Smokers as POWs

I had the thought this morning that the circumstance in which smokers enduring smoking bans find themselves is much like that of POWs (prisoners of war) in wartime.

Most of them accept their imprisonment. Others do not, and try to escape.

I wondered how many British POWs were held in German camps during WW2, and how many of them tried to escape.

I discovered that there were about 200,000 British prisoners of war in Germany.

Over 200,000 soldiers of the British armed forces were captured during the Second World War and placed in one of the different types of prisoner of war camps run by the Germans until 1945

This was probably all ranks from army, navy and air force. The ratio of enlisted men to officers in the British army in WW1 was about 20:1. It’s currently about 10:1

The overall figure for the British Army in WWI was 21 Other Ranks (enlisted): 1 officer. In “combat arm” (line) units such as infantry battalions, the ratio was about 30:1.

Using the 20:1 ratio of enlisted men to officers, it looks as if some 10,000 British officers were held in German POW camps.

We can get some idea of how many of them tried to escape because the Germans put captured escapee officers in one single camp: Oflag IV-C, also known as Colditz castle.

Colditz castle was a very large castle in Saxony with at least 700 rooms.

By Christmas 1940 there were 60 Polish officers, 12 Belgians, 50 French, and 30 British, a total of no more than 200 with their orderlies.[1]

By the end of July [1943] there were a few Free French officers, and 228 British officers, with a contingent consisting of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Irish, and one Indian.

Not all the prisoners in Colditz castle were escapees. Some were the so-called Prominente (celebrities) who included  Giles Romilly, a relative of Winston Churchill, fighter ace Douglas Bader, George Haig, son of field marshal Douglas Haig, and more.

So it looks like there were only ever about 200 British officer escapees held in Colditz. Which means that only 200 out of 10,000 British officers – 2% – held in German POW camps attempted to escape. Even fewer actually managed to escape.

And this means that 98% of British officers didn’t try to escape. Or failed to escape. Or didn’t get round to escaping.

How did 98% of British POWs feel about their incarceration? The saying that “For you the war is over” was probably true for most of them. They were no longer in danger of being killed. Their conditions were tolerable. They got letters and Red Cross parcels from home. All they had to do was sit out the war, and sooner or later they would be repatriated. And there was next to nothing they could do about it anyway. They probably thought that anyone who tried to escape, or even thought about trying to escape, was rather mad.

Which brings me back to smokers and their response to their imprisonment (actually “exile to the outdoors”) by smoking bans. There again, it seems that 98% of them have accepted their lot, and only about 2% are resisting.

But given that there were estimated to be about 13 million smokers in the UK in 2007, 2% of them amounts to 260,000 men and women, scattered over the UK. That’s a lot of people who really don’t like the UK smoking ban, and would like to overturn it. That’s a potential army. And with 1.5 billion smokers all over the world, that’s 30,000,000 men and women: a large army.

The other 98% are probably resigned, like POWs, to their imprisonment. They think that resistance is futile, and escape more or less impossible. They have adjusted to life in the POW camp. They would like to go home, of course. But life in the camp isn’t completely intolerable. They can still smoke in their prison cells.

But there are differences. The POWs could reasonably hope to be repatriated when the war was over: smokers must expect to never be released. Most WW2 POWs were only ever held in prison camps for 2 or 3 years. In the UK, smokers have been held for nearly 10 years. For many of them it’s a life sentence. And if life in the prison camp is fairly tolerable, it’s always getting worse. The price of tobacco is constantly being raised, year after year. And the extent of smoking bans is always being increased.

It could be worse. In a mass breakout in 1943 from the death camp of Sobibor, which held some 700 Jews, the prisoners all tried to escape, and about 300 managed to reach the surrounding forest. The incentive to escape was, of course, much higher: life in Sobibor was intolerable, and there was no chance of ever being repatriated.


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28 Responses to Smokers as POWs

  1. Rose says:

    Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
    Geneva, 12 August 1949.

    Chapter II. Quarters, Food and Clothing of Prisoners of War
    Article 25
    “Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to prisoners of war. The use of tobacco shall be permitted.”

    Article 28
    “Canteens shall be installed in all camps, where prisoners of war may procure foodstuffs, soap and tobacco and ordinary articles in daily use. The tariff shall never be in excess of local market prices.”

    • Frank Davis says:

      Yes, I know POWs are/were permitted to smoke.

