Monday, September 15, 2014

Following in their Footsteps

Originally posted at

For my 50th post and my one-year anniversary on Wordpress, I'd like to share what I've been up to these last few weeks.

Two years ago, I was forwarded an email from someone in Germany whose father had spent time in Canada during the Second World War as a prisoner of war. Lutz, the sender of the email, knew that his father had spent time at a camp in Manitoba but wasn't sure about his exact whereabouts. A quick search of my records provided some insight into the life of Lutz's father, Richard.

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Richard Beranek after his capture in June 1944.
Richard Beranek was born on November 8th, 1926 in Mendrik, Czechoslovakia. Following his drafting into the German Army, Richard was posted to the Normandy region where, at the time of the D-Day landings, he was laying telephone lines in the Bayeux area. On June 8, 1944, British soldiers captured Richard, beginning his career as a prisoner of war.

Less than a month after his capture, Richard found himself aboard the Empress of Scotland en route to Halifax. Once the ship docked, Richard and 1,000 of his countrymen began the four-day journey to Camp 132 at Medicine Hat, Alberta.

In the early summer of 1945, Richard was once again loaded onto a train across the Canadian, prairies. This time, however, he was one of 100 PoWs destined for the farming project at Grassmere, Manitoba. The Grassmere Farming Project was located just north of Winnipeg and began its life in the 1930s as a relief project. By 1945, the buildings were vacant and were converted to be used as a makeshift prisoner of war camp. From June to November, Richard had his comrades worked on the local beet fields, assisting local farmers who needed extra labour.

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PoWs at Mafeking, Manitoba.
In November, with the fall harvest, completed,the Manitoba Paper Co. of Pine Falls, requested that thirty prisoners be transferred to their lumber camp at Mafeking, Manitoba. Among those selected to be transferred was Richard.

At its peak, the Mafeking camp employed 130 PoWs and served as a wood-cutting camp for the Manitoba Paper Co. Throughout the winter, PoWs would cut and then haul wood to Mafeking, where it was then loaded onto trains to take it to the mill at Pine Falls. While it is unknown whether Richard worked as a woodcutter or a hauler and loader, he did enjoy his time working in the Canadian bush.

His time here, however, was brief, for in April 1946, the entire complement of the camp was transferred to Camp 23 at Monteith, Ontario and then repatriated back to Britain. Richard eventually made his way back to Germany in 1947 where he remained until he passed away in 1988. While he never had a chance to return to Canada, he fondly recalled his time here as the best years of his life.

Lutz at Grassmere.
Fast forward to August 2014, Lutz, his son Marcel, and his sister, Marianne, arrived in Winnipeg to retrace Richard's time in Manitoba. First visiting the site of the former camp at Grassmere, I was able to point out the rough location of the camp and share some of the stories told to me by one of the camp's former guards (on a side note, when I showed him a photograph of Richard, the former guard paused for a moment before saying "I know that face" - quite the experience for me to say the least!). I would also like to take the time to thank Darryl, who let us explore around his property - it was greatly appreciated!

 A week later, Ed Stozek had arranged for us to take two wagons out to the site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (also known as the Whitewater Prisoner of War Camp) in Riding Mountain National Park. Fortunately the weather cooperated (mostly) and the day was spent exploring the site.
The Beraneks and Ed Stozek looking at Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park.

Last week, we visited the camp at Mafeking. With the assistance of a local, Delbert, who, at the age of six, met some of the PoWs, we toured around the sites inhabited and worked by Richard and his comrades. Like so many of the PoW camps in Canada, little is left of the site today. That being said, we were still able to find some of the log cabins built by the PoWs and various pieces of debris scattered throughout the site. Seventy years later, the Beraneks had returned to Mafeking.

The Beraneks exploring the remnants of a truck at Mafeking.

When I first received Lutz's email, I was certainly not expecting to be a part of experience such as this one. I feel extremely privileged to be able to be part of the Beranek's journey and to be able to help fill in some of the gaps of Richard's time in Canada.

It isn't everyday that you are able to take a family and show them where their father lived and worked seventy years ago...  

Note: For more of Lutz's journey, you can read Bill Redekop's article in the Winnipeg Free Press (link)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

2014 PoW Wagon Tours

Back by Popular Demand! I can now confirm the return of the "From North Africa to the North Woods" wagon tour in Riding Mountain National Park.

Loaded onto four wagons, visitors become new prisoners heading out to the former site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project (also known as the Whitewater Lake PoW Camp) under the strict supervision of the guards. Learn what life was like at the camp as the guards and prisoners (interpretative staff) bring history to life through stories and photographs. Once at the camp, enjoy a traditional German meal, similar to that served to the prisoners at the worksites. After lunch, explore the site of the former camp with the aid of a GPS and myself.

Tour date is August 31.

Tickets are $62.00 each or $55.80 for Friends members and are available at the Nature Shop (RMNP Visitor Centre) or by calling (204) 848-4037.

