Wednesday, November 17, 2010

POW Camp Bowmanville

Originally built in the pre-WWII era as a school for "errant" boys, housing approximately 300 of them. Surrounded by farms, it seemed the perfect place to turn troublesome young boys, into responsible adults. Fate, it would seem, had something else in mind for these idyllic grounds.

When the war broke out in 1939, the Allies discovered that they needed a place to house their many German prisoners of war; a place where they would have difficulty escaping and possibly re-joining their former units. To meet these ends, the Canadian government built, or took over, many locations for use as POW camps. This location, officially known as Camp 30 at the time, was one of them.

The construction of the POW camp was fairly simplistic, all of the existing buildings were used. Wooden barracks, guard towers, and barbed wire fencing were all constructed. The outside perimiter security consisted of two 12-foot-high fences with electric lights every 12 feet and nine guard towers, topped off with approximately 60 miles of barbed wire. The size of the grounds is around 14-acres. Many of those original brick buildings are still standing today.

The camp served as home to German army officers from the Afrika Korps, fliers from the Luftwaffe, and Kriegsmarine officers. The new occupants were transferred from other POW camps at Neys, Fort Henry, Gravenhurst and Britain. In June 1942, the prisoner count was 487 officers, 21 midshipmen, and 135 other men of various rank. Those prisoners were guarded by a force headed by Lieutenant Colonel R.O. Bull M.C., consisting of a large support staff, the Veterans Guard of Canada, nine officers, and 239 other ranks.

By most accounts, things were fairly civil at the camp, barring one large, 3-day incident known simply as "The Battle of Bowmanville.

Lieutenant Colonel James Mason Taylor, Commandant of Camp 30 Bowmanville requested that General major Georg Friemel, the spokesman for the German POWs, have a group of prisoners volunteer to be shackled at about 12:30 PM on 10 October 1943. Friemel’s response was that none of the prisoners would volunteer. The senior German Army officer Generalleutnant Hans von Ravenstein, senior Luftwaffe officer Oberstleutnant Hans Hefele and senior naval officer Korvettenkapitän z.S. Otto Kretschmer were also requested to supply volunteers to be shackled – they declined.

Later that day the German prisoners did not show for roll call. Taylor called for reinforcements from Barriefield and Kingston, which are about 170 kilometers from Bowmanville. The guards at Bowmanville were reactivated WWI veterans called the Veterans Guard of Canada who were too old to fight in battle. They were men who were in their fifties and sixties and not physically capable of taking on the young men who outnumbered them. Although the guards had come to know the prisoners personally and were at ease with them, the prisoners now observed that there was an uneasiness about the guards as they no longer carried their weapons casually.

Lieutenant Colonel Taylor called in his officers and told them that 100 German officers were to be shackled – to use force if necessary. In a brick building that housed a large kitchen Kretschmer set up his resistance headquarters. About 150 officers and petty officers armed with sticks, iron bars, table legs, ketchup bottles, china and stones barricaded themselves inside the brick building. They were prepared for a long siege. In the other buildings similar preparations were being made. Kapitänleutnant Horst Elfe, commander U-93, recalls, “We were determined, but a little frightened too. We thought the Canadians would come in with machine guns and tear gas and grenades, because that is what would have happened in Europe. So we were shattered when we looked from our windows and saw the Canadians marching in with no guns, no gas just baseball bats over their shoulders.”

On Saturday 10 October a contingent of guards armed with rifles with fixed bayonets rushed the kitchen. Prior to the charge the Canadian officers had made a careful inspection to insure that the guards did not have any live ammunition. A pitched battle ensued at the doors and windows with the Canadian guards withdrawing, unable to penetrate the fortifications. The Germans had barricaded the doors and windows with mattresses and cardboard. The guards rushed one of the other buildings and were again beaten off. A third attack against the wooden barracks met with equal resistance. The battle went on for more than an hour. The guards brought axes attempting to chop their way through the fortified doors.

In a counter attack the POW’s exited the buildings and attacked the flanks of the guards with sticks and steel bars. Both sides suffered injuries consisting of broken bones, cracked heads and bloody noses. After a short rest the guards regrouped, attacking with high-pressure fire hoses. Water shot through the windows thoroughly dousing the prisoners. The guards gained a foothold, as the POW’s had no defense against the high-pressure water stream. The prisoners fought back until 6:00 PM. Exhausted, they finally surrendered.

The Germans who were barricaded in the basement of House 5 were forced to leave when the basement was flooded with the water from the fire hoses. As they exited Lieutenant G.E. Brent struck each POW on the head or face with his cane. The prisoners took no action as they were forced to run through a gauntlet of Canadian guards. However, they avowed to address the insult at another time.

Again Generalmajor Friemel was requested to hand over prisoners for shackling. He refused again. The hostilities ceased and by mutual agreement the prisoners returned to their barracks. The prisoners were assembled and Lieutenant Colonel Taylor informed them that he had sent for reinforcements, regular troops from a nearby army camp.

