From Bismarck Survivor to Canadian Citizen: Helmut Keune

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.

Bismarck survivors arriving in Great Britain. Helmut Keune is the POW in the top right. AP Photo.

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.

Left to Right: Wilhelm Koch (U-76), Jakob Horst (U-111), Helmut Keune (Bismarck), Hannes Znottka (U-111), and Horst Friche/Fricke (U-76). Keune, who had just won the Pentathlon, was described as one of the best “All-Rounders” in Camp. Author’s Collection.

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.

POWs hauling pulpwood with a horse-drawn sleigh in Northern Ontario in 1946. Author’s Collection.

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.

Helmut Keune with an example of his leatherwork while in hospital in Toronto. The Telegram, March 4, 1949.

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.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

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

7 thoughts on “From Bismarck Survivor to Canadian Citizen: Helmut Keune

  1. I know of 2 Germans who settled in Canada after the war and became egg farmers. They worke on my Grandfather’s farm along with others from the Papermill which was converte to a POW camp where an uncle of mine was a guard

    1. Thanks for sharing Mike! Do you happen to remember their names? There were a few hundred POWs who came back to Canada in the 1950s, many of whom picked up the work they had left behind in 1946. Keune and the four others I mention were the only ones to not have to go back to Germany first.

      1. Not sure of their names as I was young at the time and was just starting to show an interest in history

  2. Another fascinating piece, Michael. Glad to see that firewood and pulpwood are still getting some attention here. Do you have a sense of where in N Ontario the 1946 photo was taken? I note the huge piles in the background.

    1. Thanks Josh! This photo is from Camp 74 of the Pigeon Timber Co., about 20km north of Neys, Ontario. The logs would have been driven down to the Little Pic River and then to Lake Superior.

  3. My dad was good friends with Helmut as well as Jakob and Hannes from U-111. He lost touch with them all after the war.
    In 1959 , my dad was watching the popular “ Front Page Challenge” on tv. There was an unknown guest hidden from view.
    As my dad listened to the panels questions and the guests replies, he slowly began to realize that the guest must be his old friend Helmut Keune.
    From the show, my dad found out that Helmut had been living in Toronto all this time. My dad new that Helmut and Hannes were inseparable as friends and wherever one of them was you would also find the other.
    First chance he got my dad went to Toronto and looked up Helmut. Sure enough, Hannes and his family were renting the upper part of Helmut’s house.
    It was a surprise visit.
    It was quite a reunion!

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