Bowmanville, 1942: The ‘Shackling Crisis’ and the Treatment of German Prisoners of War in Canada

Bowmanville POW camp and site of "Battle of Bowmanville", ca. 1930 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At around noon on October 12, 1942, a Canadian military commando charged the mess hall of the Bowmanville camp, located 75 km East of Toronto in Canada, where around 400 German prisoners of war (POW) had barricaded themselves for two days in reaction of the shackling of 100 inmates. During the six hours of the operation, Canadian militaries – armed with tear gas, bayonets, and high-pressure fire hoses – struggled with the Germans captives, who threw bricks, tables, and chairs and used baseball bats and hockey clubs as handmade weapons. In total, more than 80 Germans and 20 Canadians were wounded. This riot, known as the Battle of Bowmanville, presents a turning point on Ottawa-London relationship on the treatment of German prisoners of war and the respect of the 1929 Geneva Convention.

The British-German ‘Shackling Crisis’ began with the discovery by the German army of a British order to shackle German prisoners during the military operation at Dieppe in August 1942. In reprisals, the German authorities ordered that all British prisoners captured at Dieppe be handcuffed until London assured a termination of the chaining order. Britain responded by ordering the shackling of German prisoners until Berlin changed its policy, which led to an escalation of retaliation between the two countries. At that time almost 16,000 German soldiers were detained in Canada (a total of 34,000 German POWs were held in 1945). During this crisis, the Dominion of Canada, after having unwillingly followed the shackling order, refused to apply the British retaliation policy anymore and decided, without consulting London, to unshackle the prisoners. Ottawa tried rather to find a solution to this deadlock with the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The crisis ended only in November 1943.

The decision to refuse the shackling policy revealed the complex relationship between Ottawa and London on the war captivity topic. Two years before, in June 1940, the Canadian government accepted to support its Ally by detaining Germans internees and prisoners of war on its territory. However, those operations quickly became an issue for the Canadians, who used their status of detaining power to affirm their national sovereignty on the international level and to distance the country from London’s influence. The relation with the ICRC and the respect of the 1929 Geneva Convention remained central in the position of the Department of External Affairs (DEA). In fact, according to several Canadian historians, Ottawa’s foreign policy between 1920 and 1960 was primarily oriented on humanitarianism and respect of international conventions.

In the case of the shackling episode, the Canadian position was clearly tied to its support for international humanitarian law and its own national sovereignty. The DEA mentioned to London that Canadian public opinion dictated that the respect of international law and the position of Canada within the international community and as a defender of the Geneva Conventions remained important. In addition, the Canadians made up a large majority of the allied prisoners taken at Dieppe, who suffered from German retaliation. Finally, the Directorate of Prisoners of War had to deal with the troubles caused by shackling in the Canadian camps. For the War Committee, the crisis offered, “a legitimate and unique opportunity to provide a strong stimulus for Canadian morale by demonstrating, with safety, the independence of Canadian nationhood and authority by breaking with Britain on the issue of shackling”. Also, the Canadian position would “bring a thrill of pride to every Canadian [and] would tell him more clearly than any statute of Westminster" (Privy Council Office, Report).

This crisis also shows the interplay of the Swiss government and of the ICRC on the issue of POWs. Those actors were not only central for the treatment of German captives held in Canada through their visits in camps, but were also used diplomatically by each captor state to confirm its responsibilities for these prisoners. The definition of detaining power by London and Ottawa was a difficult object of negotiation between 1940 and 1943 because Britain insisted to remain the official detaining power and considered the Dominion as a simple ‘agent’ of London. Following this statement, the British authorities tried to centralize communication with Germany, Switzerland and the ICRC in the hands of the Foreign Office and the War Office, thus exercising complete control of the humanitarian diplomacy. Ottawa rejected this arrangement and worked rather directly with Geneva. In fact, the DEA did not completely refuse the authority of London. Canadians officials recognized the necessity of unity among the Commonwealth to avoid complication with Germany, but clearly insisted to keep their relations with the Swiss and the ICRC authorities to fully respect their obligations as a signatory of the international convention. As the Canadian representative in London stipulated: “Canada had signed the Convention as a sovereign state and was not willing to abrogate its sovereign status by treating interned German soldiers in accordance with British interpretations of the Geneva Convention.” (War Office, Minutes) Moreover, the arrival of additional prisoners by 1941 made the respect the Geneva Conventions difficult for Ottawa because of the interference of London on the diplomacy with Berne and Geneva (DEA, Telegram).

This struggle went beyond the respect of international humanitarian law. The political agenda drove Canadian humanitarianism policy here. By claiming their own channel with Geneva and Berne, Ottawa promoted its political interest against the influence of Britain by confirming its status as a sovereign nation, as well as the main detaining power for the German POWs on its territory. Also, by working closely with the ICRC, Canadians assured the respect of the Geneva Conventions for German prisoners, and then tried to protect their nationals held in Germany, despite some objections from London.

The Shackling Crisis thus presented a concrete opportunity for the Canadians to uphold their status as a detaining power requested since 1941. As argued by several historians, this case also shows that the humanitarian diplomacy on POWs during World War II was not limited to the negotiation between Allied and Axis Powers or the protection of captives. The ICRC and Swiss representatives acted as important components within the inter-Commonwealth discussions. In a broader context, this episode served as a historiographical argument on how humanitarianism and international humanitarian law were primarily interpreted and applied according to the interests of every country during World War II. Beyond Ottawa and London’s commitment to respect the 1929 international conventions, it seems that political concerns and protection of nationals often overrode humanitarian and international law principles. Moreover, the reciprocity or retaliation risks between belligerents remained the central factor to understand the treatment of prisoners of war as well as the position of signatories of those conventions.

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Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Jean-Michel Turcotte is PhD candidate in History at Université Laval, Québec. His thesis explores the captivity of German prisoners of war during the Second World War. In January 2018 he will start a postdoctoral position at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Berlin on the topic of North Korean and Chinese POWs during the Korean War. He was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2017.