The Battle of Britain

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Airplanes were certainly used in the First World War, but planes as weapons of war took on new roles during WWII. Developments in aviation in the interwar years allowed for planes to fly faster, farther, and carry heavier loads than in the previous conflict. Strategic bombing was practiced during WWI, but during the Second World War it was a major tactic. Bombing during WWII had two main targets: strategic targets, like munitions factories, air strips, and harbours; and civilian targets, like major cities. The intention behind hitting strategic targets was to limit the ability of an enemy nation to supply and perform acts of war; the latter was a direct attack on the morale of one’s enemies. There are infamous attacks on Allied centres, like the Blitz; however, the Allies also participated in civilian bombing. The devastating bombing of Dresden, Germany in February 1945 is one example. Such significant threats to civilian populations on the home front is one reason why WWII was considered a “total war.” This blog series will look at civilian bombing during the Battle of Britain, a few popular types of air raid shelters, and how the Canadian government prepared civilians for the potential of an air raid.


German troops entered Paris on June 14, 1940. On June 22, France surrendered and signed an armistice with Germany. For Britain, this was the final confirmation that this war would not be like the First World War and that their island may be under direct threat of German invasion. Immediately following the fall of France, Hitler believed that Britain would also request a peace treaty rather than fight the German war machine. However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was not willing to acquiesce to Hitler’s demands and he famously told the British and other Allies that “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.”

German troops were unprepared for a land invasion of the British Isles in 1940. Before they could land on the shores, Germany had to have control over the seas, and before they could claim naval superiority, the Luftwaffe (German air force) had to control the air. Thus, the Battle of Britain began as a battle in the skies.

Smoke rising from fires in the London docks, following bombing on 7 September, 1940. By New York Times Paris Bureau Collection. Image courtesy of Wkimedia Commons.

Smoke rising from fires in the London docks, following bombing on 7 September, 1940. By New York Times Paris Bureau Collection. Image courtesy of Wkimedia Commons.

German attacks began on July 10. In the first phase of the battle, which lasted a month, the targets were convoys on the English Channel, channel ports, and radar stations along England’s south coast. As the battle progressed attacks moved farther inland. In the second phase, widely considered the main assault, attacks were directed at radar stations, airfields, and aircraft factories. Germany was trying to take out Britain’s ability to maintain the Royal Air Force (RAF). Though the Luftwaffe was taking more losses, Britain was losing experienced pilots at a rate that could not be sustained. However, in August 1940 a German bomber, reportedly by accident, dropped bombs on civilians in London. Britain responded by bombing Berlin. This changed the course of the Battle of Britain.

Angered by the attack on Berlin, Hitler ordered the target of German bombs to shift from militarily strategic locations, like airfields and factories, to civilian populations. Thus ‘the Blitz’ began on September 7, 1940. London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights. Still, the Blitz was an attack on the entirety of Britain, and London was not the only urban centre that was bombed. After the bombing raids on London, major provincial cities and industrial centres were still targeted. Bombings ended around May, when Germany shifted its focus east to the Soviet Union. By the end of the nine months of bombing over 43,000 civilians were killed.

Domestic Political Lead Up to the War

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Canada was an ocean apart from the events in Europe that lead to the war, but Canadians were still affected by the rise of Hitler and lead up to war in Europe.

In June 1937, Liberal Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King went to Germany to visit Hitler. He was quickly beguiled by the charismatic German Chancellor and left Germany under the impression that Hitler did not pose a great threat. King felt this despite the facts that Germany had adopted a policy of anti-Semitism and German troops had broken the 1919 Treaty of Versailles by remilitarizing the Rhineland. Ultimately, the Prime Minister was trying to avoid engaging Canada in another European war. The conscription crisis that divided French and English Canada, and the immense loss of life of the First World War was still on the minds of Canadians in the 1930s. Therefore, King supported the policy of appeasement of European leaders, including British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Nevertheless, as the 1930s drew to a close and Hitler became more aggressive, King began to prepare Canada for the possibility of another war.

Prime Minister King at the All German Sports Competition during his visit to Nazi Germany, 1937. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Prime Minister King at the All German Sports Competition during his visit to Nazi Germany, 1937. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. However, Britain’s declaration did not automatically mean that Canada was at war too. In 1914, Canada was a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, however Canada did not have control over its foreign affairs. Therefore, when Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war too. In 1939, Canada was still a loyal dominion of the British Empire, but during the interwar years Canada gained more control over its foreign affairs. Following Britain’s declaration of war on September 3, Prime Minister King called a special session of parliament to decide if Canada would go to war.

On September 10, 1939, parliament decided that Canada would declare war on Germany. Even though Canada’s declaration of war came a week after Britain’s, there was no real doubt that Canada would join the war. Canada was still diplomatically and culturally connected to Britain. Nevertheless, the delay between Britain’s and Canada’s declaration of war against Germany was a significant symbolic step towards Canada’s autonomy.


The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.

International Political Lead Up to the War

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Signs of impending war were appearing in Europe in the second half of the 1930s. The horrors of the First World War were still fresh in everyone’s mind and many European leaders were determined to avoid going to war. This attitude resulted in a policy of appeasement toward Hitler’s aggressive actions between 1936 and 1939.

In 1933, Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany and quickly consolidated his power to rule the country as a dictator. In 1936, he defied the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and remilitarized the Rhineland, a zone in Western Germany near the borders of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Later that year, Germany and Italy signed the Rome-Berlin Axis; Japan formally joined the Axis in 1940.

