“Your Child, Your Home, Your Loved Ones”: Hamilton during the Second World War

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Citizens of Hamilton, Ontario became leaders in a vast array of activities during World War II, among them fundraising – a staggering half billion dollars collected – as well as in weapons production, recruitment, training and many other endeavours.

On 3 September 1939, the fate of a young child jolted the city into the war — a Hamilton girl, Margaret Hayworth, became the first Canadian to die due to enemy action. She and family members, enroute home to Canada on the British Cunard liner Athenia, were attacked by German submarines off the Irish coast. Margaret was the first of 112 people to die from the assault. A few weeks later, flags across Canada flew at half-mast in her honour and the train carrying her body to Hamilton’s rail station was met by 1,000 people. Her funeral was attended by 1,200 mourners, the three mile route to the cemetery lined with grief-stricken citizens, who stood silently in the rain, trying to come to terms with what the presiding minister called a “blasphemous fratricide”. Hamilton, once again, was at war.

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The city’s extensive manufacturing plants were re-fitted for wartime production. The subsequent industrial boom increased Hamilton’s population from 155,000 in 1939 to 174,000 by 1945. In 1941, the Otis-Fensom Elevator Company, in only fourteen weeks, constructed an ordnance facility that became the biggest anti-aircraft gun plant in the British Empire. Westinghouse’s small appliance factory was similarly re-tooled and expanded to produce anti-aircraft guns and other components, including many for the Mosquito Bomber. In 1943 the company, along with International Harvester, which was also intensely involved in the war effort, made parts for Canada’s first Lancaster bomber. Earlier in the war, Westinghouse engineers devised a means of producing aluminum faster and more cheaply, unveiling the procedure in Hamilton in 1940. Throughout the war, workers were urged to work hard and efficiently, to maximize their efforts.

As was the case during World War I, training once again became a major role for the city; it opened facilities for both civilians and the army. Summer schools for war workers began in June 1940, with course offerings in woodwork, machinery, pattern making, sheet metal, motor mechanics, drafting, and classes on sewing on power-operated machines “for the ladies” (who would soon, of course, take on multiple roles in manufacturing as the war progressed). In June 1941 Hamilton opened the Canadian Army Trades School, the only facility of its kind in Canada, to offer training in all forms of mechanical and electrical trades. Touted as the best equipped school in North America, a scaled-down version remained open after the war to re-train veterans.

Throughout the war, recruitment continued at an unrelenting pace. Gearing up for the production of war-related print materials, including ration coupons, public notices and recruitment posters, the federal government increased its printing budget from $700,000 to nearly $2 million in 1939 (Gallichan and MacDonald, p. 262). Once again, Hamiltonians responded. By 1941 the city was over its quota for all units: the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the 40th Field Battery again rose to the cause, along with other units, including the Eight Divisional Royal Army Service Corps, No. 3 Company Corps Signals and No. 5 Field Ambulance.

Recruitment for the reserves continued successfully throughout the war, also abetted by emotional poster campaigns, "Last Call for Men" and "Train to Defend", parades, mock battles, displays and special recruitment drives for women, including one in which C.W.A.C.s were on hand to “give a demonstration of their ability as tire-changers.”

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The tragic Dieppe raid hit the city hard: 583 officers and men of the RHLI landed on the French beaches as a unit of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division; close to 200 were killed, another 175 wounded, and 175 taken prisoner. This was the heaviest loss suffered by a Canadian battalion in a single day during the entire war and touched nearly every family in Hamilton. Among the prisoners was the RHLI chaplain, Hon. Capt. John Weir Foote, who left an evacuation craft and intentionally walked into German hands in order to minister to the many Canadians who had been taken. He spent three years in internment and became the first member of the Canadian Chaplain Services to receive the Victoria Cross.

The city’s war efforts also extended to sea and air. The HMCS Star, docked at Hamilton harbour, had seen duty at Dieppe and Sicily, and became an inland training facility for the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, active in the city since 1923. The Hamilton depot recruited 229 officers, nearly 7,000 men and 300 women for naval service.

On the aerial front, Hamilton also took a leadership role in the training of young air cadets, establishing two squadrons in 1942. The organizational model of the Hamilton units was adopted throughout the Dominion. The success of the program had no doubt been buoyed by the construction of an airport at Mount Hope, south of Hamilton, in 1940. The facility housed the No. 10 Elementary Flying School and, the following year, welcomed the No. 33 Air Navigation School which trained observers for the RAF. The airport expanded and is today known as John C. Munro International Airport and houses the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

The protection of the City of Hamilton was assigned to two groups, the Hamilton Civil Guard, consisting of 900 veterans of the First World War and the civilian-based Hamilton Auxiliary Defence Corps. The Guard was provided with shotguns, radio equipment, a 45 calibre Thompson gun, and a heavily armoured vehicle constructed by International Harvester and Hamilton Bridge Company, in August 1940. Once again, recruitment was greatly assisted by the poignant appeals of posters.

Hamilton women were also busy in their home kitchens producing jam for hospitals, refugees, and evacuees in Great Britain. Nearly 2,600 pounds were shipped in the first effort in mid-1940, and a further 12,000 pounds were sent to Canadian troops in 1944. Women also packed prisoner of war food parcels at a facility leased by the Red Cross in the downtown core, the third such facility in the Dominion. More than 10,000 boxes were prepared each week by 450 volunteers; by the end of the war, the total number packed reached a staggering 3 million.

The city continued its tradition of financial support for the war during nine separate victory loan campaigns launched in Hamilton. Some featured publicity stunts such as leaflets labeled “This Might Have Been a Bomb!” dropped throughout the city in February 1941 by a member of the Hamilton Aero Club. The Hamilton Spectator produced a gruesome front page for the 2 March 1942 edition: an artist’s rendition of “What the Gore [city center] could look like after a dive-bomber blitz!” with an accompanying mock story, urging citizens to buy the new victory bonds to help “prevent this horror”. Rallies, fireworks, displays, bell ringing, sirens, flag-carrying dogs, and many other initiatives, pushed donations to nearly half a billion dollars by the end of 1945. Plant employees, homemakers, retirees, students, and children all contributed to what was one of Hamilton’s most impressive wartime achievements.

These and other efforts continued throughout the war until the weary citizenry was at last able to celebrate the victory of the Allies and welcome home its loved ones. Long-known as ‘the ambitious City’, Hamiltonians proved their loyalty to wartime causes, again and again, rolling up their sleeves to work, volunteer and donate blood; opening their wallets and their homes; emptying their cupboards for salvage drives, providing comfort to servicemen and women at home and overseas, and above all, supporting their country.



Further resources:

The author thanks Margaret Houghton for her significant contributions to the research for this case study.

Gallichan, G., and B.H. MacDonald. "Government and Corporate Publishing", in C. Gerson and J. Michon, eds., History of the Book in Canada, Vol. 3, 1918-1980 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), p. 262.

Houghton, Margaret. Hamilton at War : on the home front (Burlington, ON: North Shore Publishing, 2005)