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When POWs were withdrawn from bush camps in 1946, they could not bring their canoes with them.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.”
Update (May 15, 2020): A big thank you to Andreas who was able to decipher the handwriting and provide me with a transcription of the letter. Thank you to everyone else who offered their help, I really appreciate it! I’ve added the transcription and rough translation after the images.
I am hoping someone will be able to help me with this. I have a letter (written in German) that I am struggling to transcribe. The handwriting is rather difficult to read with my limited German so I’m turning to my blog readers for help.
For some context, the letter was written to the family of Bernhard Wardenski, notifying that them that he was missing in action. Wardenski, a German naval artilleryman, was captured on December 27, 1941, most likely during Operation Archery, a British Commando raid on the Norwegian island of Vågsøy (Vaagso). He spent a few months in the United Kingdom as a POW being he was transferred to Canada, remaining here until 1946.
The letter itself, dated January 8, 1942, appears to have been written by Wardenski’s commanding officer, but I have only been able to make out a few sentences, namely:
Sehr geehrte Familie Wardenski!
… Ihr Sohn, der Mar. Art. Bernhard [?] Wardenski wird seit dem 27.12.41 Vermisst…
If you are able to decipher any of the text below, please let me know in the comments below or by sending me an email.
Any help would be greatly appreciated!
Transcription courtesy of Andreas:
Leider muss ich Ihnen
heute eine traurige Mitteilung
machen. Ihr Sohn, der Mar. Art.
Bernhard Wardenski wird seit
dem 27.12.41 vermißt.
Wahrscheinlich ist er bei treuer
Erfüllung seiner Soldaten-
pflicht den …tod
gestorben. Alle Nachforschungen
und alles Absuchen der
fraglichen Stelle blieben
Ich kannte Ihren Sohn…(??)
und habe ihn wegen seiner
frischen und offenen Art, wegen
seiner Gewissenhaftigkeit und
seiner Leistungen besonders
geschätzt. Ich kann daher auch
Ihren tiefen Schmerz mit-
empfinden und kann Ihnen
versichern, dass wir das
Andenken Ihres Sohnes in
Ehren halten werden. Sein
Heldentod ist ein Glied in
der Kette der vielen Taten
und Opfer der Soldaten, die
dem Reich den Sieg bringen
Sobald die Kompanie etwas
Näheres erfahren sollte, erhalten
Sie sofort Nachricht.
Leutnant (?) u. Komp. Chef
And the translation:
Dear Wardenski family,
Unfortunately, I have to give you a sad message today. Your son, the Mar. Art. Bernhard Wardenski has been missing since December 27, 1991. He probably died if he fulfilled his duty as a soldier. All investigations and searches of the position in question were unsuccessful.
I knew your son … and I particularly valued him for his fresh and open manner, his conscientiousness and his achievements. I can therefore also feel your deep pain and can assure you that we will honor your son’s memory. His heroic death is a link in the chain of many deeds and victims of the soldiers who will bring victory to the empire. As soon as the company learns anything else, you will be notified immediately.
Lieutenant (?) U. Comp. Boss
Thanks again to everyone who offered to help! Bernhard Wardenski was very much alive and had already mailed a postcard to his parents notifying them of his capture by the time this letter was written.
Remembrance Day – and our thoughts go back 27 years to 11 o’clock on the 11th November 1918. Those of us who are Veterans of two wars can never forget that day; even tough another bloody struggle has just ended, and “VE” Day and “VJ” Day have come and gone.
Remembrance Day – and what are the thoughts of the old Vet of two wars on this 27th anniversary? For Remembrance Day should be for those who lived as well as those who died; the latter have their immortal fame and have been spared the disillusionment of those who thought they had won a war which would make the world a “place fit for heroes to live in.” But despite the lost illusions despite the years of hard work, poverty, and disappointments, which were the lot of many, when the call came again they volunteered in their thousands. Now, 27 years after they heard the first great “Cease Fire” and after again giving another fix or six years of their lives to their Country, their thoughts are sombre. Denied most of the benefits of the rehabilitation schemes provided under the War Services Gratuities Act – because of age, too old to fish, too old to farm – are they to remember their sixty thousand comrades who died – enviously?
Remembrance Day – and “let the dead bury the dead.” But let their Country remember those who still live. Those who are now entitled to something better than a “dole” at the age of sixty, and only then if they are destitute.
Is this great country content to let these veterans of two wars eke out a precarious existence during the next five or ten years while waiting for the “dole,” or will it give them NOW the pension they have so justly earned, and give it as a RIGHT and not a charity?
Remembrance Day will come again next year and the year after, and for many many years, and —
“Remembrance Day,” P.O.W. WOW 2:3, November 12, 1945
Camp 132 Newspaper
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.
The annual German Remembrance Day service will be held Sunday, November 19, 2017. This service takes place at Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario (119 Arlington Boulevard) at 2:30 p.m. For more information, please click here.
By Alan Horwood
These men knew war: In youth and strength they went
Forth into battle, when the world was rent
By conflict, born of arrogance and hate;
To force all nations to a vassal state.
