All Bottled Up

Among the many pastimes of German prisoners of war interned in Canada was the building of ships in bottles. Ranging from simple sailing vessels to elaborate models of five-masted barques, ships in bottles were often traded or sold to other PoWs, guards, camp staff, and civilians. While PoWs in smaller camps built them for their own amusement or to pass the time, some of the larger camps had groups of PoWs that produced handicrafts specifically to sell.

PoW craftsman in Camp 32 (Hull, Quebec) with ships in bottles, pipes, and other handicrafts. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

I recently acquired my first PoW-made ship in a bottle. The ship is a four-masted barque that appears to be flying an Italian flag. I’m assuming that the maker had some knowledge of naval signal flags as it is also flying a “Zulu” flag to show that it is in need of a tug. However, PoWs from the Army, Air Force, and Navy were known to have built model ships so he may only have had access to a book or photo of the appropriate flags. Like many PoW-made ships, the background is decorated with a brightly coloured seaside town.



The ship was reportedly made by a PoW in a Manitoba camp but I have not been able to confirm this as of yet. The maker did sign his name on the bottle (at least I’m assuming its his name) but sometime in the last seventy years, much of it has disappeared. The best guess I have is something along the lines of “from D. BERETTA” or “PERETTA” but I’m not sure about that. If the ship is flying the Italian flag, perhaps it was an Italian internee in Canada or the US. Anyone have any other ideas as to what the name could be?

photo 3a

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

3 thoughts on “All Bottled Up

  1. Reblogged this on emilykkeyes and commented:
    I found this story interesting as it connects to my own! My great grandparents farm was close to a POW camp in Ontario, and my grandmother not only remembered seeing German POWs with targets on their uniforms, but them making boats in bottles. Allegedly some of these are still within my family amongst cousins, and I hope one day to track one down! Thanks Michael for the post!

      1. I am Irish and was given Ein Schiff in eine Flasche by my grandfather. He was Irish and worked in London during the 2nd World War. He worked on building sites as the Irish were neutral and couldn’t be conscripted albeit he was from Belfast. He worked alongside a German POW whom he gave scraps of food to etc. The POW asked him to mail letters to his Frau and in return he made slippers out of sackcloth as gifts to my aunts. He gave my grandfather his last gift, as stated above. It is in an old wine bottle, made from an old pencil and paper, not fancy but the best the man could do. I was bequeathed it as a German scholar and it holds close to my heart as the guy was killed by a wall that collapsed on a building site in London, just before the war ended. My grandfather said he lost a dear friend.

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