by Peter C. Conrad
“Yellow-bellied English bastards,” was the reply that local youths had to the heckles of British airmen stationed at the Moose Jaw Royal Air Force school. “Zoot-Suiters” was the name the Royal Canadian Air Force investigators called the civilian youths involved in the violence of 1944. There were several causes for the violence that erupted between the airmen and local youths. One was that the airmen had a long history of poor discipline, low morale, and a negative attitude toward the civilians of Moose Jaw. Lower levels of interaction between the community and the Royal Air Force personnel exacerbated these problems.
The disturbances at Moose Jaw demonstrated the potential for conflict between air training schools and nearby communities during the Second World War. Yet, conflicts between prairie communities and the RAF and RCAF schools were rare. Only Moose Jaw reported any disturbances of this kind.
Not long after it opened, the service flying training school was no longer news in The Moose Jaw Times-Herald. Compared to other newspapers on the Prairies, The Times-Herald had significantly less coverage of the local air school. The impact of the school on the economy, however, could not be denied. The city had the benefit of the large school itself, with between 1,500 and 2,000 personnel, as well as the bombing and gunnery school at the nearby community of Mossbank. It also had one of the most significant British Commonwealth Air Training Plan repair depots in western Canada, operated by Prairie Airways, which employed one thousand people, most of whom were residents of Moose Jaw.1
Unlike the schools in communities such as Weyburn, Yorkton, or even communities as large as Saskatoon, the Moose Jaw RAF school participated in few sports and cultural activities in the community. The men’s choir from the school performed often and the station band participated in some of the local “swing sessions.” Yet, Moose Jaw residents were as likely to witness performances by the band from the initial flying training school in Regina, or the band from the Assiniboia school as performances by Moose Jaw personnel. The Moose Jaw RAF school, like the one at North Battleford, sought games of cricket as far away as Vancouver and Victoria. These games were of interest to the airmen, but did not benefit the city of Moose Jaw. In North Battleford, however, air personnel participated in other sports and cultural activities more often than air personnel in Moose Jaw, allowing for more interaction with the community. Although there were events like dances with airmen from the school in attendance in Moose Jaw, there were a lower number of cultural exchanges between the school and the community when compared to other communities across the Prairies. The reason for this was a condescending attitude toward the local residents on the part of the permanent British personnel.
The station was already isolated from the community when the new Commanding Officer, Group Capt. E. J, George, took over the school in 1943, and he inherited a discipline and attitude problem. The historians Greenhous and Hillmer argued that, unlike the commanding officer before him, George lived on the station. They believe this made him unsympathetic to the social needs of the host community, leading to the further isolation of the school.2
A Point of View
With the arrival of British airmen at Moose Jaw in 1940, it was apparent they brought with them a poor attitude. A report issued about the arrival of the RAF airmen in 1940 by personnel at training command in Regina warned that “few [of the British arrivals at Moose Jaw] appreciated fully the measure of co-operation that has prevailed between the RAF and the RCAF in the provision of the SFTS at Moose Jaw, and expressed a desire to learn more about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.”3
The poor attitude was illustrated throughout the pages of the air training school’s publication, Prairie Flyer, in articles that indicated the personnel’s condescending attitude toward the local residents. In one article, LAC J. H. Martin urged his fellow countrymen not to assume that the Prairie was “a cultural desert. That Moose Jaw is not intellectually benighted is suggested by its possession of seventeen educational establishments—fifteen schools and two business colleges. Even if the curricula were bad, the teachers hopeless, and the pupils unteachable, we could at least acknowledge the nobility of the intention.” In another article, he wrote, “Eating in the cafes to jukebox jive, we may fail to realize that there are people in the city who care deeply for the best in music.”4
In addition to a poor attitude, some British airmen had a disciplinary problem. Under the heading of Discipline in the 1941 report by training command on the Moose Jaw air training school, it was reported, “Crime is not as prevalent on this Station now as it was in England.”5 Added to this, there were few transfers of personnel from Moose Jaw to other schools. This meant that the airmen with the disciplinary problems remained at Moose Jaw even though it was RAF policy to transfer personnel who caused trouble. No official reason was given for not transferring the men. The only action taken was a continuation of strict discipline at the school.6
In addition to the poor attitude and discipline, productivity was low in terms of aircraft serviceability, which was 10 to 15 percent below the average of similar schools across Saskatchewan. There was also a problem with hygiene. When Group Captain George arrived, he found an infestation of cockroaches in the mess hall, which had to be closed for two days so that cyanide gas could be used to kill the insects.7
The new commanding officer’s goal was to establish air force standards, which had never been attained at Moose Jaw.
