The World War II battle they fought in Canada
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
Live hundred Germans took over the prisoner-of-war camp at Bowmanville, Ont., and defied their guards to come and gel them. The result: a club-swinging brawl that lasted for three days
Among the more bizarre incidents ot World War II was a battle that raged on and off for three days in Canada in October 1942. The scene was Camp 30. at Bowmanville. Ont. In this prisoner-of-war camp at the time were almost eight hundred captured Germans, six hundred of them officers, including more than two hundred members of Rommel’s Alrika Korps.
Guard duty was in the hands of the 2nd Company ot the Veterans Guard ot C anada, a formation organized during the war to tree younucr men tor overseas duty. Most ot the cuards were veterans ot World War I; some were partly disabled.
On the morning of October 10, 1942, the prisoners w'ere told that seventy ol them would be shackled in reprisal for the manacling of Canadian prisoners in Germany. In other camps, where similar shacklings were carried out. nothing beyond passive resistance was experienced. But it w'as soon clear that the tough fighters at Bowmanville would resist.
What followed was a brawl of heroic dimensions. five furious clashes over fifty hours or so, fought almost entirely with truncheons, bricks, hockey sticks, crockery, boots and fists. When the Germans had at last been subdued, and the prescribed number shackled, only one ptisoner had been hurt by gunfire.
Lieutenant-Colonel James Mason Taylor, MC, of the Veterans Guard of Canada, had just been appointed camp commandant. He was in a dilemma when the revolt began. I he Germans obviously couldn t win in the long run, but any measure used to subdue them that smacked of brutality would be a propaganda victory for Germany and a ready excuse tor maltreatment of Canadian prisoners.
Among the prisoners at Bowmanville, and high in prestige, was the strong-willed U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Otto Kretschmer, who now bosses the coastal defence lorce of the re-created West German navy. He masterminded the revolt.
Kretschmer had used his U-99 to destroy nearly 350.000 tons of Allied shipping before he was captured in March 1941, when his crippled sub sank in the North Atlantic.
Kretschmer was tough. At Grizedale Hall in Northumberland—a POW camp set up in England for especially troublesome prisoners—he
became, soon after capture, the senior German officer. And. contrary to the Geneva conventions, he organized courts of honor at which he and two other U-boat commanders tried fellow prisoners for offences committed both before and after capture. In one instance, his court convicted a German lieutenant for surrendering too readily and of failing to scuttle his ship. After the lieutenant tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. Kretschmer arranged for him to escape, with orders to go to Barrow-in-Furness. in Lancashire, and scuttle his captured U-boat, wffiich lay at anchor there.
When Kretschmer w'as told that the naval officer had been shot dead by Home Guardsmen w'hile he was running away, he show'cd no regret. For him. the war was total; there could be no compromise.
Kretschmer, w'ith the rest of the Grizedale Hall prisoners, was transferred to Bow'manville in May of 1942. Before that time the camp had been sparsely populated by Luftwaffe pilots and officers from the Afrika Korps.
Two dispirited German senior officers from North Africa were responsible for the orderly conduct of the prisoners, but they didn't prevent Kretschmer from gaining great influence. Officially he was not made camp spokesman until September of 1944. but unofficially he w-as aiw'ays a power behind the wire.
Former inmates say Kretschmer organized the collection of information from Canadian publications, which w'as relayed back to Germany by German officers repatriated by the International Red Cross. And he revived his illegal courts of honor. The commander of the surrendered U-boat that lay in Barrow-in-Furness was convicted of cowardice and barred from all games and training programs organized by the prisoners. No one spoke to him except in the course of duty. Members of the Canadian camp staff still remember the forlorn figure making his daily rounds behind the wire in solitude.
The trouble at the Bowmanville camp stemmed from a bitter political exchange between London and Berlin, one that threatened to undermine the international law governing the treatment of prisoners. The issue was an aftermath of Dieppe. Over the objections of the Canadian general who commanded the force, one part of the operations plan prescribed that
hands should be tied to keep prisoners from destroying documents. However, w'hile individual shacklings in case of necessity are permissible, blanket orders for tieing prisoners without specific reasons are ruled out by the Geneva conventions. When the Germans studied an order captured at Dieppe, they interpreted the instructions as a blanket order and threatened to place in chains all prisoners taken at Dieppe.
