by Peter C. Conrad
After the air training schools had been built, the next step was the coming of the air force personnel and the air trainees. Both the arrival of these men and the opening ceremonies at the schools were significant events in the host communities. These events were well planned to show a warm welcome. The Weyburn Review reported the arrival of seventy-five British on Christmas Day, 1941:
“A hundred or more people headed by Mayor J. K. Brimacombe and J. H. Warren chairmen of the Weyburn War Auxiliary Services committee waited at the station for the train, which was an hour and a half late to arrive. The airmen following roll call on the station platform were whisked in private cars to the Canadian Legion hall where they were warmly welcomed and served with steaming hot coffee, sandwiches and doughnuts, with Canadian Legion Ladies Auxiliary members doing honours in the kitchen while Legionnaires served the newcomers and others who had assembled in the dining room of the hall. The hot coffee and lunch were greatly appreciated by the airmen who had spent many hours on the train trip to Weyburn.”1
One airman remembered the sentiment that came with the Air Training Plan when he wrote, “We were told we were great and we began to believe it. We really weren’t any different, of course, but we had some self-confidence, which had been almost lost in the decade before the war during the Great Depression. Men who had to stand like beggars in bread lines in those years were cheered in the streets.”2
The Prairies at Last
Upon their arrival, airmen of all nationalities found themselves in a very different environment and culture. The Swift Current Sun reported that when the British airmen arrived in June, one commented, “This sure is a cold country,” but then a local resident replied, “Just wait till you’ve been here a winter.”
The Moose Jaw Times-Herald commented in November, 1940: “There was a strange medley of clothing among the men, for some were dressed to meet the sub-zero weather that faced them in Moose Jaw while others were wearing summer ‘shorts’ and no underwear, though the latter had been issued to them and was packed away for the trip to Western Canada.”3
The North Battleford News reported a typical welcome of, “a large crowd of enthusiastic citizens, who were entertained by the City Band.” Added to this was an “Indian Welcome,” that was led by “the head chief of the Battle River Cree [who] extended a greeting as old as their tribal story to ‘the Thunder Birds of Great White Chiefs.’” The chief had “journeyed many miles on foot under a blistering sun to be on hand when the personnel of the Royal Air Force arrived from Great Britain at No. 35 S.F.T.S. here. Chief Swimmer, whose band perpetuates the glorious memory of ‘Sweet Grass’ the treaty haymaker, donned his ceremonial dress in honor of the arrival of the King’s ‘braves.’ He passed through the ranks of the newly arrived R.A.F. personnel, welcoming each in turn to the land of his forefathers. With him, also in tribute dress, was George Poplar, a councillor of the Sweetgrass band.”4
What Have We Got Ourselves Into?
In the station publication at Moose Jaw, The Prairie Flyer, Corporal T. S. M. Guard admitted, “Many of us have come to dislike the Prairies because we find them dull and uninteresting. It is a bitter sight for us to travel by train, the land is like a vast pancake as we speed across it, and it is especially drab in winter when it is brown and white with no trees to break the monotony.”5
A crowd examines aircraft at opening of Dauphin service flying training school. The importance of the school to the local residents is clear in the enthusiasm they show at this opening-day ceremony. (FPA128138356)
The RCAF band and new recruits parade east on Portage Avenue between Fort and
Carry streets in Winnipeg. The air force bands were prominent in many communities that were host to an air school. (FPA 128138362)
The Yorkton air training school opens with the fanfare of a flying show for local residents. The new asphalt runways and the aircraft impressed the people at the warm summer day’s events. (RA 7110)
A large crowd gathers at the elementary flying training school at High River, Alberta, for a flying demonstration. (NA-4943-2)
Robert Steel was one British member of the advanced party to arrive in Moose Jaw in “tropical gear” on October 26, 1940. Trucks picked them up, “which headed out on the open highway, on the wrong side of the road until we reached a group of buildings under construction in the middle of a field full of mud. Welcome home!” The next morning, the group received “real eggs and bacon, the inevitable porridge, toast, and coffee. As a bonus, each person was given a free Toronto Globe and Mail where we read that we were all ‘heroes of the Battle of Britain’ and that somewhere in our midst was ‘the lost man of Dunkerque’.” Steel remembered that: “On complaining to the workmen, who were feverishly working to finish more buildings, about the weather, we were told, ‘If you think this is bad, wait till summer comes’, and that became the stock answer to anybody who complained about anything.”6
In one case, a noncommissioned officer from Ontario wrote a letter to his aunt, which was published in The Picton Times: “Here I am away out in the muddy West typing you a letter when I should be in Cherry Valley spearing pike. . . . This is a barren little town of about 5,000 people but the people are OK, nearly everyone has been out for dinner or supper at some time and they converted their town hall into the loveliest hostess club you ever saw.” Blackouts were complete in Britain from the beginning of the war, but this was not the case in Canada. One British airman, upon his arrival in Moose Jaw stated, “Blimey! Look at the lights.”7
In most cases, the opening ceremonies included an open house where civilians of the host communities were shown the station’s operations, the day ending with a dance. The Saskatoon Star Phoenix presented an opening day of an air training school: “People of Saskatoon and district trekked and rode by the thousands along the No. 12 highway from early afternoon and streamed over the airport area viewing the working of the school in actual operation. … After the short opening ceremonies, six of the fast, single-engine Harvard training planes and six of the big twin-engine Avro Ansons gave a demonstration of the aerobatics and formation flying, part of the daily training routine.”8
Other opening ceremonies had different activities. In Prince Albert, there was an address by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. In Yorkton, a baseball game was held on the opening day.
Notes for Chapter 5
“Cheered in the Streets”
1. Weyburn Review, Dec. 25, 1941; Swift Current Sun, June 3, 1941.
2. Letter: Dalton Deedrick to author, Oct. 14, 1986.
3. Swift Current Sun, June 3, 1941; letter: J.P. Kirk to author, Nov. 26, 1986; Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Nov. 13,1940.
4. The North Battleford News, July 24, 1941.
5. The Prairie Flyer, March 1944.
6. Letter: Robert Steel to the author, Sept. 3, 1986.
7. Picton Times, April 29, 1941.
8. Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Sept. 23, 1940.