PoWs who Died in Canada – Johann Schäfer

Johann Schäfer was one of the thousands of German soldiers captured in the North African Campaign. A member of the German Afrika Korps, Schäfer was in his early twenties when his war ended in 1941 or 1942.

Following a brief period in a primitive internment camp in North Africa, Schäfer and his comrades found themselves aboard an Allied vessel on their way to Canada. Following a long journey around the African coast, the ship would have slowly made its way across the Atlantic before docking in New York or Halifax. Offloaded under careful supervision, the PoWs were placed on a train heading West. It is likely that Schäfer was first interned in the tent camp of Ozada, Alberta, located at the foothills of the Rocky Mountain. Spending only a brief (but cold) period here, Schäfer was relocated to Camp 133 at Letbhridge, Alberta in the late fall or early winter of 1942. Camp 133, having only recently been opened, and its sister camp, Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, had been built to each accommodate over 12,000 PoWs. Surrounded by tall barbed wire fences and guard towers, PoWs made the best of their time by joining sports teams, playing in orchestras, taking educational classes, or by “walking the wire.” In 1943, Schäfer was photographed with a group of fellow PoWs and was authorized to send the photo back home.

Schäfer, Johann - 1a

Postcard sent by Johann Schäfer to a friend in Germany. While he is likely one of the individuals in the photograph, he remains unidentified. Author’s Collection.

Two years later, Schäfer was working in one of the many PoW logging camps in Northwestern Ontario. Like many of these isolated labour projects, there were no barbed wire fences or guard towers and the PoWs were granted with considerable freedoms. While they worked eight-hour days, six days a week, the PoWs had ample free time and popular pastimes at these camps included hiking, swimming, canoeing, wood-carving, and reading.

As the war in Europe finally ended in May 1945, many PoWs looked forward to finally returning home. Unbeknownst to them, the majority would have to wait years before returning to Germany. Schäfer, however, would never return home.  On June 20, 1945, at the age of twenty-five, Johann Schäfer died in a drowning accident.

In accordance with the terms of the 1929 Geneva Convention, Schäfer was granted a funeral with full military honours. Escorted by members of the Veterans Guard of Canada, his comrades conducted a service at Port Arthur, Ontario (now Thunder Bay). Following a brief ceremony and a rifle salute, Schäfer was laid to rest in Port Arthur’s Riverside cemetery. The photograph below was sent to Schäfer’s family in Germany through the International Red Cross.

Schäfer, Johann - 3a

Funeral Service for Schäfer at Port Arthur’s Riverside Cemetery, 1945. Author’s Collection.

Johann Schäfer would be one of fifteen PoWs who drowned while in Canadian captivity. Drownings were one of the primary causes of PoW deaths in the country, representing ten percent of the total. The increased rate of drownings in labour projects in 1944 and 1945 prompted Canadian internment officials to either restrict or completely prohibit PoWs from swimming or canoeing.

Johann Schäfer's grave in Kitchener Ontario. Author's Photo.

Johann Schäfer’s grave in Kitchener, Ontario, November 2013. Author’s Photo.

In the early 1970s, along with 147 of his fallen comrades, Johann Schäfer’s grave was relocated to Kitchener’s Woodland Cemetery where it remains today.

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About michaelohagan

PhD Candidate at Western University - Studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

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