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.
Some time ago I acquired a series of forty-five photos documenting a PoW’s time in Canada. As is so often the case, the photos are unnamed and the provenance was unknown. Three group photos of PoWs at Camp 133 at Lethbridge lead me to believe that the original owner of the group was the man on the far right in the front row, as he is the only one to appear more than one photo.
Most of the photos were taken in a bush camp somewhere in Northwestern Ontario. While I had come to accept that I may never identify where they were taken, a presenter at a conference I attended earlier in the year just so happened to include one of the same photos in her presentation, identifying it as coming from the camps belonging to the Pigeon Timber Company near Neys, Ontario.
This, however, was only one piece of the puzzle and I now I need help. Ten photos show a PoWs working on a beet harvest and I’m trying to narrow down the location. In 1945 and 1946, PoWs worked on beet farms in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Here’s the clues I have to work with:
First, this photo of PoW farm labourers has conveniently included part of the writing on the side of the wagon/truck/trailer in the background.
Now I would assume that standard practice for labeling a vehicle or trailer like this would be:
If that’s the case, the best guess I have is:
I’m pretty sure that is an “Ma” in the bottom row and PoWs were employed on beet farms around Emerson in 1946. Anyone have any other ideas?
The second clue is this farmhouse (or farmhouses?). Appearing in a few of the shots, perhaps someone will recognize it! Personally it looks to me as something found more often on the prairies than in Southwestern Ontario, perhaps helping to support my Manitoba theory?
It is a long shot for sure, but one never knows. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Undoubtedly the most unusual find this summer was a PoW-made fishing rod. While I have come across the odd mention of PoWs fishing in labour projects in Manitoba and Ontario, this is the first time I’ve encountered material evidence of this.
Made from a broom handle and what appears to be can lids, the fishing rod is simple but functional. The seller advised that it came from a guard at Fort Henry though to me it appears like something that came from the many lumber camps in Northern Ontario. Often located alongside lakes or rivers, bush camps offered PoWs considerable freedoms and a number of PoWs tried their hand at fishing. While the ability to fish was much more uncommon for those in an internment camp, it was not unheard of. Camp 42 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, was situated on a river and one report noted that there were a number of “ardent fisherman” and in May 1945, the camp held a series of angling competitions.
At Camp 23 in Monteith, Ontario, an intelligence report included a section aptly titled “A Fish Story:”
“A short time ago the German medical doctors, BK-788 Guenther Kalle, 43341 Heinz Machetanz and 000129 Hans Modrow, were taken for a parole walk by the Camp [Intelligence Officer]. Carrying fishing rods, the party started for a favorite spot on the Driftwood River, which flows past the camp. Crossing a bridge over a small stream about a half mile from camp, Dr. Machetanz saw a fish lying on the sandy bottom of the clear stream. Baiting a hook with red meat, he dangled the bait before the fish’s mouth, without result. The fish wouldn’t even move. The fisherman then fastened a triple hook to his line, and manipulating it gently under the fish’s mouth, heaved, and up came the fish, securely hooked. The fish turned out to be a sucker; but the fun of catching it in this odd manner was at least partial compensation for the failure to catch any more that day. They have had better luck since, as Dr. Machetanz caught a pickerel and Dr. Kalle got two on Saturday afternoon, 12 Aug.”
While some of the history of this piece may be lost, it still provides an interesting look into PoW handicrafts and recreation.
As some may have noticed, I’ve neglected my blog as of late, with only one post in the last two months. This, I assure you, was not intentional but instead the result of me having been on the road for most of that time. Now, 12,000 kilometers later, I have returned to London following the completion of the first stage of my dissertation research. Here’s what I’ve been up to.
