Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement July 31, 1991



Newfoundland had to convince Britain, Canada to use Gander as a transit point

When the Second World War started Newfoundland was relying on the Canadian and British military to defend her from the Germans, but that assistance was almost non-existent at the beginning of the war.  By the time the war ended  there were bases across Newfoundland and the island was playing a crucial role in the defence of the continent.

Newfoundland authorities were aware of the potential of the airport at the break-out of hostilities but before it could be involved in the war effort, Newfoundland had to sell the idea to the Canadian and British political and military establishment.  In 1939, the Governor of Newfoundland wrote to the Dominion’s Secretary, asking the RCAF to take over the airport.  “In view of Canada’s publicly proclaimed interest in defense of Newfoundland, we suggest for consideration that the Canadian government be invited to take over for the duration of the war the Newfoundland Airport.”

But the British, who were then responsible for the defense of Newfoundland, rejected the idea because of the civilian experiments and contracts with Pan American Airways.  It was not until Nazi Germany’s military victories in Europe in the spring of 1940 and British control of the North Atlantic was threatened that the idea was favorably received.  On May 26, 1940 the Governor of Newfoundand sent a telegram to the Dominion’s Secretary expressing the growing alarm in Newfoundland. 

“The defenceless condition of this country causes public alarm in view of occurrences of recent days.”  It was out of fear that the Germans might take over the airport in Gander that the British finally relented.  Canadian historian Paul Bridle explains the alarm the Canadian military felt at the possibility.  “Enemy possession of this airport would give control of the main line of the Newfoundland Railway and the seaplane base at Botwood where enemy ships could unload war supplies for the seaplane base or for transportation by rail to the airport.  The airport would bring enemy aircraft within 283 miles of Sydney, Nova Scotia and 451 miles of Halifax.  Enemy aircraft would also be able to attack and disrupt our shipping through the Strait of Belle Isle and Cabot Strait. 

Because it would take substantial land defences to secure the airport from attack and the strategic importance of the airport was not yet clear, the British decided that mining the airport would be the best way to keep the Germans from using it but the men working at the airport weren’t keen on this.  Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, a meteorologist at the airport explains:

“There was a major difference of opinion between the British and Canadian Governments and ourselves.  Ourselves being H.L. Pattison, the RAF Squadron Leader, who was the senior operations officer in Newfoundland;  Fever, a very fine communications officer from Britain, and myself.  The three of us were just convinced that flying the Atlantic was going to be critical in the war.  In the late fall of 1939, we received instructions from our two governments that we were to wind down the operation at Gander and Botwood, and mine the runways so that they could be blown up if the Germans tried to use them.  I was to work out a care and maintenance staff that would just keep some observational records and look after the equipment.  We just dragged our feet; we sent in, quite deliberately, incomplete interim reports and refused to carry out our orders.”

The British finally relented on June 5, 1940.  The Dominion’s Secretary sent a telegram to the Newfoundland Governor, authorizing the Canadians to take over the airport provided they pay for maintenance.  The Canadians were hesitant to take on responsibility for the defence of the airport but the potential of the site helped them overcome their objections. 

The Canadians sent a squadron to Gander to check out the area and defend the airport.  The squadron, equipped with five Digbys, set up regular patrols of bays that came close to the railway and the men set up camouflaged Lewis guns around the airport to defend against air attacks. 

On June 23, a Black Watch Regiment arrived to defend the airport and the Botwood seaplane base.  In the course of the war, seven different army regiments served at Gander.  They were the Black Watch, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Royal Rifles, the Victoria Rifles, Lincoln and Welland, the P.E.I. Highlanders and the Pictou Highlanders.

Until the war ended, the Gander Airport was the main route for the vital air link to Britain.  After the continental collapse in 1940, the British military was desperately short of aircraft so planes were flown from American factories to Montreal to Gander and then to Prestwick in Britain.  Through the course of the war there were losses of only two percent.  To move all the B-17’s and B-24s to Europe, a lot of people were needed.  At times the population of Gander reached 15,000.  With the end of the war, Gander was still busy, ferrying aircraft back to the States but by 1946, the main military function of the airport was winding down.  The Newfoundland government took control of the airport again.  The Canadian government had invested almost $20 million on improving the airport.  Newfoundland bought those improvements for $1 million.

researched by Carol Walsh

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