Seven years ago, I posted an article about ships in bottles made by German POWs in Canada. Since then, I’ve added more examples to my collection and thought I would revisit the topic share some of them and to share what I have learned about the manufacture of these unique items.
Following their arrival in an internment camp, POWs quickly discovered they had to find ways to fill their days behind the barbed wire. Many turned to handicrafts and soon set up workshops in almost every internment camp. Here, skilled craftsmen spent their time painting, carving, sculpting, and building. Despite their intricate nature, ships in bottles were exceptionally popular and in high demand.
Prisoner of War ships in bottles often follow a similar design. Most depict a sailing ship or, slightly more uncommonly, a warship and feature a seaside town in the background. Some, often in larger bottles, will have multiple ships, although these are more rare. The ships are almost always named and it appears that many POWs elected to use a name cut out from a newspaper or other publication rather than writing by hand. As for the bottles themselves, liquor bottles were especially popular due to their larger size (and availability) but POWs used whatever they had at hand. Some creative POWs even used glass tubes or light bulbs to display their creations.
Due to the large number produced, some ships from certain camps appear to follow a similar style and some POWs appear to have added signature elements to their creations. I believe the two ships below, for example, were made by the same, unidentified POW, likely in Camp 132 (Medicine Hat) or Camp 133 (Lethbridge). Although a different type of bottle was used in each, the ships and backgrounds show remarkable similarities down to the construction and decoration of the ships themselves and the layout of the backgrounds. Furthermore, the maker added cut-outs of what appear to be a Lancaster and a Halifax bomber, elements that act as a sort of signature of their maker. The maker, unfortunately, will likely remain unknown but I am happy to have reunited these bottles, one acquired from Edmonton and the other from Winnipeg, some seventy years later!
Ships in bottles were initially traded or sold to fellow POWs, but it took little time before POWs also began illicitly selling or trading them to guards and camp staff. For some of those working in isolated, low-security labour projects like bush camps or farms, POWs also traded and sold with Canadian civilians, providing them access to Canadian currency or forbidden items like radios or even cameras. Two enterprising POWs working on farms near St. Thomas, Ontario, even enlisted the help of the local milkman to sell their ships in bottles, an act that allowed them to raise enough cash to attempt an escape.
Eventually, internment authorities permitted the sale of handicrafts in most internment camps with the approval of the camp commandant. Sales were held at the camps and guards, camp staff, and even some civilians were permitted to view and purchase POW-made articles, with the proceeds being credited to the respective POW’s account and made available to them in the form of canteen chits.
Thanks in part to their popularity and quality, many POW-made ships in bottles have survived to this day. While the names of the makers have long since been forgotten, these bottles remain a visible reminder of internment in Canada and the often complicated relationship between Canadians and German POWs.
It has been a while since my last post here but I’m still researching and writing about POWs in Canada. I’m happy to say that I finished my dissertation and successfully defended my PhD. I’m hoping that this (and the current pandemic) will give me more time to share some of my research here.
Speaking of research, I recently published a photo essay on the Network in Canadian History & the Environment about POWs and their pets in Canada during the Second World War. If you are interested in learning more about POW pets (including the black bear cub seen below) or you simply like seeing pictures of dogs, cats, and bears, click HERE or on the image below.
On first glance, it may seem a simple photo of a hockey game and soldiers looking on. But on a closer look, something stands out – the soldiers are not Canadian. They are German. This picture, which I was very pleased to add to my collection, is a relatively rare photo of German POWs at Camp 23 (Monteith) playing hockey with their comrades watching from the sidelines. Considering tomorrow is Hockey Day in Canada, what better time is there for delving into a little history about German POWs and Canada’s national winter sport.
With thousands of young, athletic men interned in Canada during the Second World War, sports became an especially popular and important way to pass the time. Prisoners in most internment camps set up their own teams and leagues and began playing football (soccer), baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, and – you guessed it – hockey.
