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The Happiest Prisoners

Prisoners look out from behind barbed wire at Sherbrooke, Que., in 1945. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA163788]

Prisoners look out from behind barbed wire at Sherbrooke, Que., in 1945.

In the shadow of Mount Baldy, where lodgepole pine and trembling aspen compete for space in Alberta’s spectacular Kananaskis Country, all that remains of a Second World War prisoner of war camp are weedy building foundations, a rundown guard tower and a restored commandant’s cabin. Here and at 25 other locations across Canada, 35,046 German soldiers, sailors, airmen and potential insurgents were incarcerated under a program one later called “the best thing that happened to me.”

It’s how many of them felt about their time here; and it’s partly why more than 6,000 wanted to stay after the war ended.

The first camps were created to lock up some 358 individuals of questionable loyalty living in Canada and rounded up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police soon after war was declared in 1939. But as the invasion of Britain loomed in June 1940, the Churchill government asked Canada to accept 7,000 enemy aliens and PoWs from British camps. That was followed by a thousand Luftwaffe PoWs in January 1941 and several thousand soldiers captured in the North Africa campaign.

The prison ID of Siegfried Osterwoldt. [PHOTO: SIEGFRIED OSTERWOLDT]

The prison ID of Siegfried Osterwoldt.

Camps were spread from Alberta to New Brunswick, but the largest by far were at Lethbridge and Medicine Hat in Alberta which were purpose-built to house 12,500 prisoners each. With 350-man dormitories, each site boasted two 3,000-man recreation halls, six educational huts, six workshops and six dining halls.

Games and entertainment weren’t overlooked either. Inside Lethbridge’s Camp 133 there were regular soccer tournaments. Prisoners enjoyed handball, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, tennis, skating and more. In November 1944, it was reported to the Red Cross that the internees had a 45-piece orchestra, a 55-piece band and several smaller musical groups. In accordance with Geneva Convention rules, PoWs were permitted to wear uniforms and insignia in camp and were provided the best winter garb.

And they were given jobs. In 1943, Canada’s Minister of Labour authorized employment, primarily on farms and in logging camps. Employers would pay the government $2.50 per day per worker, from which they could deduct room and board. Trust grew: many farmers housed them off camp for days at a stretch. By 1945, over 11,000 PoWs were at work, including 2,200 working the sugar beet fields around Lethbridge. Many became like family to the farmers.

Memorabilia collected from the camps include a shirt with a red circle indicating a prisoner, a German Army buckle and a homemade knife discovered in Camp 133 at Lethbridge. [PHOTO: HOMEFRONT ARCHIVES & MUSEUM, REGINA; GALT MUSEUM & ARCHIVES, LETHBRIDGE, ALTA.]

Memorabilia collected from the camps include a shirt with a red circle indicating a prisoner, a German Army buckle and a homemade knife discovered in Camp 133 at Lethbridge.

Lethbridge resident Doran Degenstein recalls his late father’s experience as a member of the Veterans Guard of Canada at that camp. “He spoke fondly of his time with the PoWs,” he says. “They respected him.” When supervising field work, Degenstein says “he would leave his rifle on the seat of the truck and would often ask a prisoner to move the truck ahead with his loaded rifle still on the seat.” That’s the sort of trust that built with some of the prisoners.

John Melady, in his book Escape From Canada: The Untold Story Of German PoWs In Canada 1939-1945, writes of German Corporal Leo Hoecker reminiscing about his bush camp work in Ontario. Hoecker was an avid hunter. “So the Veterans Guards often used to loan us their rifles and off we’d go,” he said, “because we were trusted like that.”

There were several escape attempts however—after all, it is part of a PoW’s duty. Eva Colmers, whose father was captured in North Africa in 1943 and spent three years in the Lethbridge camp, said there were over 600 reported attempts. Colmers wrote and directed The Enemy Within, a documentary on German PoWs in Canada produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 2003.

After the war, it wouldn’t be until December 1946 before all prisoners were repatriated. The British government requested that all PoWs—even the 6,000 who asked to remain in Canada—be returned to the U.K. for work and gradual processing back to Germany under the Geneva Convention.

A German PoW soccer team. [PHOTO: KURT GUNZEL, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—20070070-047]

A German PoW soccer team.

