On November 1, 1943 – 75 years ago – newspapers across the country announced a mass escape from a POW camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park.
On October 31, 1943 – only five days after their arrival – nineteen German Prisoners of War (POWs) were found missing from the newly completed camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. With no barbed wire fences or guard towers surrounding the camp, the POWs had been allowed to roam within the camp camp area while not at work but the nineteen men failed to appear at the evening roll call. As guards scrambled to find the missing men, the camp commandant notified local police and military authorities to help in what was billed as the second largest mass escape of POWs in the country.
Meanwhile, the nineteen men had no idea they were considered escapees. Having left the camp that afternoon, the group had only intended on going for a hike to explore their new surroundings. Unfamiliar with the terrain – and the weather – the POWs had left camp in their army uniforms and had taken no provisions. Following the old logging roads and game trails that dotted the area, the POWs soon became lost. Snow began to fall, and the storm escalated to a blizzard, covering all trails and tracks. Realizing their predicament, the POWs settled down for the night.
Back at camp, local RCMP officers arrived to assist in the search while all detachments surrounding the park were put on alert. Camp authorities also notified Brandon and Winnipeg City Police as well as Border and Rail police to be on the lookout for the missing men. Patrols of guards and police officers were dispatched around the camp but were unsuccessful in locating the POWs that night.
In the early morning, the POWs – cold and hungry – decided to try find their way back to the camp in small groups, a task that some succeeded. The first POWs wandered back into camp that morning and were immediately taken into custody. By the end of the day, all of the missing POWs had returned to camp on their own accord or had been found by patrols. Questioned individually, each POW emphatically stated they had not tried to escape but had simply gotten lost while hiking. Camp authorities eventually believed their stories and threatened reprisals against any POWs who considered leaving camp boundaries again. However, the RCMP leading the investigation suspected the POWs may not have tried to escape this time but were instead conducting a reconnaissance of the area for a future escape.
As the POWs returned to work the following day, the matter seemed closed. However, the camp interpreter did have to dissuade the other POWs in camp from beating their nineteen comrades in a misguided attempt to show how much they valued the opportunity to work in the camp.
While the papers continued to claim it was the second largest POW escape in Canada (the largest haven taken place at Angler in April 1941), all evidence suggests they were telling the truth and had gotten lost. I was fortunate to correspond with one of the 19 men who, seventy years later, assured me he had never tried – or considered – escaping for he greatly appreciated the opportunity to live and work in the relative freedom of Riding Mountain National Park.
You would be hard-pressed to find a PoW camp or labour project in Canada that did not have an attempted escape attempt or, in a few isolated cases, a successful escape. The labour project run by the Erie Peat Co. employing Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS) near Port Colborne, Ontario was no exception.
Having opened in August 1943, the camp employed some fifty EMS from Camp 22 (Mimico, Ontario) in a peat-cutting operation in the Wainfleet Bog. Not all were in favour of having PoWs in the area, particularly with the Welland Canal nearby. Despite the EMS being non-combatants and the canal being under constant guard, many protested the presence of “the enemy” to a vital transportation route for the war effort. Among the first labour projects in the country, the success or failure of this operation had the potential to influence the future of PoW labour in Canada so it was of significant concern when five PoWs went missing two weeks after their arrival.
In the early morning of October 11, 1943, PoWs Gerard, Hoffmann, Kaehler, Krause, and Schluter left the camp, making their way east across the peat beds.
Gerard, Hoffman, Krause were picked up shortly after, transferred back to Camp 22, and sentenced to twenty-eight days detention. Kaehler and Schluter managed to avoid capture for another day, their escape coming to an end on October 13 in Windsor, when a civilian observed two “apparent foreigners” hesitant to enter a restaurant. Suspecting the two were up to trouble, he notified the RCMP who arrived shortly after and took the PoWs in custody. Both had ditched their PoW uniforms for civilian clothing.
Escapees were understandably hesitant to provide much detail about their escape and their time on the run so I have found that apart from the camp and the location of their capture, much of the detail in-between does not make it into the police reports. Fortunately for the RCMP (and me, seventy years later) Kaehler and Schluter were not only found with an Ontario road map but a list of the towns they passed through on their way to Windsor. Upon further questioning, the PoWs revealed they had hitchhiked along Highway 3 until they reached Windsor. Trying to reach Detroit, their route, as seen below, took them through Port Colbourne, Canborough, and Leamington, and finally Windsor.
The escape was eventually blamed on the poor security measures and an inadequate civilian guard force, prompting the Veterans’ Guard to take over security shortly thereafter. Despite constant security concerns, the project remained open until November 1945.
As they escapees did not provide their interrogators with their final destination or any contacts, the goal of their escape (apart from freedom) remains unknown – perhaps they were trying to make it back to Germany or maybe they wanted to disappear in the United States. Regardless, their route sheds some light on PoW attempts to escape, showing these men avoided the closest border crossing at Fort Erie and Buffalo, likely thinking that would be the first place the guards and RCMP would look.
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.