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.
“Lethbridge Ale” from the House of Lethbridge, “Royal Stout” from Lethbridge Breweries Limited, and “Calgary Beer Export Lager” from Calgary Brewing & Malting Co. These three beer labels are not only a part of Lethbridge’s and Calgary’s beer history but part of Canada’s internment history as well. These labels are souvenirs kept by German prisoner of war (POW) Hugo Dellers from the period he was interned in Camp 133 (Lethbridge, Alberta).
Sharp-eyed viewers may notice that two of the labels have a circular “Canada Int. Op. Censored 21” stamp while the third label (see below) is stamped on the reverse. These stamps are commonly found on POW photos, correspondence, and handicraft and indicate that the article had passed censorship and could be taken out of the camp. Stamp number 21 was assigned to Camp 133 (Lethbridge) and these particular labels were likely reviewed by Sergeant F. Lawrence.
As of 1942, POWs were allowed to purchase and consume beer in internment camps in Canada as part of a reciprocal agreement with Germany, in which beer was made available to Allied POWs in that country.
Prisoner of War camps in Canada were assigned individual quotas depending on the number of POWs and guards/staff at each camp. As of January 1944, Camp 133’s beer quota was 14,000 gallons and in February 1945 alone, the camp ordered 9,600 bottles of beer! Prisoners could purchase beer (on a quota basis) through the camp canteens, which they ran. At Camp 133, two glasses cost 20¢ in September 1943, but beer was also provided at no charge in some camps on special holidays.
Although liquor remained forbidden, this did not stop enterprising POWs from making their own illicit homebrew. Guards tried putting a stop to alcohol production in most camps but guards in some work camps apparently looked the other way in exchange for a bottle or two. One POW – Richard Beranek – even had his dad send him the recipe for homemade schnapps and, to avoid censors confiscating it, his dad titled it as a recipe for bread.
Access to beer presented an unusual – and unexpected – problem in 1943-1944. When POWs started working in bush camps in Northern Ontario, they were dismayed to discover that Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) regulations prohibited the purchase and consumption of beer in these camps. One POW spokesman reported this was an “unjustified hardship” and, as Christmas was approaching, stated “the beer question is very urgent.” Despite many requests, the LCBO refused to budge. This was apparently enough to prompt some POWs to reconsider volunteering for work.
The occasional sympathetic (and in a few cases, drunk) guard or farmer brought POWs into civilian beer parlours for a drink while they waited for a train or medical appointment or to reward them for a day’s hard work. Local residents were often and unsurprisingly opposed to this practice, as is evident from this 1942 Ottawa Journal article.
Regardless, POWs appear to have appreciated the supply of beer in internment camps. As one POW later recalled, “After all, the drink helps to put doubts, tensions and dullness temporarily on the doorstep.”
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.
Captured in North Africa, Kurt Siebein was sent to Canada in September 1942. Likely disembarking in New York, after a long train journey, he and his fellow PoWs arrived at Camp 133 at Ozada, Alberta. A temporary tented camp at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Ozada held thousands of German PoWs while the new internment camp at Lethbridge was being constructed. While a scenic location for an internment camp, the camp was not without its problems. Life in tents during a particularly wet summer and then in the early months winter – the first Canadian winter for many of the PoWs – was far from ideal. However, by late November 1942, the new camp at Lethbridge was completed and the PoWs were transferred there by December.
An artist, Siebein painted this watercolour during his brief stay at Ozada. “K.G.-Lager Ozada 1942” (K.G.-Lager referring to Kriegsgefangenenlager, German for prisoner of war camp) shows life at Ozada in that final month before the transfer to lethbridge. A single PoW is visible, with the red circle on his jacket and the red stripe on his trousers marking him a PoW, walking his dog down a line of tents. A single guard tower and the Rocky Mountains feature prominently in the background.
This particular painting was sold or traded to Hans Gronenburg, a PoW from the Luftwaffe who arrived in Canada in 1940 and was transferred to Ozada in June 1942.
While I have yet to uncover more examples of Siebein’s paintings, it appears as though he continued painting throughout his internment in Canada. His pay record shows he sold a number of watercolour and oil paintings at art and craft sales in 1945, netting him $24.50, but this does not account for any sold or traded to his fellow PoWs. Siebein spent most of his time in Canada at Lethbrigde but spent the summer of 1946 employed on farmwork. He was transferred to Great Britain on November 24, 1946.