The British answered that if indeed a blanket order had been issued, it would be cancelled. The Germans then refrained from carrying out the proposed reprisals. A month later a small British force raided the Channel island of Sark: the hands of some captured Germans were tied out of necessity. The Germans now charged that the British had not adhered to their undertaking and announced that they were manacling a thousand prisoners taken at Dieppe. I he British felt obliged to reply in kind.
After some deliberation the Canadian government ordered that a number of German prisoners in Canada should be manacled until further notice. Bowmanville, one of the camps selected, w'as particularly suitable because the prisoners included a large number of officers from favored branches ot the services.
Thus on the morning of October 10, 1942. Colonel Taylor, the camp commandant, was handed a telegram telling him to segregate a certain number of German officers and other ranks and put them in handcuffs.
When the two senior officers from the Alrika Korps and Kretschmer were informed of the order, Kretschmer insisted that such an infringement on the prisoners’ rights could not be accepted. "I cannot obey, sir,” he replied with cold formality. "We shall resist force with force.”
He refused flatly to co-operate in any way and stated in writing that he would receive no communication from the camp commandant. Taylor said he felt then, and still feels, that the decision to shackle prisoners was unw'ise and achieved nothing.
That morning, however, the commandant had his orders. He informed Ottawa of the Germans’ attitude and requested permission to use force to bring out the required number of prisoners. The defense department replied that he should use his own discretion while avoiding any incident
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that would give Hitler an opportunity to accuse the Canadians of brutality.
Taylor decided to parade the camp and instruct the German leaders to select the required number of prisoners. By noon the guards had lost their easy bearing and carried their guns as though they were prepared to use them. The occasional exchange of good-natured banter across the wire had given way to a forbidding silence. Most of the prisoners had vanished inside their huts and the few that could be seen went sullenly about fljeir business.
It was a Saturday and guards who might normally have been looking forward to weekend leave paced the perimeter expectantly. The first challenge came at 3 p.m. Not one prisoner appeared on the parade ground for the customary roll call.
This left Taylor no choice. If he was to keep control of the camp, his orders had to be obeyed. Reinforcements would be needed and, indeed, were on the way, for the meeting at noon had left no doubt that only force could now subdue the prisoners.
Toward 8 p.m. a series of sharp commands crackled through the stillness as the main gate swung open and three officers and fifty men marched into the camp. They were young trainees from the Royal Canadian Ordnance Training Centre at Barriefield, the advance guard of several convoys.
The prisoners had locked and barricaded their doors and windows. Their huge kitchen, one of the few brick buildings, was organized as a resistance headquarters. Inside it three hundred prisoners—some armed with hockey sticks and makeshift clubs but most without weapons—stood ready to fight. A further hundred and fifty were barricaded in another building opposite the kitchen. Behind this front line of resistance, the rest of the prisoners lurked in their huts as a reserve force.
“The mood of the camp,” says Taylor, “was such that the smallest spark could have set off a massacre. The guards who went in first were under orders to handcuff the prisoners and use force to quell any resistance. The officers in charge were under orders to avoid any incident that could give rise to charges of brutality against the Canadian Army.”
The first foray against the rebellious prisoners was made shortly after the arrival of the group from Barriefield.
Armed partly with truncheons and partly with unloaded rifles, the young troops fought their way into No. 5 building. A pitched battle of swinging truncheons and flailing hockey sticks developed at each door and window. As the door was about to give way. the prisoners in the kitchen burst out anil attempted to counterattack. But at this moment the guards penetrated the other building and subdued its occupants. The kitchen force retreated behind their barricade. A number of German prisoners subdued in No. 5 building were taken away for segregation at the nearby Darch House farm.
In the meantime a second contingent of three officers and fifty men had arrived from Barriefield. They were immediately sent to assault the kitchen and dining hall. Half of them were armed with baseball bats or pick helves; the others followed with unloaded rifles and fixed bayonets. This was a wild affair and for over an hour the two forces hammered each other fist to fist, club against club, until in the end the superior arms —truncheons—compensated for the lack of numbers on the Canadian side.
For a time it seemed as though the troops would not be able to force their way through the barricade, but they finally smashed into the kitchen by using an old hydro pole as a battering ram against the main door. The prisoners threw dishes, sticks and stones at the Canadians. but when the attackers withdrew they took with them thirty-three prisoners. One Canadian officer, six other ranks and about a dozen prisoners had been injured.
