The Canadian Lancaster Bombers and the Women who Built Them
A story of history, pride and discovering more about my 92 year old grandma
This spring, my grandma will be turning 93 years old. Yep, 93. It’s an age that we all hope to get to one day and stay as sharp as we were when we started our very first job. That is one of the many good traits I would use to describe my grandma. Sharp. I often tell people how amazing it is that she is living on her own happily and independently in her golden years.
My grandma grew up in the first half of the 20th Century which was both a great time of suffering and triumph. The Great Depression, World War 2, and The Korean War are just some of the world events that have shaped her life. I often talk to her about her experiences during WW2 to find out what it was like to be a young woman in a time when the world was in turmoil. She explained that in wartime, everyone had to play a role. For women, that meant contributing to the war effort by taking a job at a military factory. So my grandma took her place among other young women on the assembly line in Malton, Ontario to build the famous Lancaster Bombers. I’ve always took interest in Air Shows and model airplanes, so you could imagine how excited I was hearing these stories from her as a child. My grandma is the coolest!
In the early years of the war, the British and their Allies made plans to build as many aircraft as possible. In order to do this, Britain needed to choose a manufacturing site that was well away from Nazi fire. Since the U.S. hadn’t entered the war yet, Canada became the obvious choice. At that time, Canada was still scarred by the Great Depression and its wartime asset was agriculture, not manufacturing. Becoming a manufacturing site was an immense challenge, but Canada was ready to take it on.
Initially, the manufacturing of the Lancaster Bombers was to go to the National Steel & Car Corporation of Malton, Ontario. They were already manufacturing Lysander aircraft and subcontracting the manufacture of Hurricanes and other fighter planes, but there were questions surrounding the company's ability to manage the Lancaster Bomber project. This led to the Government's expropriation of the plant in 1942 and the establishment of the Crown Corporation, Victory Aircraft Ltd. to produce the Lancasters.
The first blueprint to the first test flight took only sixteen months, which was an impressive accomplishment. The work force escalated from 3,300 in 1942 to 9,521 in 1944. Most of the workers were unskilled and about a quarter of them were women. Among them was my grandma. The first Canadian prototype of the Lancaster Bomber rolled off the Victory Aircraft assembly line on August 1, 1943.
Eventually, production output at Victory Aircraft reached the level of one aircraft per day. A total of 430 Lancaster Mk. Xs were built. As they arrived in England, they were assigned to No. 6 Group, the RCAF component of Bomber Command to complete this "All-Canadian" contribution to the war effort. Following victory in Europe, three of the Canadian Squadrons had the pleasure of ferrying ex-prisoners of war, many of whom were Canadian aircrew, back to England. But the war in the Pacific was still raging and the Canadian Lancasters were flown back to Nova Scotia to be prepared for service against the Japanese. This bomber group was to be known as "Tiger Force" but plans were cancelled after the dropping of the atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan in August, 1945.
My grandma used to take the train every day out to Malton from the Junction, at Dundas and Keele. Ironically, the train she took back in the 40’s will be pretty much on the same line that the new U.P. Express is currently running on from Union to Pearson. Knowing how sharp my grandma is, it was no surprise to me that she was put in charge of Quality Control. This involved checking the rivets that held the whole plane together and ensuring that they were tight enough so that the plane wouldn’t fall apart in the sky. She was at the end of the assembly line where it was one of the last checks before the planes flew over the Atlantic. I’d say this was a pretty important job for a 19 year old woman in those days.
The security was high at the factory. All the workers had security passes and wore uniforms and the ladies wore kerchiefs. There were only three women per shift who did the rivet repairs which required special training. My grandma was one of those three women. The rivets were brought out in a container and were very hot. Workers needed to wear big gloves to protect themselves from serious burns. The job was tough, but my grandma, like Canada, was the right choice for the job. (Pictured right, some of the women who worked at Victory Aircraft Ltd.)
In the picture below my grandma is standing on the wing with her co-workers in celebration of the 100th Lancaster off the line. I can’t imagine how proud she must have felt on that day. There is so much history and life experience that one can learn from their grandparents and I would encourage everyone to make an effort to unlock those stories. You’d be surprised at what you could learn about someone you thought you knew so well. I know I was. I’m proud of my grandma’s accomplishments and I know she is too. I can hear it in her voice.
Written By Joel Duncan,
Director of Marketing and Community Relations
CANES Community Care