Introduction to the Second World War
The Second World War lasted for six long years, starting with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in September of 1939 and ending with the defeat of the Axis nations in Europe and then Japan in 1945. Between those bookend events, Canada made significant contributions to the Allied war effort. The Battle of the Atlantic began on September 3rd, 1939, and Canada officially entered the war on September 10th. In 1941, Canadians participated in the disastrous defense of Hong Kong and many of those who survived spent the rest of the war in brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps. While the Battle of the Atlantic and the defense of the United Kingdom continued, Canadian soldiers waited for their opportunity to enter the battlefield. Their chance came in 1942 with the Dieppe Raid, which again proved unsuccessful and many Canadians were captured as prisoners of war. The tide began to turn in 1943 when Canada entered Sicily in July and Italy surrendered in September, though German forces continued to defend Italy. On June 6th, 1944 Canadians came ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day and then fought their way through Europe, liberating the Netherlands on May 5th, 1945. The war in Europe officially ended on May 8th, Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day). In the Pacific, the war lasted until Japan officially surrendered on September 2, 1945, Victory in Japan Day (V-J Day).
While the general course of the Second World War is familiar to many, massive large-scale events like wars are not experienced the same way in every place. For the people of the Lacombe region, the war meant that they or their family and friends joined the Armed Forces and risked injury, capture, or death. Those who stayed home had to cope with the changes brought to their doorstep by the war and the needs of their community and country. Focusing on the war as a whole, while providing context, often misses these personal stories that tell us what it means to be human in circumstances and events beyond any one person’s comprehension or control. Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, it is the stories of the people who went through it, and how they experienced these events or adapted to the challenges that allow us to connect with the generation of 1939-1945. In At Home and Abroad, the Lacombe Museums, in partnership with a number of other organizations throughout Lacombe County, is proud to bring a sampling of those stories to our communities.
Royal Canadian Air Force
Of all of the branches of service, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) appears to have been the most popular among people from the Lacombe area who chose to enlist in the Armed Forces. The RCAF was officially created in 1924 and during the Second World War, Canada made a significant contribution to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. By 1944, Canada had the fourth largest air force among the Allied nations.
While not originally from Lacombe, Bill Doran joined the RCAF in 1942, and later came to Lacombe in 1952 to work as a Agricultural Research Scientist at the Lacombe Research Station.
Here are some of his memories from his time in the RCAF during the war as recorded by the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 79# of Lacombe:
On June 6, 1944 while continuing flying training at Advanced Flying Unit from Penrhos, North Wales he witnessed a never to be forgotten sight; that of hundreds of Dakota planes, each towing two Horsa gliders, and heading south. He and others in their plane knew instinctively, this was not a training flight, but the start of the long awaited ‘D’ Day in Europe.
At OTU (Operational Training Unit) he became the bomb-aimer of a 5-man crew flying twin-engined Wellingtons. Then on to Heavy Conversion Unit where the switch was made to four-engined Halifaxes.
Flying from #150 Squadron, he, as a member of a seven-man crew, completed twenty one bombing missions and experienced the usual hazards of bad weather, flak, searchlights, mid-air collisions and, of course, enemy fighters. . . . Bill considers Dessau, a hotly defended target where he realized he was without a serviceable parachute, and Kiel where his plane was coned over the target, as their most ‘dicey’ operations. Bill has some very pleasant memories of life with the Squadron, one as a participant in six low level ‘food dropping missions’ to Holland. Near the end of the war, starvation was rampant in Holland and many elderly and very young were dying. Response of the Dutch people with flags and roof top messages left no doubt of their thanks to the Air Force. His last flight in service was flying home 24 liberated Allied Prisoners Of War from Brussels to England. He described them as the most enthusiastic passengers he had ever seen. – Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 79#
For more on the Liberation of Holland, check out our Remembering Holland Stories of Lacombe virtual exhibit
Royal Canadian Air Force/Women’s Division
In July of 1941, the RCAF became the first branch of the Canadian Armed Forces to begin actively recruiting women with the creation of the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Force (CWAAF). The organization was later renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division (RCAF/WD) and incorporated fully into the RCAF. The jobs that women were placed in were initially restricted to roles similar to those generally occupied by women in civilian society, but was later expanded into areas like air traffic control and aircraft maintenance. However, women were never able to fly as pilots in the RCAF during the Second World War. Nonetheless, women sometimes found themselves in danger and of the 17,038 women who served in the RCAF/WD, 30 lost their lives during the war.
