June 26 is National Canoe Day and I thought I would take a quick look at Prisoners of War and Canoes in Canada during the Second World War.
Prisoners of War in Canada spent the early war years in internment camps behind barbed wire but this changed when the Canadian government approved their employment in May 1943. Over the next three years, thousands of POWs were sent out to woodcutting camps across the country, most in Ontario but with some in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec. Logging in the 1940s relied on water to move logs so most camps next to lakes and rivers. Bush camps were remote, had no fences, and had limited opportunities for recreation, so POWs turned to their surroundings to help pass the time. The result: POWs started building canoes.
After seeing a photo of a birch-bark canoe on the cover of a magazine, POWs working in the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (now more commonly known as the Whitewater Lake POW camp) in Riding Mountain National Park wanted to build their own but, lacking the skills, instead crafted dugout canoes. They built a small fleet and sailed their canoes (some seen below) around Whitewater Lake.
POWs in other camps even ordered boat kits and folding boats from the Eatons and other mail-order catalogues. Kayaks built by POWs near Kenora were used to paddle around Lake of the Woods and were even raced in small regattas. Some employers also allowed POWs to make use of company canoes or boats and it took little time before sizeable fleets could be found at many bush camps. Although most POWs loved canoeing, inexperience and unstable craft took its toll. Four POWs drowned in boating accidents between May-June 44, leading to a temporary ban on boating. This was lifted after authorities believed the ban would likely result in POWs refusing to work.
When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them. But before a group of POWs left their #Kenora-area camp, they offered 10 POW canoes to the local YMCA camp on Lake of the Woods (likely Camp Stephens) in appreciation of the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA’s wartime relief work. It is unclear whether the canoes made it to the camp but the rest of POW canoes across the country were left behind. Exposed to the elements, the last 75 years have not been kind. This is one of canoes near Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park I photographed in 2010.
Fortunately, some have survived. Two canoes from Riding Mountain National Park were removed from the site in the 1970s and are now in the collection of the Fort Dauphin Museum (Dauphin, Manitoba) while another dugout canoe from a camp in Northern Ontario is in the care of the Thunder Bay Museum (Thunder Bay, Ontario). A kanu-style kayak (seen below), is also in the collection of the Canadian Canoe Museum (Peterborough, Ontario). This vessel is believed to be from a bush camp near Longlac, Ontario and was removed from the camp sometime after it was abandoned.
If anyone has any stories or photos about POW canoes and kayaks, please comment below or send me a message!
In the past, I’ve posted some of my family’s ties to the First World War but today, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought I’d share a brief, new perspective, looking at the war and its impact as my great-great grandfather, James Proven, recorded in his diaries.
James Proven was a farmer in rural Manitoba and he kept a diary for most of his adult life, mostly documenting his farm work. On Nov 7, 1918 he noted, “Germans hard pushed” and, on the following day, “Hear Germany has collapsed. Believe it is true this time.” On November 11, he added “Germany surrenders”
The war had claimed two of his three sons, with Ernest dying of wounds received at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The entry for April 13 reads, Mrs. McDugle came up and told of Ernest’s death.” They receive what seems to be his last letter three days later.
His eldest son, Harry, died of wounds received on the advance of Cambrai in late September 1918, just a month and a half before the war’s end. The family received the news on October 10 and His diary reads “The sad news of Harry’s end 29th Sept.”
My great-grandfather, Sidney, was conscripted but never went overseas. The last of his siblings, he remained in Clanwilliam and eventually took over the family farm.
On the 10th anniversary of Ernest’s death, James added, “April 9, 1917 Ernest got killed at Vimy Ridge. Just 10 years ago now. Ten long years for me to be without my boy.”
A very special thank you to Lisa for sharing these diaries with me.
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.
Today (June 26) marks National Canoe Day so what better way to celebrate than a post on PoW-made canoes!
