Ajax’s Defence Industry Limited

By Tracy Wright, Durham College Journalism Student

When the opportunity came for Louise Johnson to work at Defence Industry Limited (DIL), she took it, with the blessing in the only letter she ever received from her father saying, “Go for it, it sounds like a great opportunity.”

Dil1

This was a historical moment. In 1942, almost all jobs for women were in the home, taking care of the family. “Back then,” says Johnson, “you worked the farm and married the boy down the road.” But the Second World War changed that.

Men had been recruited to go to the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. There was a shortage of workers, so women were needed to fill the jobs men would normally do.

Defence Industries Limited (DIL) was a shell filling plant, says author and historian Lynn Hodgson.  Its main purpose was to build shells with explosives and have them crated then transported by cargo then rail and finally shipped to England to the men in field, according to Hodgson.

Louise Johnson was 21 years old, living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She was single and working at Saskatoon City Hospital in the nurse’s residence. Louise said she was lucky to have been at home when the call came from Civil Services (now known as Human Resources) about working at DIL.

DIL opened in the summer of 1941. It had 9,000 employees and 75 per cent of these employees were women, explains Brenda Kriz, Records and FOI coordinator for the Town of Ajax. The women came to Ajax from across Canada, as far away as Northern Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Before the Second World War, Ajax was not a city. It was all farmland.  “It became Ajax, after the war,” says Hodgson, who wrote Ajax Arsenal of Democracy.

Dil 2

The women at DIL were called Bombgirls. Johnson, like the other women, did not know what to expect when she arrived in Pickering Township.  When she was recruited, she was told the job was dangerous. She was assured she and the other 9,000 employees would be taken care of; they would receive housing and meals along with a uniform, and if they did not like it there, they would get a train ticket back home.

Defence Industries Limited was built in 1941 on 2,800 acres of land. “The land was expropriated from Pickering Township to create Defence Industries Limited,” says Kriz. This was the largest shell plant during the British Commonwealth, according to Kriz. The township of Pickering set up the factory to build bombs for the Second World War.  Pickering Township, now Ajax, was considered the perfect location.  It was away from residential areas and water supplies, which was very important because it required million gallons a day to support the site, says Kriz.

There were 600 wartime homes built as temporary residences close to the plant. “There was a community hall, movie theatre and a convenience store and a post office so you didn’t have to go outside,” according to Hodgson, who goes on to explain that “loose lips sink ships” and this is why DIL didn’t want workers speaking to the public about their job.

When the plant closed, the idea was the homes would be broken down and sent to Britain to help with the housing shortage there, but instead a town was established.  Ajax was named after a battleship called HMS Ajax.  Naming of the town came after the post office in Pickering Village could not handle the loads of mail sent there.  For a post office to be in a town, the town had to have a name.  A vote was held by to choose between Dilco, Powder City and Ajax, after the mythological Greek hero.

DIL had been in operation for about five years before Ajax got its name.

To get access to the plant, you would walk across the Bayly Bridge which is no longer there but you would have crossed over the 401 at Harwood and Bayly. This is how you’d enter the gates for DIL. From there you would take a bus that would bring you to the line where you worked.  “At the end of your shift, you’d take the bus back over the bridge and then walk back to your residence,” explains Hodgson.

“There were four lines each line produce a different kind of shell,” says Kriz.

There was heavy security at DIL, Johnson recalls.  “If you did not have a badge, you could not pass through the gates,” says Johnson.  The whole facility was surrounded by barbed wire fence.  Hodgson explains, “Security was very tight; the guards were armed veterans from the First World War.” For safety reasons, no matches were allowed on the property.  If you were caught with matches, you would go to jail. One guy served 30 days in Whitby jail for smoking behind the line, says Hodgson.

Johnson worked on line 3. Here she measured cordite, which is another form of gunpowder. Her job was to weigh it on a scale and she had to be very precise. If not filled properly, the ammunition could either explode in transport or not detonate in the field. Work was in rotating shifts each week: eight hours a day six days a week. Each shift was represented by a different colour bandana: blue, red and white. Johnson’s was blue.

The only day off was Sunday and Christmas day.  “On Sundays, you just watch the walls and cook dinner,” says Johnson.

Life at DIL was not just about work. Relationships were built there. “I met my husband at work,” laughs Johnson. “He was the cordite deliverer.”

Russell and Louise were married in 1944 and had one child, a daughter named Lynda. Russell died in 1965. “He worked hard, but was not a well man,” Johnson said.

With the end of the war, the need for shells ended too.  The lines at the factory were shut down one by one. When it came to Johnson, she was called to the office and asked if she knew how to type.  She said, “I could look for keys,” she said, “and make a stab at it.”