I have no record of how many POWs had played hockey before coming to Canada but hockey was an established sport in Germany, with the country taking the bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics. One also has to remember that many Canadians were interned in the early years of the war due to their status as “enemy aliens.” It is quite likely these men shared their skills with newly-arrived internees and EMS from the United Kingdom.
As for the skates, sticks, pucks and other equipment, most was provided by aid organizations, most notably the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA. This organization dedicated itself to improving the living conditions of POWs interned on both sides and did their utmost to meet the recreational, educational, and religious demands of POWs. The War Prisoners’ Aid and the International Red Cross began supplying generic articles to improve the lives of those interned in Canada but also allowed POWs to make specific requests. For example, in late 1940, among the articles requested by internees at Monteith were lights for their Christmas trees, twenty-four pairs of stakes, and twenty-four hockey sticks.
The organization did have a budget to purchase items – ranging from ping pong balls to pianos – but also relied on donations. In an early report of the War Prisoners’ Aid, director Jerome Davis remarked,
One Canadian manufacturer out of the generosity of his heart, contributed two hundred pairs of skates. The result was that we were aided in building skating rinks in almost every prison camp in Canada. later, the Canadian Government took pictures of these rinks and some of them were sent to Germany. Therefore, the act of the Canadian business man who desired simply to do a Christian act for imprisoned soldiers – men who are not criminals but simply soldiers out of luck had its repercussions internationally and the Canadian business man may actually have done more to hep the British prisoners than he could have by sending in skates directly to them.
As the following image, given to Dr. Boeschenstein of the War Prisoners’ Aid, demonstrates, the equipment was greatly appreciated and quickly put to good use.
Roughly translated, the poem reads:
When cold comes with ice and snow,
YMCA thinks of the POW
With YMCA’s help here on the spot
One Plays Ice Hockey, Canada’s Sport
By December 1942, the War Prisoners’ Aid reported that every internment camp in Canada had, among other things, skates and a skating rink. In Camp 23 (Monteith), for example, POWs flooded the soccer field in the winter months and turned it into a skating and hockey rink while POWs at Camp 44 (Grande Ligne) converted their tennis courts into two skating rinks, one for hockey and the other for “fancy skating.”
Limited for recreation in the winter months, these skates were in especially high demand; at Camp R (Red Rock) in March 1941, the skating rink was in use throughout the day but, only having thirty pairs of skates for 1,100 internees, the internees had to sign up in advance. Other camps were better-equipped; by 1943, Camp 21 (Espanola) had two skating rinks and 500 pairs of skates.
The skills of those involved varied, as one report from Camp 44 (Grande Ligne) suggests: “One or two of the prisoners were quite good, but a number of them had not yet found their ice legs, and were falling around to the amusement of the on-lookers.”
As skating and hockey grew in popularity, the War Prisoners’ Aid continued to send out skates and hockey equipment. In early 1944, the War Prisoners’ Aid reported they had sent out skates, hockey sticks, pucks, goal keepers’ outfits, and, in some cases, even skis.
It was not only internment camps where hockey was popular. Prisoners in some of the almost 300 small, isolated labour projects also took up the sport. Those who found themselves working as woodcutters in the Northern Ontario bush frequently requested skates and hockey equipment to help pass the long winters. Fortunately for them, the pulpwood industry relied on waterways to move logs and most camps were located on the shores – or at least nearby to – streams, rivers, and lakes. Once cleared of snow, these frozen waterbodies became natural ice rinks.
Whether or not the POWs kept skating when they returned to Germany, I do not know. But I’m sure many brought back fond memories of their time in Canada playing that “good ol’ hockey game.”
Remembrance Day – and our thoughts go back 27 years to 11 o’clock on the 11th November 1918. Those of us who are Veterans of two wars can never forget that day; even tough another bloody struggle has just ended, and “VE” Day and “VJ” Day have come and gone.
Remembrance Day – and what are the thoughts of the old Vet of two wars on this 27th anniversary? For Remembrance Day should be for those who lived as well as those who died; the latter have their immortal fame and have been spared the disillusionment of those who thought they had won a war which would make the world a “place fit for heroes to live in.” But despite the lost illusions despite the years of hard work, poverty, and disappointments, which were the lot of many, when the call came again they volunteered in their thousands. Now, 27 years after they heard the first great “Cease Fire” and after again giving another fix or six years of their lives to their Country, their thoughts are sombre. Denied most of the benefits of the rehabilitation schemes provided under the War Services Gratuities Act – because of age, too old to fish, too old to farm – are they to remember their sixty thousand comrades who died – enviously?
Remembrance Day – and “let the dead bury the dead.” But let their Country remember those who still live. Those who are now entitled to something better than a “dole” at the age of sixty, and only then if they are destitute.
Is this great country content to let these veterans of two wars eke out a precarious existence during the next five or ten years while waiting for the “dole,” or will it give them NOW the pension they have so justly earned, and give it as a RIGHT and not a charity?
Remembrance Day will come again next year and the year after, and for many many years, and —
“Remembrance Day,” P.O.W. WOW 2:3, November 12, 1945
Camp 132 Newspaper
Wishing a Happy New Year to all my readers!
In 1945, PoW Willi Nötel gave this Happy New Year card to his fellow PoW and friend Erich Neumann in Camp 132 at Medicine Hat, Alberta. Both the double-sided card and envelope are hand-made, presumably by Nötel, and note he even replicated the postal cancellation on the upper-right of the envelope.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and all the others out there!
Sometime during his internment in Canada, PoW Albert Ammer wrote one of Bruno Schönlank’s poem in the empty pages of his copy of Ein Kleines Buch, a PoW-produced book describing life at Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Meiner Mutter Hände sind
Von der Arbeit schwer.
Dennoch streicheln sie so lind,
Wie niemand mehr.
Meiner Mutter Haar ist grau,
Müd oft ihr Gesicht.
Doch wenn ich ihr ins Auge schau
Strahlt mir Sonnenlicht.
And here is a rough translation:
My mother’s hands are
Hard from work.
Yet they caress so gentle,
like no one.
My mother’s hair is gray,
tired often her face.
But when I look into her eyes
radiates me sunlight.
Stumbling across this in my search for intelligence reports regarding the VE-Day announcement in Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge, I wanted to share. Unsure of how PoWs would react to news of the German surrender, intelligence personnel at Medicine Hat’s Camp 132 asked a group of PoWs their thoughts as they were being transferred to a logging camp. Here are some of their answers:
“Another P/W carried a small painting which showed an old wood-cutter with a long beard, an axe over his shoulder, standing among numerous mountains which were completely bare (Apparently all trees had been cut). In one corner there was a little tree and some bush to be seen. The Painting was named ‘The Last Wood-Cutter in 1976.’ The painting was mounted on a bone which was engraved ‘From the old bones of Room No. 2’ P/W received this from his comrades who apparently were kidding him about being sent out to a Logging Camp.”
“Another P/W carried a bright red flower in a flower pot, and explained that he is a gardener in civilian life, and that the flower was presented to him by his comrades so he would feel at home when arriving in the bush.”
“One P/W could not be found until the last moment and he gave his reason that he is strong Anti-Nazi and devout Catholic and would have liked to go out on a work project where also Anti-Nazis and Catholics would be sent. He had already taken all Swastikas off his tunic and cap, and said that he refused to use the Hitler salute since several weeks ago, and was therefore afraid to go with a group of P/W who were not Anti-Nazis. He was assured that his group did not contain any fanatical Nazis, who were expected to cause no trouble whatsoever. He then jumped in the jeep holding in his left hand a small bible and saluting smartly with the old German military salute.”
