Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Airminded Patriotism: Second World War social history takes flight

Studies of the Canadian home-front in the Second World War are becoming increasingly frequent, indicating that military historians in the country are becoming comfortable with the previously terrifying methodologies of social history. The wartime citizens of Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Verdun have all been the subject of recent scholarly examination and the University of Calgary has a brand new edition to the literature in Sarah Sewell's masters thesis, "Making the Necessary Sacrifice: The Military's Impact on a City at War, Calgary, 1939-1945."

A rising star in the constellation of published works is Jeff Keshen's Saints, Sinners and Soldiers, which is finding its way onto the lists of graduate seminars and comprehensive examinations alike. Keshen's work is a mirror image of your typical Second World War survey, as it crams the fighting overseas into a single chapter, a treatment traditionally reserved for the impact of the war at home. Keshen challenges the notion of a patriotic consensus, showing resistance to growing government control by farmers and workers, along with the selfish actions of profiteers. In Keshen's account, "The Good War" loses much of its moral lustre.

Another recent work by an undisputed heavyweight champion of Canadian military history, who has long sparred with social theory, is Jonathan Vance's Maple Leaf Empire. Vance's work is beginning to be assigned as an undergraduate text, as it concisely surveys the Canadian military relationship with Mother Britain from confederation to the Second World War. While Vance does touch on moments of dissent, noting friction and misunderstanding between Canadians and Britons in the early years of the second war, his account is largely focused on Anglo-Canadian solidarity. The major Canadian presence in Aldershot, the Vale of York and Londonderry, are shown as a kind of reverse colonization, where, (especially after those damn Yankees arrived), the Canadians were welcomed with open arms.

Members of the "Eager Beavers" entertainment troupe from Montreal, who are visiting Aldershot, England, 4 July 1945.  Lieut. Arthur L. Cole / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152136

Vance notes that one expression of solidarity with Britain on the Canadian homefront was particularly air-minded. With the major threat to Britain in the early war coming from the Luftwaffe, it is no surprise that Canadians wished to purchase aircraft to do their part in defence. In 1939 the Wings for Britain Fund was established to channel patriotic contributions to the Air Ministry, and in August 1940 the cause was given a great leg-up by Canadian millionaire Garfield Weston. Upon hearing of the loss of 16 Spitfires in August 1940, Weston signed a cheque for ₤100,000. Weston claimed, "As a Dominion man, I've dug deep into my jeans to help with the war [...] But I've got my money on a winning horse." (Cited in Vance, p. 164) Others soon stepped forward, with the publisher of the Montreal Star J.W. McConnell donated $1 million for a whole squadron built in Canada.

Even prisoners contributed! Globe 1940
Elites were not the only ones to respond to the call for money for machines. A particularly novel approach came from one Dorothy Christie of Montreal, who sold some of her finer apparel to start a mailing campaign to every other "Dorothy" she could find. Her card's read, "Is your name Dorothy? If so, rally around and help buy a Spitfire for Britain." (Vance, p. 166) Dorothys across the country held some 20,000 tea parties, concerts, car washes and yard sales.  Presumably the presentation Spitfire named "Dorothy of the Empire and Great Britain" was the result.

The UK film "The First of the Few" was known as "Spitfire" in the United States. http://thegoldenagesite.blogspot.ca/2013/01/blog-post_808.html

Wings for Britain eventually purchased more than 2,200 aircraft, including 1,600 Spitfires, speaking to that model's ability to capture the public imagination. Similar campaigns such as the Buy-A-Tank campaign, capitalized on the popular fascination with the machines of war, and contributed to a discourse of mechanization which pervaded the era. Added incentive for those that purchased a whole plane (the Air Ministry put the cost of a fighter at ₤5,000 for fighter, which actually only payed for the airframe), was selection of the name of the craft. Vance notes a puzzling choice of one Herbert Morris, who dubbed his spitfire "Dirty Gerty Vancouver"!

Advertisements featuring "Canada's New Mechanized Army", stirred the imaginations of young Canadians as well. As Cynthia Comacchio notes in her chapter, "To Hold on High the Torch of Liberty: Canadian Youth and the Second World War." in a recent edited volume, Canadian youth supported the war effort with an eye to the skies. Around 40,000 high school boys worked on modelling ninety different aircraft for British Commonwealth Air Training Plan purposes. (Comacchio, p. 43) The models were to be used to familiarize aircrew with a variety of allied and enemy planes. Comacchio notes that girls got in on the building as well, perhaps tiring of knitting socks for soldiers overseas. In some schools girls protested that boys were delegated modelling duties, and demanded participation. As Saturday Night magazine noted, "In these cases the knitting needles are idle while the young ladies cut patterns and paint up the finished models." (Saturday Night, 19 December 1942, as cited by Comacchio) Comacchio, as can be expected for a scholar with a keen eye for the construction of gender roles, notes, "Their participation, however, clearly stayed within the domain of traditional feminine skills."

The "Little Happy Gang" children's knitting club, who are knitting for Canadian soldiers and for the Canadian Red Cross Society.  Victor Bull / National Film Board of Canada. Phototh√®que / Library and Archives Canada / C-053880

These patriotic responses offer a counter to Keshen's mirror image of the "Good War"Far from offering a black or white picture of the conflict, however, new works show that, despite the tankers of ink spilled examining the Second World War, complex new approaches may still be found. For Vance, "The speed and efficiency with which the Canadian community in Britain mobilized to support charitable causes like the Wings for Britain Fund demonstrates that Canada's empire in Britain from the First World War had never really disappeared." (Vance, p. 166) With a nod to Veronica Strong-Boag's A New Day Recalled, Comacchio's study notes that "what imprints individual and collective memory, is not the universality of experience so much as the fundamental elements of age and life stage." (p.28) War could become a shortcut to adulthood, yet also "inspired generational solidarity". (p.56) There is no questioning that the shared experience of the war shaped the Class of '45 in schools across the nation.

Further Reading:

A article from Legion magazine further elaborates on the Spitfire funds and patriotic contributions:


One of the Garfield Weston spitfires was discovered in an Irish bog:

Hayes, G., M. Bechthold, and M. Symes. Canada and the Second World War: Essays in Honor of Terry Copp. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012. http://books.google.ca/books?id=ksabpwAACAAJ.

Keshen, Jeff. Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/toc/fy051/2004541329.html

Vance, Jonathan.F. Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain, and Two World Wars. OUP Canada, 2012.

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