Most of the roughly 40,000 German prisoners of war (POWs) sent to Canada during the Second World War were captured in now well-known campaigns like that in North Africa and Normandy or they were shot down during the Battle of Britain or plucked from the cold Atlantic waters. But some came from lesser-known battles and campaigns like the Battle of the Hague (May 1940), the Battle of France (May 1940), and [spoiler alert] Allied raids on Norway.
Using a small collection of photographs and documents from a POW and archival records, I hope to shed some light on how German soldiers once posted in Norway instead found themselves waiting out the rest of the war in Northern Ontario.
On December 27, 1941 – eighty years ago today – British Commandos launched “Operation Archery.” A daring raid on the German-occupied Norwegian island of Vågsøy, the operation intended to disrupt the production of supplies needed for the manufacturing explosives while prompting the German forces to allocate more men to Norway.
Among the German defenders was twenty-one year old Bernhard Wardenski. Born in Gelsenkirchen in May 1920, Wardenski had joined or was drafted into the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and trained as an artilleryman. He later found himself posted to Norway and, on December 27, 1941, was likely crewing one of a handful of artillery positions on the island.
The Commandos, with the help of Norwegians from the Norwegian Independent Company 1 and fire support from the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, targeted German positions near the community of South Vågsøy and on the small island of Måløy. Although encountering heavier resistance than expected, the Commandos soon overran the German positions. In all, Commandos destroyed Måløy Island’s four coastal defence guns and one anti-aircraft gun and captured ninety-eight Germans. With their objectives complete, the British withdrew.
Shortly after, German forces began reinforcing their positions on Måløy Island. As part of this, they also began the process of trying to account for its missing servicemen. Among them was Wardenski. On January 8, 1942, his commanding officer penned a letter to his parents to inform them that their son had been missing and a search for him had proved unsuccessful. Wardenski was presumed dead. The officer praised Wardenski’s manner, conscientiousness, and achievements but this likely came as little consolation for grieving parents.
Unfortunately, I have to give you a sad message today. Your son, the Mar. Art. Gerhard Wardenski has been missing since December 27, 1941. He probably died if he fulfilled his duty as a soldier. All investigations and searches of the position in question were unsuccessful.
Thank you to Andreas and the others who helped translate this message!
Although the German Navy and his family believed him dead, Wardenski was in fact alive and well. Captured by British Commandos, Wardenski was evacuated from Måløy and, after a short voyage, arrived in the UK in the first few days of January 1942. In accordance with the 1929 Geneva Convention, Wardenski was permitted to notify his family of his capture and, on January 4, he used a pre-printed card to let them know that he was in English captivity, in good health, and an address would follow.
Transferred to an internment camp immediately following his arrival on British soil, Wardenski likely underwent some form of interrogation and was probably transferred to another camp shortly after. His time in the UK, however, remained short-lived for, in late March or early April 1942, he was one of almost 1,000 POWs transferred to Canada aboard the SS Rangitiki.
Arriving in Halifax on April 7, the POWs were loaded aboard waiting trains to take them to an internment camp. For many, Wardenski included, their destination was Camp 23 at Monteith, Ontario.
Built on the site of the Ontario Government Detention Farm, Camp 23 (initially Camp Q), would eventually become Ontario’s largest internment camp, with a capacity of 4,000 POWs. Ontario’s largest internment camp, eventually holding some 4,000 POWs.
Prisoners took up many forms of recreation while here with sports, namely football or soccer becoming one of the most popular, but the POWs built their own swimming pool, tennis courts, skating and hockey rinks, and even a ski jump. Prisoners also attended educational classes, painted or sketched, built handicrafts, joined a band or the camp’s orchestra, put on plays, or even started their own gardens. These methods of passing the time and keeping themselves occupied proved more and more important as time progressed.
Wardenski was transferred to Camp 132 at Medicine Hat, Alberta, in mid-March 1944. He remained there for the summer but, in October 1944, Wardenski was selected for bush work and was transferred to Abitibi Power & Paper Company’s Camp 18 south of Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario. He would remain working in the bush for the next year and half, until the camp closed in May 1946 and he was transferred back to Camp 23 (Monteith).
Wardenski was eventually transferred to the United Kingdom in late May 1946 and, after working for the rest of the year, was finally discharged in January 1947. He settled in Wattenscheid and, as of 1965, was still living there, working as a carpenter.
Thanks to just a handful of photographs and postcards paired with archival records, it is possible to assemble this timeline of Wardenski’s capture and subsequent internment. Although only a small number of POWs captured in Norway ended up in Canada, Wardenski’s case is a reminder of the many lesser-known or “forgotten” fronts of the Second World War.