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.
Among the many pastimes of German prisoners of war interned in Canada was the building of ships in bottles. Ranging from simple sailing vessels to elaborate models of five-masted barques, ships in bottles were often traded or sold to other PoWs, guards, camp staff, and civilians. While PoWs in smaller camps built them for their own amusement or to pass the time, some of the larger camps had groups of PoWs that produced handicrafts specifically to sell.
I recently acquired my first PoW-made ship in a bottle. The ship is a four-masted barque that appears to be flying an Italian flag. I’m assuming that the maker had some knowledge of naval signal flags as it is also flying a “Zulu” flag to show that it is in need of a tug. However, PoWs from the Army, Air Force, and Navy were known to have built model ships so he may only have had access to a book or photo of the appropriate flags. Like many PoW-made ships, the background is decorated with a brightly coloured seaside town.
The ship was reportedly made by a PoW in a Manitoba camp but I have not been able to confirm this as of yet. The maker did sign his name on the bottle (at least I’m assuming its his name) but sometime in the last seventy years, much of it has disappeared. The best guess I have is something along the lines of “from D. BERETTA” or “PERETTA” but I’m not sure about that. If the ship is flying the Italian flag, perhaps it was an Italian internee in Canada or the US. Anyone have any other ideas as to what the name could be?