Nov 9, 2012

POW Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, Alberta

It depends on who you talk to, but there are many people (including a surprising amount of locals) who aren't aware that Medicine Hat, Alberta was home to a prisoner of war camp during World War II. Located at the site of what is now the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede grounds, Camp 132 (officially known as the Medicine Hat Prisoner of War Facility) wasn't just any camp. This facility in Medicine Hat was one of the largest P.O.W. camps in North America and saw thousands of Nazi prisoners brought to this remote corner of southeast Alberta.

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

Opened in 1943, Medicine Hat's Camp 132 spanned 50 hectares and was capable of holding over 12,000 prisoners. This is especially incredible when you realize that the population of Medicine Hat in 1943 was about the same. With Britain fearful of a German invasion, they sent over 37,000 prisoners of war to remote camps across Canada - the two largest of which were located in the province of Alberta in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. 

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
Many of the P.O.W.'s were able to work outside of the camp doing farm labour and assisting local businesses. Medalta Potteries was one of the factories noted for their role in employing P.O.W.'s from Camp 132. Despite these agreements, there were still conflicts inside the camp between hard-line Nazis and lesser members of the SS. Two prisoners were murdered here at the hands of fellow inmates for speaking out against Nazism and Hitler. With such a large inmate population, much of the camp still operated under the hierarchy of the officers.

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
German Prisoners of War at Camp #132.
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
Treatment of inmates from the guards within the camp was fair, and some of the inmates even returned to Medicine Hat after the war because they found the conditions and opportunity favorable. Many of the P.O.W.s who worked the fields developed a close bond with the families who were desperate for strong farm hands during these years. Naturally, many of these relationships carried on after the war had ended.

With exception to the armoury, today the most recognizable remnant of Camp 132 is the drill hall (also known as Rhine Hall). Visible in a number of the archival images posted below, I enjoyed photographing this location with glimpses of the prison camp in mind. Rhine Hall now holds commercial booths every year during the Exhibition and Stampede. 

Camp 132 officially ceased operations in 1946 and its buildings were sold off or dismantled in the years that followed. The contrast between this location today and what it was like in the 1940s is massive - not least of which because the city has since grown around and beyond what would've been a secluded area back then. Despite the decades gone by, there's no question that the story of Medicine Hat's P.O.W. camp remains a captivating point in our local and provincial history.  

View more archival images of POW Camp 132 here.

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta Archival
POW Camp #132 ca. 1940s

Drill Hall POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp #132 canteen tickets.
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
Hockey game at POW Camp #132.
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
POW Camp #132 ca. 1940s

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
German Prisoners of War at Camp #132.

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
POW Camp #132 ca. 1940s

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta

POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta
POW Camp 132 Medicine Hat Alberta


Anonymous said...

This is fantastic Luke. I've always been fascinated by this too. Our community is so rich in historical stories, one could write complete movie scripts based on many things that have happened here. I enjoyed revisiting this through your lens! Great work.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this, Luke! Now I have an idea on what I had only known through stories.
My grandfather used to be in the camp as a POW and always talked very highly about the time he had to spend there.
He is 91 now and still has tears in his eyes when he speaks of those times...
I will show him your pictures!
Susanne (from Germany)

Vivien said...

Hi Luke - we just came across 14 drawings, many from camp 132 with one drawing having a name and date. I would love to contact "Suzanne from Germany" who posted a comment and get more information. We are just starting to learn about this place via the drawings so our knowledge is limited but ..... we would like to add anything possible to the history. You can contact me through my webiste,

Collin Howie said...

Hi Luke, My grandfather was a guard at this camp. He was a tailor by trade and taught many of the POW's those skills. It's ironic that he was a POW in WW 1 and barely survived from starvation but as a guard in WW 2 held no animosity and befriended many of the prisoners Thanks for sharing the pictures.

Edna said...

After the camp closed, many of the buildings were sold. My father bought one of the pow barracks and moved it onto our farm located 14 miles south of Medicine Hat. The building was split with 2/3's becoming the barn and the other 1/3'd across the yard was put onto a basement. A porch was added, the exterior stuccoed and that was the home where I grew up. The buildings are still there. The barn was always green even though Dad wanted to paint it red, there was never enough time in the summer to tackle that large project.

Shannon said...

Hi Luke, in your article you state that the only remnant left from the POW camp is the drill hall located in the fair grounds. well just to let you know that Patterson Armoury which is located behind the fair ground off of Cuyler Rd is also one of the buildings used during that time. It was the entertainment hall where prisoners would put on plays and such, the stage was only removed in 2007 to make room for new office space, you can still see some of the tackle that was used for curtains and props. The Armoury has been the home of the South Alberta light Horse Army Reserve unit since the 60's and we have a museum which tells the story of Medicine Hat's military history which dates back to the louis riel rebellion and includes the POW camp. Viewing of the museum is by appointment only but If you or anyone else would like to visit please call us at 503 504 3775 and ask for Major Scott Payne.

