Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dissidents in the Camp

Today - 68 Years Ago

Before beginning this post, I'm going to clarify a point that has been brought up in presentations that I've given in the past about the camp. Since the end of the war, German soldiers have often been grouped together and labelled as "Nazis" but this was not the case. Technically a Nazi was a member of the Nazi Party, Hitler's political party that rose to power in the 1930s, and included thousands of German soldiers and citizens. However, one did not have to be a Nazi to be in the Germany Army. Like many armies in World War II, the German military brought countless numbers of German men who were certainly not members of the Nazi party as well as those who considered themselves anti-Nazis. It is these men I'd like to talk about briefly.

Only two months after their arrival in Riding Mountain National Park, a clear group of hardcore Nazi prisoners has established themselves in the camp. Like many camps in Canada, these pro-Nazis took it upon themselves to ensure that the Nazi ideals were present in all internment and labour camps and were willing to go to great lengths to do so. Punishment for those who spoke out against the Nazi Party, the German War effort, or Hitler was often brutal and swift. At least two prisoners who spoke out against Hitler and the war were murdered in Medicine Hat and while no murders were commited at Riding Mountain, my records indicate this was certainly an option that the Nazis in the camp had considered.

On December 15, 1943, four PoWs, each of whom were against the war, decided they had had enough. Two prisoners, Fritz Dornseif and Otto Ecker left the camp at 8:30 pm and gave themselves up to the guards at the camp entrance, asking for protective custody. Two others, Paul Nowack and Peter Fergen, left the camp boundaries and were found by farmers the next morning.

With the four prisoners back at the camp, each stated that had been "mentally tormented" to such a degree that they felt their lives were in danger. For them, leaving the camp was the only answer. The four had one thing in common and this lay with the careers they had chosen in the inter-war years...

Anyone have any idea what this may be? Post a comment if you do! I'll give the answer in the next day or two.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Changing the Guard

This Week - 68 Years Ago

The first week of December 1943 marked the first official change in the Veterans Guard detachment stationed at the camp. The Veterans Guard of Canada, which I mentioned here, was the official military guard compliment that supported a Civilian Guard force. Each Veterans Guard company spent only a few months at a PoW camp to prevent the guards and PoWs from getting to familiar with one another and Riding Mountain Park Project was no exception.

The first Veterans Guard compliment at Riding Mountain were among those that escorted the PoWs to Dauphin and were selected to stay. Commanded by Lt. Shewfeld, these men spent a little over a month at Riding Mountain before being replaced.

The new guards were members of a platoon of No. 23 Company, Veterans Guard of Canada. No. 23 Compnay was one of two Active Service companies formed in Manitoba, with No. 22 based out of Winnipeg and No. 23 out of Brandon. About twenty-five men were selected for guard duty at Riding Mountain and the majority of these men were locals from communities like Clanwilliam, Neepawa, Brandon, and Minnedosa. One can imagine that they must have been happy to be stationed so close to home.
Lt. Mann (crouching in the front row, far left) and his platoon of the No. 23 Coy. VGC during training at Port Arthur, Ontario

The officer in charge, Lt. Colin "Scotty" Mann of Neepawa had enlisted shortly after war broke out in 1939. He and his men had already served in various internment camps including those at Gravehurst (Ontario), Medicine Hat, and Lethbridge and were well experienced in guarding PoWs.

Despite three or four years experience, the PoWs at Riding Mountain would soon put these men to the test...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Der Lagerführer

One hundred and seventy-five Canadians were employed at the labour camp in Riding Mountain but this number still left a wide variety of occupations open. To fill the gaps, the Canadian officials turned to the PoWs for their assistance in running the camp. Of the 440 PoWs that arrived in October 1943, roughly 400 of them were assigned bush work while the remaining forty were to assist in the day-to-day operation of the camp. One of these men was Leo Manuel.

Stabsfeldwebel Leo Manuel, was the one of the highest-ranking PoWs at the Riding Mountain Park Project. Like the majority of his comrades, Manuel was likely captured in North Africa in the early forties and had been transferred to camps in Ozada and Medicine Hat, Alberta. Relatively little is known about Manuel before he arrived at Riding Mountain but his high rank would soon provide him with an unique opportunity.

The vast majority of German PoW camps in Canada had some form of a German administration in the camp. Each of these camps had a camp leader or spokesman who was responsible for maintaining discipline within the camp, negotiating with the Canadians, and communicating with International Aid Organizations. However, many of these administrative groups were self-appointed and composed of hard-core Nazis determined to ensure that Nazism remained strong among the PoWs.

Orderly, IRC Delegate, Unknown, and Manuel outside Orderly Room
Leo Manuel was selected to serve as the Lagerführer, or camp leader, at Riding Mountain. His allegiance is unknown to me but he was well respected by the majority of the PoWs under his command. Only a few prisoners, mostly pro-Nazis, criticized Manuel and his actions as they believed he was too friendly with the Canadian officials and agreed with many of their demands.

Manuel's work would have been conducted from the camp orderly room (seen in the picture) where he and his staff remained in constant communication with organizations like the International Red Cross, the YMCA, and the Swiss General Consul. In addition, Manuel was instructed by the Spokesman at Medicine Hat to write monthly reports on the happenings at Riding Mountain. Manuel served as an intermediary between the PoWs and the Canadians, negotiating requests with Colonel James.

Manuel would remain the Camp Spokesman until, following disagreements with the Lt. Col. Fordham, the officer in charge of PoW Labour Projects, he resigned in May 1944.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lest We Forget

November 11, 2011

I hope everyone was able to set aside some time today to remember the many sacrifices made by our servicemen and servicewomen past and present. I made it out to the 26th Field Regiment's salute at the Manitoba Legislative Building. Quite something to picture the sights, sounds, and smells of the guns on a distant battlefield. Certainly wouldn't want to be on the receiving end.

To mark this Remembrance Day I decided I would talk about the men of the Veterans Guard of Canada. This unit has become one of my main interests and I believe these men have not received the recognition they deserved.

Recruiting Poster
When war broke out in 1939, Canadians across the country rushed to recruiting stations, eager to play their part. Among these thousands of men were those who were very familiar with the field of battle. Despite being an age usually seen as too old for overseas service (late forties/early fifties), World War One Veterans were enlisting in surprising numbers. These were the men that had faced some of the most brutal battles that man had every seen - they had fought in the trenches, survived gas attacks at Ypres, and stormed Vimy Ridge. Despite the horrors they had faced, they saw it as their duty to fight for King and Country in the next war.

Despite their devotion to the cause, these veterans were no longer the young and fit men they were some thirty years ago. Therefore, it was decided that these men be placed in a new unit, the Veterans Home Guard, which later became the Veterans Guard of Canada.

Formed after the example of the British Home Guard, the Veterans Guard of Canada took advantage of the previous military experience of these veterans and placed them in guarding military installations. This duty freed up the younger and more able-bodied men for overseas service while still allowing these veterans to play a role in the war effort. Included in these military installations were factories, coastal defenses, and prisoner of war camps.

The Veterans Guard of Canada was organized into companies, active and reserve, that were formed across the entire country. By June 1943, with the average age of 53, the Veterans Guard reached a peak strength of over 400 officers and 9,800 other ranks.

Veterans Guard of Canada Cap Badge
At the Riding Mountain Park Project, the Veterans Guard served as a supplementary guard force to assist civilian guards hired by the Department of Labour. The Veterans Guard complement arrived at Riding Mountain onboard the same train as the prisoners on October 26, 1943. Lieutenant Shewfeld was the first officer in charge and was in command of twenty-four other ranks. At the camp, these men were responsible for performing roll call of the PoWs twice daily, sorting incoming and outgoing mail, managing a detention cell, driving, escorting PoWs, and conducting patrols of the camp area. To prevent fraternization with the PoWs, Veteran Guard units were rotated regularly throughout PoW camps across the country so at Riding Mountain, these units spent only about four months before being replaced.

