The Second World War, 1939-1945

The era of the Second World War was a social and political watershed for Newfoundland and Labrador. The military and economic impacts of the war were immediate, but the social and political consequences of these impacts were far-reaching. The Second World War accelerated the integration of many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians into the consumer values and economic expectations that dominated North American development. At the same time, the war weakened Britain, ending any prospect that it might long continue to support the Commission of Government. Peace in 1945 set the stage for Newfoundland and Labrador’s entry into Confederation.

Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939 automatically drew Newfoundland and Labrador into the conflict. Through the Act for the Defence of Newfoundland (1939) and the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act (1940), the Commission of Government gained extensive powers to regulate society and economy for the war effort. It quickly organized the Newfoundland Militia as a defensive home guard, which became the Newfoundland Regiment in 1943. The Commission avoided the expense of raising an overseas force. Instead, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians enlisted in British and Canadian forces. Others supported the war effort by serving as merchant mariners in the British and Allied shipping that proved vital to the war effort in Europe.

John Parsons, Royal Navy, ca. 1940s
During the Second World War, thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians enlisted in British and Canadian forces.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Greenspond Historical Society.
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John Parsons, Royal Navy, ca. 1940s.

The strategic geography of Newfoundland and Labrador meant that it played a central role in the Allied war effort in the North Atlantic. Before the war, Newfoundland had already become important in the development of transatlantic flight, especially at the Gander airport and the Botwood seaplane base. The Canadian government took over the defense of these facilities, and later agreed to build additional airbases at Torbay and Goose Bay. The bases at Gander and Goose Bay became vital links in the ferrying of military aircraft to Britain. Torbay was home to fighter squadrons that provided protection against U-boats for convoys of ships headed for Britain, although anti-U boat patrols flew from the other airbases as well. A Canadian naval base at St. John’s was the home for escort ships that sailed with these convoys. In 1940, Canada and the United States (US) formed the Permanent Joint Board on Defence to protect the western hemisphere. Although still officially neutral, the US leased an army base in St. John’s, an air base at Stephenville, and a naval and army base at Argentia in return for providing Britain with destroyers and military equipment.

Argentia Base, 1943. Argentia Base, 1943
During the Second World War, American forces built a naval air station on the north coast of Argentia Harbour and an army base to the south.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 109 5.01.004), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
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The construction and maintenance of this military infrastructure changed the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador. Thousands of local people found work for good wages during the construction phase of the bases. Many men and women continued to find employment in the operation of the bases once construction had been finished. Wartime demand for foodstuffs and rationing measures led to improved marketing conditions in the fishing industry. Economic problems partially offset the prosperity brought about by the military presence and revived fishery. Inflation and housing shortages, for example, were constant problems, especially in major centres, throughout the war.

Civilian workers, 1942
This group of civilian workers helped build Fort Pepperrell in St. John’s.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by the permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 109 3.01.17), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL.
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Civilian workers, 1942.

The presence of large numbers of military personnel created social problems. Whether in Gander, St. John’s or Goose Bay, the military brought or encouraged the development of entertainment facilities for troops, which local people attended. American authorities particularly worried that their relationships with local women would leave American soldiers with venereal diseases (VD) and other health problems. Little considering that these soldiers might leave local women with the same problems, military authorities pressed the Commission of Government to institute public health campaigns, to take aggressive measures against VD, and to more vigorously prosecute people suspected of prostitution. Such problems must be balanced against the cooperation between military and civilian officials throughout the war. Many people from surrounding communities socialized with military personnel individually and in groups such as through team sports. Well-known social clubs such as the Caribou Hut and the Knights of Columbus Hall in St. John’s were meeting places for civilians and soldiers alike. More than one friendship led to marriage.

Dance at RCAF Stn. Gander, 3 March 1945. Dance at RCAF Stn. Gander, 3 March 1945
During the Second World War, visiting troops often mixed with Newfoundland and Labrador civilians at various social gatherings.
Photographer: I.H. Withers. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA-177671), Ottawa, Ontario.
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The presence of so many Canadians and Americans, complete with entertainment and consumer goods, gave many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a taste for the more affluent consumerism that had been developing throughout North America. The wartime economy also provided the Commission of Government with the resources to spend more public money on health, education, and housing. The Commission further invested in transportation and other public infrastructure. Nonetheless, the Commission recognized that wartime prosperity was unlikely to last long once the war was over. With British support, the Commission of Government had pressured American authorities to keep wage rates down, fearing that the local post-war labour market would not be able to support the expectations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who were used to well-paid jobs in base construction or on the bases.

The Commission of Government realized that the experience of war would lead to demands for change once the war ended. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians felt that they had shouldered their share of the burden in defending democracy from the spectre of fascism. Yet, these same people continued to be administered by an unelected government. At the international level, the Second World War had cost Britain dearly; it would be unable to maintain its pre-war imperial commitments, including its support for the Commission in Newfoundland. The US emerged from the war as the world’s preeminent power, although on the eve of a struggle with the Soviet Union that would deepen into Cold War in the 1950s. Newfoundland and Labrador would continue to be vital strategically to the US, and its military bases meant that the Americans had a sufficient presence there to protect their interests in the North Atlantic. The Canadian government recognized that it now stood in the shadow of its American partner. Canadian and British authorities recognized the potential, friendly counter-balancing of American hegemony if Newfoundland and Labrador were to become a province of Canada. While many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians longed for a return to responsible government, many were also adamant that they had no desire to return to the troubled times of the pre-Commission of Government era. Confederation with a receptive Canada seemed preferable by comparison.

Article by Sean Cadigan. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site


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