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

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"The Canadian Bush"

"In the name of all the wood-cutters, I would convey greetings to you and the entire camp. We find ourselves in the midst of the Canadian bush here, in the so-called Riding Mountain National Park. There is no barbed wire here, but instead a definite boundary has been set by red markings on trees. The woods principally leaf, and partly mixed. The ground is slightly hilly and swampy in part.” - Camp Spokesman Leo Manuel, November, 1944.
Among my interests is looking at how the PoWs reacted to and interacted with the environment that surrounded them. Most, if not all, of the PoWs had been captured in the North African desert in 1941 and 1942 and, after a brief internment in Egypt, had been sent to North America. First interned at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, they were moved to the vast Albertan prairie at camps in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. A year or two after their capture, these men were now working in the middle of the Canadian "bush."

Camp medical staff outside of one of the camp buildings.
Note the elk antlers above the door as well as the black bear and dogs.
Free to roam through the immediate area around the camp, PoWs looked to their surroundings in different ways. Among the first, and most popular, activities was hiking through the bush. Though the PoWs were quickly introduced to the dangers of wandering through the bush in the late fall (19 PoWs got lost and were introduced to the Manitoba winter), the continued their wandering until the camp closed in 1945.

Manuel also stated that the area was abundant with game, including wolves, deer, elk, bears, and moose. While some PoWs simply enjoyed listening to the elks bugling and the wolves howling, others picked up antlers shed by deer, elk, and moose as souvenirs. It was not long before nearly every building in the camp featured some form of antlers hanging above the entrances.

Whether PoWs were canoeing in their hand-made dugout canoes, playing with the camp bear, or getting lost while hiking around Whitewater Lake, the "wilderness" defined their experiences and drastically changed the way they thought about Canada and wartime internment. This will be my next project as I return to school in the fall.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

2013 PoW Wagon Tours

As summer rolls around once more, it is once again time for our "From North Africa to the North Woods" wagon tours here 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 dates are July 20th and September 1st.

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.  If you have any questions, feel free to phone that number or ask me.

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, April 2, 2013

Long Way From Home - Part 2

Another mail-related post today but one with an interesting twist. This PoW cover and letter was addressed to Erwin Stöckl, a German PoW based out of Medicine Hat's Camp 132. The letter, sent by Erwin's aunt, Magda, arrived in Canada in April 1944. It is unknown whether Erwin was at Camp 132 when he received this letter or whether he was working at an Ontario labour project.

Seven months later, in November 1944, Erwin was working at a labour project near Adams River, Ontario. On November 12, he and another PoW, Wolfgang Berter, left the camp either for a hike to explore the area or in an attempt to escape. A search was called for when the two men did not return by the evening but the search was eventually called off when the two men could not be found.

On May 26, 1945, the bodies of Stöckl and Berter were found by the Ontario Provincial Police, having died from exposure to the elements. The two men were initially interred in Kenora's Lake of the Woods Cemetery but were relocated to Kitchener, Ontario, where they remain today.

The letter was likely among Stöckl's personal effects returned to his family after his death.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Veteran's Veteran"

Came across this while doing research about the Veterans' Guard of Canada. I can only hope I can pass for fifty when I'm his age!

Article from the Winnipeg Tribune, October 1, 1942.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Real Photo"

Continuing on my last post's theme, I thought I would show some more examples of PoW postcards. Unlike the ones in my last post, these ones are "Real Photo" postcards. In most PoW camps, a military or civilian photographer visited the camp and took photographs of the PoWs for the purpose of sending them home. This was generally done to show the families of the PoWs that the men were alive and well in Canada - this being a bit of Canadian wartime propaganda!

The first image is a group of PoWs at Camp 30 in Bowmanville, Ontario. The majority of the PoWs in Bowmanville were officers and included members of all branches of the German military. This particular image shows members of the Luftwaffe (Air Force) and Heer (Army). This postcard was sent by either the man on the far left or right in the front row. These two individuals were part of the German Customs branch so I'm not sure how they ended up in Canada! Interestingly enough, another copy of this postcard is in the hands of another collector (link).

The next photo is a group of sailors at Camp 21 in Espanola, Ontario. The sender, Heinz Alsleben, was one of forty survivors of U-93, a German U-Boat sunk in January 1942.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013



Well it has been awhile since there has been a new blog post so I thought I had better change that! Today I would like to show some examples of Kriegsgefangenenpost, or Prisoner of War Mail, sent by German PoWs here in Canada to their friends and families back home. I briefly covered one example of PoW mail from a PoW that was at the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project but today I would like to show some of the lighter sides of postcards.

The standard issue postcard, an example of which I linked in the previous paragraph, were made available to all German PoWs in Canada. However, for those who found this postcard too simple or boring, PoWs had the option of purchasing different types of postcards to send home. Among these postcards made available for purchase were those printed by War Prisoners' Aid YMCA. These postcards were often sold at PoW canteens and featured images of the lighter side of internment life. The artwork was done by a German PoW and a series of approximately twenty of these postcards was produced. The following are some of the examples in my collection, all of which were unused. I hope you enjoy!