If anyone as any other examples of Siebein’s art or any other PoW art, please get in touch!
“A Remembrance Day Message”
“Twenty-seven years ago, at eleven o’clock, 11 Nov. 1918, the “Cease Fire” was sounded, thus bringing World War I to a victorious conclusion.
There was great joy and celebrations. Victory had been won! A armistice had been signed! Our enemies, we believed, decisively beaten. The drums of war were then to be laid aside for all time (at least many thought so then).
The personnel who had been spared were to return to their civilian occupations. They visualized a life of peace and happiness. Many were to return to hospital, broken in body, prematurely aged by service, yet thankful for life itself in spite of their physical handicaps.
As in previous war, the sacrifices were great. It had taken four and one half years of slugging with weapons and equipment that have since then found their way to the scrap pile, there to be turned into plowshares. They have served their purpose and it was the hop that never again would they be required.
The great battles in which this now obsolete equipment had been used were now but a living memory. We think of Vimy Ridge, Ste. Eloi, Ypres, The Somme, Courcette, Hill 70, Lens, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Canal du Nord, Cambrai, Valenciennes, Mons, and many others, where over sixty thousand of Canada’s finest manhood met death – the inevitable result of war. This was their contribution that others might live to be free and have their being.
In 1919 what remained of Canada’s citizen Army returned home. Proud of the fact that they had made their contribution to free the world from tyranny, ready and anxious to take their part in the upbuilding of Canada. Hoping, in fact, convinced, that there would be no more wars.
The intervening years have been filled with disappointments for many. The scourge of war has left its mark. The battle to win the peace was, in many respects, more difficult than fighting itself. The Great Reaper, in His infinite mercy, has taken many Home, to rest with their comrades; their hopes and ambitions frustrated, but with a certain knowledge of a grateful country for their undaunted courage and faithfulness, even unto death, in a just a righteous cause.
Again in 1939 the Spectre of death and carnage was turned loose in Europe. That same ruthless enemy which was defeated in 1918 again showed his ugly head, and during the dark and disastrous days that followed when death, deceit, and treachery, were rampant, the Veterans of World War I, who were still medically fit, undaunted by refusals, persistently offered their services. They were ready for the fray. Thousands of them answered the “Call to Arms”. They knew too well the ruthless enemy had again to be put down, if we were to be free and escape the heel of the oppressor.
And now as we approach another Remembrance Day let us pause in silent memory for those who gave their all in World War I, together with those of their sons and daughters who carried through World War II the glorious traditions of their fathers, that we might have liberty. Let us think of Vimy, where, on the foreign soil of France, there stands of a memorial, emblematic of the self-sacrifice, endurance, courage, and faith, of those who…
‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up the quarrel with teh foe,
To you, from falling hands, we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high;
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, tho’ poppies grow
In Flanders field.’
– Camp 133 War Diary, Appendix to Part I Orders, November 6 1945
Last year, I wrote a post featuring some artwork by PoW Richard Schlicker. My hopes were that others would come forward with more examples of Schlicker’s artwork and, a year later, the result was just that. Laura stumbled across my blog and emailed me three pictures of paintings from Richard Schlicker that her father purchased while serving as a camp guard, likely at Lethbridge. All three feature scenes at Camp 133 – Ozada, Alberta and, like those in my earlier post, were probably purchased at one of the art and craft sales hosted by the PoWs at Camp 133 in Lethbridge.
If anyone has any other examples out there, please get in touch!
“And so another Armistice Day rolls around as the years go by, and today members of the VGC have cause to remember this day of days, realizing little that it is 27 years ago today since the cessation of hostilities in 1918. The meaning of this day has, of course, a special significance for VGC personnel and all veterans of the conflict of 1914-1918, but at the same time it was appreciated by all of us that the memories should be combined with thoughts of the younger generation who have given their lives in the present war. So it was with this in mind that we carried out the celebrations today… In the morning special services were held by the Camp Padre, H/Capt. L.L. Grant, who spoke of the solemn occasion of this date and paid tribute to the many lives lost by two generations of youth, all within the lifetime of members of the VGC. A special civilian choir was in attendance and lent aid to the choral side of the service.
