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.”
In the past, I’ve posted some of my family’s ties to the First World War but today, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought I’d share a brief, new perspective, looking at the war and its impact as my great-great grandfather, James Proven, recorded in his diaries.
James Proven was a farmer in rural Manitoba and he kept a diary for most of his adult life, mostly documenting his farm work. On Nov 7, 1918 he noted, “Germans hard pushed” and, on the following day, “Hear Germany has collapsed. Believe it is true this time.” On November 11, he added “Germany surrenders”
The war had claimed two of his three sons, with Ernest dying of wounds received at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The entry for April 13 reads, Mrs. McDugle came up and told of Ernest’s death.” They receive what seems to be his last letter three days later.
His eldest son, Harry, died of wounds received on the advance of Cambrai in late September 1918, just a month and a half before the war’s end. The family received the news on October 10 and His diary reads “The sad news of Harry’s end 29th Sept.”
My great-grandfather, Sidney, was conscripted but never went overseas. The last of his siblings, he remained in Clanwilliam and eventually took over the family farm.
On the 10th anniversary of Ernest’s death, James added, “April 9, 1917 Ernest got killed at Vimy Ridge. Just 10 years ago now. Ten long years for me to be without my boy.”
A very special thank you to Lisa for sharing these diaries with me.
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 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!
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.