Canadian Relief Agencies and Prisoners of War, 1939-45

By Vance, Jonathan F. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Canadian Relief Agencies and Prisoners of War, 1939-45


Vance, Jonathan F., Journal of Canadian Studies


Canadian Relief Agencies and Prisoners of War, 1939 - 45

During the Second World War, hundreds of organizations were created in Canada to provide amenities to prisoners of war. So the relief effort could proceed efficiently, the government attempted to coordinate the activities of the three main organizations, the Canadian Red Cross Society, the War Prisoners' Aid of the YMCA and the Canadian POW Relatives Association, but this endeavour was frustrated by the desire of each to control the aid programme. The result was ill - will, dissension and unnecessary work for leading philanthropists and the bureaucrats who dealt with them. Unaffected by this confusion was the most famous part of Canada's effort in aid of POWs, the provision of Red Cross food parcels. This campaign was a complete success and remains the symbol of Canada's concern for Allied prisoners of war.

In a 1941 magazine article, journalist Charles Clay wrote that "prisoner of war" was the "second most dreaded term current in Canada these days" because there was "something inhuman about it."(f.1) The image of the POW certainly generated a considerable amount of sympathy - by May 1942, for example, it was estimated that as many as 900 organizations had been established to work on behalf of Canadians in enemy hands. Some of these groups collected donations to send books to the prison camps, while others dispatched games, cigarettes, recreational supplies, phonograph records and clothing. They were affiliated with labour unions, churches, schools, regiments, local service clubs and a host of other bodies, and included Canadians of every region, class and ethnic background. Regardless of their individual character, the groups shared a common goal: to bring all the comforts of home, within reason, to Canadians in captivity overseas.

With so many organizations involved in the relief effort, proper coordination of their activities was essential to avoid wastage of time, effort and resources. Most of the aid societies were quite small and therefore easily managed, but three groups were active nationally and, more importantly, each believed that it was best equipped to direct the relief effort. These three - the Canadian Red Cross Society, the War Prisoners' Aid of the World's Alliance of YMCAS, and the Canadian POW Relatives Association - did excellent work for POWS but also created a host of problems for the government. Indeed, the relief effort reveals that coordinating the efforts of enthusiastic volunteers was a real challenge, especially for a government whose own bureaucracy for dealing with war prisoners was awkward and inefficient.

Canada's earliest POWS in the Second World War were members of the Royal Air Force; the first, A.B. Thompson of Penetanguishene, Ontario, was shot down and captured even before Canada officially entered the war. Over the next two years, Thompson was joined by more Canadian airmen and by a few Canadian soldiers serving with the British army. In December 1941, however, the number of Canadians in enemy hands ballooned with the capture of nearly 1,700 members of C Force at Hong Kong. The following August another 2,000 Canadians were taken prisoner at Dieppe. When the campaigns in Italy and north - west Europe opened, in July 1943 and June 1944 respectively, thousands more Canadian soldiers were taken prisoner, in addition to the growing numbers of airmen who fell into enemy hands in the course of fighter operations and the strategic bombing campaign. By war's end, nearly 10,000 Canadians had been held prisoner in Germany, Italy and Japan.(f.2)

The aid organizations did not wait until Canadian POWS numbered in the thousands to begin their work. They started before the war was three months old. The largest aid group, also the first to begin work for POWS, was the Canadian Red Cross Society [CRCS], established in 1896 on the initiative of Lieutenant - Colonel G. Sterling Ryerson. During the First World War, the CRCS had taken the leading role in providing relief to Canadian POWS through its London office, administered by the energetic Montreal philanthropist Lady Julia Drummond. …

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