In the POW camps of the Second World War, soldiers found release – from the conditions and from the all-male company – in female impersonation.
From the confines of Oflag VIB, Captain John Mansel wrote to his mother in January 1942, describing the pantomime he had just seen:
Scenery & lighting etc are so excellent that for the 2 hours of the show one might be anywhere but in a prison camp. One of the professional plays Citronella &, as in a previous show, so excellent is the acting & so convincing his movements that …the impossible had happened … once again one looked upon a woman’s face.
Oflag VIB was probably the worst German prisoner of war camp that a British officer could find himself in. It was a ‘super camp’ in which the Germans tried to house as many British officers as possible; in autumn 1941, some 3,000 men were crammed in. Located near the town of Warburg in the north-west of the country, it occupied a flat, bleak landscape, punctuated only by the barbed wire perimeter. It was rat-infested and flea-ridden. The roofs of its grey, dilapidated huts leaked. In winter, the site turned into a quagmire, into which sewage from inadequate latrines flowed.
In POW camps across Germany and Italy female impersonators took to the stage. The diaries and letters written by their captive admirers attest to the importance of these ‘women’ in their lives. As do the surviving souvenir programmes and plentiful photographs – the guards were so approving of prisoners’ theatrical entertainments that they took snapshots of the casts and the sets, or gave POWs film to do likewise. These chronicle an impressive story, about the skills, creativity and ingenuity of these men. But they also tell what some today might find a slightly unsettling one: a history that reveals the indomitable position of men in the gender hierarchy as well as the surprising fluidity of male sexuality, both in captivity and beyond.
A studied performance
There are two types of female impersonation. Mimicry, best exemplified by the clumsy, overly rouged and squawky pantomime dame, such as Widow Twankey, and mimesis, where the actor attempts to make the difference between himself and a woman as minimal as possible. Mimesis was the impersonation of choice across POW camps. The overwhelming majority of photographs leave little doubt that a realistic portrayal of women was the actors’ and directors’ intended aim.
The preparation behind a mimetic performance was intense. This is another reason why theatrical entertainments were so popular in captivity. Prisoners who could not be compelled to work for their captors, most notably those of officer rank, might have been spared slave labour but instead had endless empty hours to fill. Producing a play required time and manpower. A theatre needed to be built; a set designed and constructed; costumes sewn and make-up concocted, in one instance this involved mixing talcum powder, margarine and dyes from crêpe paper. Programmes were to be produced, tickets printed and sold and advertising posters drawn up. On the day, ushers and programme sellers were needed to manage the performance. And then, of course, there was the actual cast.
Turning a male POW into a female impersonator was a lengthy and involved process, a detailed record of which survives for one production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. This comic play was a favourite among POWs and, in September 1943, it was put on at Campo PG 78, in Sulmona, central Italy. It had a run of ten performances before being interrupted by the Italian armistice, after which all but one of its cast ended up in Germany. Shortly after the war in Europe ended, a ‘Special POW Matinee’ of this production was staged at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End in July 1945. Its accompanying programme explains how Blithe Spirit had been produced in captivity.
Out of a cast of seven, five are female parts. Rehearsal time for these roles averaged about six hours per day for three months. Elocution and expression by the female characters were given priority attention, followed closely by deportment, stage movements and gestures. The ‘synthetic females’, as they were called, were taught to walk toe to heel, take small steps and slide gracefully into chairs. Cast members had to have their ‘unsightly masculine limb’ shaved, eyebrows plucked, hair on their head grown long and were made up with grease-paint, cosmetics and nail varnish.
The dresses for the five female characters were inspired by designs in magazines; material for them was taken from white shirts as well as clothing from private parcels sent to British POWs from home. Mosquito netting and pilfered sheets were also used. One man spent about a month hand-stitching a dress. Another devoted many hours to manufacturing a pair of ladies’ shoes. One of the wigs was ingeniously created strand by strand from Red Cross parcel packing. Red Cross parcels were, in theory at least, received by POWs once a week. Their perishables came in brown cardboard boxes bound together with tightly twisted string.
Dressing to impress
POWs also created costumes through other means. At Oflag VA, a camp for officer POWs at Weinsburg in south-west Germany, where the men reportedly had good relations with their captors, clothing for the pantomime Puss in Boots was loaned from an opera company in nearby Stuttgart. They gave the camp a complete set of wigs, hats, dresses and stockings for every part, which POWs supplemented with garments of their own, such as pyjamas, trousers, pullovers and socks.
The results, these men repeatedly declared in their diaries and letters, were impressive, although a few acknowledged their judgment might be a little rusty given they had not seen a woman for months. At the second theatre show that Wing Commander Noel Hyde saw at Stalag Luft III in Sagan in Poland, which was one of seven permanent camps set up for air force POWs, he commented on how ‘The Popsie [girl] looked + spoke just like the real thing – or at least, as far as I can remember!’. Hyde had been shot down two and a half years previously. Similarly, when Sergeant David Nell saw the play Boy Meets Girl at Stalag IVB, a camp near the town of Mühlberg in the east of Germany, he found ‘the acting was very convincing. When a man is dressed as a woman he looks astoundingly like the authentic article. But none of us have been on speaking terms with a woman for some time: perhaps that is something to do with it.’
