Camp 30: Canada’s answer to the problem of high-ranking German prisoners in the Second World War

As COVID made it impossible to give this talk last November to the Lake Scugog Historical Society, they asked me to instead write a short article for them which was published in the Fall 2020 newsletter. For original newsletter see attached Download.

Drawing of Camp 30 in Bowmanville by one of the prisoners.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British had a problem.  Where to house the growing numbers of newly captured prisoners-of-war that were at risk of escaping from POW camps in England and making their way back to Germany to return to battle.  Their answer was to reach out to Canada who, over the course of the war, built 40 POW camps.  Of particular importance were the high-ranking German officers, and for them a special location was found which would be known as Camp 30.

For Camp 30, the Department of National Defence commandeered the Boys Training School in Bowmanville.  This school had opened in 1925, after a local businessman, John H. H. Jury, had been inspired by a lecture on youth reform and donated land to build a school for the “mental, moral, physical and vocational training” of young boys who were considered in jeopardy.  This school had spacious grounds, fenceless fields, attractive dormitories, wholesome meals, a pool and sports fields, and a supportive staff.  They stressed training rather than punishment. 

A perfect set up to turn into a prisoner-of-war camp, if a somewhat unusual one. The boys’ school was designed to hold 300 boys, but now work began for it to hold 800 German soldiers.  Barracks were constructed, along with a perimeter fence and guard towers.  The town of Bowmanville covered their signs to keep secret their location to the new train load of enemy soldiers as they arrived.

In hindsight, this may have been an unnecessary subterfuge because Camp 30 ran quite differently from most other POW camps.  First, the Germans were left to govern themselves.  They served under their own officers who lived in the school’s hospital and included top ranking German Generals.  The Canadian troops, mostly too old or young to fight overseas, simply patrolled the fences outside the camp.

German officers, Camp 30, Bowmanville

And the German officers were allowed to take advantage of all that their new home had to offer.  They used the pool and sports fields, grew vegetables, took university courses, went skiing in winter and to the beaches in summer.  And yes, they were allowed out of camp to do so!  A system was in place called “Ehrenwort” which meant the “word of honour” that a prisoner gave when leaving camp that he was not trying to escape and would return.  The Ehrenwort system was also used to borrow tools for building stage play sets or a small log cabin they constructed.  In the four years of the camps operation, no one broke their word to use these as opportunities for escape attempts.

Which is not, of course, to say that they didn’t try to escape.  Over the next four years there were many attempts, the most complicated of which involved digging a long tunnel to a stand of trees outside the wire.  To hide the soil they were digging up the POWs stored it in the attic of their barracks.  This tunnel is famous for being the longest dug by any prisoners on either side during the war.  Sadly, for them, shortly before it was completed the ceiling collapsed from the weight of all that earth and their plan was foiled.

The Bowmanville Boys Training School was only a POW camp from 1941-1945 but this fascinating period in its history is one of the reasons that it has been designated as a National Historic Site and should be saved.

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