BRANDON SUN FILES
German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, centre-right, with moustache, gives the Nazi salute from a balcony, along with German and Italian dignitaries after the signing of a Germany-Italy non-aggression pact in June 1939. This was one of several photos of the German leader published in the Brandon Daily Sun in the lead-up to the Second World War.
Seventy-five years ago, in 1939, Brandon had just come off its hottest August to that point in history. The Assiniboine River dropped a reported half-inch a day and was down to its record low level.
The front page of the Brandon Daily Sun on Sept. 1, 1939, the day that German invaded Poland to start the war. (BRANDON SUN FILES)
A new highway — Highway 10 — had just made its way up to The Pas, opening up more of the province’s northern mines to southern markets like Brandon. The new highway sparked record visits to Riding Mountain National Park.
Police warned of counterfeit quarters and nickels, made of lead, that had been passed in city stores. Aldermen passed a bylaw (later deemed invalid) restricting train whistles at city crossings.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later to be known as the Queen Mother) visited Canada that summer, and there were breathless news reports of their railway passage across the country. Readers of the Brandon Daily Sun would have learned that Brandon’s greetings were of the best in the country. "The Greatest and Happiest Day in Our History" thundered the two-deck headline on the date of the royal visit. A New York Times writer, excerpted at length in the Sun, said that Brandon provided "one of the most strikingly different receptions" on the whole tour. Throngs of war veterans and "10,000 children" greeted the King and Queen, who noticeably perked up when Brandon’s reception wasn’t the same old dreary dignitaries giving speeches.
"Mayor Fred Young was there sort of overseeing things, but there was not a silk hat in sight," wrote the Times’ correspondent, Raymond Daniel. The royals stepped down from their train car to mingle with the children, who had come in from the "little towns and hamlets" all around, he wrote. Touched, the sovereigns separated to enter the crowd, apparently even allowing themselves to be hugged and kissed.
"Tears were in the Queen’s eyes as the boarded the train with the King, saying ‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ over and over again," he wrote.
But mostly the front-page news was of Europe.
German aggression was well-known by that point. A year and a half earlier, Germany had annexed Austria. Then, it took parts of Czechoslovakia, claiming that it was acting to protect ethnic Germans. Other European leaders acquiesced to the Czech seizure, trying instead to appease German leader Adolf Hitler by validating it through the Munich Agreement.
Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia just a few months later.
Now, he was making noises about Danzig. Now known as Gdansk, it was then a semi-autonomous "free city" connected to Poland that lay between two otherwise separate parts of Germany.
Danzig is where the Second World War started, but even in Brandon it was obvious that war was imminent.
That didn’t stop some from trying to profit. Manitoba Premier John Bracken may now be remembered for his years of cautious, non-partisan governing, but that June, he was pilloried for his attempt to barter Manitoba grain for "German electric apparatus."
Bracken, who had a rural agricultural background — and who would later go on to become the federal Conservative leader, representing the riding of Neepawa — was particularly interested in German telephone equipment for Manitoba’s publicly owned system.
His plan didn’t go over well.
"To displace Canadian workers to get German appliances, produced by cheap regimented labour and sold under Nazi subsidy, would add to Canada’s relief problems," editorialized the Brandon Daily Sun. "It falls into Hitler’s plans to dominate the industrial world at the expense of the democracies."
The $300,000 deal (the equivalent of nearly $5 million today) was also objected to by the federal trade minister, but Bracken dismissed the objections as "technicalities" and vowed to go ahead.
The outbreak of hostilities in early September put an end to any lingering possibilities of a Manitoba-Nazi trade deal.
There’d been skirmishes between Poles and Germans in Danzig for months, with pro-German agitators staging demonstrations and marches.
Then, on Sept. 1, German forces crossed the border into Poland, setting the Second World War in motion.
Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Unlike during the First World War, Canada did not automatically enter into this war alongside Britain. Instead, it took another week for the Canadian Parliament to officially declare war on the Third Reich.
Not that there was much doubt about Canada’s contribution.
Brandon readers had learned of possible German war strategies in early August, with an article detailing England’s plans to respond to a German blitzkrieg, or "lightning blow." Some 1,400 planes were expected to launch a 24-hour attack against Britain in the event of war.
But the first German blow of the war to land on the Commonwealth was on the sea, not in the air. On Sept. 3, a Nazi submarine, the U-30, launched a torpedo attack on the SS Athenia, sinking the British passenger ship along with more than 1,400 people on board.
It had been headed from Glasgow to Montreal and more than one-third of the passengers were Canadian. Among them was a Brandon woman: Mrs. G.A. Woolven of 316 Park St. She was rescued and brought back to Scotland, but more than 100 others were killed.
The sinking of the Athenia — with a local on board — brought the war home to Brandon.
But things weren’t as fervent as they had been 25 years earlier.
The mayor applied for military guards at essential utilities, like the waterworks, but local signups to the Canadian Active Service Force was deemed "rather disappointing" in those early days.
The 71st battery in Brandon had been mobilized on Sept. 2, more than doubling its active strength, but despite a pay hike, few rushed to sign up
There weren’t even enough recruits from Brandon to fill out that guard duty, as it turned out, although rural recruits helped make up the difference.
"There has been no waving of flags and street cheering thus far in the war. This war is going to be a more solemn and grim business," wrote a Sun editorialist on Sept. 8, 1939. But that didn’t stop him from lamenting the lack of local recruits.
"It would have been quite a bit more Canadian if a larger number of unemployed had volunteered." The writer’s theory was that some were waiting for career opportunities that would open up when "better citizens" enlisted and went off for training — a notion that employers were told they could curb if they announced they’d be holding jobs for when the local units returned.
Meanwhile, veterans from the First World War — then still known as the Great War — were busy getting ready for what they knew was coming.
"Members of the Canadian Legion … Brandon branch No. 3 are making an early move to provide suitable recreational facilities here for men in the enlisted service," reported the Sun in the first week of the war.
A special committee was formed to secure space for the expected thousands of men who might come to train near Brandon.
It was thought they would need "to spend their leisure hours in congenial and suitable surroundings."
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Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 4, 2014