War pris­on­ers face their own hell

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Julie Kent­ner

MORE than 10,000 Cana­di­ans were held as pris­on­ers of war in Ger­many be­tween 1939 and 1945. While the war was over for them, their strug­gles were only just be­gin­ning. Ter­ri­ble food, cruel treat­ment and ill­ness af­fected thou­sands of men, and some of their sto­ries have never been told. In The For­got­ten, Ot­tawa-based mil­i­tary his­to­rian Nathan M. Green­field (au­thor the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Award fi­nal­ist The Damned) uses in­ter­views with sur­vivors, in­for­ma­tion from let­ters or tele­grams and mil­i­tary records to bring to­gether a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of sto­ries about 59 Cana­dian pris­on­ers. In­stead of telling each in­di­vid­ual’s story over time, Green­field chooses to tell each story within the con­text of the war. He be­lieves this pro­vides a deeper, more emo­tional telling of each man’s story, while al­low­ing him to chart the his­tory of the war only once, rather than over and over again. At the start, the jump­ing back and forth be­tween the sto­ries makes it harder to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with the sub­jects. But Green­field’s spare yet emo­tional style helps con­vey their story with em­pa­thy, and the reader’s con­nec­tion be­comes eas­ier. The book starts with the cap­ture of Canada’s first pris­oner of war, RAF pi­lot Al­fred “Tommy” Thomp­son, in early Septem­ber 1939. Fol­low­ing the chronol­ogy of the war, Green­field adds other men’s sto­ries, such as mer­chant sea­man Pre­ston Ross, cap­tured when his ship­ping boat was sunk in the North Sea. Also pro­filed is Fa­ther Barsa­lou, one of 17 French-Cana­dian priests and broth­ers cap­tured by the Ger­mans when their ship was sunk en route to a planned mis­sion­ary post in South Africa, and RCAF pi­lot Brian Hodgkin­son from Win­nipeg, who was cap­tured in late 1941 when his Spit­fire was shot down over Calais. Sev­eral new pris­on­ers are in­tro­duced in 1942, most taken into cus­tody af­ter the dis­as­ter at Dieppe. In all the camps, there was hard­ship and suf­fer­ing. The cold, the poor ra­tions (much of the bread was made with saw­dust rather than flour) and the hor­ri­ble liv­ing con­di­tions are men­tioned over and over again. Some men man­aged to es­cape, only to be re­cap­tured.

It’s the de­tails Green­field shares that are the most fas­ci­nat­ing. In some camps early on in the war, pris­on­ers “could take cour­ses from Ox­ford or McGill. The Red Cross ar­ranged for their ex­ams to be proc­tored by lo­cal Ger­man pro­fes­sors.” Oth­ers be­came ob­sessed with cards, play­ing game af­ter game to al­le­vi­ate the bore­dom. Some of the men fea­tured were in Sta­lag Luft III, the camp made fa­mous by the Hol­ly­wood film The Great Es­cape. The sto­ries of some of the oth­ers are less fa­mil­iar, but also tell of the hard­ships faced by the pris­on­ers of war. Green­field high­lights the hu­man­ity and kind­ness of those brave enough to care for the pris­on­ers and help them es­cape is high­lighted, but he doesn’t shy away from the in­hu­man­ity of those who be­trayed pris­on­ers or the guards that made their life hell in the prison camps.

Julie Kent­ner is a Win­nipeg writer.

The For­got­ten Cana­dian POWs, Es­ca­pers and Evaders in Europe, 1939-45 By Nathan M. Green­field HarperCollins, 400 pages, $35

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