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Francine and Frank Clarke
January 28, 1999
Few know about the internment camps in Newfoundland that were located in downtown St. John's, at Pleasantville, and at Victoria, near the town of Carbonear. Between 1939 and 1945 the Commission of Government in Newfoundland was involved in at least three different types of internment operations to secure its population from the Germans. Most of this story will involve the large camp built for 1,000 internees in 1940. The camp at Victoria was originally planned for 1,000 civilian internees to be received from the U.K. When these were shipped elsewhere, the camp was modified for POW use. Although Victoria Camp was on Newfoundland soil and Newfoundland wanted the camp to be used and was unconcerned about the alleged danger to her own security, outside powers imposed on Newfoundland the decision not to use it. The defenseless condition of Newfoundland and the limited sovereignty of its London appointed Commission of Government reinforced this tendency. That was why Victoria Camp, although intended to relieve the U.K. of a security risk, could not be used as long as Canada considered it a threat to her own security. On the fearful morning of September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. On May 11, 1940, he demanded "a very large roundup of enemy aliens and suspected persons," adding it was "much better that those persons should be behind barbed wire." Winston Churchill, fearing the refugees were spies sent by Hitler had them rounded up and put in internment camps. "Collar the lot! He'd instructed, ordering them shipped out to a reluctant Canada and Australia as soon as possible.
Construction of the Victoria Camp was started in response to an urgent despatch from the British government on June 14, 1940, pleading with Newfoundland to take 1,000 of Britain's civilian internees. Interestingly Heart's Content, Argentia, Port au Port, Whitbourne and Random Island were also considered. The cost of operation was $150,000.00 for construction and $2,500 weekly for food and other amenities. It was in response to this that on September 27, 1940 the Dominion Secretary proposed a new scheme for Victoria Camp, namely its utilization as a POW camp for 1,000 captured enemy airmen, consisting of 250 officers and 750 other ranks, mostly NCOs This would mean a change to the camp. The new layout would provide for a separation of the officers from the other ranks by a fifteen-foot road with a strong wire fence on both sides. The two sets of prisoners would be common to both of them. According to a blueprint from London of October 8, 1940, the camp required 153 guards and administrative staff of twenty-four, including orderlies, three batmen, three clerks, two interpreters, two electricians, and a hospital cook. Newfoundland's offer relieved Britain of the need to send POWs to Australia for some time. By early June more than 10,000 people of German ancestry had been herded aboard ships and sent into exile. At that time, little did the people of Newfoundland know that a tiny town located about two miles inland from the shore of Conception Bay was chosen as a site for a British Prisoner of war Camp. The town was Victoria - the date - June 14, 1940
At this particular time, Victoria was suffering severe hardships due to the ravages of the Great Depression. Being inland, having restricted access to the fishery, and little arable land, the community was feeling the weight of unemployment and poverty. Many young men joined the services and went overseas, but for the most part, the town was almost completely devastated by lasting unemployment. Any type of major construction was a boon and little thought was given to the impact of having German soldiers imprisoned in the town. The thought that prevailed was of the economic benefits to be gained from the construction of the camps. Documents show that more than $200 000.00 was to be spent on the buildings. In addition to these finances, was the money that would be spent by the guards and workers. Also, of course, the incomes that many local residents would receive by working on the site greatly influenced the government's decision to take 1000 civilian internees. John Clarke of Clarke and Clarke a local merchant was contracted to truck the materials from the train station in Carbonear to the site on what is now known as Power House Road. The site was clearly a good one as it was on a level stretch of land, within a 100 yards of a Hydroelectric power station, built in 1902. This provided cheap power and a steady water supply. In addition to this, the camp was not visible from the sea and could be reached only by a narrow road leading from Carbonear. This road was poorly constructed and could be kept passable for only about five months a year with a great deal of work and the help of snow plows. The strategy used in the selection of this location is clear. German raiders hoping to free the internees would have to either capture St. John's and use the railway to the road at Carbonear, some eighty miles away, or enter Conception Bay and land forces at Carbonear. The presence of land and sea forces in St. John's and the air bases near St. John's at the Newfoundland airport would make this venture hazardous that the Newfoundland Government felt that the site was almost impossible to capture Plans for the Prisoner of war Camp were planned quickly. A document entitled AN OVERSEAS PRISONER OF WAR CAMP (OTHER RANKS). TO ACCOMMODATE 501 TO 1000 PRISONERS was prepared Plans were completed and Staff and guards were assigned.
