- Feb 8, 2007
- Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
A very interesting look into the life inside the PoW camps in Canada.
Mass hanging followed killing of 'traitor' at Alberta PoW camp
BY JANA G. PRUDEN, POSTMEDIA NEWSOCTOBER 23, 2011
EDMONTON — The order filtered down in the summer of 1944: Karl Lehmann was a traitor who had to die.
Front page of the Edmonton Journal on Dec. 18, 1946.
Photograph by: Courtesy, Edmonton Journal
Like other prisoner of war camps in Canada, Medicine Hat, Alta. camp No. 132 had its own internal police force, its own hierarchies and government, its own systems of discipline. Though the camp was guarded on the outside by Canadian soldiers, daily life inside the wire was entirely dictated by the German inmates themselves.
After an attempt was made on Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's life that July at his field headquarters in East Prussia, rumours circulated that a revolutionary movement was planning to take over the Medicine Hat camp by force. Canada's highest-ranking prisoner of war decreed from Ontario that anyone suspected of traitorous activities against the German army was to be identified and killed in a way that looked like a suicide. One of those suspected traitors was Karl Lehmann.
At the Medicine Hat camp, four prisoners started making a plan. They were: Willi Mueller, a pilot who had made 78 trips over enemy territory before being shot down and captured by Allied troops north of Glasgow in May 1941; Heinrich Busch, who had been shot down in England early in 1941; Bruno Perzonowski, a navigator who was captured in North Wales; and Walter Wolf, a sergeant who had been captured in North Africa and brought to Canada as a prisoner of war in 1942.
Watching Lehmann walk across the yard one day, Wolf turned to a friend.
"Whenever I see the fat one, I see a rope around his neck," he said.
Before the war, Lehmann had been a respected academic, a professor of languages who taught at the University of Erlangen. The quiet, heavy-set German had first been suspected of revolutionary activity while being held at a PoW camp in England, and was now thought to be the leader of the suspected uprising in the Medicine Hat camp.
On the evening of Sept. 10, 1944, Mueller, Busch, Perzonowski and Wolf asked Lehmann into one of the huts, saying they needed his help them with some papers.
Once inside, they ushered him to a bench.
"Do you know anything about the communistic activities in the camp?" they asked.
When Lehmann said no, they beat him and slipped the noose around his neck. The men left Lehmann dead at the end of the thin rope, his face swollen and battered, his knees bent, feet dragging on the floor.
Two years later, the four killers had nooses waiting for them.
By the fall of 1946, the Second World War was over, but the fight to save the lives of the four German prisoners was ongoing. There had been numerous petitions and pleas sent to Ottawa asking for clemency, based largely on the idea that the four soldiers believed they were following orders from their superiors when they killed Lehmann.
"Evidently the crime of the German prisoners was committed under circumstances that made it on their part an obligation under the oath of allegiance to the supreme commander of the German army and to a national police that now no longer exists," Rev. Paul Hediger wrote in a 1,000-name petition he sent to Ottawa.
Hediger said many of those who signed the petition were veterans of the war themselves, but opposed the execution on Christian and humanitarian grounds.
A member of the War Prisoners' Aid Society, who had got to know Perzonowski well, also expressed sympathy for the prisoners.
"I found him a quiet-spoken, very co-operative man who, I am inclined to think, would have remained a law-abiding citizen if he had grown up under less dictatorial conditions. The other three men I have met only once, but I have reason to assume that they, too, now regret and hate the soul-destroying indoctrination which turned them into murderers."
Letters also came from the soldiers' families and friends in Germany, who remembered the young men as they had been before the war, and begged that their lives be spared.
"We always disagreed with the evils done by the Nazis," wrote Busch's sister. "If my brother should have adopted the Nazi ideology during his captivity, I can see the only possible explanation is the influence of his comrades."
The four Germans were scheduled to be executed with Canadian war veteran Donald Sherman Staley, who had admitted to the brutal sex murders of two young boys, one in Calgary and one in Vancouver, during the summer of 1946.
As the day of the executions approached, Staley, too, wrote letters to Ottawa pleading for his life, saying he was "sexual insane," and couldn't help his behaviour.
"I claim that I must have been born this way, and should not be held responsible for what I done, but should receive treatment of some kind instead of being condemned to die for something I can't help," he wrote.
Others who petitioned on Staley's behalf suggested he could be used as a test subject for a lobotomy, a new procedure that had recently shown some success in treating patients, including a "cigar-smoking, morally degenerate 28-year-old woman" in Detroit, according to newspaper reports at the time. Staley's lawyer noted that his client was an "otherwise healthy young man," and urged that Staley be placed in a mental institution where he could be used as a test subject for scientists studying deviant behaviour.
The government would not intervene in any of the cases, and preparations continued for the five executions, set to take place at the Provincial Gaol in Lethbridge, Alta. on Dec. 18, 1946. It was to be the largest mass hanging in Canada in more than 60 years, second only to the hanging of eight aboriginal men for their involvement in the Northwest Rebellion with Louis Riel in 1885.
With only two death cells at the Lethbridge Gaol, a new cellblock was designated to hold the five condemned men until their sentences could be carried out.
The four Germans spent the days before their execution playing chess, shouting their moves to each other from separate cells. None of the men would speak to Staley, who spent his final days doing jigsaw puzzles alone.
Perzonowski and Busch were hanged together just after midnight. Mueller and Wolf followed half an hour later, then Staley. All five were executed in less than an hour.
With no one to claim the bodies, the men were put in individual coffins and buried in a common grave.
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