Vera Teressa (Grose) Halberg, from the Clive area, was one of the women who served in the RCAF/WD. She moved to Edmonton after completing high school to work for Municipal Affairs in the Provincial Government for three years. Ole Halberg, her future husband, also served in the Army during the War in Italy and later in Europe, before returning to the Lacombe region where the two later met and married. Here is her story as provided by the Lacombe Legion:
A friend and I decided to join the military and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. We enlisted in Edmonton and were sent to Rockcliff, near Ottawa, for basic training. I really enjoyed being on a precision drill squad. With my previous experience as a stenographer, I did not receive other job training and was immediately transferred to the Aylmer, the Women’s side, Ontario air base. This was followed by a transfer to Mt. View, Ontario and a year later I was posted to Toronto. We were allowed to live ‘off-base’ in an apartment. Much of my time in the RCAF/WD I was in the Aerial Mapping Division.
This was a very difficult posting – it was our job to process the discharge paperwork of the returned veterans from the military services! So many were badly injured. In 1946, we chose to become ‘civilians’ and I returned to Clive. It was here that I met Ole on the following spring and we were married in November.
Norva Hutton of Bentley also joined the RCAF/WD. After the war, she continued working and married Joe Laundry, and eventually came back to Bentley and helped found the Bentley Museum. Here is what the Bentley Museum shared about her experience during the war:
Norva enlisted in the military on November 16, 1943. This was just 7 days after her 20th birthday. Following basic training Norva was assigned to the ‘Test and Development’ unit of the RCAF in Rockcliffe, Ontario. Her job dealt with the ordering and obtaining of parts and equipment for military projects.
Joining the military and moving to Ontario was quite an adventure for someone that had spent their entire life growing up on the family farm just east of Bentley!! Norva enjoyed her service life–especially the access to organized sports. Her military friends couldn’t believe she had never played inside a gym. The old red schoolhouse in Bentley never had a gymnasium, so all sports were played outside.
Although Norva and her unit were safe in Rockcliffe, they did feel sadness for the tragic loss of many friends, school mates and relatives. Norva’s cousin, Vernon Miles, who was four years older than her, was also in the RCAF. Vernon was killed on January 28, 1944 while on a mission over Denmark.
Corporal Norva Hutton was discharged on December 17, 1946. After her discharge Norva took a business course at a veteran’s school in Edmonton. She then went to the Yukon and worked for the military’s Highway Maintenance Branch. While working in the Yukon Norva met and married Joe Landry. Joe was a soldier and was stationed in the Yukon. At the time of their meeting Joe was driving the Alaskan highway hauling supplies and equipment for the Army. – Bentley Museum
Join us as we learn about WWII from the community of Bentley – this video is an interview conducted by the Bentley Museum which follows the WWII story of Joseph Landry, as told by his wife Corporal Norva (Hutton) Landry of Bentley.
Participation in the Battle of the Atlantic was not limited to members of the Royal Canadian Navy. Members of Canada’s Merchant Navy may not have officially worn military uniforms, but they were nonetheless a vital part of the Second World War as they transported desperately needed supplies to Europe. Before Canada officially entered the war, the navy had already taken control of commercial ocean-going ships, but the crews of merchant ships were given the option to participate or not. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted for six years. Shipping supplies was an extremely dangerous job as convoys of merchant ships were hunted by the German U-boats whose aim was to cut off supplies reaching the United Kingdom. In fact, the Merchant Navy suffered the highest death-rate out of all of Canada’s armed services. In 1992, those who had sailed as part of the Merchant Navy gained a veteran status similar to those who served in the Royal Canadian Navy proper.