Changes by George to correct the excesses that had occurred under the previous commanding officer, N. E. Mornison, resulted in a mutiny. The orders the new commanding officer published on July 15, 1943, included “withdrawing sleeping out passes from all airmen other than those authorized to live off the station; … providing that duty to duty passes would not be granted to airmen below the rank of Sergeant; and providing that plain clothes may not be kept on the station or worn on the station when proceeding from barracks to the main gate on leave or pass.” These measures curtailed privileges that “were not only in excess of those permitted under RCAF regulations but were in excess of those laid down for the RAF.”8
The result of these changes to the air personnel’s privileges was seen the next day, July 16. In the morning, between 150 and 200 men of the maintenance wing “failed to appear on the morning working parade and marched around the camp encouraging other airmen to come out of the barracks and join them.” The station warrant officer ordered the strikers back to work, but they refused. With George off the base, the acting commanding officer spoke to the men and they returned to work. When George returned to the station, he decided to suspend his new orders until a decision on further action was made. The maintenance wing continued to work following this decision.9
Following an investigation, George remained at the air school with his orders reinstated. Those deemed the leaders of the mutiny were court-marshalled. The problem of poor discipline had been corrected, yet the issues of the isolation of the school, poor productivity, and low morale continued.10
Another investigation reported that civilians had no knowledge of the mutiny. Employees of hotels, barbershops, restaurants, and retail stores that benefited from the patronage of the air school were interviewed. Most told the investigator that relations were favourable.11 However, one civilian, an English immigrant who worked on the local air training station, reported that “the service personnel of the above unit were the most insufferable grumblers, at anything and everything in general, that he had ever had the misfortune to be associated with. He further went on to say there were times when their grumbling, discontented manner made him feel almost ashamed of them as his countrymen.”12 This informant also described a situation where the members of the station’s officer staff tacitly allowed abuses of the rules. The officers on the station appeared to be sympathetic or unable to act in opposition to the views of the leaders of the mutiny.13
The solution of court-marshalling the leaders and imposing strict rules on the air training station did not change the attitudes of those who remained. High productivity, high morale, and positive attitudes could not be created by orders. The failure of the “solutions” to the 1943 mutiny was obvious one year later when violence erupted between airmen and youths in Moose Jaw.
Trouble between the two groups began on September 9, 1944, and continued for five nights. RAF personnel from the school taunted local youths, asking where their patriotism was, and if they had “cold feet or flat feet.” The youths, the majority of them too young to enlist, responded by calling the airmen “yellow-bellied English bastards.” Soon, fights broke out between the two groups. Investigations by the RCAF demonstrated that the conflicts were premeditated and serious: “two homemade ‘blackjacks’ [clubs] were found the next day … and the next day, two more and a sawed-off baseball bat were found in one of the city motor buses which carried both service personnel and civilians. Up to the time of leaving Moose Jaw, neither the origin or the ownership of these had been established by the police.”14
The fighting came to a climax on September 12, when 350 airmen came to the city for a dance at the Temple Gardens. As the dance was taking place, a small number of airmen were walking through Moose Jaw’s Crescent Park where they met a group of approximately fifty youths “and were subjected to a beating,” but, “fortunately without any serious injuries being sustained.”15 When news of this event reached the dance hall, two hundred airmen left the Temple Gardens and paraded the streets, searching for the assailants of their companions. Soon, large crowds gathered on Main Street. Fights broke out in several different areas of the city, but were quickly subdued by the city police. Later, RAF authorities ordered their personnel back to the station.16 In the city, four youths were charged with “taking part in the affray.” All those who were charged with participating in the event were local boys between the ages of sixteen and eighteen.17
The next evening, Royal Air Force men arrived in town wearing gloves even though it was a warm evening. They were “jostling local citizens and let[ting] it be known generally they were looking for trouble”. The city police reported that among the arrivals that evening was “an Air Force truck [which] came to a stop at the North side of Manitoba Street West, [and] about twenty-five Air Force Officers got out and proceeded North on the West side of Main Street taking the whole sidewalk. Pedestrians (civilians) were crowded off the curb and on to the road and also crowded into doorways. The Officers refused to make room for anyone else on the sidewalk until they reached River Street.”18 As the airmen continued, their actions “were not curbed in any way by the Service Police as far as could be observed and the Service Police, according to members of the City Police, refused to render assistance in breaking up crowds on street corners.”19 Another city police report stated: “In front of the National Cafe the group was made up of officers, warrant officers, sergeants, corporals, and other airmen and SP’s … at that time the SP’s put up as much argument as any of the other airmen, and absolutely refused to give any assistance in breaking up the crowd.”20 These groups of airmen were “accosting groups of civilian youths in a hostile manner and the general atmosphere appeared to be ominous.”21 Despite these actions, no serious incidents occurred. Most of the airmen returned to the station by midnight.