For more information, please visit the Friends of Riding Mountain National Park's website.

The wagons depart from the north end of the Bison enclosure in Riding Mountain National Park at 9:15am and we return at 2:30pm.

Tickets are already selling and they will fill up a few weeks in advance!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Rebuilding a PoW Camp

Reblogged from my other site,

From October 1943 to October 1945, over 400 German prisoners of war (PoWs) were employed in a woodcutting operation in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. Housed in a newly built camp on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs had better living conditions than the majority of civilians living around the park. When the buildings of the camp were removed in 1945 and 1946, the area was allowed to return to its natural state. For seventy years, nature has reclaimed the site, which is now a small prairie bordered by spruce. The history, however, has not been forgotten. Through the use of a 3D reconstruction such as this one, I hope to achieve a better understanding of how PoWs experienced internment at Riding Mountain while, at the same time, contributing to better public interpretation on and off the site.

The first step was to find appropriate sources that would allow me to build models of the buildings. Fortunately, through my research, I have found photographs of almost every building at the camp. However, no map of the camp has survived and it near impossible to determine the camp’s layout from the photographs alone. A solution came with a 1949 aerial photograph from which I could make out the foundations of the majority of the camp’s buildings. Combining the information obtained from these photographs with an architectural plan for a bunkhouse similar to those built at Riding Mountain, I could now start modelling.

Using Trimble’s SketchUp program, I started modelling the buildings whose dimensions I knew, or was fairly certain of. While the majority of the buildings at the camp were standard military installations and could be modelled from the information obtained from the architectural plans, I encountered problems when trying to model unique buildings, such as the garage, barn, and stables. This, however, was where SketchUp proved its worth. Using the Photomatch tool, I applied a single measurement to a photograph, which then allowed me to measure, with fair accuracy, the length of any other building in the photograph. With these dimensions, I could now finish modelling.

This 3D reconstruction, however, has to be taken as a representation rather than an exact replica of the camp. Due to source limitations, I was not able to model everything to the detail that I would have liked but instead had to improvise for cases in which no data exists. The building interiors were especially difficult for only one interior photo, of the recreation hall, is known to exist. While further research may uncover the interior layout of these buildings, I chose to leave these areas empty for the time. Another difficulty I encountered was that with a higher level of detail resulted in a significant decrease in the speed of both my computer and SketchUp. Therefore, to ensure that the final model was still accessible, I was unable to include the detail that I would have liked.

Despite it’s limitations, a 3D model such as this one can be extremely useful. By building this model, I am now able to learn much more about what life was like for German PoWs in Riding Mountain. Already, this model has also allowed me to correct some inaccuracies with my existing map, particularly in the designation of some of the buildings. By comparing the model of the camp to a copy of the “Nightwatchman’s Circuit,” listing the route taken by one of the guards each night, I changed the designation of three buildings and identified a previously-unknown fourth. More importantly, however, this model presents numerous opportunities for historical interpretation off and on the site. Whereas I have traditionally provided visitors with GPS units and printed handouts, a digital model expands my ability to help visitors understand the camp’s history. By uploading the model to IOS, using an app like SightSpace, visitors will be able to visualize and interact with the camp model while standing on the former camp’s location.

This model is only the beginning of reconstructing life at Riding Mountain. As more information becomes available (and as I port the model over to a faster computer), I hope to build a more complete and detailed representation of the camp. This will allow me to study the camp in ways previously unimaginable while contributing to a better understanding of what life was like for German prisoners of war in Riding Mountain National Park.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lasting Effects: PoWs in Riding Mountain National Park

Reblogged from

The following video is the result of a digital history assignment that I'm currently taken. The assignment tasked us with using digital methods to examine a significant or interesting landscape and naturally I chose the site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project in Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park. For those not familiar with it, this project employed 440 German PoWs in a woodcutting operation from 1943 to 1945 in an effort to prevent a predicted fuelwood shortage.

My first task was to find the sources. While I have a fairly sizeable collection of textual records relating to the camp's history, maps and other spatial information are, for the most part, missing. Instead, I turned to aerial photographs to fill in my record gaps. Little did I realize how much I could learn from them!

With the assistance of the National Air Photo Library, the Manitoba Land Initiative, and a staff member at Riding Mountain National Park, I was able to assemble a range of coverage from 1931 to 2009. The next step was to import them into a GIS program and georeference them.

With the photos georeferenced, I was now able to add information from my records. As a map of the camp's layout has not survived, my first step was to create an outline showing the buildings' shapes and locations. Fortunately the building's footprints, with some exceptions, were still fairly clear, even in my photographs from the 1970s.

