Photos and memorabilia from the
University of Guelph Library archives.
the collection includes official
campus records and clippings
and photos donated by graduates.
Photo collage by Martin Schwalbe
U of G’s military history
By Herb Shoveller
with files from Mary Dickieson
and Andrew Vowles
Doug Hoffman arrived at the Ontario Agricultural College in 1939, a city kid attracted by rural life and an inexpensive education.
“I chose OAC for a number of reasons,” says Hoffman. “One was the fact that it was very inexpensive. For $22 a month, we would get three meals a day, a room of our own and all of our classes. We also had someone who washed our sheets and pillowcases once a week. They drew the line at underwear.”
He came to OAC at a time when Canadians were still feeling the effects of the Depression, but it was the Second World War that had the bigger impact on his OAC career. His enrolment coincided almost to the day with Hitler’s invasion of Poland Sept. 1, 1939.
By Sept. 10, Canada was at war, and OAC president George Christie tried to convince his new students that the best way they could serve their country was by staying at school. Still, he encouraged them to join the war effort in conjunction with their studies as a precursor to active duty at graduation.
“The most important thing in the day was classes, then we would follow up with COTC (Canadian Officers’ Training Corps) or football practice,” recalls Hoffman. “If football was scheduled first, you still had to do the COTC. We were required to go fairly often, five days a week for two hours. We would always go away for two weeks of camp in summer, usually in London. I can remember the last time I went to London, we ended up having tear gas sprayed all over the place so we’d become accustomed to it. It was harsh training.”
Slated to graduate in 1943, Hoffman didn’t cross the stage at War Memorial Hall until 1946 because his war service interrupted his studies. He joined the University Naval Training Detachment established in 1942 by Prof. A.W. “Jack” Baker.
“We went down to Hamilton to train for one day to find out if we were officer material, and all of us were successful,” says Hoffman. “So we trained at the boathouse where Gordon meets the Speed River. We had no boats, but we would train there.”
A sister to the Fairmiles.
After a series of training stops, he would eventually serve on Fairmiles, one of the smallest warships used by the Royal Canadian Navy. It had a wooden hull of 34 metres.
“We sailed the Labrador coast, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Rumour had it there was a German radar relay station on the coast of Labrador. We never found it.”
“Many alumni have won distinction for their gallantry. Some are now prisoners in enemy hands. Many have already made the supreme sacrifice. Every army battery called up from Guelph was headed by an OAC graduate.” OAC Annual Report 1943
Ernie Kendall, BSA '32
on the campus cannon in 1910.
Although every Guelph student has memories of either painting the cannon or viewing someone else’s artistic work, Ernie Kendall, BSA ’32, has the earliest memory of all. He was two years old in 1910 when he sat on the iron barrel for a photograph.
By then Old Jeremiah had been a fixture on campus for about 30 years and was used for most of that time to instruct OAC students in gun drill and gunnery. For many politicians and parents of the day, and certainly for the OAC students who requested it, the formation of a battery of field artillery at the college in 1878 was a big deal in the early days of Canadian Confederation.
As Guelph historian Alexander Ross tells us in The College on the Hill: “From its earliest years, the college (Ontario Agricultural College) had treasured swords as well as ploughshares.”
Capt. Walter Clark, a veteran of the Crimean War, instructed OAC and Guelph volunteers in artillery and rifle drill for many years. The Ontario Field Battery of Guelph claimed a dominion prize of $100 for proficiency two years running, 1891 and 1892. Ross tells us there were 17 batteries of artillery in Canada at the time.
Several OAC men saw action in South Africa during the Boer War, but it wasn’t until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that college graduates, faculty and students were called to serve the country in great numbers.
A contingent of the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps was formed on campus — once again at the behest of students. In fact, Prof. Charles Zavitz, who was acting president in the absence of George Creelman, opposed the military organization on campus, arguing that students could better serve the war effort by working to increase the food supply of the country.
Patriotism and the desire for adventure won out over the views of Zavitz, who was a Quaker devoutly opposed to war. By March 1916, an all-OAC student battery was formed. By fall, these OAC men were fighting in France as members of the 56th and 66th batteries.
Members of the Second Division Mobile Veterinary Section unload horses arriving from the front during the First World War.
Ross’s college history notes that hundreds more joined other branches of the service. Altogether, 789 OAC students and graduates enlisted; a bronze tablet in War Memorial Hall lists the names of 109 who died.
The COTC contingent functioned until peace was declared in 1919. It was reactivated in 1923 while War Mem Hall was being built and flourished during the years up to the beginning of the Second World War, thanks to the leadership of men such as Major Ernest W. Kendall, who also taught manual training at OAC and photographed his two-year-old son on the campus cannon in 1910.
War Memorial Hall was envisioned by and partially funded by OAC graduates and student veterans. Year ’88 alumni, the first to graduate from the college, sent $125 each. Among them was Creelman, who led the college throughout the First World War but resigned in 1920, four years before the hall was dedicated.
