The story of the Brunswick Boys Club (now known in Bootle, Liverpool as Brunswick Youth and Community Centre) begins during the tail-end of World War II.
In December 1943 the Germans established “Offizierslager 79”, which translates to Officers Camp 79 and was also known as Oflag 79. It was a prisoner of war (“POW”) camp in the town of Braunschweig, known to the English-speaking allies as “Brunswick”. By July 1944 the camp imprisoned 2,200- 2,500 British and allied officers and non-commissioned soldiers.
In 1944 the RAF and US Air Force conducted extensive bombing raids over Germany. The assaults were massive and devastating, destroying everything in their path.
Over 800 tonnes of incendiaries and bombs were dropped on Brunswick. (You can watch video of the bombing raid here.) As the narrator says, “as the fires spread, and the whole city becomes ablaze, the thought of what it must be like down there is terrifying”.
The purpose of the raids was to destroy the town’s factories and ruin the intricate network of railways which were essential for transportation of raw materials and finished weapons. Unfortunately, Oflag 79 was within the strike zone because it was close to the city, an airfield, motorway, and the Herman Göring aircraft engine factory (where it was believed that the dreaded V1 and V2 “flying bombs” were made).
For the prisoners of war, the raids produced mixed emotions.
On the one hand, the men in the camp were relieved and excited that the war was coming right to the heart of Hitler’s Germany and its source of power.
On the other, they were in the firing line.
This picture of the camp by Lt. H. Moreton, a POW in 1944-1945, shows where the RAF’s bombs landed inside the camp during one raid on 24 August 1944. Although it shows that the buildings housing the POWs were missed, three men were killed and 14 seriously wounded.
Despite the August raids, Arthur Royall, a Prisoner of War (“POW”) who arrived at Oflag 79 in autumn 1944, describes it as “austere, and lacking in creature comforts but it was not unbearably uncomfortable”. Initially, to him at least, it seems that morale was quite good. The camp was a ‘hive of activity” with numerous societies and clubs offering education, entertainment, and spiritual guidance. The men received Red Cross parcels, which contained essential items like food, medical supplies, and soap. Combined with their German rations, they were not too hungry. Twice daily roll-calls, where the men were lined up and counted, were used as opportunities to confuse the guards, leading to numerous re-counts.
But things quickly got worse for the POWs in the run up to Christmas 1944. The allies stepped up the air raids (which stopped Red Cross parcel deliveries from getting through) and the Germans cut their rations, so that they were eating much less than the Red Cross minimum allowance.
By now the men were forced to live in desperate conditions. Food was short, clothing was tattered, there was sparse heating, and buildings were falling into disrepair. Without proper rooves and windows on their prison buildings the soldiers had no way to protect themselves from the harsh winter.
Some men risked their lives by trying to escape. In this video Bill Taylor, a former POW, describes how they dismantled their bunk beds to help support escape tunnels. So far as he can recall, no one succeeded.
The POWs were bored, miserable, cold, and hungry. With no way to improve their situation, they had no alternative but to wait and see who won the war and what would happen to them. Many felt powerless and depressed.
It is no wonder that the camp became a slum and morale was at rock bottom.
But where most saw misery, two POWs saw opportunity.
In February 1945, one morning at roll-call, Lieutenant Colonel James Dunnill, looked around and saw what living in boring, depressing conditions had done to morale.
He realised that this was the same for young people at home. Boys without purpose, with too much time on their hands, were wasting their youth. They had nowhere to go, and nothing to do to channel their energies.
Colonel Dunhill’s solution to both problems was to propose to his fellow POWs that they should raise money to establish a boys club. This would help hundreds of boys at home, and raise morale in the camp by giving the men a sense of purpose.
Colonel Dunhill and Captain (or Major) Percy Flood* formed a team which made posters (see them here) and a colour appeal booklet, an impressive feat given their lack of resources.
They called a camp meeting on 14 February 1945, in a large windowless attic room. Several hundred men attended, carrying blankets to protect against the cold.
The Colonel explained the purpose of the meeting and asked for support for the boys club. He reminded everyone that British officers gave a high priority to the welfare of their men and that by founding a boys club they could continue this great tradition.