Thomas McMullen was born in 1908 in Nova Scotia and sailed for four years before joining his parents in Lacombe in 1932. He then joined the Canadian Merchant Navy, eventually serving on the S.S. Vancouver Island, a ship which had been captured from the Germans in 1940 and repurposed for use as an Allied supply ship. On October 15, 1941, the S.S. Vancouver Island was sailing, unescorted, with a load of general cargo, copper, aluminum, zinc, asbestos and steel when it was spotted by a German U-boat and hit with four torpedoes. The ship sank, and all 105 people on board perished. McMullen was the Second Officer. However, it appears that he was not officially considered to have been lost at sea until 1943, when an article appeared in the Lacombe Globe stating that his father had received word from the R.C.N.V.R. to this effect. His wife’s name was Anna and they had one child.
In 1942, Canadian soldiers, outside of those who served in the Battle of Hong Kong, had not been involved in any major action despite the fact that they had been training since 1939. By this point, the Axis powers controlled the bulk of continental Europe and the Soviet Union was pressing for support in their fight against the Axis. The Allies decided to launch a large amphibious raid on the resort town of Dieppe in France in an attempt to draw off German forces from the Soviet Union and move the war effort forwards. This attack was named Operation Jubilee, and it occurred on August 19th, 1942. Of the 6,000 men sent over, 5,000 were Canadian. However, the element of surprise was lost early on in the attack and the Allied forces were not able to gain a stable beach-head. Naval forces were unable to rescue all of the Canadians and many of them, despite fighting with great courage, were left with no option but surrender. Nearly 2,000 Canadians were taken as prisoners of war, and remained in captivity until the war ended.
Among those captured was Henry Robert Hill of Lacombe
Henry Robert Hill was born in March of 1915 and joined the Canadian Forces in February of 1941. Hill completed basic training in Calgary and was transferred to Camp Borden – the birthplace of the RCAF and the historic home of the Canadian Armoured Corps. He went overseas in late June, 1941 and was stationed at Salisbury Plains, then Headley Downs.
Hill is listed in the September 15th, 1942 issue of the Calgary Herald in the Casualty List, under “Warrant Officers, N.C.O.’s And Men Missing”, included with the 1,946 who were captured during the raid on Dieppe in 1942.
Conflicting stories on the exact way Hill found himself at Dieppe exist and Lacombe & District Historical Society does not wish to inadvertently rewrite his story – further research is ongoing.
Here is his first person account as a Prisoner of War story, as collected by the Lacombe Legion Branch, with some minor edits:
We went to Dieppe, France on August 19, 1942 for the Dieppe Raid Captured after eight hours of Hell. Taken Prisoner of War the same afternoon. We were transported in box cars to Stalag VIIIB out of Lambsdorff, Germany. This was a horrible time for all. Winter weather, huts were cold, very little heat, very little food, except for Red Cross parcels, which is all that saved many a prisoners’ life. In October we were taken on Parade with all the German machine guns pointed at us and told you will be tied hands in front of your body until your government sends an apology for hav[ing] German prisoners tied and taken out in boats then they drowned when boats were sunk. We did get some relief after the doctors got after them and said many will catch TB unless they find some other method of punishment. After 6 weeks, we got chains which left you about 10 to 12 inches, handcuffs were much better – we were chained for 13 months. The Germans did not get any apology.
A tunnel was dug during our stay at [Stalag VIIIB] and many from other compounds in the Camp. Some made it out of our tunnel to freedom, but very few got very far before getting recaptured. Then one day a Guard fell in the opening outside the fence. In March of 1943 we were moved to Stalag II-D up in the Baltic. We watched our plane bomb Stetun, a sea port about 20 miles away.
In Feb 8/1945 we were told to pack and we marched out of that Camp. The Russians were getting too close and Prisoners must be moved away from the front lines. I do not know how many miles we marched but it was many. Then our little group who had been kept separated from the main body were taken down a lonely road and we ended up in real jail cells for overnight. Then next day we marched again. We ended up at a small camp for some weeks. The order came for us to march. This time we stopped for lunch at a farm and after awhile the German charge said he would risk taking us to Camp for safety. We were strafed by Planes and [had] to dive for the ditch many times that day. That time at about 6:30 we arrived at Barth at an Airforce Prisoner of War Camp. There were 25,000 prisoners there. We bedded down in the big mess hall. Next morning, May 1st, 1945, we woke up and found the Germans had left. They took off.