Members of the Second Division Mobile
Veterinary Section unload horses arriving
from the front, treat a schrapnel
would and care for injured and fatigued
mounts during the first World War.
The Ontario Veterinary College moved from Toronto to Guelph in 1922, bringing its own history of veterinarian soldiers and veterinary units that cared for horses during the Great War. OVC students eventually joined the campus COTC, and many enlisted when Canada went to war again in 1939.
As COTC commander of the OAC-OVC contingent, Kendall Sr. accompanied 240 men — including Doug Hoffman — to a 14-day summer camp in England in 1940.
More than 1,000 students, staff and alumni enlisted during the Second World War, but it would be more appropriate to say the campus was drafted into service.
The conflict drastically transformed the campus that was home to OAC, OVC and Macdonald Institute. Vast portions of the property were ceded to the war effort, great expanses were fenced off, and the school’s students were forced out of their residences. From May 1, 1941, to Feb. 22, 1945, the campus served as an Air Force training base for cooks, wireless operators and radio officers.
Murray Johnston was
photographed by fellow
wireless trainee Bob McNeil
in front of Massey Hall
At Wireless School No. 4, the trainees studied radio theory, Morse code and mathematics (most courses were taught by OAC faculty) and learned how to swim, right a capsized dingy and perform in military reviews and parades. It was reported that the school’s graduates could be spotted anywhere they were stationed because of their textbook-perfect marching abilities.
An estimated 5,800 men from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad, Bermuda, Bahamas and the United States trained at Guelph before going on to bomber and gunner instruction. For some, flight training began at the Burtch airfield south of Guelph at Burlington, and most were eventually assigned to bomber, coastal or transport duties with the RCAF or RAF.
“The Air Force with its Wireless School took over virtually the whole campus,” says Hoffman.
A five-foot-high Watchman’s wire fence with three strands of barbed wire on top enclosed most of the main buildings on campus: Johnston, Blackwood, Drew, Watson, Creelman, Mills, Maids, War Memorial and Macdonald. Also within the ceded land were the Macdonald and Trent institutes, the Farm Mechanics Building, Bursar Hall and the laundry, gym and skating rink.
A photo from the collection of Don
Desmond, BSA '48, shows RCAF
personnel from Wireless School No. 4.
on Johnston Green.
When Guelph was chosen as one of four sites in Canada for wireless schools, the town, the campus and even the Air Force were wary. Some members of the Air Force expected they were in for a rough ride, particularly because Guelph was considered an army town, “a gunner’s town,” says retired OAC professor Sam Lougheed, BSA ’58 and MSA ’60. But those concerns were baseless, he says.
“Originally, the people in Guelph didn’t want to have the Wireless School here and were very irritated by the plans, then, funny, when they closed it down, the people in Guelph wanted to keep it.”
A near-tragic event helped smooth things over, says Lougheed. “A disastrous fire in the OAC beef cattle barn helped in developing friendly relations among the (Wireless) School, OAC and the city. An airman returning late to the school on the cold night of March 10, 1942, noticed the fire and reported it to the guardhouse. The MPs on duty roused the barracks and the Guelph police and firemen. The airmen arrived first and, led by some with farm backgrounds, were able to lead to safety the animals from the burning barn and from the endangered horse barn close by.”
War-related activity wasn’t restricted to the walled-in wireless area of campus, however. Outside the wall, students could sign up for the COTC, the University Naval Training Detachment launched by Baker in 1942 and the University Air Training Corps headed by Prof. E.H. “Eddy” Garrard.
This ceremonial parade in front of
Johnston Hall was held during
a change of command at
RCAF Guelph in 1943.
“Students had to or were strongly encouraged to join one of these groups,” says Lougheed. “President Christie took that approach because he didn’t want the whole thing (college) to come down.”
Wally Knapp, BSA ’48, recalls the Armed Forces arm twisting being somewhat forceful.
“If you hadn’t been in the services, you were required to do training when you got to campus,” says Knapp, who arrived at Guelph in the fall of 1944. “The Army and Navy (and Air Force) were here, and you had to take one. I had been in the Highland Light Infantry in Cambridge, so I joined the Army and was made a sergeant.”
Christie’s efforts to encourage participation in the Forces may have avoided a six-year hiatus for the campus as an academic institution.
In a 1990s essay about the Wireless School, Lougheed wrote: “At one point in 1939, there was talk that OAC, OVC and Macdonald Institute would all be closed down. There was widespread opposition to the proposal in the community, and in the end it was determined only a portion of OAC would be needed” for the school. When the dust settled, the academic program at Macdonald Institute was suspended in 1941, but the degree programs at OAC and OVC continued.
Massey hall served as mess hall for the
wireless and cookery schools.
