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Medicine Hat and Lethbridge

The Medicine Hat Prisoner of War (POW) facility, Camp No. 132, was one of the largest in North America; it could accommodate up to 12,500 prisoners and covered over 50 hectares (123.55 acres) of land. Many of the prisoners were high-ranking Nazi officers. The camp operated from 1 January 1943 to 31 July 1946. The sheer size of the prison meant that it was difficult for the guards to maintain peace and order. Illicit equipment, including homemade shortwave radios and an air rifle, was regularly found and confiscated. POWs who spoke out against Hitler were chastised, shunned, or worse. Two prisoners were murdered by their fellow inmates for speaking out against Nazism, Hitler, and the Third Reich.

A similar facility was constructed near Lethbridge; it too housed 12,500 prisoners of war. The Lethbridge Prisoner of War Camp (Camp No. 133), located north of the Crowsnest Highway, operated from November 1942 to June 1946. This facility covered 57 hectares (140.85 acres) of land, and, like the one in Medicine Hat, included two large recreation halls, six educational huts, six mess halls, and 36 dormitories. The daily routine for the prisoners consisted of reveille, breakfast, labour, head counts, recreational activities, inspections, supper, and lights out. Construction of both POW camps was not cheap: the total budget surpassed $2.3 million.

Few of the prisoners complained about the manner in which they were treated. Their lodgings were adequate and their diet consisted of pork, beef, fish, eggs, vegetables, and coffee. Prisoners were allowed time for recreational activities; soccer was very popular. In April 1944, prisoners were even allowed to celebrate Hitler's birthday, complete with a cake featuring a swastika. By the end of the war, the Lethbridge camp boasted a library with more than 45,000 books and other items.

Those POWs whom authorities felt they could trust were assigned to work details outside the camps. Some complained about having to do manual labour and menial tasks for the enemy, but others looked upon it as an opportunity to break the monotony. German prisoners were assigned to cut wood, pick beets, harvest grain, and work in small factories and warehouses. Those who complied with the rules and who did not cause trouble were paid a rate of 50 cents a day in canteen credits. However, attempting to escape was considered the duty for any captured soldier. POWs frequently tried to escape; however, those who did escape the confines of the prison were typically caught within a few days.

Other large camps for German prisoners of war were found at Seebe, 32 kilometres (20 miles) west of Cochrane and Wainwright, east of Edmonton. There were a string of branch camps, labour projects, and detention centres located at a number of places across the province, including Barnwell, Breton, Brooks, Coaldale, Cypress Hills, Edson, Gleichen, Magrath, Taber, and Welling.

Editor's Note

For more on the prisoner of war camp in Medicine Hat, read Ideological Battles in Medicine Hat: The Deaths of August Plaszek and Karl Lehmann by Danial Duda.

References

Viel, Aimée, Lethbridge on the Homefront: 1939 to 1945 (Lethbridge: Lethbridge Historical Society, 1998), 7–12.

Danial Duda, “Ideological Battles in Medicine Hat: The Deaths of August Plaszek and Karl Lehmann,” ed. K.W. Tingley, For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War (Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta and Reidmore Books, 1995).


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