The camp was originally built in 1941-42 to house Italians from the North Africa campaign and only later in the war did it house German POWs. It consisted of a series of huts terraced into the slope of the Downs west of the Golf Club, on four corners of the camp were outlook towers. Even today traces of the camp can still be seen including the main entrance road to the camp and a levelled area that was used for football matches.
Some of the prisoners worked clearing ditches and carrying out road maintenance or helping at local farms and market gardens. Gradually, after the war, prisoners were given more freedom, such as going into Guildford unescorted. The huts were also used for a while after the war as temporary housing for local people. The camp was demolished in the late 1950s.
The Merrow Downs camp was designated Camp No 57 Working Camp and was graded Grey. This referred to the type of prisoners held there, who were graded by a colour patch which was worn on their uniform. White or grey patches meant the person in question was not an ardent Nazi and had no strong feelings either way. The real hard-core Nazis wore a black patch and included most Waffen SS prisoners and U-boat crews.
In October 1945 the main camp housed the Italian Labour Battalion with German POWs in three hostels in the area. By June 1946 61 Germans were housed with the Italians in the main camp and the number of German housed in 6 local hostels had risen to 2512. It was also noted that the arrival of ‘black’ prisoners including 30 Waffen SS soldiers had led to difficulty with existing White/Grey POWs.
By the September all the Italians had gone but as late as March 1948 540 prisoners were still living in the main camp, with a further 242 in hostels and 35 in billets. By this time several prisoners had received diplomas in English and were studying a wide range of courses at Guildford Technical College. A number of prisoners held in Britain never went home to Germany, marrying English girls and settling in this country.
More about the POW Camp Merrow Down an excellent historical site, (scroll down to find) about Guildford and the River Wey, including articles that first appeared in the Surrey Advertiser on the history of the POW Camp Merrow.
written by John Glanfield.