Confined to Base
On September 14, a curfew was imposed on the school by the commanding officer.22 There was no reason in the official documents for such a long delay between the beginning of the trouble and the action on the part of George. He may not have believed the problem was as serious as it was until that day. As well, the deputy mayor of Moose Jaw made a radio broadcast the night before to remind the residents that the RAF personnel were guests of the city.23 That same day city authorities made a request to the Saskatchewan attorney-general for assistance. A group of RCMP constables were transferred to the city, but they stayed in the police stations to be called upon in case of trouble.24 Added to this force were twenty-seven RCAF service police who had arrived from the Command Pool, Mossbank, and Regina. These service police began patrols, working in pairs in the downtown area until early morning. No further disturbances occurred after the placement of these police forces in the city.25
The RCAF investigator had an interest in minimizing the significance of the discord between the civilians and the RAF personnel. This effort was important; there was a possibility that other communities might seriously question their role in supporting a local air training school. A reaction to the incidents at Moose Jaw might have taken place if there had been some suppressed tensions. The morale and discipline at other schools needed to be protected. The air force investigator described the source of the animosity as one which, was caused by local youths who were “obliged to share the society of members of the fair sex around their own age, with service personnel, frequently to their disadvantage and this has apparently been the cause of frequent frictions in dance halls and such like, with the interaction of remarks which were more pointed than polite.”26 In another report submitted about the same event by the RCMP, it was noted that, “the enmity is not organized, and apparently has no subversive foundation. For some time past, members of the RAF have monopolized local dances and allegedly have endeavoured to monopolize the attention of local ladies. Over an extended period of time, this rivalry has increased and several fights have occurred in local halls and restaurants.”27
The report submitted by the RCAF investigator also suggested that the civilians who had been involved were delinquents. They shared some of the responsibility for the violence because they were “youths between the ages of 16 and 18 years, mostly residing in the south side of the city in lower class homes. These youths are of the street-corner, loafer variety mostly and affect a unique manner of dress which, causes them to be referred to frequently as ‘zoot-suiters’”—a reference to a flamboyant style of suit popular among young men of the period, the trousers had tight cuffs, a long coat with wide lapels and large padded shoulders.28
The RAF blamed the violence on “aliens.” The youths may have been “loafers,” but they certainly were not aliens, and they had been provoked.29 Not only had the RAF personnel monopolized the dances, they had been reported to have pushed and shoved local youths while questioning them about their patriotism. The result was fights in dances and restaurants.30 Had the disturbances continued, they would have become much more violent. The airmen would have had to contend with the adults of the city. It was made clear that “ ‘local adult citizens were going to join in the affray unless the RAF personnel discontinued their aggressive tactics.’ These same residents said ‘that they would join in with the youths if the RAF didn’t learn to behave themselves and that further they would from now on close their houses to members of the RAF.’”31
Following September 14, 1944, there were no further disturbances. The Royal Air Force liaison in Ottawa and the Daily Diary of the Moose Jaw service flying training school denied that there had been any problems.32 The responses to the disturbances were described in a letter to the RCMP from H. F. Gordon, deputy minister for air, on October 21, 1944: “From a perusal of the contents of the reports, I feel, however, that no useful purpose would be served in pursuing the matter any further, particularly since there has been no indication of any continuance of the trouble and [the school] has now been disbanded. I, therefore, hope that you will agree to the conclusion of the matter.”33 As in 1943, those who appeared to be the leaders of the disturbances were courtmartialed.34 In early November 1944, the station was closed. It is not clear if the disturbances hastened the closing of the school as there was a reduction in the size of the Training Plan occurring at the time.