STAFF ASSIGNMENT STAFF: Commandant (Lieutenant-Colonial 1 Adjutant and quartermaster 1 Interpreters (Captains) 2 Medical Officer 1 Regimental serjeant-major 1 Provost serjeants (a) 1 Dispenser-serjeant (b) 2 Rank and file: Clerks 3 Batmen 3 Nursing orderlies (b) 4 Hospital cooks (b) 1 Sanitary assistant (b) 1 Electricians 2 Total staff 24 GUARDS: Captain 1 Subalterns 2 Company serjeant-major 1 Company quartermaster-serjeant 1 Serjeants 8 Corporals 8 Privates 132 Total, Guards 153 (c)
(a) To be infantry personnel
Construction of the camp was begun immediately and many local residents (attached) were hired in late June of 1940. During the next few months rapid progress was made. Every detail concerning the layout and setting up of the camps was well planned (see attached diagram). The area enclosed by the camp was 600 feet by 1,100 feet. It was completed on time at a cost of $200 000. It consisted of twenty bunk houses and latrines for internees, five kitchen mess house blocks, one officers' mess and quarters, three bunk houses and latrines for guards, a kitchen mess house for guards, a guard house, an administration building, a hospital building, a quartermaster's store and offices, an underground vegetable store and six sentry buildings. A supply of blankets, drugs, cutlery, crockery, enamelware, and tinware was ready for use. According to a watchman's report of January 12, 1941, the camp contained 1,224 mattresses and pillows, "all placed in readiness." The report also lists "quite a lot of boxes containing soap, hardware, cooking utensils ... in the original packages." Considering it "unwise not to obtain possession of the land, at least for a period commensurate with the life of the buildings," the government of Newfoundland offered to purchase the twenty-acre camp site from the British government for $3,100 in December, 1940. Land owned by local residents was sold to the Newfoundland Government of the day. The Government ordered crockery, stoves, bedding, cutlery and tents in advance, so that by the time November 15 arrived everything would be ready for the internees. In September, the Newfoundland Government was notified of the Staff and Guard Requirements. According to a telegram dated October 8 to the Government of Newfoundland, twenty-four staff members and one hundred and fifty-three guards were to be stationed at the camp. (All references are appended to this paper).
While construction was continuing the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and the Newfoundland Government exchanged telegrams discussing the pros and cons of the impact that the camp would have on Newfoundland and Canada.
On September 6, 1940, the old plans were altered in England. The Government of Newfoundland received a telegram saying:
It is important to note that at this time the United States had made plans and had acquired property in Newfoundland to establish military bases at St. John's, Goose Bay, Stephenville and Argentia. It is apparent that they were preparing for the possibility of their involvement in a war. Wanting to protect all the Atlantic Seaboard they induced pressure on the Canadian, British and Newfoundland Governments to stop their plans to bring German prisoners of war into Victoria. Within days of the American pressure the Newfoundland Government ordered the demolition of the camps. A week or so later the place was completely dismantled by local residents and plans were made to send the parishioners to other areas. Of note is that John Clarke of R&W Clarke's Ltd. got the contract to truck all the dismantled material to Buckmasters Circle where it was eventually destroyed. Even though almost fifty-six years have passed since the construction and dismantlement of the camps, the site is still visible but is being turned into a Heritage Park. Indeed, the prisoner of war camps were one of the most important events in our history but as generations pass fewer residents remember the events that might have changed the course of history for Conception Bay and maybe all of Newfoundland. Could this happen again? One cannot say, however, the overall impact of having such a camp in Victoria would have had enormous and lasting effects on the economic, cultural and geographical outlook of the town. Maybe Victoria would be now the center of Conception Bay, maybe, it would be a rich industrial center or maybe it would have been bombed and the town and its people devastated. What would have happened "if" the German prisoners were sent over, will never be known, but the decision to halt the plans and send the prisoners somewhere else was probably for the best.
The following men from Victoria worked at the POW Camp at Victoria at some time during its construction or demolition.
Page contributed by: Frank and Francine Clarke, (1999)
Page revised: Oct. 2002 (Terry Piercey)
|NAME||DESCRIPTION OF ERROR||REPORTED BY|
|DEERING, Hunter*1||The surname for Hunter Deering shoould have been printed as Hunter Dearing. Evidently the authur od the article mis-spelled the surname in the article.||Shelley Dearing McKay|
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