Meeting Minutes - John Snyed: Great Escape (Canada) - March 7th. 2019
Vice-President Julian Sale, filling in for Martin Alderwick, opened the meeting at 9:55 am. He welcomed all to the meeting and made a special welcome to two new guests: Jim Tushingham and Dale Meyer. Julian reminded us all that to keep the membership going we all need to endeavour to bring in guests as potential new members.
Julian gave an update on Martin Alderwick who is expected home today after receiving a quintuple heart-bypass last week. Ed Herold is also making progress from his Bell’s Palsy condition.
Announcements Activities – Ray Biffis - Ray thanked his committee members Ken Marchant for setting up the Valentine’s Day dinner and David Wallace for arranging the visit to the Art Gallery of Guelph. - The Anniversary Luncheon scheduled for April 4th is $15 per person and we have to guarantee 40 people so sign-up ASAP. There are 28 people signed-up so far. - Ray indicated that the Activities Committee needs additional members because some current members are stepping down from the Committee. If you are interested in joining the committee please contact Ray or just come to the Activities Committee meeting next Tuesday at 9:00 am at Angels Diner. - Ray indicated that the House Committee also needs additional volunteers to assist since this committee is also losing some members. Coffee – Andy Curtis - Next Thurs, Jan. 31st @ 10:00 am at the Symposium Restaurant and the Airpark Café.
Julian Sale introduced today’s presenter, John Sneyd.
Bio: John went to McMaster University followed by time at The University of Toronto. During his career he lived in Collingwood where he ran a thriving and innovative history department of 19 teachers at Collingwood Collegiate. He was Chairman of the town’s Architectural Conservation Committee , Chairman of the Museum construction committee, member of the Waterfront committee and founding member of the historical society among other activities. (See further background in March 2019 newsletter)
John Sneyd - The Great Escape: Canada Background During WWII, Canada accepted German prisoners captured by the allies. One Canadian POW Camp planned on a mass escape of prisoners on Hitler’s birthday. The planning and ingenuity matched that of allied escapes in Europe. Let us check out this little known bold and brilliant escape that was intentionally labelled “Top Secret” by the Federal government for decades after the war.
During WWII on the north shore of Lake Superior there was prisoner of war internment camp for 560 German POWs at a place called Angler. Today this is now a provincial park. John spent seven summers working there during his university days and talked to tourists many of whom were former prisoners or guards at this POW camp. John collected photographs while there and eventually a little museum was established in the park. Trying to get information from the government was nearly impossible and marked “top secret.”
At the time the Canadian government was assisting the British government by accepting German prisoners of war who were interred in 26 camps across Canada. Most were in the east with some in the west. John’s focus in this presentation was around Neys and Agnler, Ontario which is just about the furthest north part of Lake Superior and west of present day Marathon. Fifteen miles west of Neys (Camp #100) was another camp called Angler (Camp #101). These camps were never called by their name but by a number for reasons of secrecy.
Prisoners coming from Britain travelled by ship from Liverpool over to Halifax and then by train to their appropriate camps. This was a 7,000 km journey requiring incredible manpower to camps built in pretty rugged locations. Focusing on the geography, Sault Ste. Marie was to the east and Fort William and Port Arthuer (today Thunder Bay) to the west and the only way to get there was by railway through White River. White River has been recognized for the second coldest recorded temperature in Canada of -72oF. In addition to extreme cold weather, in the spring the area was full of black flies and mosquitoes. Nevertheless, the prisoners loved their surroundings. Many prisoners wanted to, and many indeed, came back to Canada after the war. Many returned to this place over and over again after the war ended.
The place John focused on was Angler. This was basically a large sand pit which was not conducive to building tunnels. In addition to the tough winters there was lots of barbed wire everywhere and lots of trees from which all of the buildings were constructed. Everything else to create these camps had to be brought in by rail. In 1940, water systems, kitchens and barracks had to be created in short order to set up these camps. It was quite an undertaking for the government.
There were very few pictures provided by the government (although John did show a few photos). There was also a photo of a drawing of the camp make by a prisoner who John had made contact with. This prisoner informed John that after being captured and sent to England for a period of time where he was held he lost 30 pounds. Subsequently he was shipped to the camp at Angler and gained more than 30 pounds. This was indicative of how well fed and treated the prisoners were in these POW camps in Canada.
The camps consisted of H-shaped huts. Each side of the “H” housed the prisoners and in the center was the common cooking and eating and washing area. Each H-hut housed about 160 prisoners with about 640 spaces available. There were surgeons and dentists on site as well as a big recreation hall and classrooms. They had a post office, quarter-masters, shops and kitchens. Later after the German POWs were taken out, the camp was changed to become a Japanese-Canadian internment camp. The German POWs were taken out because of the largest escape of POWs in Canadian history occurring here.