Hill’s detailed account goes on to explain interactions with the Russians and Americans, and how it was American bombers who flew the Canadian POWs to England on May 12th, 1945. Here he visited with family in Blackpool before in early July traveling by train to Scotland and boarding the Queen Mary to New York:
It was a happy time. Over 25,000 were on the Boat. Four and one half days later we were in New York Harbour after a long time from noon till 5:30 next morning we boarded a troop train for Canada. I landed in Calgary morning of July 15, 1945 and was home in Lacombe at about 3 in the afternoon. No one was home. It was raining like everything. A taxi took me to my parent’s house and many came to see me then.
Canada’s contribution to the Italy campaign lasted almost two years and was the longest Canadian army campaign of the war. It started when the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, alongside other Allies, mounted a seaborne invasion of Sicily on July 10th, 1943. While the Italians troops surrendered quickly, there were also German divisions on the island who fought fiercely until August 17th.
On September 3rd, the Canadians, again with other Allies, began fighting their way through the mainland of Italy. Like in Sicily, the Italian troops were often quick to surrender, but the German troops took advantage of excellent defensive positions and built multiple defensive lines. One famous battle occurred at Ortona, where the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders encountered the German 1st Parachute Division. This battle lasted from December 20th to 28th and cost the Canadians heavy casualties before the Germans withdrew. In February of 1945, the Canadians finally began to withdraw from Italy and join the First Canadian Army in Europe as they worked to defeat Germany and liberate the Netherlands. It was not until Germany’s surrender in the spring of 1945 that the Italy campaign finally ended in victory for the Allies. Over five thousand Canadians lost their lives in Italy, with a totally of 26,254 Canadian casualties.
Howard Duffy was the youngest of Pat and Julia Duffy’s six sons. He grew up on a farm east of Lacombe and at the age of 18, left school, having reached Grade 10. The next year, Howard joined the Army. Here is his description of the experience recounted later to Kelly Duff:
I went down to Calgary, enrolled, and then came back for a few days and they accepted me on August 5, 1940. I was assigned to the Fifth Canadian Armoured Division . . . and was to report to training right away. I was in Calgary for about four months, and I went to Brandon, for a while, then to England for final training.
I didn’t stay there too long. The troops were sent to the lines. We were first sent to Naples, Italy. All through the war we were stationed in almost all of the Mediterranean countries and in North Africa for a while. I was on the line for about two years. Then on January twenty-fourth, it was pouring rain and the mud was already six inches deep; we were all sitting around eating beans, mashed potatoes and some cold ham in a plate full of water when our captain said we were going back to England.
I tell you, there wasn’t a happier bunch in all of Italy. There was only one bad thing about the leave and that was we had to make a fifty mile route march to reach the coast where a ship would meet us and take us to England. Our troop was in England for about two months then it was back to the lines for another two years. On October twenty-fourth, 1945 I requested my discharge. I was tired of people telling me where to go and what to do. I wanted to be a civilian again. My commander did not want me to leave because they needed M.P.’s to go to Japan and Korea, but like I said, I was tired of people telling me what to do and I wanted to get back to the business of living.
Canadian Women’s Army Corps
The establishment of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was another landmark in women’s participation in the military during the Second World War. The CWAC replaced men in non-combatant duties on Canadian soil, allowing additional soldiers to be deployed to the front-lines overseas. Women worked as stenographers, drivers, cooks, typists, clerks, telephone operators, messengers, and quartermasters. In total, 21,624 women served in the CWAC and were described as efficient and competent soldiers. Without these women, Canada’s lack of manpower would have been debilitating to the national war effort. After the war, the CWAC was disbanded, the service was no longer deemed necessary. The success of the CWAC helped to establish gender integration in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Gladys Mae Dye was one of the women who joined the CWAC. Gladys was born July 9, 1921 at Langdon, Alberta. After attending school at Ripley, she worked in Carstairs and Calgary. Joining the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942, Gladys served for three years, mostly at the Skinner Barracks and the Currie Barracks in Calgary. In 1946, she married Leonard Gordon Lyle and the couple lived in Alix and Red Deer.
