Wednesday, December 23, 2015

World War Wednesdays: Christmases 1942-1944 at No. 4 B&G, Fingal

    Merry Christmas to readers old and new of World War Wednesdays! For the past two weeks, we've been discussing the first festive celebrations at No. 4 B&G, Fingal thanks to Winston B. St. Clair. This week will be an extra holiday feature with three years in one post, from 1942-1944. So, take a break from all the preparations and get comfy!

Christmas #3, 1942
     Christmas of 1942 took much the same format as that of 1941. Committees were more experienced and improvements had been made to the physical plant. Aside from the water pipeline from Port Stanley, the biggest changes during 1942 were  systemic. In January and February 1942, a high level training conference was held in the United Kingdom to discuss changes to the Empire Air Training Plan. In the future the greatest stress would be placed on the quality of the graduates of the various training schemes instead of their numbers. Allied to this change was the decision, in March, to restructure the composition of aircrews of Royal Air Force heavy and medium bombers. Both events would add significantly to the load placed on the BCATP in Canada, especially at Air Observer Schools and Bombing and Gunnery Schools. The end result was a training conference at Ottawa in May 1942 that formalized what had been decided earlier. Another very important change took place in May when members of the RCAF (Women's Division) arrived at Fingal, adding many more capable minds and willing hands to the strength of the social fabric of the school. The arrival of the young women was also given credit for effecting a marked improvement in the appearance of the airmen. It was reported that the sales of hair tonic and aftershave lotion rose to record levels after the WDs arrived.

     In a sense the first event of the Christmas Season of 1942 took place on 27 November when the Christmas edition of the Fingal Observer went to press. This would inform the Fingalites of what events were scheduled to take place during the coming season. The Observer's nominal date of publication was 15 December, and it advised those people who wish to "let loose" over the holidays, to do their celebrating at the station.
Christmas #4, 1943
     Christmas of 1943 found No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School to be a thriving and nearly self-contained community of 1,500 people. The school was, based on the census figures of 1941, the fourth largest community in Elgin County. Its social structure was well developed and well managed, and morale appears to have been very high. The school's physical plant had just about reached the limits of its growth, and the long hours of hard work that had gone into station beautification projects had given the place a definite park-like appearance. Because of the poor bus service between No. 4 B&GS and St. Thomas, additional emphasis had been placed on developing the school's own recreational facilities. Year 1943 had been a particularly busy, exciting and rewarding time of change and accomplishment, and Fingalites, not being fully aware of the consequences of downsizing of the BCATP, expected no less in 1944.

     The Christmas activities at Fingal followed the general pattern that had evolved within the school. The basic parameters being a season of activities that lasted for about two weeks, with approximately one half of the school's personnel taking a short leave at Christmas, and the remainder being away for New Years.

     The Christmas 1943 issue of the Fingal Observer was released on 13 December, and it was full of all sorts of good stuff that could be considered as being gifts from the gnomes at AFHQ. For example, airmen were told that laundry tubs were to be installed in their barracks. In fact, four already had been! This was a luxury that their WD cohorts had enjoyed for some time, but one that would not, at least for the foreseeable future, be extended to male NCOs and officers. 

     Another article said that airwomen could  now wear silk stockings with their uniform while on leave or after duty hours, but they must be the same colour as the authorized lisle hose. Ottawa neglected to tell them, however, where these stockings could be purchased. The CO's gift was that he was made responsible for ensuring that only the approved colour of stockings were in fact worn. The Observer did not mention who was delegated to perform this awesome task.

     The WDs did not get all the goodies being given to the fair sex. Readers were reminded that a recent pay increase gave airmen's wives, with children, a $1.52 per month increase in their cost of living allowance, bringing the total up to $4.02. In spite of this bounty they still could not afford to compete with the WDs for the scarce supply of silk stockings. The latter had just had their pay adjusted from 67% to 80% of men's rates, and there were rumors of lots of back pay forthcoming. 

     Not all presents came from Ottawa. The editor of the Observer ran an article on the history of the coal pile, and he suggested that it be cut out and saved as a souvenir, "Something to show your children...", he said. The coal pile at Fingal was, it seems, more than its name implied. It was in addition to its intended purpose, I am told, a place where young lovers would meet and do whatever young lovers do. Whatever went on, the mere mention of "coal pile" today in the presence of former Fingalites frequently brings forth giggles, gales of laughter, or a quick change of subject. For those readers with over active imagination who find the picture of young love being played out on top of a 100 ton pile of soft coal a bit too much to take, I hasten to remind them that the coal compound included a building, No. 46, to be specific.

     The Christmas Season proper got off to a good start on Sunday, 19 December, with a party held at the YMCA Hostess House. The following day's St. Thomas Times-Journal reported that the place was beautifully decorated for the occasion, with the center-piece being a splendidly decorated Christmas tree, and that every available square foot of space was used to accommodate the 300 or so guests. I suspect the figure of "300" was an exaggeration, a bit of journalistic license, perhaps. It said that unlike other open house events where the guests came and stayed only for a short time, that on this occasion they came and stayed. The party lasted all afternoon and for most of the evening. A short sing-along movie of Christmas carols was shown that evening in the Recreation Hall.

