Wednesday, March 25, 2015

World War Wednesdays: WWII German Prisoners of War... In Elgin County?!

World War Wednesdays: WWII German Prisoners of War... In Elgin County?!
A soccer team of German POWs in Canada, courtesy of the Canadian War Museum
     Hold onto your hats! This week's story seems so unbelievable to me. Researching local Second World War history has unearthed some crazy stories, and this is definitely one of them!
     The vast majority of local history pursuits I undertake start from little tidbits I hear amongst people's stories (usually my grandpa), which make me want to run to the archives and get the full scoop! I remember hearing a while ago that  groups of German Prisoners of War (POWs) came to work on local farms, and that a number of these men ultimately decided that they liked it so much in Elgin County that they stayed (of course, it wasn't hard to see what a great place Elgin County is to call home!) When I was at Library and Archives Canada the other day I came across a book written by Winston St Clair which included an interesting section on how the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School at Fingal was used to house these POWs, and how this affected the surrounding area.
     In March and April 1945, after the School had been officially shut down following the end of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, the potential of POW labour for Elgin County was raised frequently in the local newspapers. On 10 March, The St. Thomas Times-Journal published a story which stated that the county would be receiving such assistance. Another story in that paper from 6 June announced that POW help would be available after 15 June and that the men would be housed at the Fingal RCAF station.
     The cost to the farmer would be thirty-five cents per hour per man, in minimum groups of five. The farmer could receive the men at Fingal, or they could be delivered to the farm at a cost of forty cents per POW, per day. They would be guarded at all times and both the POWs and guards would bring their own lunches.
     Of course, this idea was not entirely welcomed since many people imagined the camp to be filled with hardened Nazis ready to rape and pillage their way through the township. In actuality, the prisoners who were sent for agricultural work were classified into security colours of "white" or "gray". These men were for the most part non-combative with no desire to escape into a strange and hostile land. Given the conditions in Germany at the time it is probable that their only desire was to return to find their loved ones alive. It is also probable that less anxiety would have been related to the topic if the media had used the proper term "POW Hostel" to describe the Fingal facility instead of "POW Camp". The Hostel was intended to host up to 150 POWs.
     On 4 July, two Army Officers and thirty-five members of the Veterans Guard reported to Fingal for guard duty, and ten days later a group of 107 prisoners arrived. By the end of the month, fifty more prisoners arrived. The farmers were generally satisfied with their work, and the only complaint was of a bureaucratic nature (the farmers were not completing the necessary paperwork). By mid-August, the guards at Fingal contained some WWII veterans and recently-trained soldiers.
     The POWs were supposed to have been returned to their permanent camp at the end of the fall harvest season, but Daily Diary records indicate that this was not entirely the case, as a prisoner was killed by a truck while performing maintenance work on the station in March of 1946. In April, the Elgin County farmers awaited news on the possibility of POW labour before deciding whether or not to plant sugar beets. They considered the POWs to be reliable and experienced workers and the Germans preferred farm work to the industrial labour which would have been required of them in the United Kingdom. In early May, the Department of Labour advertised in the papers that POWs would again be available.
     In June, the Army assumed control over the Fingal Hostel. However, before this was made official, the Department of Labour assumed control of the facility. Although the POW agricultural labour project had been successful, the United Kingdom (which actually "owned" the prisoners) requested that they be returned for industrial work. The German POWs then left Fingal in late 1946.
     To me, this story symbolizes the remarkable idea of looking past political and ideological differences and collaborating in a way that benefits everyone. The farmers received a helping hand when demand was high and help was scarce, and the prisoners were able to experience all the bounty that Elgin County had to offer. I'm sure that a number of families' stories became intertwined with these workers, and their interactions not only influenced perspectives at the time, but even up to the present day.
Credit and recognition for the material used in this blog go to Winston St. Clair, "What Place Was This?"
Thanks for reading,

No comments: