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Andrea Baston’s Talk on “Exile Air”

You could have heard a pin drop in the Army Officers’ Mess on January 17 as Andrea Baston quietly but clearly told the stories of the young Norwegian men who came to Canada to train as pilots, gunners, navigators, and mechanics, determined to do their part to defeat the Nazis who had occupied their beloved country. Although the story of the WWII training camps known as “Little Norway” was certainly not unknown to the Canadian Nordic Society audience, we were fascinated to hear Andrea explain the events that led up to them and the impact that the young Norwegians had on the war effort. She painted a vivid picture of the young men’s lives and their interactions with their Canadian hosts, some of the results of which were evident in that very room!

Andrea grew up in Gravenhurst hearing about Little Norway. A local history enthusiast, she decided to research the whole story and record it so it would not be forgotten. With the help of Candis Jones, who provided photographs and photographic editing, she published “Exile Air: World War II’s “Little Norway” in Toronto and Muskoka.”

In her talk (as in her book), she set out the events that led to the invasion of Norway by Nazi Germany, and the establishment of locations in Canada to train the Norwegian Air Services. The Toronto Island Airport was selected as the initial location for novice pilots to learn to take off and land their planes and to perfect their flight manoeuvres. A piece of land was available close by on the Toronto harbour front for living quarters and training. Not surprisingly, the heroic young Norwegians soon became a big hit on Toronto’s social scene, the officers being invited to an endless stream of cocktail parties while the servicemen socialized at the Royal York Hotel and the Piccadilly Hotel on King Street West, and at the canteens that offered hearty cheap meals and were cheerfully staffed by young women, including many willing volunteers for dancing!

Little Norway’s commanding officer from 1941 on was the famous Norwegian Olympic athlete Ole Reistad. A hardy outdoorsman, he began to worry that the men were becoming distracted by the lures of city life and thought they would benefit from some clean, country living. He had a special camp constructed north of Toronto in the Lake of Bays area of Muskoka, to be used for training and also as a place for pilots to rest after returning from combat. It was christened “Vesle Skaugum” or “Little Skaugum”, Skaugum being the name of the royal residence outside of Oslo at the foot of Skaugumsåsen mountain. Toronto and its Island Airport continued to be used but the city’s residents were becoming increasingly concerned about the daringly low flights over the city by novice pilots. They flew from morning to evening, with varying degrees of accuracy in their flight paths and manoeuvres. After a couple of fatal accidents, the decision was made to create a new training camp at the Muskoka Airport. In one sense the move was already too late. Many relationships and a few marriages between the Norwegians and young women of Toronto had already been established. Andrea told us that the train that brought visitors from the city to Gravenhurst on Friday nights was soon nicknamed the “passion train.”

I learned many things from Andrea’s talk (and even more by reading her very thoroughly researched book.) I had not known that Norway’s government-in-exile financed the entire cost of its own Air Services, including the training camps in Canada. This was largely through income flowing in from the Allies for their use of Norway’s merchant marine, the third largest in the world at that time. As noted in “Exile Air”, “Until 1942, half of the fuel and one-third of all the other supplies delivered to Britain arrived on Norwegian merchant marine vessels.” I had certainly never fully appreciated the significant contribution Norway’s Air Services (officially named the Royal Norwegian Air Force in 1944) made to the War effort on reconnaissance and secret missions, patrols, and in combat. Although they were organized under British command, separate Norwegian squadrons were manned by Norwegians flying under the Norwegian flag. Norwegian squadrons shot down 15% of the planes that were destroyed at Dieppe, and played a major role in protecting Allied soldiers from enemy aircraft in the days following D-Day. But of course there was a heavy price in human lives that went along with these accomplishments. 309 Norwegian Air Force members were killed during the War, and we will never know how many young Norwegians died trying to escape occupied Norway and make their way to Canada to train.

I was astonished to learn that a full 10% of the Norwegians at “Little Norway” married Canadians, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. Past President Haakon Aas was one pilot from “Little Norway” who married a Canadian and ended up settling here. Past President Sirkka Omholt-Jensen, although Finnish herself, met her Norwegian pilot husband Edvard Omholt-Jensen in Toronto when he was at Little Norway. Edvard was already a good friend of Little Norway’s commanding officer Ole Reistad before the War. He had served as General Secretary of the Norsk Aero Klubb at the time that Ole Reistad served as its President. In 1986, Edvard Omholt-Jensen wrote a book about his friend called “Ole Reistad, The Spirit of Little Norway.” First published in Norwegian, it was then translated into English. The book contains what he described as an “unoffical list” of all personnel who were part of Little Norway.

Past President Per Talgøy is the son of a Norwegian who met his Canadian wife while at “Little Norway,” and so is our current Vice-President, Trygve Ringereide. Both Per and Trygve were present for the talk and both seemed to greatly enjoy and appreciate it. If you were not able to attend Andrea Baston’s talk but would like to order a copy of her book, you can do so through her publishing company, Old Stone Books.

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