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.
Richard Schlicker was among the thousands of German soldiers captured in North Africa and subsequently shipped to Canada in 1942. First arriving at Camp 133 at Ozada, Alberta, Schlicker was later transferred to Camp 133 at Lethbridge, Alberta. With the exception of working on some Albertan farms in 1945, he spent the remainder of the war in Lethbridge before being shipped to the United Kingdom in March 1946.
While I know little else about Schlicker’s life, I do know that he was a talented artist that put his skills to use throughout his time in Canada. In a rather fortunate occurrence, I came across two of Schlicker’s paintings in Calgary this summer, the two watercolours shown below. Signed and dated 1944 and 1945 respectively, these paintings do not depict camp life but scenes more commonly found in Germany.
Nearly every internment camp had a group of artists and while some painted for themselves, others sold or traded their work with comrades and, although it was forbidden, the occasional guard. Sometime closer to the war’s end, Camp Commandants began allowing PoWs to hold art and handicraft shows, first for the guards and camp staff, and then to the general public. Rather than receiving cash, their profits (as far as I can tell, all profit went directly to the PoW) were added to their savings account or made available to them in the form of credit or chits which they could exchange at the camp canteen. Shows were quite popular and eventually held on a fairly regular basis. These two Schlicker paintings were sold at one such sale to the mayor of Lethbridge at the time, Alfred W. Shackleford, who later passed them down to his son.
While copying Schlicker’s pay records in Ottawa, I was pleased to find entries relating to his art sales. I was even more surprised to find that two entries specifically mentioning the sale of two watercolours – perhaps these two are from one of these sales! The entry also notes that Schlicker’s paintings were each being sold for $2.00 each.
But the surprising finds were far from over! Shortly after arriving home, I received an email from an individual asking if I’d be interested in scans of some PoW artwork from his uncle’s time as a PoW in Canada. Answering “of course!,” imagine my surprise when he forward a series of illustrations all drawn by Schlicker. These ones, however, depict life as a PoW in both Canada and North Africa. As PoWs were prohibited from owning or operating cameras, artwork such as this provide important insight into what life was like behind barbed wire.
While a search for more of Schlicker’s work has yet to reveal anything, perhaps someone who knows more will stumble upon this post!
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the next phase of my research took me to Ottawa. Fortunately, I was able to spend two weeks going through the holdings of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), and the Canadian War Museum (CWM). Here’s a quick summary of my time in the archives! Apologies to my twitter followers as some I’ve already posted some of these.
My research regarding PoWs in Canada began with the camp in Riding Mountain National Park some seven years ago. Having visited LAC in 2012 looking for material related to Riding Mountain, I was not expecting to find much more. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a full set of PoW paylists, some miscellaneous correspondence, and, the pièce de résistance, a map showing the layout of the camp. Having searched eight years for such a map and to find it in a rather unexpected place made this one of my best finds of the summer.
Another unexpected find was a series of pay books documenting POW farm work in Alberta, notably in the Brooks and Strathmore area. Providing me with the name of the PoW, employer, and general location of the farm, hopefully I can get a better idea of the distribution of PoWs working on farms in Southern Alberta.
Not knowing what to expect when I stepped into the comparatively small reading room at the Directorate of History and Heritage, I was delighted to stumble upon a large amount of PoW material. Among my more interesting finds were blueprints to building two different types of guard towers (in case I get bored), escape maps confiscated from PoWs, and recruiting pamphlets for the Veterans’ Guard.
The Riding Mountain finds also continued at the Canadian War Museum. Having known of a few photos of the camp in their collection, I was pleasantly surprised to find more than I expected!
My time in Ottawa wasn’t all work and I managed to find some time to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. As luck would have it, I arrived in time to see part of the Casino du Lac‑Leamy’s Sound of Light, an international fireworks competition.
All in all, not a bad way to spend two weeks! Now to find the time to go through everything!
I apologize if this is old news, but I was just made aware that Library and Archives Canada finished digitized their “ZK” prefixed photos. Taken between WWII and the mid-1960s, the collection includes over 3,600 colour images of the Canadian Army. More information on the collection is available here and a finding aid is also online.
There’s a lot of images to go through but I did manage to find, among others, some relevant to my research.
One of a series of photos of two members of the Veterans’ Guard of Canada posing for photos. The Veterans’ Guard was primarily composed of WWI Veterans who acted as a “Home Defence” force and guarded PoW camps across the country.
One of a series of photos of German soldiers captured during the Normandy Invasion. Quite possible that some, if not most, of these men ended up in Canada for a couple years. You can find the story of one of these PoWs, Richard Beranek, who ended up in a lumber camp in Manitoba here.