Re-blogged from Manitoba’s Prisoners of War
October 26, 1943
A train with a rather unusual cargo was stopped on the outskirts of Dauphin just before noon. Immediately following the train stopped, armed guards disembarked and established a secure perimeter on all sides of the train while empty trucks from the nearby Air Force base idled nearby. Once the area had been deemed safe, the doors to the train were opened from the inside and a guard armed only with a billy club exited. Quickly following behind him were the among the first German prisoners of war to step foot on Manitoba soil in the Second World War.
Of the 440 German Prisoners of War (PoWs) that were on-board this train, the majority were combat veterans of the North African Campaign. Following their capture at the hands of British, Australian, and New Zealand troops, most of these men had spent a brief time in internment camps in Egypt before being loaded onto ships that would taken them to their next home: Canada. After a brief stop in South Africa, these ships sailed across the Atlantic as the PoWs, having heard of the great successes of their U-Boat fleet, constantly feared that their own navy would sink them. However, arriving in New York without incident, the PoWs boarded waiting trains that would then take them to internment camps in Alberta.
The 440 PoWs were selected from hundreds of volunteers from Camp 132 in Medicine Hat. Offered an opportunity to work in the outdoors, many seized the chance rather than remain behind barbed wire and under constant scrutiny from the guards.
Having stepped off the train near Dauphin, the PoWs were herded aboard the waiting trucks. After a long drive along the Strathclair Road and then along a recently reinforced ten-kilometer stretch to Whitewater Lake, the PoWs arrived at their new home.
First proposed in June 1943, the buildings of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project was built in response to a shortage of fuelwood in Manitoba. Using PoWs as a labour force was first seen as a drastic measure but the lack of other forms of labour necessitated their house. Therefore, construction of the camp commenced in Summer 1943 and continued until the PoWs arrived on October 25. In total, fifteen buildings were constructed on the Northeast shore of Whitewater Lake, prompting the Dauphin Herald to report that this camp was the largest PoW camp built for woodcutting operations in Canada. The buildings included six bunkhouses for the PoW, a bunkhouse for the kitchen staff, a bunkhouse for the administrative staff, an administration building, a cookhouse large enough to accommodate the camp, a recreation hall, a barn, and a garage. Estimated at costing $225,000, the camp’s facilities had its own generator to supply electricity, a sewage system, running water, and a telephone line specifically established to maintain direct contact between the camp and Dauphin. More notably, the camp lacked any noticeable security features as there was no barbed wire fences or guard towers, only miles of dense forest.
For one PoW seeing the camp for the first time, his only thought was “freedom…”