Although the government of Newfoundland has never had a large military establishment of its own,
over the centuries Newfoundland and Labrador's strategic location has made it the site of military
bases built and used by Britain, France, the United States and Canada. These bases have stimulated
the economy through providing employment for civilians, and introduced new people and cultures to
what had always been a predominantly fishing society.
The influences of military bases have at times been pivotal. During the 18th and 19th centuries
the British garrison helped establish St. John's as the administrative capital of what eventually
became a self-governing colony. The construction and operation of American and Canadian military
bases during the Second World War revitalized the economy, and set the conditions whereby
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians reconsidered their constitutional future.
Until the 20th century, the possession of Newfoundland has always fallen to the strongest naval power, and European navies
valued the island for its position commanding the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As such, the British Royal
Navy knew it could dominate Newfoundland waters, and during the 18th century sent a convoy of warships
to the island each spring. But such overwhelming force during the summer did little to protect the
residents who over wintered on the island. In 1696, for example, a French military force travelled
overland during the from Plaisance winter and destroyed most English communities. The appeals for aid were answered
with the stationing of a garrison in St. John's, and the development of several fortifications in what
was now, thanks to the military presence, becoming the administrative capital. Naval officers did duty
as judges, and after 1729 St. John's, as the place where the commander of the convoy resided, became
the seat of the governor.
Lacking naval supremacy, the French established a military base at
Plaisance (Placentia) which helped the French navy protect the approaches to Acadia and New
France. French fishing ship owners settled in Plaisance where they were to some extent protected from
the British and from pirates. After the French
military left Newfoundland in 1713-1714, English and Irish settlers moved into Placentia. The
fortification was garrisoned for a time by English troops, and the community continued to be an
important fishing centre.
||The Ruins of Castle Hill, Placentia, ca. 1894.
From M. Harvey, Newfoundland Illustrated, (Concord, ©1894), 87.
The spending of the military garrison and the Royal Navy encouraged economic growth of St. John's.
In the 18th century and much of the 19th century, spending upon fortifications and soldiers's pay
stimulated the construction and service sectors. This money encouraged the growth of St. John's into
the largest community on the island. Soldiers bought local produce, or small plots of land to farm
themselves, which encouraged agriculture. Artisans, such as stone masons, came to St. John's to
construct fortifications. Military spending also enriched local merchants, and helped them to build
up the capital that allowed them to dominate the export and import trades of Newfoundland.
The garrison and visiting naval vessels also played an important social role. Military dances
and dinners in the officers' mess provided social occasions for the officers of state and captains
of commerce to rub shoulders and do business. Sailors joined in the annual St. John's Regatta, a
sporting event patronized by all segments of society. Regular soldiers and seamen were also patrons
of drinking and eating establishments - mixing on a daily basis with fishing servants and local
artisans. News, ideas and culture were exchanged in such places - giving St. John's a social life
somewhat like the naval ports in England. There was real danger, for example, that the 1797 Spithead
mutiny in the Royal Navy might have spread to Newfoundland.
The garrison was removed in 1870. A British naval squadron visited Newfoundland each summer to
patrol the French Shore fishery, but this practice ended in the early 20th century. But with the approach of
the Second World War, Canada and
the United States began to realize that the defence of Newfoundland and Labrador was important to the
defence of the continent, as well as a staging point for transatlantic air travel. In 1938 the Royal
Air Force (RAF) selected a site for a new airfield which could act as a jumping off point for aircraft
flying across the Atlantic. Gander went on to be an important site for refuelling American and
Canadian-built aircraft that were flown across the Atlantic to be used in the Allied war effort.
|Gander Air Base, 1944.
B-17s taxiing for takeoff.
From John Cardoulis, A Friendly Invasion II: A Personal Touch (St. John's,
American, British and Canadian military personnel were all stationed in Gander, with quarters,
mess halls, bunk houses and such amenities. While Gander was a military base, many of the civilian
employees moved their families to housing constructed alongside the runways. Civilians living on
the [Canadian] "Army side" would have to cross an active runway to use facilities or visit people on
the "American side," where American servicemen were quartered. All residents who lived "on the Gander"
lived under wartime restrictions, and were prohibited from owning cameras, for example, since
photographs of defence installations might fall into enemy hands.
