A German Captive in Wartime India

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the experience of German civilians in British India during World War II – and the story of one in particular

A German Captive in Wartime India
Note: This is the second of two articles by the author about captives and their experiences during the Second World War and is set in India.

Well before the Prisoner of War camps started filling with soldiers during the Second World War, thousands of civilians considered hostile were interned. The US placed 130,000 citizens of German and Japanese descent into internment camps. For their part, as the Japanese swept through East Asia and South East Asia, they interned 140,000 Dutch, British, and American civilians. The British in India interned many nationals of hostile nations including Germans, Austrians, Italians, etc.

I heard about an internment camp in Dehradun as a boy of 13 years when Mortimer von Belling arrived from Germany to stay with us. My parents had been invited out for dinner that evening but von Belling was too tired to join them and was happy to have a quiet meal with my sister Shama (then aged 17) and myself. She had an inquisitive mind and while we were sitting next to the fire after dinner, she asked our guest, “Uncle! How is it that your first name is so English?” Mortimer is a surname that dates back to the Middle Ages when the Mortimers were a powerful family in Herefordshire. “It’s a long tale,” he said with a smile and on gentle prompting by my sister narrated a fascinating life story.

Cartoon by a German internee of the assembly roll call at the camp in Ahmednagar during the Second World War

It began after the First World War when his mother, still single, fell in love with an officer serving in the British mission in Berlin. She belonged to an aristocratic family and obviously there was no question of her parents granting permission to marry a person from a country that had been at war with Germany. The affair ended when the officer returned to Britain. Sometime later she married a Prussian from the von Belling family. The family has been known in Pomerania since around 1274. During the Seven Years War (1756-63), 20 out of 23 Bellings serving in Prussia’s army fell in battle. In the final stages of delivering their first child, when the pain became unbearable, she shouted “Mortimer! Mortimer!” – the name of her British lover. Her husband was very kind and understanding and they named their newborn son Mortimer. The story does not end here.

After the First World War, German multinationals and businesses looked to India as an accessible market and the Indians turned to Germany because they saw a potential partner with similar anti-British feelings who could deliver products India could not yet manufacture. During the 1920s, Mortimer’s father developed a successful trading business in India and expanded it into South East Asia. When he passed away in the 1930s, Mortimer took over the business and like the other expatriates, had a comfortable life in Bombay. He did not have Nazi leanings and probably kept his distance from the other Germans – many of whom were pro-Nazi. There was a Nazi Club in Bombay and the pro-Nazi Germans often walked around in their brown shirts. These “Braunhemden” (Brownshirts) were part of the Sturmabteilung - the paramilitary arm of the Nazi party. However, Mortimer had Indian friends as well as friends within the British community, including senior officers in the administration and the police.
There was a Nazi Club in Bombay and the pro-Nazi Germans often walked around in their brown shirts

His life suddenly changed when Germany invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war. That very night, all male Germans were arrested as enemy aliens from most parts of India – including even Jews who had fled to India to escape persecution in Germany. All had been registered by the police before the war and many were working for three German companies: Siemens, the chemical company I.G. Farben and the steel producer Krupp. However, there were also a fairly large community of missionaries all over India and businessmen like Mortimer von Belling.

The Bombay Superintendent of Police, who he used to regularly drink with, came personally to inform Mortimer and escort him to the military barracks where the internees were being assembled. The other “enemy aliens” minus the women and children were escorted into captivity with the same degree of civil behaviour. Unfortunately, their families were later also interned. But after a year and a half, a separate camp was established where the men could live with their families.

Painting by an internee of Wing 1 of the Central Internment Camp at Premnagar, Dehradun that he named Camp Teutonicus. He depicts it as a Roman Army encampment

The internees from Bombay were brought to Ahmednagar by train and in the heat of September, made to walk eight kilometers to the internment camp. The pro-Nazi Germans had pronounced racial prejudices and felt humiliated to be supervised by “coloured” (Sikh) soldiers. The internees initially had a difficult time because they were all put into tents through which the monsoon rains poured. However, life became bearable once the British soldiers gradually left for the war and the internees moved into their barracks – but it took all of two months. Many more German missionaries and businessmen, German Jewish refugees and emigrants, as well as Austrians and people from other pro-Axis nationalities continued to flow in from all parts of India.

