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
However, in deciding the basis upon which the remaining prisoners were to be repatriated, the requirements of the labour projects prevailed over all other interests. German prisoners were still in demand, and a large number of companies were still utilizing prisoner labour even after the end of the conflict. At the war's end, some 11,115 POWs were still employed on various labour projects organized by the Department of Labour. The German prisoners continued to work on these projects in order to purchase items from the camp canteen for which they had no other means of obtaining money, and for the chance to get out from behind the barbed wire. The Intelligence Officer at Wainwright, Alberta, noted:
... A great number of P/W have approached the interpreter Officer in order to obtain work on a works project. Almost every P/W O.R. wants to get out ... .they had noticed the cordial relation between. Canadian officers and men, and consider this as a living example of democracy, therefore they would like to get out and work for Canadians or Canadian firms.30
The prisoners also knew that by working they might gain the experience and training in trades that would be of help to them when they were forced again to earn a living back in Germany. Also, the products that they were gathering, like cabbage, radishes and potatoes, were consumed largely by the prisoners themselves. It was not until February 1946 that the first 2755 POWs were repatriated to Germany, but the exodus continued throughout that spring, so that by the end of July 1946 only 4400 prisoners were left in Canada to provide labour for the sugar beet harvest. Some six thousand Germans had by this time made written application to stay in Canada, but Article 75 of the Geneva Convention stated that all prisoners of war were to be repatriated as soon as possible after the war, so these hopes were never realized.
The final 4400 prisoners were evacuated in November 1946, a move that sparked protests from Alberta farmers. By the first week of January 1947, all the prisoners were gone from Canada, save for some sixty of them who were either in hospital or in jail. Another 162 had died in captivity, and their bodies are interred in a special area of Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario.
Could it be said that Alberta played a key role in the Canadian war effort by housing German POWs during the war? The answer must be an unequivocal "yes". Over sixty per cent of all German prisoners of war who were sent to Canada were interned in Alberta camps. Kananaskis was used from the opening day of the war, while the three largest camps, located at Ozada, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, were not only the biggest POW camps in Canada, but the latter two were also the only camps built expressly for the purpose of holding German paws. The problem with these camps was that they were so large that most of the prisoners were anonymous to camp staff, a situation which led to a constant battle between them and the camp Gestapo as to who would truly control the camps. The ability to offer outside employment and a cash salary to the prisoners was a boon to the Canadian authorities who sought to ensure that the paws remained cooperative. That there was still a demand for prisoner labour some eighteen months after the end of hostilities speaks volumes about the success of this programme.
And what of the German prisoners who spent those years incarcerated in the Canadian West? Major Henry Smith of the Veterans Guard of Canada, a participant at "the Battle of Ozada", wrote:
.... Generally speaking, we treated the P.O.W. really too well compared to how British and Canadian P.O.W. in Germany were treated. No doubt plenty of complaints were made, but most of them were minor, and more of a "nuisance" than genuine .... ! personally do not know of any case where P.G.W. were genuinely mistreated, and any complaints of such, which might have been made to the Swiss Consul ... did not go any further after being investigated: they were just gripes to try and cause trouble .... .Any "crimes" committed by a P.G. W. were tried by Commandants, and in worse cases by courts martial, and I often heard P.O. W. say that we treated them fairly ....31
This view was shared by Colonel E.D.B. Kippen who was a Camp Commandant during the war:
.... A great many of them [former German paws in Canada], I understand, immigrated to Canada during the next few years [after the war]. ! think this is all first class evidence in favour of their treatment here ....32
The delegate from the International Red Cross, Mr. Ernest Maag, also shared a generally positive view of prisoners' treatment:
.... With regard to hygiene and salubrity, the camps in Canada met ... the most modern requirements .... !!t} must be stated that the general health was so good and the death rate among prisoners was so small that the record regarding Article 15 of the Geneva Convention must be described as excellent ....33
The final word should go to a former POW who wrote to Colonel Kippen almost two years after the war to express his feelings:
. ..I shall always appreciate the ever so correct and considerate attitude of the Government of Canada, and the Military Authorities towards P.O.W.s. This is meant to be a simple act of gratitude to fairness met in enemy hands. I honestly believe that many a former P.O.W. will agree with me, if I say, that your country has done a lot to show Germans in Canadian custody the value of democratic life. The results of this attitude, I hope, will prove to be of stimulating value, in rebuilding our own country ....34
30. NAC, RG24, Microfilm Reel C-5365, Summary of Camp Intelligence for Wainwright, Alberta for month of June 1945.
31. Major Henry Smith [Ret.], Veterans Guard of Canada, personal communication to the author, 21 August 1976.
32. Colonel E.D.B. Kippen, personal communication to the author, 16 August 1976.
33. Directorate of History, Department of National Defence, File 382.013 [D13], Report of the Red Cross Delegate on Internment Operations in Canada, pp. 222-223.
34. Anonymous letter to Colonel E.D.B. Kippen, 26 March 1947.