In May 1943, the Canadian government approved the use of prisoner of war labour to help boost the struggling lumber and agricultural industries. From 1943 to 1946, thousands of German PoWs, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and civilian internees were employed in almost 300 labour projects and farm hostels across the country. The opportunity to work came with increased freedom as remote bush camps had no barbed wire fences or guard towers to contain PoWs. Many of these PoWs turned to their natural surroundings for recreation and hiking, swimming, and boating soon became some of the more popular ways to spend free time.
The camp in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park, known today as the Whitewater PoW camp, opened in October 1943 with the arrival of 440 PoWs from Camp 132 (Medicine Hat). Located on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs spent their winter working, hiking around the camp, skating on the frozen lake, or reading, but when the lake thawed in the spring, enterprising PoWs turned their attention to building canoes. Apparently the idea for building a canoe came from a Canadian magazine circulating through camp that featured a birch-bark canoe on the cover.
Lacking the skills to build such an intricate craft, the PoWs instead turned to the large spruce trees scattered around the camp. Although the Park warden had told them to save the spruce trees, some were not spared the axe. With these huge logs, groups of PoWs started carving out dugout canoes. Measuring between twelve and sixteen feet in length, the PoWs built one and two-man versions, launching them in the creek that ran along the camp’s southern boundary. The guards and camp commandant permitted PoWs to paddle on Whitewater Lake so long as they stayed away from the shoreline and returned before roll call. Eventually a small fleet of these canoes lined the creek shoreline but not ever PoW took up canoeing for a hobby. One former PoW recalled the canoes were not particularly stable and after falling in the water a number of times, he gave his away to one of his comrades.
Riding Mountain was not the only camp to have canoes. With logging camps scattered across Northern, Ontario, and many situated on lakes or rivers, dugout canoes and more advanced boats appeared throughout the region. But relatively unfamiliar with canoeing and boating on open lakes, a few PoWs drowned and orders from Ottawa restricted canoeing at all camps. At Riding Mountain, the commandant restricted access to those only under the direct supervision of a guard but was eventually prohibited.
When the PoWs left these camps, their canoes remained. Some of them were taken by locals for their own use or as water troughs but most sat where they had been left. Storms and rising water levels carried many away while nature claimed those left behind.
Some of the canoes made at Riding Mountain were still floating in the creek thirty years after the last PoWs left the camp. Two were pulled from the creek and taken to the Fort Dauphin Museum for preservation where they remain to this day. But if you look closely along the creek today, you can still find the remains of one canoe near the creek and others scattered in the reeds. However, every year I revisit the site, they get harder and harder to find.
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!
As some may have noticed, I’ve neglected my blog as of late, with only one post in the last two months. This, I assure you, was not intentional but instead the result of me having been on the road for most of that time. Now, 12,000 kilometers later, I have returned to London following the completion of the first stage of my dissertation research. Here’s what I’ve been up to.
Because PoWs were scattered across the country, I knew from the beginning that my research would take to me to archives and museums as far west as Alberta and as far east as Quebec, and possibly New Brunswick. In late May, I drove back home to Manitoba and, after a few days there, continued on to my first stop, Medicine Hat. As some may know, Medicine Hat was once home to Camp 132, one of Canada’s two largest PoW camps, with a capacity of over 12,000 prisoners of war. As I have another post lined up about the fate of Camp 132 and its current state, I’ll save a better description of the camp for then.
My research began at the Archives of the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre, which has a number of volumes and records relating to the history of PoWs in Camp 132. Among the most useful of these records were those donated by former PoWs, providing valuable insight into life behind barbed wire. Having unexpectedly finished my research here in a single day, I spent part of the following day touring the Medalta factory in Medicine Hat’s historic clay district. Medalta, within a couple kilometres of the camp, was one of the Medicine Hat businesses to take advantage of PoW labour.
My next stop was Lethbridge, where the other largest PoW camp, Camp 133, was once located. Sadly, a plaque is the sole reminder of Camp 133 for, unlike Camp 132, all of the buildings were destroyed or removed from the site in the last seventy years. While the camp is no more, the Galt Museum and Archives preserves its history. Here I encountered a large number of photographs of Camps 132 and 133 as well as PoW memoirs and records pertaining to the camp’s disposal.
