CBC Digital Archives

Canada's posh PoW camps

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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Unlike prisoner of war camps run by Axis powers in Europe and Japan, life for German PoWs transferred to Canada was relatively carefree. Situated in remote rural locations, the camps were havens for many PoWs who took advantage of the luxuries provided to them. In this clip from CBC's Front Page Challenge, an ex-German PoW looks back at his time in a camp in northern Ontario, where he was paid for his work in a lumber camp, chummed around with the guards and even romanced a local girl. 
• Canada's 26 PoW camps were established in a variety of locations, from Kingston's historic Old Fort Henry to makeshift barracks in Kananaskis, Alta., and a former resort in Gravenhurst, Ont., on the shores of Lake Muskoka.
• The largest camps in Canada (and North America) were located in Alberta. The camps in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat each held up to 12,500 prisoners and cost more than $2 million to construct.

• During the war the United States held some 200,000 German, Austrian and Italian PoWs in small camps across the south eastern states.
• Japanese prisoners were less likely to surrender and the few that did were kept in camps in Asia.
• In this clip former PoW Ed Billet describes his years inside the Gravenhurst Camp, which had previously been a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

• The camp, also dubbed Camp 20, held some 500 German officers and former members of Erwin Rommel's famed Afrika Corps. It quickly became known among PoWs for its bucolic setting and easy lifestyle.
• A fence was set up around the perimeter of the camp, including a partially submerged section in the lake so that prisoners could swim with little supervision.

• The camp boasted its own small zoo — which included a monkey and a black bear that prisoners would often wrestle with for exercise. The prisoners grew their own vegetables, smoked sausages and made German pastries.
• In an August 2003 Toronto Star story, ex-PoW Volkmar Koenig said of his time in Gravenhurst "I spent six years behind barbed wire. I never had a minute of boredom."

• Former PoW and Canadian resident Ed Billet, recalls in this clip how he became friends with the guards, who were veteran Canadian soldiers from the First World War.
• Like many prisoners, Billet volunteered to work outside the camp in a lumber camp. Prisoners who opted to do this were paid a small wage and were allowed wider access to the world outside the camp.

• It was while Billet was on work leave that he became romantically involved with a local woman. This was not a rare occurrence.
• In March 1942 five teenage girls in Espanola, Ont., pleaded guilty to charges under the Defence of Canada Regulations for writing love letters to German PoWs and sending them presents, including a camera. The girls were given suspended sentences.

• The Canadian government maintained that the camps were made as comfortable as possible in an effort to dissuade German PoWs from escaping.
• In this clip author John Melady recalls as a young boy seeing PoWs working on his father's farm with red circles on the back of their jackets. The red circles, along with red patches on pant legs, were required by the Canadian government to help guards keep track of them.
Medium: Television
Program: Front Page Challenge
Broadcast Date: Sept. 27, 1981
Guest(s): Ed Billet, John Melady
Host: Fred Davis
Panellist: Pierre Berton, Betty Kennedy, Gordon Sinclair, Margaret Trudeau
Duration: 5:32
Photo: Alexander M. Dare/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-152126

Last updated: March 23, 2012

Page consulted on November 7, 2014

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