The episode has almost been forgotten, yet during World War II, P.G. Wodehouse’s captivity remained front-page news in both the United States and Britain. (Since then, of course, people have criticized The Times for its wartime coverage, particularly its decision to focus on stories like this instead of more serious ones. It’s an issue that has been addressed in books, films, articles and the paper’s own Op-Ed pages.)
Wodehouse’s story may be a footnote in the history of 20th-century literature, but it’s still fascinating to revisit.
The first hint of trouble came in late May, when Wodehouse’s stepdaughter reported that her parents seemed to be stranded at their villa in Le Touquet, France, “cut off from England by the German advance.” Years later, in “Wodehouse: A Life,” Robert McCrum wrote that the author had “clung to the disastrous belief that the courageous thing to do was sit tight, have faith in the British Army and resist panic.” Returning to Britain would also have meant quarantining his dog, “which he could not bear to do.”
The Wodehouses were giving a cocktail party when “a French gendarme knocked and announced that the Germans were coming,” The Times reported. “Mr. Wodehouse and his friends did not take the warning seriously, however, and continued their party.” When German troops arrived at the house a short time later and took the writer into custody, he told his wife, “Maybe this will give me the material to write a serious book for once.”
There was confusion about Wodehouse’s whereabouts for months, but his stepdaughter, Leonora, finally received a letter from him in December. He had been sent to an internment camp in Central Europe.
An A.P. correspondent, allowed to interview Wodehouse, found him “cheerfully writing a book about American crooks.”
The reporter found Wodehouse to be in good spirits.
The camp commander, “a little Saxon colonel,” had lent him a typewriter to use.
Wodehouse joked that the early-to-bed schedule “was giving me health I never achieved in private life.” Of his diet at the camp, he said he had become “a great admirer of the German potato.”
After a year, Wodehouse was released from the internment camp, granted “full freedom within Germany” and placed in a Berlin hotel.
He announced that he would be creating a humorous broadcast about his life in the internment camp “by arrangement with the German Foreign Office.”
“These talks proved to be pure Wodehouse,” Charles McGrath wrote in the paper’s 2004 review of Wodehouse: A Life, “upbeat, lighthearted and making fun of the whole internment experience.”
Wodehouse’s first broadcast did not go over well in Britain, prompting the House of Commons to consider prosecuting “Britons broadcasting under enemy auspices” under the Treachery Act, which carried a death sentence.
Ethel Wodehouse, stung by British criticism that her husband had “sold his country for a soft bed in a Berlin luxury hotel,” defended him. “Plummie,” as she called him, “was released not because he had asked for it but because he is an old man over 60 and a civilian.”
Wodehouse stopped his broadcasts after friends in Britain wrote to him, “telling him how serious they were to his reputation.”
After that, Wodehouse disappeared from the pages of the paper. Over two years later, the BBC— citing his German broadcasts — banned him from their airwaves.
After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Wodehouse ended up in the French capital. He told a British reporter he had made a “terrible mistake” with the broadcasts and never meant any harm. He explained, “While I was in camp I had received 50 letters or more from readers in the United States and I thought I would like to answer them more or less in a broadcast about how I got along in camp.”
Wodehouse said he had “wanted to tell some of the amusing side of life in an internment camp.” When the reporter pressed him, asking what was so humorous about his experience, Wodehouse “said he could think of no particularly amusing incidents offhand, but that his talks were intended to present the lighter side of camp life, ‘for instance, washing one’s own clothes.’”
The French judiciary police who handled treason cases arrested Wodehouse for his “alleged collaboration with the Nazis.”
A few days later, he was released and lodged in a nursing home because “that’s one of the few places in Paris where one can get a bed and a decent breakfast.”
The French case against Wodehouse never went anywhere, and early in 1947, he was allowed to leave the country. He did not return to Britain — in fact, he never went there again. He chose instead to emigrate to the United States, becoming a citizen in 1956.
When he died at 93, his Times obituary noted that Queen Elizabeth II had knighted him just months before: “The Queen’s honor was taken as perhaps an official act of forgiveness for wartime broadcasts.”