As the archives were generally closed for the weekends, I had little choice (hah!) but to head to the mountains! I spent my first weekend at Waterton Lakes National Park. As the nights were still cool and the kids still in school, the park was relatively quiet. Fortunately, the rain confined itself to the evenings, leaving me to explore some of the great hiking trails the park has to offer. While I thoroughly enjoyed my hiking here, I have to say that the Crypt Lake trail was certainly my favourite. Totaling 17.2km, not including the fifteen minute boat ride to the trailhead, the trail takes you up 700m through a lush valley flanked by mountains on either side. Enjoying the spectacular views as you make your way to Crypt Lake, you can see why it was listed “Canada’s Best Hike” in 1981. As you approach the lake, you climb up a short ladder, make your way through a short tunnel carved into the mountain, and then walk along a narrow path with a sheer drop into the valley below. Well worth the trip for anyone thinking about heading to Waterton Lakes!
The following Monday I had to make it back to Calgary by the evening but decided to take the scenic route via Fernie and Kootenay National Park. I briefly flew back to the Winnipeg for the conference on Civilian Internment in Canada and I hope to have another post summing up my time there.
As luck would have it, when I returned to Calgary on Saturday, I was able to pick up two PoW paintings from Lethbridge’s Camp 133 before heading to Banff for the weekend. Along the way I stopped at two former PoW camp sites, Camp 130 – Seebe (also referred to as Camp K or Kananaskis), where one of the only remaining PoW guard towers in the country is still standing. Once the Kananaskis Forest Experiment Station, the site is now home to the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station. I also stopped at the former site of Camp 133 – Ozada, now an open field along the south side of the Trans Canada highway, which actually cuts across part of the former camp site.
The next few days were spent hiking around Lake Louise and up to the Wilcox Pass, which provides a stunning (albeit chilly) view of the Athabasca Glacier.
As I was technically supposed to being doing research on this trip, I returned back to Calgary to spend some time at the Glenbow Museum Archives. I was then off to Edmonton to the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM). The RAM, now home to the Robert Henderson PoW Collection, provided me with some great sources and leads, some of which I’ll post soon! On the drive home, I stopped and viewed the second remaining guard tower at the former site of Camp 135 – Wainwright, completing my tour of internment camps in Western Canada.
Following my return to Manitoba, I took a trip to Pine Falls to see if I could find any remains of the Manitoba Paper Company’s lumber camps. From 1944 to 1946, the Manitoba Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Abitibi Pulp and Paper Co., employed POWs at at least four of its camps. Braving bears, wolves, mosquitoes, and black flies, my sister and I hiked along an old logging roa in search of the camps. While the hike was broken up by some lovely Eastern Manitoba scenery (see below), at a mere two and a half kilometres from a camp, we were halted in our search by the efforts of some rather productive beaver. At some point in the last seventy years, they had managed to damn off a creek that expanded a marsh over the road. Attempts at bushwhacking around was to no avail and out of time, we were forced to turn back. The trip was not a complete waste for, if nothing else, I quickly learned why PoWs in the bush despised black flies.
Making my way back to Ontario, I spent two nights camping at Neys Provincial Park. While the chance to camp on the Shore of Lake Superior is reason enough to visit the park, it has the added bonus of once having been the site of Camp W or Camp 100. Here about four hundred PoWs waited out the end of the war while another few hundred were employed in a number of nearby logging camps operated by the Pigeon Timber Company.
Now for the next phase of research, Ottawa!
This post is long overdue but better late than never!
About a year-and-a-half ago, I started using iGIS, an iOS app that allows you to visualize geospatial data on your mobile device. My Professor, Josh MacFadyen, had demonstrated the possibilities of this app in our digital history class and I was eager to find ways to apply it to my own research. I had fiddled around with the app outside of class – see my post here – but didn’t have a chance to test it in the field.
In late summer, I finally had a chance to put it to the test. Using maps and aerial photographs I had georeferenced and converted, I uploaded my files to both my iPhone and an iPad and set off. Now the PoW camp I was visiting is somewhat remote – the nearest cellular signal was ten kilometers away and, needless to say, there was no wi-fi. Not sure how the program would work just using the devices’ internal GPS, I pre-loaded the satellite imagery (from Google) – a handy feature when you are in the bush – which would let me compare the historic imagery and maps with what the site looks like today.
