Wednesday, February 18, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Elgin County and the Second World War

World War Wednesdays: Elgin County and the Second World War
     Last week, I discussed a topic that I had recently covered as part of a final research paper assignment for my second year Canadian History course. Now that it is a new semester, these assignments are beginning all over again and I am taking on some exciting new projects that I would love to try and incorporate into World War Wednesdays. This week, as part of the Second World War series, I would like to discuss my current focus which is for my third year Second World War course.
     Back when I was studying history in grade ten at West Elgin Secondary School, I received a book written by local historian Blair Ferguson about the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School which was located in nearby Fingal, Ontario. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was fascinated by its material and connection to my hometown. Now that I have moved to Ottawa to study, I have an increased interest in local history from home thanks to some cherished personal connections and works like the Ferguson book. After having attempted, with surprising success, to conduct research on a highly accessible major historical topic, I have decided to challenge myself further and take on a local history project relying mainly on primary documents and records. My area of focus will be on the impact of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, and consequently the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School, on the nearby communities during its operation, with specific interest in Port Stanley and Dutton and its surrounding rural areas.
     I have often heard that there are numerous areas around my hometown that were once host to far more than what currently exists. I've heard about the industry in Tyrconnell, the social gatherings and sporting events in Largie and Campbellton, the bustle of Rodney, and the numerous stores and schools which have now vanished. While this is incredibly unfortunate and significant loss for the area, there is still another major establishment which once made huge waves in our area but now seems to have vanished from our memory.
     The No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School was a unit of the British Commonwealth Air Training plan (BCATP), which was a central aspect of Prime Minister Mackenzie King's contributions to the Allied war effort during the Second World War. It was in operation from 25 November 1940, and yesterday, February 17, marked the 70th anniversary of its closure in 1945 (what better time to be focusing on it?) During that time, over 6,000 non-pilot air crew members graduated from the school. Its main station was at Fingal, covering the expanse of land which is now a nature reserve:

      The massive facility featured baseball diamonds and sports fields, which can be seen in this aerial photo. The school also was composed of bombing ranges in the nearby communities of Dutton, Melbourne, Frome, and Tempo, as well as a Marine Section in Port Stanley and a bombing and gunnery range on Lake Erie.
     There were also similar facilities located at the time in St. Thomas and Aylmer, Ontario.
     Being a component of not just a national but international Commonwealth operation, the Bombing and Gunnery School was host to men and women from as far away as Australia, as well as Americans who wanted a shot at fighting the Axis before the U.S. entered the war. As a result, these people found themselves in a small community environment which created a fascinating array of stories found in Ferguson's book, Southwold Remembers. Marriages were celebrated between locals and visiting air students, trainees and instructors found themselves interacting regularly with local farmers and community members, and local resources were accessed. What is historically significant about the school is its extensive records due to its own newsletter which was published monthly, The Fingal Observer. Through the examination of the school's own records, interviews, accounts, and local newspapers of the time, a major aspect of our community which has long been forgotten since it was torched to the ground seems to rise from its ashes.
     If anyone would happen to know of anyone from the area who has a recollection of events related to this topic (ie. bombing practice in rural Dutton, memories of the school itself), I would greatly appreciate some additional material. My goal is to cover as much as possible regarding this topic through this and other assignment projects in the hopes that this chapter of our local history may take up more of the book.
            As always, thanks for reading,

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