By Darren Arndt
In a back corner of Woodland Cemetery in Kitchener, there are 187 graves of German Prisoners-of-War who died while in captivity in Canada during the two World Wars. I have photographed each one and uploaded them to finadagrave.com.
Click here to view the graves.
The area is marked with a large stone cross, flag poles, a stone entrance way, and a plaque, which reads:
IN THIS CEMETERY SECTION REST
187 GERMAN WAR DEAD
1914 - 18 + 1939-45
THEY WERE BROUGHT TOGETHER IN 1970 FROM 36
LOCATIONS ACROSS CANADA
In the back corner, there is a small stone alcove where two wooden markers from the Gravenhurst POW camp are preserved, both of which were carved by fellow POWs; One is for Erich Ertz and the other for Major Wilhelm Bach.
Of the 187 graves, I count 39 that date from World War 1. I've found no additional information about any of these soldiers from the Great War.
However, there is considerably more information available about the World War 2 German POWs in Canada. As part of the war effort, Canada accepted about 40,000 German prisoners and detained them in camps from New Brunswick to Alberta. The two largest camps were in Alberta, housing about 12,000 prisoners each. Life for the POWs was reasonably pleasant (as far as prison goes), especially compared to what Canadian POWs experienced in Germany. A number of camps in northern Ontario paid the prisoners a small wage to work as loggers and some in rural communities worked as farm hands.
Many camps were intentionally placed in remote areas to discourage escapes. While escape attempts were still made, only one POW made it back to Germany. On Jan. 21, 1941, Luftwaffe pilot Franz von Werra escaped from the train taking him to his POW camp in northern Ontario. He swam the freezing St. Lawrence River, reached the German consulate in the U.S., and continued to Mexico. He was given a hero's welcome in Germany, but died 7 months later when his plane disappeared over the North Sea.
In the winter of 1941, the largest escape in Canada occurred when 28 POWs got out from the Angler camp in northern Ontario through a tunnel. Most were recaptured soon after, but a few got as far as Alberta before being caught. Five others were recaptured in a road construction site which resulted in the guards shooting four of them, two being killed. Herbert Löffelmeier and Alfred Miethling were the only two POWs in Canada to be killed while escaping. They survived the sinking of their u-boat U-31 but did not survive their imprisonment.
If only two were killed while escaping, what of the other 146 WW2 POWs who are buried here? How did they die?
Amazingly, two were murdered by fellow POWs in the Medicine Hat Camp 132 for expressing anti-Nazi sentiment. August Plazsick and Dr. Karl Lehmann were the unfortunate victims. The RCMP investigated and brought charges in a civilian court. After the trials, Werner Schwalb was hung for Plaszick's murder, and four were hanged for Lehmann's murder: Heinrich Busch, Willi Müller, Bruno Perzonowsky, and Walter Wolf. Both the victims and the murderers now lie together in this cemetery.
Some POWs died from the wounds they received in battle, such as Herbert Wio. He sustained head wounds in North Africa, but died after arriving in Canada.
Some POW deaths were from natural causes. Cancer claimed Major Wilhelm Bach, the most decorated soldier buried here. Erwin Rommel personally awarded him the Knight's Cross. Bach courageously defended the Halfaya Pass in North Africa before having his supply lines cut, which forced his surrender. (You can read more of his story at afrikakorps.org.)
A couple POWs died from the harsh Canadian winter. Wolfgang Bergter and Erwin Stöckl left their camp in northern Ontario in November 1944 and never returned. Some think they were escaping, but more likely they were going for a hike in the woods, which was a common activity during their free time. They apparently got lost and froze to death. Their bodies were discovered the following spring by the Ontario Provincial Police.
I have found one reference to a POW suicide in an Alberta camp, but have not been able to connect a name. I suspect it was not the only POW suicide.
There is even an instance of a POW who drowned while canoeing in northern Ontario in May 1945. Heinrich Kühneweg's body was never found, and he has no tombstone in this cemetery, despite being a German POW who died in Canada.
The WW2 soldiers buried here represent a varied cross-section of the German military. They are Luftwaffe pilots and bomber crews who bailed out of their planes over England, U-boat sailors who survived the sinking of their boats in the North Atlantic, and infantry captured in the desert battles of North Africa. They are officers and privates, engineers and cavalrymen. They are youngsters, like 18-year-old Walter Hagan, and some not-so-youngsters like 70-year-old Heinrich Burmeister. Some followed Hitler willingly, and others were forced to follow him. All of them lost their lives as a result.
This little cemetery is just one more testament to the terrible cost of war.
Copyright © 2009 by Darren Arndt