by Peter C. Conrad
In communities across the Prairies, airmen and airwomen took the place of absent locals who had participated in sports before the war. The most important sports were those that allowed the most participation—hockey and baseball. Canadian airmen and airwomen who were familiar with these sports found they were quickly accepted in the host communities’ activities.
A column that appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix in July 1940 illustrated the community’s need. After describing the departure of a large number of men from Sonningdale, the columnist added: “The baseball team is facing difficulties since so many players have enlisted. Manager J. Atkins had his hands full rounding up substitutes to enable the team to play at Radisson on Dominion Day. However he succeeded so well that the Pats won first money. One former player, Chester Padget, who is home on leave from the navy, rejoined the team for the day and proved that he still knew how to play ball.”1
Golf was another sport local communities and the air personnel enjoyed together. In the 1942 golf season, The Estevan Mercury reported that “a brisk sale for … books of golfing coupons available at 15 tickets for $3.00 with each ticket good for nine holes of golf. … It will find particular favour among the divot digger at No. 38 SFTS and should bring the club some badly needed extra revenue without which it will not be able to carry on.”2 In Rivers, it was reported that the president of the golf club was to arrange a tournament and invite the RCAF.3
Although there were a limited number of swimming pools on the Prairies during the war, a keen interest was shown among the men and women of the air force. The swimming activities ranged from the basic learn-to-swim classes to a number of swimming competitions in larger communities. The most significant swimming activities were summer competitive swim meets in which RCAF personnel participated. There were both inter-station meets and meets held with prairie communities. One swimming competition was reported during the summer of 1944 in The Souris Plaindealer. “With flashy Bob Chipperfield stroking in championship form, No. 17 SFTS swimming team placed four firsts and two seconds in the area meet held in the Kiwanis pool at Brandon on Tuesday afternoon to … [come] through as best in the 50 yard freestyle and backstroked the same distance for first spot over the entrants from Rivers, Brandon and Macdonald.”4 The air station competitions were a part of a circuit sponsored by the RCAF that ended in finals at Winnipeg called the Command Swimming Meet.
Another form of swimming competition air force personnel participated in was the provincial summer circuit. The Mossbank bombing and gunnery school reported success at this level of competition in the summer of 1943: “The swimming team visited Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to take part in the Provincial Swimming Meet. In spite of a cold raw day—and colder water—the boys made an excellent showing against ranking swimmers.”5
Swimming was also reported at the summer fairs. One such event was staged in the Souris River at Estevan. The Estevan Mercury presented the pending event with enthusiasm and an invitation for residents of the city to participate:
“Don’t be surprised if the old Souris River turns into whipped cream or maybe butter along toward sundown next Sunday. The ancient stream is in for one of the biggest churnings of its career the afternoon when more than 100 swimmers and divers of all ages and sizes will take part in the annual Water Sports of Estevan Branch Canadian Legion at Woodlawn Park.
“About 40 airmen from Wing Commander Nathan and Flying Officer Brown right down the line, have already filed their entries for the RAF events and more are expected to come forward. Corresponding interest is being shown by aquatic stars of the town, and of course there will be a whole school of minnows in the youngster’s contests. … A special feature will be an exhibition of diving by the young Edmonton star, LAC Alien Rudolph.”6
Boxing and Wrestling
Boxing and wrestling were popular sports with the airmen. Boxing bouts were often internal station affairs. Inter-station competitions as well as events with army and navy teams were also held. These events were open to spectators of the surrounding districts. Boxing, like swimming, followed a circuit that ended at the finals, the Command Boxing Championships. Wrestling was often the entertainment during the intermission between the boxing events.7
The interest in boxing was illustrated by the press coverage it received throughout the war. A typical report of a boxing match was found in The Neepawa Press: “A small crowd gathered at the arena Monday night to witness some very fine boxing by members of the Carberry RAF. The program, sponsored by the Lions Clubs in aid of underprivileged children, consisted of ten bouts of good clean boxing and displayed great sportsmanship throughout.”8
On the Inside Track
Track and field sports did not play as large a role at the air training stations. As in the other sports, people from the host communities were invited as spectators to the station events. In the summer of 1943, The Rivers Gazette reported: “The third annual Track and Field Meet of No. 1 Central Navigation School was held on Thursday, August 19, and with ideal weather prevailing, it was the most successful yet…. A long list of events was run off, covering all phases of sport, and keen competition resulted. The station boasted some real athletes in its personnel.”9 Sports days across the Prairies were centred on track and field events that were familiar to all airmen.
