National Canoe Day

June 26 is National Canoe Day and I thought I would take a quick look at Prisoners of War and Canoes in Canada during the Second World War.

Prisoners of War in Canada spent the early war years in internment camps behind barbed wire but this changed when the Canadian government approved their employment in May 1943. Over the next three years, thousands of POWs were sent out to woodcutting camps across the country, most in Ontario but with some in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec. Logging in the 1940s relied on water to move logs so most camps next to lakes and rivers. Bush camps were remote, had no fences, and had limited opportunities for recreation, so POWs turned to their surroundings to help pass the time. The result: POWs started building canoes.

After seeing a photo of a birch-bark canoe on the cover of a magazine, POWs working in the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (now more commonly known as the Whitewater Lake POW camp) in Riding Mountain National Park wanted to build their own but, lacking the skills, instead crafted dugout canoes. They built a small fleet and sailed their canoes (some seen below) around Whitewater Lake.

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Dugout canoes and boat at Riding Mountain National Park, 1944.

POWs in other camps even ordered boat kits and folding boats from the Eatons and other mail-order catalogues. Kayaks built by POWs near Kenora were used to paddle around Lake of the Woods and were even raced in small regattas. Some employers also allowed POWs to make use of company canoes or boats and it took little time before sizeable fleets could be found at many bush camps. Although most POWs loved canoeing, inexperience and unstable craft took its toll. Four POWs drowned in boating accidents between May-June 44, leading to a temporary ban on boating. This was lifted after authorities believed the ban would likely result in POWs refusing to work.

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POWs working for the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp & Paper Co. in their kayaks near Kenora, Ontario. Lake of the Woods Museum Collection.

When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them. But before a group of POWs left their #Kenora-area camp, they offered 10 POW canoes to the local YMCA camp on Lake of the Woods (likely Camp Stephens) in appreciation of the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA’s wartime relief work. It is unclear whether the canoes made it to the camp but the rest of POW canoes across the country were left behind. Exposed to the elements, the last 75 years have not been kind. This is one of canoes near Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park I photographed in 2010.

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One of the dugout canoes at Riding Mountain as it appeared in 2010.

Fortunately, some have survived. Two canoes from Riding Mountain National Park were removed from the site in the 1970s and are now in the collection of the Fort Dauphin Museum (Dauphin, Manitoba) while another dugout canoe from a camp in Northern Ontario is in the care of the Thunder Bay Museum (Thunder Bay, Ontario). A kanu-style kayak (seen below), is also in the collection of the Canadian Canoe Museum (Peterborough, Ontario). This vessel is believed to be from a bush camp near Longlac, Ontario and was removed from the camp sometime after it was abandoned.

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Prisoner of war kanu-style Kayak at the Canadian Canoe Museum.

If anyone has any stories or photos about POW canoes and kayaks, please comment below or send me a message!

When Interests Collide: POWs and Beer

“Lethbridge Ale” from the House of Lethbridge, “Royal Stout” from Lethbridge Breweries Limited, and “Calgary Beer Export Lager” from Calgary Brewing & Malting Co. These three beer labels are not only a part of Lethbridge’s and Calgary’s beer history but part of Canada’s internment history as well. These labels are souvenirs kept by German prisoner of war (POW) Hugo Dellers from the period he was interned in Camp 133 (Lethbridge, Alberta).

Sharp-eyed viewers may notice that two of the labels have a circular “Canada Int. Op. Censored 21” stamp while the third label (see below) is stamped on the reverse. These stamps are commonly found on POW photos, correspondence, and handicraft and indicate that the article had passed censorship and could be taken out of the camp. Stamp number 21 was assigned to Camp 133 (Lethbridge) and these particular labels were likely reviewed by Sergeant F. Lawrence.

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As of 1942, POWs were allowed to purchase and consume beer in internment camps in Canada as part of a reciprocal agreement with Germany, in which beer was made available to Allied POWs in that country.

Prisoner of War camps in Canada were assigned individual quotas depending on the number of POWs and guards/staff at each camp. As of January 1944, Camp 133’s beer quota was 14,000 gallons and in February 1945 alone, the camp ordered 9,600 bottles of beer! Prisoners could purchase beer (on a quota basis) through the camp canteens, which they ran. At Camp 133, two glasses cost 20¢ in September 1943, but beer was also provided at no charge in some camps on special holidays.

