Winnipeg Free Press

When war came to Winnipeg

75 years ago, city staged bold and hugely successful publicity stunt

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2017 (181 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If Day, the simulated Nazi invasion of Winnipeg, was a daring publicity stunt that involved weeks of planning, thousands of volunteers and garnered media attention across North America. Most importantly, it raised millions of dollars for Canada’s war effort.

The mock invasion was intended to sell Victory Bonds and was a big success.</p>

The mock invasion was intended to sell Victory Bonds and was a big success.

The purpose of If Day was to drum up sales for Victory Bonds. Sold to businesses and individuals, often through payroll deduction plans, they were an essential tool for financing Canada’s war effort.

Dr. Jody Perrun has researched If Day and Winnipeg’s participation in Victory Bond campaigns for his book The Patriotic Consensus: Unity, Morale, and the Second World War in Winnipeg. He estimates that of the $22 billion the federal government spent fighting the war between 1939 and 1945, more than $12 billion was offset through the sale of Victory Bonds.

The promotion of the bonds was the responsibility of the National War Finance Committee in Ottawa. The short-term sales campaigns were initially quite centralized, with a national theme and propaganda products that were forwarded to provincial committees who used rallies, concerts and other tried-and-true public events to make up their portion of the national sales goal.

The second national Victory Loan campaign was slated for Feb. 16 to March 7, 1942. It had a national fundraising goal of $600 million, with Manitoba’s share being $45 million.

The Manitoba committee was chaired by Henry E. Sellers, president of Federal Grain Ltd., one of the largest private grain companies in Canada. Under him were more than 100 committee members from across the province. They were mostly from the world of business and politics but also included representatives from service groups, religious organizations and the labour movement.

The Manitoba committee decided early on they would go "off-message" from the national body and create a unique campaign of their own. The reasons for this are not completely clear, though one factor may have been the makeup of the Greater Winnipeg subcommittee.

It was chaired by John Draper Perrin, a mining tycoon who later proved to have a flair for sports-entertainment as president of the Winnipeg Warriors hockey club. The Winnipeg special events committee was headed by local actor George Waight.

The provincial committee agreed the main event of the Manitoba campaign would be centred around Winnipeg and a mock invasion of the city called "If Day," as in what would happen "if" the Germans were not stopped overseas.


75 years ago, Winnipeggers said "WHAT IF?"


The scale of the event was massive. It involved the choreography of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of pieces of equipment and required the buy-in from the military, politicians, churches, labour organizations, business groups, radio stations, newspapers and individual companies.

At 6 a.m. on Feb. 19, 1942, air raid sirens sounded over Winnipeg, and around 3,500 military personnel from various regular and reservist units from across the province took their positions on the outskirts of the city. At 7 a.m., street lights were cut, and radio stations broadcast messages of the impending raid and urged residents and businesses to observe a blackout.

Over the next few hours, planes swooped overhead while anti-aircraft guns and other artillery — all blank rounds, of course — sounded across the city. Dynamite was set off on the frozen rivers near bridges, and coal dust was used to amplify the visual impact of the blasts, which could be seen throughout the city.

Military personnel were joined by about 40 members of the young men’s division of the Board of Trade, dressed in full Nazi regalia rented from a Hollywood studio. George Waight played a gestapo agent.

Those trying to go about their business despite the commotion ran into difficulty. Random roadblocks were set up, with Nazi troops stopping buses and streetcars asking to see identity papers. Some coffee shops and stores handed back worthless "Reichsmark" notes as change. Churches were closed, with notices posted on their doors religious services were no longer permitted.

A proclamation printed on the front page of the Winnipeg Tribune on If Day.</p>

A proclamation printed on the front page of the Winnipeg Tribune on If Day.

The Winnipeg Tribune’s morning edition was replaced with the special, four-page Das Winnipeger Lugenblatt. Its cover stories were in German, except for the 10-point proclamation to citizens by Erich Von Neurenberg, the city’s new Nazi leader. Its interior pages included a mix of tongue-in-cheek editorials and columns as well as real-life stories from some occupied European cities.

Over the course of the morning, the invaders moved closer to the centre of the city, and by 9:30 a.m. had successfully arrived in the core.

The Nazis made a number of high-profile arrests, including Rev. John Anderson of All Saints Anglican Church, premier John Bracken and some members of his cabinet, lieutenant-governor Roland McWilliams and mayor John Queen and some aldermen. They were all marched to Lower Fort Garry, which had been set up as an internment camp complete with a Nazi flag flying overhead.

They also burst into the cafeteria at the Great-West Life building on Lombard Avenue, confiscating the food for themselves, "ransacked" a downtown apartment building and roughed up newspaper sellers before tearing up their goods.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Men portraying German soldiers burn books outside the Carnegie Library.


Men portraying German soldiers burn books outside the Carnegie Library.

A large crowd gathered to watch the Nazis burn hundreds of books — volumes already slated for removal from the city’s library system — in front of the Carnegie Library on William Avenue.

By noon, the city had been taken, and the centre of activity became Portage Avenue, renamed Adolf Hitler Strasse. People went about their business with the Nazis on patrol, barricades and gun posts set up outside some stores, intermittent blasts from anti-aircraft guns located near the legislature and the sound of small arms fire from "snipers" on building rooftops.

The day ended at 5:30 p.m., when 600 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Cloak Manufacturers marched down Portage Avenue signing people up to buy Victory Bonds.

If Day was a success on all fronts. The military got an unprecedented level of urban warfare training, nobody got hurt and, most importantly, they sold a lot of Victory Bonds. Some media reports stated more than $3 million worth were sold that day.

With days to go in the campaign, Manitoba exceeded its $45-million quota set out by the National War Finance Committee. By the time of its conclusion on March 7, 1942, the final total was an astonishing $65 million — $927 million in 2017 dollars.

"The number that really sticks out for me is one-in-three. That is the ratio of Winnipeggers who subscribed to buy a Victory Bond," Perrun says. "That’s not one in three wage earners, that’s of every person in the city."

He points out this total does not include people who bought savings stamps — another wartime financing scheme — or made donations to other campaigns, such as the Red Cross.

The great success of If Day wasn’t because many people feared a Nazi invasion of Manitoba, Perrun says. By this time, both the Soviet Union and the United States had entered the war, and there was a sense the tide would soon start to turn in favour of the Allies. He puts the success down to the national organization’s brilliant propaganda campaign, the theatrics of If Day and the sheer number of people who had a direct connection to the war.

"Remember, everybody knew someone who was in uniform, if they weren’t in uniform themselves," Perrun says, noting 1.1 million Canadians out of a total population of eight million served in the war.

"The Second World War touched everybody. It wasn’t hard to get people mobilized and motivated because everybody had a stake in it."

Hitler came to Winnipeg on the front page.


Hitler came to Winnipeg on the front page.

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

Read more by Christian Cassidy.

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