Under the warm skies of summer, Yorkton airmen and the local community compete together in a field day. (RA 7114)
Often, the sports days, which were held at the airport, included more than just sporting events. One sports day at the Swift Current airport reported in The Sun included an evening of social activities: “The first big public ‘splurge’ since [the] opening of No. 39 SFTS of the Royal Air Force has been set for Wednesday … and it promises to be a gala day to be remembered. There will be everything from a track meet to dancing, with festivities ending well after midnight. The public will be invited to enjoy this day of entertainment through invitation … so tell your friends at No. 39 that you’d like to attend.”10
Although there were sports like track and field that were common to Australian, Canadian, and British airmen, there were some sports that were not. Athletics engaged in by some British airmen were at best spectator sports for the civilians in the host communities.
Tennis, soccer, and cricket appeared to arouse limited interest in western Canada. Tennis, which allowed for some civilian participation, had value as a demonstration sport. Because courts were often available on the training stations, there was no need for the air personnel to seek tennis clubs in the communities. The tennis courts on the stations were low quality, built on skating rinks after the ice melted. The Calgary Herald, reported that: “There will also be two hockey rinks built outdoors, and these will be turned into tennis courts in the summer.”11 In Rivers, The Gazette reported that the “Rivers Tennis Club will begin the season’s play this week. An invitation has been extended to the Kenton Club, and through Ray Scott, YMCA to the boys in the RCAF men, to take part in friendly competitive games on Saturday, May 24th, afternoon and evening. It is expected the courts will be in good shape by that time.”12 The report was more recognition than tennis received in the majority of local newspapers across the Prairies.
Participation in soccer occurred at two levels for the air personnel: inter-squadron games and competitions in the services leagues across the western provinces. The games played for the services leagues were also seen as demonstrations of the sport for the public. One typical game was reported in The Penhold Log in the summer of 1944: “By winning the first half of the Alberta Services Soccer League, Penhold Fliers have ensured themselves a place in the final deciding matches. Since then they have taken a resounding beating from an RAF, Carberry team, in a ‘friendly’ game, and have suffered their first defeat at the hands of a Canadian team when they lost to A-20. … Postings may be expected to deplete the Fliers’ stock of regular first team players, but we still feel reasonably confident of taking the championship for the third year running.”13
Although soccer was not popular among residents of the western provinces, there was enough interest in the sport for the formation of the provincial services leagues and for exhibition games. Those British airmen who pursued cricket, however, never attained this same support. Few matches were held and there were even fewer exhibition games given in the host communities. A report of a cricket match in The Swift Current Sun made it clear that this sport was unknown on the Canadian Prairies: “Besides the regular list of track and field events in the afternoon, the day will be climaxed with a cricket match between North of England and South of England in the evening. This will be an event of unusual interest for Canucks around these parts who have heard of but never saw a cricket match; it will bring a feeling of nostalgia to English-born folks living on these plains who have never seen this game since they left their homeland.”14
Attempts were made throughout the war to establish a formal cricket league, but only small station leagues were formed. The RAF school at Moose Jaw found that by the summer of 1944 there was no longer any interest in the community nor in the other air training schools. Team members had to look to other more popular sports or look elsewhere for challenges. They chose the latter and traveled to Victoria and Vancouver for a series of matches.15
A popular sport in western Canada was basketball. Teams of the best players were organized into station teams that played against other stations. Informal station and inter-station basketball leagues were soon formed. The enthusiasm for this sport was reflected in Claresholm’s Windy Wings when it reported: “The basketball season is nearly over as far as the station team is concerned, except for a few exhibition games that are trying to be arranged. The team was flying high in the Southern Alberta Senior League, but ran into considerable bad luck when it lost two regular players. … but the team did better than was expected in the league play-off with Macleod. In a close game in our Drill Hall, Macleod won the first game 40-33. In the second game at Macleod, our team was slightly disorganized and was beaten quite handily, 51-18.”16
Members of a basketball team at the Yorkton school. (RA 7116)
In many sports, the members of the Women’s Division had limited participation, and limited notice was made of them in the station Diaries and the local press. However, this was not the case with basketball. The Davidson Leader reported: “The W.D.’s from … Davidson defeated … Saskatoon, 15-12 in No. 2 command basketball championship semifinal in a rough, but good game. They are now eligible to travel to Winnipeg for finals [to play] Winnipeg. The winners will play at 7:00 o’clock for the grand championship.”17
In 1939 the professional football was expanding in the Western Inter-Provincial Football Union when the schedule grew to twelve games for every club in an each season. But, like all other sports, the future of the Football Union was in doubt when the war was declared. This was reflected in a report in The Regina Leader Post on September 1, 1939:
