You would be hard-pressed to find a PoW camp or labour project in Canada that did not have an attempted escape attempt or, in a few isolated cases, a successful escape. The labour project run by the Erie Peat Co. employing Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS) near Port Colborne, Ontario was no exception.
Having opened in August 1943, the camp employed some fifty EMS from Camp 22 (Mimico, Ontario) in a peat-cutting operation in the Wainfleet Bog. Not all were in favour of having PoWs in the area, particularly with the Welland Canal nearby. Despite the EMS being non-combatants and the canal being under constant guard, many protested the presence of “the enemy” to a vital transportation route for the war effort. Among the first labour projects in the country, the success or failure of this operation had the potential to influence the future of PoW labour in Canada so it was of significant concern when five PoWs went missing two weeks after their arrival.
In the early morning of October 11, 1943, PoWs Gerard, Hoffmann, Kaehler, Krause, and Schluter left the camp, making their way east across the peat beds.
Gerard, Hoffman, Krause were picked up shortly after, transferred back to Camp 22, and sentenced to twenty-eight days detention. Kaehler and Schluter managed to avoid capture for another day, their escape coming to an end on October 13 in Windsor, when a civilian observed two “apparent foreigners” hesitant to enter a restaurant. Suspecting the two were up to trouble, he notified the RCMP who arrived shortly after and took the PoWs in custody. Both had ditched their PoW uniforms for civilian clothing.
Escapees were understandably hesitant to provide much detail about their escape and their time on the run so I have found that apart from the camp and the location of their capture, much of the detail in-between does not make it into the police reports. Fortunately for the RCMP (and me, seventy years later) Kaehler and Schluter were not only found with an Ontario road map but a list of the towns they passed through on their way to Windsor. Upon further questioning, the PoWs revealed they had hitchhiked along Highway 3 until they reached Windsor. Trying to reach Detroit, their route, as seen below, took them through Port Colbourne, Canborough, and Leamington, and finally Windsor.
The escape was eventually blamed on the poor security measures and an inadequate civilian guard force, prompting the Veterans’ Guard to take over security shortly thereafter. Despite constant security concerns, the project remained open until November 1945.
As they escapees did not provide their interrogators with their final destination or any contacts, the goal of their escape (apart from freedom) remains unknown – perhaps they were trying to make it back to Germany or maybe they wanted to disappear in the United States. Regardless, their route sheds some light on PoW attempts to escape, showing these men avoided the closest border crossing at Fort Erie and Buffalo, likely thinking that would be the first place the guards and RCMP would look.
Stumbling across this in my search for intelligence reports regarding the VE-Day announcement in Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge, I wanted to share. Unsure of how PoWs would react to news of the German surrender, intelligence personnel at Medicine Hat’s Camp 132 asked a group of PoWs their thoughts as they were being transferred to a logging camp. Here are some of their answers:
“Another P/W carried a small painting which showed an old wood-cutter with a long beard, an axe over his shoulder, standing among numerous mountains which were completely bare (Apparently all trees had been cut). In one corner there was a little tree and some bush to be seen. The Painting was named ‘The Last Wood-Cutter in 1976.’ The painting was mounted on a bone which was engraved ‘From the old bones of Room No. 2’ P/W received this from his comrades who apparently were kidding him about being sent out to a Logging Camp.”
“Another P/W carried a bright red flower in a flower pot, and explained that he is a gardener in civilian life, and that the flower was presented to him by his comrades so he would feel at home when arriving in the bush.”
“One P/W could not be found until the last moment and he gave his reason that he is strong Anti-Nazi and devout Catholic and would have liked to go out on a work project where also Anti-Nazis and Catholics would be sent. He had already taken all Swastikas off his tunic and cap, and said that he refused to use the Hitler salute since several weeks ago, and was therefore afraid to go with a group of P/W who were not Anti-Nazis. He was assured that his group did not contain any fanatical Nazis, who were expected to cause no trouble whatsoever. He then jumped in the jeep holding in his left hand a small bible and saluting smartly with the old German military salute.”
Overall, the staff noted the general sentiment to be “very favourable” – a contrast to previous working parties who, as the report describes, “…were partly unwilling to do any work for the Allies which would be useful in the prosecution of the war against their homeland.”
Sentiments of P/W transferred to Logging Camps from No. 132 Camp on May 13, 1945, HQS 9139-4-133, Camp Intelligence, 1944-1946, C-5365, LAC.