WWII POWs in Canadian Camps: A Vignette

· Military History
Authors

Introduction

This is a brief description of POW camp internees and their life, based on actual communications by individuals from the Axis powers (and possibly non-citizen residents) held in Canadian custody during and after World War II.  We believe this contribution to be significant for several reasons – (1) in spite of what has once been described as harsch camp conditions, an article on the web was recently seen, which suggested that the prisoners in these camps had it better than the Canadian soldiers in their barracks, and a confirmation seems to have been found; (2) speculations are given not only about the life of the prisoners, but of the men guarding the camps; (3) a strange fact about the material which we have seen a high percentage of non-German surnames; and (4) there is a South American connection to 2 countries of those that share the Triple Frontier, wherein lived a relative of a prisoner of the British in Egypt, whose letter we partially transcribe, in order to give some (admittedly distorted) comparison, together with a more international touch.

Because our investigation shows that one of the names involved in this story, of Dutch or Belgian origin, still exists, and because of other privacy issues, no real names can be used. Dates and quotes are, however, authentic. We regret not being able to fill out the details with information from the Canadian Archives. However, it is hoped that the observations may somehow be fruitful for future investigators, or for anyone interested in this type of history.

We first examine the contents of a letter by a British-held prisoner, who has a blood-relationship with is the brother-in-law of the man in South America who was in comunication with the prisoners held in Canada.  In this way, our story manages to tie together 4 continents.

Out of Egypt

We start our relation with a prisoner who gives his address as c/o Central POW Postal Section, M.E.L.F. [Middle East Land Forces] Egypt to his brother-in-law in South America. As has been noted, the South American resident has a Dutch or Belgian name, and what is curious, is that the prisoner in question seems is of Slavic ancestry – according to pages on etypmology, the name could be Czech, Polish, or Russian, among others. While there was no rule, not even in National Socialist Germany, that Germans had to have German surnames, what is unusual in the collection of material we have seen, is the practical absences of indications that these were prisoners from the Germany which had been defeated in the First World War. Two possbilities come to mind, that they were Austrians, which does not account for the Dutch name; or that this was part of a group of volunteers fighting for Nazi Germany.  We doubt the last version, having found that the prison camps were of mixed nationality (see further below).

Kriegsgefangenerpost  (Prisoner of War Mail)  aus (from) Ägypten/Egypt, 1947.

Kriegsgefangenerpost
(Prisoner of War Mail)
aus (from) Ägypten/Egypt, 1947.

The letter is dated, 10.XII.1947, three and a half years after the end of the war. It replies to a missive sent just over 3 months earlier, no air mail is wasted on these men, but, on the other hand, they need not pay postage, something common to all prisoner of war mail in Europe as far as we have seen (English, French, German, and Italian). The prisoner has received a Christmas card from an unidentified woman, and complains that during the entire year, he has received only 3 letters. He seems to blame the Czechs, using a non-German spelling, something like Čechen, an apparently Germanized plural form, and truth be told, it looks more like the word “Chechen”. Perhaps it was code, because the military censors should not have let a foreign word (other than English or German) escape their attention. Another possiblity is that this referes to a specific person or family. Our instincts strongly lean in favour of “Czech”.

To get to the meat of the letter, he makes some observations that the South American nation is plaguing his brother-in-law with the more appropriate to Egypt biblical plague of locusts. The writer, on the other hand, claims to have suffered a different calamity in his environment – cholera, and the constant presence of mosquitoes. This latter plague would be impossible to tolerate without nets, but fortunately, the men are not without! Meanwhile, cholera has turned the life of the POWs upside-down. The “English”, meaning the British, according to his description, have taken all Arabs out of the cholera-infected zone, the writer is engaged in relief-works, having taken over the work, with the other prisoners, previously done by the Arabs. Work should end on the 21st of the month, and on Christmas, the prisoner expects to be in a transit camp, together with others of his former company, which for some reason, he considers a hard test. He mentions somewhat of a chill when riding in a truck, and daily fogs, in contrast to a summer maximum of 60 degrees Celsius. He concludes with Christmas and New Year wishes, and a Germanic pet-name version of his moniker.