The veteran guards were the Algonquin Regiment from Thunder Bay who were the wily seasoned veterans, mostly older men from World War I. There were also some younger guards who for a variety of reasons, (mostly physical) could not serve in the armed forces. The philosophy of the guards was to treat the prisoners with respect, provide plenty of food and health care, and if you had happy prisoners, you won’t have any trouble.
The POWs arrived at Angler on January 27th, 1941. The make-up of the prisoners was reflective of the battles that were taking place during this period of the war in the early 1940’s such as The Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic. Many were high ranking officers of the Germany forces. Four hundred prisoners had been in the German Luftwaffe. These were airmen that had a high level of training and were incredibly talented people. Many of the other prisoners were members of the submariner’s corp from U-boats and the merchant marine. All these prisoners made up the bulk of the prisoners in Angler and all had been in prison camps in Britain for at least a short time. When they arrived in camp there were given prisoner outfits including long underwear and Mackinaw coats but they were allowed to wear whatever attire they wanted to. To provide for all these supplies and equipment the Canadian government frozen the German assets and used this to finance these camps. In addition the prisoners were paid a stipend based on their rank and they could spend it in the camp canteen or even order things from the Eatons catalogue. The prisoners had chores to do such as maintaining wood to keep the camp stoves burning but there was also a lot of idle time. Although the prisoners didn’t have to work they could volunteer to work at a nearby lumber camp for $5 a day. The prisoners liked their time in these camps which they found to be much easier than what they would have been doing if they were still serving in the German forces.
However having arrived at camp on January 27th 1941 the POWs began their escape plan on January 29th. At this point in time the United States was still not in the war because it was before Pearl Harbour. So if you were going to escape you were going to United States either west to Minnesota or east to Michigan. Even though the POW leadership decided to work on a plan to escape, and there was no pressure to do so because life in the camp was not harsh, there were those who felt it was their patriotic duty to escape. The plan was to break out on April 20th because this was Hitler’s 52nd birthday. The escape plan was to build a tunnel that was to be 150 ft. long and have as many POWs escape and fan out across the territory in different directions. Within the group there was an architect, a master builder, and a surveyor. They scavenged everything they could get their hands on to use to put this plan into place. They even had some electricity into the tunnel to provide lighting.
In the course of his rounds one day a guard discovered a wire that he found leading nowhere and became suspicious. He reported this to the camp commander who instructed the bulldozer operator to drive the bulldozer around the camp. This resulted in the first tunnel being discovered. However, a second tunnel was eventually built. The POWs had accumulated lots of supplies including civilian clothes, pack-sacs, camp stoves and food all stored in the tunnel all ready to go when the plan was executed. Detailed maps had been developed indicating the layout and route of the railway in the vicinity.
Two days leading up to the planned day of the escape on April 20th the weather was bad because it was an early spring and it was raining hard. The POWs realizing that the tunnel would not last and would collapse soon, decided to go early. Around bedtime at 8:00 pm the POWs routinely went to bed. About 9:00 pm they put the plan into action and secretly headed for the tunnel one at a time. However, an alert guard noticed something suspicious about what appeared to be a sleeping prisoner and discovered blankets and pillows stuffed into bedcovers to look like someone sleeping. The guards were then alerted to the escaped prisoners.
Meanwhile another guard on perimeter duty noticed a long suppression in the ground and realized it to be a tunnel and he alerts more guards. But 28 prisoners got out and escaped before the tunnel was closed off. This was the largest number that ever escaped from a POW camp.
The weather at this time turned into an extreme spring blizzard going from rain to snow. This left footprints in the snow for tracking them. The escapees broke into many different groups. The camp commander, Colonel Lindsay, contacted some native trackers from nearby reserves as well the Algonquin Regiment from Port Arthur and some RCMPs to help track down the escapees. Also contacted was H.E. Stethem, Canadian Director of Internment Operations for all 26 POW camps. He traveled by train from Toronto to Angler and instructed the tracking force to “use any force necessary” to recapture the prisoners.
Most of escapees lasted only two to three days before being apprehended. The bad weather defeated them to a great degree.
John went into some detail on just a few of the individual groups that escaped and how and what lead to their recapture. Several escapees were killed in the process. Following the escape there was in inquiry as to what happened. The result was that no one was found guilty of any wrong doing in the recapturing of the prisoners but the records were kept top secret until 1981.
John relayed some stories of particular POWs and their circumstances during their escape but only one escapee was not recaptured.
Following a Q&A Julian Sale thanked John Sneyd for his really interesting story of some little known Canadian history.
Next meeting: Thurs., March 21st with Matt Gowan on Health, Heart and Diabetes.