When the Boys Came to Town

Canadian Legion Magazine January/February 2013

They did more than train to become wartime aircrew. They harvested crops, organized hockey teams, played in bands for high school dances and graduations, not to mention winning the hearts of thousands of local young ladies. Airmen trainees of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan had an impact on communities that went far deeper than economics.

In late 1939 when the BCATP was announced, hundreds of Depression-weary communities across Canada jumped at the chance to host a training base and lobbying began. Beckoning were construction jobs, service jobs, support jobs, supply jobs and booms for local merchants. But what about potential social tensions created by near-instantaneous population jumps of 60% or more—most all of them randy young men? Abbotsford BC for example, with a population of under 600 in 1944, played host to 1,405 trainees each month. And in Saskatchewan, vast numbers of out-of-towners were to descend on a population that had been 64% rural in 1936.

The BCATP graduated 131,553 aircrew during the Second World War from bases hosted by more than 80 Canadian cities and towns, the majority of which were located in less-populated rural areas. Most appeared in the prairie provinces because of the flat land, often-clear weather, distance from vulnerable maritime regions and fewer trees and mountains. Despite all the lobbying, the federal government considered only the exigencies of the air training environment.

“Partisan politics played no part,” writes Rachel Lea Heide in her Carleton University 2000 MA thesis The Politics of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Base Selection in Western Canada. Researching Department of Transport and RCAF documentation she found selection was based solely on criteria “that ensured the timely and economical development of aerodromes suitable for military air training.” Potential social problems weren’t considered.

Towns welcomed the opportunity. Rather than fret about social problems they knew economics would far outweigh those. So they set about ways of minimizing social impact—setting up local social clubs, dances, inviting recruits into their homes, sponsoring sporting events, providing books to libraries, and much more.

Bases responded by holding open houses, inviting locals to on-base social events and graduation ceremonies, helping with the fall harvest. It was win-win: the communities reached out to the airmen and the airmen reached out to the communities.

Warm welcomes were the order of the day from the outset. Peter Conrad, in his 1987 University of Saskatchewan MA thesis Saskatchewan at War: the social impact of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan on Saskatchewan, provides some examples. In Weyburn on Christmas Day 1941, 75 British trainees were greeted at the railway station by the mayor and 100 citizens, and taken to the legion hall for a hot lunch. In North Battleford the chief of the Battle River Cree donned full ceremonial dress and walked miles to town just to shake the hands of RAF recruits bound for No. 35 Service Flying Training School (SFTS).

During weekdays, airmen were busy in ground school learning navigation, armaments, meteorology and aerodynamics. Or they were taking Tiger Moths and Fleet Finches aloft at Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS); or on more advanced airplanes like Ansons, Cranes, Harvards or Oxfords at the SFTSs. Others would be training at Air Navigation Schools or Bombing & Gunnery Schools. But there was an off-duty aspect too, and students were young and far from home.

To help them feel at home, many communities formed social clubs. Conrad reports Saskatchewan’s popular “hostess clubs” organized by local women “where they can always be assured of a very hearty welcome.” Men could enjoy a home-cooked meal; on dance nights girls would give up their leisure time to be dancing partners—carefully chaperoned. Moreover “there were always willing fingers to sew on a loose button or decoration of merit.” Municipal buildings were often used, e.g. the Yorkton public auditorium. Swift Current boasted of their all-volunteer Hostess Hut. At more remote Dafoe, near the Bombing & Gunnery School, the club was run by the YWCA.

A more recent MA thesis, by Ryan Richdale at the University of Victoria, researched the impact of BC lower mainland BCATP bases and reported a local club known as the Ladner Dugout where dances were immensely popular with Boundary Bay airmen, e.g. those at No. 5 Operational Training Unit (OTU) near Delta. “Not only did the Dugout serve as a recreation centre for those working and training at the airfield, but it was a central meeting point where airmen and civilians, including civilian women, could mingle,” he writes. In was in fact so popular that in November 1942 the Delta Optimist reported the Delta School Board concern that “high school girls were attending Dugout parties far too often, compromising their studies.” Popularity of these clubs amongst local young women was no doubt strengthened by the fact that large numbers of eligible local men were themselves away at war.

“In the populations of these towns many of the young men had gone off to work in the factories or enlisted in the forces,” says Patrick Brennan, Associate Professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of History. “So there was a shortage of young men and there was a desire to do something. Have these guys over for dinner, they are lonely, far from home and many will go off to die. There was an enormous compassion for them. Many of the locals, particularly the middle-aged, had their own sons off in the war.”