A clash by searchlight
The next incident came at I o'clock the following morning. Colonel Taylor had sent in a small force of guards to inspect damage and report on the activities of the prisoners. They met an equally small force of Germans carrying fresh barricades for the kitchen. The Canadians veered away as though to avoid the building and direct contact, and then about-faced to make a surprise assault.
Armed guards in the watchtowers played searchlights over the scene, shouting warnings and advice to the Canadians. Unprepared for the attack, the Germans took a beating but neither side won a decisive victory. The Canadian officer called off his men. and a kind of truce prevailed for the rest of the night.
But there was no letup for the men of the Veterans Guard. They were responsible for preventing escapes from the camp. To help them, there was a tripwire, thirty yards inside the fence, mounted two feet from the ground. Any prisoner crossing the wire was considered an escaper. At 5.20 a.m. two Germans made a getaway from their temporary place of detention outside the wire, but they were soon recaptured.
Taylor's standing orders called for a roll call at 7.30 a.m. This Sunday the prisoners ignored the order. At 9 a.m. one of Taylor's staff officers. Lieutenant George Brent. MM, decided to find out for himself what the prisoners were planning.
Accompanied by a corporal, he strode through the gates into the compound. The pair striding toward the main huts invited attack—and it was not long in coming. They rounded a corner and found themselves confronted by Kretschmer and a group of naval officers.
The Germans didn't like Brent. I hey complained that during roll calls he would pass down a line of prisoners tapping each lightly on the head with his cane, and that he had struck a prisoner in
a dark cellar. Brent denied these reports. His appearance in the compound was, however, an ideal opportunity for the Germans to vent their resentment. At a cry from the leader, the group set upon the Canadians.
In a report to Taylor describing the assault Brent said: ”1 was slightly dazed by a blow from behind, struck twice with what seemed like a sandbag and knocked to the ground; there I was punched in the face, my arms pinioned behind me. and boots and hockey sticks were used. I was dragged to No. 4 building. being poked on the way, and put in a room and told to lie down.
"There I was told: 'Now you know what it means to strike an officer with a stick.' I asked for medical attention and they brought some surgical tape but it was not used. I was taken out of the building and walked toward the gate in full view of the sentries, who fired shots that appeared uncomfortably close. The grip on me was eased and I threw myself to the ground. The POWs fled."
A shot by one of the sentries hit a German lieutenant in the leg; he was the only man wounded by firearms during the battle. Brent managed to struggle through the gate. There he was helped by his corporal, who had been beaten by the Germans but subsequently ignored by them when they concentrated their attack on Brent.
No prisoners appeared for the count on Sunday, and at lunchtime those who had been taken away and shackled declared a hunger strike.
Taylor now issued an ultimatum: order was to be restored immediately or he would move in further reinforcements. The prisoners jeered. Clearly, the next step w'ould have to be decisive.
Reinforcements arrived late on Sunday evening and on Monday morning. There were now four hundred and eighty soldiers at the camp, apart from members of the Veterans Guard. About I I o'clock on Monday morning the camp commandant called in his officers and gave his orders. Four storming squads were selected. These men carried hardwood clubs. The rest were armed with unloaded rifles, bayonets fixed. About noon the whole force moved into the compound.
After an initial skirmish with clubwielding Germans drawn up on the main avenue of the camp, the Canadians settled down to the grim business of assaulting in succession each of the barricaded buildings in which the Germans had hoped to hold out for several days. The prisoners had plenty of ammunition— stones, slicks and bottles filled with sand or water. Bricks were thrown from the roofs at the helmeted attackers, and at almost every building the bayonet men following up had to help the assault squads after they had forced entry. Feeling ran high on both sides. The battle raged for more than six hours.
By 6 p.m. the battle of Bowmanville was over, and a mixed, sorry-looking procession of about eighty German officers and twenty Canadian soldiers paraded before the emergency first-aid station, now manned by doctors of both sides. At 10.15 p.m. a normal count of prisoners was made; it was slowed by the necessity of identifying the owners of bandaged faces.
The prescribed shackling had been carried out.
The sequel satisfied the honor of all. After only a few days the German officers at Darch House were placed in handcuffs for roll calls only. Canadians in German camps received similar treatment. ★