Cheers Doug Fode

rjp4121 said...

Very father was at the Medicine Hat camp and he spoke of how 10000 prisoners levelled a large hill in the middle of the camp with picks and shovels. He was later transferred to Lethbridge and was in charge of organizing prisoners to work on area farms. After the war he returned to Vauxhall to work on a farm there. We eventually settled in Creston BC where our neighbour was a guard at the Lethbridge camp..they became great friends.
R. J. Pelzmann

Unknown said...

My father in law was a guard at this camp. He had said that the majority of the sailors off of the battleship Bismark were intermed there. We have a few items that he had recieved from the prisoners there. One of there was a model of the Bismark that was constructed from wood and built inside a listerine bottle.

Jack Dawkins said...

Many years ago in the early 70's when my family was stationed at Canadian Forces Base Baden in Germany, I clearly remember walking the 2km home from the school bus stop in the village I lived in. On this particular day, an older German gentleman caught up to me as I strolled & started speaking in very broken English.

I was 11 or 12 and spoke German fairly well.

Between his broken English and my pre-teen mastery of German, he first verified that I was Canadian, then he explained that he'd been a prisoner of war in Medicine Hat, Alberta. He went on to say how wonderful it was, how he'll always remember the kindness of the people in the surrounding areas, etc.

At the time I remember thinking "Cool. Goofy old guy was in Canada & liked it." and that was about it.

Now being somewhat older, wiser, and more curious about the world around me, I would love to have an opportunity to sit and talk with an actual ex-nazi POW and here about the war from his perspective.

I was such a dumb pre-teen. What an opportunity blown.

Sherry said...

We have a building from the pow camp as well and it is still standing. It was their freezer building, and it was moved to just north of the airport.

Abfireguy said...

Thank you Luke for sharing this fascinating piece of Medicine Hats history. My father often talked about this camp and how friendly the pow’s were to the local residents. My father was stationed in Medicine Hat with the British Royal Air Force which I’m certain not many residents know they trained RAF pilots here with the 34 Service Flying Training School. There is a wonderful dedication to these brave men and women located at the MH Airport.

Al Gribbin said...

In response to Steven Parragh's comment, I am also in possession of a wooden Bismarck battleship signed by one of the ships survivors. I understand that it comes from the Medicine Hat POW camp. The POW's name was Gerhard Raatz. I wonder if anyone has any information on Gerhard or his family? I would like to be able to pass along photo's of the ship as it is beautifully made.

Unknown said...

Thank you for these interesting photos, which unfortunately I have only found now.
My grandpa was in captivity in Medicine Hat and gave me a great book from that time there.
Unfortunately I cannot post photos of it here.
But I want to tell a short story about his way to captivity in Canada here.

Unknown said...

Hello everybody,
I'm also researching my grandfather Arthur Bilski's captivity in Canada.
The reason for this is that I now received a book from his captivity in Canada from my mother after my father's death.
So I'm the grandson of Arthur Bilski.
He was a POW in Canada in Medicine Hat, camp 132.
That is what it says in his 30-page illustrated book.
Furthermore, there is K.G.N. 562443 / department F. / hut 3 / room 11
Later he made many entries by hand.
There are many poems and thoughts about home and his wife, i.e. my grandma Marie.
Also when he wrote and received letters.
Ultimately, it also tells when, where and how he was captured.
He was captured on August 30, 1944 in Vizelon near Les-Andelies (France) after his group was wiped out by English tanks, he writes.
Until 12.09.1944 he went through 5 prison camps, where interrogations were repeated.
Then embarkation for England / Southampton, arrival there on 13.09.1944.
Onward transport by train to a suburb of London.
On September 14, 1944, the prisoners were de-loused and the train continued to Scotland.
Here, during another search, the pay book and other small belongings were taken from him.
Then continue by train towards Glasgow.
Here you get a duffel bag, shirt, clothes, soap and toothbrush.
He praised the food very much!
On September 22, 1944, he noted the continuation of the train journey to the port.
Now they are loaded into 500 steamers in small steamers and then disembarked for the large troop transporter.
It is a French ship and is called "Ille de France".
There were now 3,000 men on the ship.
On September 28, 1944 there was another health inspection on the ship, he writes.
The arrival in Halifax-Canada took place on September 30th, 1944.
We disembarked at 9:00 a.m.
From here on the train continued through the burned forest.
There were blankets and enough good food on the train.
Until October 2, 1944 the train ran through a lot of forest, he writes, then arable land comes with a lot of farming.
You see Indians for the first time in life.
Then on 04.10.1944 the arrival at the main camp.
That was the short version of how my grandpa came to Canada as a prisoner of war.
He didn't tell much about time, but only good things about Canada.
He specifically praised how well they were treated and cared for.