Royal Canadian Artillery
While Canada declared war on September 10, 1939, it was not until December that Canadian Gunners with the Royal Canadian Artillery began leaving for Britain. Over the course of the winter, they trained in England. The 1st Field Regiment landed in France in June of 1940, but France surrendered on the 22nd of June.
After this, the gunners largely played a defensive role as it was thought that Britain would be invaded soon and Canadians helped with anti-aircraft defense. Canadian Gunners again found themselves on the continent during the Dieppe Raid in August of 1942. In the summer and fall of 1943, the Canadians began fighting in Sicily and Italy.
A major turning point in the war came on June 6th, 1944 with the successful Allied landings in France on what is now known as D-Day.
Wilbur Carrol Mowbray was born on August 26th in 1920 near Rimbey. By 1940, he was living in Lacombe and affiliated with the United Church. He worked for P. W. Pratt at a filling station as a “Service Man.” On June 17th, 1940, he enlisted in Calgary and served in the 22nd Battery of the 13th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Infantry.
Join us as we learn about WWII from the community of Alix – following the story of the Timpe brothers, George & Herbert, the Alix Wagon Wheel Museum tells the story of the two brothers as they enlisted, stormed Juno Beach, marched in Italy, helped liberate Holland & finally in an act of selfless heroism, how one brother perished in an attempt to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.
Royal Canadian Engineers
The Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) were a crucial part of the armed forces, especially after the war became more mobile in Europe after 1943. They did everything from creating maps, making damaged roads and bridges passable for other branches of the Armed Forces, to constructing hospitals. Prior to 1943, the RCE helped build defense fortifications and improve roads in England and participated in the Dieppe Raid.
Prior to the war, Fred Dobirstein Sr. had been one of Lacombe’s blacksmiths. Starting in approximately 1930, Dobirstein rented and eventually bought a shop on Railway Street. By 1941, he was in England serving with the RCE. It is not currently know when exactly he was injured, but at some point prior to 1943, Dobirstein was cited as having been “one of the first soldiers form the Lacombe district to be wounded in action overseas” (Lacombe Globe, April 22, 1943). The injury meant the end of his blacksmithing career as he lost one of his arms. Nonetheless, Dobirstein was able to return home, sporting a good conduct stripe.
While the Second World War was not fought on Canadian soil, the war still invaded the lives of Lacombe’s citizens in numerous ways, both large and small. For example, metal had to be conserved, which meant large drives to collect all available scrap metal. This metal shortage was so far reaching that the Golf Club ceased to use metal membership tags for the duration of the war.
Town development and municipal spending, which had already been curtailed by the Great Depression, also had to be kept low during the war.
Additionally, the war caused strain on medical services in Canada as trained medical staff joined active service in the military. Doctors had to travel as far as Stettler and Camrose to attend to those needing help.
Many women were part of groups organized to help aid the war effort from home. One of these was the Mountain Grove War Workers (latter known as the Mountain Grove Friendship Club), which was formed in February of 1942. This group knitted socks and mittens and made bandages for the soldiers. These sorts of efforts were not limited to adults, as the Canadian Girls in Training collected recyclable materials such as silver paper and tooth paste tubes for the war effort. Ladies Church groups were also active in supporting the war effort at home as citizens rallied behind the war effort.
During the Second World War, the Canadian Red Cross was an extremely important organization that largely focused on humanitarian aid. While the Canadian Red Cross participated in numerous activities to aid the war effort, their main activities were raising money and gathering supplies to be sent across to help soldiers. While aiding the war effort was incredibly important, the Red Cross also took time to care for others such as civilian victims of the war and, on the home front, some public health initiatives. In Lacombe and the surrounding districts, citizens donated thousands of dollars and spent innumerable hours helping the war effort by fundraising, creating and gathering care clothing and parcels, as well as numerous other contributions.