The bases reciprocated. Military bands played at local swing sessions, concerts, Christmas festivals and fundraisers. Communities were often invited to on-base dances—partly to boost the girl-boy ratio. Of the May 1942 Dafoe Airmen’s Dance, Conrad writes “young ladies from the surrounding towns of Dafoe, Watson, Melfort and Humboldt were brought to the station in private cars.” One report cited “even the Henna-haired widows came off their rocking chairs to join the dance circuit and had a ball.”

This reaching out extended to helping with the prairie harvest; when labour was in short supply. Men would give up their 48-hour or even 7-day leaves to participate. In the fall of 1942, a good crop year, 50 British trainees volunteered at Swift Current.

Participation in sports played a large part in military-civilian bonding too: basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, and golf. Civilian teams joined recreational and competitive leagues with servicemen.

Communities offered their recreation facilities. And hockey rinks were a standard feature of BCATP bases. When the Yorkton Terriers were eliminated from the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League in the 1942-43 season due to wartime pressures, No. 11 SFTS stepped up and challenged them. SFTS were defeated two games straight—gaining a lot of community respect. Later the best of the SFTS players joined the remainder of the Terriers to form the new Yorkton Flyers. Baseball was popular too; e.g. the Mossbank team played locals against the Gunnery School.

Locals became just as proud as the graduates at wings parades. As press coverage of the graduating classes from No. 24 EFTS increased, so too did the community’s involvement in the ceremonies. At some of the Saskatchewan units, locals organized formal dinner parties for the graduates.

Local businesses were pleased. Some Moose Jaw taxi firms offered unprofitable services to aircrew. Conrad reported companies getting together and agreeing to charge just $1 for the half-hour ride to or from No. 32 SFTS.

Inevitably there would be tensions too. Brennan points out differences between trainees—who cornered most of the glory—and permanent military personnel like instructors and mechanics. The permanent ones “had to integrate into the community and were there all the time,” he says, “and so the things that rub people the wrong way were around a lot longer.” He talks of locals renting out “hellholes” to make money. The younger ones who were just going through “had a good time,” says Brennan. “They may have fallen in love many times, they were heroes etc.” But the permanent members have been given short shrift he feels. “Arguably it was them who contributed most to the local economies—they’d buy groceries and pay rent for most of the war.” And often they weren’t made to feel welcome in the same way. “Someone who fixes airplanes isn’t going to get invited out to supper as often as the 19-year-old kid from Nova Scotia.”

In the few situations where community interaction was minimal, good relations suffered. It contributed to the only major incident pitting locals against BCATP personnel. At RAF Moose Jaw the Commanding Officer lived on base, isolated from town. Morale was reportedly low. One LAC wrote of the place being a “cultural desert”. Moose Jaw aircraft serviceability rates ran 10-15% below average. In July 1943 CO G/C George brought in strict disciplinary measures to try and boost morale. It didn’t work. In September 1944, things came to a head when 350 RAF airmen showed up at the local Temple Gardens dance and violence broke out with locals. It lasted three days until George imposed a curfew. The RCAF report into the incidents also implicated some local civilians of the “street-corner” variety.

Fortunately that was an isolated incident and atypical. In fact farewells were just as cordial as welcomes. Conrad reports a local newspaper interview with a departing Australian Sergeant pilot. “On leaving Yorkton we felt like we did on leaving our own homes in Australia,” said the pilot. Another said he had so many gifts and souvenirs that he couldn’t stow them all in his bag. Some citizens even handed the boys cash for the rail trip to Montreal.

One of the Delta OTU’s most popular events was when the base closure had been announced and they held an open house in the summer of 1945. “More than twelve thousand people of all ages, from all parts of the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley flocked to the event,” cites Richdale. “Three thousand cars overflowed the makeshift parking lots…”

And there were legacies: at least 3,750 Canadian women married airmen from the BCATP bases. These included 12 from tiny Weyburn, Saskatchewan and 34 from North Battleford. Many of the bases went on to spur post-war commercial aviation enterprises.

Overall, Brennan says he’s not surprised relations turned out so well. “The default position for the local community was that this was going to work—there was a big plus beyond the economic benefit, and the air force bent over backwards to make sure it worked out. The airmen were under strict military discipline; and the young men were a decent bunch of guys basically.”

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