Marathon & District Historical Society and Museum

Town of Marathon

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Sixty-two years ago, German prisoners of war pulled off the greatest escape of prisoners of war

in Canada during World War 11. On January 25, 1941, 558 prisoners of war arrived at the newly opened

prison camp at Angler in northwestern Ontario. Eighty- four days later, on April 18, 28 prisoners escaped

into the wilderness and bush of Northern Ontario. If it hadn't been for the alertness of one guard, another

52 would have escaped into the wilderness.

Travellers on the Trans Canada highway would not notice the dirt track leading south from the

highway some four kilometres west of Marathon, Ontario. There is no sign to indicate where it leads, and

no historical marker to record what happened along that track sixty-two years ago.

The track leads up through dense bush and across the bedrock of the Canadian Shield deeply

scarred by ancient glacial strength. Across two major Hydro lines which, like the Trans Canada Highway,

are the results of post-war activity. Across rocky outcrops and down into gullies still with inches of water

despite the dryness of the season. But then, a kilometre or so along the track, the terrain changes to a

flat, sandy area of several acres. The trees on this plain are younger than the spruce and poplar and

scrub bush that line the track.

And then, around a curve in the track, the debris field appears; bits of roofing material, rusted

metal from chimneys, a set of concrete steps that lead nowhere and, under a low bush just off the track,

an industrial sized stove from the camp kitchen with all its covers missing-like empty sockets where life

had once been. And resting against this rusted hulk- a large, granite-coloured roasting pan, its lid.


The guard towers are long gone, as is any evidence of the barbed wire that surrounded the whole

area. No evidence of where the huts had been or where the tunnels had been dug. The graves of the

three who were killed no longer exist-their bodies having been moved to join 184 other German prisoners

from both wars who were buried in the German War Graves Cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario in 1970.

The bush is slowly retrieving this plain unto itself, but sixty-two years ago this was the site of

Camp X, Angler. The camp was originally built as Highway Construction Camp No. 12. It was one of

those camps that housed men who worked on the construction of the Trans Canada Highway, a project

interrupted by the war. The placement of the camp on sand and the elevation of the huts on concrete

pillars were major assets to the prisoners as they planned their mass escape. Within days of their arrival

in January an escape committee was organized and work began. The plan was to get at least 80

prisoners out on Hitler's fifty-second birthday, April 20, 1941.


Three years before the well known Allied prisoner escape from Stalag Luft 3 in Germany, the

German prisoners at Angler faced similar problems and solved them in similar ways. For the German

prisoners, disposal of the sand from the tunnel was a much easier matter than that facing the prisoners in

Stalag Luft 3. Because the huts were mounted on concrete poles, the Canadian guards piled snow up to

the base of the hut walls to reduce the effects of winter's icy blasts. This benign act provided the

prisoners with a secure place to dispose of the sand from the tunnels. So the digging began. Each hut

was connected by a tunnel and all were connected to the main tunnel that lead out, under the wire, for a

distance of 150 feet. As the tunnel lengthened, wooden rails and a trolley facilitated the removal of sand

from the tunnel face. Lighting and ventilation was also installed.

Because the tunnel was going through sand, the digging was easy but there was always the fear

that the walls would collapse at great risk to the tunnelers. That problem was easily solved. Using saws

made from gramaphone springs, teams of men took turns crawling under the huts to saw and remove

joists that supported the floors. The Canadians began to notice that the floors were beginning to sag, but

blamed that on what they concluded was shoddy construction by the Canadian companies that built the

huts. The joists were taken, cut to size, and fitted in the tunnel as the digging proceeded.

In 1964 Peter Desbarats wrote a three part article about this escape," When the prisoners broke

out of Camp X". He went to Germany to interview some of the men who had been involved in the

escape. One former prisoner told him that they had so much extra clothing, that their tailor, Willi

Benderich, was able to make more than 100 civilian outfits by ripping the red POW circles from surplus

jackets, pants and overcoats. One hundred knapsacks were made from pilfered mailbags and other


Table knives were stolen from the mess hall and sharpened and fitted with wooden handles

Each escapee was equipped with escape packs containing about 50 pounds of stolen food- meatballs

stored in coffee tins, bread, biscuits, tinned food, powdered eggs, chocolate, tea, sugar and vitamins.

