Wodehouse in Captivity

As you may know, P.G. Wodehouse is one of my literary obsessions. I do a separate blog about those Wodehouse books for which the illustrator Ionicus did covers in the 1970s and 1980s. However, I’m going to write something here which is quite separate from the subject of that blog, concerning a matter which Ionicus didn’t illustrate.

In 1940, P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were living in Le Touquet in northern France. They were still there when the Nazis invaded. Wodehouse was taken prisoner by the Germans and, like other “male aliens” under the age of 60, was held in internment camps (at Loos, Liège, Huy and Tost) between September 1940 and June 1941. He was released a few months before his sixtieth birthday, and he made five broadcasts from Berlin about his experiences. I don’t propose to go into the ins and outs of this episode, except to say that he was not a traitor and his broadcasts were not pro-Nazi propaganda, but at the same time his actions did demonstrate a near-criminal idiocy which Wodehouse later acknowledged and of which he was thoroughly ashamed.

But I do want to focus on some of the things Wodehouse wrote about his time in the internment camps, both because of what they tell us about Wodehouse and his comic style, and also because they might explain some of the later misunderstandings that have hovered over the broadcasts.

The first thing he wrote about his experiences was an article called “My War With Germany” which was published in the American Saturday Evening Post on 19 July 1941. I won’t be talking about that, even though it sounds fascinating, because I haven’t read it yet (though I did order a copy of the magazine from the US yesterday).

A poster for the Saturday Evening Post of 19 July 1941.

However, I have read most of the other published materials, including the texts of the broadcasts themselves and some published extracts from a full length manuscript which he wrote but which he decided in the end (very wisely) not to release to the public, except for some passages which appeared in the book Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1953).

Performing Flea is mostly a collection of letters from Wodehouse to his friend William Townend about life, writing, pekes, and associated subjects. These letters were extensively rewritten by Wodehouse prior to publication, but they remain a valuable and faithful portrait of the author.

The second half of the book relates to Wodehouse’s war years and includes the above-mentioned extracts from the camp book (which he foolishly wanted to call Wodehouse in Wonderland). The Penguin edition of Performing Flea, which appeared in 1961, also included the texts of the broadcasts as they were published in the magazine Encounter in 1954. These texts were rewritten and tidied up versions of what Wodehouse had actually read out over the airwaves in 1941, but broadly speaking they accurately reflect the tone and content of the broadcasts. The actual broadcast texts have since been published, in Wodehouse at War by Iain Sproat (1981) and in P.G. Wodehouse: A Biography by Frances Donaldson (1982), and I have compared the two versions.

Reading the war material as presented in my Penguin edition of Performing Flea, I was forcibly struck by the strange effect of the Wodehouse tone, which had been developed for application to light romantic comedies about earls, butlers, young men in spats, and carefree young things, now applied to harsher experiences.

Wodehouse and his fellow prisoners had first been taken to Loos Prison where they were assigned cells – his was “a snug little apartment measuring twelve feet by eight” containing a bed, a table, a chair, a small basin and tap, and “what Chic Sale in his famous book, The Specialist, calls ‘a family one-holer.'” The walls were covered with drawings executed by French convicts, “very much in the vein which you would expect from French convicts.”

Wodehouse shared this “snug little apartment” with two other prisoners. Their diet consisted of soup – “You just took a swig, and then another swig to see if it had really tasted as peculiar as as it had seemed to be the first time” – and bread. The bread was so tough that it had to be bitten apart, and Wodehouse was the only one in the cell with teeth strong enough to do this, so he did the biting for all three of them.

After a few days of this, cooped up in the cell together except for half an hour every morning standing with all the other prisoners in a small yard, the smell in their cell took on a distinctive character:

“The cell smell (or stink) is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number 44 at Loos was one of those strapping, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young stenches which stand with both feet on the ground and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet. And when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out, we took it almost as a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.”

(I should add that all the above quotations are from the Encounter version of the broadcasts, and in every case the wording is identical with or very similar to what was actually spoken in 1941.)

It was when I read the above passage that what Wodehouse was doing came into focus. Because in factual terms he was telling us the plain truth, with names and dates complete. He told us that the internees were crammed three per cell when the cells were designed to hold one each, that they were fed a horribly meagre diet and let out of their tiny cells for only half an hour a day, and that their cell stank horribly. The indignity of when they had to use the toilet can be easily imagined.

