At the start of the Second World War, Newfoundland and Labrador was virtually defenceless. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was disbanded in 1919, and the country’s fragile economy had since then prevented it from establishing a local military force. Anticipating the need for a home defence force in the months leading up to the war, the Commission of Government planned to recruit 11 officers and 178 other ranks, at an estimated cost of $50,000 for the first year. However, not a single man was enlisted when hostilities broke out in September 1939, and the country’s only armed forces consisted of some 50 Rangers and 260 members of the Newfoundland Constabulary, all of whom carried outdated and inefficient weapons.
Recognizing an immediate need for an active militia, the Commission of Government asked St. John’s Police Chief P.J. O’Neill to recruit volunteers. The force accepted men between the ages of 18 and 41, who were either unmarried or widowed, and who had no children. Enlistment was voluntary, but lasted for the duration of the war. Training began in late September, after Captain C. Fanning-Evans of the British Army had arrived in St. John’s to relieve O’Neill and organize the force.
By the end of October, 23 men were in training and the corps, previously known as the Home Defence Force, had been reconstituted as the Newfoundland Militia. Although applications were accepted from across the island, an initial lack of barracks confined early enlistment to St. John’s – only those able to live at home and report each day for training were able to enroll. The acquisition of temporary barracks at the King George V Seamen’s Institute on Water Street solved this problem in November, and more suitable accommodations were arranged the following month at the St. John’s East and West Fire Halls.
By mid-December, 55 men were training in two squads. Detachments of the militia guarded vulnerable areas in St. John’s, including the Windsor Lake water supply, the dry docks, the Newfoundland Broadcasting Company’s radio station in Mount Pearl, and the Imperial Oil Company’s storage tanks on the south side of the harbour. The Militia’s guard duties expanded the following year to include a German internment camp at Pleasantville and the iron mines on Bell Island, where the Canadian government installed two coast-defence guns and two searchlights.
Before the Militia stationed troops on Bell Island, however, it sent two officers and nine other ranks to Halifax to complete a training course with the Royal Canadian Artillery during the summer of 1940. Upon their return, the men helped form the 1st Coast Defence Battery, initially composed of some 37 all ranks. Members of this unit were based at Bell Island for the duration of the war, where they manned the guns and guarded the mines.
That same summer, the Militia expanded its recruiting program and moved into new barracks at Shamrock Field in St. John’s. The unit’s numbers steadily increased during the next few years and reached a peak strength of 27 officers and 543 other ranks by the end of 1943. Detachments were sent to guard other areas in Newfoundland, including the fluorspar mines at St. Lawrence, the ammunition dump at Whitbourne, and the cable stations at Bay Roberts and Harbour Grace.
In July 1942, the Newfoundland Department of Defence ordered the Militia to help recruit and train reinforcements for two overseas regiments of the British Royal Artillery composed of Newfoundlanders – the 59th Heavy and 166th Field Artillery Regiments. The first 100 recruits departed for Britain in September 1942, after completing the 12-week training course in St. John’s.
The Militia, meanwhile, attained full regimental status in 1943, and was renamed the Newfoundland Regiment on March 2. Servicemen worked in rotating shifts of six weeks at headquarters, followed by six weeks of outpost duty. Their unofficial motto was “Not Found Lying Down,” derived from the brass letters NFLD each soldier wore on his uniform.
By the end of the war, the Regiment had enlisted 1,668 Newfoundlanders and sent some 800 overseas. Thirty men died in service – eight of natural causes and 22 in a fire that destroyed the Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John’s on December 12, 1942. Their names are listed in the Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower at Ottawa. Shortly after Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, the Regiment began to discharge its soldiers and close its facilities at Bell Island, St. John’s, Harbour Grace and Bay Roberts. The final soldiers left Shamrock Field on July 15, 1946.
Aside from the Regiment, Newfoundlanders also formed Home Guard units in the paper towns of Grand Falls and Corner Brook during the war. Prompted by requests from paper mills that their facilities receive protection, the Commission of Government passed the Auxiliary Militia Act in late 1940 authorizing the formation of voluntary, unpaid, part-time militia units. The Act stipulated that no volunteers of military age could join the Home Guard unless they were medically unfit for service or employed in civilian work considered essential to the war effort.
The first Home Guard Company formed at Grand Falls in the fall of 1940, and consisted of some 160 volunteers. Corner Brook recruited its company, known as the Bay of Islands Home Guard, in April 1942. The Newfoundland Regiment commanded both units, and the Canadian Army helped teach recruits to use infantry weapons, understand signal communications and perform first aid.
While on duty, all volunteers wore uniform and carried rifles. Their mission was to defend Corner Brook and Grand Falls from enemy attack until backup forces could arrive. Both Home Guard units were renamed the Newfoundland Militia in March 1943, after the original Newfoundland Militia was designated the Newfoundland Regiment.
Air Raid Precautions
A third volunteer unit, known as the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organization, also formed during the war to help maintain home defence. The ARP recruited some 1,000 volunteers, and trained them in emergency response, first aid, fire fighting, and the extinguishing of incendiary bombs. Based in St. John’s, the ARP’s mission was to protect the city from enemy attack, perform rescue work, and enforce a permanent blackout. Volunteers scoured the city each night to check windows, doorways, streets, and wharfs for any lighting that could attract the attention of enemy naval vessels or aircraft. Although never called upon to defend St. John’s from a major attack, the ARP’s blackout duties contributed to the city’s protection.