Overall, the staff noted the general sentiment to be “very favourable” – a contrast to previous working parties who, as the report describes, “…were partly unwilling to do any work for the Allies which would be useful in the prosecution of the war against their homeland.”
Sentiments of P/W transferred to Logging Camps from No. 132 Camp on May 13, 1945, HQS 9139-4-133, Camp Intelligence, 1944-1946, C-5365, LAC.
Life behind barbed wire was generally monotonous and strictly regulated and for those spending upwards of five years in internment camps were liable to suffer significant mental strain. In an attempt to both prevent this and to break-up their daily routine, among the many activities organized by PoWs were sporting events. A variety of teams and competitions were organized inside the camps, including football (soccer) and hockey. Equipment was often provided by the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA.
Some camps, particularly those that held officers, had access to facilities that let them take part in activities including tennis and swimming. This, however, didn’t prevent PoWs from improvising; faced without any suitable structure for sporting events, PoWs at Medicine Hat built their own stadium. However, playing sports like soccer and volleyball within a barbed-wire enclosure brought about another issue – in one camp, barbed wire ruined an average of eight soccer balls and four volleyballs every month.1
1. C.M.V. Madsen & R.J. Henderson, German Prisoners of War in Canada and their Artifacts, 1940-1948 (Regina, SK, 1993.), 42.
Having recently celebrated my 26th birthday, I can’t help think how differently this PoW celebrated his. Unfortunately, I do not know his name (might be Hans), but this individual celebrated his birthday in 1943 as a PoW in Canada, likely in in Medicine Hat or Lethbridge.
This card was made by one (Fredl) or more of his friends and demonstrates the creativity and talent of PoWs living behind barbed wire. I’m not sure what the significance of the “SS” is, possibly initials?
With text and images cut from newspapers and magazines, the left shows an ensemble of “What I wish you” (“Was ich dir Wünsche”) and “What I do not” (“und was nicht”). The start contrast between girls, money, music, and “longer hair” (not sure about that one!) and war, the army, gray hair, and false teeth (just can’t make this up!) gives a sense of what PoWs were thinking as they idled the hours in internment camps.
The card also included a poem (I’m still working on a translation) and photos of what I’m assuming are his friends.
The portraits have been cut from PoW group photographs intended as postcards. The names on the back include (?), Hans Lehmann, Franz Schell, Alfred Glatz, Gerhard Schmales (?) ,and Alfred Gottinger.
Picture postcards were quite popular with PoWs as it offered them a chance to show their families how they were doing as they waited out the end of the war in Canada. As these photographs were taken by photographers approved by the Canadian military, they also served an important propaganda by demonstrating that the prisoners were being properly fed, clothed, and housed.
This particular photograph was taken at Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, Alberta in 1943. Both Heer (Army) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) are present and the tropical (light-coloured) uniforms worn by a number of the PoWs suggest that some, if not most, of these men were captured in North Africa.
The sender, Heinz Gummert, is not identified in the photo but was a young Luftwaffe Obergefreiter (Lance Corporal) believed to have been captured in North Africa. The postcard, addressed to his father in Germany, simply states “Greetings to you from your son, Heinz!” Coincidentally, the PoW in the back row, third from the left, was a PoW at Riding Mountain but he too remains unidentified.
I know little about Gummert but, a few months after this photograph was mailed, he was working at a lumber camp near Hemlo, Ontario. In mid-April, he and two comrades attempted to escape from the camp. The Winnipeg Free Press of April 15, 1944 briefly described their capture:
“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police here revealed today that three German prisoners of war who escaped Friday from a prison camp, at Hemlo in northern Ontario were recaptured in the same general vicinity late yesterday. The prisoners were Robert Traut, 31, Heinz Gummert, 21, and Kurt Senmholz, 35. The three were former members of the Nazi air force.”
Hopefully some further research will uncover Gümmert’s identity and his fate following the failed escape.