Wednesday, August 3, 2016

World War Wednesdays: TTS #1, St. Thomas

Officers inspecting the troops with the iconic St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital administration building in the background

      I know what you're thinking, "Delany's gone off her rocker and started writing about that St. Thomas air school again for the THIRD time!" but I promise that I found a new source with even more interesting details than ever before and I really wanted to share them with you this week. If you aren't one of my long-term followers, I'll fill you in: in April of 1939, work was completed on the Ontario Hospital, St. Thomas, a psychiatric institution which was boasted to be the "Most Modern and Up-to-Date of Kind on the Continent" (St. Thomas Times-Journal, June 12, 1937). Less than six months later, the Second World War was declared and the facility eventually became home to a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan Technical Training School (#1). Here is a great piece I found on the school's history:

Technical Training School #1
     By September 1939, St. Thomas had weathered the worst of the depression. Workers from near and far had found jobs building the hospital, some had moved families and settled in town.
     Canada had declared war in September. The provincial government offered the Ontario Hospital at St. Thomas to the federal government. The offer was gratefully accepted, and the Technical Training School #1 (TTS) was born. Sixty thousand men and women from every country in the British Commonwealth, as well as American volunteers with the R.C.A.F. were trained here. Many staff officers and technicians were transferred from Great Britain to the TTS to teach at the school.
     The service personnel and their families boosted the local economy and St. Thomas responded with drop-in centres offering free coffee and sandwiches for R.C.A.F. personnel, dances, and other activities. The London and Port Stanley Railway (L&PS) was often full of Air Force personnel headed to or from the base.
     On September 27, 1986, the Ontario Heritage Foundation erected an historical plaque commemorating the R.C.A.F. Technical Training School. The following article is taken from the program for the unveiling ceerermony:
     "The Ontario Hospital, St. Thomas was one of four mental institutions... offered to the Department of National Defence... for use during the Second World War... Officials felt [St. Thomas] would be a suitable site for training R.C.A.F. technical personnel... On October 23, 1939, the nineteen [hospital's] buildings were leased to the Dominion for the duration of the war and six months thereafter. [Any necessary] temporary installations [were permitted],... providing the premises were returned in their original state... Mental patients were... transferred to institutions at Mimico and Langstaff.
     The Directorate of Technical Training... was charged with 'the training of all personnel not required by the nature of their duties to fly.' The TTS at St. Thomas, the only school of its kind operating during the war, was set up... to produce airmen qualified to service and repair engines, airframes, instruments, and electrical installations in R.C.A.F. aircraft. 
     ...The six main buildings [at St. Thomas] were converted into barracks, each accomodating 400 students, and the two central dining rooms were fitted up to serve 770 students each at a sitting. The nurses' residence was adapted to house R.C.A.F. officers and their families, and temporary hangars were erected for use as workshops. In 1944, [the capacity of] the medical facilities was increased from 200 to 700 beds, to accommodate the wounded returning from overseas. 
     The TTS was equipped to train more than 2,000 students at a time. Four six-month courses were offered for aero-engine mechanics, airframe mechanics, instrument mechanics, and electricians, with additional specialized training for fabric workers, metal workers, equipment assistants, accounting clerks and officers, and equipment officers. Staggered classes allowed the training of approximately 700 aircraft men every six weeks. By October 1942, 20,000 ground crew personnel had graduated from the school.
     With the end of the hostilities, the Technical Training School at St. Thomas was... vacated by the R.C.A.F. on August 16, 1945. Its premises were restored and on May 31, 1946, it was returned to the Ontario Department of Health for use as a mental hospital."

     The following poem was published in the Aircraftman, the TTS's newsletter:
The Parade Ground
If the parade ground could but speak-- of what would be its tales?
Of winter mornings when the first cold light slants down on the red-eard recruits--
of summer evenings as the bugle sounds and all around stand in silence save a soccer ball, which continues its slowly lessening bounce--
of spring and fall when slanting rains sheer off your face and mix wet below--
of sweat and curse and moments proud when all the world stands for you "eyes right"--
of the colours gently sifting the winds--
thousands of steps, forward, rear...
if the parade ground could but speak.