Compasses were made from magnetized slivers of razor blades mounted on phonograph needles inside

a cardboard box. Helmut Ackenhausen described how he made a 12 foot kayak in two sections from

wood, flattened tin cans and oil cloth stolen from mess hall tables. His plan was to paddle across Lake

Superior with a comrade and seek shelter in a safe house in a country not yet at war.

Escape plans were imaginative and some of them beyond belief- Ackenhausen's the most

audacious and foolhardy. He had no idea of the fury that a Lake Superior storm can mount. In the days

following the capture of all the escapees, guards found hidden in the tunnels, four sections of prefabricated

boats, equipped with paddles, sails, There were shovels, haversacks, pulleys, a hammock and

numerous other articles.

Others were going to take a careful but leisurely hike along the CPR to the Algoma Central and

thence to the Sault and freedom in the U.S.A. Herbert Loffelmeier, Alfred Meithling and Kurt Rochel were

in a group of five that were going to hike to the Lakehead and then make for the American border. Horst


Liebeck and Karl Heinz-Grund had the most intelligent escape plan and, for a few days, the most

successful. Angler camp was located just north of the CPR and the two men had observed that every

night about 1 AM a westbound freight train slowed almost to a halt as the steam locomotive laboured up

a steep grade near the camp. These battle hardened Germans were convinced that they had a good

chance of outwitting the less experienced Canadians who would be hunting for them. What a propaganda

victory it would be if 80 prisoners got loose to celebrate Hitler's birthday on April 20th.

But what the Germans didn't reckon on were the vagaries of Spring weather in that part of

Ontario. Five day before the planned escape for April 20th, it began to rain. It rained for three days. By

the 18th of April the tunnel had three feet of water in it and it was still rising. The prisoners would have to

leave that night after roll call or not leave at all. Twenty-eight prisoners crawled out of the tunnel and into

the rain which then turned to ice pellets and then a raging blizzard. By the 20th, Liebeck and Heinz-Grund

had made their way to the Lakehead and then all the way to Medicine Hat before a suspicious member of

the RCMP put them under arrest. The men were surprised to note that the local civilians regarded them

as celebrities and even asked them for autographs.

On April 19, Oscar Broderix, Horst Streit, Wilhelm Raab and Heinz Ettler were captured. The

vindictive attitude of the search party is readily apparent from the treatment Oscar Broderix received. He

had part of his nose shot off; no medical aid was offered until he was taken back to the camp. There the

Canadian doctor examined the wound and sewed the remnants together without anesthetic.

Many of the escapees took refuge from the blizzard in shacks along the CPR or in box cars and

were tracked down and captured. Loffelmeier, Meithling, Rochel, Hauck and Genzelertook shelter in a

lean-to composed of a roof and two sides built against a rock with the front entirely open. It was along the

route of the proposed highway. The records of the Official Inquiry show that early on the morning of April

20th while it was still dark, L/Sgt Davies and Pte Saunders of the Algonquin Regiment flashed a light into

the darkness of the lean-to and saw what they thought were eight or ten escaped prisoners. They gave

the order for the prisoners to come out with their hands up. Saunders and Davies had been informed

that the prisoners were armed with formidable weapons. (The word ' formidable" appears three times in

the report of the Court of Inquiry and also in subsequent documents). The' formidable' weapons were

table knives sharpened at one end and equipped with wooden handles. Shots were fired. Loffelmeier

and Meithling came out as ordered and were shot. Kurt Rochel was so seriously wounded that he was not

released from hospital until August 29. The report of the medical evidence said that" the deaths of Gefr

Loffelmeier and Gefr Meithling were primarily due to the loss of blood owing to the time necessary to get

back to Camp X and to send a carrying party and medical assistance to the scene of the shooting."

The report of the Court of Inquiry goes on:" The statements made subsequently by other


prisoners through their Camp Leader and the official interpreter and the statement of the Camp Leader

were not consistent with each other nor with the evidence of the pursuit, party witnesses, nor the location

and lay-out of the lean-to which was inspected by four members of the Court."

The statement of the prisoners' representatives of the Swiss Consulate General in Canada, (

Switzerland being the protective power), dated May 6, 1941, gives quite a different version of events:

"Upon being surrounded by five or six of the Canadian soldiers, they were ordered to get up from the

ground and as they did so, they were shot without any other preliminaries. They immediately fell flat

again, but as the rifles were fired from a distance of about 3 to 5 metres, most of the bullets found their

mark, one man being hit by six bullets, two by 5, and one by two, while Genzeler escaped being hit due

to the fact that he feinted death from the very beginning of the shooting and to a major extent simply

through sheer luck in not being in the path of the bullets fired.

