Hard-partying PoW camp a historical gem

Archeologists dig the Whitewater site

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They built whiskey stills, allegedly bribed camp guards with booze, attended Saturday-night dances in nearby towns, dated local women and got their hands on rifles to go hunting. They even went on strike.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/06/2011 (4238 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They built whiskey stills, allegedly bribed camp guards with booze, attended Saturday-night dances in nearby towns, dated local women and got their hands on rifles to go hunting. They even went on strike.

The prisoner of war camp in Riding Mountain National Park was more like Hogan’s Heroes, the German version.

That history has prompted a Stanford University historical archeologist to lead excavation work at Riding Mountain’s former Whitewater German prisoner of war camp. Adrian Myers, graduate student of the Stanford Archaeological Center, is also gathering oral history of the camp and archival documentation.

Most prisoners at the camp in Riding Mountain National Park rejected Nazism.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Myers admitted of the project.

Of all the 40 PoW camps across Canada during the Second World War, which interned 37,000 PoWs in total, not to mention camps holding several hundred thousand in the United States, why did Myers choose this one?

First, he is Canadian and from Vancouver. But two points intrigued him about Whitewater. One, the PoW camp was in a national park. Two, the incredible freedom it afforded prisoners.

“I found four guys living who were interned at Whitewater and all four of them said it was awesome,” said Myers.

In part, soldiers were just delighted to be off the front lines. But, said Myers, “Canada did treat prisoners very well.”

Whitewater treated its prisoners better than elsewhere in Canada because the PoWs were regarded as low-risk. Canadian authorities colour-coded prisoners, with black designating hard-core Nazis, white designating those who rejected Nazism and grey for somewhere in between.

Prisoners at Whitewater fit the white category, although assessments weren’t always accurate and some hard-core Nazis did slip into the camp, too.

Also, many of the guards were First World War veterans over 50 years of age and some were much older. “I think they were kind of seen as pushovers by the PoWs,” said Myers.

While it seems a bit early to be doing excavation work on a camp that existed until late 1945, Myers said that is the nature of historical archeology. It includes more recent history and archeology.

Much of his research is to piece together how the PoWs lived. Detritus left behind by the PoWs has already been found a metre below the surface. The archeological dig is recording features and recovering artifacts lost and discarded by the German soldiers.

While Myers has heard tales of the whiskey still, he has not dug up physical evidence. However, he has found numerous flask-type bottles that presumably held alcohol.

The PoWs went on strike once when pyjamas they’d ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue failed to arrive on time. They suspected the guards of stealing them, but the clothes eventually arrived.

The project team is composed of volunteers from Canada and the United States.

Prisoners occupied the Whitewater camp from October 1943 to October 1945. The camp held 450 German Afrika Korps soldiers captured in Egypt after the Second Battle of El-Alamein. The majority of PoWs in Canada came from this capture.

Archeologists are investigating the people and stories of the internment camp.

The prisoners at Whitewater were assigned to cutting cordwood to heat Manitoba homes.

The excavation work is being conducted in conjunction with Parks Canada. Riding Mountain National Park officials could not be reached for comment.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

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