British soldiers forced to work as slaves for Nazis sue Germany for compensation

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The Independent Online

British prisoners of war who were forced to work in Nazi slave-labour camps will begin legal proceedings tomorrow against the German government for unpaid wages.

British prisoners of war who were forced to work in Nazi slave-labour camps will begin legal proceedings tomorrow against the German government for unpaid wages.

Lawyers representing an estimated 3,000 surviving PoWs will claim that British soldiers should be compensated for the personal injuries they suffered while working in extreme and sometimes dangerous conditions.

Martyn Day, a solicitor who is also representing PoW claims against the Japanese, said that forcing soldiers to work in slave-labour camps to help the German war effort was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention.

Towards the end of the Second World War, thousands of British prisoners of war were taken from prison camps run by the German Army and forced into slave labour. Successive British governments after 1945 were reluctant to raise the issue of compensation in case it soured relations with West Germany ­ a vital ally during the Cold War.

Harold Crooks, 79, from Rotherham, was a guardsman in the Coldstream Guards stationed in Palestine when war was declared in 1939. He spent three years in the North African desert campaign fighting first the Italians and then Rommel's Afrika Korps.

He was captured on 20 June 1942 during a German night attack near Tobruk. His regiment had been asked to help form a rearguard unit which was surprised by German tanks breaking through the British lines.

He spent the first two years as a prisoner in Italy where he says he was treated well. But when the Allies landed in southern Italy the Germans took over the camps and moved the PoWs back to Germany. Mr Crooks was taken to a PoW marshalling station in Lamsdorf, Upper Silesia, and then sent to a slave-labour camp in Trzebinia-Sierza, Poland. It was here that British soldiers were used to supplement the Polish slave workforce by digging for iron ore.

"These were very bad conditions. We were not given much food and forced to push our wheelbarrows over suspended gangways ­ one slip and you were a gonner," remembers Mr Crooks. He said many of the Poles died of starvation.

Later he was transferred to another camp near Auschwitz, this time mining coal, where conditions were even harsher. As the Red Army pushed into Poland the Germans marched the PoWs back to Germany. During the gruelling three-week trek in the middle of winter the British soldiers suffered terrible frostbite injuries. Mr Crooks had three of his toes amputated and the others were so damaged that they were permanently deformed.

In April 1945 he was released by the Americans. After several months convalescing in hospitals in Leicester and Doncaster, he finally returned to his family. He married in 1948, had three children, and, putting his slave-labour experiences behind him, began working in a local coal mine.

Mr Crooks' claim against the German government is for monetary compensation for the work he undertook but for which he was never paid. He still has the vouchers he was given by the German camp commander which were suppose to be exchanged for German marks.

"I have have not received a single penny for that work. It has all been shoved under the carpet because of the Cold War and the need to maintain good relations with Germany."

Mr Day, senior partner at the London litigation firm Leigh, Day & Co, will argue that British servicemen have been excluded from a settlement currently being negotiated between German companies and civilian slave labourers from Germany, America and the former Soviet bloc.

Tomorrow, he will tell Otto Lambsdworff, the chief German negotiator, that British PoWs will be seeking a share of the £2.2bn already being offered to civilian workers.

The current deal on the table amounts to a single payment of around £200 per worker but gives the German companies a fixed liability.

Mr Crook describes the offer as an "insult". And he says it has come far too late for all the other PoWs forced to work as slave labourers but who have died.

"They're a rich country they have had it easy since the war. Anyone would think the Nazis were a breed apart but they were all Germans."