An hour by bike and I was at the site. I pulled out my phone and was pleasantly surprised to find that my phone’s internal GPS was accurate enough to show my location. As you can see from the image below, there are only a few signs hinting at the site’s history – all the more reason to find new technologies to fill in the gaps. The rectangular shape to the upper right of my position is the foundation of the camp’s powerhouse.
Things kept getting better for I discovered that the iPad worked as well – I was surprised for I wasn’t entirely sure that the iPad I was using had an internal GPS to begin with!
Having thrown in an aerial photograph from 1949 (above) and a forest inventory map from the 1930s (below) and I was in business! Adding a layer to show the physical layout of the camp as it appeared from 1943-1945 helped visualize the site and pinpoint some of the camp’s buildings and locations of interest.
While this is fantastic for my own research – I was able to identify tree stands cut by PoWs and see how the area has in some cases recovered or in others changed – it has important applications for public history as well. That same week, I led an interpretive PoW wagon tour, taking thirty people out to the site. As part of the tour, we provide visitors with a guidebook listing the buildings and explaining the history. Along with this we include a traditional map showing the layout of the site. While some of the footprints of the former buildings are visible if you look closely, it isn’t always easy to visualize the camp’s layout. However, with me leading a tour with an iPad, visitors were able to see exactly where they were standing in relation to the camp’s layout in the 1940s. Combining this with historic photos of the site and screenshots from my 3D model, visualizing the site became a whole lot easier!
That same week I visited the former PoW camp near Mafeking, Manitoba with the Beranek family, whose father/grandfather worked there in the latter war years. As I had only been to the site once before and was therefore much less familiar with this camp’s history than Riding Mountain, I relied pretty heavily on iGIS and an aerial photo to orient myself. I was also able to add the GPS waypoints I had taken on my handheld GPS the year before, seen as yellow dots in the image below.
Needles to say, using geospatial data on a mobile device opens up a realm of possibilities for both studying and sharing the past. While my use of the app and sources were fairly basic, I was able to visualize the site’s history, explore areas that I may have otherwise overlooked, and use non-traditional sources to better understand the relationship between history and the environment. Combining this with the ability to allow visitors to interact with landscape in new ways and let them explore on their own terms, I am eager to see how historians can use these technologies in the future.
With a major research trip (and some field work) planned for the summer, you can bet I’ll be bringing iGIS to help me explore and share the history of PoWs in Canada.
For my 50th post and my one-year anniversary on WordPress, I’d like to share what I’ve been up to these last few weeks.
Two years ago, I was forwarded an email from someone in Germany whose father had spent time in Canada during the Second World War as a prisoner of war. Lutz, the sender of the email, knew that his father had spent time at a camp in Manitoba but wasn’t sure about his exact whereabouts. A quick search of my records provided some insight into the life of Lutz’s father, Richard.
Richard Beranek was born on November 8th, 1926 in Mendrik, Czechoslovakia. Following his drafting into the German Army, Richard was posted to the Normandy region where, at the time of the D-Day landings, he was laying telephone lines in the Bayeux area. On June 8, 1944, British soldiers captured Richard, beginning his career as a prisoner of war.
Less than a month after his capture, Richard found himself aboard the Empress of Scotland en route to Halifax. Once the ship docked, Richard and 1,000 of his countrymen began the four-day journey to Camp 132 at Medicine Hat, Alberta.
In the early summer of 1945, Richard was once again loaded onto a train across the Canadian, prairies. This time, however, he was one of 100 PoWs destined for the farming project at Grassmere, Manitoba. The Grassmere Farming Project was located just north of Winnipeg and began its life in the 1930s as a relief project. By 1945, the buildings were vacant and were converted to be used as a makeshift prisoner of war camp. From June to November, Richard had his comrades worked on the local beet fields, assisting local farmers who needed extra labour.
