War prisoners face their own hell
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