Others were unequivocal in their praise. When Blithe Spirit took to Stalag IVB’s stage, Warrant Officer Alexander East recorded that the ‘feminine parts’ were taken ‘with great accomplishment … at times we forgot that theirs was just impersonation’. After seeing Pasquinade at Oflag VIIB, a camp for officers located in former army barracks at Eichstätt in Bavaria, Mansel wrote of Second Lieutenant Brian McIrvine’s performance: ‘I’m bloody sure if he was billed as a girl at a London Theatre no-one would question her sex. It’s unbelievable.’ Two years earlier, McIrvine had played ‘Citronella’ at Oflag VIB; the performance Mansel had also marvelled at. McIrvine had been a professional actor before the war and had often been cast in female roles in his school plays. In captivity, he played the female part in a succession of productions.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that could be paid to these performances appears in Sergeant Major Andrew Hawarden’s diary. Captured at the end of May 1940, near Dunkirk but not close enough to be part of the evacuation, Hawarden wrote a diary entry almost every day for the subsequent 1,790 days he spent behind barbed wire. It is not so much words that convey Hawarden’s approval of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera he saw at Stalag 383, a camp reserved for army non-commissioned officers who refused to work for the Third Reich. Instead, it is Hawarden’s confused use of grammar. ‘Went to see ‘H. M. S. Pinafore’ tonight – another marvellous show. I didn’t know we had so many good singers in Camp. The “Male Part” of the chorus singing is very good – as good as I’ve heard at home. Five hundred handkerchiefs were used in making dresses for the six girls.’ Hawarden’s use of quotation marks to qualify the ‘male part’ of the chorus, rather than the girls, indicates how effective female impersonators were in transcending their sex. In fact, they were so successful that they seem to have confused in Hawarden’s mind who was playing their natural sex and who was imitating the other.
A normal society
These comments fit in with what anthropologists describe as the ‘safety valve’ interpretation of drag. In this interpretation, drag provides men with a release from the abnormal state of a single-sex society. This explains why POWs favoured mimetic performances: pantomime dames would not have offered prisoners the same release from their all-male environment because they draw attention to the fact that their impersonation is a performance. Numerous POWs wrote in their diaries that the function of female impersonators was to make their captive society a more normal one. At Oflag XIIB, a former seminary overlooking the little town of Hadamar in western Germany, Captain Richard Angove recorded that at one performance of Cinderella there was an ‘usherette & programme girl’ as well as ‘a dear old flower seller outside the theatre, all contributing to the creation of the right theatre spirit before the show started’. Creating this normal society was so important, it seems, that female impersonators also appeared in aspects of camp life other than the stage. Hawarden noted in his diary that dances were held at Stalag 383 every Wednesday and Saturday and ‘As usual several lads dress as ladies to give it a proper atmosphere.’
In the ‘safety-valve’ interpretation of drag, anthropologists generally agree that the basic societal order is not questioned. Cross-dressers affirm the two-gender/two-sex system by reintroducing a female element into an all-male environment. Female impersonators allowed POWs to affirm this binary system, but they did more than that: they upheld its hierarchical nature. McIrvine’s performance in Citronella involved dancing with the prince. Mansel noted that the prince was ‘quite excellent’ but of McIrvine’s steps, he wrote ‘the average girl would make but a poor attempt’. Similarly, Major George Matthews informed his wife, from Stalag XXIA in Schildberg, west-central Poland, where he worked as a medical officer, of how the ‘beauty chorus’ in the musical comedy, Windbag the Sailor, did such a good job that ‘When our “girls” come home the Tiller girls will have to take up Domestic Scenes!! As for our leading lady – well, that resection [removal] of Adam’s rib was quite unnecessary.’ After he had been moved to Stalag Luft III, in another letter Matthews described ‘the “ladies”’ being ‘clad in the latest Paris models’ and that ‘when we come home we shall be very critical of how women play feminine parts’.
There is a certain jocularity to these comments but, at the same time, embedded within them is the claim that men were better at being female than some women were themselves. Cross-dressers were praised for their femininity, but, paradoxically, this also enabled prisoners to uphold the traditional gender hierarchy and to assert their collective male superiority.
An illusion too far
Historians and other scholars have also readily pointed out the limits to this ‘safety valve’ interpretation of drag. Men in drag might have recreated the illusion of a two-sex society but, ultimately, by admiring these ‘women’, the spectators were admiring fellow male captives. This conundrum is, perhaps, exactly what Mansel referred to when he saw two female impersonators in the canteen dressing room at Oflag VIIB and wrote of how they made him feel ‘uncomfortable – or comfortable?’ Others were more explicit. East, who attended an ‘excellent party’ put on by the army at Stalag IVB where one of the ‘fellows dressed as a girl and fooled the audience beautifully’, noted that ‘Many could be seen squirming in their seats’. Sergeant Navigator Geoffrey Hall described ‘Junior Booth’, a female impersonator at Stalag Luft VI near the town of Heydekrug, in former East Prussia, as having ‘flaxen hair, wide, baby-blue eyes, cheeks like rosy apples … and a charming smile’. Gazing at him when dressed as a woman was, noted Hall, ‘both [a] pleasurable and haunting experience for hundreds of men’. The uncomfortableness, squirming and haunting that these men experienced suggests female impersonators provoked a desire among their audience and an uneasiness at knowing they were ultimately desiring another man.