Unknown said...

Part 2
My grandpa was also a hardworking man, a trained gardener and he worked there on a farm in Canada.
And very happy.
His chief farmer wanted him to stay there after the war and when he was released.
My grandfather also wanted to emigrate, but his wife Marie, my grandmother, did not take part.
So he got stuck in East Germany, that's how life races happen ... written by life.

I've always found all of this extremely interesting and I'm now looking for more from this time.
Unfortunately there is not much, or very little, on the Internet about these camps in Canada.
And unfortunately the contemporary witnesses are becoming less and less….
Maybe someone can help me here?
A little note at the end:
In 1995 I was in Canada with my wife.
We landed in Toronto and at the airport there was a large picture exhibition on the 50th anniversary at the end of World War II.
In one photo we saw my grandfather as a soldier in a prisoner train.
Unfortunately we didn't have a camera on hand and I still complain about it today.

Kind regards from Calbe near Magdeburg

Unknown said...

My Father was a guard and mechanic at this camp. he would travel to all the guard towers to let each one know of a escape. he was friendly with the prisoners bringing home to show us a sailboat one of the prisoners made and put inside a bottle.
he also used to travel to Halifax to pick up another train load of prisoners which is when he reached the Union Station in Toronto he was able come home once per year before heading to Halifax.

Unknown said...

Ian Spencer
My father, Wilfred (Bill) Spencer was a guard at Medicine Hat POW Camp in WW2.
By any chance would anybody have information on him ?
He was born in 1890, so would have been in his early 50's during his service at the camp, he died in 1965.
Originally from Durham England, after serving in the WW1 with the Royal Artillary, he emmigrated to Canada and became a Canadian Citizen and volunteered for service in WW2.
He returned to the UK in the late 1940's, cirac 1947-48.
I was born in Halifax Yorkshire in 1950.
Bill Spencer died in 1965 in Halifax Yorkshire.

Lachouette said...

My grand father, Leo Dietz was a guard at the Lethbridge camp.he was young and spoke German. Goos relationship between guards and prisoners.

Lachouette said...

Thank you for putting so much efforts.
I came across an interesting article: The Royal Alberta Museum has acquired more than 1,000 prisoner of war-related objects from a retired RCMP officer who spent more than 40 years collecting the items.

ThomasK said...

My grandfather was a POW in Medicine Hat and it sounds like he might have been on the same transport as Thomas' grandfather in the other comments.

My grandfather was with the 8.8 cm Flak and was captured on 02.09.1944 in Gent/Antwerp, Belgium. I know from his stories that he was transported to London, they were interred in Wembley Stadion for a bit and then went on to Glasgow by train. From there he sailed to Halifax, and he had mentioned he thought the ship was the Ille de France.
Then on by train to Medicine Hat.

My grandfather said he was shocked by the (informal) camp commander wearing full SS uniform and insignia, and that internally the camp actually was run by German SS officers. He said they were treated exceptionally well - and while they did not have enough food in the German forces, they had so much food in the POW camp that they asked for less but still got so much that they ended up in food fights.
Treatment through Canadians (or other Allied soldiers) was extremely well but you had to be careful with the German officers. They were not allowed to mention in letters how well they were, or they would be severly punished by the German officers for destructing morale back in Germany.
He literally recalled they had to write "mir geht es den Umständen entsprechend gut" which means "I'm well according to the circumstances".
He was later transferred to the UK and worked on a form for approximately two more years, where he worked hard and settled in - so much that the childless farmer had even asked him to stay and take over the farm.

In general, my grandfather spoke very well about his captivity, with only minor exceptions - and that finally in Sep 44 for him the nightmare and chaos was over. The summer of 44 was intense and chaotic, and communication to his family had been interrupted for several months. His father was more than relieved to get the POW notification card by mail since it was the first sign of life in more than six months if I recall correctly.

Unfortunately my grandfather already passeed away when I was 14, but before that he shared lots of memories that I keep as treasure. It's a story of trying to avoid getting drafted, ending up in Russia as pioneer and seeing all the horrors of warfare in the Russian Winter. Years of cheating his way through the German forces, trying to stay under the radar and to survive. Literally dodging the bullet many times, being both enemy as well as friendly bullets because trying to survive meant permanent danger of getting court martialed and shot for cowardness.