Ukrainians in the coal mines of the Nord 1942-1945

The postcard below illustrates a little-known chapter of the 2nd World War in Northern France. It reveals the presence of Ukrainian workers in the mines of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Card posted to DYMER (Ukraine) and addressed to a Ukrainian worker, Iwan Opanasenko, employed at the Fosse Lagrange (Coal mining company of ANZIN) in BRUAY-SUR-ESCAUT.

Ukrainians in the coal mines of the Nord 1942-1945
Ukrainians in the coal mines of the Nord 1942-1945

Extract from the salary scale of an Ostarbeiter in June 1942.

1st column: German reference monthly wage.

2nd column: Ostarbeiter's monthly wage.

3rd column: deduction for board and lodging.

4th column: payment made to the worker.

5th column: tax paid by the employer.

Source: Amtsblatt des Reichspostministerium 1942, page 536.

Postal examination took place in BERLIN (censor stamp under the French tax stamps) and the card passed through MUNICH on 2 August 1943. Postage should have been 15 pfennig for France. The BRUAY-SUR-ESCAUT post office applied a tax of 2F90, calculated as follows:

- Double postage shortage: 18 Pf

- Ratio between the French letter and the German letter: 4F/25Pf = 16. According to UPU rules, this ratio is always based on the letter rate, even if the item to be taxed is not a letter. French letter: 4 Fr, German letter 25 Pf.

- Tax to be applied: 0.18*16 = 2F88 rounded up to 2F90.

Ukrainian workers.

Given that the foreign workers brought to France at the time tended to work for German services such as the TODT organisation, one might wonder why a Ukrainian was employed by a mining company in northern France.

To answer this question, we need to look at the directives issued by the German authorities.

They issued several decrees concerning the voluntary or forced recruitment of foreign labour, but the one that specifically concerned Ukrainians dates from 20 February 1942. It is commonly referred to as the "Ostarbeiter-erlass" (decrees on workers from the East), but was entitled "Algemeinen Bestimmungen über Anwerbung und Einsatz von Arbeitskräften aus dem Osten" (General provisions on the recruitment and use of labour from the East).

The term "Ostarbeiter" did not apply to all workers from the occupied East, but only to those from the occupied Soviet territories, with the exception of the Baltic states and the Lemberg and Lviv regions. This decree enabled workers to be recruited for jobs in agriculture or industry in Germany, but also in Ukraine. In Germany, the salary was calculated according to the worker's qualifications, but for the same skills he was paid less than a German worker. Moreover, this wage was reduced by the cost of accommodation and food. Ostarbeiter were covered by German health insurance.

In Germany, workers from the East were housed in closed, guarded camps, often located in or near their place of work. To ensure that employers did not favour hiring foreign workers over German workers, they had to pay the "Ostarbeiter-Abgabe" (tax on workers from the East).

Finally, the Eastern worker had to wear a distinctive sign sewn onto the left side of the garment at chest level. This sign featured the word "OST" on a blue and white background.

Recruitment measures were more or less coercive. The workers who volunteered for Germany wanted to escape the very harsh living conditions in the occupied Soviet territories. But in fact, working conditions in Germany were nowhere near as good as they had been presented to workers when they were recruited. They soon became known in Ukraine, reducing the number of volunteers recruited. The German authorities had to resort to forced recruitment.

From 25 November 1942, Ostarbeiter had to use special postcards overprinted “Ukraine” to communicate with their relatives. They could only send 2 postcards a month. The German domestic rate (6 Pf) applied. Mail was controlled by the Auslandsbriefprüfstelle Berlin (Berlin Charlottenburg 2, Zoo) if it was addressed for Ukraine or by the Auslandsbriefprüfstelle Königsberg 5 if it was bound for the rest of the occupied Soviet territories[1].

Ukrainian workers in the mines of Nord and Pas-de-Calais.

Since the beginning of the Occupation, coal production in the Region's two departments was lower than in 1939. Many miners were held in prisoner of war camps in Germany. Coal was vital for French domestic needs, but also for the German war effort.

In May 1942, Oberfeldkommandantur 670 in LILLE notified mining companies that the German authorities were going to send them 3,000 Ukrainian workers at the end of May (they would not actually arrive until July). This number could rise to 10,000 [2].

These companies did not welcome the arrival of these workers (who included Soviet prisoners of war), as they would have preferred the return of French prisoner of war miners. In addition, the Ukrainian workers did not have the skills of professional miners. Finally, bringing workers from the Soviet republics to the coalfield, where the population was “committed to communist ideas”, seemed dangerous[3].

These workers had to be housed in camps. The installation of these camps was paid for in part by the German authorities (from occupation funds). The German authorities paid for the accommodation barracks, infirmary, kitchen, camp fencing, heating and bedding, while the mining companies paid for the crockery, cooking utensils, access to the camp, electricity, heating, and assembly costs for the barracks and the camp. [4]

The Germans supplied the prefabricated barracks. They could house 50 men.

The camps were guarded by Walloon guards (Rexists) until the end of 1943. After that, and depending on the company, surveillance of the workers was assigned to French guards or German guards (military police) accompanied by workers' representatives.

On arrival, workers from the East were given

- 2 work jackets

- 2 pairs of trousers

- 2 shirts

- 2 towels

- 2 pairs of espadrilles

- 1 pair of galoshes

- 1 helmet

- 1 water bottle

These workers were paid around 40% less than French miners. The mining company deducted the cost of food and accommodation from their wages. The German authorities, on the other hand, charged a tax.

