Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit

Alongside sailors, airmen, and soldiers, Newfoundland and Labrador also sent some 3,600 loggers overseas during the Second World War. These volunteers formed the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit (NOFU) and helped supply timber products critical to British coal mining operations.

Cut off from its usual sources of imports, the British government experienced a severe timber shortage just two months after hostilities broke out. Although there were plenty of forests in the United Kingdom, there were too few loggers to meet the increased demand. Of immediate concern was the coal industry, which was central to Britain’s war-time economy and depended on a steady supply of wooden frames (known as pit props) to support the mines.

The Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs sent a telegram to Newfoundland Governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn on November 9 asking that 2,000 men “capable of good work with axe and hand saw” be sent to Britain to work in its forests. The British government suggested making the unit a civilian one, arguing that there would not be enough time to recruit, equip, and train a military company.

Recruiting begins

The Commission of Government agreed, and quickly assembled the requested labourers. In a radio address broadcast on November 17, the Commissioner of Natural Resources appealed for volunteers from all over the island. Two days later, the government passed the Newfoundland Forestry Act, authorizing the formation of the NOFU and outlining the regulations under which it would operate. Recruiters reported an abundance of applicants eager to assist in the war effort overseas – aside from a previous call from the British Royal Navy for 625 recruits, this was the first opportunity Newfoundlanders had to serve abroad. As a result, the problem quickly shifted from finding enough men to determining which were most suitable for the job.

Officials devised an interview process and medical exam to screen applicants. Within two months, they had selected some 2,150 volunteers, all between the ages of 18 and 55. Upon acceptance, recruits agreed to six months’ labour in the United Kingdom and signed a contract outlining the terms of employment. They would earn $2 per day (the then minimum wage local paper companies paid), but had to send half of that home to relatives in Newfoundland. Wages were further reduced to $1 per day for any work missed due to illness or accident.

The first draft of 350 men sailed from St. John’s to Liverpool on December 13, 1939. By mid-February, the entire unit had arrived in Britain and started to work in forests extending from southern England to the Scottish Highlands. Initial progress, however, was slow. While the British government stressed an immediate need for loggers, it was still trying to acquire private woodlots from landowners when they arrived. Moreover, no camps existed to accommodate the foresters near any of the land on which they were to work. Some men lived for the first few months in two large deserted army camps in the Scottish Lowlands and began logging small stands of timber within walking distance; others dispersed throughout Scotland and England to build camps near forests there.

Most of the construction work was completed by the summer of 1940, allowing foresters to move out of the army camps and focus all of their energies on logging. They settled into a basic 44-hour work week, with Saturday afternoons and all of Sunday off. This was a welcome change from the early weeks of construction, which saw the foresters working 10-hour shifts, six days a week. Government officials also acquired large woodlots in the Scottish Highlands, allowing operations to expand north. It was here that the Newfoundland Foresters eventually concentrated most of their efforts.

Just as the unit was moving into full production, however, it began to lose members. After completing six months of service in the summer of 1940, many foresters chose not to renew their contracts and instead either returned home or joined the British armed forces. The British government asked Newfoundland to recruit an additional 1,000 volunteers, but this time requested that the contract last for the duration of the war rather than for six months. The first draft of 205 men arrived in England on July 14 and another 800 joined them the following month.

By the end of 1940, some 30 logging camps had been established in about 25 forests in Scotland and England. Each camp had a population of between 30 and 100 men, and consisted of bunkhouses, a cookhouse, a washroom, office space, and various smaller buildings. The work, however, was both hard and dangerous. The men cut all wood by hand using buck saw or axe and also lifted each log onto trucks and trains for transport. Some foresters were injured on the job and 34 died.

At the height of logging operations, a typical NOFU camp had an inventory of more than 100 different sizes of pit props. These ranged from about 60 centimetres long with diameter of five centimetres, to almost three metres long with a diameter of up to 20 centimetres. The unit also produced telegraph poles, pulpwood, and lumber used in shipbuilding, the rebuilding of bombed structures, and the construction of air raid shelter bunks. The NOFU sent all its timber to local consumers by rail or road, which prevented Britain from having to import wood overseas and use valuable shipping space.

3rd Inverness (Newfoundland) Battalion Home Guard

Alongside supplying the United Kingdom with much-needed timber products, the NOFU also contributed to its home defence. When the British government called upon civilian volunteers to form a Home Guard in 1940, many Newfoundland Foresters immediately signed up. Two years later, a high concentration of forestry units in northern Scotland made it possible to form a Home Guard there entirely made up of Newfoundlanders. On September 30, 1942, the 3rd Inverness (Newfoundland) Battalion Home Guard was formed and had a complement of more than 700 men.

Volunteers trained on weekends and during evenings. They spent the first winter in basic training, before moving on to field exercises and weapons training. A rifle range and assault course were also built at one of the deserted logging sites at Carrbridge. The unit disbanded at the end of 1944 (alongside all British Home Guard companies), and every member received the Defence Medal.

War’s End

Although the British government released all foresters from their contracts when hostilities ended in May 1945, approximately 1,200 Newfoundlanders continued working until Britain’s timber imports returned to pre-war levels. By July 1946, the NOFU had disbanded and most of its members returned home. Integration into post-war society, however, was unexpectedly difficult. The Commission of Government did not recognize the foresters as veterans because they had served in a civilian unit and barred them from rehabilitation programs designed to help soldiers, sailors, and airmen readjust to civilian life. The British government made these programs available to foresters, but only if they remained in the United Kingdom. After Confederation, the Canadian government also failed to recognize the foresters as veterans and excluded them from war benefits. This changed in 1962, when Ottawa formally recognized the foresters’ wartime contribution under the Civilian War Allowances Act. Almost four decades later, in 2000, then federal Veterans Affairs Minister George Baker announced that members of the NOFU would be eligible to receive benefits and pensions.

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