Colmers interviewed a dozen who did return and settle some years after the war. When asked why they had wanted to stay in Canada, many said they faced an uncertain future in bombed-out Germany. Would there be jobs, could we study, would we have a house? “Particularly those who had no parents, family or homes left, for them the most familiar feeling of a place of belonging was Canada,” she says. That was reinforced, she reckoned, by the sense of a “fatherly respectful relationship with the Veterans Guards” who had seen and experienced war before (most guards were First World War veterans).

Moreover, she says, for many, when they heard for the first time about the wartime atrocities in Germany, it contributed to their reprehension towards their native country. “They were disgusted with what went on,” she adds.

One who came back feeling that way is Siegfried Osterwoldt—an ex-artillery lieutenant who was captured at el Alamein in 1942. He and his wife Eva purchased their comfortable 1950s Edmonton bungalow just a few years after coming back. He recalls his thoughts when the war ended. “First, I wanted to go home from here and see how things were,” he says. “And they were miserable. The spirit of people being nice to each other had disappeared.” He says everyone was on the black market trying to feed themselves, working only for themselves.

“The spirit of sharing that had been preached by the Nazi regime, which was good, didn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Things were good in the first few years. In 1933-35 the unemployed were busy again; people could eat and everyone was happy. And then afterward the bad things took over.” He says he soon felt that “Hitler and his clique had lied to us all these years and I had it up to here,” he says, holding his forefinger to his chin. “I’d had enough of politics. I wanted to get out.”

Osterwoldt’s wartime prison had been Wainwright, Alta., a camp for officers, where he was reasonably content. “I got all the books I needed to study what I wanted. The barbed wire didn’t bother me.” Study served him well; when he and Eva, who was also fed up with wartime Europe, returned to Canada in 1953 despite both having jobs in postwar Germany, he soon landed a job as a land surveyor in Edmonton where they raised their family. Leaving their parents was hard, but “we have no regrets,” he says. “Deep in my heart, I am more Canadian than German because we’ve lived here for over 50 years now.”

Heinz Altendorf (sixth from left) joins a sports team at Gravenhurst, Ont. [PHOTO: RUTH ALTENDORF]

Heinz Altendorf (sixth from left) joins a sports team at Gravenhurst, Ont.

Those who wanted to stay polarized some Canadians. “Letters to the editor, newspaper editorials, radio commentators all reflected the view that not all prisoners should be sent back to Germany,” writes Melady. “Those who had ‘proven themselves’ in farms and factories were often mentioned as desirable citizens.” But countering that was some understandable hard opposition, for example a resolution against any German PoWs staying was passed by the Canadian Legion at its 1946 dominion convention.

But the Osterwoldts’ stories are typical of returnees. The Lethbridge Herald of Dec. 10, 1996, reported an interview with Harry Pohl, a merchant seaman who was captured at the age of 19. He recalled working on a local farm near Brooks, Alta., as a PoW. When he got home to Hamburg he said to his new wife, “I’m going back to Canada,” and she agreed. He returned in 1951 to work on the same farm, and said he knew of at least 36 others who returned to southern Alberta.

Another southern Alberta PoW who worked the farms, Alfred Weiss, went one better—he came back and bought the farm in Picture Butte he had worked on. He recalled in a 2008 interview with the Galt Museum in Lethbridge, “living in the granary” during the war.

Many wanted to return but couldn’t find a way. Ex-PoW Rudolf Ries worked on the farm of Joe and Mary Kacer. Years later their daughter Bessie recalled in an interview in the April 8, 1996, Lethbridge Herald, “He was like one of the family. Ries had his own small house on the farm; he didn’t have to return to camp each night, had meals with the family.” Joe Kacer said when he drove him back to camp on his final day on the farm in November 1946 “it was a sad parting.” However, many have since returned to spend vacations.

Not all worked as farmers. Horst Liebeck was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot shot down over England, captured and sent to the Heron Bay camp on Lake Superior. He escaped from there but was recaptured. Liebeck returned to Canada after the war and became a Canadian citizen on Feb. 21, 1958, becoming a successful builder in Brantford, Ont. An entrepreneur, he was also granted the Canadian franchise for German chocolate firm Bauer Chocolate and planned a plant in Brantford or Kitchener, according to the Sept. 14, 1960, Lethbridge Herald. “When war broke out I was drafted from university,” he said. “I did not enjoy the war or being a soldier—I just loved to fly.”

