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When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them.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!
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Following the popularity of my Fort Henry post, I thought I would share a brief look at another important internment camp in Canada – Camp 30 near Bowmanville, Ontario. Approximately seventy-five kilometers east of Toronto, Camp 30 was built around a former boys training school on the outskirts of the town.
Camp 30 opened in November 1941 with a capacity of 700 men. The camp was an Officer Camp, holding officers from all services, but it also held a number of other-ranks to serve as the officers’ orderlies. Notable, Camp 30 was the site of the infamous “Battle of Bowmanville,” in which PoWs refused to be shackled and barricaded themselves inside the camp for three days. The camp closed in April 1945 and the remaining prisoners were transferred to other camps.
As you can see from these images, many of the camp buildings and other structures have been removed or destroyed since the camp’s closure. Fortunately, there has been some interest in the site in recent years and a growing push for preserving its history.
In 2013, the former site of Camp 30 was designated as a National Historic Site and in the same year, Heritage Canada listed it as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in the country. While its future is still being decided, I hope that Camp 30, one of the last remaining internment sites in the country, can be preserved for future generations.
Of all twenty-eight-or-so internment camps in Canada during the Second World War, I can only think of five that have either changed relatively little or haven’t been completely destroyed (at least from the external appearance) in the last seventy years.
Among these few is Camp 31 (originally Camp F) at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario. Built from 1832 to 1837, the fort was among the first sites chosen to serve as internment camps in the early years of the Second World War. From June 1940 to December 1943, the camp was the temporary home to German combatants (both officers and other-ranks), Enemy Merchant Seamen, and civilian internees.
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.