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.”
The sketch above was submitted to War Prisoners’ Aid for consideration of being printed as one of the annual Christmas cards produced by the organization and distributed to PoWs in Canada. The artist, Rudi Boege, was a civilian internee at Camp 70 (Fredericton, NB) and, as the spokesman described, one of the most gifted artists in the camp.
The design shows PoWs gathered around a bonfire and the campleader explained it had special meaning to the internees at Camp 70 for every Christmas eve, the internees lit a bonfire on the parade ground.
To my knowledge, the card was never produced. The War Prisoners’ Aid instead settled on a card depicting Camp 133 (Lethbridge, AB).
Merry Christmas to all my readers and best wishes in the new year!
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.
Updated translations August 5, 2014 and November 29, 2016 – Thanks to Günther and Joel for their help!
In my last post I introduced the basics of Prisoner of War mail in Canada during the Second World War. Today, I’m going to continue this by showing another type of postcard.
In the early years of the Second World War, the YMCA set up the “War Prisoners’ Aid” to supply Allied and German PoWs with non-essential goods, such as sporting equipment, radios, movies, reading material, etc. Among the items produced specifically for German prisoners of war in Canada was a series of nineteen postcards.
The postcards featured artwork by two PoWs, one of who was reportedly Karl Kafka. The postcards were printed by the YMCA and were made available for purchase in the camp canteens. Many of the cards feature aspects of the day-to-day life in a Canadian PoW camp while others, as you can see below, portrayed camp life and work in a more humorous fashion. Some of the meanings of the cards are beyond me so if you have any insight into any of these cards, please leave a comment below!
One thing I will note is that although these cards were apparently approved to be sent home (and I know the PoWs brought them back to Germany with them)I have yet to find one that was actually mailed. It appears as though these cards were more souvenirs than post.
I have included the original German captions and their [rough] English translations below.
And, having saved my favourite for last,
That’s it from this series, I hope you enjoyed it! Check back soon for the next installment of PoW mail.
I haven’t been able to do any further research but apparently the YMCA produced stationery specifically for soldiers writing home for Mother’s Day. I can’t imagine the YMCA thought that this would be used by a Canadian Forestry Corps company to record some productions statistics but it looks like they used anything on hand.
Anyways, Happy Mother’s Day!