The internees stayed at Ahmednagar for a year and a half and were then shifted to Deolali on the edge of the Rajasthan Desert in Central India. In the words of Walter Knips, an internee who struck a friendship with Mortimer,

“The accommodations were miserable. A desert like environment of high temperatures and sandstorms, along with insufficient provisions, soon led to protests against the English camp management and ultimately to a hunger strike. After seven days this resulted in the arrival of a telegram from the military authorities in Delhi, entreating us to abandon our strike”.

The German internees of Barrack 17 West at the camp at Ahmednagar during the Second World War. Identified by numbered circles - 1. Walter Knips, 2. Gert Swatek, 3. Gert Winternitz, 4. Mortimer von Belling (seated) and 5. Willi Zolle

The authorities had decided to establish a large camp near Dehradun that could hold 4,000 internees. Twenty years later following the Sino-Indian War, the camp at Deolali would again be used – this time to intern 7,000 Chinese Indians, many of whom died because they were unaccustomed to the hot desert climate.

The Germans were shifted to Dehradun in October 1941. The camp was located in the foothills of the Himalayas at Premnagar (which could be translated as the Town of Love), and it would be their home for the next five years. There were in fact four separate camps for pro-Nazi Germans, anti-Nazi Germans, Italians and one known as the Central Internment Camp for a host of other nationalities from nations considered hostile. Though far better than Deolali, the conditions were still primitive - with thatched roofs on the barracks. Fortunately, the “Tommy” (British) guards were friendly and played football with the Germans in the large grounds within the camp. They were also very appreciative of the whiskey that the Germans brewed. Gradually the medical staff provided by the camp administration was pulled out to the war front but among the hundreds of professionals there were many Jewish doctors and dentists to care for the internees. Walter Knips, von Belling and a few others volunteered to work alongside them at the camp hospital where Mortimer was given the nickname “Herrn von Lassen” (Sir I’ll-let-you-do-it) since he always preferred to have others do things for him.
The internees spent all of seven years in captivity in India

My elder brother Hassan, who met Mortimer sometime in the 1960s, remembers him as a very jovial and likable person – the sort of traits that must have made him popular with his fellow internees. Ernst Messerschmidt, a camp artist, drew in the style of an old copper engraving Wing 1 of the Central Interment Camp which by 1943 held 500 German internees (out of a total of over 1,700), who had been brought in from many locations between Iraq and Hong Kong. Ernst named the camp Teutonicus (Latin for “Germanic”) and painted it in the style of a Roman Army encampment behind a palisade fence, set against the beautiful ambience of a lovely river valley under the Himalayas. Hidden within the comic Latin inscriptions in the painting was the bitter camp fate of German internees as also in the title scroll - “Exilium Triste Domini Mortimer de Belling” (The Sad Banishment of Mortimer de Belling).

The internees were permitted to go on excursions and hikes after signing a bond that they would not try to escape. Johannes Klimkeit describes in his diary their first outing under the watchful eyes of an escort of British soldiers.

“We had good food in the camp and we were not tired. And these poor English fellows with their guns had to run after us, [...] to keep an eye on their internees. There were Harrer, Aufschnaiter, Schmaderer and Magener, [...] they could run over the hills. They were mountaineers. And when we returned the first day from the outing, these soldiers went to Colonel Williams [the camp commandant] and informed him: ‘This is impossible. These Germans have good legs; they don’t get tired. They hike like anything and we have to keep them in our sight’”

The excursions gave some of the internees an opportunity to study the area around the camp and train for an escape. Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer, was one of those who escaped with six others and ended up in Lhasa as a guest of the Dalai Lama for the rest of the war along with Aufschnaiter, a fellow escapee. Harrer subsequently wrote Seven Years in Tibet which became a bestseller and made into a film starring Brad Pitt.

Walter Knips, Trade Commissioner at the German Embassy (right) - with
Lt Gen Nasir and members of the 1953 Nanga Parbat Expedition
at a reception at Chaklala Airport

The internees spent all of seven years in captivity. As one of them reflected in his later years,

“Our freedom had been stolen from us from September 1939 until January 1947. The mundane daily routine and the uncertainty of when the war would end, along with the barbed wire milieu, and living without women and children, contributed to several problems.”

