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.
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.
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.”