Comments on the Letter as compared with Known Facts

It took some work to find evidence of cholera, but behold, a report by Sir Aly Tewfik Shousha, Pasha, M.D., of Cairo, Egypt, under the title, Cholera Epidemic in Egypt (1947), A Preliminary Report, confirms the problem, while not specifically pointing out the Suez Canal area.  However, observations by another writer, Ivor Wilks, finds this sickness in Balad Esh-Sheikh, on the Mediterranean Coast, in the Sinai, thus  showing that cholera was more widely distributed.  Further, a website called “Cholera and the Thames” points out that the Suez helped distribute the dreaded disease to coastal areas in many countries.

The writer is a bit unlucky in getting out of the camp so late.  The unbearable heat was claimed to be a factor in bad morale, as was the defeat of Germany, which signified no more money coming in for purchases of tobacco products and sweets.

That the prisoner is working, based on available evidence, was a blessing, not a punishment.  However, conflicting reasons have been put forth for using the prisoners as labourers.  These are: (1) to keep up morale, once Germany lost the war, and could not send any more money for purchases by the prisoners [ Military Matters: German PoW Working Companies, Edmund Hall (ESC 239, p. 242 (partly implied, morale and suicide mentioned, p. 243), and this, which translated “Moral” for “Morale”] (2) to replace the Arab workers, whom, according to the above, were sent home because of the cholera question, but other reasons given are (3) that they were “suspect” [Hall, 241], or that(4)  one of the two parties remaining (which is not stated), the British or the Germans, wanted independence [ibid.].  However, Hall also points out the the Germans, in the case he documents, actually kept the camp running, when the British soldiers went on strike, because of delays in sending them home.  The German officers and NCOs ran things, refusing to let diehard ideologues, the “blacks” take over [p. 242]. (5) Further arguments are given in the Declaration of the captured Lutheran Pastors in Egypt (summarized in arcor.de above, at the link at “this”), or available in full in German).

The temperature quoted slightly exceeds correct temperature ratings, which of course, must be taken in the shade, and not at ground level.  A recorded high of 58 degrees Celsius in Al Azizia was found to be erroneous.  The Guinness Book of Records gives the highest ever recorded temperature as 56.7 in Death Valley.

Hall, p. 242, also allows us to confirm the international nature of the prison camps, in that he mentions prisoners from 2 South American countries, 3 Slavic nations, 3 German nations (if Switzerland is included), Spain, and Armenia.

Here is the top of his “letter sheet”, with the “German for Prisoner of War Post” incorrect, which should be “Kriegsgefangenerpost”.

Out of Egypt Aus Ägypten

Out of Egypt
Aus Ägypten

Canadian Siberias

We next examine 2 letters, quite instructive about camp life, a complete contrast to that described above, cold instead of heat, for example. The description of how the day is passed sounds authentic, rather than ironic, and for this reason, the testimony is interesting. The surname is suggestive of Greece.

Our first example is taken from Camp 42, identified as being near Sherbrooke, Quebec. It was written on March 11, 1943, during the war. He thanks the individual in South America for everythibng he has sent. Translating from the German, we get:

Some of the comrades are here. We’ve got a nice camp here. We’ve got to work. Pays 20 cents a day. The work consists of making table drawers and sewing pillows. Thus the day goes by quickly while the war still lasts.

What’s the club doing? …. …. If your could send me some coffee, I’d be very thankful. …. The winter here has lasted long enough. We’ve had 50 below zero. Everything bearable. Nothing can shake us.

In the part of the image labelled “A” below, we have circled “20 cents” and underlined some visible scraps of which will make more sense once the German translation is on line.

Kriegsgefangenerpost - POW mail (outgoing)

Prisoner Mail – Kriegsgefangenerpost

There are some doubts about the 50 below temperature, but it is not impossible, considering that a “recent” low of minus 41 was recorded in 2004, [see point 5 at this link] and adding wind-chill factors, and the possible experiences that the soldier had with a Russian winter, we will refrain from insisting that he exaggerated.

