Page last updated at 06:01 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

'Wembley Way' built by German Prisoners of War

By Mike Thomson
BBC News

The first cars on Olympic Way, leading to Wembley Stadium
Olympic Way - often called Wembley Way - opened for traffic in 1948

English Sporting icons don't come much bigger than Wembley Stadium but few realise that it owes some of its splendour to the labour of German prisoners of war.

The news, which follows an investigation by BBC Radio 4's Document programme, may come as a shock to many England fans who view Germany as their fiercest sporting rivals.

In 1948 the stadium was to host the Olympics and the area around needed to be redeveloped.

The trouble was that the carnage of WWII and the need to maintain a vast standing army had left Britain with a big manpower shortage.

The solution was to fill the gaps with German POWs, many of whom were still held captive in the country, nearly three years after the war had ended.

Initially it was decided that the POWs, who were housed in camps across Britain, would be put to work sweeping up cigarette butts and other sorts of rubbish and rubble.

The proposal led to an outcry in the press. It was widely feared that the sight of POW being used in this way so long after the war would reflect very badly on the country.

A columnist at the Daily Express wrote: "POW squad makes me blush for Britain. The games threaten to involve us all in one thoroughly unedifying event not on the programme.

"It is fair to assume that the Ministry of Labour will think very hard before indenting for a slave squad to operate quite so publicly and before quite so many overseas visitors."

Food rationing

Such concerns were shared by the Olympics Minister, Philip Noel Baker.

The archives show that after sharing his thoughts with government colleagues there was a change of plan. The POWs would not be used for rubbish clearance after all. Instead their labour would be deployed on building construction and the road leading to Wembley's hallowed turf.

Fans on Wembley's Olympic Way, Cup Final day, 2008
The original Olympic Way has been incorporated into the new stadium

The following announcement was made of behalf of Wembley Stadium Ltd: "In view of the adverse reaction they are not proceeding with the idea. They are however, employing German Prisoners of War on the preparatory work.

"The idea came to them because the local council, who are widening the approach roads, were using German Prisoner of War labour. The stadium authorities applied for German labour and are now employing 44 Germans out of a total of 123."

Ironically, Germany was not invited to compete in the games even though the labour of dozens of its captive nationals had been used to help build the infrastructure.

At one point, in 1946, there were 400,000 German prisoners of war in Britain. The majority were sent to work the land.

With Britain and much of Europe still in the grip of food rationing they were needed to harvest crops. At this time one in five farm workers in Britain were German POWs.

Although the conditions they lived in were much better than those in other parts of Europe and luxury compared to the dreadful Soviet labour camps, they faced harsh restrictions.

Under what was called the Fraternization ban they were initially forbidden to mix with local people.

German PoWs by a train
The last German prisoners were sent home in 1948

Warning notices went up all over Britain: "German prisoners of war are being employed in this neighbourhood. These men are forbidden to fraternise with members of the public, except in so far as may be strictly necessary for the efficient performance of their work."

Without any news of when they would be allowed to go home, many German POWs suffered from depression and records show that some took their own lives.

Questions were raised in the House of Commons about why the men were still in captivity.

Public concern

Some argued that Britain was in breach of the Geneva Convention for not releasing the POWs as soon as fighting had finished.

The government denied the charge. It claimed that the convention did not apply because no actual peace deal had been signed with Germany which had surrendered unconditionally.

Ministers further insisted that the use of German POW labour was entirely justified because Germany had started the war and was therefore to blame for Britain's labour shortage.

But public concern at the POW's continued detention led to the rules being relaxed gradually.

By 1947 they were able to go to pubs and dances and some were even invited to British families' homes for Christmas dinner.

This was how POW Rudi Drabner, who had fought on the Russian front, met his wife to be, Anne, from Hawick in Scotland.

She had already been dating the dark, curly haired Rudi and asked her parents if he could join them on Christmas Day.

Anne & Rudi after their wedding in 1948
Anne and Rudi met after the war and have been happily married ever since

"My mother knew we were going together then and she said, well, you can bring him. She really liked him," she said.

Rudi, now 89 and with a shock of grey hair, nodded and smiled before saying: "It was nice, I enjoyed it right away."

When the last German POWs finally went home in July 1948, more than three years after the fighting had finished, Rudi was not amongst them.

Instead, he was one of 15,000 former German prisoners who had decided to settle in Britain.

Married to Anne for more than 60 years now, he still enjoys driving around Scotland's rural roads. To hear him talking it is as if he had never been a prisoner.

"When you get a bit of snow on the hill round about it looks beautiful with the sun shining on them. I've really enjoyed every day."

Hear more in Mike Thomson's report for Radio 4's Document programme at 2000GMT on Monday 15 March or afterwards via iPlayer

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