Although liquor remained forbidden, this did not stop enterprising POWs from making their own illicit homebrew. Guards tried putting a stop to alcohol production in most camps but guards in some work camps apparently looked the other way in exchange for a bottle or two. One POW – Richard Beranek – even had his dad send him the recipe for homemade schnapps and, to avoid censors confiscating it, his dad titled it as a recipe for bread.

Access to beer presented an unusual – and unexpected – problem in 1943-1944. When POWs started working in bush camps in Northern Ontario, they were dismayed to discover that Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) regulations prohibited the purchase and consumption of beer in these camps. One POW spokesman reported this was an “unjustified hardship” and, as Christmas was approaching, stated “the beer question is very urgent.” Despite many requests, the LCBO refused to budge. This was apparently enough to prompt some POWs to reconsider volunteering for work.

The occasional sympathetic (and in a few cases, drunk) guard or farmer brought POWs into civilian beer parlours for a drink while they waited for a train or medical appointment or to reward them for a day’s hard work. Local residents were often and unsurprisingly opposed to this practice, as is evident from this 1942 Ottawa Journal article.

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“Beer-Drinking Nazi Rouses Ire Of First War Veterans’ Club,” Ottawa Journal, January 20, 1942.

Regardless, POWs appear to have appreciated the supply of beer in internment camps. As one POW later recalled, “After all, the drink helps to put doubts, tensions and dullness temporarily on the doorstep.”

This was adapted from a Twitter thread. Follow me at @michaelsohagan for more POW-related tweets and updates.

Request for Help: Transcribing a Letter

Update (May 15, 2020): A big thank you to Andreas who was able to decipher the handwriting and provide me with a transcription of the letter. Thank you to everyone else who offered their help, I really appreciate it! I’ve added the transcription and rough translation after the images.

I am hoping someone will be able to help me with this. I have a letter (written in German) that I am struggling to transcribe. The handwriting is rather difficult to read with my limited German so I’m turning to my blog readers for help.

For some context, the letter was written to the family of Bernhard Wardenski, notifying that them that he was missing in action. Wardenski, a German naval artilleryman, was captured on December 27, 1941, most likely during Operation Archery, a British Commando raid on the Norwegian island of Vågsøy (Vaagso). He spent a few months in the United Kingdom as a POW being he was transferred to Canada, remaining here until 1946.

The letter itself, dated January 8, 1942, appears to have been written by Wardenski’s commanding officer, but I have only been able to make out a few sentences, namely:

Sehr geehrte Familie Wardenski!
… Ihr Sohn, der Mar. Art. Bernhard [?] Wardenski wird seit dem 27.12.41 Vermisst…

If you are able to decipher any of the text below, please let me know in the comments below or by sending me an email.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

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Wardenski - Letter 2 copy

Transcription courtesy of Andreas:
Leider muss ich Ihnen
heute eine traurige Mitteilung
machen. Ihr Sohn, der Mar. Art.
Bernhard Wardenski wird seit
dem 27.12.41 vermißt.
Wahrscheinlich ist er bei treuer
Erfüllung seiner Soldaten-
pflicht den …tod
gestorben. Alle Nachforschungen
und alles Absuchen der
fraglichen Stelle blieben
ohne Erfolg.

Ich kannte Ihren Sohn…(??)
und habe ihn wegen seiner
frischen und offenen Art, wegen
seiner Gewissenhaftigkeit und
seiner Leistungen besonders
geschätzt. Ich kann daher auch
Ihren tiefen Schmerz mit-
empfinden und kann Ihnen
versichern, dass wir das
Andenken Ihres Sohnes in
Ehren halten werden. Sein
Heldentod ist ein Glied in
der Kette der vielen Taten
und Opfer der Soldaten, die

dem Reich den Sieg bringen
werden.
Sobald die Kompanie etwas
Näheres erfahren sollte, erhalten
Sie sofort Nachricht.