Because PoWs were scattered across the country, I knew from the beginning that my research would take to me to archives and museums as far west as Alberta and as far east as Quebec, and possibly New Brunswick. In late May, I drove back home to Manitoba and, after a few days there, continued on to my first stop, Medicine Hat. As some may know, Medicine Hat was once home to Camp 132, one of Canada’s two largest PoW camps, with a capacity of over 12,000 prisoners of war. As I have another post lined up about the fate of Camp 132 and its current state, I’ll save a better description of the camp for then.
My research began at the Archives of the Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre, which has a number of volumes and records relating to the history of PoWs in Camp 132. Among the most useful of these records were those donated by former PoWs, providing valuable insight into life behind barbed wire. Having unexpectedly finished my research here in a single day, I spent part of the following day touring the Medalta factory in Medicine Hat’s historic clay district. Medalta, within a couple kilometres of the camp, was one of the Medicine Hat businesses to take advantage of PoW labour.
My next stop was Lethbridge, where the other largest PoW camp, Camp 133, was once located. Sadly, a plaque is the sole reminder of Camp 133 for, unlike Camp 132, all of the buildings were destroyed or removed from the site in the last seventy years. While the camp is no more, the Galt Museum and Archives preserves its history. Here I encountered a large number of photographs of Camps 132 and 133 as well as PoW memoirs and records pertaining to the camp’s disposal.
As the archives were generally closed for the weekends, I had little choice (hah!) but to head to the mountains! I spent my first weekend at Waterton Lakes National Park. As the nights were still cool and the kids still in school, the park was relatively quiet. Fortunately, the rain confined itself to the evenings, leaving me to explore some of the great hiking trails the park has to offer. While I thoroughly enjoyed my hiking here, I have to say that the Crypt Lake trail was certainly my favourite. Totaling 17.2km, not including the fifteen minute boat ride to the trailhead, the trail takes you up 700m through a lush valley flanked by mountains on either side. Enjoying the spectacular views as you make your way to Crypt Lake, you can see why it was listed “Canada’s Best Hike” in 1981. As you approach the lake, you climb up a short ladder, make your way through a short tunnel carved into the mountain, and then walk along a narrow path with a sheer drop into the valley below. Well worth the trip for anyone thinking about heading to Waterton Lakes!
The following Monday I had to make it back to Calgary by the evening but decided to take the scenic route via Fernie and Kootenay National Park. I briefly flew back to the Winnipeg for the conference on Civilian Internment in Canada and I hope to have another post summing up my time there.
As luck would have it, when I returned to Calgary on Saturday, I was able to pick up two PoW paintings from Lethbridge’s Camp 133 before heading to Banff for the weekend. Along the way I stopped at two former PoW camp sites, Camp 130 – Seebe (also referred to as Camp K or Kananaskis), where one of the only remaining PoW guard towers in the country is still standing. Once the Kananaskis Forest Experiment Station, the site is now home to the University of Calgary’s Barrier Lake Field Station. I also stopped at the former site of Camp 133 – Ozada, now an open field along the south side of the Trans Canada highway, which actually cuts across part of the former camp site.
The next few days were spent hiking around Lake Louise and up to the Wilcox Pass, which provides a stunning (albeit chilly) view of the Athabasca Glacier.
As I was technically supposed to being doing research on this trip, I returned back to Calgary to spend some time at the Glenbow Museum Archives. I was then off to Edmonton to the Provincial Archives of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM). The RAM, now home to the Robert Henderson PoW Collection, provided me with some great sources and leads, some of which I’ll post soon! On the drive home, I stopped and viewed the second remaining guard tower at the former site of Camp 135 – Wainwright, completing my tour of internment camps in Western Canada.
