an enormous amount of Italians near Edinburgh. You’ve got amazing ice cream in Edinburgh. Why? Because of the prisoners of war,’ he said.

Even once war had ended, prisoners continued to be interred in Britain until 1948.

After the last prisoners left in 1948, Eden was first used as a holiday camp for school children. It was later used as a Government agriculture depot before becoming overgrown. When three former Italian inmates visited the site in 1985, the idea to turn it into a museum was born. It opened to the public two years later 

Items made by Eden’s inmates are now on display at the museum. They include this wooden model of a flatbed truck

This pair of slippers was also made by inmates at Eden, who Mr Pye said enjoyed a fairly ‘happy’ time at the camp

In ordinary times, Eden museum hosts thousands of visitors every year. Pictured: Guests pose with men in World War Two costume

However, around 25,000 German prisoners opted to stay in Britain even when they were free to leave.

After the last prisoners left in 1948, Eden was first used as a holiday camp for school children.

It was later used as a Government agriculture depot before becoming overgrown.

When three former Italian inmates visited the site in 1985, the idea to turn it into a museum was born.

It opened to the public two years later and was hosting thousands of visitors every year before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Visitors can enjoy lunch in the former prison canteen, whilst in each hut they can learn about various aspects of the Second World War.

The museum, which re-opened when it was legally able to do so on May 17, also hosts performances and events where visitors are encourages to dress in period costume.

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