“For a brief sixty minutes tonight, Winnipeg citizens will forget Europe as they watch a rugby spectacle under Osborne Stadium’s floodlights. But all the excitement and ballyhoo that usually goes with gridiron tangles between Regina Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers will be missing. The grim business now going on in Poland has dulled Winnipeg’s usually ravenous appetite for football. If there is any wagers, your observer hasn’t run across it. The citizens are too busy listening to radios and loudspeakers for war bulletins.”18
The declaration of war was seen in the return of about 200 seasonal tickets for the Regina Roughriders. At the same time the teams of the Football Union were enlisting. Even with the uncertainty and dwindling numbers of players, the league continued through the 1940 season. The pressure of the war was increasing with the successful invasion of Belgium and France in the summer of 1940. The result was that the Canadian Rugby Union asked C. G. Power, the Acting Minister of National Defence if normal play should continue. Power replied that competitive sport should continue if it was not at the expense of the war effort—only those teams that had players that were not needed for industry or the services, should continue.19
The loss of players to the war was causing difficulties. Already in 1939 the Vancouver Melanomas had folded because of a massive loss of players. The Edmonton Eskimos had a history of disbanding, and found themselves again disbanded in 1940. Even the Sabrina Imperials disbanded.20
No team was immune to the exodus of their best players. The football teams met in the summer of 1940 and found it hard to decide what they should do. There were many reasons to cease play, but there also existed the need for a diversion from the daily strains of the war among the public. The executive of the Regina Roughriders agreed to have Dean Griffing as the coach and the team would continue on a co-operative basis where all existing money would be used for expenses such as traveling and if any money were left at the end of the season it would be split up among the players. If there were no money at the end of the 1941 season the players would receive nothing.21
The other teams like Calgary and Winnipeg operated with small budget as well. But, the Football kept having troubles. In 1941 professional football ended in Eastern Canada. Carl Cronin of the Calgary team stated that the time had come for western teams to stop catering to the Blue Bombers by fielding teams that allowed the Winnipeg club to go to the Grey Cup each year. When the Calgary team folded it was replaced by a new club from Vancouver called the Grizzlies.22
The pressures of the war brought an end to all civilian football in Canada. In Regina, the Navy formed a club and played the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and defeated them thirteen to zero. In Winnipeg the RCAF took over football with a team named the RCAF Bombers. The Bombers needed a western championship to go to the Grey Cup and they called on the Regina navy team for that championship game. The Regina club agreed to play, but called for guaranteed funds to cover the season’s bills. The Bombers agreed and took a loss on the season.23
The Bombers lost the Cup to the Toronto RCAF team that year. Following this season football did not cease. A club by Griffing replaced the navy team in Regina in 1943 named the “All-Service Roughriders.” This club was made up of players from the navy, army, air force, and the RCMP. In Winnipeg there was also a united services team and the RCAF Bombers. These teams made up the new football league. At the end of the season the result was again same as it had been for year: The RCAF Bombers went east to face the Hamilton Wildcats in the Grey Cup. Like the year before, the Bombers lost a tight game.24
The effort, which, brought about the revived football league by the armed services could not continue in 1944. In the spring of 1945 plans were began to reconstruct the football league by civilians. It would have to wait until 1946 before the professional play was underway again across the prairies.25
Without the involvement of the armed forces the football league would have ended at the end of the 1941 season. With the continuation of football by the armed services the reconstruction of the league may have been easier in the post war period.
Among the three remaining Canadian sports of curling, hockey, and baseball, curling had the lowest level of participation of air personnel across the province. All those who participated in curling were Royal Canadian Air Force personnel. Unlike other sports, there was no prior practicing on the stations and no internal station curling as curling required the use of the host community’s curling rink. One curling event was reported in the article, “Airport Curlers Visit Local Club,” in The Wynyard Advance: “Two rinks of curlers from the Dafoe No. 5 Bombing and Gunnery school paid a friendly visit to the Wynyard Curling club on Saturday evening and participated in a curling game. Rinks from the airport were skipped by Pilot Officer Boyd and McGaskell, while Dr. Polec and Ed Sigfusson piloted the local rinks. The visitors were entertained to a lunch in the pink room at the Zenith Cafe following the game, and a social hour was spent.”26
There were no curling leagues or formal curling circuits established for the servicemen. Host communities extended invitations for airmen to participate in local bonspiels, and the airmen accepted and attended these one-time events.
Although basketball was widely appreciated in western Canada, the central winter sport remained hockey. Residents of the local communities looked to the service men to provide hockey entertainment. The most significant contribution that the schools of the Air Training Plan, army, and naval reserves made to western Canadian hockey occurred when formal leagues made up of service teams replaced civilian teams.
