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Newfoundland History

Newfoundland and the Second World War (1939-1945)

[This text was published in 1950. For the full citation, see the end of the text. Parts in brackets [...], links and images have been added to the original text by Claude Bélanger.]

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Newfoundland was without direct defences of any kind: it had no military forces of its own and no British garrison; it had no fixed defences or fortifications; it had no facilities for supplying naval ships; and although there was a dry dock at St. John's no large naval ship could safely enter the harbour. Newfoundland's strategic position for transatlantic civil aviation had, however, been foreseen and a new civil airfield had been constructed jointly by the United Kingdom and Newfoundland Governments at Gander, and limited facilities had been provided at Harwood for flying boats. Apart from this, the Island was as unprepared for war as it had been in 1914.

Immediately on the outbreak of war, arrangements were made to recruit personnel for the United Kingdom forces and for a local defence force, but virtually no arms or training equipment were available. Gander and Botwood were made available to the Royal Canadian Air Force for patrolling coastal waters, and from time to time small patrol forces based at Dartmouth , N.S., used these bases.
Landing of the first R.C.A.F Handley Page Harrow Mk. I at the new airport of Gander,
August 1941. [information provided by Chris Charland, Associate Air Force Historian, Office of Air Force Heritage and History, first Canadian Air Division]
The military collapse in Western Europe in the spring of 1940 immediately altered the situation. From the standpoint of North American defence, an undefended Newfoundland was now a serious hazard, and with the consent of the Newfoundland Government Canadian troops were despatched in June for the defence of Gander Airport . Canadian forces were gradually expanded and posted at other strategic points. Newfoundland's local defence forces were also increased and placed under Canadian command. By agreement with the Newfoundland Government, Canada took over Gander and Botwood air bases for the duration of the War and greatly enlarged and improved them. In 1941 Canada acquired a ninety-nine year lease to an area at Goose Bay, Labrador, for the construction of a military air base which should be available to the United States and the United Kingdom air forces during the War and for such time thereafter as was deemed desirable in the interests of common defence. Canada also constructed an air base at Torbay near St. John's, primarily for fighter aircraft for the defence of the St. John's area and, by agreement with the Newfoundland and United Kingdom Governments, constructed a naval base at St. John's on behalf of the British Admiralty, management and operation of the base during the War being the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Navy.
Anti-aircraft battery manned by Canadian soldiers,
Goose Bay airport, Labrador, May 1942.
For the purpose of continental defense, Canadian conscripts were
despatched to Newfoundland throughout the Second World War. This was the first occasion
for large number of Newfoundlanders to see Canadians "up-close" and vice-versa.
The United States, no less than Canada, felt compelled to take a hand in the defence of the Newfoundland region following the military collapse in Europe in 1940. In September, 1940, the United Kingdom Government announced that the United States would be granted areas for the construction of bases in the West Indies, Bermuda, and Newfoundland, and a treaty providing for these bases was signed between the two Governments on Mar. 27, 1941. A protocol annexed to the Bases Agreement and signed by the representatives of the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada provided for the protection of Canadian interests in the defence of the Newfoundland region. Under the Bases Agreement the United States acquired three areas in Newfoundland, on which it rapidly constructed bases: one adjacent to St. John's, where an Army garrison base, Fort Pepperrell , was constructed; a second at Argentia on the west side of the Avalon Peninsula, where a gigantic naval and naval air base was developed; and the third at Stephenville on the west coast, where a staging airfield, Harmon Field, was constructed.
View of the American base of Fort Pepperrell, near Quidi Vidi Lake,
St. John's Newfoundland (1944)
As a result of the extension of Canadian and United States defence activities, Newfoundland became one of the heavily fortified areas on the continent. But it was much more than a defence bastion against attack on North America; it was perhaps even more important for the maintenance of communications across the North Atlantic. The new naval base of St. John's was extremely useful as an advance base for convoy escort forces. The new air bases also made possible air coverage of convoys in the later stages of the War, and Gander and Goose Bay in particular were of major importance as staging fields for ferrying aircraft to the United Kingdom and later to the European mainland.
As in 1914-18 the people of Newfoundland made significant contributions to the common effort: about 10,000 went overseas, either to the United Kingdom forces or as a forestry unit, and about 1,500 men and 525 women served in the Canadian Forces; there was a heavy loss in Newfoundland shipping; and over $12,000,000 of the Government's accumulated surplus was lent to the United Kingdom, interest free. This time, however, Newfoundland did not attempt to finance its forces overseas as in 1914-18, except to the extent of supplementing pensions and post-discharge benefits to bring them up to the Canadian standard.
In order to reduce the carrying charges on the public debt the Commission of Government, immediately after assuming office, had arranged for the consolidation of outstanding bond issues into a single sterling issue at 3 p.c., guaranteed as to principal and interest by the United Kingdom .
By the winter of 1940-41, the economic effects of heavy defence expenditure by Canada and the United States were being felt. In 1941, for the first time since 1919, Newfoundland enjoyed a surplus of revenues over expenditures and continued to do so to the fiscal year commencing Apr. 1, 1947. A cumulative surplus of approximately $30,000,000 was available at Mar. 31, 1948, including the interest-free loan to the United Kingdom. [ Newfoundland's Book of Remembrance for the Second World War.]

Back to Newfoundland History

Source: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA, Newfoundland. An Introduction to Canada's New Province , Published by authority of the Right Honourable C. D. HOWE, Minister of Trade and Commerce, prepared by the Department of External Affairs, in collaboration with the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa, 1950, 142p., pp. 15-41.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College