Heil Hitler
Lampe
Leutnant (?) u. Komp. Chef

And the translation:

Dear Wardenski family,
Unfortunately, I have to give you a sad message today. Your son, the Mar. Art. Bernhard Wardenski has been missing since December 27, 1991. He probably died if he fulfilled his duty as a soldier. All investigations and searches of the position in question were unsuccessful.

I knew your son … and I particularly valued him for his fresh and open manner, his conscientiousness and his achievements. I can therefore also feel your deep pain and can assure you that we will honor your son’s memory. His heroic death is a link in the chain of many deeds and victims of the soldiers who will bring victory to the empire. As soon as the company learns anything else, you will be notified immediately.

hail Hitler
lamp
Lieutenant (?) U. Comp. Boss

Thanks again to everyone who offered to help! Bernhard Wardenski was very much alive and had already mailed a postcard to his parents notifying them of his capture by the time this letter was written.

An Update and “Held Captive: Prisoners of War and Their Pets in Canada during the Second World War”

It has been a while since my last post here but I’m still researching and writing about POWs in Canada. I’m happy to say that I finished my dissertation and successfully defended my PhD. I’m hoping that this (and the current pandemic) will give me more time to share some of my research here.

Speaking of research, I recently published a photo essay on the Network in Canadian History & the Environment about POWs and their pets in Canada during the Second World War. If you are interested in learning more about POW pets (including the black bear cub seen below) or you simply like seeing pictures of dogs, cats, and bears, click HERE or on the image below.

POWs and “the good ol’ hockey game”

On first glance, it may seem a simple photo of a hockey game and soldiers looking on. But on a closer look, something stands out – the soldiers are not Canadian. They are German. This picture, which I was very pleased to add to my collection, is a relatively rare photo of German POWs at Camp 23 (Monteith) playing hockey with their comrades watching from the sidelines. Considering tomorrow is Hockey Day in Canada, what better time is there for delving into a little history about German POWs and Canada’s national winter sport.

With thousands of young, athletic men interned in Canada during the Second World War, sports became an especially popular and important way to pass the time. Prisoners in most internment camps set up their own teams and leagues and began playing football (soccer), baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, and – you guessed it – hockey.

I have no record of how many POWs had played hockey before coming to Canada but hockey was an established sport in Germany, with the country taking the bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics. One also has to remember that many Canadians were interned in the early years of the war due to their status as “enemy aliens.” It is quite likely these men shared their skills with newly-arrived internees and EMS from the United Kingdom.

As for the skates, sticks, pucks and other equipment, most was provided by aid organizations, most notably the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA. This organization dedicated itself to improving the living conditions of POWs interned on both sides and did their utmost to meet the recreational, educational, and religious demands of POWs. The War Prisoners’ Aid and the International Red Cross began supplying generic articles to improve the lives of those interned in Canada but also allowed POWs to make specific requests. For example, in late 1940, among the articles requested by internees at Monteith were lights for their Christmas trees, twenty-four pairs of stakes, and twenty-four hockey sticks.

The organization did have a budget to purchase items – ranging from ping pong balls to pianos – but also relied on donations. In an early report of the War Prisoners’ Aid, director Jerome Davis remarked,

One Canadian manufacturer out of the generosity of his heart, contributed two hundred pairs of skates. The result was that we were aided in building skating rinks in almost every prison camp in Canada. later, the Canadian Government took pictures of these rinks and some of them were sent to Germany. Therefore, the act of the Canadian business man who desired simply to do a Christian act for imprisoned soldiers – men who are not criminals but simply soldiers out of luck had its repercussions internationally and the Canadian business man may actually have done more to hep the British prisoners than he could have by sending in skates directly to them.

As the following image, given to Dr. Boeschenstein of the War Prisoners’ Aid, demonstrates, the equipment was greatly appreciated and quickly put to good use.

YMCA

Artwork by unknown POW. Hermann Boeschenstein fonds, University of Toronto Archives.

Roughly translated, the poem reads:
When cold comes with ice and snow,
YMCA thinks of the POW
With YMCA’s help here on the spot
One Plays Ice Hockey, Canada’s Sport

By December 1942, the War Prisoners’ Aid reported that every internment camp in Canada had, among other things, skates and a skating rink. In Camp 23 (Monteith), for example, POWs flooded the soccer field in the winter months and turned it into a skating and hockey rink while POWs at Camp 44 (Grande Ligne) converted their tennis courts into two skating rinks, one for hockey and the other for “fancy skating.”