The third letter of note is from camp 31, identified as being near Kingston, Ontario, and sent just 4 days after the above. This one does have a German surname. The view on camp life is a bit different from the preceding, but again rings authentic.  It is marked in the red square of the above image (part B.).

Dear comrade —, …. thanks for the tobacco and cigarrettes. I like chewing tobacco. …. surely you receive letters from various comrades. … We spend the time as best as we can, the younger men have time to learn everything, which will help them to get along later in life, nor are good books lacking, so there is no boredom suring the winter. … The food is good and varied, so our bodies have everything necessary for their welfare. Greetings to all from our country, and to all the comrades.

On another occasion, the same prisoner asks for a gift of money, which he says he would repay at the end of the war. This should be dollars, as other currency is not accepted.

Other Observations

The material which we have seen was mostly in the form of postcards acknowledging receipt of presents, chiefly tobacco products, from South America.. An attempt was made to trace some plantation to Dutch or Belgian commercail interests, but this was impossible, or at least, not conclusive. In one case, the censor seems to have refused to accept the card for sending, but this seems to have been the case of using the wrong rubber stamp, as their was no information on the card beyond the usual. On the other hand, maybe it was puntive, but we do know, that the card did reach its destination.

With the exception of the letter from Sherbrooke, and a P.O.W. card from Alberta, everything we saw was from places in Ontario.

In the case of the more remote camps, one wonders if the guards were not punished as much as the prisoners, due to the question of cold. On the other hand, se assume it was Canadians who filled out the cards with all the information, except for the description of the item(s) received, and the signature of the prisoners. It would be hard to imagine, that in some cases, a prisoner would have had permission to use a typewriter. Mosttly, the card was filled out by hand. Some of this was done with extradordinary neatness, and at times, this may have been done by the prisoner. In one case, the prison authority responsible for filling out the card did not read the handwriting correctly, and the signature is rather different.

One prisoner, with a surname impossible to read, asked for a pair of shorts, suitable for working in brushland. One prisoner had a Nordic surname, there was another ending in “ski”, thus we have a seond one of Slavic ancestry. Most of the mail was from camps 22 (Mimico, Ontario) and 23 (Monteith), Some places that really must have been cold were camps 100 (Neys, on Thunder Bay – Lake Superior) and 130 Seebe. In relation to this latter, we can confirm the 20 cent per day pay. Envelopes say “Internment Camps”, but for some reason, the offical Canadian web-site now calls them “Concentration” Camps. The meaning seems to be the same, but the newer term suggests crowding with all its comcomitant discomforts.

Camp 22 / Camp 130 Mimico (Toronto) / Seebe (Alberta)

Camp 22 / Camp 130
Mimico (Toronto) / Seebe (Alberta)

Camp 100 - Neys, Ontario Lake Superior / Der Obere See

Camp 100 – Neys, Ontario
Lake Superior / Der Obere See

The above shows the card which was originally, or erroneously rejected by the censor.

Conclusion

Life was not necessaily miserable for prisoners from the Axis held by Canadians. We know, that as in Britain, and the United States, some of them were used for farm work, which would not have been difficult for most men of that time. In Canada, forestry was another occupation. Unless the prisoners were held in leg-irons in the latter case, this must have been a head-ache for guards, based on what has been seen by this writer of a German or Austrian Guard of Eastern European prisoners working in a forest.

While there are other factors at work for the following argument, one might see how well Canada (and the United States) relatively treated its prisoners by a consideration of the following question:

Of all the countries to which residents of former enemies of the Allies immigrated, to which, (named in alphabetical order), were they mostly likely to go: Canada, France, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or the United States?

After the war, this writer’s own father had applied to Australia and Canada, and it was Canada which facilitated the immigration process. In perhaps exagerrated, non-politically correct language, the BBC web-site has not long ago from the date of this writing spoken of the politeness of Canadians. One would hardly expect the POWs to refer to their guards in such a way; it is the big picture which counts.

© 2015, Paul Karl Moeller

Copyright notices on mail items apply only to the specific edited versions of the original documents, and in no way prevent owners of similar documents or the originals from publishing images of the same, whether in whole or in part.  – P.K.M.

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