     The entertainment highlight of the season took place on the evening of 20 Dec., with the appearance of Mart Kenney's "Victory Parade of Canada's Spotlight Band." Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen were the foremost dance band in Canada, and arguably one of the finest in North America. The band's visit to Fingal coincided with its weekly Monday evening radio broadcast sponsored by Coca-Cola. These broadcasts originated from an armed force's establishment or a war production facility and took the form of a salute to the host establishment. 
Mart Kenney
     The "Salute to Fingal" broadcast was preceded by a short warm up concert and followed by a station dance. The next day's Times-Journal said that the Drill Hall was decorated and set-up in cabaret style, and there was a buffet lunch for the 1,000 people who attended the dance. Tickets to the dance cost $1.00 for a couple.

     On 21 Dec. the station got a splendid present with the opening of a four-lane bowling alley in one of the lean-tos recently added to the Drill Hall. A snack bar, to be operated by airwomen volunteers, was being built nearby, and would open in early January. A Christmas party was held for the children in the Recreation Hall on the same day with about 250 parents and children in attendance. Movies were shown and Christmas carols were sung to the accompaniment of the station orchestra. An interesting feature of the event was that a number of young men from several different countries went on the stage and told the children how Christmas was celebrated back home. Santa arrived by aircraft with presents and treats for the children. The candy was made at the school by Cpl. Van Buskirk because it was not available from outside sources in the quantities required.

     On 23 Dec., men of the Air Bomber Course #92, and Wireless Air Gunner Course #68 graduated, and were presented with their wings. That evening the airwomen held a party in the canteen, using the proceeds of a raffle to defray the costs of decorations and refreshments. Presents were exchanged by all the young women remaining on the station. The Daily Diary indicated that Christmas Eve was spent by many at an informal dance held in the Recreation Hall.

     On Christmas Day, Senior NCOs and Warrant Officers entertained the Officers in the Sergeants' Mess. At noon they all went to the Other Ranks mess hall where they served the Airwomen their Christmas dinner. Later, an informal dance and movie were enjoyed. Some personnel were the guests of local residents for Christmas dinner. 

     From 26 Dec. on, flying exercises took place whenever the weather permitted. Organized evening entertainment consisted mainly of movies supplied by the YMCA. The Daily Diary reported that on New Year's Eve 250 attended a dance in the Recreation Hall. 

The Last Noel: Christmas #5, 1944
     The Christmas Season of 1944 at Fingal differed in a number of ways from those of previous years. Perhaps the principal difference was that in spite of the German successes, in what we now call the "Battle of the Bulge", there was a general feeling that the war in Europe was just about over. This attitude was strengthened by the remarks of the Commanding Officer that put the future of Fingal in question. The RC Padre added to the uncertainty when he reminded the readers of the Observer "that this may well be the last Christmas that we RCAF people spend together as a uniformed family."

     In spite of the overall reduction in training, Fingal fared well as it was training Wireless Air Gunners, Air Bombers and Flight Engineers, categories of aircrew for which there was still a demand. In terms of Monthly Unit Strength this school reached its peak of 1,850 in July 1944. This was the result of an increase in the student population during the summer, combined with an increased intake of repatriated, tour expired, aircrew officers. For the latter, Fingal was a holding unit,- a warehouse- where they would stay and be prepared for release, or to wait for other service assignments. From September onward, there was a drop in the student population, and barrack blocks were closed or converted to other uses. 

     The festive season, that was definitely low-key compared to a year earlier, started off on 19 December with a Christmas Box Dance in the drill hall. Young women came from St. Thomas, with transportation provided free by Richards Coach Lines. On 21 Dec., a children's Christmas party was held at the school, and Richards again provided free transportation from St. Thomas. On Christmas Eve, a candlelight service was held in the Recreation Hall, and later a Midnight Mass was celebrated in the Catholic Chapel.

     Christmas Day followed the usual Fingal routine. The Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs entertained the Officers in the NCOs Mess, and then they went over to the Other Ranks Mess to to serve Christmas dinner to the airmen and airwomen. Various entertainments were provided between Christmas and New Years. On New Years Eve a dance was held in the Recreation Hall. Both the Senior NCOs and Officers Messes held an open house, but bad weather kept attendance to a low level. On New Year's Day, the Warrant Officers and Senior NCOs were entertained in the Officers Mess and then they served dinner to the airmen and airwomen, in the OR Mess Hall.

     The Christmas Season, then, as now, served as a time of reflection, anticipation and resolve; but at that particular time there was also a deep sense of nostalgia that permeated events. The men and women at Fingal celebrated the season with many familiar faces missing, but that in itself was not unusual. What was different, was that a significant number of those absent had been retired from the Air Force: their services were no longer required. They had gone home!

     This was to be the last Christmas held at No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School, Fingal, for on 11 January 1945, Organization Order 509 was signed authorizing the disbanding of the school, effective 17 February 1945. There would be other Christmases celebrated at Fingal but not of the magnitude of the five celebrated during the war years.
     Thanks so much for taking the time to read these posts! I hope that everyone has a happy and relaxing Christmas that's just as memorable as those celebrated at Fingal during the war. 
     Thanks for reading,

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