And yet he made all of this sound funny! He brought to it the same detached and amused tone that is also in his novels, so that it is easy to forget that it was he, himself, that had gone through it all.

After a week or so at Loos, the internees were moved on to Liège barracks by cattle truck. This is how Wodehouse summed up the experience in the Encounter version of the broadcasts (not in the original): “I suppose a merciful oblivion comes over a sardine before it is wedged into the tin, but if it could feel, I know now just how it would feel.” Take away the humour, leaving only what Wodehouse is telling us, and his wish for “merciful oblivion” stands out.

At Liège, there was an initial catering problem, that is, a lack of utensils for the men to eat out of. For instance, no soup bowls.

“At the back of the barrack yard there was an enormous rubbish heap into which Belgian soldiers through the ages had been dumping old mess tins, with bits chipped off them, bottles, kettles, and containers for motor oil. We dug these out, gave them a wash and brush up, and there we were.

“I had the good fortune to secure one of the motor-oil containers. It added to the taste of the soup that little something which the others hadn’t got.”

Again, take away the Wodehouse spin, and the plight of the creator of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth comes into a startling focus – and that is without taking into account the further comment on his sojourn in Liège that “without wishing to be indelicate, I may say that until you have helped to clean out a Belgian soldiers’ latrine, you ain’t seen NUTTIN’.”

Their next billet was at the Citadel of Huy (pronounced something like “oui” – hence the explanation in the original broadcast script that “when I say Huy, I don’t mean ‘we’ – I mean Huy”). Due to a shortage of blankets, for the first three weeks Wodehouse had no blankets at night at all and had to make do with a raincoat. (In addition, he, like the others, had to sleep on the floor, with only a thin layer of smelly straw on it.) The Kommandant, a stickler for parades, kept ordering extra parades through the day for the flimsiest reasons.

“Take it by and large, then, ‘tough’ is the adjective I would use to describe those weeks in Huy. Our spirits were at their lowest ebb…. there was a rather noticeable absence of squareness about the meals.”

That last sentence did not appear in the original broadcast, but the message was still clear in the broadcast. The following passage, in the slightly elaborated Encounter version, drives it home to those willing to see:

“In order to supplement this meagre fare [of ‘bread, near-coffee, and a watery soup made from dry vegetables”], we began to experiment with foods…. I myself relied mostly on wooden matches. I used to chew them between the front teeth, champ into a pulp, and swallow. I would not say it was filling, but it helped.

“I found, too, that Tennyson’s early poems make quite good eating, as do Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially if you have some cheese to go with them. And when the canteen opened, we could sometimes get cheese…. Wrap this up in a page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or ‘When Claribel low lieth’, and add some wooden matches, and you had something which, while not perhaps a gala dinner with coloured balloons and squeakers, was at any rate something.”

In the eighth week of their stay at Huy, which as we have seen was characterised by a lack of basic bedding, pointless parades, and a diet that had to be supplemented by wood and paper, they got news that they were to moved again – for what proved to be the last time, to a lunatic asylum in Tost, Upper Silesia.

It was not in any version of the broadcasts, but in the extract from Wodehouse in Wonderland published in Performing Flea, that he said: “There is a flat dullness about the countryside which has led many a visitor to say, ‘If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'”

Wodehouse found Tost to be an improvement on the previous places, and there is, in his account of the months spent there, a worrying sense of wishing to praise the conditions there.

As I have said before, I don’t wish to get too involved with the ethics of what Wodehouse did. However, one important point to note is that the broadcasts were made from Berlin, at the heart of Nazi Germany. If they had been too obviously critical, they might not have been permitted to go out. Wodehouse’s primary intention was to reassure his friends, especially in America, that he was well. But apart from that, there was a very delicate balance to strike. If they were not permitted be over-critical, it is also clear that Wodehouse wished to use them to tell something like the truth. Dressed up in jokes, yes, but still, as far as one can see, the truth. And that is, it seems to me, a very remarkable thing.

