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PoWs: Escape from Camp X

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.

In the winter of 1941 a group of German PoWs in Angler, Ont., plotted a daring escape from the remote camp. More than 100 prisoners helped dig a 150-foot tunnel in the hopes of a mass escape planned for Hitler's upcoming 52nd birthday. In what became a headline-grabbing event, 28 PoWs eventually made their break from "Camp X" -- some getting as far as Medicine Hat before they were captured.

In this clip from CBC Radio's Morningside, author John Melady describes what is considered one of the most daring PoW escapes of the Second World War. 
• The PoWs at Camp X in Angler (just outside Marathon, Ont.) spent three months planning their escape. Some worked on digging a 150-foot tunnel under the camp's exercise yard. Others transformed oilcloth, wax and flattened tin cans into escape supplies such as lanterns and a makeshift kayak.
• The PoWs had hoped to free about 100 of their fellow inmates in time for Hitler's birthday on April 20, but early spring rains cut short their plan.

• Two days before their planned escape, a break-off group of PoWs decided that the tunnel was going to collapse as a result of the excessive rain. On the afternoon of April 18, 28 prisoners waded through the water-soaked tunnel, emerged safely on the other side and fled in different directions.


• In a 1964 article in Weekend Magazine, journalist Peter Desbarats recalled what it was like living in Canada during the escape, saying "The country seemed to be alive with escaped Germans. Canadians across half a continent saw Nazis around every corner."
• It took a week for the escapees to be tracked down by federal, provincial and municipal law enforcement officers. Two were found in downtown Montreal, while one was discovered in a barbershop in Ottawa and two others made it as far as Medicine Hat, Alta.


• Herbert Loeffelmeier and Albert Miethling weren't as fortunate. They were shot and killed by military officials after being discovered hiding out in an abandoned construction site in southern Ontario.
• Wartime censors did their best to cover up news of the mass escape in the press. Thanks to some intrepid reporters, the bulk of the story managed to see print.

• Veteran journalist Scott Young broke the story as a 23-year-old reporter for the Canadian Press. He and a photographer used a railroad handcar to get within metres of the remote camp, where they were met by Canadian soldiers.
• To hear more about how Scott Young broke the story of the Angler escape, please visit Inside the Angler escape.

• Despite the lengths the Canadian government took to ensure the comfort of Britain's PoWs, escapes were a regular occurrence. News of many of the PoW escapes was reported in major newspapers, and wanted posters were issued across Canada.
• A month before the PoWs at Angler began planning their flight, a German Luftwaffe fighter ace named Franz Von Werra made a dramatic escape from his Canadian captors even before he got to a PoW camp.

• In January 1941 Von Werra leapt from a train bound for a camp in northern Ontario and fled into the United States in a stolen rowboat. After a brief stay in the U.S. he made his way back to Germany, where he was rewarded the Iron Cross by Adolf Hitler.
• He returned to active service later that year and was killed in battle.
• Dozens of German PoWs were inspired by Von Werra's escape and plotted their own escape in the years that followed.

• Von Werra's story was made into a British movie called The One That Got Away in 1957. To hear the star of the film discuss his role and the real-life Von Werra, please visit PoWs: The one that got away.
• Another reason given for the dozens of escapes was a German policy that promised cash rewards or a promotion for each escapee.
Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Oct. 22, 1981
Guest(s): John Melady
Host: Gordon Pinsent
Duration: 5:17
Photo: National Archives

Last updated: April 23, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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