In November 1942, for example, a worker earning a fortnight's wage of 1,020 francs received only 300 francs, as 390 francs were deducted for food and accommodation costs and 330 francs were used to pay the fee “for Russian labour”.

The German authorities asked the mining companies to require workers from the east to be 50% as productive as French miners after 2 months and 70% after 4 months [5].

As the mining companies feared, this workforce was not suited to working in the mine, and certainly not to working underground. A report dated 16 March 1943 produced by the DROCOURT mine [6] states that despite his general goodwill, a Ukrainian worker is 50% less productive than a French miner. In addition, they needed constant support from a French miner. They are more likely to be absent due to illness. Acclimatisation time is too short and needs to be extended. All in all, the integration of workers from Eastern Europe into the underground workings reduced the mine's overall productivity.

To motivate workers from the East, the German authorities asked companies to create the conditions for them to enjoy outdoor sports or indoor activities. A system of bonuses in kind was introduced for good workers (extra cigarettes or food).

There were many cases of escape.

From mid-1944, as the Allied bombing campaigns intensified over the Nord and Pas-de-Calais, the Oberfeldkommandantur asked the mining companies to second some of the workers from the East or prisoners to repair railway lines or clear rubble.

The Nord and Pas-de-Calais were liberated at the beginning of September 1944. The Ostarbeiter and prisoners of war employed in the mines were gradually released. From October 1944, the French authorities set up assembly camps for Soviet citizens. On 10 November 1944, a Soviet repatriation mission was set up in Paris under the authority of Major-General DRAGUN.

On their liberation, the Ostarbeiter received a bonus, but the remaining wages due were paid directly by the mining companies to Major ORIANEV for the workers still present in the Region. They were also paid to Major-General DRAGUN for the workers who had left. [7]

Most of these workers were repatriated to the USSR and were given little choice. The agreement concerning the maintenance and repatriation of French and Soviet citizens under the respective control of the Soviet and French authorities signed on 29 June 1945 specifies in its protocol that “All Soviet and French citizens are subject to repatriation, including those who are being prosecuted for crimes committed in their country as well as on the territory of the other signatory country”.

Ukrainians in the coal mines of the Nord 1942-1945
Ukrainians in the coal mines of the Nord 1942-1945

To reduce the language barrier and facilitate exchanges between workers, a dictionary of technical terms was published.

Ukrainian workers at the fosse Lagrange at BRUAY-SUR-ESCAUT.

The Ukrainians arrived in BRUAY in July 1942. In January 1944, 496 of them were working in the camp near the fosse Lagrange.

Fosse Lagrange at BRUAY-SUR-ESCAUT

Aerial photo from the early 1950s showing the fosse Lagrange and what remains of the Ukrainian camp barracks (yellow rectangle).

We can learn a few details about these workers from a police report written by Inspector PRUVOST of the Renseignements généraux (General intelligence) of the VALENCIENNES police station. [8]

They had been recruited in the KIEV region and were aged between 16 and 21. The postcard shown above was written in KATYUZHANKA (north-east of KIEV).

These Ukrainians were distributed over the 6 pits of the ANZIN mining company. They were paid the same as French workers, but their productivity was 1/4 lower than that of French miners. They enjoyed relative freedom, as they could leave the camp between 5pm and 8pm and all day on Sundays.

The camp was guarded by an interpreter, 15 workers “chosen from among the most intelligent” and 3 feldgendarmes.

At the time of the report, the Ukrainians seemed very happy with the German army's setbacks in the USSR, more out of patriotism than attachment to the Bolshevik cause.

Finally, Inspector PRUVOST concludes his report as follows: "It is to be feared that these workers will become a source of trouble in this sector of Bruay-sur-Escaut, the majority of whose inhabitants are sympathetic to Muscovite ideas [sic]. In addition, the workers' housing estates in the Thiers, Lagrange and Sabatier pits, are 90% Polish in the first two cases, and 80% Spanish in the latter, known to be strongly attached to the Communist Party and the Iberian Anarchist Federation; it will be remembered that Bruay-sur-Escaut and the surrounding area provided many volunteers for the international brigades in Spain. It therefore seems that the prolonged stay of Russian workers in this region is not desirable."

To conclude this page, we know that Iwan OPANASENKO had the service number 262 and that he received his liberation bonus on 25 October 1944. He subsequently had to be repatriated to Ukraine, as there is no trace of him in the Region.

[1] Amtsblatt des Reichspostministerium 1942, page 804.

[2] Letttre du préfet du Nord au Ministre de l'intérieur. 12 mai 1942. Archives du Nord, 1W598

[3] Rapport de l'Intendance de Police de LILLE au Préfet du Nord. 26 octobre 1942. Archives du Nord, 1W372

[4] Lettre du Gouverneur militaire pour la Belgique et le Nord de la France du 29 septembre 1942. Archives du monde du travail, 1994-051-909

[5] Lettre de l'Oberfeldkommandantur 670 du mars 1943. Archives du monde du travail, 1994-051-909

[6] Rapport sur l'emploi des ouvriers ukrainiens dans la travaux du fond de la concession de DROUCORT, 16 mars 1943. Archives du monde du travail, 1994-051-909

[7] Directive du Commissaire régional de la République du 16 décembre 1944. Archives du monde du travail, 1994-051-909

[8] Rapport de l'Intendance de Police de LILLE au Préfet du Nord. 26 octobre 1942. Archives du Nord, 1W375