Following my return to Manitoba, I took a trip to Pine Falls to see if I could find any remains of the Manitoba Paper Company’s lumber camps. From 1944 to 1946, the Manitoba Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Abitibi Pulp and Paper Co., employed POWs at at least four of its camps. Braving bears, wolves, mosquitoes, and black flies, my sister and I hiked along an old logging roa in search of the camps. While the hike was broken up by some lovely Eastern Manitoba scenery (see below), at a mere two and a half kilometres from a camp, we were halted in our search by the efforts of some rather productive beaver. At some point in the last seventy years, they had managed to damn off a creek that expanded a marsh over the road. Attempts at bushwhacking around was to no avail and out of time, we were forced to turn back. The trip was not a complete waste for, if nothing else, I quickly learned why PoWs in the bush despised black flies.
Making my way back to Ontario, I spent two nights camping at Neys Provincial Park. While the chance to camp on the Shore of Lake Superior is reason enough to visit the park, it has the added bonus of once having been the site of Camp W or Camp 100. Here about four hundred PoWs waited out the end of the war while another few hundred were employed in a number of nearby logging camps operated by the Pigeon Timber Company.
Now for the next phase of research, Ottawa!
Following the popularity of my Fort Henry post, I thought I would share a brief look at another important internment camp in Canada – Camp 30 near Bowmanville, Ontario. Approximately seventy-five kilometers east of Toronto, Camp 30 was built around a former boys training school on the outskirts of the town.
Camp 30 opened in November 1941 with a capacity of 700 men. The camp was an Officer Camp, holding officers from all services, but it also held a number of other-ranks to serve as the officers’ orderlies. Notable, Camp 30 was the site of the infamous “Battle of Bowmanville,” in which PoWs refused to be shackled and barricaded themselves inside the camp for three days. The camp closed in April 1945 and the remaining prisoners were transferred to other camps.
As you can see from these images, many of the camp buildings and other structures have been removed or destroyed since the camp’s closure. Fortunately, there has been some interest in the site in recent years and a growing push for preserving its history.
In 2013, the former site of Camp 30 was designated as a National Historic Site and in the same year, Heritage Canada listed it as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in the country. While its future is still being decided, I hope that Camp 30, one of the last remaining internment sites in the country, can be preserved for future generations.
Of all twenty-eight-or-so internment camps in Canada during the Second World War, I can only think of five that have either changed relatively little or haven’t been completely destroyed (at least from the external appearance) in the last seventy years.
Among these few is Camp 31 (originally Camp F) at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario. Built from 1832 to 1837, the fort was among the first sites chosen to serve as internment camps in the early years of the Second World War. From June 1940 to December 1943, the camp was the temporary home to German combatants (both officers and other-ranks), Enemy Merchant Seamen, and civilian internees.
Picture postcards were quite popular with PoWs as it offered them a chance to show their families how they were doing as they waited out the end of the war in Canada. As these photographs were taken by photographers approved by the Canadian military, they also served an important propaganda by demonstrating that the prisoners were being properly fed, clothed, and housed.
This particular photograph was taken at Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, Alberta in 1943. Both Heer (Army) and Luftwaffe (Air Force) are present and the tropical (light-coloured) uniforms worn by a number of the PoWs suggest that some, if not most, of these men were captured in North Africa.
The sender, Heinz Gummert, is not identified in the photo but was a young Luftwaffe Obergefreiter (Lance Corporal) believed to have been captured in North Africa. The postcard, addressed to his father in Germany, simply states “Greetings to you from your son, Heinz!” Coincidentally, the PoW in the back row, third from the left, was a PoW at Riding Mountain but he too remains unidentified.
I know little about Gummert but, a few months after this photograph was mailed, he was working at a lumber camp near Hemlo, Ontario. In mid-April, he and two comrades attempted to escape from the camp. The Winnipeg Free Press of April 15, 1944 briefly described their capture:
“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police here revealed today that three German prisoners of war who escaped Friday from a prison camp, at Hemlo in northern Ontario were recaptured in the same general vicinity late yesterday. The prisoners were Robert Traut, 31, Heinz Gummert, 21, and Kurt Senmholz, 35. The three were former members of the Nazi air force.”
Hopefully some further research will uncover Gümmert’s identity and his fate following the failed escape.