Digging up WWII

Between 1943 and 1945, about 400 German Afrika Korps soldiers captured in North Africa were housed at the Whitewater Lake internment camp (pictured circa 1943) where they worked on Canadian logging projects. (Courtesy of Parks Canada)

Student leads excavation of Canadian POW camp

World War II evokes images of Hitler, Hiroshima and Auschwitz – thousands of German prisoners of war (POWs) working in a Canadian logging camp figure less prominently in the popular imagination.

The history of these prisoners and one such POW camp is currently being uncovered by a team of researchers, led by Stanford Ph.D. student and archeologist Adrian Myers. Myers, researching for his dissertation, has returned to Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park this summer to examine and understand the lives of captured German soldiers sentenced to camps in rural Canada.

Between 1943 and 1945, the Whitewater Lake POW camp housed an estimated 400 soldiers from Germany’s Afrika Korps, the German expeditionary force that was defeated by the Allies in the Second Battle of El-Alamein in Egypt. The Allies’ victory in late Oct. 1942 resulted in the transportation of approximately 30,000 German POWs to Canada – including the 400 workers selected and transferred to the camp’s location in Riding Mountain National Park.

Concrete foundations in the remote Canadian Riding Mountain National Park are some of the last visual reminders of what used to be a bustling World War II prisoner of war camp in Manitoba, Canada. (Courtesy of Adrian Myers)

In stark contrast to the more notorious internment camps of the Second World War, the conditions at the Whitewater POW camp were decent, according to Myers. The captured soldiers worked on logging projects that helped supply Canadian homes with wood fuel, and unlike most camps, they actually volunteered to work at the Manitoba site.

“In general, Canada was pretty good. They treated the prisoners of war pretty well,” Myers said. “These prisoners of war actually volunteered to go to this camp where they would be working, so they knew what to expect: better conditions, better food… but they would be working.”

Today, little evidence of the life that existed there 70 years ago is discernible to an untrained eye. Much of the site’s contents were auctioned off after the war in an effort to obtain some much-needed money.

“When we got to the site in 2009, what’s left is not much if you don’t know what to look for,” Myers said.

The most apparent remnants at the camp are the concrete foundations for various buildings. Myers and his team are using topographic mapping to help them come up with a more detailed picture of the camp when it was in use in the 1940s.

“When you’re on the site walking around, you see humps and bumps but it’s hard to make it out with a naked eye,” Myers said. “But with the mapping we’re using, we end up with a 3-D layer of the topography of the site.”

In addition to the building foundations, the team of researches has found smaller items, including bottles, jars, ceramics, tin cans and even canoes, which were carved by the prisoners in their spare time and were meant to be used on one of the nearby lakes.

The project has generated significant attention from a variety of sources, with press coverage in both Archaeology Magazine and National Geographic.

“[Myers] is one of the leaders in what is called contemporary archeology” said Myers’ Ph.D. advisor, anthropology Professor Barbara Voss. “He’s really breaking new ground in thinking about how archeology can contribute to events that are still in living memory.”

Simon Fraser University undergraduate Jerram Ritchie helped Myers with the initial fieldwork in 2009 and returns as a field technician with the expanded research team this summer.

Stanford Ph.D. student Adrian Myers is piecing together the lives of German prisoners of war through recovered artifacts, such as the pictured ceramic mug. (Courtesy of Adrian Myers)

“You read about World War II, you don’t really think about German POWs being in national parks doing lumber work in Canada, so it seemed like a pretty unique thing,” Ritchie said. “When I was given the opportunity, I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

This unique nature of the camp as well as the historical importance of that time period helps cultivate the interest surrounding Myers’ work. Myers believes that there is more to learn from the devastating war.

“The Second World War is one of the single most significant events in recent memory,” he said. “The outcome of the Second World War has affected geopolitics around the world.”

Voss agreed that in addition to World War II’s temporal immediacy, its ongoing relevance and moral saliency provide compelling reasons for the importance of this project.

“The phenomenon of Nazism still strikes deep emotional currents, and the specter of genocide has not disappeared,” she said. “I think [Myers] is bringing attention to aspects of World War II that many people – myself included – were not aware of. It gives us a more complex picture of what the home front of the U.S. and Canada was like.”

  • Tully Pettigrew

    Prisoners of War are not ‘sentenced’.

  • M.Hopkins

    There also was a camp in Minnesota at Whitewater State Park, S.E. part of state.

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