" Proelss, ( German POW), was ordered out to lead a party to bring in the dead and wounded

and entered the shack in which the POWs had taken refuge on April 20th at 7:15 am with 16 of his own

men. He was the first to enter the shack in question and found 4 of his comrades in a heap on the ground

in a pool of blood, and ascertained that two of them had been killed, one very badly wounded. Previous

to that no first aid had been given to the wounded men. He was told by Rochel that they were shot

without any warning from a distance of a few metres and that no attempt whatsoever to give first aid prior

to his arrival."

The soldiers involved in the killing of the two prisoners were absolved of all blame- just another

act of war. Their defense was that these prisoners were armed with knives and were about to charge the

soldiers who shot in self defense. In 1964 Peter Desbarats had no access to the files from the National

Archives, but his interviews in Germany with prisoners who were involved gave a very different version

of what happened. They said that none of them had weapons of any kind except table knives and forks

and that the Canadians fired as soon as the prisoners came out of the lean-to with their hands up as

ordered. Kurt Rochel was one of the men Desbarats interviewed. He had been seriously wounded in the

shooting and the only man interviewed who witnessed the shooting of Loffelmeier and Meithling.

Dsbarats wrote that there was some understandable bitterness in Rochel. He had not been given a

chance to surrender and the prisoners were unarmed except for the table knives. He went on to say that

the deaths of Loffelmeier and Meithling were unnecessary and tragic. They were both in their early

twenties and were good men. Rochel's plan was to hike to the Lakehead and cut south to the United

States, but the blizzard that started a few hours after the escape forced them to take refuge in the shack,

not far enough away to escape detection. A sad footnote to these events was the killing of Martin Mueller

in June, 1941, by two drunken guards. They shot him in the back of the head. A Court of Inquiry found

the guards not guilty of any misdemeanor because Mueller was resisting arrest.

In the days following the escape rumours and insinuations emerged about the help the prisoners

may have received from some people in the local hamlets of Peninsula and Heron Bay. A man who

signed his letter." The Bushman", sent the following letter to Col. Ralston, the Minister of Defense a

week after the escape.

" I think if you ask questions from people in Peninsula you will find out lots. The two bootleggers

McCuaig and Soyyea are not here- they went away the day of the escape. Why do they run away ?

Certain things were sent to Angler that perhaps gave help to the prisoners. The camp interpreter, too,

acts pretty funny. I hope you understand the people of Peninsula will help you"

(K.T. McCuaig operated a small store at Peninsula).

Another letter was sent to the Secretary of State signed by someone who called herself Mrs.

Larsen of Schreiber, Ontario:

" We are all trying to help by giving to the Red Cross and we feel that the officers in charge of

the camp should do the same. At Angler Camp there could be considerable money contributed to various

needs of this war. The money the prisoners earn can be spent for different requirements. Last week Mrs

McCuaig at Peninsula sent an order of about $ 75.00- cigars, hair tonic, etc., to the camp for the

prisoners on which she made about $ 35.00 profit as she herself said.

Had the officer ordered direct from the wholesale house where other supplies are purchased and

sold to the prisoners at retail price a nice little mount would be realized. This woman is alone most of the

time and has entertained George Szabo and officers. I understand that Lt. Cay gave her these orders.

Before the prison break she sent many orders to others. Surely these officers should try to help out too.

A timber contractor in Peninsula will not keep any man in his employ who eats his meal at

McCuaig's restaurant- that's the kind of place it is. A maid sent to McCuaigs from Port Arthur remained

there but three days on account of the way the place is conducted.

It is a terrible thing to give her money that should go to the Red Cross or the bombed victims in


Very respectfully,

A. Larsen, Schreiber, Ontario."

Col. Stethem's reply to this letter was returned from the Schreiber post office with a note saying

that there was no such person living in Schreiber at the time. Constable W.C.C. Gamble of the Ontario

Provincial Police investigated these charges. His reports sheds light on them:

" When interviewing Mrs. McDonnell, wife of the CPR agent at Peninsula she gave information

which corresponded practically word for word with the anonymous letter received by the Secretary of

State. Enquiries revealed that Mrs. McDonnell bears a reputation extending over many years for writing

anonymous letters to persons and other Gov't Dep'ts.... There appears to be considerable rivalry and

bad feelings between the McCuaigs and the McDonnells.... No information was gained that would

indicate any bootlegging being carried out at Peninsula at this time."

