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.
I whipped this map up for a reader researching his father earlier today and thought I would share. The image shows the layout of the internment Camp at Farnham, Quebec overlaid on some modern satellite imagery from Google.
Camp A, as it was initially known, opened in October 1940 and initially held civilian internees and refugees from the United Kingdom. The camp closed temporarily in January 1942 but reopened in April and was used to hold Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS). In late 1942, the EMS were transferred to Sherbrooke and replaced by German combatant officers and a smaller number of Other-Ranks, serving as the officers’ servants and orderlies. It once again closed briefly in June 1943 before re-opening again as an officers’ camp in September 1944. The camp then remained open until June 1946.
Like most of Canada’s internment camps, the buildings were salvaged and torn down, the barbed-wire fences removed, and the guard towers dismantled. Today, the site is occupied by a Water Treatment Station, a gas station and Tim Hortons, and a Fire Station. For those interested, here is a link to the location.
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!
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!
Few Canadians realize just how close the Second World War came to home, that from 1939 to 1947, Canada held over 34,000 prisoners of war. While many spent their days in one of twenty-eight internment camps, almost half of them were employed on a labour project by the end of the war.
With some free time at hand, I had a chance to update the map I posted a few weeks earlier. Whereas the former version only showed the locations of internment camps in Canada, this new map includes over 200 of these labour projects scattered across the country.
Internment camps are once again the large red circles while labour projects are shown as smaller orange dots. Light orange dots indicate a single labour project while the darker ones indicate the presence of more than one labour project at that location.
Any camps near you that you did not know about?
From 1939 to 1947, German Prisoners of War, Enemy Merchant Seamen, and Civilian Internees were held in twenty-eight different locations in Canada. While thousands were eventually employed in small, low-security labour projects, these twenty-eight camps formed the backbone of Canadian internment operations.
As part of my research for my PhD, I am attempting to map all of the PoW internment camps and labour projects in Canada during the Second World War. Having found a series of maps of individual camps and their locations, I was now able to plot the exact locations of each internment camp in the country.
These clearly show the concentration of internment camps in Southern Alberta, Southern Ontario, and Southern Quebec. While we may like to think of internment camps to be placed in isolated and remote regions of the country, it may come as a surprise to see them so close to Canadian civilian centres. Many of these internment camps were on the boundaries of town or city limits while others, like in Kingston, Sherbrooke, and Mimico, were within them.
While little physical evidence remains today, these sites remind us just how close the Second World War came to home. For a listing of these camps, please click here.
In the summer, I ran the first of a series of posts about prisoner of war mail (see here) and I briefly mentioned the censorship of PoW mail. Incoming and outgoing mail was censored by Canadian military and civilian officials to prevent PoWs from leaking sensitive information about Canadian wartime operations, their locations, and information that could be deemed harmful to the Canadian war effort.
Now PoWs were aware that their letters were being censored and were instructed not to include sensitive material in their correspondence. While many followed these instructions, a number of PoWs sought to circumvent the censorship process by hiding secret messages. Some PoWs used elaborate codes hidden within the body of their messages, some used predetermined words or messages, and others turned to more secretive methods, namely invisible inks.
I came across one of these messages that appears to have employed some sort of invisible ink in an attempt to convey a message from the spokesman of a remote lumber camp back to the spokesman at the base camp (Camp 23 at Monteith, Ontario).
The original message (in black text) is quite innocent:
As you see, I have run out of writing paper. Have you received my letter of 20.12.?? Please acknowledge the receipt of it, so that I will know that you have been informed. I hope that everything turns out to our satisfaction.
Yes Felix, we took everything on our own heads when we left the camp — everything except injustice.
Now I have some more requests, which you will certainly fulfill for me.
I urgently need 3 arch-supports, 4 portfolios and 2 pads (jotting paper) — This sort of article is not to be had here, and you know — 30 cents.
I am enclosing a list for the exchange of clothing. Please send it here as soon as possible. When can I count on the case of books? Christmas is coming and we have nothing to read. Please see to it that the carpenters complete the case. As far as everything else is concerned, everything here is keeping with the times.
In the hope that you (plural) spend a happy Christmas, naturally wet, I remained with best wishes.–
Your comrade, Wilhelm
In the white text, the letter takes a different turn.
Interestingly, this is the first case of Anti-Semitism I have so far encountered in my (intial) research. I have yet to discover whether there were any repercussions for sending the letter but it does highlight some of the many challenges internment officials faced during the course of the war.