Internment was a strong test of their patience. Tere were a number who had psychological problems. However, they had one big consolation: that they were saved from fighting in the war and remained alive.

They were finally released nearly two years after Germany surrendered and following a five-week journey on a crowded ship, which picked up 1,200 more PoWs from Mombasa, they arrived in Hamburg on an extremely cold December day in 1946. Two weeks more were spent in a repatriation camp before they were finally released and given $5 each by the Red Cross. Mortimer bought a jacket with one dollar and managed a ride to his home town of Dusseldorf. Here he spent another dollar to rent a room for a week and one more to buy food. He saved one dollar and with the last, bought a kit for repairing cycles and punctures and set up shop on a sidewalk. It must have been depressing to be back home in wartorn Germany.

Some weeks later to his surprise, he was summoned to a British military headquarters and met by an elderly gentleman. The gentleman asked Mortimer if he had any information on the whereabouts of his mother. She had returned to Germany after his father had passed away and Mortimer had lost contact with her when the war began. He had no idea where she was or even if she was alive. “She is alive and living in East Germany,” the gentleman informed Mortimer. He expressed surprise and asked “Why are you inquiring about my mother and who are you?” The gentleman replied,“I work for British Intelligence and knew your mother when I was posted in Berlin after the First World War.” He then added with a smile, “We share the same name.”

It may have been because of the smoke from the fire, but my sister had tears in her eyes.

Mortimer did not share with us the gentleman’s name but for purposes of this story I shall call him Thomas. According to Mortimer, Thomas had kept track of his mother through the inter-war years and again searched her out at the end of the Second World War. A couple of months after their meeting, Thomas had her smuggled across from East Germany and reunited her with her son. She was unwell and Thomas took her to England for treatment along with Mortimer. Thomas was a widower and they stayed at his country residence. He had an attractive grownup daughter and Mortimer confided that he knew that Thomas would have approved of a marriage.

“Did you?” asked my sister.

“No!” replied Mortimer.

“Why not?” asked my sister with the frankness of youth.

“Because I was already too indebted to him,” he confessed.

I don’t remember what Mortimer may have told us that evening about how he fared in the two decades after the war but he did admit that his generation worked very hard to rebuild their country. In 1970 we met him again when my sister and I accompanied our parents on a tour of Europe. We were his guests in Dusseldorf and he was working as a director of the Dresdner Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany. One afternoon, he and his wife invited us for lunch at Zum Schiffchen (meaning “To the Ship”) which is the oldest and certainly one of the more expensive restaurants in Dusseldorf. Established around 1628, it boasts of Napoleon Bonaparte among its patrons and has his picture hanging in the corner where he sat and dined. Mortimer had come a long way from when he restarted his life in Germany with $5.

As for Mortimer’s friend Walter Knips, life treated him kindly too. In an article on his internship and his life after, his daughter Fanziska writes that Walter had been employed by Siemens in Bombay before the war but they did not accept him back on repatriation. However, he was thrilled to be appointed as a trade representative with the first diplomatic mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to Pakistan in 1952 and was based in Karachi – of which she as a little girl has some fond memories. In an exchange of emails with Fanziska, I came to know that a year after arriving in Pakistan, Walter organized the logistics and paperwork for the 1953 German-Austrian Expedition to Nanga Parbat with which my father was also associated. Walter accompanied the climbers to the base camp and on returning to Rawalpindi the expedition attended a reception in their honour at the airport. It was hosted by the Pakistan Army and organized by my father Maj Gen Syed Shahid Hamid. When I emailed the pictures of the reception to Fanziska, she identified her father in four of them and wrote back,

“Is it not astounding how everything and everyone is connected around the world?”

I am grateful to Cristoph Gabler who has done a yeoman’s effort in assembling on his homepage a host of material related to the German internees in India – from which I extracted information and images for this article. I am also to grateful to Franziska Hart for sharing so much information about her father and their stay in Pakistan. The material on Von Belling’s personal life is from my memory of his narration nearly 60 years ago and I would request any member of his family who reads this account not to feel offended if I have misquoted Mortimer.