"A Brilliant Escape"

Link to
Glenbow Archives (?) via CFB/ASU Wainwright presentation

Lieutenant Leo Hamson returned to Canada after fighting in Europe, and was sent to Camp Wainwright as a guard. This entry is the first in a series, reprinted with permission. (emphasis added; 1 paragraph break added; 1 typo corrected)

(Update: The full set of Recollections is back online, with photos.)

A Brilliant Escape

At dinner one night in the Officers’ Mess, I was regaled with the story of a successful escape by two POW officers that occurred when Wainwright first opened for business. The tale was told by the Veterans’ Guard officers with great relish and obvious admiration. It seems that a trainload of POWs arrived before the camp construction was quite finished, much to the consternation of the senior Canadian officer. The buildings were complete, but the stockade fences were not. The barbed wire was still being strung by the army engineers. The exasperated Canadian colonel ordered the POWs herded into their barracks with armed guards at the doors until the wiring was finished.

The POWs watched the work from the windows. They noted that the khaki denim material of the work coveralls worn by the Canadians was of the same material covering the mattresses on their double-decker army beds. The senior German officer put out a call for anyone with tailoring experience. Hans Pfeffel stepped forward, and very soon had fashioned passable replicas of the coveralls. These were donned by Lt. E. Meuche and Lt. Klaus Conrad. While the others feigned a scuffle among themselves to distract the guards, these two slipped out and joined the fencing crew, giving a friendly wave to the tower guards as they passed under them. The guards cheefully returned the gesture.

They unrolled a large spool of barbed wire along the line of posts, but veered from the line towards a copse of trees, then bolted unnoticed. They reached the railroad tracks and leaped aboard a passing freight train. Knowing nothing of Alberta geography[*], the next train they boarded was heading north to Lesser Slave Lake before they realized they would never reach the Fatherland that way. They caught a south-bound train, and were not apprehended until a month later in Gary Indiana. They were not returned to Wainwrght, but to the camp at Gravenhurst.

There was a strange post-script to this story. Hans Pfeffel returned to Canada, settled in Coaldale, in Southern Alberta, opened a clothing store, and raised a family. He had a major part in the National Film Board documentary “The Enemy Within,” which I shall refer to later, and also provided some harmonica background music for the film. As my son-in-law now residing in England was born and raised in the small town of Coaldale, I was amazed when my inquiries revealed that the two families had been friends for years.

Last year, although battling terminal cancer, Hans was determined to meet us, and made the very long journey to Edmonton with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. We were joined at a luncheon in our garden by another former Wainwright POW, Siegfried Osterwoldt and his wife, and by Eva Colmers, who made and directed the film. A few weeks later, Hans passed away. We shall be forever grateful for his valiant effort in making the arduous journey that made possible an unforgettable reunion after nearly six decades.

Copyright 2004 by Leo Hamson; used with permission

* I think that heading north was planned, but in any case it's great to have an account direct from the Canadian side.

Related Posts:
   1. Wainwright Internment Camp No. 135 - more details (Sep 27, 2010)
   2. Documentary (2003): The Enemy Within (Apr 23, 2010)
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