They bore the burden, blood, and sweat, and tears,
Of strife, and toil, and sorrow, through the years
That tried their courage, broke, or steeled their pride;
Confirmed the strong, and cast the weak aside
Back from the war they came, grim-faced and lean,
Tight lipped about the things their eyes had seen;
Burned in their hearts too deep to be revealed
The mud and horror of the battlefield.
Their faces now etched with lines of care;
The hoar-frost of the years is in their hair;
But sagging shoulders stiffen in salute
As youth swings by; but in their eyes the mute
And hopeless longing for the days when they
Marched to the bugles of another day.
They say that the old soldier never dies;
And that is true; till under sod he lies,
His martial spirit flames on undiminished
Till death blots out the light, and all is finished.
They did not shrink from duty when once more
Dark war clouds loomed, more deadly than before;
They vied with you, eager to do their share
Of service, here, abroad, or anywhere.
And those the years had touched with gentleness,
Are serving with the troops in battle dress;
Holding the line, until to son and sire
Victorious bugles around the call “Cease Fire.”
Source: Robert H. Henderson Collection, Royal Alberta Museum.
While picture postcards of German prisoners of war in Canada are not particularly uncommon, examples from certain camps can prove more difficult to find (for more on PoW picture postcards, see my earlier post here). In my experience, images from Camp 100 at Neys, Ontario are among those harder to find. I was therefore quite happy to obtain this image recently. Depicting ten prisoners and their dog on a sandy beach with Lake Superior in the background, this postcard was sent by Enemy Merchant Seaman (EMS) Karl Hannover to his family in Germany in 1942.
Karl Hannover arrived in Canada in late June or early July 1940 and was likely first interned At Camp R in Red Rock, Ontario. However, he was soon transferred to Camp Q at Monteith, Ontario and, on November 25, 1941, he was transferred to Camp 100 (Neys) where he would remain for two years.
Located on the shore of Lake Superior, Camp 100 at Neys, Ontario, was arguably one of the most scenic locations for an internment camp. One of two purpose-built internment camps in Northern Ontario (the other being Camp X, later Camp 101, at Angler), Camp W (later renamed Camp 100) opened in January 1941 and initially held about 450 German officers and other ranks sent to Canada from the United Kingdom. By the end of the year, these men were transferred to other camps and replaced by about 650 civilian internees and enemy merchant seamen (EMS). The camp temporarily closed from December 1943 to August 1944 and re-opened as a “Black” camp – a higher-security camp primarily intended for pro-Nazis and troublemakers. The Neys Internment Camp finally closed at the end of April 1946.
An artist, Hannover submitted a design for consideration as the 1943 Christmas cards printed and distributed by the War Prisoners’ Aid of the YMCA but it does not appear his design was chose for, in November 1943, he and the rest of the EMS at Neys were relocated to Camp 23 (Monteith). In March 1946, Hannover was transferred to the United Kingdom, likely returning to Germany the following year.
Camp 100 was abandoned and dismantled in the late 1940s and the site was eventually re-forested. In 1964, the former camp location and the surrounding location became part of Neys Provincial Park. Few traces of the camp remain today although one can still find pieces of scrap metal scattered throughout the site and you can still make out the outlines of some of the building foundations. Park staff also run regular tours of the site throughout the summer months.
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.
One of the more popular emails I receive is from individuals wanting to know more about their relative’s service in the Second World War so I thought I’d write a short post explaining how to do so. Although my requests are usually for men who served in the Veterans’ Guard of Canada, this request will work for any individual who served in Second World War.
First off, what is a service file? A service file contains most of the information held by the Department of National Defence regarding a person’s service in the military. This can include attestation papers, pay records, medical records, and records showing where and when they served during the war (and after). From this, you will be able to determine which regiment they served in, the dates of their service, most of the places they served, etc. Unfortunately, these do not often contain any pictures although I have a file that included an identification card (quite rare in my experience).
Service records from the First World War and Second World War are held by Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. Unlike service records from the First World War, which are available to the public and are in the process of being made online, service files from the Second World War remain restricted. While it takes a little more work to request WWII records, it is not difficult and it is usually worth effort. And it is free (minus the cost of a stamp)!
For WWII service files, there are some stipulations:
- If you are requesting the file of an individual still living, they need to provide written consent.
- If the individual has been deceased for less than twenty years, you need to provide proof of relationship and proof of death*.
- If the individual has been deceased for more than twenty years, you need to provide proof of death*.
*Proof of death can be a copy (do not send originals) of the death certificate, an obituary, funeral notice, or a photograph of a gravestone. Note: if the individual died while serving, you do not need to provide proof of death.
If you can provide a proof of death or written permission, you now need to download and print this form: WWII Service File (PDF)
The next step is to fill out as much information as possible. Do not worry if you can not fill out every step – usually a full name and their date/place of birth or death is sufficient. If you do have the service number (letter followed by a series of numbers), make sure to include it.
For members of the Veterans’ Guard of Canada, under “Branch of Service,” you can select “Army,” “Wartime,” and “Regular.” As for the documents you are requesting, I usually select “Other” and write “All available files.”
Once they have received your request, they usually send a confirmation letter. Unfortunately, it is sometimes a lengthy wait to receive the files. The waiting time varies but I have had to wait between two and ten months to receive a file.
If you have any questions about the application or questions about deciphering a service file when you receive it, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below or send me an email.