CBC Digital Archives

PoWs: Behind Canadian barbed wire

While few people remember it now, Canada was home to thousands of German and Italian prisoners during the Second World War. With Britain fearful of a possible invasion, more than 37,000 of their PoWs were transported to remote camps across Canada. Over a seven-year period the prisoners basked in a unique brand of Canadian hospitality, enjoying a lifestyle that convinced some to eventually call Canada home. CBC Archives takes a look back at the reality of life behind the Canadian barbed wire.

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In 1940 Great Britain is troubled by the rising number of German and Italian prisoners of war (PoWs) that it is holding in camps across England. The British government decides to call on Canada for help.
Soon thousands of PoWs are transported to Canada aboard ships and then sent by trains to their new homes across the country. But as this CBC Television documentary clip shows, these new Canadian PoW camps were more country club than prison camp. 
• With the war raging on in Europe in 1940, Great Britain grew concerned about what would happen with their German PoWs in the case of an invasion on British territory. Fearing that freed prisoners would help bolster the invading forces, the British government appealed to Canada and Australia to take custody of PoWs.
• The first boatload of 3,000 German officers arrived in Canada in June 1940. Canada had been accepting captured German merchant seamen from England as early as Sept. 1939.

• A Canadian Press story from July 2, 1940, described German PoWs arriving at Montreal Harbour as "sulking, swaggering louts" who had "the swashbuckling air of pirates temporarily in irons, but with the prospect of escape and plunder in the offing."
• The story reported that the "defiant" PoWs taunted and insulted their captors on the trip, with one airman killing himself by leaping overboard "in a fanatical rage."

• David Carter, author of Behind Canadian Barbed Wire (1980), estimates there were a total of 37,525 PoWs in camps located in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
• Many European PoW camps operated by Allied Forces in England, France and Belgium were renowned for their severe conditions. In contrast, the 26 Canadian camps quickly gained a reputation for their lush settings, top-notch food, athletic programs and relaxed security.

• While PoWs were required to sleep in bunkhouses and show up for roll call three times a day, their lives were much better than what they would have experienced in British camps.
• In Canada prisoners formed theatre companies and orchestras, played in organized hockey leagues and even built their own zoos.

• Criticism of the camps was expressed in an October 1941 editorial in the Toronto Telegram which said "there appears to be no necessity for Canada maintaining these Nazis in complete luxury."
• Despite the relaxed environment inside the camps, there were isolated incidents of violence within the ranks. In a camp at Bowmanville, Ont., a British order to shackle 100 prisoners was met with angry resistance by German prisoners, many of whom were high-ranking officers.

• The British order was intended as retribution for what they considered unjust shackling of English and Canadian soldiers captured by German forces at Dieppe.
• The three-day "Battle of Bowmanville" that resulted left one prisoner shot and dozens of other PoWs and guards injured as a result of fierce hand-to-hand combat.

• This wasn't the first time that Canada played host to PoWs on Britain's behalf. During the First World War more than 8,000 German prisoners were shipped to Canada from British camps.
• The PoWs spent the duration of the war in some two dozen camps which included Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ont., Fort Garry in Winnipeg and the Citadel in Halifax, N.S.
Medium: Television
Program: Country Canada
Broadcast Date: Nov. 10, 2003
Guests: David Carter, Max Weidauer
Reporter: Reg Sherren
Duration: 3:54

Last updated: October 23, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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