Reprinted with permission from The Chrysler Canada Story, copyright © 2001 James Mays
Canada was plunged into World War Two on September 10th, 1939, by an act of Parliament. Six days later, the first naval convoy left Halifax harbour, its ships filled with eager (if green) troops, ready to fight for a beleaguered Britain. From a nation 10 million strong, Canadians voluntarily enlisted in the armed forces to serve King and Country.
Fortunately, the automobile industry was not totally unprepared for war. War was coming—like it or not—and Canada was rich in resources. One of those resources was the automobile industry and it would serve King and country, too. Secret meetings had been going for some years between Canada’s top military brass and the heads of GM and Ford. Each year they would meet together at a military base, Camp Petawawa, in Ontario. Working with military engineers, the group designed vehicles of war. In 1936 Ford and GM pledged to merge their resources for the good of the Empire when war broke out.
Although Ford of Canada was an American-owned company, it differed from GM and Chrysler because it was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The majority of Ford’s stockholders were Canadians. Its president was a tough talking industrialist by the name of Wallace Campbell. Ottawa was impressed enough with his savvy to ask him to set up and run the War Supply Board.
GM Canada was a wholly-owned subsidiary of General Motors in the United States, but the president of the Canadian operations was Colonel Sam McLaughlin, founder of the McLaughlin Motor Car Company Limited (merged it into GM in 1918). Colonel Sam presided over GM like a father. In a symbolic gesture, he retired his car and chauffeur for the six years of war and went to work every day by a horse hitched to a McLaughlin buggy.
Chrysler Canada was neither owned by Canadian stockholders nor did it have a Canadian in the driver’s seat. That put the company in an odd position. Chrysler Canada was not invited to the secret meetings at Camp Petawawa. When war broke out, however, the nation’s three automakers worked together as one.
Ford was first off the mark to convert its factories from civilian to military production. By February of 1940, some 200 knocked-down units a day were being shipped to Britain and other parts of the British Empire. By war’s end those spruce crates would contain Universal Carriers, Scout Cars, three-ton trucks, Ford station wagons and Artillery Tractors, among other motorized weapons. Every one was sorely needed to stop the Nazis. The seemingly invincible Wehrmacht occupied Holland and Belgium in April.
GM wasn’t far behind Ford in switching its facilities over to the war effort. It quickly added seven-passenger Buick limousines converted to military use, infantry trucks and troop carriers to swell the Allies’ arsenal. It wasn’t long before GM had a 4x4 with its new “go anywhere” axle to add to the list of mechanized weaponry.
Chrysler Canada started out modestly by converting US-built trucks into war machines. Then its engineers designed and built the Scout, based on a half-ton Dodge pickup. Scouts by the thousands were used by Field Marshall Montgomery’s Desert Rats as they trekked across the Sahara in hot pursuit of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. In fact, half of the Desert Rats’ trucks were Canadian made.
Montgomery wrote letters of praise to the automakers for the rough and tumble Scouts. German troops appreciated them too, and were instructed to save any captured Canadian vehicles for their own needs because of their high quality. Soon military Plymouths, rocket tubes, shells, tracers, gun parts, ammunition sights, special motors and other materiel were pouring out of Chrysler’s plants, ready to be shipped to the front lines.
When Dunkirk fell to the Nazis in June of 1940, British forces left some 80,000 vehicles behind on the beaches of France. With its factories being bombed daily into oblivion by the Luftwaffe, the only hope that Britain had of re-equipping its army was to ask Canada for help. 7,000 vehicles were ordered. Australia, South Africa, India and New Zealand needed army vehicles, too. No longer a backwater colony, Canadians’ response was overwhelming as its state-of-the-art factories hummed around the clock to supply the needs of the British Empire, for a world at war.
Here at home, there was a run on new automobiles in the spring and summer of 1940. A national sales record was set in July as Canadians snapped up what they thought would be the last cars available for the duration of the war. There was a note of sadness as automotive pioneer Walter P. Chrysler died on August 18th, 1940
Within the first fifteen months of conflict, 80,000 war machines rolled off the assembly lines in Windsor, Chatham, Regina, Vancouver, Montreal, Oshawa and other cities. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics identified Canadians with special skills to aid in the war effort. Labour was in short supply. Women were trained and put to work on assembly lines. Machinery was adapted for the handicapped.
Steel supplies grew so scarce that the City of Windsor allowed Ford employees to dig up the streets for the old trolley tracks, melt down the precious rails, and make the metal into weapons. It was a most unusual mining operation.
The trickle of civilian production of passenger cars and trucks was finally halted on March 31st, 1942 by order of the Federal Government. If Canadians weren’t frightened enough by the grim war news they heard night after night on the CBC, the network broadcast a frightening drama series entitled Nazi Eyes on Canada.
On November 28th, 1942 GM Canada reported that its payroll had swelled to 13,379 employees. The following month, the Wartime Prices and Trade Board began to ration tea, coffee, sugar, gasoline and butter. Tea was rationed at the rate of four ounces a month and coffee at sixteen ounces. On April 3rd, 1943 Ottawa cut gas rations again.
The three auto manufacturers cooperated to build vehicles with identical parts in what became known as the Canadian Military Pattern (CMP). All were painted the same army colours. By June 19th, 1943 GM, Ford and Chrysler had co-operatively built a half million vehicles. The event was commemorated as the presidents of the three companies presented the 500,000th vehicle to the Federal Government at a ceremony in Oshawa. Although it happened to come off a Ford factory line, the badges of all three automakers proudly adorned the truck’s grille. By August of 1944 more than a hundred different types of military vehicles were leaving the assembly lines at the rate of 3,500 transport trucks and 300 fighting vehicles every week.
By war’s end, Ford had built a total of 450,000 vehicles and General Motors added another 300,000 units. Chrysler Canada’s contribution was 180,000 military vehicles. Chrysler Canada’s President, C.W. Churchill, was bestowed the Order of the British Empire for Chrysler’s output of artillery weapons made entirely out of recycled material at its plant in Sorel, Quebec.
The tide finally began to turn in favour of the Allies. Successful invasions of France, Italy and then Holland meant that the end was near. Finally, on May 8th, Victory in Europe was declared. From Halifax to Victoria the nation was ecstatic. After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered on August 14th. The long and horrible war was finally over. More than a million Canadian soldiers were on their way home. The 44,992 men and women who gave their lives for King and country will always have a place in history.
The unsung heroes of World War Two are the Canadians who worked in the factories. It was with the help of women, the handicapped and immigrants that nearly a million motorized weapons of war were produced. Folks on the home front built the universal carriers, scout cars, artillery tractors and trailers, troop and ammunition transports, mobile service workshops, radio trucks, ambulances and fire trucks that finally brought an Allied victory and world peace.
James C. Mays’ writing can also be seen on the OldCarsCanada site. Also see: Chrysler Canada summary • Canada at Valiant.org • Fargo Trucks
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