Before the war broke out, Manitoba’s senior hockey league had been undergoing change because large numbers of local players were accepting positions on new hockey teams in England. The popularity of hockey as a spectator sport in Britain was increasing after the winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1932. Although many in Britain knew how the game was played, few attempted it. While the best players from Manitoba accepted positions in Britain, the professional teams were calling on top junior players to take their places. The calibre of hockey was in decline as the war approached.27
The weakened hockey league collapsed with the declaration of war. It became a service league in 1940 when the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Cameron Highlanders, HMCS Chippewa, RCAF Bombers, and other teams were formed. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles won the championship of 1940 and 1941. By 1943, it was widely believed that the calibre of Manitoba hockey was NHL level. In that year, the RCAF Bombers went to the Allen Cup championship in Ottawa, facing the Commandos, but did not bring the cup home. With the end of the 1943-44 season, the senior hockey league ended. It had to wait until after the war to be organized again.28
Yorkton was the centre of interest in the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League because of the high standing of the Yorkton Terriers. In the fall of 1941, the Terriers were having difficulties created by the loss of players because of enlistments and wartime migration. The Terriers made it to the finals only to be eliminated. The Yorkton Enterprise was quick to note: “No sooner had the Yorkton Terriers been eliminated from the Saskatchewan Hockey League than they were confronted with a challenge from No. 11 SFTS hockey team for the right to the championship of Northeastern Saskatchewan.”29 The airmen from the local service flying training school were defeated in two straight games in a series of three. The games received much attention as the players from the air training station had gained the respect of the community.30
This is the Yorkton hockey team in action. (R-A 7117)
The collapse of the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League that had been forecast in 1941 came in the fall of 1942. The league held a meeting in October and called for officials from the Canadian armed services to consider the formation of a senior services hockey league to replace the collapsed Saskatchewan league. The RCAF from Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Yorkton, representatives of the army in Regina and Moose Jaw, and Flin Flon’s essential war industry agreed to supply teams.31 In Yorkton, players from the service school and the remainder of the Terriers formed the new local team, the Yorkton Flyers.
The Flyers, who were victorious over the Regina army team in their first game, were accepted by Yorkton as their own. Even though the airmen went back to inter-station play afterwards, the airmen’s participation in the hockey league was important during the turbulence of the war.
The fortunes of the Yorkton Terriers and the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League did not improve after the 1942-43 hockey season. The fate of the league was clarified by The Yorkton Enterprise in its announcement on December 2, 1943: “Shortly after noon today the Yorkton Terriers Hockey Club issued a statement announcing their retirement from the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League.” The article went on to tell what would replace the league in Yorkton: “This does not mean that Yorkton will be without hockey, however, as No. 11 SFTS has entered a team in an inter-station league and will play all their home games at the Front Street Arena.” Hockey remained an important sport in the community and a significant activity that bound the civilians and the airmen of RCAF school closer together.32
As in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in Alberta hockey teams turned to the three services to keep the senior league alive during the war. With the successful championship between the Luscar Indians and the Medicine Hat Tigers in 1942, increased involvement of the armed services was pursued with teams like the Edmonton Manning Depot, which went to the 1943 championship but lost to the Calgary Buffaloes. Finally, in the championship of 1944, the Prince Albert M. and C. Warhawks won the cup. In 1945, the Canmore team brought the cup home.33
Here is a group of British hockey players that formed a team for inter hut play at No 34 service flying training school at Medicine Hat on February 17, 1943. (PMR 81-147)
The Game of Summer
Baseball remained one of the most significant sports in community relations with the air training stations because it attracted many participants and spectators. There were no formal leagues established across Saskatchewan for softball or fastball as there had been for hockey. This was one factor, which made the sport more easily integrated into the daily activities of the communities. No other sport had more entries in the station’s Daily Diaries than baseball, beginning early in spring with practices and inter-squadron games. Soon, the reports were of inter-station games. Teams that formed on the stations were soon involved with games that went beyond the closest communities.