Facts & Tidbits
  • The last patients left St. Thomas on October 21, 1939. On October 24, 1939, the first supplies and materials arrived for the R.C.A.F.
  • First World War flying ace Billy Bishop visited the site when it was still the Ontario Hospital
  • The air force built four hangars, a drill hall and a multi-wing building
  • The TTS had its own Detention Barracks for its own personnel and others. Student pilots who had flown UNDER the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls could get 42 days detention at St. Thomas
  • TTS's mascot was a bulldog named Winnie, named after Winston Churchill
  • Over 1,800 officers and airmen assembled at the first graduation ceremony at the Technical Training School, this being the largest turnout in the history of the air force
  • There were no runways at the training school, but occasionally a lost student pilot from Fingal or Aylmer flying schools would land on an adjacent field

The Plan
James N. Williams quotes an unidentified R.C.A.F. PR Officer in "Canada's Wings":
     ...I went to St. Thomas; there were magnificent buildings there and you could go from one to another through underground tunnels. If there wasn't someone who knew the way, you could get lost and it would take hours to get back out. It was originally built as a mental hospital and the windows were barred, but when the war broke out, they needed a school to train ground personnel, so they made the insane wait.
     We were at school eight hours a day and we got every second weekend off. The instructors were good, although when I was there in the first year of the war, a lot of them didn't know much more than we did. 
     It was an odd set-up, nothing like any other Air Force accommodation. The rooms had double bunks, but the walls only went two-thirds of the way to the ceiling... and they were like bays instead of rooms; they weren't actually closed in. Being built for an asylum, there were no moving parts on anything; there were no toilet seats- the toilets were never built to put seats on- so you sat on cold porcelain. The buildings were almost in a circle and the centre was used as a Parade Square. It was an ideal set-up for a training school.
     We learned hydraulics- flaps and retract gear- and they had parts of aircraft and old engines. There was a conglomeration of aircraft bits and pieces that everybody could train on. It was strictly technical, and you came out of there as a fledgling aero engineer. Because the place had been built as an asylum, the showers were all controlled by one valve, and we used to get scalded by guys walking in there and giving the valve a twist.
Airmen parading down King's Highway #4

Hospital to be Honored for Wartime Role
     The wartime role played by the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital will be recognized during an Ontario Heritage Foundation ceremony here [in St. Thomas] Sept. 27. The hospital became the Royal Canadian Air Force technical training school for more than 20,000 airmen between 1939 and 1945.
     Elizabeth Price, senior consultant of the ministry of citizenship and culture's heritage foundation, said Friday, plans have been completed to erect a plaque on the hospital grounds commemorating the facility's contribution. 
     The facility's 19 buildings were converted into barracks and classrooms for ground crew personnel under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Designated the No. 1 Technical Training School, the hospital became one of 67 such schools in Canada during the war, and saw students from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada pass through its halls. 
     Price said the impetus for the commemoration came from Donald Martin of London, whose father trained at the facility after enlisting with the R.C.A.F. Martin has been involved in plans for the ceremony from the outset, and is attempting to arrange a flypast of Second World War Harvard aircraft during the ceremony.
     London Free Press, August 23, 1986

     Thanks so much for your continued interest in these posts, as well as in this topic. RCAF training schools are my topic of interest for my upcoming Master's degree, so I am always looking for ways to learn about and share them with all of you. All information this week comes from a fabulous book, St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital: A Commemorative Encounter, printed by the Aylmer Express in November 1995.
     Thanks for reading,
  Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

1 comment:

Foof said...

I enjoyed your St. Thomas post. There isn't much online anywhere. I did find an article in Popular Aviation magazine ( ) and was able to draft a private post of my own about my father's time at St. Thomas ( ). Good luck with your research - great topic for a Masters degree.