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
Each combatant officer POW was permitted to write four postcards and three letters per month, whereas "other ranks" were permitted four postcards and two letters per month. Protected personnel [medical personnel, padres, and members of the forces who did not bear arms] were permitted double that quota. No postal charges were made in the country of origin or destination for parcels and correspondence addressed to POWs, although regular airmail rates had to be paid by the prisoners if they made use of airmail. Prisoners were also permitted to send telegrams and overseas cables at their own expense. All letter mail to and from POWs was censored in the Ottawa Post Office, where censors were instructed to watch for any details of potential intelligence value, and to pass these on to their military intelligence officers. Prisoners were allowed to receive postal parcels containing foodstuffs and other articles intended for consumption or clothing, as well as consignments of books.
Mixed medical commissions consisting of three members [two Swiss and one Canadian] went around to the different internment camps to examine sick and wounded prisoners, and to make appropriate decisions regarding their welfare. Approximately 1 J 65 sick and wounded German prisoners were repatriated to the Fatherland through the activities and recommendations of such medical commissions.
In the summer of J 943, the Minister of Labour was authorized to use German prisoners of war in agricultural and other labour projects which were not related to the war effort. Article 3 of the Geneva Convention authorized a belligerent country to employ prisoners of war as workmen under certain specified circumstances. Article 29 said that no prisoner was to be employed on work for which he was physically unsuited. Articles 31 and 32 noted that no prisoner was to be employed on work having any direct connection with the war effort, nor on dangerous and unhealthy work. Article 30 ensured that one day of rest per week was to be required. Pay was twenty cents per day, and NCOs could be compelled to undertake only supervisory work, for which they did not have to be paid. Article 34 noted that the duration of the daily work was not to exceed that for civilian workers employed on the same jobs, which was usually eight hours.18
The government felt that it was important to keep the prisoners occupied:
.... Everyone .. .realizes the importance of finding work for the prisoners. It is essential to employ all of them, if possible, all the time. They will be happier if they are occupied. It will improve their morale and as a result, it will be easier to handle the camp ....19
Prisoners who were kept busy did not have time to plot escapes. As well, the public undoubtedly would be angry at the knowledge that these men were being cared for at the expense of the taxpayer without doing any work.
On the other hand, it was realized that the German prisoners could supply a large labour force that could work relatively inexpensively. Some five hundred prisoners at the Lethbridge camp were designated to be used in the local sugar beet fields. Only "other ranks" would be employed, and they had to volunteer to be able to work on the projects. The agreed-upon pay was $2.50 per working day for each prisoner. Any company which used this prison labour would deduct one dollar for each prisoner and accompanying guard who were fed and boarded, and a further fifty cents per day was credited to the account of the prisoner of war so that he could make purchases from the camp canteen. Other labour projects included a hundred men hoeing crops near Lethbridge, a woodcutting project employing some two hundred men in South River, Alberta, and an irrigation project needing an additional one hundred men at Brooks, Alberta. Some of the prisoners were allowed to reside on the farms of their employers at night, and then return to the work projects in the morning. One of the biggest problems faced by the authorities on these projects was the tendency of the German POWs to try to slow down production. This problem was finally alleviated in the spring of 1945, when detention camps were set up to punish these trouble-makers. I n fact, these labour projects became so successful that during 1945 about 2,200 POWs were employed in sugar beet work and the hoeing of other crops; further arrangements were made to supply Ontario with POW labour for the beet fields located around the city of Chatham.
Once the prisoners had started working the authorities appear to have realized, with chagrin, that a valuable commodity had been allowed to loiter in the POW camps for several years at public expense, without any use being made of their labour-saving potential. For the minor sum of fifty cents per day, great work could be accomplished in the areas of beet harvesting, farming and lumbering. The Receiver General of Canada received the following monies from the POW employers20:
1943 [7 months] $155,948.15
1944 [12 months] $675,108.47
1945 [12 months] $2,427,123.81
Sugar beet harvest tonnage was also quite impressive21:
1944: 18,344 tons of sugar beets giving a sugar content of 6,545,000 pounds. 1945: 66,814 tons of sugar beets giving a sugar content of 22,704,000 pounds
The labour projects would be deemed an unqualified success. One author noted:
.... to some basic industries, the infusion of this labour was a veritable life giving plasma enabling them to revive and continue their vigorous contribution to the nation's war effort.22
18. NAC, Director of Internment Operations, RG6, L, Vol. 1, File 1-2-3, Assistant Director of Internment Operations to Angus McDonald, 7 August 1940.
19. NAC, Director of Internment Operations, RG6, L, Vol. 1, File 1-2-3, General Panet to the District Officers Commanding, 6 August 1940.
20. NAC, Department of Labour, RG27, Vol. 965, File 24, History projects PW.