Baseball, like basketball, allowed for a high level of participation by the Women’s Division. The Women’s Division softball teams found a large number of opportunities to play against other women’s teams. The Diary of the air school at Davidson recorded one of the numerous events in the summer of 1944: “Our ‘Winkos’ (W.D. softball) visited Eyebrow and ran into some very stiff opposition. They took Bridgeford 1-0 in the first game but were nosed out by Mawson in the final by a score of 6-5.”34
The press in the host communities was very active in reporting baseball regardless of whether the games were played between stations or between a local team and the station. In the summer of 1942, The Swift Current Sun reported: “Softball fans are getting … the RCAF team from Mossbank to meet No. 39 SFTS here in a double header at Westend park on Wednesday, with games starting at 3 P.M. and 7 P.M. The local air force team advanced into the second round by eliminating Caron EFTS on Saturday 11-5 and 6-1. It is three seasons since local fans sat in on a softball play-off and a large crowd is expected to turn out.”35 In Neepawa during the summer of that same year, The Neepawa Press reported a set of games that were in a Southern Manitoba League: “In the Brandon District Services Athletic Association, No. 35 EFTS, Neepawa played its first home game against No. 2 Manning Depot.” The game was “a nip and tuck battle…. In the first of the 7th, Neepawa made several errors and nearly lost this lead, but hung on to win 14 to l2.”36
Members of the very active Yorkton air school baseball team. The team participated in games with other stations as well as with many civilian teams. (RA 7115)
These are the members of the Women’s Division fastball team from No. 5 elementary flying training school at High River. (PMR 81-2227)
Although baseball was significant in the communities during the war, the British airmen of the Royal Air Force were not interested in the sport. In the spring of 1943, The Estevan Mercury reported: “Facilities for the playing of Canadian summer sports will be maintained, with matches of baseball and softball throughout the coming season, and we are hoping that this will attract the mutual interests of RAF personnel.”37 This hope was never fulfilled. The Diary for the service flying training school at Moose Jaw reported in the summer of 1944, under the heading of Fast Ball, “this game holds very little interest for English boys.”
The non-participation of British airmen in baseball was another example of the cultural diversity that led to isolation of the RAF schools from the Canadian host communities.38 Sports had an important role in the relations that had developed between the air training stations and the nearby communities, with airmen and airwomen taking the roles left vacant when local residents enlisted or moved away to work in essential industries elsewhere. Service personnel and local residents participated in those sports they knew, allowing Canadian air force personnel to integrate into the communities. At the same time, British personnel unfamiliar with Canadian sport were not as fully accepted.
Notes for Chapter 10
Sharing Field and Ice
1. Saskatoon Star Phoenix, July 6, 1940.
2. The Estevan Mercury, June 11, 1942.
3. Rivers, The Gazette, April 24, 1941.
4. Souris Plaindealer, Aug. 16, 1944.
5. Davidson No. 23 EFTS, Diary, Aug. 12, 1944; Mossbank No. 2 B&GS, Diary, Aug. 14, 1943.
6. The Estevan Mercury, Aug. 6, 1942.
7. Moose Jaw No. 32 SFTS, Diary, April 1, 1944; The Estevan Mercury, April 1, 1943.
8. The Neepawa Press, Oct. 16, 1942.
9. Rivers, The Gazette, Aug. 26, 1943.
10. Swift Current Sun, Sept. 1, 1942.
11. The Calgary Herald, Sept. 20, 1940.
12. Rivers, The Gazette, May 22, 1941.
13. The Penhold Log, Aug. 1944, p. 14.
14. Swift Current Sun, July 27, 1943.
15. Mossbank No. 2 B&GS, Diary, Aug. 20, 1944; Moose Jaw No. 32 SFTS, Diary, Aug. 31, 1944.
16. Claresholm, Windy Wings, April 9, 1943, p. 9.
17. The Davidson Leader, April 12, 1944.
18. Regina, Leader Post, Sept. 1, 1939.
19. Bob Calder and Garry Andrews, Rider Pride: The Best-Loved Football Team (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984), pp. 63-64.
20. Ibid., p. 64.
21. Ibid., pp. 65-67.
22. Ibid., pp. 66-67.
26. Wynyard Advance, Jan. 14, 1942.
27. Vince Leah, 100 Years of Hockey in Manitoba (Winnipeg: Manitoba Hockey Player’s Foundation and the Manitoba Centennial Corp., 1970), p. 39.
28. Ibid., p. 40.
29. The Yorkton Enterprise, Feb. 1942.
30. Ibid., March 6, 1942.
31. Ibid., Oct. 22, 1942; Nov. 5, 1942.
32. The Yorkton Enterprise, Dec. 17, 1942; Dec 2, 1943.
33. Gary W. Zeman, Alberta on Ice (Edmonton: GMS Ventures Inc., 1985), pp. 121-122.
34. Davidson No. 23 EFTS, Diary, July 7, 1943, Aug. 21,1943, July 1944, Sept. 3, 1944.
35. Swift Current Sun, Aug. 18, 1942.
36. The Neepawa Press, June 11, 1942.
37. Estevan Mercury, April 1, 1943.
38. Moose Jaw No. 32 SFTS, Diary, July 31, 1944.