|Excerpts from the book "POW - BEHIND THE CANADIAN BARBED WIRE
MEDICINE HAT, ALBERTA
There is a western rodeo going on with the brilliant, hot July sun
blazing down upon the dusty spectators in the stampede grounds. Over in the livestock
section of the exhibition grounds the people are not aware that the sheep building is the
place where a German Afrika Korps soldier was hanged. The people milling about in the
huge, green shingled drill hall next to the grandstand can not be expected to know that in
the same building where the displays now beckon, was the gymnasium where yet another
German prisoner of war was hanged by his comrades in arms. These words were true in 1980
and in 1998 while the sheep building has been demolished, the original gymnasium still
Canadian Superior Propane Limited occupies a long wooden building
that was the supply depot for Lethbridge Lager 133. Today that old wooden flat roofed
building still wears a tired red-brown overcoat of asphalt roofing material. An empty and
somewhat forlorn small building nearby was used by the Veterans' Guard of Canada for
record keeping and the occasional cigarette as they watched over German prisoners of war.
There are a few pieces of barbed wire attached to the posts or lying on the ground even
though the prisoners' accommodations have long been demolished. Those words were accurate
in 1980 but in 1998 the buildings and barbed wire are long gone. However in May 1997 the
local historic society erected a site marker as a permanent reminder of the old POW
No memorial was placed at the site of the Lethbridge jail where
prisoners were hung for their part in the two Medicine Hat lager murders.
The Lethbridge and Medicine Hat camps were built exclusively to
contain combatant German prisoners of war. Each camp held twelve thousand prisoners.
Each year, thousands of tourists visit Old Fort Henry, the
limestone fort overlooking the grey-blue expanse of Lake Ontario. The old fortification
has seen many years pass and more than one or two wars come and go. As you walk down into
the fort with its austere grey walls, you feel like you are in a prison. It was used for
prisoners of war in both the First and Second World Wars. If you walk to the east side of
the fortress and duck your head as you enter the Officers' Mess, you will find a low
vaulted room with restored roof paintings of a knight on a white charger and a drinking
scene. Both scenes were painted by German POW during World War Two. To both right and left
are display cases which give a glimpse of photos and artifacts from the stay of prisoners
in both wars.
Escapes took place from Old Fort Henry in both wars.
Not too many people drive to Bowmanville unless they have business
in the town or relatives. Bowmanville is a relatively quiet town, east of Toronto. You
need to ask directions to the former Home of Delinquent Boys on the north east side of
town. The facility was a delinquent boys' home prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, it
was soon used to house another type of 'delinquent' - German officer prisoners of war. The
setting is lovely with rolling emerald green lawns, flower beds, many trees, a swimming
pool and a number of substantial brick and stucco buildings.
After the Second World War, the Ontario government used the site
once again for delinquent boys in the more usual sense of the phrase.
New housing developments are rapidly crowding on the site and perhaps it will be taken
over as a housing development. Bowmanville has its memories of POW escape attempts and a
The old POW site in this town north of Toronto is difficult to
find. Either people are embarrassed that German prisoners lived there or they don't know
much about the camp or perhaps memories have just become terribly hazy. Some German POW
came to Gravenhurst for convalescence. The site is perched on and around rocks on the
shore of Pine Lake in Muskoka country. In 1978 the old concrete pilings of the main
building remained in addition to a decrepit guardhouse, a tired, lonely old red fire
hydrant amidst the weeds and a desolate pump house by the lake. Old bits of roofing
material refused to decompose even after thirty five years of abandonment. In the tall
brush, I found a well preserved pieced of canvas fire hose with solid brass fittings, but
other than that, memories seem to be few at Gravenhurst. In 1998, no physical evidence
remains on site.
Have you ever visited the old Cave and Basin pool at Banff? That
was a favorite haunt of many tourists who loved to walk through the Cave and wrinkle their
noses at the sulfurous odors or who enjoyed swimming in the pool with the grandeur of the
Rocky Mountains in the background. Few people realize the Cave and Basin was the winter
home of prisoners of war, alien internees during the First World War. Few remember that
these men worked to improve the local Ice Palace, the toboggan run and the ski hill.
Out here on the seemingly barren prairie, the wild flowers are
flung like confetti in this month of July. The scatteration of colors is a minor discovery
even to one raised on the prairie. Away to the east, storm clouds are piled up like great
lumpy heaps of mashed potatoes. Suddenly a stroke of barbed wire lightning slashes to the
earth. To the west rise the ragged range of the eastern slope of the Rockies; near to the
south, the foothills are crowded upon each other. But Ozada siding on the Canadian Pacific
Railway is somewhat desolate, forlorn and windblown. On these level gravel strewn flats
there is little to mark where the leaky First World War canvas bell tents dripped on both
guards and then thousands of German prisoners of war in 1942.
