This Week in Peterborough: 1940 — Part 1


Peterborough Examiner, January 20th, 1940.

Part 1?  Well, on sitting down this evening to bash out this post, I discovered that there is, in fact, too much material for mid-January of 1940 to deal with in just one article.  And so we will have two.  This piece deals with doings at that time that were related to the Second World War, both at home and abroad.  On Thursday, or more likely Friday, we will look at what else was going on around Peterborough.  I certainly don’t intend to make this the standard operating procedure for this series, but I think a two-parter is necessary this time.

So read on, for news of The War, including quiet times for Canadian troops, the Winter War in Finland, political strife in Ontario, and brouhaha over a shipment of wheat.


Peterborough Examiner, January 20th, 1940.

War had been declared, but for most Canadians in January of 1940, it hadn’t really begun.  While some Royal Canadian Navy ships were in action in the North Sea, the first Canadian soldiers were only just then arriving in Britain to undergo training at Aldershot (and, as you can see from the headline above, to fraternize with the locals).  In fact, there was very little fighting going on involving the Allies at all.  At this early date in the war, it was widely hoped that economic sanctions and similar measures enacted against Germany would bring about an early peace.  Britain’s Minister of Economic Warfare, Ronald Cross, was quoted in the January 19th Peterborough Examiner saying that if the plan worked, “we shall have so strangled Germany’s economic life that she can no longer sustain the war effort.”  Needless to say, Cross’s hopes were to be disappointed.

There was, however, some fighting taking place; on January 20th the Examiner reported “a lively engagement” between French and German troops on the border between the two countries.  At sea, German submarines were already taking a toll on Allied shipping, both military and civilian.  This week 76 years ago saw two British destroyers — the HMS Grenville and HMS Exmouth — sunk in the North Sea, with the loss of about 300 men.  And the governments of the Netherlands and Belgium were beginning to get nervous about the prospect of Adolf Hitler’s forces doing an end-run around the Maginot Line and invading France via their countries — which, of course, was exactly what would happen in May of 1940.


Finnish soldiers with skis, January 12th, 1940. (Image Source)

And then there was the situation in Finland, which had been invaded by the USSR at the end of November, 1939.  While the Winter War, as it became known, would end in March of 1940 with modest Soviet territorial gains, in early January it was going extremely badly for the ill-equipped Red Army.  As the January 19th Examiner informed its readers, approximately 40,000 Soviet troops were retreating from Finland towards the border, “stalked by knife-like cold, hunger, and Finnish skiers.”  They weren’t kidding about the cold, either — temperatures in some areas where fighting occurred were reported as low as 58 below, Fahrenheit.

While matters would change dramatically when Germany invaded the USSR in mid-1941, at this time Canadian public sentiment was very much on the side of the Finns.  In fact, some of those aforementioned Finnish skiers were on skis made by the Peterborough Canoe Company; the firm had donated its entire run of skis for the winter of 1939-40 to the Finnish army.  However, while the British and French had devised plans to intervene militarily on Finland’s behalf, these plans came to nothing.  The Scandinavian countries refused right of passage to Allied troops out of justified fear that it would provoke a German invasion, and nobody, furthermore, wanted to do anything that was likely to drive Iosef Stalin and Adolf Hitler into a close alliance.


Mitchell Hepburn in 1938. (Image Source)

Meanwhile, some were looking askance at the Federal Government over Canada’s perceived lack of contribution to the war effort.  The Government of Ontario went so far as to introduce a motion censuring Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King and his ministers for their inaction.  The motion, as reported by the Examiner on the 19th, decried in part “that the Federal Government at Ottawa has made so little effort to prosecute Canada’s duty in the war in the vigorous manner the people of Canada desire to see.”  Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn went further in his own comments, stating bluntly that the Prime Minister “has not done his duty by his country and he never will.”  Oddly, both Hepburn and King were members of the Liberal Party; this caused some 30 members of Hepburn’s goverment to either oppose the motion or refuse to vote on it, but, supported by the opposition Conservatives, it passed nonetheless.  King, for his part, refrained from commenting.

Part of the Ontario Government’s ire had to do with the shortage of things like Bren guns, as we discussed in last week’s post.  Part of it, too, was personal — relations between King and Hepburn had been strained for several years as the result of the General Motors strike at Oshawa in 1937.  However, even with those elements factored in, the motion of censure was a startling development, one which did not meet with great approval from the editorialists at the Peterborough Examiner.  On January 19th, the paper wrote as follows on the matter:

“We submit if the gentlemen at Toronto desire to consider the manner in which they can best assist in the war they could begin by considering how they can adjust their finances so they will make the least possible demand on the people for provincial purposes, and in that way allow the Federal Government to have the field of taxation pretty much to itself so there may be financial strength from which to draw for the successful prosecution of our war aims.”

Personal enmity and supply shortages aside, the event that triggered the motion of censure was the Federal Government’s reported decision to allow the sale of about one million bushels of wheat to the Soviet Union.  As noted above, public sentiment was with Finland on the matter of the Winter War, but, as the Examiner noted on January 23rd, “there has been no open break between the Empire and Moscow, and no break between Canada and Moscow.”  One solution, noted the newspaper, would be to declare wheat vital to the war effort: “Could we not say plainly that we regard our wheat as part of war supplies, and therefore we have none for sale?”

And so it went — all very complicated in those early weeks of World War Two.  As I mentioned at the outset, on Thursday to Friday we’ll look at the goings-on in Peterborough herself, and there will be talk of wolf-hunting, post offices, hockey, and the like.  In the meantime, you can get caught up on what was happening around Peterborough at this time back in 1888!


Ominous signs of things to come.  (Peterborough Examiner, January 20th, 1940)

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1 Response to This Week in Peterborough: 1940 — Part 1

  1. Tom Kelly b.1938 says:

    At home I was in kindergarten at Queen Mary My dad George Kelly was flooding the ice rink.

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