Johnson was assigned the task of typing quit slips. She placed her slip at the bottom of the pile and when the time came typed her own quit slip. She was the last production employee at DIL.

Johnson then went to Selective Services, now Employment Insurance, to receive her compensation.  Johnson asked the lady behind the desk if she should comeback after her EI ran out.  She was advised to not come back as there was no work for women.

Men were coming back from war. “It was a two-sided coin,” Johnson says. “The men left work to go to war and they came back.”

Not only were the jobs few, Johnson’s husband did not want her to work. She stayed home and took care of her daughter, who was eight years old.  She did start working again and was able to work from home.

Johnson now aged 96, lives on her own in the same wartime bungalow she purchased with her husband.

Comparing the workforce for women from 1942 to now in 2018 Johnson says, “Hasn’t changed.”

As for DIL, “few buildings remain. But not many,” says Kriz.   The original DIL hospital became Ajax/Pickering hospital.  The original building was demolished in the late ’60s, according to Kriz. The Ajax Town Hall sits in the same place the DIL administration office was. “The heart of the community has always been on this site,” says Kriz. Without DIL, “There would be no Ajax a town born overnight,” says Hodgson.


The land where we stand is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.

Durham College‘s newspaper, The Chronicle, launches a new feature series called The Land Where We Stand, about the hidden stories that shape our region.

Some of the articles found on this blog have been provided through partnerships with external sources, and we welcome reader engagement through comments.  The views expressed in such articles/comments may not necessarily reflect those of the OHS/OM.

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Student Museum Musings – Peter

By Peter M., Archives Assistant Student

A train halted a moment at the station and the traveler reached out, called a small boy, and said, “Son, here’s fifty cents.  Get me a twenty-five cent sandwich and get one for yourself.  Hurry up!”
Just as the train pulled out, the boy ran up to the window.  “Here’s your quarter, mister,” he shouted.  “They only had one sandwich.”
(GM War-Craftsman, June 1943)

This is one example of a joke I came across during my cataloguing of various documents here in the archives of the Oshawa Museum.  I am a student that has been working here over the summer for just over a month now.  I have always been fascinated by the stories that new artefacts or documents coming to us can tell, but one theme that has really caught my eye recently is jokes.  Most of the documents I found containing jokes range throughout the 1940s.  Some appeared in sections of official newsletters, while others were scribbled into the pages of students’ workbooks, as they were each encouraged to write a page full of all the jokes they could think of as a class exercise.

Johnny: (buying a ticket for New York).
Clerk: “Would you care to go by Buffalo?”
Johnny: “I don’t know.  I’ve never ridden one.”
(GM War-Craftsman, October 1943)

The majority of the jokes I came across were gathered from a collection of General Motors newsletters called the War-Craftsman.  The newsletters in the museum’s collection range from 1942-1946.  These newsletters were a way of keeping the public informed of the events and contributions conducted by GM and its employees during World War II.  There was a column present in nearly all of these newsletters titled “Gems of Comedy,” where numerous jokes were printed each month.  Much like the rest of the War-Craftsman, these jokes served to keep spirits up, and inspire the public to keep moving forward during such trying times in our history.

At a recent shipyard launching, the woman who was to christen the boat was quite nervous.
“Do you have any questions, lady?” asked the shipyard manager, just before the ceremony.
“Yes,” she replied meekly.  “How hard do I have to hit it to knock it into the water?”
(GM War-Craftsman, October 1943)

It is interesting to see how comedy has evolved through the ages.  The jokes that I present you with are but a small few of the many that I found.  Most of the jokes I did not understand, showing how some comedy doesn’t quite translate through the ages.  Several others admittedly had themes that would be considered highly inappropriate by today’s standards, but they do serve show how society has changed, now having any jokes in publications today strive to be politically correct, while also maintaining the lightheartedness that was enjoyed by Oshawa citizens over sixty years ago.

Reporter:  To what do you to attribute your great age?
Grandpa:  The fact that I was born so long ago.
(GM War-Craftsman, December 1945)

 

Where The Streets Get Their Names – The Poppy on the Signs

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

This is the time of year when we remember.  From late October to November 11, as a sign of respect and remembrance, I wear a poppy on my left lapel, honouring those who fought for Canada’s freedom.  If you drive around Oshawa, you might notice that poppies can be seen year round, on certain street signs: Vimy Avenue, Verdun Road, Veterans Road, Spencely Drive, Chadburn Street, to name only a few.  Some streets, like Vimy and Verdun, have been named as such for several years; the poppy is a newer addition, signifying that the street’s name is in honour of a battle, veteran, or one of Oshawa’s war dead.

