Chris Sharpe and Jo Shawyer contributed a substantial, 40 page chapter to this book, edited by Steven High and published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. In it they describe how ‘Building a Wartime Landscape’ changed the face, and influenced the future history of the city.
Newfoundland, located a thousand miles off the coast of Canada, became the first line of defence for North America during World War Two, and an important base for offensive operations during the critical Battle of the Atlantic. Over eight months, from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1941, thousands of Canadian and then American troops arrived in the country. At least 15,000 came to St. John’s, which was then a modest city of 40,000.
Military camps and posts, ‘Restricted Areas’, anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries, and the Blackout – all reminded the citizens of St. John’s that they were living in an active war zone. The existing infrastructure of the city was stretched, and often broke, under the strain of coping with ever-increasing demands for water, sewerage, road works, police and fire services and new buildings.
Sharpe and Shawyer pieced together the extraordinary story of how a military landscape was overlain on a civilian one, using original archival material, official documents, contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews with people who had personal wartime memories.
The extensive military camps were accommodated on land rented, or expropriated from scores of local property owners: the Newfoundland Regiment (Newtown Road), the Canadian Army (Blackmarsh Road), the Royal Canadian Air Force (Kenna’s Hill and Torbay Airport), the Royal Canadian Navy (Buckmaster’s Circle and several sites around the harbour) and the American military (Quidi Vidi and Signal Hill). Old buildings were pressed into service in new roles and new buildings erected for a multitude of purposes, not least the provision of recreational facilities for the troops, sailors and airmen. The activity of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Navy, the United States Navy and others including the Royal Norwegian and Free French navies impacted heavily on the commercial life of the port. The struggle to accommodate both military and civilian uses led to concerns that it might not be possible to sustain the normal volume of food and fuel for the local population.
At the end of the war, very little of the expropriated land reverted to its pre-war uses. Most remained in Government hands and was used for office buildings and as sites for public housing. One permanent reminder of the war is Mount Pleasant cemetery which holds the majority of the City’s war graves.
The chapter is generously illustrated by more than 40 archival military maps and photographs. Charles Conway, the Department of Geography Cartographer, created two maps of St. John’s for the chapter, showing the elements of the military landscape superimposed on the underlying civilian city. He also created a stunning mosaic of more than 300 vintage aerial photographs, showing the city as it was in 1948.