Nearly 9000 Canadians became German POWs during World War II. These were usually soldiers who were captured during combat, airmen whose aircraft were shot down over enemy territory, sailors picked up from sea after their ships were torpedoed and sunk. At times, Canadians were taken captive in large groups; 1948 troops were taken after the failed Dieppe Raid in 1942. Others fell into enemy hands in ones or twos, especially the airmen shot down during bomber raids over Germany.
In a previous post, “Hidden” Stories in Our Museum ~ Prisoners of War, a list of BC / Yukon prisoners of war was shared. In this series, we’ll meet some of the men on this list, along with other Canadians who were POWs.
Flight Lieutenant Arthur Coles hailed from North Vancouver; he joined the RCAF at age 22 and headed to Europe during the Second World War. He participated as a Spitfire pilot in 412 SQN. On August 21, 1943, he gunned down his first German plane while over France. On October 3, 1943, Coles shot down 2 Focke-Wulf 190s in separate engagements, blowing off a wing from one enemy plane.
He didn’t fare as well when on an operation November 29th, 1943. In a letter to Coles’ father written a few days later, the Squadron Leader explains, “At nine o’clock on November 29th, Arthur took off with the squadron for an operation over France. He was leading a section of four aircraft. In the Ypres area, he led his section in to attack two enemy aircraft – firing at one of them. This aircraft was seen to go down smoking. A few moments later I called Arthur on the radio as I had lost sight of him and he informed me he was alright. Unfortunately, this is the last that was heard from him and he did not return from the operation.”
Word came early the following year that he was alive in a German POW camp after being captured near Vernes, Belgium.. He spent time in prison camps in Frankfurt (briefly), 12 months at Stalag Luft III (January 15, 1944 – January 28, 1945), and 4 months in Luckenwalde, south of Berlin.
Coles managed to keep a kind of logbook that outlines some of the hardships on the march from Sagan to Germany, “…sub-zero weather without proper clothing or boots… ate pig swill that we stole from a pig pen… so crippled with rheumatism could only hobble… stomach trouble from food…constantly threatened with shooting by guards…” And then the hardships on the train ride in box cars to Luckenwalde, “… utter exhaustion as we could not sleep or even rest… no room to lie down or even sit properly…no sanitary arrangements… cold…hungry.. practically no food…” He was released June 5, 1945.