At eleven o’clock, the hour of the “Cease Fire” in November 1918, all members of the Sgts’ Mess gathered together and a short service was held, with two minutes of silence, the playing of the “Flowers of the Forest” and “Last Post.” Sgt. Smith, Pipe-Major of No. 22 Coy Pipe Band, kindly consented to render the pipe selection, and L/Cpl. McGowan of #29 Coy sounded the bugle calls. Special dinner was served in the Messes and it was more or less a day of reminiscing among those who fought together in those days of 27 to 30 years ago.”
– Camp 133 War Diary, November 11, 1945
Some time ago I acquired a series of forty-five photos documenting a PoW’s time in Canada. As is so often the case, the photos are unnamed and the provenance was unknown. Three group photos of PoWs at Camp 133 at Lethbridge lead me to believe that the original owner of the group was the man on the far right in the front row, as he is the only one to appear more than one photo.
Most of the photos were taken in a bush camp somewhere in Northwestern Ontario. While I had come to accept that I may never identify where they were taken, a presenter at a conference I attended earlier in the year just so happened to include one of the same photos in her presentation, identifying it as coming from the camps belonging to the Pigeon Timber Company near Neys, Ontario.
This, however, was only one piece of the puzzle and I now I need help. Ten photos show a PoWs working on a beet harvest and I’m trying to narrow down the location. In 1945 and 1946, PoWs worked on beet farms in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Here’s the clues I have to work with:
First, this photo of PoW farm labourers has conveniently included part of the writing on the side of the wagon/truck/trailer in the background.
Now I would assume that standard practice for labeling a vehicle or trailer like this would be:
If that’s the case, the best guess I have is:
I’m pretty sure that is an “Ma” in the bottom row and PoWs were employed on beet farms around Emerson in 1946. Anyone have any other ideas?
The second clue is this farmhouse (or farmhouses?). Appearing in a few of the shots, perhaps someone will recognize it! Personally it looks to me as something found more often on the prairies than in Southwestern Ontario, perhaps helping to support my Manitoba theory?
It is a long shot for sure, but one never knows. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Richard Schlicker was among the thousands of German soldiers captured in North Africa and subsequently shipped to Canada in 1942. First arriving at Camp 133 at Ozada, Alberta, Schlicker was later transferred to Camp 133 at Lethbridge, Alberta. With the exception of working on some Albertan farms in 1945, he spent the remainder of the war in Lethbridge before being shipped to the United Kingdom in March 1946.
While I know little else about Schlicker’s life, I do know that he was a talented artist that put his skills to use throughout his time in Canada. In a rather fortunate occurrence, I came across two of Schlicker’s paintings in Calgary this summer, the two watercolours shown below. Signed and dated 1944 and 1945 respectively, these paintings do not depict camp life but scenes more commonly found in Germany.
Nearly every internment camp had a group of artists and while some painted for themselves, others sold or traded their work with comrades and, although it was forbidden, the occasional guard. Sometime closer to the war’s end, Camp Commandants began allowing PoWs to hold art and handicraft shows, first for the guards and camp staff, and then to the general public. Rather than receiving cash, their profits (as far as I can tell, all profit went directly to the PoW) were added to their savings account or made available to them in the form of credit or chits which they could exchange at the camp canteen. Shows were quite popular and eventually held on a fairly regular basis. These two Schlicker paintings were sold at one such sale to the mayor of Lethbridge at the time, Alfred W. Shackleford, who later passed them down to his son.
While copying Schlicker’s pay records in Ottawa, I was pleased to find entries relating to his art sales. I was even more surprised to find that two entries specifically mentioning the sale of two watercolours – perhaps these two are from one of these sales! The entry also notes that Schlicker’s paintings were each being sold for $2.00 each.
But the surprising finds were far from over! Shortly after arriving home, I received an email from an individual asking if I’d be interested in scans of some PoW artwork from his uncle’s time as a PoW in Canada. Answering “of course!,” imagine my surprise when he forward a series of illustrations all drawn by Schlicker. These ones, however, depict life as a PoW in both Canada and North Africa. As PoWs were prohibited from owning or operating cameras, artwork such as this provide important insight into what life was like behind barbed wire.
While a search for more of Schlicker’s work has yet to reveal anything, perhaps someone who knows more will stumble upon this post!
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.