In time of war, nothing puts the people of a community on edge like suspicion that an enemy might be lurking in their midst.
During the First World War the residents of Guelph, like Canadians across the country, feared German spies could be anywhere and saboteurs might target the city’s water supply, the railroad, the electric plant, the military barracks or any of the factories engaged in war work.
There were even rumours German agents had infiltrated the Boys Scouts so as to gain access to army camps.
Guelph citizens obediently turned their wireless sets in to Chief of Police Frederick Randall. One Guelph man of foreign background was arrested and fined for allegedly making pro-German comments and two others were similarly treated for possession of subversive literature. Suspicion about the loyalty of the students at the Roman Catholic Novitiate resulted in a raid on the seminary by military police that made national headlines.
Mistrust of Eastern European immigrants – all of whom were dubbed “Austrians” – led to them being rounded up and shipped off to detention camps.
But for all this paranoia, only once during that war did Guelphites come close to a German agent, and at the time they weren’t even aware of it. A German saboteur named Charles Respa had been arrested following a failed attempt to set off a bomb at the armoury in Windsor. Respa was secretly held in Guelph’s Wellington County jail to thwart any plots by his confederates to free him and spirit him across the American border. By the time Guelphites learned they’d had the notorious enemy agent in their jail, he’d been sent back to Windsor to stand trial.
During the Second World War, fear over the activities of enemy agents was compounded by concerns about escaped prisoners of war. Allied commanders believed that for security reasons, it was better to send captured enemy military personnel to Canada than hold them in Britain. The reasoning was that having an ocean between the prisoners and their own armies would discourage escape attempts. Thousands of German prisoners were kept in camps scattered across Canada, where vast, wild terrain was also an obstacle to escape. Some were airmen and seamen, but the majority were soldiers such as those captured during the North African campaign against Rommel.
In spite of the near-impossibility of escaped German soldiers ever making it from Canada to Germany (only one actually did it), there were still numerous escapes from prisoner of war (POW) camps. It was considered to be a captured soldier’s duty to try to escape and put his enemy to the trouble of catching him again. Many German prisoners plotted escapes as a means of diversion from the boredom of life in the camp. It was a dangerous game, because fugitive prisoners could be shot.
There were 10 POW camps in Ontario. One of the nearest, relatively speaking, to Guelph was Camp Number 20 at Gravenhurst. Located on the shore of Lake Muskoka on the site of an old hotel and a former tuberculosis sanitarium, the camp could accommodate about 400 prisoners. Some of them were men who had been conscripted into the German army, but others were hardcore Nazis.
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire fencing and watched over by guard towers. Anti-tunneling measures were incorporated into the ground outside the wire. Inside the camp, guards conducted numerous head counts and searches. The outside perimeter was regularly patrolled.
Nonetheless, there were escape attempts.
On the evening of December 8, 1942, while prisoners distracted the guards’ attention with a snowball fight, a group of officers escaped by means of a snow tunnel and a hole cut in the wire fence. The escapees had food, maps, winter clothing, first-aid supplies and forged documents identifying them as Polish refugees.
A headcount revealed seven prisoners were missing. It was to-date the second largest POW breakout in Canada. The alarm went out, with the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police notified. Soon police, civilian volunteers and guards with dogs were searching the area around the camp, the town of Gravenhurst, and cottages and boathouses that were closed up for the winter. Within 18 hours, six of the escapees were recaptured, although three had made it as far as Barrie. Still at large was Lieut. Siegfried Schmidt.
Twenty-six-year-old Schmidt was a pilot in the Luftwaffe. He spoke good English and was reported to be a “student of languages” who might frequent public libraries.
For a week, searchers looked for Schmidt and found no sign of him. Then on Dec. 15 a farmer near Brampton found socks, underwear and a shirt that looked like the kind worn by POW camp inmates. He reported his discovery to the police who determined Schmidt might have somehow obtained a change of clothes. Because the discarded clothing was found near railroad tracks, they thought the fugitive might be on a train. The next stop down the line was Guelph.
The Guelph police were notified and were at the station when the 8:00 PM C.N.R. train rolled in. They searched it from end to end but did not find Schmidt. However, the express agent told them he had seen the figure of a man leap from the last car and run across the tracks.
Every Guelph police constable was called in to help with the search. They were joined by local military reservists and Royal Netherlands Army troops who were training in Guelph. Manhunters trudged along the railway line and looked for the escapee in woods, fields and farm buildings. In the city, cops and detectives watched the bus depot and walked the streets looking for anyone who appeared suspicious. There was no sign of Schmidt, in the library or anywhere else.
The dragnet soon extended to Toronto and Orangeville. “Sightings” of Schmidt were reported in Chatham and Kitchener. Then for weeks there was no trace of the elusive German.
There were red faces all around when Schmidt was finally found on April 6, hiding in an attic in one of the POW camp buildings. Schmidt had never left Camp 20.