Looking decidedly demure in a Gainsborough hat, fishnet evening gloves, a neatly fitting bodice and long flared skirt, Don ‘Pinky’ Smith does, indeed, look gorgeous. He was photographed and became a camp pin-up. According to White, 14,000 orders were placed for a copy of the image. This extraordinarily ‘big order’ was also recorded in Hawarden’s diary in June 1944: ‘even one for myself’, he added. His order must have been fulfilled as the photograph now forms part of his papers held at the Imperial War Museum, London (see p.45).
The ‘safety valve’ interpretation of drag dictates that crossdressing contained in a performance is limited to the play and, when it ends, female impersonators return to being, and are again seen as, men. In this way, such performances do not threaten masculinity because they are temporary and confined to the stage. However, both the naming of ‘Pinky’, and ‘her’ being turned into a pin-up, indicate this impersonator continued to have a female presence off-stage. The behaviour of, and effect created by, other female impersonators similarly went beyond the boundaries of the theatre. At Oflag VIIB, POWs playing female roles had their own separate ‘ladies’ dressing room. During a revue entitled Albany Club at Stalag Luft III, Squadron Leader C.N.S. Campbell recorded, shortly after the war, that, at each performance, a senior officer was the guest of honour and he was granted the privilege of having the leading lady at his table when she was not performing. At Campo PG 35 at Padula in south-west Italy, one of the ‘ladies’ of an upcoming pantomime gave the ‘women’s point of view’ at a debate on ‘This house believes in Father Xmas’. ‘Needless to say’, Angove wrote in his diary ‘she bought the house down & was very nearly mobbed at the end of the show’. Mansel also recorded how some POWs became highly bashful when McIrvine visited their room. One could not ‘refuse giving him anything he-she- [sic] has come to ask for’.
Crossing the line
Female impersonators, therefore, did not just provide POWs with a temporary release from their all-male society. They could blur the boundaries between heterosexual and homoerotic desire. On the occasions when POWs noted this was happening, they expressed contradictory attitudes as to what constituted acceptable heterosexual behaviour and what resembled, in their view, the unacceptable homoerotic. For example, while Hawarden ordered and preserved a photograph of ‘Pinky’ Smith, he responded negatively to one concert, held at Stalag XXA in Thorn in Poland, where one of the lads was dressed as a waitress called Angela and would ‘offer herself to be kissed by the highest bidder’. He considered this ‘a little unsavoury’, although clearly others did not, as the Welfare Fund benefited from it by 400 marks, approximately £26, the equivalent of £1,000 today. Meanwhile, while he considered it acceptable for men to dress up as women at dances, it was frowned upon by the British authorities in other camps. In 1943, an imprisoned medical officer, Lieutenant Trevor Gibbens, recorded that the custom of men ‘holding dances, under shaded lights, in which half of them were dressed as women … died out under official pressure’.
A new normal
There are two possible explanations for these contradictory stances, as well as the potential transgressions in male heterosexuality that female impersonators seem to have triggered. One is that, in the isolated, all-male environment of a POW camp, attitudes towards male sexuality became confused and transgressive. That is, an examination into crossdressing reveals the somewhat deviant ways in which prisoners responded to their incarceration, but it does not tell us much beyond this. The other is that these attitudes were not confined to POW camps. They are, instead, reflective of broader views in British society during this era. If we consider this evidence on female impersonators alongside the work of other historians, I think the latter explanation is more convincing.
Today, sexuality forms a crucial element of all men’s identities and experiences. Most subscribe to a coherent sexual identity of homosexuality or heterosexuality. But gender historians have shown this was not always the case. In her study of men who desired other men in industrial England during the first half of the 20th century, Helen Smith has argued that ‘sexual fluidity’ was common among working-class men in the north. She has found that sex between men was something ordinary, just another form of human contact. There was a ‘tolerance’ of, or ‘ambivalence towards’, male same-sex desire. Emma Vickers, meanwhile, in her work on the British army in the Second World War, has shown that during the war there was a ‘“for the duration” toleration’ of same-sex desire and, ‘in some cases, acceptance’.
POWs readily appreciated men in drag. They openly wrote about this admiration in their letters and diaries. They welcomed the appearance of female impersonators off-stage, but were not unanimous in their views as to what was acceptable – and unacceptable – when it came to same-sex desire.
Sometimes when a society is sealed off and when structures of order and stability are turned on their heads, it reveals not what is unique, but what is very conventional. The irony in this case being that what was conventional, in the Second World War, was for ideas towards ‘normal’ male sexual behaviour to be far more fluid than they are today.
Clare Makepeace is the author of Captives of War: British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (Cambridge, 2017) and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London.