Limited for recreation in the winter months, these skates were in especially high demand; at Camp R (Red Rock) in March 1941, the skating rink was in use throughout the day but, only having thirty pairs of skates for 1,100 internees, the internees had to sign up in advance. Other camps were better-equipped; by 1943, Camp 21 (Espanola) had two skating rinks and 500 pairs of skates.

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German POWs skating at Camp C (Gravenhurst). Library and Archives Canada.

The skills of those involved varied, as one report from Camp 44 (Grande Ligne) suggests: “One or two of the prisoners were quite good, but a number of them had not yet found their ice legs, and were falling around to the amusement of the on-lookers.”

As skating and hockey grew in popularity, the War Prisoners’ Aid continued to send out skates and hockey equipment. In early 1944, the War Prisoners’ Aid reported they had sent out skates, hockey sticks, pucks, goal keepers’ outfits, and, in some cases, even skis.

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POW hockey team at Camp 132 (Medicine Hat) in February 1946. Library and Archives Canada PA-129146.

It was not only internment camps where hockey was popular. Prisoners in some of the almost 300 small, isolated labour projects also took up the sport. Those who found themselves working as woodcutters in the Northern Ontario bush frequently requested skates and hockey equipment to help pass the long winters. Fortunately for them, the pulpwood industry relied on waterways to move logs and most camps were located on the shores – or at least nearby to – streams, rivers, and lakes. Once cleared of snow, these frozen waterbodies became natural ice rinks.

Whether or not the POWs kept skating when they returned to Germany, I do not know. But I’m sure many brought back fond memories of their time in Canada playing that “good ol’ hockey game.”

“Ten long years for me to be without my boy”

In the past, I’ve posted some of my family’s ties to the First World War but today, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought I’d share a brief, new perspective, looking at the war and its impact as my great-great grandfather, James Proven, recorded in his diaries.

James Proven was a farmer in rural Manitoba and he kept a diary for most of his adult life, mostly documenting his farm work. On Nov 7, 1918 he noted, “Germans hard pushed” and, on the following day, “Hear Germany has collapsed. Believe it is true this time.” On November 11, he added “Germany surrenders”

Proven - November 1918.jpg

The war had claimed two of his three sons, with Ernest dying of wounds received at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The entry for April 13 reads, Mrs. McDugle came up and told of Ernest’s death.” They receive what seems to be his last letter three days later.

Ernie

Ernest Albert Proven

His eldest son, Harry, died of wounds received on the advance of Cambrai in late September 1918, just a month and a half before the war’s end. The family received the news on October 10 and His diary reads “The sad news of Harry’s end 29th Sept.”

Harry

Harry James Proven

My great-grandfather, Sidney, was conscripted but never went overseas. The last of his siblings, he remained in Clanwilliam and eventually took over the family farm.

On the 10th anniversary of Ernest’s death, James added, “April 9, 1917 Ernest got killed at Vimy Ridge. Just 10 years ago now. Ten long years for me to be without my boy.”

 

A very special thank you to Lisa for sharing these diaries with me.

Remembrance Day, 1945

Remembrance Day – and our thoughts go back 27 years to 11 o’clock on the 11th November 1918. Those of us who are Veterans of two wars can never forget that day; even tough another bloody struggle has just ended, and “VE” Day and “VJ” Day have come and gone.

Remembrance Day – and what are the thoughts of the old Vet of two wars on this 27th anniversary? For Remembrance Day should be for those who lived as well as those who died; the latter have their immortal fame and have been spared the disillusionment of those who thought they had won a war which would make the world a “place fit for heroes to live in.” But despite the lost illusions despite the years of hard work, poverty, and disappointments, which were the lot of many, when the call came again they volunteered in their thousands. Now, 27 years after they heard the first great “Cease Fire” and after again giving another fix or six years of their lives to their Country, their thoughts are sombre. Denied most of the benefits of the rehabilitation schemes provided under the War Services Gratuities Act – because of age, too old to fish, too old to farm – are they to remember their sixty thousand comrades who died – enviously?

