Newfoundland and Canada:
The War Years, 1939-1945

The outbreak of war found Newfoundland and Labrador without any effective defences. There were virtually no troops, no guns, no fortifications, and the government did not have the funds to provide them. Britain was obviously unable to provide much help. After a period of uncertainty, it became clear that the defence of Newfoundland and Labrador would have to be a North American responsibility, with Canada taking the lead.

RCAF planes began patrolling the waters around the Island, using the seaplane base at Botwood. By June 1940, Canadian troops were garrisoned at Gander airport located on the island portion of Newfoundland, which before long was placed under Canadian control. So was Botwood, and the small, newly-formed Newfoundland Defence Force. The Canadians built another air base at Torbay, a short distance north of St. John's, starting in 1941, and the next year built a naval repair base at St. John's.

Torbay air base, 1941
Shown here at the Torbay Airport are two U.S. Army Air Force aircraft.

Courtesy of WO Aselstyre/National Archives of Canada/PA-501329. From Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's, Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, ©1983) 152.
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Torbay air base

The Canadian government was also instrumental in constructing a new airfield at Goose Bay in Labrador.

The Canadians were not the only invaders. Under the Leased Bases Agreement between Britain and the United States, signed in March 1941, American personnel began to arrive in large numbers at Stephenville, Argentia and St. John's.

Fort Pepperrell Early construction of Fort Pepperrell army base in St. John's, 1941
Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive (John Cardoulis Fonds Collection 306, Photo PF 306.181), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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American detachments were also stationed at Gander and Goose Bay. At the height of the military occupation in 1943, there were approximately 6,000 Canadian and 10,000 American personnel in Newfoundland and Labrador.

American military tanks on parade during American-Canadian Day, 1942
Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive (John Cardoulis Fonds Collection 306, Photo PF 306.202), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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American-Canadian Day parade

There was some unease in Ottawa about both the agreement and the large American presence in Newfoundland. Canada now recognized that it had important and permanent interests in Newfoundland, which had to be protected. This was a major reason for the establishment of a Canadian High Commission in St. John's in July 1941.

The war brought full employment and prosperity to Newfoundland. It was once again financially self-supporting, and as a result the Commission of Government would disappear when the war was over. Many people assumed that Newfoundland would revert to the independent status it held prior to 1934. However, by the end of the war in 1945, senior Canadian officials had decided that, if at all possible, Newfoundland should be brought into confederation. Since 1940 both the Island and Labrador had effectively been part of an integrated defence scheme, and the governments of both countries had worked well together. Canada controlled vital strategic installations, and did not want to see the country drift into the American sphere of influence. Newfoundland had become important to Canada in a way it had never been in the past. Perhaps it should become a Canadian province.

©1997, J.K. Hiller


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