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Harrowing tales of Canadian POWs in Nathan M. Greenfield's The Forgotten

This fall on Canada Writes we are celebrating new writing by bringing you excerpts of new work by Canadian authors. 

This week’s selection is Nathan M. Greenfield's The Forgotten: Canadian POWs, Escapers and Evaders in Europe, 1939-45, available now in bookstores.


Military historian Nathan M. Greenfield’s latest book, The Forgotten, shines the searchlights on the lives of some of the 10,000 Canadian soldiers who experienced the Second World War from behind enemy lines. 

In swift haunting detail he recounts the stories of 45 Canadian soldiers and more than a dozen French-Canadian brothers and priests—volunteers whose lives (and deaths) have been all but forgotten. 

We are introduced to each of these men at a high point of drama, when they are shot down or captured in Hitler’s Europe. Told in brief vignettes that are separated by date and by title (“Cox Blows out a Candle to Survive”, “Cowan Hears His Father’s Voice”) the book recounts stories of life inside the camps, what soldiers did to survive, their various escape plots, and, in some cases, their brutal deaths. 

Greenfield uncovers Germany’s repeated violations of the Geneva Convention, and reveals the ways Allied prisoners were treated in comparison to Russian POWs (who were left to all but die in adjoining camps). The Forgotten also recounts the tales of those who managed to escape from the camps, and those who evaded capture after being stranded behind enemy lines. 

The book begins on the second night of World War II and takes us through to its end in 1945. Some made it through the war, but many did not. 

In the excerpt below, Greenfield writes in chilling detail about the deaths of 13 special operations officers—including Canadians Frank Pickersgill, Kenneth Macalister and Romeo Sabourin—who were captured and killed for espionage. 

A warning: this excerpt contains graphic violence.

The Forgotten:
Canadian POWS, Escapers and Evaders in Europe, 1939-45
by Nathan M. Greenfield

10 September 1944, Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Weimar, Germany
Execution of Frank Pickersgill, Kenneth Macalister, 
Romeo Sabourin and 13 Other SOE Agents 

The sentence of “Tod” did not surprise Pickersgill, Macalister, Sabourin or the other 13 SOE agents who, after hearing it, were quickly marched to the Zellenbau, a whitewashed one-story building that, on either side of a centre aisle, had cells no larger than small horse stalls. Toward the front of the cellblock were larger rooms, one an office, another torture chamber equipped with whips, cudgels, chains and electrical equipment that could be attached to the testicles. Each man was savagely beaten, and forced to stand at attention with their faces against the open peepholes in the heavy steel doors for hours on end.

Near 5 p.m. on 10 September, they were forced to drag their bruised and battered bodies across the camp. A hundred or so yards after they passed the main gate, they made a slight left turn and entered a fenced-in area in the middle of which sat a low building with a gabled roof that vaguely resembled a smokehouse. They walked around the building to a narrow flight of concrete stairs leading to the basement, to a room they may never have heard the name of but of which, after they’d finished limping down the steps and their eyes had adjusted to the dim light of one or two bare bulbs, they could have no doubt about its purpose. Lining the walls of the Leichenkeller (corpse cellar) about eight feet from the floor and each separated by about four feet were dozens of large meat hooks.

SS-Scharführer Walter Warnsädt was anxious to squeeze the last quantum of suffering he could from these broken men. Instead of tying their hands behind their back with their wrists crossed, they were tied with the arms parallel, which has the effect of slowly dislocating shoulders, the pain being only increased by the deep breaths taken by the petrified men watching their comrades die.

By design, despite their last request, they did not die cleanly and honourably. Instead, Warnsädt’s men slipped nooses made of thick piano wire around each man’s neck and, after throwing the other end of the wire over a meat hook, hauled the man up to its level before tying off the wire. This was not hanging but the medieval practice of death by suspension, an agonizingly slow death by strangulation as the wire slowly crushed the carotid artery and jugular vein. It was death extended by the involuntary jerks of the body, for each, momentarily, relieved the pressure on the artery and vein, thus allowing blood to once again flow and the brain to revive—only to again feel the pain of the noose—and the mind to clear enough to register the terror of suffocation. It was the destruction of the men’s bodies in the most intimate form.

As they slowly strangled and jerked, in Warnsädt’s men’s eyes, the SOE agents would have turned into mere simulacrums of men, into something akin to puppets with faces blue not from paint but from cyanosis. Long before they died, their bodies would have begun to stink from the involuntarily voiding of urine and feces, which were easily washed down the oversized drain in the middle of the Leichenkeller. The desecrated bodies were loaded into the electric lift that brought them upstairs, where, as tens of thousands had been (and thousands more would be), they were placed on a metal platen that slid into the coke-fired ovens adapted for the SS by a well-known bread-oven manufacturer that still has its factory in nearby Erfurt.220

Excerpt from The Forgotten by Nathan M. Greenfield. ©2013 Nathan M. Greenfield. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Nathan M. Greenfield, PhD, is the Canadian correspondent for The Times Educational Supplement and is a contributor to Maclean’s, Canadian Geographic and The Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of The Damned, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction; Baptism of Fire, which was a finalist for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction; and the widely praised The Battle of the St. Lawrence. Greenfield lives in Ottawa.


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