A member of the Veterans Guard of Canada mans his position at a guard tower in Monteith, Ont. [PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—20050128-017]

A member of the Veterans Guard of Canada mans his position at a guard tower in Monteith, Ont.

Melady tells of former German PoW Ed Billet, who told him “before we came here, most PoWs thought Canada was all bush, Indians and so on. We knew Canadians were good fighters and good pilots, but we did not know much else about them.” Billet went on to say they were delighted with the beauty of the bush that surrounded their camp at Gravenhurst, Ont. “I discovered the real beauty of Canada,” he said. “This country is at its best to anybody who is willing to open his eyes to the unlimited opportunity it still offers. That was why I came here to live.”

Melady also interviewed Siegfried Bruse, a former U-boat officer who, with another ex-PoW, Luftwaffe officer Tony Kleimaker, operated a large and successful real estate firm in North Bay, Ont. “I like Canadians,” Bruse told him. “They made my life as pleasant as possible from the day I came here as a prisoner. Later, when I returned as a landed immigrant, I knew this was my country. There was also the feeling that you could create something here, that you could achieve what you wished in this land.”

Horst Braun, a former U-boat wireless operator, feels the same. He enjoyed his time in camp. “Then when I was sent to a bush camp, I appreciated Canada all the more,” he told Melady. He worked for a timber company in northern Ontario. When the war was over and he was sent back to Germany he said, “I was terribly homesick for Canada! I couldn’t wait to get back here.” He was fortunate: a Canadian co-worker sponsored his return. “He was one of the Canadians whom I met at the time who made me appreciate what a wonderful country this is,” he said.

Another northern Ontario bush camp worker and ex-U-boat crewmember was Paul Mengelburg, whose U-26 submarine was depth-charged off the northwestern coast of Ireland in 1940. Now 95, he was eventually sent to Camp 101 at Angler, Ont., to work in the bush at Longlac, where he now lives. Upon his initial return to Germany, he says he applied to work as a river policeman on the Rhine, but was prevented “because I was a Nazi,” he says. “My mind was then made up to come back.”

Fortunately, he says a farmer for whom he worked during the war in Glencoe, Ont., before going to Longlac, offered to sponsor him in 1951. “I worked there for a while, then went to Toronto and worked for International Harvester on Bathurst [Street],” he says. After a vacation to revisit Longlac in the summer of 1955, he says “I pulled the plug and came here.” He worked as a heavy duty mechanic at Kimberly-Clark in the bush repairing tractors.

Asked if the immigration authorities questioned his political leanings, Mengelburg says, “No, they had everything in black and white in a big book. They had all the records.” He now occasionally guest lectures at the university in Thunder Bay he says, about what happened in Germany and his life in Canada.

Precious few of the returnees survive. But the widows’ memories of their husbands’ enthusiasm for the country that imprisoned them remain.

Ruth Altendorf, whose late husband Heinz was shot down over North Africa, says, “his greatest piece of luck was being sent to Canada as a prisoner of war.” She says he was repatriated to Germany after the war, “where we met, married and lived for the next 10 years in Bad Godesberg, a beautiful town along the Rhine River.” Heinz worked in the personnel department of the American embassy and life was as good as it can be after a war. “Our two daughters were born there, and perhaps we would never have left were it not for Heinz telling us stories about Canada. In fact, he sparked a minor exodus:  in the space of five years, 11 family members left for Canada.” Heinz and Ruth lived in Toronto, Brampton and Waterloo, before moving to Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., where she still resides.

Colmers says she’s glad she made the documentary. “So few Canadians know about the German PoWs in Canada,” she says. “And particularly they don’t know about [the PoWs’] fondness for Canadians.” She feels the film is timeless because she hears about treatment of prisoners by other countries. “They should learn how you can tremendously influence the enemy by treating them fairly.”

Most of the camp buildings are now gone, the trees and wildflowers reclaiming the land. But clearly the memories and fondness of the PoWs and their families for their adopted homeland live on.

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