Discovering Manitoba

Riding Mountain's Prisoner or War Camp

Remembering when prisoners were held in this placid place.

This year marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day and for many it brings back a rush of memories about the Second World War. D-Day was the tipping point for the war when thousands of Canadian, British and American troops hit the beaches at Normandy on June 6, 1944, beginning the long march to victory after five heartbreaking years for Canadian and British forces. During those years, thousands of Canadian soldiers died alongside the millions of Europeans who lost their lives in the conflict. Emotions ran high, fuelled by fear and anger.

One of the products of war is prisoners and over 30,000 German prisoners of war were sent to Canada, housed in 25 sites across the nation. Whitewater Lake in Riding Mountain National Park was the location of one of these camps. Over the period, it housed between 400 and 500 prisoners, most of them captured in Northern Africa.

For the German prisoners of war, if you had to be sent anywhere, the Whitewater Lake camp was probably one of the most desirable places to go. It was a minimum-security camp that had no fences and there was ample if not exciting food as the prisoners raised pigs to supplement their diet. In all, the camp consisted of about 15 buildings, including bunkhouses, a dining hall and kitchen, a blacksmith shop and a small hospital. All were dismantled when the camp closed.

The POWs were put to work cutting cordwood from the nearby hills to keep the home fires burning. Some of the prisoners were sent to fight forest fires or fix downed telephone lines. A few were billeted with farmers in return for their labour. They were paid 50 cents a day.

Boredom was relieved by putting on concerts and organizing sports tournaments. It is said that some POWs fraternized with the local girls and, certainly, some of the younger ones were welcomed at nearby community dances.

Another amusement was wood-carving and one of the projects was the construction of dugout canoes, chiselled out of a single tree from one of the giant white spruce that grew in the area. There are still remnants of their efforts at the site today. The camp operated from 1943 until it was closed down in November, 1945.

Today, visitors to Riding Mountain National Park can explore what remains of the former camp. The Friends of Riding Mountain National Park will stage three exciting tours this summer on June 27, July 18 and Sept. 6.

Visitors get to experience what it was like to arrive at the camp via horse drawn wagon, accompanied by costumed guards and “prisoners”, who mingle with the tourists telling them what it’s like living in the camp. Expect a few surprises along the way. For more information, contact George Hartlen, executive director,  Friends of Riding Mountain National Park at (204) 848-4037 or visit www.friendsofridingmountain.ca.

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