For those interested in learning more, I'd recommend checking out the Homefront Museum and Archives section in the link and tracking down some of Robert Henderson's publications as he is definitely the expert on the Veterans Guard!

Today, these among the many that I will be thinking about and thanking for their service...

Monday, November 7, 2011

Running the Camp

Today - 68 Years Ago
November 7, 1943

In order to keep the camp running efficiently, a camp commander or commandant was appointed. The first commander was Captain C.L. Knuth. Little is known about Knuth other than that his time at the camp was short, only two weeks. It was in the first weeks of November that a new commander arrived at the camp, Lt. Colonel Reginald Heber James. Born in 1876, James was no stranger to the military. Having joined the army in the early 1900s, would later serve in the First World War and shortly after the war's end, he had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

After war broke out in Europe once more, James served as a recruiting from 1940 to 1943. Employed by Wartime Housing Ltd., a crown company, James was transferred to Riding Mountain to oversee this newly constructed camp. He would remain at this position until June of 1944.

The camp commander's duties varied from day-to-day but their overall roll was to maintain order in the camp and ensure that the work was completed. To do so, James had to regularly confer with the PoWs in his charge, the guards, civilian contractors, and his superiors. Rather than meeting with all 440 PoWs, one man was selected as the camp spokesman. It was through this man that the PoWs made their requests and voiced their concerns and complaints.

I must thank Lt. Col. James' Grandson, Mr. Broughton for the information he has provided to me on his grandfather. Little is known about the individuals who spent time at this camp but my work and that of my colleagues has offered me an amazing opportunity to get in touch with their family and friends as sadly many of them have since passed away. I am indebted to these individuals who have shared their family histories with me and I hope to return the favour by telling the stories of these individuals.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lost or Escape?

Today - 68 Years Ago
November 4, 1943

Minnedosa Tribune - November 4, 1943
Three days after the nineteen PoWs returned for their escapade, it was still undecided as to what the PoWs were doing. When the PoWs returned, it was discovered that many were still dressed in light clothing, suggesting that they weren't prepared for an escape but on the other hand, they certainly weren't familiar with the area. Upon being questioned, they all stated they had not tried to escape; some said they were looking for deer and elk antlers for souvenirs while others said they were just out for a walk. Camp officials agreed with this and reported that it was not an escape attempt. Not everyone agreed. Among them was the investigating RCMP officer who wrote that,
I am of the opinion the prisoners were out exploring the country around the camp and that if some escape was anticipated at a future date they would know in which direction to take.
As for the prisoners, they were let off without charges under the camp spokesman's agreement that restrictions would be enforced and a similar situation would never occur again. The nineteen men remained at the camp.

I've added a poll on the right hand side of the blog so let me know what you think! Was it an escape? a distraction? reconnaissance? or did they actually get lost?

As for the real answer, we don't know.

This, however will change. With the assistance of Adrian Myers, PoW Landmann, one of the 19 men mentioned in my last post, has been found living in Germany. Mr. Landmann is one of six PoWs still living in Germany that I've contacted and hope to visit in the new year...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Manitoba Winter

Today - 68 Years Ago
November 1, 1943

The news of a "mass breakout" in Riding Mountain spread across the region as RCMP officers constantly patrolled the parks borders, searching for the missing nineteen PoWs. As the police tried getting pictures of the missing men to aid in the search, spelling errors and poor phone communication hampered their efforts. Regardless, patrols were assembled and searched the area around the camp and the major roads. Increasing snowfall, which during the middle of the night had increased to a small blizzard, severely hampered the search effort. Regardless, preparations were made for a manhunt in the morning.