Often, local branches would help raise funds for the war effort through dances, donation campaigns, and other events. Fundraising campaigns were a valuable way to gather funds for the war effort and involved whole communities coming together to help. In Lacombe, these campaigns were large ventures involving collaboration between multiple committees (such as the Red Cross Committee and the Lacombe and District Board of Trade). The Lacombe Globe, gave continual updates at the state of the campaign effort. Often, particularly near the later years of the war, the Lacombe Red Cross Campaigns would exceed their fundraising goals, a fact that demonstrated the patriotic sentiment felt by citizens in the area and a desire to help those in need. Many locals in the area were incredibly generous with contributing to the war effort beyond just cash donations. One notable example of this came from Dr. E. M. Sharp, a local pioneer physician who donated two cases of medical instruments to contribute to the war effort in 1941. These items were believed to be used overseas in mobile medical units.
Beyond fundraising, the Red Cross was also responsible for creating and supplying items such as food, clothing, and other fabric or knitted goods. Often, these items would be bundled into parcels to be delivered to soldiers including those captures as Prisoners of War. The Canadian recipients often gave glowing reviews of the Red Cross efforts. Corporal George R. Armstrong of Clive, who was a POW after being captured at Dieppe, who wrote, ““The Red Cross is doing a wonderful job” through the parcels sent out. As Henry Hill noted, these parcels could mean the difference between life and death for some POWs.
Agriculture and the War
Due to the demands of the war in terms of manpower, there were not enough men to operate the farms around Lacombe. One attempt to solve the problem saw the Lions Club go out on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons to help farmers gather their harvests. What was needed was more farm machinery, but this could not be obtained in many cases due to metal being needed for war production.
According to the Canadian War Museum, “nearly 1.5 billion kilograms of bacon, more than 325 million kilograms of cheddar cheese and similarly large quantities of other meats and butter were sent to Britain during the war. Whole eggs were converted to egg powder and milk was condensed, making it easier to ship. Processing plants in Canada dehydrated cabbages, carrots, onions and potatoes.”
Raising hogs became an important contribution to the war effort made by Canadian Farmers. A call went out to produce pork to help supply foods that were high in protein. The area around the Lacombe Experimental farm is said to have raised roughly 80% of the hogs in the province as part of the “Bacon for Britain” effort.
During the Second World War, many urban Canadians grew Victory Gardens in any available space such as a yard, empty lot, or flower bed. The goal was to produce more food at home so that transportation resources and food could be focused on the soldiers overseas. Regardless of their actual contributions in terms of providing more food and less demand on transportation, Victory Gardens were important for their symbolic value and for the sense of participation they gave people in the war effort.
In 1943, an area was set up at the Dominion Experimental Station where people could grow Victory Gardens. The plots were free, but each person had to agree to keep their section weed-free and to enter it in a competition held in the fall. Sponsored by the Lacombe and District Board of Trade, the plan proved popular with forty-three plots claimed by the beginning of June. In late August, the plots were judged based on “Arrangement and Effect,” “Variety,” “Quality,” and “Cleanliness.” The winner was Gus Bambal who was a printer.
The Second World War ended on two separate dates for both the world and the people of Lacombe. First, on May 5th, 1945, came V-E Day with the formal victory of the Allies in Europe. According to the Lacombe Globe, “Lacombe was in a joyous holiday mood on Monday morning when it was learned that V-E Day had finally arrived.” While people were happy that the war was over, the Globe claimed that “there was no boisterousness,” as the war with Japan continued and memories of those who had given their lives during the war had a sobering impact.
Nonetheless, the next day there was a large parade, a special service, a bonfire, and a dance to celebrate the victory. Bentley residents joined the Lacombe celebrations but also held a barbecue and a fifteen-school baseball tournament. Clive’s celebrations focused on Church services and a parade.
The second celebration occurred in August, when it was announced that the Japanese government had unconditionally surrendered. V-J Day was celebrated in a similar fashion to V-E Day with a special service, parade, dance, and bonfire.
Remembering At Home
Follow our event on Facebook and social media for more special features and videos from other communities!
Want to Learn More?
If you liked this exhibit, please leave us a comment and explore our other virtual exhibits such as Remembering Holland | Stories from Lacombe and the Second World War or Reflections on Vimy.