At approximately 7:45 PM, three officers and 50 enlisted men arrived. Taylor addressed the Veterans Guard and the 53 regular army reinforcements. Then the combined force of about 150 men entered the confines of the camp at 9:20 PM. A second convoy under the command of Captain Stevens from the Ordinance Training School arrived at 10:10 PM. Taylor assumed command of the new group and they entered the camp with fixed bayonets. Nothing happened as the POWs remained in their barracks. Taylor reported that everything was calm at 1:00 AM Sunday 11 October.

The large contingent of regular army troops was not expected to arrive until the morning of Monday 12 October. At about 5:20 AM, during a transfer of POWs to the Dutch farm, it was determined that two officers were missing and an “escape plan” was put into effect at 6:40 AM. At about the same time a shot was heard. A guard had taken a shot at the two escaping prisoners who were quickly captured at 7:15 AM.

During the early morning roll call Kretschmer advised the guards that it would be unwise for Lieutenant Brent to enter the compound until the ill feelings of the POWs had subsided. The POWs refused to turn out for the 7:30 AM roll call. Even though he had been warned, Brent entered the compound sometime before 9:00 AM and began walking around with an elderly guard who was well liked by the POW’s. The word spread quickly that Brent was in the camp. Brent and the guard walked around the corner of the House 4 to be confronted by Kretschmer who had been talking with Luftwaffe pilots Oberleutnant Erwin Moll and Major A. von Casimir.

As Brent turned around Kretschmer immediately punched him in the face. At this moment the guard pushed Moll aside and said, “You can’t do that!” trying to help Brent. Moll slugged the guard on the neck to take him out of the action and was immediately concerned that he had severely hurt the elderly guard who was now unconscious. Kretschmer knocked Brent to the ground and beat him soundly in retribution for the previous day’s indignity. They then dragged Brent into House 4. Oberfähnrich z.S. Volkmar König, who was the deck gun officer aboard U-99 with Kretschmer when it was sunk, observed Kretschmer rubbing his bruised knuckles as he entered and was ordered to tie up Brent. König tied Brent’s hands behind his back with strips of cloth. Brent was bleeding from the mouth and nose.

In the mean time the elderly guard recovered from the punch on the neck and gave the alarm. Kretschmer decided to mockingly march Brent to the gate. In doing so a tower-guard opened fire on the group and wounded König. When the rifle firing started Brent hit the dirt. The Germans jumped back inside the barracks leaving Brent behind as the rifle fire kicked up the dust and blew out fragments of masonry from the brick building. Once inside the barracks it was determined that König had received several wounds. They looked out the window just in time to see Brent making a dash for the gate. The remainder of the day was uneventful and König was sent to the hospital to have the masonry and bullet fragments removed and the bullet wound just above his left knee attended to.

On Monday morning, 12 October the regular army troops from Barriefield and Kingston arrived at 5:20 AM under the command of Major D.F. Adams. The young troops who had been undergoing commando training were eager for a little action. In battle dress that included WWI style broad rimmed-helmets, rifles with fixed-bayonets, clubs and fire hoses they stormed the barracks. Armed with fire axes, stones and hockey sticks Kretschmer and his crew, with pillows lashed to their heads, waited for the coming battle. The battle raged with the Germans’ first line of defense purposely giving way, retreating to the barracks.

The Canadians surged forward only to find themselves being attacked by prisoners hurling bricks from the roof of the barracks, forcing the Canadians to withdraw. With 400 troops the Canadians charged the barracks again caving in the doors and windows. The battle continued all afternoon with an ebb and flow. The battle took on the proportions of a medieval siege with the Canadian troops climbing ladders to reach the roofs of the barracks and the Germans repelling the invaders. Fortunately the Canadians had removed their bayonets and decided to physically subdue the Germans. The battle was over by early evening.”

After The War

When the war ended in 1945, all of the camp's prisoners were sent home and the site was returned to its previous use, as a boy's camp. It served this purpose until an undetermined time later, when it was no longer needed and shut down. To the best of my knowledge, the government still retained ownership of the property at this time.

Sometime later, the land and the buildings were rented out by the Peterborough, Northumberland, Clarington Catholic District School Board for use as a school. The grounds housed St. Stephens Secondary School and, for a brief time, St. Joseph's Elementary School.

In approximately 1999, St. Stephens left the property and moved into a new building a short distance away. It was at this time that Great Lakes College bought the land from the goverment, to be used as an international school for Asian immigrants. Students would come to the school to obtain Canadian highschool credits and go on to post-secondary education.

Bizarre Murder

Originally, Great Lakes College (Bowmanville Campus) was owned by a businessman named Thomas Ku. However, he was killed after a bungled kidnap and ransom attempt by two of his students, Zhiyang Suo and Feng Wang. They took him hostage as he was getting out of his car, at his Mississauga home, after visiting the school's campus. While their motive seems to be unclear, many students have complained about sub-standard services at the school, as well as not being offered services promised.

The land is currently sitting abandoned awaiting its fate. Many arson attempts have been made, and the town is attempting to restore it.