Der Deutsche Kriegsgefangener auf Alberta*:
Alberta and the Keeping of German Prisoners of War, 1939-1947
*The German title is "German Prisoners of War in Alberta."
John Joseph Kelly
Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War
As cooler heads prevailed, life slowly returned to normal at Ozada. Over the next six weeks, five more loads of prisoners arrived out of the Libyan desert, and by the end of September 1942, there were somewhere between 12,000-13,000 men in the tented camp. The night of 21 October 1942 saw a severe windstorm lash the camp, blowing down many of the prisoners' tents; this was followed by a six-inch snowfall which caused great discomfort throughout the camp. In November 1942, another gale succeeded in bringing down most of the tents in the camp. Temperatures stayed below the freezing point, and over several nights the water main had to be thawed after freezing over. There were no tears shed on 10 December 1942, when the prisoners started their move from Ozada to the newly erected camps at Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.14
However, several of the German prisoners planned to stay behind and make a break for freedom once everyone had departed. Four sergeants of the Wehrmacht [German Army] had dug a tunnel four feet long, and two feet square, which led to a dugout over which a ground sheet had been placed, covered with gravel to conceal the excavation. These soldiers hoped to survive on supplies which they had previously taken into the dugout, but their efforts were to prove unsuccessful. The Camp authorities had anticipated some such attempt at hiding out, as it was a familiar trick that had been used successfully by British paws during the First World War. A fully equipped guard detail had been left at the camp to prevent anyone from getting out, and on 28 December 1942, after eighteen days, the German prisoners surrendered, none the worse for wear despite a very cold Christmas.15
The Medicine Hat and Lethbridge camps were built at a cost of $2.3 mi Ilion each, and were the first in this country to be designed exclusively for use as internment sites for paws. Both were located close to the necessary sources of fuel, energy, water, sewage, and electricity. Each of the four sides of the enclosure had a length of 2,500 feet, and occupied an area of some 143.5 acres (58.1 hectares). There were 36 dormitories in each camp, with dimensions of 160' x 36' x 10', each being able to accommodate 350 men in double bunks. There were two large recreation halls, measuring 145' x 140', each with a seating capacity of three thousand men. Each camp boasted six "educational huts" [24' x 120'], six workshops of the same size, six packing storage barracks [120' x 48'], and six mess halls and kitchens, measuring ISO' x 63', of which a space of 63' x 36' was used for kitchen space. The capacity in each dining hall was 800 men. Cooking and heating in the dormitories was done by natural gas.
What was life like "behind the wire" for the German prisoners in these Alberta camps? The German combatants prisoners were subject to treatment under the International Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War [Geneva Convention]. Charges could be sworn out against a prisoner, and the Camp Commandant then could deal with the matter by a detention of not more than 28 days, or confinement to quarters not exceeding fourteen days. Articles 54 to 59 of the Geneva Convention stated that such detention meant confinement in a cell, lighted by daylight, with facilities for remaining out of doors or taking exercise for at least two hours per day. Prisoners in detention would be allowed to read and write, and to send and receive letters, but they were not to receive parcels. The use of "dark cells" to confine prisoners was prohibited. For what transgressions could a prisoner be put in detention? At Ozada, one German received 28 days for giving a false name when asked, while another received 28 days for spitting a mouthful of water on a Canadian soldier "as a joke". Two other prisoners received 28 days for attempting to escape from Ozada.
The Geneva Convention ensured that combatant prisoners were housed in buildings or huts having dormitories, a prescribed amount of air space for each individual, and fittings and bedding material of the same minimum requirements as for depot troops of the Detaining Power, in this case the Canadian Army. Other regulations ensured that the food be equivalent in quality and quantity of that for depot troops, and that an infirmary be provided in every camp.
Each prisoner of war was clothed by the Canadian government, at no cost to himself. They received a pair of leather boots, a pair of gum boots, three pairs of socks, two pairs of winter underwear, one winter cap, one summer cap, one mackinaw overcoat, woolen mitts, a winter coat and trousers, as well as various necessities such as razors and shaving brushes.16 Prisoners were permitted to wear their badges of rank and decorations. However, once their uniforms were worn out, they were issued with the standard type of internment clothing, consisting of lined or unlined blue denim, characterized by special markings in order that they could be identified if an escape were affected. These special markings included a red stripe down the right pant leg, while the back of the coat had a fourteen-inch red circle set into the cloth. The German prisoners were angered, and viewed these identification markings as a stigma. Ironically, the concept of marked clothing originated in Germany during the First World War, when British officer-prisoners had to wear a yellow stripe inserted in the trouser leg and a yellow band on each arm. At any rate, the government was not going to change its views, as unmarked civilian clothing would have facilitated the escape of the German POWs.17
Article 12 of the Geneva Convention permitted the establishment in each permanent internment camp of a canteen for the use of the prisoners. Goods supplied to the canteen were to be sold to the prisoners at local market prices. The officers' mess was permitted to provide beer at the discretion of the Camp Commandant. Profits from the canteen were accumulated to defray the cost of recreational, educational and other facilities, which were to be provided for the benefit of all the prisoners. However, any damages to the camp caused by the German prisoners would be deducted from the canteen profits.
Upon their arrival in the camp, the prisoners lost all their monies and effects to the authorities. These were duly inventoried and put into safekeeping, to be returned upon release or parole. Article 86 of the Geneva Convention allowed for the representatives of the Protecting Power, that is, the Swiss, to visit the prisoners. They would intervene on the part of the prisoners, and act on any complaints set forth by them. Similarly, a representative of the International Red Cross Committee was also allowed access to the camps, and it was the IRCC which brought comforts and supplies to the prisoners, working to help the prisoners' mental and physical well-being.
15. NAC, RG 24, Microfilm Reel C-5395, Brigadier Harvey DOC, MD 13, to the Secretary, Department of National Defence, 29 December 1942.
16. NAC, Director of Internment Operations, RG6, L, Vol. 1, File 1-1-6, Colonel Hubert Stethem to the Department of External Affairs, 19 March 1941.
17. NAC, Director of Internment Operations, RG6, L, Vol. 2, File 1-2-7, Colonel Hubert to the Department of External Affairs, 29 January 1941.