The poppy has been a symbol of remembrance since the Napoleonic wars, however, a poem written by Canadian soldier John McCrae helped to solidify its position in our collective memory.  After the death of a friend, McCrae was moved by his grief and his surroundings, and he penned the 15 lined poem in 20 minutes.

The poppy was adopted by the Great War Veteran’s Association in Canada (later the Royal Canadian Legion) as its official Flower of Remembrance on July 5, 1921.  Lapel poppies began being made in 1922 and are still sold every fall leading up to November 11.

Vimy & Verdun

Vimy & Verdun

In the 1920s, Oshawa saw growth in our city, not only in population, but also in urban planning, for it was during the 1920s that Verdun Road, Vimy Avenue, St. Julien Street, Courcellette Avenue, St. Eloi Avenue, and Festhurbert Street appeared.  These streets have been named in honour of significant World War I battles. Interestingly, as was seen with Phillip Murray Avenue and Gibb Street, the spelling of Festhubert Avenue has changed over the years.  The spelling was originally Festubert, which accurately reflects the spelling of the Battle of Festubert.  As well, St. Julien is no longer in use; sometime between 1954 and 1956 the City consolidated three consecutive streets into one name. Yonge Street and St. Julian St. all became known as Oshawa Blvd.

Dunkirk Avenue

Dunkirk Avenue

Located northwest of Wilson Road and Highway 401 is a cluster of streets, including Normandy Street, Dunkirk Avenue, Dieppe Avenue, Sedan Court, and Brest Court, all named for battle sites in France during World War II.  They were named in the mid-1950s.

Since 2003, it has been a policy of the City of Oshawa to name streets within new subdivision plans in honour of individuals who lived in Oshawa and died fighting for their country. Many of such streets can be found north of Taunton Rd. E. and west of Harmony Rd. N.

A nomination form can be filled out with information that includes length of service, community service and length of residency in Oshawa, and handed into City Hall to be considered for the street name reserve list; this list is used for the naming of new street subdivisions.

If used, the war dead/veteran’s name will be put on a street sign with a poppy motif. Nomination forms can be found on the City of Oshawa’s webpage.

In April 2015, Chick Hewett Lane became the 51st street named for an Oshawa Veteran, named in honour of a local veteran who flew 35 bombing missions during the Second World War.

It may be a small gesture, but by naming certain streets after battles or soldiers, this helps to keep their efforts at the forefront, and it is one of the many ways that we show our respect and remember their sacrifices.  Lest we forget.

Christmas Wishes from Overseas

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
This article originally appeared in the Oshawa Express, Dec 21, 2011

In 2011, the archives acquired four Christmas cards sent from an Oshawa boy serving overseas during WWII.

Pte. Earl Hann was overseas serving as a member of the Canadian Corps, under the 8th Army, as World War II battled throughout Northern Africa and Italy.  This meant that he was away from his young family during the holiday season in 1944.

A011.10.1, Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

A011.10.1, Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

Standardized Christmas cards were made available to the soldiers so that they could let their family back home know that they were thinking of them.  The cards were really a single sheet of paper with a drawing on it meant to represent the area where the soldier was stationed.  Once the soldier had completed personalizing their card in the little space made available to them,  and the card was passed by the censors, the army would  copy the card and reduce the size so that it would be less expensive to send back home.

Pte. Hann made the best of the limited space available to let him family know just how much he was missing them.  Three of the cards are addressed to his wife Irene with the fourth being addressed to his young daughter Joyce.

A011.10.2 - Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

A011.10.2 – Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

The lengthiest of the notes written by Pte. Hann also lets us know that the holiday season was extra special as his wedding anniversary also fell during that time.  He writes:

“Happy Anniversary My love.  With Best Wishes that this is our last spent apart.
All my love and Millions of Kisses
Forever yours
Earl”

He chose to send his daughter a card showing where her day was when he wasn’t with her.  The card has a map of the Mediterranean Sea, showing both Italy and North Africa.  This time the card is simply signed from “Daddy with all his love and best wishes for 1945”.

A011.10.3, Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

A011.10.3, Christmas Card sent by Earl Hann

Pte. Hann was happily reunited with his family once the war was over and he went on to become a 50 year member of the Oshawa Historical Society.  It is fitting that these letters have found a home with a museum he loved so much.

Earl Hann, left, in 1985, with Mayor Pilkey, driving the final nail into Guy House after its restoration

Earl Hann, left, in 1985, with Mayor Pilkey, driving the final nail into Guy House after its restoration