When the Germans came to Fawcett Lake
He liked to skate, or at least the idea of skating. He was a blacksmith by trade and briefly a member of a submarine crew. Now he spent his days hacking limbs from fallen spruce trees with a broad-axe and occasionally doing blacksmith work in the company shop.
Somehow he managed to find or fashion a pair of skates. Maybe he used his skills to craft a couple of blades he could attach to his boots. Thus equipped, he went out onto the frozen lake in the moonlight.
It wasn’t allowed, of course. Much was not allowed. He was to stay away from the civilian employees, and couldn’t go for walks in the bush. Hunting and trapping were forbidden. He was allowed to go out to work, come back and stay in barracks and not much else. He was, after all, a German prisoner of war.
But like most of his 50-odd companions, he did many things that were not on the permitted list and contemplated doing others. Tonight, he would try skating.
The lake was bare and smooth, the ice at least six inches thick. A combination of early frost and no snow had created the perfect skating rink. He had been noticing it and preparing it for several days. Tonight was the night.
He strapped on his blacksmith shop blades and pushed off with his right skate, gliding on his left. He continued, pushing and gliding in large circles, enjoying the sensation.
The moonlight reflected in the lake’s dark surface and the stars twinkled brilliantly in a black sky. The kerosene lantern glow leaking out of the camp buildings was insignificant, and partly hidden by shoreline brush. Far off beyond the shoreline a coyote called, and was soon answered by another and then another in an eerie high-pitched wail. It gave him the creeps. He had read stories in his boyhood about life in the American wilderness. And now here I am, he thought - wild animals and forest all around and me alone in the middle of it.
But not quite alone. Suddenly, he was aware of someone watching him.
At first glance there’s not much to get excited about at the west end of Fawcett Lake. There’s an undeveloped government campground and lots of bush of the usual kind. Once you start poking around, though, there’s plenty of evidence of human activity in former times.
Suckering aspen and poplar trees push up through and around piles of rotting timbers. Spruce trees too, of 40 or 50-year vintage stand over scattered remnants of machinery and equipment. Rusted chains, cables, bars, wheels, sprockets, pipes and panels litter the leaf mould - sometimes on it and sometimes buried by it.
Only one structure remains at West Fawcett. It is a cabin belonging to Tom Matty. Matty and members of his family have been using it in summer months for the past 50-odd years, pretty much ever since the Swanson Lumber Company abandoned the place after the war. For about five years prior, there had been a busy sawmill community there. When nearby timber ran out, the mill and the community vanished and the structures that remained started their long decay. All except for Matty’s cabin, which the former Swanson’s superintendent maintained as a summer cabin.
The hut’s connection to a vanished community gives it local historical value, but even more because of the unusual story of its construction. Its timbers were squared by German prisoners of war. It stands as an unintended monument to their two-and-a-half years of labour in the bush. Besides the cabin, there is nothing left but memories of those three years when the enemy came to Fawcett Lake.
The POWs were crew members of two German submarines, both captured early in the war. U-39 was in fact the first German submarine casualty in the war, according to John Masters of the HMS Firedrake Association. In his book on the history of the Firedrake, Masters devotes a chapter to the story of the sinking of the U-39. The battle took place in September of 1939 in the Atlantic Ocean northwest of Scotland.
“On the 14th September (1939) at 1512 hrs. off the Rockall Bank, U39 fired two torpedoes at the Ark Royal (a British carrier accompanied by six destroyers). Both exploded before hitting their mark.
“(HMS) Foxhound went straight into the attack followed by the Faulknor and then the Firedrake. All three destroyers dropped a pattern of depth charges over the same area. Firedrake was the last to lay her pattern.
“Minutes later the U-boat came slowly to the surface. Foxhound was nearest to U39 as she surfaced, and was about to ram her but men were seen jumping into the sea from the conning tower so the rescue started. The Foxhound picked up 25 of the boat crew.”
It was an unlucky day for the submarine, but very lucky for her crew. Not a single man died in the sinking. All 43 were rescued and taken prisoner. Not one of them had to face another depth charge for the rest of the war. Nor did the crew of U-27, which was sunk in similar fashion six days later in the same waters. All 38 of her crew were rescued by the British ships that sunk her. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the men in Germany’s U-boat navy did not survive the war.
All of the U-39 crew and part of the U-27 crew ended up deep in the wilderness of northwestern Canada in late 1943. There they served out the war cutting down trees 10 hours a day, six days a week while death and destruction raged over Europe and Asia.
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