Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me, “How do I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.
So began the internment of P. G. Wodehouse and a route through various parts of Europe that ended in Berlin – where Plum, as he was affectionately known, made his notorious broadcasts on Nazi airwaves.
Internment as described by Wodehouse is pure comedy…but he is plainly not at liberty to say that there was enormous hardship too…The story is Allo Allo meets The Great Escape – even though he didn’t, or even try…
On June 28 1941 P. G. Wodehouse made the first of five broadcasts from Berlin to the United States. Though gently mocking of his Nazi captors they would land him in deep trouble. In some quarters he was accused of being a collaborator worthy of the death penalty, though after the war George Orwell would defend him, describing a man trapped in the amber of the past who had no idea what he was doing. The story goes that, with the Americans not yet in the war, and with many American Wodehouse fans baying at his treatment, a Nazi fan of Plum suggested the radio talks. They would show that the Third Reich listened to other nations and their concerns, and that there was more to fascism than goose-stepping jackboots. Why, the Nazi Party could laugh at itself! And those from the Ministry of Propaganda present with Wodehouse as he sat before the microphone probably did… The five talks describe Wodehouse’s internment in France, Belgium and Germany,
I have been in no fewer than four Ilags – some more Ilaggy than others, others less Ilaggy than some. First, they put us in prison, then in a barracks, then in a fortress. Then they took a look at me and the rest of the boys on parade one day, and got the right idea at last. They sent us off to the local lunatic asylum at Tost in Upper Silesia.
There is a good deal to be said for internment. It keeps you out of the saloons and gives you time to catch up with your reading…The chief drawback is that it means your being away from home a good deal. It is not pleasant to think that by the time I see my Pekinese again she will have completely forgotten me and will bite me to the bone – her invariable practice with strangers. And I feel that when I rejoin my wife, I had better take along a letter of introduction, just to be on the safe side.
Wodehouse was with his wife when they first encountered the occupying forces:
She lowered her voice and said, “Don’t look now, but here comes the German army.” And there they were, a fine body of men, rather prettily dressed in green, carrying machine guns.
At first, along with other British subjects, Wodehouse was kept under house arrest. Then they were summoned to a nearby village square and told they were to be interned.
Many years ago, at a party which had started to get a bit rough, somebody hit me on the bridge of the nose with an order of planked steak. As I had felt then, so did I feel now. That same sensation of standing in a rocking and disintegrating world.
Wodehouse desires an afternoon’s contemplation at home deciding what to pack but is given just ten minutes. He decides to take the complete works of Shakespeare.
It was a thing I had been meaning to do these last forty years, but somehow, as soon as I got, say, Hamlet and Macbeth under my belt and was about to read the stuffing out of Henry the Sixth parts one, two and three, something like the Murglow Manor Mystery would catch my eye and I would weaken.
Traveling by omnibus he and his fellow internees were taken to Loos Prison.
There is probably nobody in the world less elfin than a French prison official…but an author never gives up hope…there was a faint idea at the back of my mind that mine host, on hearing my name, would start to his feet with a cry of, “Quoi? Monsieur Vodehouse? Embrassez-moi, maitre!” Nothing like that happened.
The menus in Loos left something to be desired.
At twelve we got some soup, and at five more soup. Different kinds of soup. Into the twelve o’clock ration a cabbage had been dipped – by a cook who didn’t like getting his hands wet, and in the other there was a bean, actually floating about, visible to the naked eye.
From Loos the internees are taken by railway cattle truck to a barracks in Liege in Belgium. Here he explains the inability of several hundred middle-aged Britons to understand the German concept of order; how they could not go on parade and arrange themselves in groups of five, because someone would spot someone else in another group and wander over to make conversation, or argue about whether yesterday’s coffee tasted more strongly of gasoline than today’s. Next stop, the Citadel of Huy. Both periods of imprisonment in Belgium gave me that wholesome loathing for Belgians which is the hall-mark of the discriminating man. If I never see anything Belgian again in this world it will be all right with me. The Belgians have not forgiven Plum for this alleged calumny, Beginning his fourth broadcast Wodehouse has to reply to those arguing he is a Quisling, the new Lord Haw Haw.
My reason for broadcasting was a simple one. In the course of my period of internment I received hundreds of letters of sympathy from American readers of my books, who were strangers to me, and I was naturally anxious to let them know how I had got on.
At Huy Wodehouse complains that on three occasions the entire internee population is called to parade simply to be told, “There is a parcel for Omer.” Omer is a local man to whom parcels can be delivered with some ease. Omer’s repeated good fortune in front of several hundred parcel-less prisoners causes resentment. Wodehouse describes Huy as “tough” and we can be confident, despite his wit, that transportation and internment were often painful to both body and soul – it is at moments like these when we sense what Wodehouse could not say, and that he fills the gaps with jokes.
When the tobacco gave out most of us smoked tea or straw…Tea smoking has the disadvantage that it leads to a mild form of the fits. It was quite usual to see men, puffing away, suddenly pitch over sideways and have to be revived with first aid.
The loony-bin in Tost, Upper Silesia, turned out to be more agreeable. It was warm and run by professional German soldiers. Wodehouse describes the hierarchy.
The camp is presided over by a Lagerfuhrer and four Corporals, one to each floor, who are known as Company Commanders – in our case, Pluto, Rosebud, Ginger, and Donald Duck … There is also another inner camp official whom I forgot to mention – the Sonderfuhrer. I suppose the best way to describe him is to say that he is a Fuhrer who sonders …
The men set about entertaining and educating themselves in this fortress turned loony bin turned internment camp.
Lectures and concerts were arranged, and we also had revues and a straight comedy – which would have been an even bigger success than it was, but for the fact of the ingénue getting two days in the cooler right in the middle of the run.
They even create a fortnightly newspaper, the Tost Times. Months short of his 60th birthday when Wodehouse would have been freed anyway, he is released early and invited to make the broadcasts to the States. When he signs off for the last time he thanks all the kind people in America who wrote me letters while I was in camp as British Civilian Prisoner Number 796. Wodehouse was accused by some of being a Nazi sympathizer, but this tends to overlook his 1938 book satirising Mosleyite fascism, The Code of the Woosters. Oswald Mosley appears in the novel as Roderick Spode, the leader of the black-shorts. “The trouble with you, Spode,” Bertie Wooster tells the would-be dictator, “is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”