At first, there was some reluctance on the part of some of the men, who could not see the point. But then one man, a young paratrooper from the East End of London, spoke up. He explained that he owed everything to a boys club and said,
“I know what you are talking about. I’m an East End boy. Before I joined the army I was a member of the Eton Manor Boys’ Club at Hackney Wick. It gave meaning to my life and opportunities I would not otherwise have had. If you officers go ahead and do what is proposed, you will have done something more worthwhile than you realise.”
This was the tipping point. Within minutes the proposal to found a club was accepted and a committee of trustees elected to raise money. Colonel Dunill proposed that if enough money was raised, the club would be named after the camp and known as the Brunswick Boys Club.
The men pledged donations and subscriptions, and held raffles and other fundraising events. As well as prizes including a weekend for two at the Savoy, kippers from the Isle of Man, and a year’s subscription to Punch magazine, “Roll Call”, a painting by Gordon Horner, was raffled, and eventually donated to the club. (You can see it here.) It says a lot about how the boys club motivated people that he managed to get hold of scarce painting materials and put them to good use.
Eventually £13,000 in donations, and more than £700 in annual subscription were raised, more than half a million pounds in today’s money. All but £5 was eventually paid, and that was only because the man who promised it died shortly after he returned home.
On 12 April 1945 General Simpson’s American Ninth Army freed the men. In this video you can see footage of their liberation (caution: contains upsetting scenes, particularly at 3:31).
The Trustees wasted no time after the war. They contacted the National Association of Boys Clubs. They had the money but needed help to found the club. The NABC, impressed by the story, set up a high-profile “Brunswick Appeal” which was launched by the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, Field Marshal Montgomery and film star John Mills, who made a publicity film in which he appealed for money to fund 4,000 boys clubs. Watch it here:
With the help of the NABC and personal support from the Prime Minister, Brunswick Boys Clubs were founded in London, Glasgow, and Liverpool. Seventy years on all three clubs are still going strong and enjoy close ties.
Keith Lloyd, the Leader of (the now called) Bootle Brunswick Youth and Community Centre, recently went to Glasgow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the founding of the clubs. Keith presented the Glasgow branch with a signed football shirt from former Liverpool and England footballer Jamie Carragher, Bootle Brunswick Boys Club’s most famous alumni.
Bootle’s Brunswick Youth and Community Centre is also proud to have developed a strong bond with its German counterparts, the Braunschweig (Brunswick) Boys’ Club, and members of both clubs have visited each other in the spirit of friendship. (As reported in the Liverpool Echo.)
The Bootle branch of the Brunswick Boys Club was established in 1947 by three Oflag 79 POWs: Michael Marshall, Philip Evans, and Harry Mounsey, and opened its doors in 1948.
Originally based in Liverpool , the club opened in Bedford Road South Toxteth, and later Princes Avenue, Toxteth. In 1964 the club relocated to Marsh Lane, Bootle, where it is still based. In 1995 the building was extensively re-developed and the club continues to improve its services to the community. It now includes an indoor football pitch, flexible space for classrooms, meetings etc., safe play areas, nature gardens and other facilities. Off-site, the club is active in outreach and community cohesion, and continues to fulfill the aims of the founders in Oflag 79.
The club welcomes boys and girls as well as people of all ages. Since re-named the Brunswick Youth and Community Centre, it is known locally as “The Brunny”.
As a registered charity, the Brunswick Youth and Community Centre records its aims with the Charity Commission as:
to provide the youth of Bootle and Sefton area with educational and leisure facilities to help them grow to full maturity as members of society. The centre also embraces the wider Sefton community by providing facilities for recreation and leisure time activity with a view to improving the conditions of life in the area.
You can read more about us and the Brunny’s activities here.
The founders of the Brunswick Boys Club suffered greatly during their time as prisoners of war. Despite this, they managed to make something worthwhile from their experience and leave a lasting legacy. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “adversity doth best discover virtue”.
For more information about the Brunswick Boys Club (now the Brunswick Youth and Community Centre) contact Keith Lloyd, Centre Manager, on 0151 922 3552 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(*This account has been drawn from numerous sources, all of which are hyper-linked where appropriate. Understandably, given the passage of time, they contradict each other in parts, such as who was responsible for the inspiration for the Club. Arthur Royall and the This Is Your Life programme credit Major Flood. The John Mills campaign film shown above says Colonel Dunhill was behind it and describes Major Flood as “Captain”. Regardless, we owe both men a great debt of gratitude.)