RCAF STATION VICTORIA ISLAND
According to an article in The Roundel, October 1962, vol.14, no. 8, written by F/L Eric Boyd, the Canadian Air Force moved into Willson’s carbide mill, the distinctive stone monument of a building on the east end of Victoria Island, in 1922. The first activity was as an aircraft repair depot.
In 1923 the depot for the newly approved Royal Canadian Air Force on Victoria Island had two functions: aircraft repair, and supply. Over the next sixteen years additional duties were thrust upon the station for the repair of aircraft instruments, an armaments section, and later, in 1941, the second floor of the stone building was used as a detention barracks. And therein lay some interesting stories
When the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan got its engine started in 1940, the influx of aircrew trainees overloaded the then inadequate training system and employment had to be found for these young men. Guess what? These young untrained men were sent to places like RCAF Victoria Island as guards! I grant that the NCO’s were often regular force members with some knowledge, but this was certainly not true in all cases.
Probably because of some threat of imminent attack from where I never could learn, guard towers were erected at three locations around the station. One faced north towards Hull, one faced east towards parliament hill and the third looked south across the by-wash towards the Imperial Oil storage tanks at Richmond Landing. The towers were fairly high, according to my boyhood memories, maybe twenty-five feet, complete with catwalk and an enclosed cabin. Just like you’d see in a Pat O’Brien prison movie!
The towers were manned only during the evening and night hours by the budding aircrew/prison guards. They were armed with Lee-Enfield rifles, but those boys weren’t trusted to have any ammunition. Probably just as well because one night several shots from a .22 rifle were fired across the river from Hull. According to my older brother who heard the shots the bullets hit nothing on Victoria Island, but he heard them ricochet off an oil storage tank on Richmond Landing. I slept through the whole thing. But I often wondered what the results would have been if the guards had loaded rifles!
Aircrew: they were the young men in airmen’s uniforms who sported a white flash in the front of their wedge caps. Depending on who was telling the story, there were many reasons, mostly untrue, but not always, as to why these men wore such a thing. The most common of these stories was that the wearer was infected with some type of STD, only in those days it was called syphilis or gonorrhea. In certain cases it could very well have been true, but the real reason was that these men were considered to be Provisional Pilot Officers even though there was no guarantee of a King’s Commission when they completed training.
My parents became friendly with any number of these young fellows to the point where some would be invited to join us for Sunday supper. The fact that my sister was then about seventeen apparently had nothing to do with their acceptance.
One, a good looking blonde haired fellow, was to the house several times. His name escapes me (the nick-name, "Irish", somehow comes to mind) and if he has survived to read this I'm certain he will have happy memories of what I am about to write.
It was a Saturday afternoon when he knocked on our door and asked dad if he could borrow my brother's bike. Dad, after examining his uniform, asked why he wasn't wearing a tie or his wedge cap, and apparently had also forgotten to put the belt on his tunic. Blondie explained that he had been confined to the base for whatever reason, but needed the bike to ride to Hull to tell his girl he'd not be able to take her out that evening. He went on to say that his girl didn’t have a telephone. I'm sure dad knew full well this fellow was absent without leave, but he lent the bike anyway. I don’t know when the bike was returned, but it was there the next morning. Hope he had a good time!
Some of the military serving on the island weren’t so pleasant. One of the military police, a corporal named…I better not say because after all those years I really don’t want any pack drill. Anyway, nameless corporal had the bad habit of trying to catch the aircrew guards goofing off, rather than keeping an eagle eye out for saboteurs who were about to swim ashore from that U-boat in the Ottawa river. Although the guards didn’t have ammunition for their rifles, they did have bayonets, and while on patrol the bayonets were affixed to the round end of the rifles.
The only night lighting at the station was along the boundary fence which ran north to south across the island at the main and only entrance to the base. There were no lights anywhere else along the shore. This made it difficult for the guards to see where they were going while on patrol. The story, as we heard from one of our Sunday supper guests, is as follows. One night the guard in the darkest part of the island encountered an indistinct figure in the shadows. After issuing the ‘halt, who goes there’ challenge the required number of times, and with no responses to the order except for the intruder to suddenly move towards the guard, the guard proceeded to bayonet the culprit. Then Hell, or something akin, broke out. After flashlights and additional military police arrived to settle the dust it was determined the intruder was the corporal of the guard who had been checking up on the watchfulness of his men! Luckily for him it was a flesh wound and not a bullet hole in his shoulder or his head! The guard, dad told us later, was exonerated.
I've often wondered what eighteen cents, compounded over sixty years, would add up to. Whatever the amount, it’s owed to me by the same corporal. He never came back to the station after his wound and I was stuck to pay the Citizen for his six newspapers. In those days newspapers sold for three cents a copy. My profit was nine tenths of a cent for the ones I sold. Roughly speaking, Mr. Corporal, you still owe me about 180 bucks.
Returning to the corporal of the guard; the aircrew/guards barracks the third floor of the stone building was the scene of a near homicide one night just as the guards were coming back from their stint in the towers. One man, who probably had had more than one run-in with the corporal, told his buddy that he was going to shoot “that SOB”. Taking an unathorized.303 cartridge from his pocket he put it into the breech of his Lee-Enfield, closed the lock, and pointed his rifle at the doorway just as the corporal entered the room. Our man aimed his rifle, but just before he pulled the trigger, his good buddy deflected the barrel towards the ceiling. Lucky day for the corporal, but apparently he learned nothing from this incident! The last we heard was that the airman was taken away to a mental facility for “evaluation”.
Interesting place was RCAF Station Victoria Island. If it hadn’t been like this it’s unlikely I would have remembered these events. But I often wonder about those people: where are they now?