Winnipeg Free Press - November 1, 1943
The story was picked up by the major newspapers, eager for news of what could be one of the largest escape attempts in Canada during the war. The escape made the front page of the Winnipeg Tribune, Winnipeg Free Press, and Minnedosa Tribune and an article was even printed in the Globe and Mail. The attached Winnipeg Free Press article tells most of the story.

PoWs Landmann and Schneider were the first to return shortly aften nine in the morning and seven more followed shortly after. The others arrived after lunch, while the final two were picked up by an RCMP patrol.

What promised to be "Manitoba's largest manhunt" was cancelled as the PoWs were placed in custody. While the camp staff decided the fate of the PoWs, the nineteen men were definitely glad to be back indoors.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Today - Sixty-Eight Years Ago...
October 31, 1943

Nineteen Prisoners of War were found missing from the camp only five days after their arrival! Some during the day, these nineteen men had left the camp for an afternoon "hike". This was made much easier by the minimal security of the camp. Common to PoW bush camps of the era, no fences or guard towers enclosed the camp compound. Instead, the dense Canadian wilderness was deemed to be enough to prevent any notions of escape and, as such, red markers were tied onto trees to denote the camp boundaries. However, this "escape" showed that this was not to be the case!

The missing nineteen men were only noticed to be missing at roll call but sent the camp officials scrambling. The numbers were double and triple checked and once it was confirmed they were missing, the camp guards began an immediate search of the area. The guards, which will be discussed later, numbered approximately sixty men and the majority were in their early fifties. After five hours of searching, the RCMP were brought in to assist. All detachments around the park including Wasagaming, Rossburn, Dauphin, Ste. Rose, and McCreary were put on immediate alert and sent out on patrol along the park boundaries. In case the prisoners had already left the park, the Brandon city police, Railway Police, and Border Guards were also told to be on the lookout. Too late for any widespread search, a manhunt was organized for the morning.

For the nineteen prisoners left alone in Riding Mountain National Park, light snow began to fall, bringing about an introduction to the Manitoba winter they would never forget...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On this day, 68 Years Ago - Riding Mountain Park Project

October 26, 1943
Dauphin, Manitoba

A train with a rather unusal cargo was stopped on the outskirts of Dauphin just before noon. Immediately following the train's halt, armed guards disembarked, establishing a secure permititer on all sides of the train while empty trucks 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. Following him were among the first German combatants, prisoners of war, to step foot on Manitoba soil. 

To be precise, 440 of these enemy soldiers, many of whom were combat veterans of North Africa, were seated in this train. After being quickly unloaded from the trains and ushered aboard the waiting trucks, the PoWs entered Riding Mountain National Park via the Strathlair Road. The trucks continued down this road, until reaching a recently rebuilt spur road heading West. Following this for ten kilometers, these men arrived at what would be their new home.

First proposed in June 1943, the camp had been hastily constructed over the past months. 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.

As for what the PoWs were thinking when they first stepped off the trucks, one can only assume that they never could have imagined what lay before them...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Welcome to the Blog!

Hello everyone and thanks for checking out this new blog relating to Prisoners of War in Manitoba during the Second World War!

For those who don't know me, my name is Michael and one of my main interests and research focuses is the internment of Prisoners of War (PoWs) in Canada during the Second World War, with an emphasis on the labour project in Riding Mountain National Park from 1943-1946. This blog is my way of showcasing some of Manitoba's little-known, yet fascinating, military history. I graduated from the University of Manitoba in Spring 2011 with my B.A. (Hons) in history and chose to write my thesis on the relations established between German Prisoners of War, Canadian military personnel, and civilians at a labour camp in Riding Mountain National Park. The material that I will be showing in the feature will attempt to tell some of the stories of this camp and its counterparts scattered throughout the province.

Whether you're familiar with the history of PoW Internment in Manitoba or you are hearing of them for the first time, I hope you enjoy these posts!