      What I meant was that smokers were like POWs in that they had been captured/defeated and subjected to restrictions on their freedom. Smokers can’t smoke in pubs, and POWs can’t leave their prison camps. Smokers who fight back are ones who refuse to submit to bans, but keep fighting them. POWs who fight back try to escape from their prisons. Only about 2% of people do either. The rest just resign themselves to their fate, whether it’s to a prison or to a smoking ban.

      • Rose says:

        Such respect is no longer accorded to people incarcerated in hospitals and mental homes, they are treated worse than if they were prisoners of war.

  2. The price of tobacco is constantly being raised, year after year
    Rose having already pointed out that POW’s were held under better conditions than us smokers so I’ll just pick up on the above quote with an observation.
    Yesterday I went on a coach trip to Belgium, Adinkerke, to buy tobacco. The day before I went I mentioned to Youngest Son that I must go across the road an buy a couple of packs of UK Duty Splayed straights for the drive down to the coach pick up point (about an hour or so from where I live). Youngest son said: “You’ll get a shock Dad, when you see the price!”. Which puzzled me because the last time I bought some straights here was only a matter of a few weeks ago -infact before I went to Belgium last month.
    He was right, I don’t recall what I paid 5 weeks ago for a pack of JPS ‘Real Red’ but this time the price was far more than I had expected. So much so, when I bought a carton of my beloved Gauloises brun in Adinkerke I resolved not to smoke my way through them the next couple of days back here -as I would normally. Oh no. They can stay in the drawer until I need them for the next longer car journey or baccy run.
    I returned from Adinkerke late yesterday evening in a warm glow having deprived gov.yUK of almost a grand in duty and VAT…and saved myself enough money to maybe think about a short break somewhere at the end of the season. Perhaps a couple of nights in Germany so The Bestes Frau can see her Aged Papa (not forgetting to pick up a kilo of some German tobacco like ‘Reval’ or ‘Black Hand’ or ‘Black Krauser’…if they still exist)?
    God Bless the EU and Belgium….I shall fill my boots for as long as May lets me. Damn you Brexiteurs, your lofty ideals will cost me ,and yourselves, a fortune. Already I would struggle to pay £20 a day for tobacco here.

    • Twenty Rothmans says:

      I have seen Schwarzer Krauser in Frankfurt, but as always, it’s good to research first if you are bulk buying as I often run my suppliers out of Golden Virginia and Old Holborn on my visits.

      They have a price escalator in Germany, so I recommend that you’re not shy. It’s not all that cheap any more, only compared to here.

      • ” It’s not all that cheap any more, only compared to here.”
        Yeah I know, two years back I was paying, i think if I recall aright, 9 Euros a pouch for ‘Schwarze Hand’ and I dare say pay size has gone down and the price up since then. Still only about half what tobacco costs here though.

        • ohhh just noticed that “Schwarze Hand ” has now become “Gauloises dark mix” (Gauloises Melange Noir 100g (ehem.Schwarze Hand). Probably because Geudertsheimer tobacco isn’t grown in Germany anymore so they’ve switched to French ‘brun’ which is akin to it.

          yes I’m a tobacco geek.

    • Dwarf, you might consider tobacco as an investment before things may change. It’s highly unlikely that the return on any money you invest would go DOWN by more than whatever you currently might be earning in a bank account. Heck, if you’re talking about a grand per trip, you’d make out quite handsomely if you spent a couple of weeks making daily trips to stock up for a few years. If you store a carton of cigarettes or RYO tobacco in food storage plastic bags it’ll stay remarkably fresh for years. (Back when the SCHIP tax on RYO was coming into place I bought over five years’ worth of RYO tobacco. Nothing at all illegal about doing such a thing, and, as an investment, I “made” well over 50% in “returns” with the money saved over those years!)

      – MJM, who always keeps an eye on the “chocolate market” and is ready to store up… ;>

    • Timothy Goodacre says:

      Reval is still available thankfully !

  3. slightly O/T but fond memories of many happy hours spent as a child:

    ..perhaps even, paradoxically, that game (and the book) made me want to visit Germany more….that and ‘Battle Action’ comics.

  4. Smoking Lamp says:

    At least POWs could smoke. It’s more like smokers are hostages to being abused by criminal enterprises (illegal combatants).

  5. waltc says:

    Rose beat me to it. Yes, it was a breach of the Geneva Convention for the humane treatment of pows to deprive them of tne freedom to smoke. And tho we are, in fact, prisoners in tne War on Smoking, I’ve mostly thought of it as being under house arrest and more in line with the pre-holocaust policy of banning Jews from all public places (extending to parks) as well as from jobs, universities, and ultimately (another step we’re approaching here) public sidewalks and housing.

