COLCHESTER’S Berechurch Hall military camp played its part during the Second World War – but not for soldiers of the British Army.
Now home to the Military Corrective Training Centre, it served as one of the country’s largest transit centres for German prisoners captured during the final stages of the Second World War.
It was the first 1,500 men to arrive on September 19, 1944, who helped the camp take shape in those early days. Transported in by lorry at night, they were ordered to pitch their own bell-tents on a field encircled by a few strands of barbed wire.
Work on improvised kitchen and toilets did not start until the next day, and hot food was not available until that night.
But as Camp 186 grew to cope with more than 6,000 prisoners at a time, new facilities, including Nissen huts for housing and a 120-bed medical centre, were added.
There were also orchestras, a newspaper, two theatre groups – one of which performed the works of Dante, Schiller and Shakespeare in large marquees – and even a 300-student Catholic seminary.
As such, it soon became an ad hoc learning ground for men who would eventually become priests, bishops, a drama professor at a top US university, and a movie actor – the late Klaus Kinski cut his acting teeth on the Berechurch Hall stage.
The 65th anniversary has prompted Colchester author Ken Free to write a book with the working title, The Lost Town of Berechurch.
He is appealing for any details, pictures and memories of the camp where possibly as many as 10,000 men at a time were kept prisoner.
“I am asking for any information people have,” he said.
“I have had some response from previous articles, but not relating to the German prisoners of war and certainly not to Berechurch.
“I am trying to explain how and why the camp developed, what happened there, how it closed down and why it was different to other places.”
Taking a wider viewpoint, the book will be a follow-up to Mr Free’s Reconciliation or Retribution, which told the story of the prisoners’ friendship with the German-speaking the Rev Morton Barwell and his Headgate Congregational Church in Colchester.
“He was asked if he would give religious support to sick and dying Germans at the camp,” said Mr Free, of Seven Star Green, Eight Ash Green. “He soon extended his support to include giving lectures as part of the education programme that had been started for the PoWs.”
It was churches such as Headgate and Walton’s Church of England which led the way in promoting Anglo-German links.
“Everyone did not always approve of these friendships, and those that welcomed the Germans into their homes were often criticised or ostracised by their neighbours,” he said.
n Anyone with information can call Mr Free on 01206 210598.