Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War (most commonly abbreviated POW or PW) are defined by international convention as any uniformed serviceman captured and imprisoned by an enemy during or immediately after an armed conflict.

First World War

During the First World War, 132 officers and 3,715 Other Ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were taken prisoner.1 The largest number of these, over 1,400, were taken in a single day during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, when the green (1st) Canadian Division was undergoing its baptism under fire and chlorine gas. The 3rd Division also yielded a large number of prisoners in its baptism of fire at Mount Sorrel in June 1916, losing over 500 men in a single day.

Surrendering was dangerous business; there were rules set out by the Hague Convention on how to treat prisoners, but militaries never taught their own men how to surrender; at worst it was considered desertion to the enemy.

Canadian talking to German prisoners, Oct 1916. LAC photo A001359

Being captured is the most dangerous experience in a soldier's life, more dangerous than a heavy bombardment or even an advance across no man's land. Blinded by bloodlust or bent on avenging a comrade, a soldier might not accept an enemy's surrender. Captors and captured alike are still under fire. Canadian prisoners recalled the cold-blooded killing of comrades...In their own letter(s) and diaries, Canadians commonly boasted that they did not take prisoners - boasts the Germans soon discovered. Taken at the Canal du Nord in 1918, Fred Hamilton claimed that he was beaten by a German colonel and threatened with death. "I don't care for the English, Scotch, French, Australians or Belgians," shouted the colonel, "but damn you Canadians you take no prisoners and you kill our wounded."2

Second World War

Canada's first Prisoner of War was Corporal R.J. Creighton of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, who was captured in June 1940 during the abortive move of the 1st Canadian Brigade to France. He remained a prisoner until 1945.

Hong Kong

The first large group of Canadian soldiers to be captured by the Axis were the survivors of "C" Force which fought at Hong Kong in December 1941. When the island fell, 1,685 survivors went into captivity. They were kept in Hong Kong until 1943, during which time 4 officers and 124 Other Ranks died due to poor conditions (50 of these due to diphtheria and poor medical facilities), and four more soldiers were executed after an escape attempt. At the start of 1943, 1 officer and 1,183 Other Ranks were moved to Japan, and 136 more died, chiefly due to poor living and working conditions.

During the course of the war, 2 naval personnel and 42 men of the RCAF were captured by the Japanese also.


An even larger group of Canadians fell into German hands after the Dieppe Raid on 19 Aug 1942. Some 119 officers and 1,755 Other Ranks surrendered that day.

During the Raid, a copy of the extensive operation order was taken ashore (against instructions) and captured by the Germans. A small passage in the order noted that German prisoners were to have their hands bound as a security measure. Tying hands was a common procedure for the British Special Service Brigade (ie the Commandos). As Dieppe was planned with heavy influence from Combined Operations staff, the clause, after some discussion with the Canadians, had remained in the order.

On 2 September 1942, the Germans announced their intention to chain Commonwealth prisoners of war; the British War Office issued a statement that the order to bind hands had been cancelled. On 7 October, the Germans issued an order, based on further investigation on their part as well as an incident at Sark on 4 October, in which German prisoners in a minor raid had had their hands bound. On 8 October 1942, British and German prisoners in Germany had their hands tied with ropes. Later, the ropes were exchanged for metal handcuffs. On 8 October also, the British War Cabinet decided to take reprisals by binding an equivalent number of German prisoners in British camps. The Canadian Government was asked to participate, and though dubious, did so. On 10 October 1942, a number of German prisoners in the UK and Canada were handcuffed. German resistance to these reprisals resulted in much media attention, and shots were fired at Camp 30 in Bowmanville, ON, though no one was killed.

The shackling was seen as unpleasant and the British and Canadians unilaterally ceased the shackling on 12 December 1942, hoping the Germans were discontinue the practice also. The Germans demanded guarantees that similar orders would not be promulgated in future, and the British and Canadians issued a Army Council Instruction and Canadian Army Routine Order, respectively, forbidding the binding of prisoners except in case of operational necessity on the battlefield. The Germans objected to the reservation in this clause, and Canadian and British prisoners remained shackled until 22 November 1943, when the International Red Cross Committee and German authorities resolved the issue, and the Germans ceased the practice without formally rescinding their orders. No attention was paid to this matter in the British or Canadian press, out of fear for the prisoners' interests, and to prevent giving the Germans an excuse for further reprisals.

