Mid-February of 1943 was a time of good news for Peterborians reading about the war — or at least, “good news” in the context of massive global conflict. “Surely the time is ripe for optimism here?” asked the Peterborough Examiner, rhetorically, in a February 8th editorial. So what was everyone so optimistic about? Read on, for heroism on the banks of the Volga, victory in the middle of the Pacific, local efforts to aid and abet those goings-on, and other matters…
The biggest piece of war news at this time in 1943 was taking place on the steppe-lands of central Russia. As Associated Press writer Alton Blakeslee had put it, in a February 3rd wire story carried in that day’s Peterborough Examiner:
“Catastrophe was spelled out for the German people today in huge letters of blood and terror, the letters of a single name: Stalingrad.”
The previous day, the frozen, starving, remnants of the German 6th Army had surrendered to the defenders of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), ending any chances of the Axis taking control of the Volga River crossing and thus securing all-important access to the oil fields of the Caspian region. The Battle of Stalingrad had gone on for the better part of six months, in often fearsome conditions, and the final total casualties were somewhere in the neighbourhood of two million people killed, wounded, or captured (the city itself was almost completely demolished). In the wake of the victory, the Red Army hurled itself westward, pushing back the demoralized German forces and rapidly undoing many months’ worth of Axis territorial gains in Russia. The defense of Stalingrad has often been described as a major turning point of the Second World War, not to mention a major piece of undeniable heroism on the part of the Red Army, and indeed it was both of those things.
Stalingrad had been front page news for the people of Peterborough, and the city had turned its fund-raising efforts largely in the direction of aid for the Soviet Union. The Peterborough War Services & Community Fund (we read about that 1941 fund-raising drive a couple of weeks ago) contributed $2,500 to the Aid for Russia Fund, and other individuals and organizations chipped in what they could. The February 8th Examiner recorded contributions from, among others, the St. Andrew’s Ladies’ Aid of Norwood ($5.00), “A rural mail man” ($1.00), the Grade 3 students of Room 14 at Prince of Wales Public School ($2.00), and the Roundabout Euchre Club of Otonabee ($5.00). And it was not just money; as you can see from the photo below, donations of clothing were also on their way.
There was support for Russia to be found on the Examiner’s editorial page as well, and from a most interesting source. On February 13th, the newspaper ran a column about Siberia, which pointed out the many similarities between that region and Canada. To begin with, said the column’s author, “both countries have been wronged by popular imagination” — that is, both were commonly thought to be cold, snowy, wastelands, when in fact they were nothing of the sort. The name at the top of the article was “Samuel Marchbanks,” the now-famous pseudonym of Robertson Davies. Davies was not yet, of course, the giant of Canadian literature that he would become; still not yet 30 years old, he had joined the Examiner as an editor in 1942. He would remain involved with the paper until 1965, and we will undoubtedly encounter him again in this series.
Scarcely had the people of Peterborough had time to absorb the news of Stalingrad, when there came another helping of happy tidings from the war. In early February, a half-year’s efforts by the Americans and other Allied forces to expel the Japanese army from the strategically-important island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Ocean finally bore fruit. The Japanese evacuated the island and left it to the Allies — the first major success against Japan in the Pacific campaign.
There was fighting elsewhere — in North Africa, in the skies over Europe, and in other theatres — and Peterborians were keeping caught up on the activities of local soldiers in those various places. The February 8th newspaper reported that Flight Lt. Lloyd Parnall, a former insurance salesman in the city, had taken part in a bombing raid targeting a U-boat base in Lorient, France; “The place was all lighted up by fires,” said Parnall. There were more dire reports, too. The same day’s Examiner noted that Sgt. Clarence Massey, from the area south of Rice Lake, had been missing since a December bombing raid over somewhere in occupied Europe (Italy or Germany, the paper surmised).
Not all of the international news involved events of the war; also getting some front-page coverage this week in 1943 was Mohandas Gandhi, who had begun a hunger strike for the cause of Indian self-government while imprisoned in the Aga Khan Palace in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. Lord Linlithgow, the British Viceroy of India at the time, denounced Gandhi’s actions as “political blackmail,” and the Examiner, in a February 12th editorial, concurred rather huffily with that analysis.
But while all this was going on, Peterborough Mayor J. Hamilton received a letter from a resident of Pune, a certain Sirdar D.V. Gonhale. In his note, which was reported on in the February 12th Examiner, Mr. Gonhale expressed his desire “for the success and safety of the British Empire, the King-Emperor, and Canada,” along with similar sentiments. Who, exactly, Sirdar Gonhale was, and why he should choose to direct his words to the mayor of a small Canadian city, remained a mystery. However, Hamilton and the City Council politely wrote back, “with good wishes and thanks for the kind reference to Canada.”
Peterborough also said good-bye this week in 1943 to John A. Sexsmith, former Conservative MP for Peterborough East during the time of the First World War. The son of pioneers in the Belmont area, Sexsmith had returned there when his political career ended. His obituary, in the February 8th Examiner, described him as having “a philosophy that was chiefly homespun, and rooted in the soil.”
We could not possibly finish up without a look at the local sports scene, where the defending provincial Senior ‘B’ champions, the Peterborough Soldiers (aka “The Petes”), were busy tying Belleville 4-4 in the opener of their regional playoff series. There was to be no repeat championship for the Peterborough team in 1942-43 (Sarnia would take the title this time).
And even in the hockey pages, there was sad news to be read. The February 8th Examiner reported on the funeral of Frank Calder, President and chief founder of the National Hockey League, who had passed away a few days previously. He was buried in Montreal, and representatives not only of the NHL teams (the Bruins and Canadiens brought their entire rosters with them), but of other hockey leagues, and even of other sports, came to pay their respects.
And that will do for 1943. Next time, we’ll check in with mid-February of 1944, as we move into the latter stages of the war. However, in the meantime, you can catch up on what was happening around here at this time of year in 1891. Thank you for reading!