In November, with the fall harvest, completed,the Manitoba Paper Co. of Pine Falls, requested that thirty prisoners be transferred to their lumber camp at Mafeking, Manitoba. Among those selected to be transferred was Richard.
At its peak, the Mafeking camp employed 130 PoWs and served as a wood-cutting camp for the Manitoba Paper Co. Throughout the winter, PoWs would cut and then haul wood to Mafeking, where it was then loaded onto trains to take it to the mill at Pine Falls. While it is unknown whether Richard worked as a woodcutter or a hauler and loader, he did enjoy his time working in the Canadian bush. His time here, however, was brief, for in April 1946, the entire complement of the camp was transferred to Camp 23 at Monteith, Ontario and then repatriated back to Britain.
Richard eventually made his way back to Germany in 1947 where he remained until he passed away in 1988. While he never had a chance to return to Canada, he fondly recalled his time here as the best years of his life.
Fast forward to August 2014, Lutz, his son Marcel, and his sister, Marianne, arrived in Winnipeg to retrace Richard’s time in Manitoba.
First visiting the site of the former camp at Grassmere, I was able to point out the rough location of the camp and share some of the stories told to me by one of the camp’s former guards (on a side note, when I showed him a photograph of Richard, the former guard paused for a moment before saying “I know that face” – quite the experience for me to say the least!). I would also like to take the time to thank Darrin, who let us explore around his property – it was greatly appreciated!
A week later, Ed Stozek had arranged for us to take two wagons out to the site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (also known as the Whitewater Prisoner of War Camp) in Riding Mountain National Park. Fortunately the weather cooperated (mostly) and the day was spent exploring the site.
Last week, we visited the camp at Mafeking. With the assistance of a local, Delbert, who, at the age of six, met some of the PoWs, we toured around the sites inhabited and worked by Richard and his comrades. Like so many of the PoW camps in Canada, little is left of the site today. That being said, we were still able to find some of the log cabins built by the PoWs and various pieces of debris scattered throughout the site. Seventy years later, the Beraneks had returned to Mafeking.
When I first received Lutz’s email, I was certainly not expecting to be a part of experience such as this one. I feel extremely privileged to be able to be part of the Beranek’s journey and to be able to help fill in some of the gaps of Richard’s time in Canada.
It isn’t everyday that you are able to take a family and show them where their father lived and worked seventy years ago…
Note: For more of Lutz’s journey, you can read Bill Redekop’s article in the Winnipeg Free Press (link)
Bear with me for a bit of shameless self-promotion!
Friends of Riding Mountain National Park (and myself) are pleased to announce the return of the “From North Africa to the North Woods” Interpretive PoW Wagon Tour!
In Riding Mountain National Park this September Long Weekend? Why not take a tour to PoW Camp! Loaded onto four wagons, visitors become new prisoners heading out to the former site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (also known as the Whitewater Lake PoW Camp) under the strict supervision of the guards. Learn what life was like at the camp as the guards and prisoners (interpretative staff) bring history to life through stories and photographs. Once at the camp, enjoy a traditional German meal, similar to that served to the prisoners at the worksites. After lunch, explore the site of the former camp with the aid of a GPS and myself. This year will also bring some new technology to the tour as I hope to be showing off some of my GIS and 3D modelling research in the field! Through the use of mobile devices, visitors will be able to see the spot they are standing as it appeared over seventy years ago!
Tour date is August 31.
Tickets are $62.00 each or $55.80 for Friends members and are available at the Nature Shop (RMNP Visitor Centre) or by calling (204) 848-4037. Tickets are already selling and they will fill up a few weeks in advance!
For more information, please visit the Friends of Riding Mountain National Park’s website.
This may be one of the last times the tour runs so if you have been holding off on it, now is the time to do it! It is a blast!
Bit of a delay since my last post, my apologies! As I get back into the swing of things, I hope my posts become a bit more regular.
Just a quick post today – a short video showing off my project for the Interactive Exhibit Design. Fellow PhD Candidate Steve Marti recorded and produced a series of videos showing off the class projects. Here’s mine:
Be sure to check out my classmate’s projects by clicking here (and scrolling to the bottom).