Following the air school’s disbanding Number Four Training Command was transferred from Calgary to Moose Jaw. After the war, a permanent RCAF base was established at the city. The disturbances of 1944, which were not remembered to the detriment of the Canadian forces, had no lasting consequences.
Notes for Chapter 11
Zoot-Suiters and the Yellow Bellied
1. Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Oct. 14, 1944, p. 6; Interview: Harry Riviere with the author, Aug 4, 1987.
2. Greenhous and Hillmer, p. 140.
3. Calgary No. 4 TC, Diary, Appendix I, November 1940.
4. The Prairie Flyer, March, 1944, p. 2.
5. Calgary No. 4 TC, Diary, December 1941, Appendix, “Report: SFTS No. 32 Moose Jaw.”
6. Interview: Fred Hawkins with the author, Aug. 4, 1987; John Wing with the author, Aug. 3, 1987; Mr. Harry Riviere with the author, Aug. 4, 1987; Roland Wilkes with the author, June 24, 1989.
7. Greenhous and Hillmer, p. 140.
8. NAC, Records of the Royal Canadian Air Force, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3, No. 32 S.F.T.S.—Disturbances—, Memorandum of L. S. Breader, Chief of the Air Staff to the Minister, Aug. 4, 1943, paragraph 5-6.
9. Ibid., paragraph 2-4.
10. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3, Copy of a Minute of Air Council on Wednesday, July 28, 1943, paragraphs 172 and 207. See also, PAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3, Extract from Air Force Routine Orders Dated 11th June, 1943, paragraphs 1-6.
11. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3, Memorandum by L. W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Aug. 3, 1943, paragraph 2.
12. Ibid., paragraph 20.
13. Ibid., paragraphs 9-16.
14. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, City of Moose Jaw, Sask.—Disturbances at—, Memorandum by L. W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Sept. 13 [18?], 1944, paragraph 7.
15. Ibid., paragraph 6.
16. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by A. Woodward, Division “F” RCMP, Sept. 14, 1944, paragraph 5.
17. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by L. W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Sept. 13 [18?], 1944, paragraph 6.
18. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by Assistant Commissioner Commanding “F” Division RCMP, Regina to Commissioner of the RCMP, Ottawa, Oct. 18, 1944, paragraph 4.
19. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by A. Woodward, Division “F” RCMP, Sept. 14, 1944, paragraph 5.
20. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by Constable H.S. Hilts, Moose Jaw City Police to The Chief Constable, Moose Jaw City Police, Sept. 14, 1944.
21. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by L.W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Sept. 13 [18?], 1944, paragraph 8.
22. Ibid., paragraph 10.
23. “All Quiet on the Moose Jaw Front Wednesday Night,” The Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Sept. 14, 1944, p.5.
24. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by Assistant Commissioner Commanding “F” Division RCMP, Regina to Commissioner of the RCMP, Ottawa, Oct. 18, 1944, paragraph 5.
25. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by L. W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Sept. 13 [18?], 1944, paragraphs 11-12.
26. Ibid., paragraph 5.
27. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by A. Woodward, Division “F” RCMP, Sept. 14, 1944, paragraph 2.
28. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by L. W. Marlor, Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal, No. 4 Training Command, Sept. 13 [18?], 1944, paragraph 5.
29. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by Air Vice Marshal, RAF Liaison Officer, Ottawa, to The Deputy Commissioner RCMP, Ottawa, October 14, 1944, paragraph 2(a); Memorandum by Assistant Commissioner Commanding “F” Division RCMP, Regina to Commissioner of the RCMP, Ottawa, Oct. 18, 1944, paragraph 2.
30. Greenhous and Hillmer, p. 141; PAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by A. Woodward, Division “F” RCMP, Sept. 14, 1944, paragraphs 1-4.
31. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, 33 Memorandum by Assistant Commissioner Commanding “F” Division RCMP, Regina to Commissioner of the RCMP, Ottawa, Oct. 18, 1944, paragraph 6.
32. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by Air Vice Marshal, RAF Liaison Officer, Ottawa, to The Deputy Commissioner RCMP, Ottawa, Oct. 14, 1944.
33. NAC, RG 24, Vol. 5265, File HQS 25-3-3A, Memorandum by H. F. Gordon, Deputy Minister to the Commissioner, RCMP, Ottawa Oct. 21, 1944.
34. Interview: Roland Wilkes with the author, June 24, 1989.