A warm Winnipeg embrace before the horror

Commonwealth students lived, trained on Winnipeg campus for often-deadly Second World War air force roles


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It could be a photo of any group of students, playing in the snow at what is now Canadian Mennonite University in Tuxedo.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/11/2018 (1599 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It could be a photo of any group of students, playing in the snow at what is now Canadian Mennonite University in Tuxedo.

Taken in 1941, it shows 10 young men horsing around, mugging for the camera, not a care in the world.

That would soon change. Within a few years seven of them would be dead, killed while serving their country in the Second World War.

Unlike students at CMU today, they weren’t studying for peaceful careers as teachers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, aid workers, clergy or many other professions.

They were studying for war.

Nine of the young men in the photo had come to Winnipeg from Australia to become wireless air gunners at Wireless School No. 3, part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

Through the BCATP, more than 130,000 personnel from Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand studied at 151 schools across Canada, including Winnipeg, Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Virden, Dauphin, Gimli, Carberry and other places in the province.

From 1941-44, Wireless School No. 3 — the others were in Montreal, Guelph and Calgary — occupied what had been the Manitoba School for the Deaf.

After it was taken over by the military, the school graduated about 2,800 students to serve with the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand air forces in the war against Germany.

A roster from Dec. 1, 1942 shows 587 Canadians, 227 New Zealanders, 74 Australians and four students from Great Britain at the school.

In addition to their studies, students participated in sports — track and field, swimming, hockey, rugby and football— the school had a team called the Bombers.

They also published a magazine, called the W.A.G. Mag. An article in the August 1943 issue makes fun of military protocol and the strange language and ways of the air force — just like students today satirize the administration.

But another article reminded readers of the deadly seriousness of their training. Praising recruits from Australia and New Zealand, it concludes by saying, “Hitler has no more formidable foes than… the boys from down under.”

Off to war

After graduating from their 24-week wireless communications course, students went on to other locations in Canada for four-week training in gunnery so they could operate the machine guns that defended the bombers. After that, they were ready to ship out to the war.

Many of the graduates of the school served as air crew with Bomber Command. With a casualty rate of just over 44 per cent, it was one of the most dangerous forms of service during the war.

Of the 120,000 who flew with Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed, more than 8,000 were wounded and almost 10,000 became prisoners of war.

To put it another way, out of every 100 men who served as crew in the bombers, 44 were killed, eight were wounded and 10 were shot down and captured.

The picture of the young men playing in the snow is a dramatic case in point.

Cold temperatures, warm memories

Recurring themes in stories about the training in Winnipeg were the winter weather — not surprising for men from the southern hemisphere — and the hospitality shown by Winnipeggers to young men far from home.

In an interview in 2003, Kenneth Ward recalled his five months at the school as “very cold.”

“It was 105 degrees when we left Australia and it was 60 below zero when we got to Winnipeg,” he said. “There was three feet of snow everywhere.”

Henry Gordon of Montreal taught at Wireless School No. 3. Like Ward, he arrived in winter “when it was 30 degrees below zero.”

In Ted Barris’s book Behind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied Air War, Gordon recalled getting off the train at Union Station on Main St. and then travelling “on what seemed like a country road and arrived at one of these big old buildings that had been an institute for the blind. We slept on the floor that night.”

Writes Barris: “If it was tough for a Quebecer to survive Winnipeg’s February weather, Gordon had it easy compared to his students — a group of newly-arrived Australia and New Zealand recruits, who left their countries in summer to come to wintry Canada.”

“During those first days in Winnipeg, they not only got their radio theory but also scarves and boots.”

In the book Canada’s War Grooms and the Girls Who Stole Their Hearts, the story of Australian Bob Kellow is told.

Kellow arrived at Wireless School No. 3 in 1941. While there, he visited the home of Emily and John Smith, one of many locals who opened their homes to young men from overseas training in Winnipeg.

Following a blizzard, Bob offered to shovel the snow at the Smiths’ house. “To everyone’s astonishment, Bob cleared not only the sidewalk, but also the front lawn.”

It wasn’t long “before Bob learned to how to deal with Winnipeg winters in a more efficient manner.”

Kellow went on to fly missions in Europe, including with 617 Squadron, the famous dambusters. He was shot down in 1943, but evaded capture and made it back to England.

He survived the war and married the Smiths’ daughter, Doreen, and they made their home in Winnipeg.

In the March 1942 issue of the W.A.G. Mag, New Zealander H. Meha writes about his first Canadian Christmas. He notes the hospitality of the Greening family, who invited him to their home for the holiday.

“Though it is winter here, and summer in New Zealand; though your customs and ours are somewhat at variance; though there be a difference in the pronunciation of a common language; there is one blessing shared by both peoples… the spirit of Christmas is the same here as at home.”

He concludes: “Our appreciation is due to Canadians as a whole and to the people of Winnipeg in particular… your homes have been open to us, your hospitality equals if not surpasses that of our own folks.

“We are indeed grateful for all you have done for us — extremely grateful, for you have made us one with yourselves.”

End of service

After the war, the campus in Tuxedo became the Manitoba Normal School, which trained teachers from 1946-65. It then reverted to its original purpose as a school for the deaf from 1965-96, before being sold to CMU.

Today, Wireless School No. 3 is mostly forgotten. I didn’t know anything about it myself until I worked at the university from 2005 to 2009.

Twice during my time there old men came to the campus, asking if they could look around — they had studied there a long time ago, they said.

It was great to spend a bit of time with them, wandering the halls and looking in on the classrooms where they studied, hearing their stories of time spent in Winnipeg so long ago.

This Remembrance Day, Winnipeggers will be remembering the many who fought, died and were wounded in this country’s wars. They can also pause a moment to remember Wireless School No. 3, and the many young men from different countries who studied there — and those who never returned home.

For more information, visit the website of Brandon’s Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum at http://www.airmuseum.ca/

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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