Another anonymous letter to Col. Stethem, Director of Internment Operations, suggested that it

might be well" to look into the activities of the Oxford Group in connection with the German prisoners'

escape.." Just what subversion the Group was up to was not made clear, but perhaps it was its nonviolent

approach to living based on Biblical principles that was suspect and which the newly formed

Alcoholics Anonymous adapted.

And there were other criticisms as well. From W.F. Kaynor of Waterbury, Connecticut, came the

timeless American observation made to the Canadian Ambassador in Washington that" making full

allowances for the ingenuity of the prisoners, the fact still remains that there are still too many escapes in

Canada and this country gets the impression that there is incompetence somewhere."

The strongest criticism came from H. Cooke of London, Ontario. In a strongly worded letter to

Col. Ralston, dated April 20, 1941, Cooke not only charged those in charge with gross negligence, but

went on to say that" there is only one thing to satisfy the people of Canada and especially exservicemen

and that is to rout out the Fifth Column element that must be in that branch of the service....

Surely no Commander is so blind that tunneling can be concealed and surely no guard is so blind that

28 men can get out unless there is cooperation with those escaping from within. ... And unless something

is done to stop this nonsense your position is going to be likened to that of a man who has not the best

interests of his country at heart."

Pretty strong stuff, that, but the irony is that the guards that he accuses of being a " Fifth

Column" were all ex-servicemen reactivated as part of No. 2 Company, Veterans' Guards of Canada.

Canadian Press sent 23 year old Scott Young to cover the story. Because of his initiatives he

was able to scoop the reporters from the major Toronto newspapers. In his book, A WRITER'S LIFE,

Young describes what he did. Passenger trains did not stop at Angler and there was no telegraphist

there. Instead of staying with the other reporters in a house rented from a railroader near Angler, he

hopped a freight train and went to Heron Bay where he rented a room on the second floor of the hotel

there. The floor of the room had a hole in it where there might have been a stove pipe at one time. The

hole wad directly above the lounge. With his ear to the ground so to speak, and listening to the

conversation of policemen and others involved in the hunt, he gathered a lot of information. In addition,

Canadian Press had sent a telegraphist to Heron Bay and so Young was able to get his stories to Toronto

and other CP outlets before the other reporters had filed their stories. In addition, he had CP send him

several bottles of Scotch whiskey. At the end of a long day of searching, a welcome drink was all that it

took for Young and a policeman to become fast friends- and for Young to get inside information.

He goes on to tell how he got the information that he filed on April 25, 1941." One night when

the main Toronto contingent had left by train, I was awakened by a hand... that touched my shoulder.

When I looked up I saw my OPP drinking partner beckoning me. Downstairs I caught up to him." We got

the last four", he said quietly. They're being held in the station waiting room. Your telegrapher is there,



This young reporter was able to interview the prisoners, including Ackenhausen who had made

the kayak and then write the following story that his telegrapher sent to CP:

" Last night, (April 24), they sat hidden in a box car for five hours and 45 minutes within shouting

distance of the police and soldiers. Several times the guards walked past the door of the box car before

the four policemen inspected it.... The Germans gave up without resistance. In the station later they said

that they had hidden in a hut they built themselves on the lakeshore 10 kilometres from Heron Bay and

less than a mile from Peninsula. They told the police they stayed in the bush for four days and had food

for ten more in blue packsacks which they had made.... On each of the four men the police found a map

that was so finely detailed they looked as if they had been engraved. The maps were drawn on yellow

paper commonly used for carbon copies in business offices." Upon their arrival in Toronto the next

rhorning the other reporters were able to read Young's story. In a memorandum to the Commissioner of

the RCMP, Col. Stethem stated that the maps were copied from a map believed stolen from the Officers'

Mess when the prisoners were working there without being properly guarded.

The RCMP tried to arrest Young because, by interviewing prisoners, he had breached the

Geneva Convention. While Young and the police were arguing, his telegrapher wired CP that Young

couldn't answer at the moment because the RCMP had burned his notes, tried to arrest him and a guy

with a gun had chased him onto the station platform. This made front page news and even sparked

debate in the House of Commons about the RCMP's attempt to limit freedom of the press.