The next major step was to look at landscape change. Like a map of the camp, a map showing the location of the woodcutting area has also not survived. Using aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, I was able to plot the extent of the woodcutting operation, which, as I discovered to my surprise, was almost entirely confined to the northern shore of Whitewater Lake. By comparing these photographs with modern ortho-imagery, the regrowth of the spruce population is quite remarkable. The Parks Bureau specifically instructed that the PoWs leave spruce trees standing in hopes of regeneration. As you can see from the video, the spruce population has [spoiler alert!] done exactly that!

Anyways, I've talked enough so on to the video. While this isn't going to win any Oscars and I am certainly not Morgan Freeman, I hope that this video demonstrates how GIS and other historical methods can be applied to studying history.

Thank you to all of the individuals who helped, especially Josh MacFadyen, who put up with all of my constant questions! One last thing; if you are interested in learning more, Josh and I will be delivering talks on Historical GIS for GIS day on November 20. For more information, please click here.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

70 Years Ago: PoWs Arrive in Riding Mountain National Park

October 26, 1943
Dauphin, Manitoba

A train with a rather unusual cargo was stopped on the outskirts of Dauphin just before noon. Immediately following the train stopped, armed guards disembarked and established a secure perimeter on all sides of the train while empty trucks from the nearby Air Force base idled nearby. Once the area had been deemed safe, the doors to the train were opened from the inside and a guard armed only with a billy club exited. Quickly following behind him were the among the first German prisoners of war to step foot on Manitoba soil in the Second World War.

Of the 440 German Prisoners of War (PoWs) that were on-board this train, the majority were combat veterans of the North African Campaign. Following their capture at the hands of British, Australian, and New Zealand troops, most of these men had spent a brief time in internment camps in Egypt before being loaded onto ships that would taken them to their next home: Canada. After a brief stop in South Africa, these ships sailed across the Atlantic as the PoWs, having heard of the great successes of their U-Boat fleet, constantly feared that their own navy would sink them. However, arriving in New York without incident, the PoWs boarded waiting trains that would then take them to internment camps in Alberta.

The 440 PoWs were selected from hundreds of volunteers from Camp 132 in Medicine Hat. Offered an opportunity to work in the outdoors, many seized the chance rather than remain behind barbed wire and under constant scrutiny from the guards.

Having stepped off the train near Dauphin, the PoWs were herded aboard the waiting trucks. After a long drive along the Strathclair Road and then along a recently reinforced ten-kilometer stretch to Whitewater Lake, the PoWs arrived at their new home.

First proposed in June 1943, the buildings of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project was built in response to a shortage of fuelwood in Manitoba. Using PoWs as a labour force was first seen as a drastic measure but the lack of other forms of labour necessitated their house. Therefore, construction of the camp commenced in Summer 1943 and continued until the PoWs arrived on October 25. In total, fifteen buildings were constructed on the Northeast shore of Whitewater Lake, prompting the Dauphin Herald to report that this camp was the largest PoW camp built for woodcutting operations in Canada. The buildings included six bunkhouses for the PoW, a bunkhouse for the kitchen staff, a bunkhouse for the administrative staff, an administration building, a cookhouse large enough to accommodate the camp, a recreation hall, a barn, and a garage. Estimated at costing $225,000, the camp’s facilities had its own generator to supply electricity, a sewage system, running water, and a telephone line specifically established to maintain direct contact between the camp and Dauphin. More notably, the camp lacked any noticeable security features as there was no barbed wire fences or guard towers, only miles of dense forest.

For one PoW seeing the camp for the first time, his only thought was "freedom..."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

PoWs at Mafeking

Among one of the most commonly-searched PoW camps that are re-directed to my site is the small labour project that operated outside of Mafeking, Manitoba from 1944 to 1946. While I have talked about this project briefly at times (see here), my records pertaining to this particular site are farily limited. Unfortunately, the microfilmed records that are held at the Library and Archives Canada are very poor quality and, in many cases, illegible. However, thanks to a few individuals, most notably Lutz Beranek, the history of PoWs at Mafeking is starting to emerge.

As part of my research, I had wanted to find the former PoW camp site to see what evidence remains of its short history. The problem, however, was trying to find the site. The few records I had provided a very general area while the Swan Valley Historical Society's Lasting Impressions stated that the camp was located on the shore of a small lake northwest of Mafeking. With the help of Google's satellite imagery, I was able to map some possible locations and load their coordinates into my GPS. Making the three-hour drive to Mafeking, I set out to see what I can find.

After about an hour and a half bushwacking through some dense brush, I finally stumbled across the remnants of the camp. While the majority of the structures were removed after the PoWs left in 1946, some of the log buildings built by the PoWs are still standing.

Camp clearing
One of the PoW-built log buildings

While only a few traces of the camp remain, there's still enough to shed some light on one of Canada's homefront contributions to the Second World War!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Otter Post

I recently did a post about my research about PoWs in Riding Mountain for NiCHE's (Network in Canadian History and Environment) blog, "The Otter." If anyone is interested, the link to the post is