I wasn’t planning to set a novel during WWII, but I became intrigued when I discovered that the private Calydor Sanatorium in Gravenhurst – which I called the Lakeside San in Under the Moon – had closed during the Depression and became a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp in 1940. Few people know about this now, or would believe that the prisoners were allowed to swim in a large section of the lake, as the photo below shows, or run their own farm several miles away from the camp.
And how many know that the Royal Norwegian Air Force trained aircrew at the nearby Muskoka Airport, which popularly became “Little Norway”? Who would suspect that the small town of Gravenhurst had been such a hub of wartime activity, even visited on several occasions by Norwegian royalty?
I hadn't been aware of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), and what a major and important role that played in the Allied cause. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Canada the “aerodrome of democracy”.
If I could also find some unsung female heroines of the period, then I could craft a tale showcasing obscure but fascinating aspects of the war.
They were certainly there, the modest women who rarely or reluctantly talked about their wartime service. The mother of my friend, whose island cottage inspired the Muskoka series, told me late in life that her role in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division (RCAF, WD) was nothing special. She was just doing a wartime job like everyone else. Although she did admit that it was fun to be stationed “overseas” in busy Gander, Newfoundland, which had plenty of Americans posted there as well. (Newfoundland was still a British colony and did not become part of Canada until 1949.)
Many WDs’ jobs were anything but ordinary. They trained as aero engine mechanics, wireless operators, parachute riggers, instrument mechanics, meteorologists, and in other, non-traditional women’s roles. Those posted to Britain, especially the girls working and living in London, experienced the very real dangers of air raids from bombers and later, the V-1 and V-2 rockets.
More astounding to me were the 168 women from many nations who joined the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in Britain, ferrying planes from factories to airfields, eventually flying all types of aircraft from Spitfires to Lancaster bombers. Among those bold, heroic women were 5 Canadians. Of course one of my characters had to join them! Thankfully, some of these “Spitfire Girls” – like Diana Barnato (Walker), shown in the adjacent photos – wrote engaging memoirs about their unique and dangerous experiences in the ATA. 16 female ATA pilots were killed in the line of duty, although there were certainly many occasions where instinct and luck saved others - Diana's close calls being frightening examples.
So writing this novel was an exciting and enlightening adventure for me. It’s a tribute to those less celebrated heroines and heroes who made their crucial contributions behind, but sometimes not far from the front lines. It also acknowledges the hardships and devastation on both sides of the battlelines, the humanity that connects us, and the friendships that are stronger than enmity.
You'll find more historical info and vintage photos on these blogs:
The Spitfire Girls
The RCAF, Women's Division
The German Prisoner of War Camp in Gravenhurst
Check out my Bibliography to learn more about these different aspects of the war.
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