UPDATE: About 2 weeks after writing this article, Camp 30 was declared a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Bowmanville POW camp also known as Camp 30 was a Canadian-run POW camp for German soldiers during World War II located in the community of Bowmanville, Ontario in Clarington, Ontario, Canada. In September 2013, the camp was designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
CAMP 30: A VARIED HISTORY
Not only is this supposed to be the last Nazi POW Camp left standing (though it is indeed ‘crippled’), it was the first of its kind, and was the only one used by Allies to house high-ranking Nazi officers captured during World War II.
The site was chosen in part for its proximity to Camp X.
Originally developed as a boys reform school in 1925 (where, by all accounts, many atrocities were committed against the youth), the space was made to house approximately 300 young boys, and as such was cramped for the almost 1,000 full grown officers that would temporarily call Camp 30 home.
Beds were too short, the cafeteria too small (they ate in shifts), and many conveniences (some toilets, sinks, dorms, counters) were inconveniently ‘child size’.
After its POW history in the 1940’s, it was converted a few times for a variety of primarily educational uses.
St. Stephens High School (where many of my childhood friends attended classes) functioned here for many years, along with a variety of private schools including the Great Lakes College of Toronto, whose owner Thomas Ku was murdered by a student.
The buildings were abandoned in 2008, after the Islamic School that operated here closed its doors. The buildings have suffered much vandal damage since.
German army officers from the Afrika Korps, fliers from the Luftwaffe and naval officers from the Kriegsmarine were residents at Camp 30.
Among the German officers transferred from England to Bowmanville was Korvettenkapitän Otto Kretschmer, who was the top U-boat ace of World War II. Kretschmer assumed the duties of the senior naval officer, sharing the command with the senior Luftwaffe officer Oberstleutnant Hans Hefele and the senior army officer General Leutnant Hans von Ravenstein.
It was felt that Bowmanville was a perfect location to house the dangerous high ranking Nazis – far enough away from Europe and the bulk of the fighting, and in a rural location far enough away from the major centres of southern Ontario and Quebec.
Placing them here rendered them essentially ‘worthless’ to the war effort. That was seen as a great victory.
A COMFORTABLE LIFE
By all accounts, life at Camp 30 was comfortable. Shortly after arrival, the prisoners created gardens and had a pool and recreation centre built specifically for them.
They had lecturers come in from the University of Toronto to hold classes. They entertained themselves with puppet shows and theatrical events, and were able to make purchases with money sent from home or earned making furniture and other items on site – money that they spent on alcohol, cigarettes and items from the Eaton’s catalogue.
Run like a five-star hotel with luxuries that included an indoor swimming pool, theatre and concert stage, the camp’s true purpose was given away only by the barbed wire around it.
The occupants had one complaint, which they made to the Red Cross – the urinals were too low.
The prisoners even ran a newspaper from the Camp, and were allowed offsite to downhill ski and swim in lake Ontario.
Some of the former German Nazis recall feeling a sense of guilt for their idleness. They wanted to return to war. Others stated they were happiest at the Camp, knowing they would return safely (alive) to their homes and families when the time came.
A Luftwaffe pilot who spent time there later wrote;
“I am convinced that nowhere in the world did prisoners of war have better housing, better food, better recreation facilities, better educational opportunities, and above all, fairer treatment, than in Canada.”
There appear to be no recorded accounts of horrible living conditions, or unfair treatment here. After the war ended, many former POW’s returned. They relocated their own families and friends to the town they had grown fond of, and that had grown fond of them.
Many locals were surprised to find the Germans very polite and soft spoken. They too had been victims of WWII propaganda and were expecting to be inundated by evil monsters – not puppeteers and gardeners.
ESCAPE FROM CAMP 30
There are a few detailed accounts of escape attempts from Camp 30. Though life may have been cushy, the residents did not forget they were captive.
One attempt tells of an experience that ended with the escaping German Commander finding a local farm and asking to be taken back to Camp 30, where he said he was ‘provided a comfortable life’.
Many similar half hearted escapes of this nature (that end in asking a local to drive them back) have also been reported.
Pushed by Hitler himself to retrieve his favourite U-Boat Commanders, this attempt was known about and watched by authorities, in hopes of capturing another U-boat (& its crew) off the east coast of Canada.
The POW’s spent a long time trying to dig as far as they could (with tin cans!) in the direction of the St. Lawrence – where Hitler was to have his rescue team waiting. They ended up rising in farmland, not far from Lake Ontario.
When they surfaced, they were expected to walk, and jump trains for more than 1,400 km to the furthest reaches of the east coast to be met by said U-Boat.
