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.
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.”
While picture postcards of German prisoners of war in Canada are not particularly uncommon, examples from certain camps can prove more difficult to find (for more on PoW picture postcards, see my earlier post here). In my experience, images from Camp 100 at Neys, Ontario are among those harder to find. I was therefore quite happy to obtain this image recently. Depicting ten prisoners and their dog on a sandy beach with Lake Superior in the background, this postcard was sent by Enemy Merchant Seaman (EMS) Karl Hannover to his family in Germany in 1942.
Karl Hannover arrived in Canada in late June or early July 1940 and was likely first interned At Camp R in Red Rock, Ontario. However, he was soon transferred to Camp Q at Monteith, Ontario and, on November 25, 1941, he was transferred to Camp 100 (Neys) where he would remain for two years.
Located on the shore of Lake Superior, Camp 100 at Neys, Ontario, was arguably one of the most scenic locations for an internment camp. One of two purpose-built internment camps in Northern Ontario (the other being Camp X, later Camp 101, at Angler), Camp W (later renamed Camp 100) opened in January 1941 and initially held about 450 German officers and other ranks sent to Canada from the United Kingdom. By the end of the year, these men were transferred to other camps and replaced by about 650 civilian internees and enemy merchant seamen (EMS). The camp temporarily closed from December 1943 to August 1944 and re-opened as a “Black” camp – a higher-security camp primarily intended for pro-Nazis and troublemakers. The Neys Internment Camp finally closed at the end of April 1946.
An artist, Hannover submitted a design for consideration as the 1943 Christmas cards printed and distributed by the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA but it does not appear his design was chose for, in November 1943, he and the rest of the EMS at Neys were relocated to Camp 23 (Monteith). In March 1946, Hannover was transferred to the United Kingdom, likely returning to Germany the following year.
Camp 100 was abandoned and dismantled in the late 1940s and the site was eventually re-forested. In 1964, the former camp location and the surrounding location became part of Neys Provincial Park. Few traces of the camp remain today although one can still find pieces of scrap metal scattered throughout the site and you can still make out the outlines of some of the building foundations. Park staff also run regular tours of the site throughout the summer months.
Undoubtedly the most unusual find this summer was a PoW-made fishing rod. While I have come across the odd mention of PoWs fishing in labour projects in Manitoba and Ontario, this is the first time I’ve encountered material evidence of this.
Made from a broom handle and what appears to be can lids, the fishing rod is simple but functional. The seller advised that it came from a guard at Fort Henry though to me it appears like something that came from the many lumber camps in Northern Ontario. Often located alongside lakes or rivers, bush camps offered PoWs considerable freedoms and a number of PoWs tried their hand at fishing. While the ability to fish was much more uncommon for those in an internment camp, it was not unheard of. Camp 42 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, was situated on a river and one report noted that there were a number of “ardent fisherman” and in May 1945, the camp held a series of angling competitions.
At Camp 23 in Monteith, Ontario, an intelligence report included a section aptly titled “A Fish Story:”
“A short time ago the German medical doctors, BK-788 Guenther Kalle, 43341 Heinz Machetanz and 000129 Hans Modrow, were taken for a parole walk by the Camp [Intelligence Officer]. Carrying fishing rods, the party started for a favorite spot on the Driftwood River, which flows past the camp. Crossing a bridge over a small stream about a half mile from camp, Dr. Machetanz saw a fish lying on the sandy bottom of the clear stream. Baiting a hook with red meat, he dangled the bait before the fish’s mouth, without result. The fish wouldn’t even move. The fisherman then fastened a triple hook to his line, and manipulating it gently under the fish’s mouth, heaved, and up came the fish, securely hooked. The fish turned out to be a sucker; but the fun of catching it in this odd manner was at least partial compensation for the failure to catch any more that day. They have had better luck since, as Dr. Machetanz caught a pickerel and Dr. Kalle got two on Saturday afternoon, 12 Aug.”
While some of the history of this piece may be lost, it still provides an interesting look into PoW handicrafts and recreation.
The following newspaper article appeared in the April 12, 1950 issue of the Globe and Mail. Having first come across this a few years ago, it remains one of my favourite articles and I thought I would share. While these graves were relocated to Kitchener, Ontario in the 1970s, the article provides an interesting perspective only a few years following the departure of the last PoWs in Canada.
They are a long way from home.
The bodies of 17 German servicemen lie at rest in a small military cemetery on a snowy, windswept hill overlooking the Abitibi River a mile west of here. Through the uncertain tides of war, their destiny was death in a wild, rugged land, 4,000 miles from home.
Beneath their lonely graves the river winds down to the paper mill at Iroquois Falls, then onward toward James Bay. Little wisps of steam swirl upward from the swift water; otherwise the calm of the wilderness is unbroken. On the opposite bank the bushland sweeps unceasingly to the Arctic.
Buried in this remote forest plot are German soldiers, sailors and airmen who died during the Second World War at the Monteith prisoner-of-war camp 15 miles to the south. Of the hundreds of men imprisoned at the camp or employed in bush work across the north, only these 17 were left behind. Most of the 17 died from the after-effects of wounds received in battle.