As for Canadian prisoners in Germany, the shackling came to be a routine, with handcuffs going on only for twice daily "check parades". Some Canadian prisoners found the handcuffs could be opened with keys from tins of condensed milk they received via the Red Cross. The German prison staffs for their part did not usually demand the handcuffs for extended periods of time.


In Europe for the whole of the Second World War, 5,399 soldiers of the Canadian Army were taken prisoner by the Germans (totals for the Air Force were 2,482 and 92 for the Navy). POW deaths in the Pacific were 290, and 380 for Europe, or 670 in total, for all three services.

Canadian prisoners taken early in the Battle of Normandy; film still from a German newsreel dated 14 June 1944. Photos and film of enemy prisoners were not uncommonly used for propaganda purposes. These soldiers - apparently from The Royal Winnipeg Rifles - are lucky; other prisoners from their Regiment taken during this period were murdered by the 12. SS Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend".

Including the other two services, 9,000 Canadians in total became prisoners of the Germans, Italians and Japanese, the majority held by the Germans. Prisoners were segregated by rank and by service, with Army officers kept in separate camps from Army Other Ranks. Naval and Air Force personnel were also generally not kept in the same camps as allied Army personnel.

From the Veteran's Affairs website:

The conditions in (German prison) camps were difficult but, for the most part, many prisoners of the German camps had adequate food and were treated relatively humanely. However, as the war continued and Nazi Germany began to collapse under the Allied onslaught, conditions worsened. POW food rations became more scarce. Many POWs had to make long, forced marches.

The Canadians who became POWs in Asia faced an even harsher ordeal. The Japanese camps were often run with great brutality. The food rations provided for the prisoners were particularly meagre. The vast majority of the almost 1,700 Canadians who were captured in Hong Kong in late 1941 would suffer as POWs for nearly four years—all except two Nursing Sisters who were released and returned home in 1943. Many Canadian POWs would be forced to toil in mines and shipyards in Japan, where working conditions were terrible. More than 40 other Canadians serving in Asia would also be captured by the Japanese in Java, Burma and Siam (modern-day Thailand).

One group of Canadians - 26 airmen of the RCAF - along with 142 other Allied airmen spent several months at Buchenwald Concentration Camp in the summer and autumn on 1944 after a member of the French Resistance betrayed an escape organization set up to aid shot down Allied aircrew return to the UK. Allied aircrew in the care of the organization had been issued civilian clothes and false identity papers and were treated as spies rather than soldiers. As such, they were not protected by the Geneva Convention.

They were questioned, beaten and subjected to other forms of cruelty. In the summer of 1944, as the Allies advanced on the Germans occupying France, the Allied prisoners (and many other political prisoners) were jammed into overcrowded boxcars and sent to Buchenwald. It was a harrowing five-day train trip to the camp, during which they received very little food or water...

During their first three weeks at Buchenwald, the Allied prisoners were totally shaven and forced to sleep outside, without any shoes or shelter. Eventually they were moved into a very overcrowded hut where they were forced to sleep on wooden shelves. They were so tightly packed that in order for one person to turn over in the bunk, the other four people in the same bunk had to turn over at the same time. While in Buchenwald, they experienced inhuman conditions, including starvation, disease and the constant threatening presence of cruel guards. The prisoner's food included a little bowl of soup made from grass or cabbage leaves, and an inch of bread and three little potatoes. One pilot lost more than 29.5 kg during his six weeks there. The men witnessed horrific beatings, hangings and torture. Buchenwald was also a "death camp," used by the Nazis to systematically murder those they wanted eliminated. The Allied airmen imprisoned there would often see the piles of corpses stacked up, awaiting the crematorium. It would be October 1944 before the Allied POWs would finally be transferred to a regular German POW camp for downed airmen. That is where they stayed until the end of the war.

Two Canadians died at Buchenwald. The toll in the Pacific was greater, where 260 Canadians died in Japanese camps.


During the Korean War 32 members of the Canadian Army were captured, along with 1 RCAF pilot.

Further Reading

  • Daniel G. Dancocks, In Enemy Hands: Canadian Prisoners of War, 1939-45 (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1983


  1. A figure of 3,842 Canadians of all ranks is given in Desmond Morton's When Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War (Random House of Canada, Toronto, ON, 1993) ISBN 0-394-88822-1
  2. Morton, Ibid, pp.208-209

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