    But another difference here is: escape to where? If Anti-tobacco’s slogan was “Tomorrow, the world,” as was the Nazi’s, they seem to have reached beyond their counterpart’s wildest dreams. What’s the point of traveling (on smoker-free transit) to a smoker-free hotel in a smoker-free city in a smoker-free country with smoker-free bars, beaches and restaurants? And if someplace, like Prague, is “safe” today, again, like Prague, it’s gone tomorrow.

    • Joe L. says:

      But another difference here is: escape to where?

      That’s my question as well, Walt.

      The only place smokers are actually free and “safe” anymore is within the confines of their own home (and then only if they own that home outright … and even then, only as long as that home is not part of a multi-unit condo complex).

      What reason do POWs have to escape when life within the confines of their prison is actually better than it would be in the outside world? This is why so many smokers have become recluses.

      It might be more accurate to say smokers have actually become inverse POWs, escaping the oppression of the outside world by retreating to the freedom of our prison cells.

      • waltc says:

        “escaping the oppression of the outside world by retreating to the freedom of our prison cells.” Well put.

      • “The only place smokers are actually free and “safe” anymore is within the confines of their own home (and then only if they own that home outright … and even then, only as long as that home is not part of a multi-unit condo complex).”

        Not necessarily safe there either Joe. Note the end of this article about a new sidewalk/alleyway ban in Laguna, California: ” Mayor Toni Iseman still worries about smoke that comes from inside homes — a complaint she’s heard often from residents.” ( )

        And then think back just ten years or so ago when we’d try to warn bar owners about incoming bans and they’d laugh, pat us on the back, and say, “Look, just enjoy your beer. They’ll NEVER ban smoking in bars HERE!”


        – MJM, who’s tired of playing Cassandra in drag…

  6. Rose says:

    Donald Trump announces withdrawal from Paris climate accord

    Good speech and informative too, if you can find a copy before it gets mangled and cut into unflattering soundbites.

  7. smokingscot says:

    “The other 98% are probably resigned…. They think that resistance is futile, and escape more or less impossible.”

    I’m not so sure they’re entirely resigned to the new normal.

    1) Illegal tobacco. From what I’ve seen and heard many smokers will buy their tobacco from any source providing it’s smokable and cheap. It may not be resistance in some machismo way, but it certainly isn’t conformity.

    2) Lock-in’s. Again very low key stuff. Again you need to be “in the know”. And there is considerable risk involved, for the proprietor and customers caught with ashtrays and such. We hear very little about these places, which is the intention.

    3) Shed Pubs. Those are truly brilliant. A great big FU to the authorities.

    There is more but I regret I will not alert the Trolls. Just tiny little examples of people who may on the face of it appear to part of the bovine masses but who in their own way are not giving in and will not cave in.

    Yet there’s another difference. When there was a political party with a manifesto pledge to allow smoking rooms, I do believe smokers were attracted to the two majors. The BNP blew it big time, though they did get two MEPs. UKIP managed something quite spectacular with close to 4 million people voting for them in the 2015 General Election.

    Few of us were under the illusion UKIP would ever be able to form a government, yet just the thought that we could do something to send a message to the establishment was enough for some. (As it happens the message was rather more than some of us had aspired to!)

    They say May effed up in this campaign. And Fallon’s too narrow and Corbyn’s batshit nuts. But the biggest eff-up in this campaign was UKIP’s.

    We don’t want to escape. All we want to do is get shot of the guards, who are paid for with our money!

  8. Lepercolonist says:

    We need to break out from our smokers P.O.W. camp.

  9. In terms of smokers being willing to step outside of “official” boundaries on such things as bans and taxes, I am reminded of my good Irish Catholic parents. They were of the type who would conscientiously wait for the light to change before crossing a street because it was a “law.” And I never ever even once saw/heard of them cheating on taxes or stealing anything.

    Yet my dad would regularly pick up a carton of untaxed (or at least cheaply taxed from another state) cigarettes during a weekly visit to the local “Knights Of Columbus” club after 12:15 mass on Sundays. The *wrongness* of using taxation as a punishment/behavior-mod tool is SO obvious that normally totally law-abiding folks are quite willing to fight back however they can.

  10. Pingback: How Plans Become Prisons | Frank Davis

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