In the heart of Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park lies a small clearing on the shore of Whitewater Lake. To many visitors, the clearing appeared to be no different from any other and was simply a backcountry campsite. To the more curious, it was clear from the remnants of building foundations, scattered piles of bricks, and rusted pieces of metal that this site was in fact quite unique; from October 1943 to October 1945, the clearing was home to 440 German Prisoners of War (PoWs) employed in a woodcutting labour project.
In the summer of 2008, I began work with Friends of Riding Mountain National Park, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to promote research and education in the park. With a great interest in military history, I was immediately attracted to the story of German PoWs in the park during the Second World War. During the course of my undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba, I delved deeper into the project’s history.
The internment of German PoWs on Canadian soil remains a little-known aspect of Canada’s contribution to the Second World War but by mid-1944, over 30,000 enemy combatants spent time behind Canadian barbed wire. While most of the PoWs spent most of their war years in large, traditional internment camps, thousands of PoWs were employed in small labour projects scattered among the country.
The Riding Mountain Park Labour Project, more commonly known today as the Whitewater Lake PoW Camp, was one of these small projects. On October 26, 1943, 440 German PoWs arrived in Riding Mountain National Park and were employed in a woodcutting operation to relieve a predicted fuelwood shortage for the upcoming winter. Under the supervision of the Parks Bureau, the camp was initially operated by Wartime Housing Ltd., a Crown Corporation working with the Department of Munitions and Supply. With an estimated cost of $300,000, the camp featured over fifteen buildings, including bunkhouses, an administration building, a guardhouse, a kitchen and mess hall, a barn, a garage, and a small powerplant, as well as electricity, running water, and a sewer system.
Among the most notable features of the camp was its complete lack of barbed wire fences or guard towers; instead, it was believed that the dense Canadian wilderness that surrounded the camp would be enough to contain the PoWs. Approximately seventy-five guards, dividing between civilians and active military personnel, provided the main security component.
Arriving on October 26, 1943, the PoWs were put to work almost immediately. Working in “gangs,” each man was expected to cut and stack three-quarters of a cord per day. Inexperience and dissent among the PoWs, however, meant that the quota was rarely met in the early months. However, as the PoWs were trained and some of the pro-Nazi troublemakers removed, production increased to a satisfactory level. The PoWs worked eight-hour days, six days a week and when not working, were free to do what they pleased. Many PoWs enjoyed hiking near the camp while others built woodcrafts (the largest being dugout canoes), took school courses, or took care of the camp’s many pets, the most notable of which was a black bear cub.
As can be imagined, security at the camp was a constant issue for both military and civilian personnel. Among the most notable “escape attempts” came only five days after the arrival of the PoWs, when nineteen PoWs were found to be missing from the camp. Issues with security were later called into question when it became apparent that PoWs were leaving the camp boundaries, and had made contact with civilians living alongside the park boundary. Primarily Eastern European immigrants, some of these civilians became close friends with the PoWs, partially due to their feelings towards the Soviet Union as well as the poor treatment they had received while in Canada.
A general view of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project. These permanent structures included bunkhouses (rear right), a guardhouse (foreground), kitchen and mess hall, a recreation hall, a garage, stables, and a barn.
In mid-1944, the camp was taken over by the Department of Labour and subsequently downsized to approximately 200 PoWs. The number of PoWs steadily decreased as PoWs were transferred to other projects and as the need for fuelwood decreased. Fuelwood production ceased March 31, 1945 and the remaining PoWs were loaned to local farmers for the summer. The camp closed on September 1, 1945 and was subsequently demolished, leaving few traces behind.
While my research has been primarily conducted using material held at Library and Archives Canada, my summer employment in Riding Mountain National Park has provided me with the opportunities to meet and correspond with families of former PoWs and guards as well as one of the former PoWs still living in Germany. I have also developed the interpretative programming for “From North Africa to the North Woods” Wagon Tour, a program that takes visitors out to the former camp site.
Most recently, I am currently enrolled in the History M.A. Program at the University of Western Ontario and I am currently writing my Cognate Essay on the attempts to enforce control over German PoWs at Riding Mountain. In the fall, I will be returning to UWO to begin my PhD. While I am still new to the field of environmental history, I hope to examine how PoWs in labour projects, like that at Riding Mountain, interacted with their environments and how their surroundings shaped their internment during the Second World War.
For those interested in learning more about my research, please visit my blog at prisonersinmb.blogspot.ca
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