In Photos: POWs and the Swanson Lumber Co. – Clearwater, British Columbia

In December 1944, thirty-nine German prisoners of war stepped off the train at Clearwater, British Columbia, a small settlement roughly halfway between Kamloops and Jasper. Although small, this group of POWs was notable — they were the first combatant POWs to live and work within British Columbia. Employed by Swanson Lumber Co., the POWs would work here for the next year-and-a-half.

Group of POWs working for the Swanson Lumber Co. near Clearwater, Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.

Between 1943 and 1946, the Department of Labour oversaw the operation of almost 300 labour projects, or work camps, employing German POWs – including civilian internees, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and combatant prisoners. These POWs were employed by civilian companies or government-arranged projects, with the majority working in bush camps in Northern Ontario or on farms in Alberta, Manitoba, or Southern Ontario. Notably absent were any work projects on Canada’s East and West Coasts.

Early in the war, fears of enemy attacks and sabotage in the coastal provinces prompted military authorities to restrict internment operations in these areas. The only exception was Camp 70 (initially known as Camp B) in New Brunswick, an internment camp for civilian internees and Enemy Merchant Seamen. Most notably, these fears also prompted the forced evacuation of Japanese-Canadians from British Columbia. But, by late 1944, Allied advances in the Pacific meant there was little threat to Canada’s Pacific Coast so military authorities eased some security restrictions.

By mid-1944, the Alberta-based Swanson Lumber Co. was, like many other Canadian logging companies, struggling to attract civilian labour. The company turned to the Department for Labour for help and began employing POWs in one of its camps near Granada, Alberta. The initial success of its new labour force prompted the company to request additional help for its camp near Clearwater in British Columbia. While there was some concern regarding the camp’s proximity to the ever important rail line connecting Jasper and Kamloops, the RCMP voiced no objections and the Department of Labour approved the project.

Forty POWs were selected for the project, of which twenty-eight were to be transferred from a recently-closed bush camp in Alberta and the remainder from Camp 133 (Lethbridge). Among those selected was Jakob Wörz, who can be seen in the photograph below and who I believe was the original owner of these photographs. Born in Ballendorf in 1916, Wörtz served in the Germany Army in North Africa, where he was captured by British or Commonwealth troops and subsequently sent to Canada.

POWs at Camp 133 (Lethbridge), c. Fall 1943. Front row (left to right): Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Wolters, Artur Schönfeld, Hans Czarcynski, Maier, Jakob Wörz, and Unknown. Back row: Unknown, Hering, Josef Löffler, Gerhard Goltze (or Golze), Kommle, Lessner, Unknown, Eurich, and Unknown. Author’s Collection.

Wörz and his comrades arrived at Clearwater on December 15, 1944, escorted by a small detachment from the Veterans Guard of Canada. After they were handed over to a company representative, the POWs would have likely been transported to camp by truck.

A group of POWs with the camp in the background. From left to right: Eugen Schneider, Josef Löffler, Josef Zulauf, Richard Rhode, and Peter Hinkel. Author’s Collection.

The bush camp, known as “Cap’s Camp” or the “Upper Camp” was located just northeast of Clearwater and, like logging camps throughout the region, were sparse in their amenities. The company did, however, provide some improvements to the camp, including fumigating existing buildings, erecting new barracks, and installing showers. As with other POW bush camps, there were no guard towers or barbed wire fences around the camp. One NCO and four other ranks from the Veterans Guard of Canada provided security and the POWs were permitted to roam within set bounds.

Three of the Veterans Guards assigned to supervise the POWs, collect and distribute mail, and provide security. Author’s Collection.

Most of the POWs were employed in general bush work and, after receiving training from civilian woodcutters, would have spent six days a week cutting, stacking, and hauling logs. The POWs received for $0.50 a day for the work – for comparison, the average Canadian woodcutter made $0.55 an hour – and they could spend their money at a small store in the camp.

POWs Josef Noll and Josef Froschauer (or Froschhauer), armed with a two-man saw and an axe, are seen here demonstrating proper felling techniques. Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.

Additional POWs arrived in mid-1945, bringing the camp complement to just shy of 100 men. The extra manpower appears to have allowed the company to expand its POW workforce to hauling logs and working in what appears to be a portable sawmill separate from the company’s main mill in Clearwater.

Group of POWs working near at Swanson Lumber Co.’s sawmill near Clearwater. Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.
POWs posing with their CATs (and dog) with the sawmill in the background. Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.

Boards were hauled to Clearwater by truck, where they they would have been loaded onto trains. The photo below, from the BC Archives’ collection, shows one of the company’s trucks. A closer inspection reveals the passenger is wearing a military uniform, indicating he is a member of the Veterans Guard and the driver is almost certainly a POW.

“Forest Service; truckload of lumber, Swanson Lumber, Clearwater.” BC Archives 199003-004.

Access to and from the camp required driving on a very winding road and accidents did happen. In a remarkable coincidence, the photographs below appear to show the very same truck in the previous image.

The company also employed several civilians in the camp. Most of these individuals would have been employed in supervisory or specialized duties, like Bill the “Cat Driver” seen below.

“Bill [the] Cat Driver.” It is unknown whether Bill is a POW or a civilian employee. Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.

Swanson Lumber Co. also employed several POWs in the camp kitchen and, in a rare occurrence for POW bush camps, these POWs worked alongside women. The Department of Labour generally prohibited women from living or working in POW bush camps to prevent unwanted advances or trouble.

Kitchen Staff at Swason Lumber Co. camp near Clearwater. From left to right: Waldemar Osterloh, “Phillys”, “Köchin”, Heino Stecker, and Helmuth Braun. Winter 1945-1946. Author’s Collection.

Following an eight-hour day, or once they completed their daily quota, the POWs were able to spend their free time as they pleased. Some would take the time to write postcards and letters to their friends and families back home, tune into the radio for the latest news of the war, build handicrafts, or work on correspondence courses. Most turned to their surroundings for recreation.

“Bobfahrt” (Bobsleigh) at Clearwater. Author’s Collection.

While long and cold winters were the source of several complaints in bush camps, the POWs at Clearwater appear to have made the most of the snow and cold. They converted a toboggan or sleigh into a “Bobfahrt” and acquired skis, either through the company or perhaps by mail-order catalogue.

Three unidentified POWs with skis. Author’s Collection.

As can be imagined, there was some resentment regarding the company’s treatment of POWs compared to its civilian workers. In preparation for the POWs’ arrival, the company fumigated and cleaned its buildings, built new barracks, and installed showers to bring the camp up to Department of Labour requirements. Some civilian workers, who had previously lived in less than ideal conditions, voiced their complaints and one even took the matter to the press.

Other concerns came with fraternization between the POWs and Clearwater residents. The POWs were known to wander down to the “Flats” (Clearwater) and visit with the locals, which included a significant German population.

This photograph of an unidentified woman would have raised significant questions of security and fraternization had it been discovered prior to 1946. Author’s Collection.

Despite these issues, the camp remained open until the Department of Labour closed the last of the POW bush camps in July 1946. Wörz and his comrades returned to Camp 133 (Lethbridge) but their time there was brief as he and many others volunteered to stay in Canada to work on farms in the Summer of 1946. Wörz applied to stay in Canada, a decision likely heavily shaped by his work experience, but, in December 1946, the Canadian government elected to transfer all German POWs in the country to the United Kingdom for their eventual repatriation.

Logging remains an important industry in the Clearwater area and satellite imagery shows cutting in the same area that POWs once cut some seventy-five years prior. But, as far as I can tell, these photographs remain the only physical reminders that POWs once lived and worked in British Columbia.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

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

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