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When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them.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.
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.”
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.
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.
Continuing my last post’s brief discussion of sports in PoW camps in Canada, today’s post showcases a few pieces in my collection relating to the sporting achievements of one German officer in Camp 30.
Camp 30, located in Bowmanville, Ontario, was among the many camps to have organized sporting events. The camp was built around a former boys’ school and housed German officers and their orderlies from 1941 until its closure in 1945. Among the PoWs who spent some years here was Leutnant Hilmar Schmidt.
Leut. Hilmar Schmidt was a navigator and bomb-aimer in the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. Fortunately for me, Schmidt kept a diary of his time in the Luftwaffe and a number of excerpts were published in Kenneth Wakefield’s The First Pathfinders. While they provide no information regarding his later internment, the diary entries provide a good sense of lives of Germans flying sorties over Britain.
On the night of June 14, 1941, Schmidt’s military career came to an end. As he described in a later interview,
Schmidt, along with pilot Ofw. Paul Wiersbitzki and crewmen Fw. Herbert Schick and Fw. Kurt Braun, were taken prisoner. Following his interrogation and a brief time as a PoW in Britain, Schmidt eventually found himself in Canada by the 1942.
In April 1942, Schmidt arrived at Bowmanville where he remained for at least the next year. As the following documents suggest, he excelled at the sporting events, participating in a number of activities.
Traditionally, “gaue” refers to the administrative regions of Germany but in this case, I believe it may refer to divisions or areas within the camp. The team name appears to be “Gau Mitte” which would translate to the middle or centre area/region. Team members include Hauptman Bräuer, Hauptman Ganzert, Hauptman Code, Oberleutnant Einicke, Oberleutnant von Krause, Oberleutnant Marx, Ft.z.S. Happel, Leutnant Schmidt, Leutnant Wüllenweber, Stabsgefreiter Nowsky, and San. Soldat Mochalski.
For those who may not have noticed, the triangular cut-out at the top of each certificate is not original. The cutout area once featured the German Eagle clutching a Swastika, the symbol of Nazi Germany. I found it quite interesting that presumably Schmidt or a family member was willing to erase this element of camp life but valued the rest of these documents enough to preserve them.
In April 1945, Schmidt was transferred to Camp 44 at Grand Ligne, Quebec. He was here for only a year before he was again transferred in April 1946, this time to Camp 40 at Farnham, Quebec before being sent to Great Britain.
1. Kenneth Wakefield, The First Pathfinders: The Operational History of Kampfgruppe 100, 1939-1941 (London: William Kimber & Co. Limited, 1981), 32.
2. Ibid, 173.
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.