Historical Society of St. Catharines

Celebrating the history of St. Catharines and its vicinity

Meeting Recap: Snapshots of the Home Front – Niagara in 1939 to 1941

Posted by dsharron on April 27, 2009

Using images from the St. Catharines Standard Collection from the St. Catharines Museum, Graham Phair took the Society back to the Niagara area during the early years of World War II.  When Hitler invaded Poland and Great Britain declared war, Canada was quick to support their British allies.  The people of Niagara were equally ready to put their best efforts forward.

One of the major centres of activity was Camp Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake where local units trained as well as those from Hamilton and the far west of Canada.  Even professional hockey players such as Turk Broda and Syl Apps spent time in Camp Niagara.  Soldiers practiced such skills as machine gun firing, gas mask use, bayonets, semaphore, rifling and more.  The 2nd/10th Dragoons had to march from St. Catharines to Niagara-on-the Lake to conduct their artillery training.  The St. Catharines Flying Club and similar clubs across Canada, under the direction of Murton Seymour, agreed to start to train pilots for the war.

The First Battalion of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment was fully active at the outbreak of the war.  Both young and old enlisted at the outbreak of the war.  The uniforms and equipment of the Canadian military were still largely based on those from the First World War.  Servicemen had some perks around the cities and towns.  For example, they were allowed free entry into the local YMCA’s as an opportunity for recreation. 

The City of St. Catharines, itself, witnessed a change in its manufacturing sector.  Many of the factories were retooled to make the implements of war.  The Collegiate even changed its programs to focus on factory work.  The Decew Power Station was expanded to provide more energy.  Women began to find jobs in the absence of men.  And wartime houses sprang up all over the city.  One St. Catharine company was indirectly present for a major capture of a Nazi figure.  When Rudolph Hess crash-landed in Scotland, the man who captured him, David McLean, held him at bay with a two-pronged pitchfork made at the Welland Vale Company in St. Catharines.

Everyone did his or her part to support the war.  Individuals collected scrap metal to be recycled for the war effort.  People also rationed their food, gas and other amenities – all as a part of doing their part.  Local companies such as McKinnons made raising money for the war a competition.  Neighbourhoods, schools, social clubs, churches, and ethnic groups all came together to hold dances, parades and other events to raise money for the war.  The Red Cross was a major recipient of these goodwill efforts. 

If there was one thing to take away from the April meeting, it was the fact that all of the Niagara area either directly or indirectly did their part to support the Canadian military during the Second World War.  A fact that we should all be proud and thankful for.

Graham Phair’s book, Snapshots of the Homefront: 1939 – 1941, is available at the St. Catharines Museum.  He is currently working a second book on World War II.  Keep an eye out for it.  

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