Although at the time of construction the Gander airfield was the largest in the world, it was
insufficient for the volume of wartime aviation. In 1941 the Canadian government opened its base at Goose Bay, Labrador, to allow the RAF
Ferry Command to use a northerly route. In this instance, civilians could not live within the base
boundaries. They had to live in off-base property in a community without services which they named,
with some irony, "Refugee Cove." This was later renamed Happy Valley, and was ultimately incorporated
with the town of Goose Bay as a single municipality.
||Goose Air Base, ca. 1942.
Goose Air Base was a temporary headquarters of the United States Army
Air Force during the war years 1941-45.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(Coll - 109, 7.01.30), Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's,
In the "Bases for Destroyers Deal," Britain gave the United States permission to establish
military bases in exchange for some surplus American naval ships. American military forces
arrived in 1941 to establish military bases in St. John's, Argentia and Stephenville. The
American Navy established facilities in the first of these two places, while the United States
Air Force constructed an airport at Stephenville for the refuelling of aircraft that were unable
to be accommodated in Gander. US troops were also stationed in a number of smaller communities
with strategic importance, such as the seaplane base in Botwood. Thousands of Newfoundlanders
and Labradorians moved to communities near the bases to take relatively high-pay wage-labour
The bases provided many leisure activities that had not been widely available - and these were
extended to Newfoundland civilians. Mess halls, bowling alleys, swimming pools and similar
facilities added to the social and cultural life of the towns that grew next to the bases.
The Americans in St. John's ran their own radio broadcasting station, VOUS,
which brought American popular culture to civilian and service men and women alike. Many
American entertainers, such as Bob Hope, also performed at the bases - giving civilians
greater access to American culture than they otherwise would have had.
|Base Headquarters Building, Fort Pepperrell, ca. 1950.
Fort Pepperrell was also an important base for the United States Air Forces.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll - 109, 3.01.10),
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
with more information (56 Kb).
While providing employment for thousands of Newfoundlanders, these bases had some negative
effects. The construction of the base at Argentia, for example, required the expropriation of
the property of those who had lived there for generations and their forced relocation. The
stationing of thousands of young unmarried men at these bases, as elsewhere, contributed to the
spread of sexually transmitted diseases. There was also some friction between the military and
civilians. Since the bases were foreign soil, American law applied and servicemen were prosecuted
by military courts rather than Newfoundland courts if they committed an offense. Newfoundland
workers were paid less than American and Canadian workers and Newfoundland trade union organizers were
not permitted on to the bases to organize local employees. Civilian men also sometimes resented
the attention women from their communities paid to the exotic and prosperous young servicemen.
Hundreds of women married men they met on the bases and emigrated when their husbands
were posted home, giving many Newfoundland families relatives in the United States and throughout Canada.
||Argentia, ca. 1942-3.
Entrance to the navy side of the Argentia base complex.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll - 109, 5.01.07),
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland.
with more information (50 Kb).
At the end of the war some of military bases found new roles, while others closed. Gander airport
became an important refuelling site for civilian trans Atlantic flights,
and the military base diminished in importance. Starting in the 1950s, a new civilian town was constructed at
some distance from the airport itself, which developed a full range of municipal services, and had
an elected municipal government. Its citizens ran the
airport, and its shopping, hospital and government services were used by residents of
many nearby communities, making Gander a regional service centre.
Other bases found a role for themselves in the "cold war" rivalry between the United States and
the Soviet Union. Argentia continued as an American naval base until the 1980s. The American Air
Force used Stephenville and Goose Bay as sites for the air defence of North America, until
technological change made that use redundant. The Goose Bay airfield then became an important
training site for pilots from various North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations - giving Goose
Bay a substantial summertime population of European air crew. During this period, Happy Valley-Goose
Bay also became an administrative and service centre for other Labrador communities. The facilities
at Stephenville, St. John's and Argentia were eventually converted to civilian uses when the military
forces withdrew. By the end of the 20th century the military training at Goose Bay and the small
Canadian Forces Base Gander are all that remain of the once large military establishment.
©2000, Jeff A. Webb