Their resting place is enclosed by a birch fences. It was made by other prisoners who cared for the plot till they were sent back to Germany after the war. A birch archway, bearing the sign Ruhestatte Deutscher Kriegsgefangener gives entry to the area. Orderly rows of small spruce trees surround the plot.
The snow leading to the graves of these forgotten men was four feet deep and had been unbroken all winter when I arrived. The fence was engulfed almost completely and so was the line of wooden markers on the south side of the plot, for the winter wind from the north had swept a heavy drift across the hill.
The markers on the north side of the cemetery stood forth from the snow in a brave, pathetic little line. Sunlight struggled through the murky afternoon of late winter and fell upon the polished wood of their surfaces.
The memorials were remarkable; it was much as though one had stumbled into a tiny village cemetery in Germany, where the village wood-carver had wrought with loving care the plaques of the deceased.
Shouting their German identity defiantly to the alien wilderness, the markers were the work of some expert craftsman who had apparently been a prisoner at Monteith. Just who the artisan was is unknown. There is no record of his name, for the POW camp has long since been converted to Ontario’s northernmost jail… But it is unlikely there are half a dozen men in Canada today who could have done a similar job.
Each man’s name was carved in bold, authoritative lettering – Johann Wagner, Fritz Schröder*, Fritz Bochwoldt*, A. Hartwig… Beneath were the dates of birth and death but places of birth were not mentioned. A few of the men had been in their late thirties when they died, but most were in their early twenties.
Above each name was a symbol representing the branch of the German service in which each served. A galleon sweeping across a rifted ocean marked the sailors and U-boat men. A two-pronged arrow heading into a sunset was on the graves of the airmen. An infantryman’s helmet identified the graves of the soldiers.
Beneath the helmets on the soldier’s markers, swastikas were carved in the polished wood… But the hated symbol was just pathetic here.
I dug away the snow from one of the buried markers on the south side. Here Oberfeldwebel Friedrich Küttner* was buried. A remarkable carving of a sleeping soldier was exposed. I pushed back the snow and left the soldier sleeping.
The last of the German prisoners of war left Northern Ontario in 1946. During the war they composed a large portion of the workers in the forests. Men who showed and inclination to escape were kept in Monteith. Further north, near Hearst, a camp for incorrigibles was maintained.
There is a second Germany cemetery beside Highway 11, a mile and a half north of Kapuskasing. The men lying in it were prisoners of the First World War and were kept at what is now the Dominion Experimental Farm at Kapuskasing.
Care of both cemeteries is in the hands of the Canadian War Graves Commission.
Night was creeping up the slope from the river. You could no longer see the wisps of vapor rising from the water. The shadows lengthened across the hills on the far bank. With the night, there came a darkness which heralded spring.
As I went away I thought: These were our enemies. But the brotherhood of death has made them akin to our own Canadians lying in Europe. War is very bad, no matter which side you are on.
* – Corrected spelling
In the summer, I ran the first of a series of posts about prisoner of war mail (see here) and I briefly mentioned the censorship of PoW mail. Incoming and outgoing mail was censored by Canadian military and civilian officials to prevent PoWs from leaking sensitive information about Canadian wartime operations, their locations, and information that could be deemed harmful to the Canadian war effort.
Now PoWs were aware that their letters were being censored and were instructed not to include sensitive material in their correspondence. While many followed these instructions, a number of PoWs sought to circumvent the censorship process by hiding secret messages. Some PoWs used elaborate codes hidden within the body of their messages, some used predetermined words or messages, and others turned to more secretive methods, namely invisible inks.
I came across one of these messages that appears to have employed some sort of invisible ink in an attempt to convey a message from the spokesman of a remote lumber camp back to the spokesman at the base camp (Camp 23 at Monteith, Ontario).
The original message (in black text) is quite innocent:
As you see, I have run out of writing paper. Have you received my letter of 20.12.?? Please acknowledge the receipt of it, so that I will know that you have been informed. I hope that everything turns out to our satisfaction.
Yes Felix, we took everything on our own heads when we left the camp — everything except injustice.
Now I have some more requests, which you will certainly fulfill for me.
I urgently need 3 arch-supports, 4 portfolios and 2 pads (jotting paper) — This sort of article is not to be had here, and you know — 30 cents.
I am enclosing a list for the exchange of clothing. Please send it here as soon as possible. When can I count on the case of books? Christmas is coming and we have nothing to read. Please see to it that the carpenters complete the case. As far as everything else is concerned, everything here is keeping with the times.
In the hope that you (plural) spend a happy Christmas, naturally wet, I remained with best wishes.–
Your comrade, Wilhelm
In the white text, the letter takes a different turn.
Interestingly, this is the first case of Anti-Semitism I have so far encountered in my (intial) research. I have yet to discover whether there were any repercussions for sending the letter but it does highlight some of the many challenges internment officials faced during the course of the war.