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Nutrition in warfare: a retrospective evaluation of undernourishment in RAF prisoners of war during World War II
  1. Tharu Tharakan
  1. Correspondence to Tharu Tharakan, Imperial College, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AZ, UK; tt205{at}imperial.ac.uk

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Introduction

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II; while there is a myriad of literature on warfare, little is known about nutritional or food issues. Indeed, there have been several films on prisoner of war escape attempts but the day-to-day conditions (including food) have been largely ignored. This is a great shame as the examples of the Royal Air Force (RAF) prisoners of war (POW) in Germany provide an informative (and rare) glimpse at nutritional issues in the context of war. This study hopes to provide an insight into the struggles of POWs, but also provide valuable lessons about nutrition in relation to future warfare.

Prior to any analysis, it is important to appreciate that in 1939 the only legislation on POW treatment was the Geneva Convention. This was an agreement signed by all the world's major powers that stipulated that POWs should receive the same amount of food as depot troops (the soldiers in the country that POW's were captured in). The Convention had no enforcement or punitive policy, and further this study will illustrate that it was (and indeed is now) completely impractical. In terms of nutritional guidelines the most publicised guidelines are listed in table 1.1–3

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Table 1

The three most prominent publications on nutritional guidelines in the first half of the 20th century

The above guidelines, along with the Geneva Convention, will be used to examine the quantity of food given to RAF prisoners. This study does not focus on malnutrition because the key issue at the time of the war for all concerned (the Red Cross, the Geneva Convention, both governments and the prisoners themselves) was the quantity of the food. The issue of vitamin deficiency, though recognised in medical literature, was rarely commented on in letters, diaries or Red …

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