“Prisoners of war did not feel like heroes. They felt like they had somehow failed their duty. It was extremely debilitating for men to be taken prisoners — and that notion permeates this diary.” 

Fourth-year History major Anna Good is speaking about her research on the diary of Cameron Hill, a resident of Kitchener who was a flight sergeant with the Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 40 Squadron during World War II. 

In 1942, Hill was captured after he and his co-pilots survived the downing of their plane in El Alamein, Egypt. He was just 22-years-old. During 932 days of captivity, Hill was moved ten times between prisoner of war (POW) camps in North Africa and Europe — minus four days when he briefly escaped from a train in Austria. In the spring of 1945, he was released and returned to Kitchener.

Cameron Clay Hill

> Cameron Hill

Good discovered the story of Hill when she was looking for a primary-source History research topic last fall. A recent acquisition of Special Collections and Archives, the Hill collection includes his Wartime Log (the diary) and numerous other documents and personal items. 

“It was simply stunning,” she says. The diary proved a goldmine for first-person evidence of what Canada’s World War II POWs endured.”

The most pronounced takeaway for Good was the stigmatization experienced by soldiers who became POWs.

“Time stood still for POWs — they were trapped and unable to contribute to the war effort. Throughout the diary, Hill would write things such as ‘[I would rather be a] 1943 hero than a 1940 coward.’ Many secondary sources discussed the emasculation that this caused, which many men brought home with them.”

Researching further on the disparity between public perception and lived reality of POWs, Good found “newspapers would publish editorials describing how being a prisoner of war was so fantastic, with segments titled ‘War Prisoners Learn to Cook.’ Of course, Hill's entries contradicted what was being portrayed back home, and thus his war diary became an outlet — a way to fix the misconstrued messages — even if no one was able to read it.”

Anna Good

> Anna Good


Hill’s diary includes entries about daily experiences, lists, quotes — Winston Churchill: “The days are very long, the hours crawl like paralysed centipedes” — and creative content such as poems, cartoons and drawings by Hill or his comrades, including airplanes, prison scenes, maps, young women and scenes from home. 

A particularly fascinating section of the diary represents a sardonic coping strategy that Good learned was practiced by many POWs. In their diaries, they quote excerpts of real or imagined letters from home to prisoners: “From a wife — Darling, I’ve had a baby with an American Officer, but don’t worry, he’s paying expenses …”


“These entries express understandable anxieties and fears all POWs had, such as losing your fiancé to a real ‘war hero’ or being mocked for having allowed yourself to become a captive,” Good says.

The course essay she wrote is titled “Distorted Public Perceptions: A Look into the Life of a Canadian Prisoner of War in the Second World War.” In it, Good discusses how the distortion was exacerbated by the Canadian government’s mishandling of their POWs. They did not establish a dedicated office of POW affairs, and the government “found themselves tangled in a bureaucratic fiasco by 1943 when there were […] close to 10,000 Canadians in captivity in enemy hands,” Good writes in her essay.
It was non-government organizations that stepped up to support Canadians in captivity, Good learned. 
“In 1942, there were already about 900 organizations that had been established to assist Canadians who had been captured. The YMCA was one of the top three — they sent a wide variety of shipments including the Wartime Logs, books, rations and musical instruments.” 
She adds that Hill noted in the diary when parcels arrived and when they didn’t: “No parcels, no smokes, no nothing, things are grim.”

More than a decade after he returned to Kitchener, Hill was still seeking compensation for time endured as a POW. Good examined his copy of The War Claims Commission form titled “Maltreatment Summary — European POW.”

“It was essentially designed to place a dollar figure on the suffering of POWs,” Good says. “The compensation categories included ‘Aggravating Malnutrition’ at a $50 lump sum and ‘5 box-car trips’ at $20 each. Hill eventually received a cheque for $377.20 as the full settlement for two and half years as a POW.”
At the end of her essay, Good comments on the struggle with stigmatization and misperceptions former POWs had (and have) when they returned home. 
“Captured or not, all veterans deserve our respect and our honour for their service, and it is unfortunate we have not fully come to this realization.”
Good is emphatic about her archival research experience: “It was fantastic, with more to discover at every turn. I absolutely loved working with the collection.” 
After graduating in Spring 2021, she hopes to pursue her MA in History at Waterloo.
Credits: Colour photos courtesy of Liam Good @liamgoodvisuals