Remembrance Day – and “let the dead bury the dead.” But let their Country remember those who still live. Those who are now entitled to something better than a “dole” at the age of sixty, and only then if they are destitute.

Is this great country content to let these veterans of two wars eke out a precarious existence during the next five or ten years while waiting for the “dole,” or will it give them NOW the pension they have so justly earned, and give it as a RIGHT and not a charity?

Remembrance Day will come again next year and the year after, and for many many years, and —

“Remembrance Day,” P.O.W. WOW 2:3, November 12, 1945
Camp 132 Newspaper

“Manitoba Snow Too Severe – 19 Germans Return to Camp”

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The Globe and Mail, November 2, 1943.

On November 1, 1943 – 75 years ago – newspapers across the country announced a mass escape from a POW camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park.

On October 31, 1943 – only five days after their arrival – nineteen German Prisoners of War (POWs) were found missing from the newly completed camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. With no barbed wire fences or guard towers surrounding the camp, the POWs had been allowed to roam within the camp camp area while not at work but the nineteen men failed to appear at the evening roll call. As guards scrambled to find the missing men, the camp commandant notified local police and military authorities to help in what was billed as the second largest mass escape of POWs in the country.

Meanwhile, the nineteen men had no idea they were considered escapees. Having left the camp that afternoon, the group had only intended on going for a hike to explore their new surroundings. Unfamiliar with the terrain – and the weather – the POWs had left camp in their army uniforms and had taken no provisions. Following the old logging roads and game trails that dotted the area, the POWs soon became lost. Snow began to fall, and the storm escalated to a blizzard, covering all trails and  tracks. Realizing their predicament, the POWs settled down for the night.

Back at camp, local RCMP officers arrived to assist in the search while all detachments surrounding the park were put on alert. Camp authorities also notified Brandon and Winnipeg City Police as well as Border and Rail police to be on the lookout for the missing men. Patrols of guards and police officers were dispatched around the camp but were unsuccessful in locating the POWs that night.

In the early morning, the POWs – cold and hungry – decided to try find their way back to the camp in small groups, a task that some succeeded. The first POWs wandered back into camp that morning and were immediately taken into custody. By the end of the day, all of the missing POWs had returned to camp on their own accord or had been found by patrols. Questioned individually, each POW emphatically stated they had not tried to escape but had simply gotten lost while hiking. Camp authorities eventually believed their stories and threatened reprisals against any POWs who considered leaving camp boundaries again. However, the RCMP leading the investigation suspected the POWs may not have tried to escape this time but were instead conducting a reconnaissance of the area for a future escape.

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As the POWs returned to work the following day, the matter seemed closed. However, the camp interpreter did have to dissuade the other POWs in camp from beating their nineteen comrades in a misguided attempt to show how much they valued the opportunity to work in the camp.

While the papers continued to claim it was the second largest POW escape in Canada (the largest haven taken place at Angler in April 1941), all evidence suggests they were telling the truth and had gotten lost. I was fortunate to correspond with one of the 19 men who, seventy years later, assured me he had never tried – or considered – escaping for he greatly appreciated the opportunity to live and work in the relative freedom of Riding Mountain National Park.

Easter, 1945

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Happy Easter!

Here is the menu card for Easter, 1945 at Camp 23 (Monteith, Ontario). “Aschinger” was the name of the dining hall, named after a famous Berlin restaurant.

Christmas at Camp 70 – Fredericton

The sketch above was submitted to War Prisoners’ Aid for consideration of being printed as one of the annual Christmas cards produced by the organization and distributed to PoWs in Canada. The artist, Rudi Boege, was a civilian internee at Camp 70 (Fredericton, NB) and, as the spokesman described, one of the most gifted artists in the camp.

The design shows PoWs gathered around a bonfire and the campleader explained it had special meaning to the internees at Camp 70 for every Christmas eve, the internees lit a bonfire on the parade ground.

To my knowledge, the card was never produced. The War Prisoners’ Aid instead settled on a card depicting Camp 133 (Lethbridge, AB).

Merry Christmas to all my readers and best wishes in the new year!