The British Empire Service League (BESL) was originally formed in Rhodesia in 1918 as Comrades of the Great War. The BESL was also present in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The league, established by Lord Haig in the Dominions, was a counterpart of the Royal British Legion that was established in 1921 to support Service men and women, ex-serving personnel and their families.
In October 1945, Camp No.2 (Tanganyika) was closed. In November, internees were transferred to the Norton Internment Camp. By early 1946, single men from South Africa were also transferred to Norton. In May 1947, the German internees were deported to Germany.
In 1941 internees from Abyssinia and Somalia, and refugees distributed to three additional camps. 1,500 internees were located at No. 5 at Fort Victoria. In April 1942, A Company of the Rhodesian African Rifles escorted 887 internees from Durban to Camp No.5 by train.
Camp No.5 was affected by poor policing and was under-staffed and a review determined that the conditions were appalling and resembled a penal settlement. No recreation activities had been organised and there was nearly 51 attempts of escape by the inmates.
At Fort Victoria, the Italian Chapel of St Francis of Assisi was built by the internees during the years 1942 to 1946. The paintings, murals and ceiling in the Apse are the works of an Italian civil engineer interned at Camp No.5.
In 1941 interness from Abyssinia and Somalia, and refugees distributed to three additional camps. 1,500 ‘presumed Italian artisans’ occupied No. 4 in Umvuma where a complete workshop had been provided.
In 1941 interness from Abyssinia and Somalia, and refugees distributed to three additional camps. Camp No.3 was allocated 2,000 people and was located on a 3,000 acre farm five miles south-west of Gatooma. Camp No. 3 used excessive reliance on internees to police themselves resulting in a series of successful escapes.
After the war, the farm was converted to the Cotton Research Board Training Institute.
Camp No.2 was located south of Salisbury. Originally it was intended for Italian internees but later was allocated for women and children internees from Tanganyika.
Tanganyika supplied £40,000 for the construction of the compound to be completed in January, 1941. The planned camp was to consist of 80 blocks, serviced by six communal wash-houses. 160 cottages measured 12 x 10 feet with a small kitchen. These later became known as Beatrice Cottages. These cottages were intended to supply housing after the war.
During World War 2, Southern Rhodesia interned over 12,000 German, Austrian and Italian ‘enemy aliens’. In addition, they also hosted Polish and Persian refugees. The internees came in two waves: first wave were Camps No.1 & No.2, and second wave were the other camps. The first were nationals from the Axis nations, and second were the Italian internees and Polish refugees.
Initially, the Union of South Africa was to be the largest host of internees including those taken from Southern and Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. However, General Smuts was cautious of the large local support of Nazi Germany and eventually compromised on only taking men. Southern Rhodesia welcomed the role of interning women and children and had been secretly preparing for the role in the mid-1930’s.
At the outbreak of war, 709 enemy aliens were identified in Southern and Northern Rhodesia. This role was administered by the Ministry of Justice and Defence through the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and a small ‘Agricultural’ army unit. Inmates were sent from Tanganyika and on the night of 3 September 1939, the CID rounded up 508 prisoners in Southern Rhodesia and placed them in Chikurubi Prison. Many were released on parole although 52 were placed on restriction. These inmates were later moved to the internment camps along with 64 persons from Northern Rhodesia.
Sites chosen for internment camps and refugee camps were considered to faster development of rural towns along rail lines, as well as to contribute to commercial farming and construction projects. The sites were managed by The Southern Rhodesia Internment Camp corps drawn exclusively from Medical Category B and supported by African Askaris. The camps were run under guidelines sent from Britain. The camps were directed to be cheaply made – similar to camps used for the mines and were intended to each hold 500 inmates. The first camp was opened on 12 October 1939.
Early in 1941, London instructed Salisbury to prepare to receive some 5,000 Italian internees from Abyssinia and Somalia as well as 1,000 refugees from Poland. Following this request, the Rhodesian Treasury authorised the establishment of another three internment camps and three refugee settlements.
In October 1943, the Mussolini regime collapsed and repatriation began by ship through South Africa and as the defeat of Germany loomed closer, it became a torrent. By 1945 Treasury began closing camps and dispersing the remaining inmates and refugees.
After the war in 1946-1947, Southern Rhodesia inherited the benefits of these camps including Vengere Township in Rusape, Diggleford School near Marondera, Beatrice Cottages in Mbare, certain structures in the King George VI Barracks in Salisbury, a government farm in Gatooma (later converted to the Cotton Research Board Training Institute), fully equipped workshops in Umvuma and buildings outside Masvingo (including an Italian church).
Interment Camp No.1 was opened on 12th October, 1939 and was located east of King George VI Barracks in Salisbury. It hosted the first inmates from Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
A month after opening, three Germans escaped to Portuguese East Africa, and on 11 January 1940, 17 mining inmates attempted to tunnel their way out but were spotted emerging from the tunnel outside the camp perimeter.
In 1942, part of No.1 became home to 15 refugees from Persia.
In October 1945, the camp was reduced to a skeleton staff. The remaining 1,500 Polish refugees were transferred to Camp No.3 (Gatooma).