Right at the start of the first broadcast, Wodehouse had taken care to tell his listeners something important – again in the form of a joke. This is the authentic broadcast text, not the revised later version which is less pointed in its wording:

“It is just possible that my listeners may seem to detect in this little talk of mine a slight goofiness, a certain disposition to ramble in my remarks. If so, the matter, as Bertie Wooster would say, is susceptible of a ready explanation. I have just emerged into the outer world after forty-nine weeks of Civil Internment in a German internment camp and the effects have not entirely worn off. I have not yet quite recovered that perfect mental balance for which in the past I was so admired by one and all.”

In short, he stated quite simply and plainly that his time in internment had left him feeling disturbed in his mental balance. That in itself implies something about the internment. Perhaps there was also in this a pre-emptive apology for anything he might go on to say.

Wodehouse was a compulsive joker. Even in private correspondence, his unique phraseology, at an angle to English as spoken by anyone else, still showed through. In circumstances like the ones he now found himself in, it was a two-edged sword. It allowed him to say in these broadcasts things he might not otherwise have got away with. But it also meant that it was all too easy for everyone, not just the Nazis but any English and American listeners too, to notice only that he seemed to be saying internment was fun, and to ignore the hard substance under the tone.

Re-reading his novel Spring Fever lately, which he wrote in 1943 though it wasn’t published till 1948, something stuck in my memory. The hero, Mike Cardinal, has been wooing Teresa in a light, joking manner for most of the novel until she finally asks if he doesn’t think his manner is too flippant to be taken seriously. Mike replies in anguish:

“There you are! That’s it! I felt all along that that was the trouble. You think I’m not sincere, because I clown. I knew it. All the time I was saying to myself, ‘Lay off it, you poor sap! Change the record,’ but I couldn’t. I had to clown. It was a kind of protective armour against shyness.”

Was this, written when Wodehouse had at last realised his flippant broadcasts had been taken as treason in a time of war, a disguised apology for his folly?

Join the Conversation


  1. I came to this piece via my friend Honoria Plum who reblogged Jill the Reckless on her Plumtopia. I have been wrestling for some time, years really, with PGW’s real motives for making his German broadcasts. It seems to me very plain that he was played very adroitly by the Germans (as we know, their Foreign Office rather than the Gestapo) such that there came a time when they knew they would be able to use him. The circumstances have been detailed many times. But while I could imagine that a man such as PGW could be so very much distressed by his prison experiences that his judgement lapsed and he allowed himself to pretend to himself that nothing much was happening, and indeed he did genuinely want to communicate to his friends that he was alive and his upper lip was stiff, I had no evidence. You have shown me here that it was staring me in the face all the time, dammit. I have read those broadcasts and Performing Flea over and over, and it has never dawned on me that, stripped of its Plumisms, he was actually communicating a distress that has him nearly at the end of his tether. What I don’t understand now is how others who have contemplated PGW’s life have not seen the bleedin’ obvious, too. I guess it might be a result of having had a safe and comfortable life. Long comment. Sorry. It’s by way of saying thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just want to thank you for your wonderful comments! I knew what I wanted to say in my post but I was not sure if I’d succeeded, so it’s great to know that I did, at least as far as you are concerned. Like you, I’d read the broadcasts several times over the years, but it was only this time round I think that I read them *properly*, paying attention to the actual meaning of what he was saying. Thinking again now, the first words of his broadcasts, expressing concern about his mental balance, seem even more significant – surely a deliberate message to his listeners.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Andrew, I’m glad I’m not the only one. I am a member of both the US and the UK Wodehouse Societies and I’ve tentatively mentioned my views in those forums a couple of times. But no one seems to want to dig deeper than the “absent-minded, absorbed writer” scenario that is the accepted reason. I tried in 2017 to see the Wodehouse papers in the British Library but I messed up the bureaucracy and couldn’t get in. I suspect there might be more in them to support your/our view I was hoping to get back this year but some bug or other has prevented that, and maybe for next year as well. We’ll see. BTW, why do I think I know your name? Anyway I am now following your blog. Maybe you’d like to follow mine. Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That was an excellent post Andrew. Echoing what Noel says, I have read Perfoming Flea, but missed the anguish of the author (partly because Wodehousian worlds seem so timeless to me, that I did not properly realize when it was penned). Wodehouse has lifted me, and thousands of others I am sure, from many a rough spot with his uncharacteristic humor, and the ability to laugh at situations no matter how dire.

    I wrote about his wartime experiences here: https://nourishncherish.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/do-not-hate-in-the-plural/

    His broadcasts can be found here:

    Liked by 3 people

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