Although the Wireless School was the dominating presence on campus, it was actually preceded by an Air Force cookery school that relied on the services of Macdonald Institute and nutrition faculty who taught three-week short courses for RCAF and Army cooks. Many of them were members of the Armed Forces Women’s Division. According to president Christie’s files, the main goal of the course was “to teach the best possible use of Army rations.” Prof. Hugh Branion of the animal nutrition department served as school liaison with the cookery, a job he retained when the Wireless School arrived.
Retired U of G botany professor Hugh Dale, knows first-hand what a big impact the cookery school had on military life.
“I was posted twice to the station at Clinton, which was a radar teaching station,” he says. The first time I was there, it was RAF Clinton, with RAF food. I later had dealings with the U.S. navy, and they had had people there, and they complained bitterly to me about the food. About two years later when I went back, it was RCAF Clinton and it was a completely different story. Hugh Branion and his people from Guelph were responsible.”
Branion’s approach to nutrition wasn’t necessarily an easy sell, says Dale. “I heard tales . . . that at some Air Force places, those being served took their plates and dumped them and said: ‘We want meat and potatoes — we don’t want any of this rabbit food.’ But in the end, it was very good.”
Branion’s work at the cookery was one instance of overlap between the RCAF and OAC. Another was the use of instructors from the college’s physics department to teach at the Wireless School. Their subjects included Morse code; mathematics; voice messages; electric, electronic and radio principles, problems and repairs; aircraft identification; and skeet shooting.
When Dale joined the faculty of OAC in 1957, he shared his military expertise with students and instructors in the COTC program, which continued on campus until the early 1960s.
Beyond the cookery and the Wireless School, the campus offered other services to the war effort, such as mounting a course for female radio announcers and sending 100 student volunteers to Saskatchewan to help with the 1942 harvest.
Still, it was the Wireless School’s arrival that brought about massive change on campus.
Bob McNeil climbs into a
Tiger Moth during flight
training at the Burtch
airfield located south of
Guelph near Burlington.
“The place was a hub of activity,” says Lougheed. “People came to the Wireless School from all over the country and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. There were a lot of Australians training here, and they were pretty wild.”
Bob Adams was with the RAF and was sent to Guelph from England as a 19-year-old. “Our small country was overloaded with operational squadrons, so we turned to Canada for our training,” he says.
Adams trained in Guelph on the Marconi 1082 transmitter, then later went to Comox, B.C., for operational training before returning to England. More than 60 years later, he still has materials from his time in Guelph, including a postcard of Johnston Hall.
In full operation, the Wireless School would involve 1,500 people on a daily basis. Lougheed says the numbers could be calculated because the RCAF paid the city for the sewage system and water supply based on the number of people at the school.
The RCAF made Johnston Hall its administration building, and the mess was in Creelman Hall. “Non-commissioned officers lived on the second floor of Johnston and on three floors in Maids dormitory, with a lounge and bar in the basement,” he says.
Most Women’s Division enlistees who were being trained at the cookery stayed at the Cutten Fields golf clubhouse.
Lougheed became an expert of sorts on the Wireless School after hearing in the early 1990s that a reunion was being planned. He put together a history of the school with some of the returnees, which allowed him to collect colourful details and stories, including one involving U of G’s chancellor emeritus.
Guelph was the first stop in training for the Hon. Lincoln Alexander, who moved on quickly to Lachine, Que., and became a trainer. He welcomed veterans to campus in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of Wireless School No. 4.
“I remember the friendship and the fun,” he says. “It made me a man. It taught me what authority was all about. It taught me to respect others. I’m proud of my service.”
All the veterans who attended the anniversary were equally proud, including the late Vic Nielsen of North Bay, Ont., who founded the No. 4 Guelph Wireless School Association and organized its first reunion in 1987. The Guelph Mercury interviewed many of those attending in 1987, including Jack Ladly of Halifax, whose work as a radio operator changed history. Ladley flew Halifax bombers with the 517 Squadron RAF and flew June 5, 1944, on an 800-mile reconnaissance to check out a storm front coming from the Azores toward France. His radio message resulted in a one-day delay of the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
Art Davis, who was an instructor at the Wireless School, told The Mercury that half of the men who trained there died during the war.
Although Hoffman witnessed the arrival of the RCAF in 1941, Knapp witnessed its departure in 1945 as the campus was gradually returned to its original form.
“The fence was still up when we started in the fall of 1944,” Knapp recalled, “and we had to live off campus till after Christmas. After Christmas and during second term we were able to gradually filter back into residence. It was a busy time, with the fence coming down, the Air Force leaving and the students returning.”
One of many veterans who returned to OAC, Doug Hoffman completed his undergraduate studies in chemistry, followed by a master’s degree in soil science and a PhD at the University of Waterloo. He taught at OAC for a short time before taking a faculty position in Waterloo’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. He still lives in Guelph.