Wednesday, December 9, 2015

World War Wednesdays: The First Christmas at No. 4 B&G, Fingal, 1940

     For the next few weeks I thought it would be interesting to post a festive feature about the four Christmas celebrations that took place during the operation of the No. 4 B&G school in Fingal. I really cannot imagine not being able to return home to celebrate with family, and instead having to stay at a remote little Air Force school in the middle of nowhere, but these folks certainly made the best of their circumstances. All information comes from Winston B. St. Clair, who published a series  in the St. Thomas Times-Journal in the early 1990s to bring people's attention to the important part the RCAF played in their local history. Here's the first, about the School's very first Christmas celebration:
    One of the features of the Christmas Season of 1940 was that the men at the RCAF schools were given less time off than were the members of the Army. The reason stated by AFHQ for this decision was that the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan schedules were too important to be compromised. This caused considerable resentment in the lower ranks of the Air Force. One should not be too critical of the Air Force, however, as the decision was made more for political reasons rather than military. The Mackenzie King government was under sever criticism from many sources for its lackluster war policies and it would not have been politically prudent to reduce the output of the high profile BCATP schools at that time.

     When the Christmas Season of 1940 arrived, No. 4 B&GS, Fingal had been in operation for about a month, and all was not well. The primitive coal fired space heaters in many of the drafty temporary wooden buildings were not working properly, and and it was only a slight exaggeration to say that if the coal fumes did not kill you, chances were good you would freeze to death. The attempt to heat the Recreation Hall with a small portable kerosene heater was an exercise in futility, making greatcoats mandatory attire for all recreational activities. Walking on the roadways had to be executed with caution, as a thick gooey clay based mud was everywhere. Only a freeze-up or drought could make walking safe.

     Of all the problems facing Fingal the most serious one was the shortage of potable water. There was lots of water for making mud, and there was an unlimited supply of available from the taps, but could not be used for cooking or drinking. Anyone who inadvertently drank the water found it to be a very moving experience!

     It was not only the physical conditions that threatened to make the first Christmas at the school something less than pleasant. As noted above, the RCAF would get very little time off at Christmas. To add to the general gloom, Fingal's training activities got off badly when the school lost an aircraft and three staff personnel in early December.

     There were, however, some positive signs: the official opening of the school took place on 17 December, without incident, and the first men to train at the school, Wireless Operator Air Gunner Course No. 3, graduated on 22 December. The next day, students for Air Observer Course No. 8, and Wireless Operator Air Gunners Course, No. 4, reported for duty. So in spite of an abundance of mud, a shortage of drinking water and a host of other problems, Fingal was in the bombing and gunnery business.

    On 24 December, Fingal played temporary host to some rather high priced political and military people, namely; Major C. G. "Chubby" Power, the Minister of National Defense for Air, Air Commodore C. H. Edwards, Air Member for Personnel; and Air Commodore G. E. Brooks, Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Training Command. These officials were enroute to the Technical Training School at St. Thomas in a futile attempt to quell the unrest at the school. Mitch Hepburn, the Premier of Ontario, was at Fingal to see the party off on their return trip to Toronto and Ottawa.

     The entry in the Daily Diary for 25 December indicated that most of the personnel took advantage of the Christmas Day holiday and were away from the school. To help compensate for the restrictive leave policy, the Air Force made extra messing funds available to the units so that the men could have a "bang up" dinner and an evening of entertainment. Christmas dinner consisted of turkey and all the trimmings, and was served to the men by Officers and Sr. NCOs. An Anglican Padre from the Technical Training School was on hand to assist with the celebrations. An article in the St. Thomas Times-Journal the following day said that 110 airmen were served Christmas dinner. This represented about twenty-five percent of the men who would normally eat in the Other Rank's Mess Hall at the time. The paper commented on the international composition of the event, with the men's national origins ranging from American to Welsh. The entertainment that followed the meal was wholly self made, with singing and other merriment.

     On Christmas Day, the Sr. NCOs were entertained in the Officer's Mess, and later that day, the Officers visited the Sergeant's Mess. In all, it was not a bad Christmas considering that the school had been in operation for such a short time, and that there were many rough edges in both the physical and human aspects of the school that had to be smoothed out.
    The first Christmas at Fingal was noticed by more than just the men who were stationed there. The Times-Journal of 16 December said that the Christmas trade in the city was the best it had been in several years and credited the employment created by the two nearby RCAF schools, and an upswing in the industrial activity, for this happy turn of events. The paper said that 300 men, many who were previously unemployed, now worked at the RCAF Technical Training School in St. Thomas, and the Bombing and Gunnery School at Fingal. This figure was a bit low as the unit diaries showed that there were 540 civilians employed at those two schools as of 31 December 1940.

     Although the paper had stressed the importance of civilian employment in the Air Force schools as a contributing factor in the expanding economy, the local merchants were also aware of the purchasing power of the airmen themselves as a factor in the city's improved retail trade business. They had targeted members of the RCAF with advertising ever since the Technical Training School  opened in late 1939, and considered the young men of the RCAF to be "good spenders". To give some idea of the size of the potential customer base in question, the monthly unit strength of that school alone topped 5,000 personnel in December, and was on its way up. Chances were, however, that Fingal was too new and too small to impact greatly on the retail trade that season.
     On 26 December it was business as usual, and it seemed that Fingal was doomed to be a hard luck station, for on that day a young man from the school died of pneumonia in the Technical Training School hospital. The year ended on a buoyant note with flying training starting on the 31 Dec. for the two new courses in residence. The Daily Diary of 1 January 1941 made no mention of a special New Year's dinner or inter-mess visitations, but it did give a Monthly Unit Strength for that date as 625 all ranks, plus 130 civilians. If anyone at Fingal was unhappy with the short Christmas leave period it appears that they did a good job of keeping it to themselves.

     The true highlight of the first Christmas at Fingal had in fact little to do with the celebration of the holiday but everything to do with adhering to its eternal message. A short time before Christmas one of the school's officers learned that the young son of one of the airmen was seriously ill, and he and some others quickly collected a purse of about $80.00 so that the airman could spend Christmas with his wife and son in St. John, New Brunswick. The commanding Officer saw to it that the necessary leave was forthcoming.

     A bittersweet account of this first Christmas, but I think it is a great example of the spirit of the school and those who were there. Stay tuned next week to see if things improved by Winston St. Clair's next installment, Christmas 1941!
     Thanks for reading, 

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