In addition to the criticisms received by the Minister of National Defense and the Director of

Internment Operations, there were a number of suggestions, which had they been in operation at the

time of the escape, might have saved the lives of Loffelmeier and Miethiing. If one accepts, (and I have

serious doubts about it), the official version of events, the two young men did not die instantly as a result

of gunshot wounds, but died from loss of blood while being carried back to the Camp and their deaths

were primarily due to the time required to send a runner to the Camp to get a carrying party back to the

scene of the shooting.

Lt. T.R. Reid of Internment Camp M recommended that prison camps located in remote areas

such as Angler should establish a loft of pigeons for rapid communication between search parties and the

Camp headquarters. The pigeons would be of inestimable value and would provide search parties with

rapid contact with camp authorities at a fraction of the cost of wireless equipment. Reid stated that the

cost would be less than two cents a day per bird and that the Canadian Homing Union would donate the

required number of birds.

Thomas Hubbard of Toronto, obviously unacquainted with the rugged terrain around Angler and

the fact that there was no highway access to the Camp- there were no highways- suggested that a steam

shovel with a crane attached should be brought in to dig a trench between each hut and a deep trench


pround the whole Camp outside the wire to be filled with boulders.

Col. Stethem's reply pointed out one or two difficulties with Hubbard's plan. First of all, there

were no roads and the steam shovel equipment would have to be brought in by rail to the nearest the

siding and then somehow moved up the tote road to the Camp. Also, there would be considerable

difficulty in hauling rocks for which bulldozers would be required.

T.H. Hubbard made one more suggestion. In a letter dated April 25th, 1941, his somewhat bizarre

suggestion could be somewhat of an early detection scheme :

" An important preliminary to escape is food storage, hence chocolate bars by virtue of their

concentrated food value.... Tabs could be secretly kept on sales of this type- the frequency of purchase

by one or more prisoners might be noted and observed at periodic searchings. Also, without distortion of

the Geneva ruling it might be worthwhile to have special shipments manufactured...containing, under

medical supervision, a cramping but harmless medicament. Obviously, if the bars are consumed, a mild

case of cramps occurs, easily remedied by the camp physician. But if NO cramps occur-they are being

stored ! In that case if the prisoner effects an escape, his progress will be delayed and the results will

indicate his trail."

Is that suggestion a rather unpleasant of the old trick of dropping bread crumbs in the forest so

that one could find his way back ?

H.E. Cooke's letter may have been overly harsh, but he was right in charging incompetence and

inefficiency. To house battle hardened prisoners in huts that stood on concrete pillars above a sandy

plain was courting disaster. Then to compound this mistake by covering the space under the huts with

plywood and snow was an open invitation to hide sand dug from the tunnels.

Table knives went missing by the dozens and no suspicions were aroused; a map was stolen

from the Officers' Mess, copied and returned without anyone noticing. Scores of empty tin cans were

taken for a variety of purposes: storing meat for the escape kits; components of a ventilation pipe for the

tunnel; flattened to line Hakenhausen's kayak. No guard seemed to notice. As the floors of the huts

began to sag as every other joist was removed, the Canadians concluded ttjat must have been the result

of shoddy workmanship when the huts were built. Apparently there were no surprise roll calls ; few, if any

surprise inspections and if there were, prisoners were very skilled in hiding any evidence of a planned


Perhaps, more than anything else, complacency was a strong factor in allowing the escape to

happerrat all. From the Camp Commandant to all the guards, ey^ry red blooded Canadian at Camp X

"knew" that a successful escape could not happen from the godforsaken place in the wild bush and rock

of Northern Ontario wilderness with no roads, no possibility of crossing Lake Superior, hardly any hufnaw

habitation, and only the main line of the C.P.R. to follow.

Northern Ontario wilderness is slowly reclaiming unto itself the site of the camp, gradually

covering what once was there. In similar fashion our collective memory has all but buried what happened

at Angler in 1941. Even many of the younger people who live in the area seem unaware of what

happened here.

But is it just our indifference to this piece of history that accounts for the fact that there is no

historical marker on the Trans Canada Highway to mark the spot ? Or is that we don't want to

acknowledge the ingenuity and determination that drove our former enemies to pull off the greatest

escape of German prisoners of war in Canada in World War 11 ? Or is it something darker- that we don't

want to be reminded that the sequel to that mass escape on April 18th, 1941, led to the killing of two

young Germans, the cruel way in which Broderix' wound was treated or the killing of Martin Mueller a few

weeks later by two drunken guards ?


From Research done by Emerson Lavender

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