Thursday, January 26, 2012

Leaving the Camp... Again...

Sixty-Eight Years Ago

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For those who are familiar with the stories from the camp in Riding Mountain National Park, you will certainly have heard how PoWs left the camp boundaries, visited dances, and became good friends with people on the park boundaries. Today, I'll give a brief explanation of how this came to be.

When the decision to build a camp in the park was first made in the summer of 1943, the issue of security was first and foremost to many. How to ensure that the PoWs remained with the camp boundaries and away from summer tourist traffic was something that the Parks Bureau especially focused on. It was eventually decided that the ten kilometers of Canadian wilderness surrounding the camp should be enough to keep wandering PoWs away from civilians. As such, trees were marked with red paint or flags to clearly mark the boundaries.

Despite the efforts taken by various departments and officials, they simply did not work. As I have already mentioned, only five days after arriving at the camp, nineteen PoWs had left the camp boundaries and had gotten lost. Other accounts of PoWs getting "lost" were fairly common and it seems like the warnings were simply ignored by a sizeable number of PoWs.

Among these PoWs was Konstatin Schwarz (or Schwartz). Using his days off at Christmas and New Years, he and some of his comrades decided to see what lay beyond the confines of the camp's borders. Following old logging trails, roads, and tracks, the PoWs found their way to places like the bison enclosure at Lake Audy and a firetower on the southern border of the park. It was this firetower that they were finally able to view the surrounding area. Much to their surprise, the area was primarily farmland.

It was upon viewing the farmhouses that the PoWs decided they needed to take a closer look...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Home Again!

Having returned home from Ottawa this week I can certainly say that the trip was a success! Having spent a little over a week there, Adrian and I sorted through thousands of documents relating to PoWs in Canada. In the end, we took almost 15,000 pictures of documents ranging from pay lists from labour projects in Manitoba to escape reports to orders written by Riding Mountain's camp administrator! Spending between eight and ten hours at the archives made for some very long days but in the end, we just had enough time to document everything we wanted to. However, I am sure another trip is in order in the next year or two!

PoW Work Jacket with "target" - Canadian War Museum
While in Ottawa, we couldn't miss going to the Canadian War Museum which has an absolutely amazing collection of artifacts ranging from Canada's first settlers to the modern day. We had requested to see some of their holdings relating to PoWs in Canada beforehand so we were given special access to articles like PoW work jackets, German uniforms and equipment, as well as Canadian uniforms. After this we were given a behind-the-scene tour of the museum's facilities which was absolutely amazing! To see items like the uniforms of Billy Bishop and Sir Arthur Currie, General Wolfe's chair, and Hitler's telephone up close was something I will never forget! A big thanks goes out to the museum staff!

On a side note, German PoWs in Canada wore a wide range of clothing depending on where they were located within the country and the work they were involved in. For formal wear and while in larger internment camps, PoWs were authorized to wear German uniforms, complete with their insignia, rank, and medals. However, for those participating in labour projects, each PoW was issued a specially-marked set of clothing that included a jacket, pair of trousers, and a cap. To identify these men as PoWs, the jacket had a large circle on the reverse (which the PoWs often joked was a target for the guards to aim at in case they attempted escape, while the trousers and hat had a red stripe sewn down the length. Having seen some examples of this clothing before, it was still great to see these items up close.

Anyways, I will certainly busy for the next few months as I work my way through all of the files!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Better Late than Never!

First off, I must apologize for my very late update! Things seem to have gotten very busy over the holidays and I wasn't able to update it.

Anyways, as for my last post, I left a question unanswered. For those who were wondering what the answer may be, a small number of the harassed PoWs at Riding Mountain had served in the French Foreign Legion in the late 1920s and 1930s. Despite having returned to Germany before 1933, these men were continually monitored by the Gestapo and were unable to find jobs. During the war, these men were placed in the 361st Regiment and were often found in harm's way. As such, a large number of the 361st were taken prisoner and sent to Canada.

Hard at Work!
For the rest of today's post, I would like to update everyone on some of what I have been doing in regards to PoWs in Manitoba. Since Monday, myself and archaeologist Adrian Myers have been in Ottawa visiting the Library and Archives Canada. With the largest collection of PoW related material in the country, the LAC has been on my to-do list for some years! In the past few days, we've copied over 10,000 documents which have helped answered a lot of questions and filled in quite a few gaps in my records. This will certainly keep me busy for a while!

Check back in the next few days for another update!