Facing no significant opposition to his policies from international leaders, Hitler began taking over territories around Germany. In 1938, he annexed Austria and unified the two countries, called Anschluss. This, too, received no significant resistance from European leaders, and emboldened Hitler to lay claim to the Sudetenland. The Sudetenland was an area of Czechoslovakia with a majority ethnic German population. European leaders were forced to respond this time, and the result was the Munich Agreement between Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. Though war was deferred, the Munich Agreement was another act of appeasement towards Hitler and the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany under the condition that Germany could take no other territory. Czechoslovakia was not involved this agreement and was extremely opposed to losing their militarily strategic Sudetenland to Germany. Nevertheless, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London after the negotiations and declared that the Munich Agreement was securing “peace for our time.”

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meets with Adolf Hitler September 24, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain meets with Adolf Hitler September 24, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hitler’s territorial claims did not end with the Sudetenland, though, and he set his sights on Poland. The non-aggression pact that Germany had signed with the Soviet Union meant that Germany could invade Poland without fear of the Soviet army advancing to meet them from the east. Britain and France had guaranteed Poland their support for Polish independence. However, their policy of appeasement since 1936 left Germany feeling secure that Britain and France would not jump to the aid of Poland.

The war officially began in Europe following Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain delivered an ultimatum to Germany to cease their military operations, but this was ignored. Consequently, on September 3, Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Canada followed suit and declared war exactly a week later, on September 10, 1939.


The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.

1930s Fashion

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Women’s fashion of the 1930s was a distinct change from that of the 1920s. A fuller figure replaced the slim, androgynous cuts of the 1920s. While more skin was covered in the 1930s, clothing hugged the body more than the previous decade. Early in the ‘30s, dress hems changed to expose some ankle and subtly accentuate a long, slender leg. In the later years of that decade, the emphasis in women’s dresses was a small waist. Sleeves were puffed and skirts flowed away from the body to make the waist look smaller. Corsets had lost popularity during the 1920s, but did not disappear altogether; the emphasis on a small waist continued throughout the 1930s and beyond.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1939. From the collection of Ivan Sayers.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1939. From the collection of Ivan Sayers.

Emphasis was on feminine details, such as small waistlines and puffed sleeves.

Emphasis was on feminine details, such as small waistlines and puffed sleeves.

Evening wear, too, focused more on showing off the shape of women’s bodies. Often gowns of the 1930s were backless and made of fluid, figure-hugging material like satin. Evening wear of the 1930s also saw the emergence of more colours like light blue, salmon pink, or peach, rather than the standard black dress.

Evening Dress and Bolero, circa 1938. From the collection of Ivan Sayers.

Evening Dress and Bolero, circa 1938. From the collection of Ivan Sayers.

Make sure to come check out our exhibit and see examples of women’s fashion in the 1930s and 1940s in person!


The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.

Labour Demonstrations: Fraser Mills Strike

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In 1931, the men who worked for Fraser Mills in Maillardville began to strike to protest wage cuts. Between January 1930 and September 1931, workers at the mill were subject to five major wage cuts, resulting in an overall cut of almost one-third. The strike began on September 17, 1931 and lasted two and a half months. The strike was led by the Lumber Worker’s Industrial Union (LWIU). Though management, including Henry Mackin, tried to blame Communist agitators for the strike, the majority of the strikers came from within the community of Maillardville.

Demonstration on King Edward Avenue, 1931.

Demonstration on King Edward Avenue, 1931.

The close-knit community of Maillardville was the reason the strike was able to last so long. The community rallied around the striking workers, providing support to the men and their families. For example, a soup kitchen opened on Cartier Avenue and Chinese farmers in the community donated vegetables. This community spirit and support would continue throughout the Depression.

The outcomes of the strike are mixed. It did not result in significant wage increases nor recognition of the workers’ union. Furthermore, some leaders of the strike were blacklisted and barred from returning to work at Fraser Mills following the strike. One such man was Johnny Dicaire, a prominent member of the community, nicknamed Mr. Maillardville. Nevertheless, the strike did result in an end to the wage cuts, and, on the whole, relations between the company and the employees improved. Furthermore, residents of Maillardville remember the strike of 1931 as a time when the community really came together to support one another and report that antagonisms between people of different ethnicities diminished.


The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.

Work Camps for the Unemployed

Work Camps for the Unemployed

The extensive unemployment of the Great Depression meant there were thousands of single men out of work. The federal government was worried that large populations of unemployed single men in urban areas would lead to unrest. Furthermore, the government was concerned these men would become involved in Communism and Canada was interested in quashing any opportunity for a surge in Communist involvement. In 1932 the federal government decided to establish work camps that provided work for thousands of unemployed single men across the country.

Labour Demonstrations: The On-To-Ottawa Trek

Labour Demonstrations: The On-To-Ottawa Trek

The Second World War broke out in 1939, twenty-one years after fighting ceased in the First World War. WWI left belligerent countries broke and fatigued. The 1920s and 1930s presented their own ups and downs, including extreme global economic booms and busts. Though there were hints at the time, we can see through hindsight the lead up to the beginning of WWII throughout the 1930s. In this blog series, important local, national, and international economic and cultural events and attitudes are discussed as Canada and the world prepares to engage in another massive global conflict.