Extensive tunnels were dug during this epic break out attempt, and nearly 70 years later, hidden dirt piles from the excavations were discovered in the attic of building 4, untouched for three quarters of a century.
THE BATTLE OF BOWMANVILLE
In October of 1942, after a German ‘crank up’ in the war, 100 POW’s were asked to volunteer to be shackled for a photo that was to be sent as a threat to German authorities. None were willing to volunteer.
After asking a few (German POW) Officers if they would help, and being flatly refused, the Camp authorities thought they would try to force 100 men into shackles.
The result became known as the Battle of Bowmanville. A terrible uproar ensued – with Canadian Forces entering the grounds with nothing but baseball bats to subdue the now armed (with makeshift weaponry) German POW’s.
Canadian authorities wanted it to be a ‘fair fight’. Based in the mess hall/cafeteria, the battle lasted for days – until high powered hoses were brought in to soak the residences, pushing the POW’s to finally surrender peacefully.
I have wondered if perhaps our perceived fairness and lux accommodation may have been given out of fear, in efforts to appease. After all, they were Nazi war criminals.
At the time the world as a whole feared Germany, and Germans in general. To have such powerful, feared men right here in naive small town Canada (I can say that, I grew up in the Durham region!) would have been a truly horrifying prospect.
The ‘Battle of Bowmanville’ is a good example of what authorities here might have been worried about if they had treated the POW’s with any less ‘respect’ than they did. RETRIBUTION – and what would Bowmanville have done if an army of angry Nazi’s descended upon it to reclaim their kinfolk?
I am not sure we would have had the man power or weaponry to do much more than panic.
Of course, that is just my (slightly educated) opinion.
On our tour we were fortunate to run into a group of ‘random teens’ (perhaps 16 years old?) who served as our tour guides.
On our own, we would have looked at a few buildings, perhaps entered one or two that looked safe, and hopped back in the car – especially seeing as somehow I had managed to let both batteries die on my camera, and had only my tablet left to take photos – without a flash.
Instead we had a detailed tour of most buildings, into frightening crawl spaces, through boiler rooms, across the labyrinth of dorms, around the mess hall and up onto dangerous roof tops.
We heard stories of local folklore regarding the site, and tales of recent events that have taken place here.
We followed the expansive paved walk ways while the boys told us how (and when) the vandal damage occurred, showed us sites that old buildings used to stand and explained the recent fires (more vandalism).
They even took additional photos for me (they had a flash for the dank, dark, horrific indoors). Hopefully I will be able to do an update to showcase their work (the one who took the bulk of the photos is currently grounded from his iphone until September – LOL!).
Our small group weren’t the only trespassers that day, we encountered other curious groups while there. Apparently this is a popular spot for such intrusions. Hopefully the curious will still come when charged a small fee for upkeep and maintenance – if the Camp is lucky enough to make it that far.
THE FUTURE OF CAMP 30
For many years, a few dedicated locals have been trying to save Camp 30 from demolition. Recently the land was purchased by a developer who was not aware of the sites history.
Initially, he publicly stated that ‘he couldn’t see the point in saving the derelict, vandalized buildings’. After receiving a copy of a book written in part by a local historian about Camp 30 and its incredible history, he changed his tune.
Stating ‘he had no idea’ of the historical value of the land, 10 hectares of important Camp 30 terrain (the section containing buildings) was sectioned off by the empathetic developer to be decided upon at a later date. He will build around Camp 30.
What happens now is anyones guess. The Federal Government has gifted a yearly amount to preserve and restore the site, but having been there myself, clearly it is not nearly enough.
In order for that money to be matched (which still wouldn’t be enough), every resident of the Durham region would need to face a 3% property tax increase.
Bowmanville is not a wealthy town, though it is ‘better off’ than the small surrounding towns and hamlets – it simply can’t handle such an increase to preserve world history.
Hopefully something is worked out that is not to the detriment of locals. It would be a travesty to lose this significant and rare piece of WWII history because of a ‘simple’ (but dramatic) lack of funding.
Many additional photos of Camp 30 in the slideshow.
- Operaton Kiebitz (wikipedia)
- Camp 30 Fights On (Torontoist.com)
- Historic Camp 30 Saved From Wrecking Ball (the star.com)
- Ontario’s Forgotten Landmarks Camp 30 (blogto.com)
- D Day in Bowmanville for Nazi POW Camp (the star.com)
- Camp 30 (flickr)
- Spirits of Camp 30 (Durhamregion.com)
- Bowmanville POW Camp (wikipedia)