If you know where to look you can still make out the suggestion of
the supply road and a drainage ditch. In 1978 you could still find the occasional piece of
barbed wire and the stub of a rotting fence post and the occasional makeshift tin
perimeter light shield.
Here on the Morley Indian Reserve, the wind rustles the grass
where the Afrika Korps prisoners were kept for a time.
Within a few miles of Ozada is the Kananaskis-Seebe site which was
used first for alien internees and pacifists and later German officer personnel in the
Second World War. The site is at the crowded edge of rock and trees on the north side of
Mount Barrier. The poplar trees are now invading the POW site. The University of Calgary
has an environmental center here and the Province of Alberta, a forestry station and
nature walk. A few tired photos show a more barren, sunburnt, windblown frost touched site
that hemmed in people behind Canadian barbed wire. 'The location is breathtaking in its
beauty and grandeur' - the old monotone, narrated, Technicolor travelogue from Moveitone
films would have stated, and it would have been right. Over the main road and down a short
rocky path, Barrier Lake delivers its startling color impact of Robin's egg blue/green.
The lake was not there when the prisoners were there. The prisoners felled the timber and
brush below the present water line and the lake was dammed and flooded after the POW
travelled the Atlantic Ocean back to war blasted Germany.
Perhaps Barrier Lake should be renamed Prisoners' Lake - and yet
their imprisonment was indeed a 'barrier' to their freedom.
The prisoners referred to Barrier Mountain as 'Old Baldy'. On
September 12, 1984 at my request, the Alberta Historic Sites Board renamed the mountain as
'Old Baldy'. When I announced this at a prisoner of war reunion in Wurzburg, Germany in
1996 some of the ex-prisoners had tears in their eyes.
In 1978 there were a number of huge, old cotton mills left vacant
in the rolling green hills of north-west England. The row houses march brick by brick and
side by side up the hills. At one time a large number of German combatant prisoners of war
were kept in an old cotton mill in less than satisfactory conditions. A few photos
survived of prisoners inside the mill, others on the playing field.
Oldham became a transfer point and a holding depot for German
prisoners being sent to and returned from Canada. Today the mills are gone and a medium
sized metal works plant occupies most of the site.
DACHAU (NEAR MUNICH), GERMANY
In 1978 I visited this concentration camp to help keep my
perspective in writing about German prisoners of war in Canada. You lose your perspective
in a place like Dachau. You realize that the Nazis had lost their human perspective.
Dachau is tidy. Dachau is stark. Dachau is terrifying.
There is a world of difference between Dachau and Medicine Hat.
The former prisoners of war fully realize how well off they were to be 'guests' of the
Canadians. And I realize that not all Germans were Nazis nor Nazi sympathizers.
KITCHENER, ONTARIO (FORMERLY KNOWN AS BERLIN)
On a rainy May day with the dark bloated clouds hanging low, I
visited Woodland Cemetery. Tucked away in the south east corner lie one hundred and eighty
seven German prisoners of war. They are buried two to a grave. Some died in the First
World War, the majority in the Second. They died at thirty six different camps across
Canada but mainly in Ontario or Alberta. At time of death they were buried locally, but
then in 1970, a decision was made to consolidate the graves in one location to guarantee
the graves, proper care. How did they die? Why didn't the remains, once disinterred, get
shipped home to Germany?
In a corner of this quiet yet mildly disturbing graveyard is a
very disturbing piece of 'official' vandalism.
There are two carved wooden grave markers taken from Gravenhurst
cemetery and placed in a fieldstone alcove. One grave marker memorialized Major Wilhelm
Bach who died of cancer. The other, lists soldier Erich Ertz who had won the Iron Cross.
The one marker had a German swastika carved on its face; the other had the cross as a
symbol of bravery. Both symbols were there until April 1978 when a self appointed
hypocrite from the Canadian Legion in London, Ontario decided in the wake of a television
show entitled 'Holocaust', that he would travel to Kitchener and demand the cemetery
caretaker remove the offensive swastika and iron cross from the two wooden markers.
In 1980, the fresh scars of the obliteration were visible
reminders that while World War Two officially ended in 1945, some hostilities and
animosities may never be laid to rest.