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.