Today is the 81st anniversary of the sinking of the famed Bismarck. From a crew of over 2,000, only 114 survived. The survivors were subsequently interned in Canada until 1946, but one POW, Helmut Keune, would remain in Canada for the rest of his life. Here is his story.
Born in 1917, Keune joined the Kriegsmarine in March 1939 and, with an interest in radios, was assigned to the Bismarck’s radio room. On May 27, 1941, the Bismarck fought its final battle and, after suffering heavy damage, the crew scuttled the vessel and abandoned ship. Keune was among the lucky few survivors. Rescued by the HMS Maori, he was now a POW. After a brief period in British internment camps, he and the rest of the Bismarck survivors were sent to Canada in 1942.
Keune and most of the Bismarck crew were initially interned at Camp 23 (Monteith, ON), some 500km north of Toronto. Keune, a self-described Nazi, remained convinced his interned would be short-lived and Germany would win the war. A strong athlete, Keune busied himself with sports and participated in competitions held in camp. He is seen here in the middle after winning the Pentathlon at Camp 23 in 1942 or 1943.
News of Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad weakened Keune’s faith of a German victory and he decided to volunteer for work in a bush camp, partly to better understand who Canadians were. He was sent to work for the Nipigon Lake Timber Company at one of their remote bush camps near Longlac, Ontario. He spent the next two-and-a-half years living in the bush, cutting and hauling pulpwood.
In March 1946, Keune was driving a team hauling pulpwood when the sleigh hit a stump under the snow. He fell between the horses and sleigh and fractured his spine. He was rushed back to camp but the damage was done – he was paralyzed from the waist down.
He was transferred to Toronto and was diagnosed with paraplegia. Although his fellow POWs were transferred to the UK in 1946, Keune remained in hospital in Toronto.
By 1949, a committee reviewed Keune’s case and, although only four POWs had been allowed to stay in Canada after the war, officials recommended Keune not be repatriated and instead be released in Canada on compassionate grounds. By now, Keune had renounced Nazism, crediting the pictures of film of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, his time working with Canadians, and the care he had received in hospital for changing his views. Now a talented leatherworker, he hoped to become a Canadian.
That same year, Maclean’s magazine ran an article about Keune and his time in Canada, which brought significant awareness to his condition and situation (link to the article). Thanks in part to this newfound attention and with help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the newly established Canadian Paraplegic Association (now Spinal Cord Injury Canada), and support from German-Canadians, Keune was released from hospital in 1951 and permitted to stay in Canada.
He settled in Toronto and lived there until his death in 1969.