IN ENEMY HANDS: CANADIAN PRISONERS OF WAR 1939-45
Daniel G. Dancocks.
Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, c1983.
Edmonton, Hurtig Publishers, c1983.
Volume 12 Number 2
Until the last few years, there had been large gaps in the history of Canadians in the two world wars. Fortunately, several authors have recently laboured to fill in these gaps, particularly by recording the personal accounts of Canadian servicemen who were there. The importance of these histories, so long after the fact, cannot be minimized, because these veterans are rapidly disappearing, due to the combined effects of the ravages of their wartime experiences and old age.
In Enemy Hands chronicles the story of the more than nine thousand Canadian servicemen and women taken prisoner during World War II. Dancocks uses the experiences of 165 POWs to portray the conditions and experiences of Canadian prisoners in Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, and Japan.
It is immediately apparent that the conditions of POWs varied greatly depending on whether they were prisoners in Europe or in Asia and even on which enemy force was running the camps.
In Germany, Canadian POWs were usually treated fairly well. POWs were segregated by service, officers segregated from enlisted men, and held in camps operated by their German counterparts, i.e., airmen were held in camps operated by the Luftwaffe, soldiers held by the German army, etc. In most cases, the Red Cross packages were delivered regularly as was mail (although often delayed and heavily censored). They suffered brutality and even execution in response to escape attempts from time to time, but were generally treated with respect. They were also accorded better treatment than prisoners of some other nations because the humane treatment of German POWs in Canadian POW camps was well-known from mail and prisoner exchanges. The main exception to this situation was POWs that, for whatever reason, fell under the power of the brutal fanatics of the SS or the Hitler youth. Some ended up in the notorious Buchenwald death camp.
In Italy, the camps were generally more relaxed than German camps, and many held by the Italians were fortunate to be liberated in 1943 when Italy surrendered. These POWs were mostly taken in North Africa so their internment was quite brief compared to the others. The situation of POWs held by the Japanese was very different. The Japanese had not signed the Geneva Conventions on treatment of POWs. They believed it was the soldier's duty and highest honour to die in battle. Surrender was impossible. If taken prisoner, the only honourable action was suicide. According to this point of view, POWs were cowards who deserved only contempt.
Virtually all Canadian POWs taken by the Japanese were taken at the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas day 1941. Nearly two thousand Canadians had been sent to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. Of these, 550 never returned; 290 died in the battle for Hong Kong, many of those bayoneted after surrender because they were wounded and could not march or simply as a result of the contempt for anyone who would surrender. The remainder died in prison camps due to disease, malnutrition, overwork or brutality. Red Cross food packages and medicine were usually stolen by the Japanese, who were short of food and medicine themselves. Those who survived were routinely less than half their normal weight, diseased, infected by parasites, and suffering deterioration of sight, bones, and muscles as a result of severe malnutrition. Large numbers would have died if the war had been prolonged even six more months. Many of these veterans continue to suffer from their treatment: their life expectancy is more than ten years less than POWs held in Europe.
Dancocks does a very effective job of putting together an interesting, well-organized account of Canadian POW's experiences. The introduction gives a brief history of the changes in treatment of POWs from early history to World War II. Part One describes chronologically, the conditions in Europe; Part Two tells about those held by the Japanese. There are sixteen pages of well-chosen photographs. In addition, an appendix gives a brief account of what the 165 POWs cited are now doing.
The POWs are well selected to cover a wide range of experiences. They include several prominent Canadians including two current MPs - Gilles Lamontagne, minister of defence until recently, and Marcel Lambert. There are people who took part in the famous Great Escape and Wooden Horse escapes. There are descriptions of how documents were forged, illegal radios created, and escapes planned and executed. But most of all, the destructive effects of boredom and the insecurity of not knowing when, if ever, they would be freed, come across clearly. The importance of the Red Cross packages and mail from home in maintaining the will to live and the strength to survive is obvious.
This is an important addition to Canadian war history as it is the only in-depth coverage of Canadian prisoners of war. It is also a very interesting easy-to-read book of personal anecdotes that, taken together, give a realistic picture of what it was like for those that actually experienced the events. Highly recommended for all public, high school, college, and university libraries.
Nell Payne, Kingston C. V. I., Kingston, ON.
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