Thursday, May 24, 2012

Veterans Guard of Canada

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the formation of the Veterans Guard of Canada so I thought it fitting to dedicate this post to all those who served in the Veterans Guard.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in the fall of 1939, thousands of Canadians flocked to enlisting stations to do their part in the upcoming conflict. Among these men were Veterans of the First World War, the majority now in their forties. Though these men were deemed to be too old for frontline service, their valuable military experience ensured that they would not be tossed aside. With increasing numbers of veterans volunteering, it was clear that something had to be done and done quickly.

Following the example of the British Home Guard, the Veterans Guard of Canada was created on May 24, 1940. Initially established as a defence force in the case of a German or Japanese attack on Canadian soil, these men were to attack as the first line of defence. However, these men would take on other rolls, such as the guarding of military installation and factories against saboteurs and the guarding of prisoners of war and enemy aliens interred in the country. By doing so, the Veterans Guard freed up the younger able-bodied men for overseas service.

The men of the Veterans Guard were organized into companies of a few hundred men. These companies were designated as Active or Reserve, active meaning that the men served full-time and were rotated throughout the country, while reserve companies were more similar to a militia force and remained in one place.

The Veterans Guard of Canada, with a peak strength of over 10,000 men, recruited from across the country and performed essential tasks on home soil. In addition, a company of the Veterans Guard was stationed in the UK, British Guiana, and the Bahamas.

Struck off active service in 1947, the story of the Veterans Guard has largely faded into history. A fitting quote filled the last lines of the War Diary of the No. 23 Company, formed right here in Manitoba:

“So is written the last page of the record… of a Company that is gone but not forgotten.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Letter from Home

On October 26, 1943, Obersoldat Willi Herold was one of 440 German PoWs that arrived at the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project. Willi was captured in 1942, most likely in the North African Campaign with most of his comrades at Riding Mountain.

Spending years away from their home and their families was a significant adjustment to the PoWs, the vast majority never being away from Germany for this length of time. As such, letters from home were essential in keeping up the morale of a PoW as they had no other means of communication. In Canada, the PoWs were allowed to write four postcards and two letters every month and were allowed to receive an unlimited amount of letters and parcels. Sending and receiving letters to and from Germany could be a lengthy process with some letters taking months to arrive. PoWs did have the option of sending letters and postcards by Air-Mail to speed up the process but had to pay for this service.

All PoW incoming and outgoing mail was censored before delivery to prevent PoWs from sharing military information or to prevent certain information from reaching the PoWs. A censor was employed at Riding Mountain and he was responsible for censoring all of the mail.

Sixty-eight years ago to this day, Willi Herold sat down in the camp’s recreational hall and penned out this postcard to a friend in Germany.

I’ve patiently been waiting to show this postcard since I found it for sale a few months ago. It was quite something to find a postcard written by a PoW at Riding Mountain and it has become a prized piece of my collection. The message is brief, thanking his friend for an earlier letter and mentioning how comforting it was to receive it, having spent two years as a PoW.

Shorlty after this letter was written, Willi Herold and 114 PoWs were transferred to the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper Company Labour Project at Hudson, Ontario.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seeing the Sights

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to do some exploring in the area south of Riding Mountain National Park. As many of you may be aware, PoWs from the camp in Riding Mountain were known to wonder outside the camp boundaries, in this case marked by red flag or paint or trees. Ten kilometers of bush separated the camp from the park boundaries and a small number of prisoners made good use of their days off to try and figure out what was on the "outside".

By early 1944, the PoWs were familiar with the area and had made contact with some of the locals living on the borders of Riding Mountain National Park. In a number of occasions, these locals, the majority of which were Ukrainian farmers, welcomed the PoWs into their homes as liberators. One has to remember that the Ukraine had suffered severely under Soviet occupation so many Ukrainians viewed the Germans as liberators. This we know now was not the case. Regardless, the PoWs became fast friends with some locals and began attending some of the dances and viewing the local attractions.

Trying to find some of the locations that the PoWs visited is a very interesting experience. It is quite something to imagine PoWs wandering through the fields in the middle of winter or during the night. I have some records of the locations and places visited by the PoWs but trying to find them, or trying to find whether they still exist sixty years later, is not always an easy task. After a fruitless search for one location, we stumbled across this: the Zaporoza school.

Unlike many of the schools that were once scattered throughout rural Manitoba, this building has survived. This was just one of the schools visited by PoWs wandering near the village of Seech, usually on their way to see the Ukrainian Orthodox schools.

It was a teacher at this school that was found in the company of PoWs from Riding Mountain. Her story is featured in Bill Waiser's "A Teacher's Tale". The encounter eventually cost her the teaching position and proved that the prisoners were certainly leaving the boundaries of the Riding Mountain camp.

Anyways, shows that there are still lots of history still hiding around!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

VE Day

VE Day - May 8, 1945

Today marks the 67th Anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE-Day). The news of Germany's surrender rapidly spread across the country and many towns and cities erupted in celebration.

In PoW camps across the country, the news was taken differently depending on the nature of the camp. In larger camps like Medicine Hat, the prisoners were assembled and the camp commander or spokesman read the news to the somber crowd. While many of the prisoners would have been happy to hear the news, positive reactions may have had severe consequences from those who did not feel the same way.

While I have no record of how the news was received in Riding Mountain, Mafeking, or Pine Falls, I'm sure that many of the prisoners shared a common thought: they were one step closer to going home...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Richard Beranek

Through my research, I have been fortunate to come into contact with a number of family members of former PoWs who spent time in Canada and a couple who's relatives spent some time of the war in Manitoba. They have been extremely gracious in providing me with information, documents, and pictures of their relative's experiences and today I would like to share some of this.

A few months ago, Linda ( forwarded me a request for information from an individual in Germany seeking information about his father. I got in touch and was able to provide some information about his time in Manitoba. Anyways, here is his story.

Richard Beranek
Richard Beranek was born on November 8th, 1926 in Mendrik, Czechoslovakia. By June 1944, at the age of 17, he was an infantryman in the 13th Company of the 915th Grenadierregiment. The 915th, as part of the 352nd Division, was assigned to coastal defense duties in the area around what was to be known as Omaha Beach. With the Allied invasion of June 6, 1944, the 352nd was pushed inland and the 915th found itself near St. Gabriel. Here, on June 8th, Richard was captured by the British and a week later, he was transferred to a PoW camp in the UK.

On June 27, 1944, Richard was transferred to Canada aboard the Empress of Scotland and arrived in Halifax. He and his comrades were then loaded on a train for a four-day trip to Camp 132 at Medicine Hat, Alberta. In the summer of 1945, Richard volunteered for farm labour and was eventually selected to assist with the fall harvest. Retracing his path across the Canadian prairies, Richard and the other volunteers were offloaded in Manitoba and began their work on farms in the Grassmere region.

Group of PoWs with Guard at Mafeking
Once the fall harvest was completed, it was requested that thirty men from the Grassmere project were to be transferred to a small lumber camp at Mafeking, Manitoba. The Mafeking camp, originally 100-men strong, required replacements for injured and transferred PoWs. Richard was selected as one of the replacements and arrived in Mafeking in November.

For the next few months, Richard worked at the Mafeking camp until its closure in the spring of 1946. The remaining men were transferred to Monteith to prepare for their transfer to the UK. Eager to be one step closer to home, Richard arrived in the UK in May of 1946. He and his fellow prisoners were put to use in various labour projects in the UK and it was not until the following year that Richard would return home.

A special thanks to Richard's son Lutz for sharing his father's stories and photographs with me and thanks to Linda and Robert for the help!