It was about 1942 or so when I got my first ‘machine gun’. Too many war movies on Saturday afternoons at the Imperial Movie Theatre I guess. Herb Booth, a welder of resource and renown, who worked at Clary Pitts’ People’s Gas Supply on Victoria Island, helped me by welding 2 empty large tomato juice cans together, with a metal plate at one end, to which the wooden receiver was attached. He even welded a stand upon which to mount the ‘gun’. On one air force parade day my brother, some friends and me set the gun up in the weedy long grassed vacant lot between our house and the air force station.
Most of the parade had gone by our ambush before an NCO spotted our gun! I can still see that tall, bony- kneed, short-panted fellow charging at us through the weeds and burdock, prepared to sacrifice himself for the RCAF, with visions of a VC dancing through his head as he did so. Poor lad. Just us kids playing at what he would soon be doing for real. I don’t recall his language, but I certainly remember us getting the’gun’ out of there pretty fast! Our parents were mentioned as being our eventual executioners after they received his full report, but I think he eventually saw the humour of what had happened because I don’t recall being court-martialed that evening before supper. To that NCO: I hope us kids were the most serious threat you faced during the war.
My brother had the paper route first, but when I got old enough we both carried papers to customers on the island. Except for our parents our main customers worked at the RCAF Depot. Arriving at the guardhouse about 4:30 p.m. papers were left for the commissionaire and the duty corporal, yes, the very one. Then we went different routes: I went to the main building, the stone one, selling papers in the Orderly room as well as to the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Harry Broadbent, otherwise known, but certainly not by me, as “Punch” Broadbent of NHL fame. He tipped very well. I next followed the long corridor into the hangar where more papers were sold. Leaving the hangar I crossed the road to the two-story red brick building where I had regular customers on the upper floor. I carried even numbers of both Citizen and Journal newspapers, and usually sold them all, except I always saved a Citizen for a sort of special customer. He worked in the carpentry shop I believe, because a few of his fingers were missing.
He was a tall thin man who I remember as wearing a long, down to his ankles dark overcoat, and a wooly cap that came over his ears. Funny, I can’t recall how he looked during the warm weather! I would wait for him outside the guardhouse through which everybody passed. The civilian employees had to punch a time clock. Remember those huge things with the arm that rotated around the face of the clock and had a slot into which your time card would be inserted to print the time of your arrival or departure?
If he was late leaving work, or I got too cold waiting, I would begin walking up Middle Street to my house. It was the first house up the street from the station. He usually caught up to me before I got home. Carefully he would count out the three pennies, and then take his paper. Every once in a while, maybe it was payday; he’d give me a nickel and walk away. All the time I sold him newspapers I can’t recall him ever saying a word to me.
There was a large factory, the Ottawa Car Company, on Albert Street, between Kent and Lyon Streets. Assorted things were manufactured there; everything from streetcars to, during the war, aircraft parts: radial and in-line aircraft engines. Guess where it was decided to build a facility for test running these engines? Why, at RCAF Station Victoria Island, about 200 feet from my parent’s house! Naturally!
We watched as the building was erected: concrete floor, steel framing, a raised section at the rear with offices, then metal doors at both the front and back. Lastly, they sheeted the structure with corrugated steel panels. Still we had no idea what it was for. But one day we watched as a truck delivered a large Merlin aircraft engine. It was mounted inside the building. My brother and me saw the aero-engine techs attach the propeller, hook up the fuel, oil, and coolant lines, then telling us kids to ‘stand back’, the monster was started!
Boy, what a racket! No muffler! But of course the control cab was insulated so the operators wouldn’t be affected by the noise. There was a war on don’t you know, so my parents were informed; better our engines than the other guys!
At first they ran the engines only in daytime, but as the war progressed it became 24 hours a day. Each new engine had to have something like 5 hours running before it could be mounted on an aircraft. So many minutes at full take-off power, then a certain time at various power settings to simulate cruise conditions. The worst, I think, was when power was reduced to landing mode; particularly with the Merlin because of its tendency to pop, pop, pop as power is reduced.
Then it got WORSER! Engines intended for Harvard trainers were horrific. They were 550 horse-power radial engines. At the take-off power setting of 36 inches of manifold pressure the propeller tips move at supersonic speed. That can sure remove any loose material from your ears at 200 feet! It’s much like a high-pitched jackhammer. But like they said, there’s a war on. My brother and I shared a bedroom with a window that directly overlooked the engine test facility. It wasn’t too bad in the winter but hot summer nights were a bugger! We survived. Years later when I served in the RCAF I got to be on the giving side of those engines. And it was just great!
About 1944 the RCAF expanded its facilities on the island by erecting a new mess hall in the vacant lot across the street from our house. It was called a combined mess in that it served all ranks in separate quarters. I didn’t care what they called because it meant all my old customers and lots of new ones would all be in the same building. Best of all was the new bartender in the officer’s mess: he found out that I liked a certain kind of candy bar, Cadbury’s. Things were looking up. Finding out that my parents were taking the family to a cottage for a couple of weeks he made sure I had enough candy to tide me over. I do believe I shared a few with the rest of my family.
In 1951 the government expropriated most of the privately owned land on Victoria Island, my parent’s house included. If I recall right, they had a year or so to move from their home. Typical for expropriation by government: twenty years later, after I’d served in the RCAF and returned to Ottawa, the house was still standing, being used as a PMQ. My grandfather’s house on Mill Street was still there too. It was used as a language training school for Russian!
Now, it is the year 2006! I think I have recalled many things from the 1940s, but I’m not all that certain. That corporal, well, I’ve forgiven him his trespasses, but he still owes me money! Punch Broadbent, if I can now call him that, owes me nothing. The carpenter I will always remember. The bartender, who recognized a kids liking for candy [me!] will forever live in my memory.
AS YOU WERE . . .
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