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Sailors, Slackers, and Blind Pigs

Halifax at War

by Stephen Kimber

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list price: $22.00
category: History
published: 2003
publisher: Doubleday Canada
imprint: Anchor Canada
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  • Winner, Evelyn Richardson Memorial Prize
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The untold story of how war transformed the city of Halifax.

Stephen Kimber recreates life in Halifax during the Second World War, a city transformed by the influx of military and civilian personnel serving the war effort. Poorly governed and corrupt, the city erupted at the end of the war in Europe in the infamous V-E Day riots of May 1945.

Halifax was the only Canadian city directly caught up in the drama, danger, death, and disaster of our last “good” war. Through the eyes and experiences of the people who lived it -- sailors, slackers (civilians), prohibitionists, spies, profiteers, and just plain local folk -- Stephen Kimber brings this extraordinary period of history to life. From an initial outpouring of imperial patriotism and local paternalism to the final Bacchanalian orgy of booze, looting, dancing in the streets, public fornication and general mayhem, this is the true, untold story of how a city changed a war, and a war changed a city.

Drawing on primary sources ranging from local government and military archives to personal diaries, Kimber recreates life in Halifax during the Second World War so convincingly that readers will feel that they have journeyed back in time to meet some of the most colourful characters ever encountered in a history book.

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Chapter One: 1939

– Preparations, Expectations and the Phony War –

Eric Dennis stared hard at the dozens of men and women streaming off tonight’s Ocean Limited passenger train just arrived from Montreal, searching the platform for familiar faces, faces to which he could put names, names his readers might recognize. He knew he had to concentrate. But how could he? It had finally happened. After weeks of bluster and bluff, feint and fallback, incursion and indecision, war had really begun. He had awakened to the news this morning. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had gone on the radio to announce officially that England had declared war on Germany. France, Australia and New Zealand followed almost instantly. How soon before Canada did too, Eric Dennis wondered? What would -- should -- he do then?

Eric was twenty-two, tall and thin, with a wispy moustache and thick glasses. He was a general assignment reporter for both the morning Halifax Herald and the afternoon Mail, the largest circulation daily newspapers in Nova Scotia, both of them owned by his legendary uncle, Senator William Dennis, who in turn was the son of the original, and even more legendary, Senator William Dennis, the Herald’s first reporter and the founder of the Mail. Newspapering flowed in the Dennis veins. But what of soldiering?

Standing in the middle of the echoing tumult of this cavernous barn of a railway station as arriving passengers met their loved ones, grabbed their bags and hurried off into the cool late summer night, Eric couldn’t help but recall a sweltering June day less than three months before. King George and Queen Elizabeth had arrived at this very station aboard a specially decorated royal blue and silver, twelve-coach train for the final stop of what had turned into a triumphant seven-week royal tour of Canada. Although the possibility of war had hung like a storm cloud over planning for the visit -- it was very nearly cancelled in the tense aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in March -- you wouldn’t have guessed it by the adoring crowds who gathered inside and outside the station that festive day.

Eric had been one of the reporters assigned to cover the visit. He tagged along as the King, in his Admiral of the Fleet uniform, and the Queen, in her favourite powder blue outfit, toured Halifax’s freshly spiffed streets in an open motor car. When, at the end of the day, the royal couple stood on the deck of the Empress of Britain proffering their practised royal waves in yet another farewell to yet another adoring crowd, Eric was so caught up in the moment that he waved back.

Who would have believed war was already so close at hand? It was only now that Eric finally began to understand the significance of the visit. Britain’s unspoken purpose was to stir up imperialist fervour among Canadians so they would pressure their government to commit to the defence of the mother country should it ultimately come to that. The ploy had worked: everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Prime Minister Mackenzie King officially announced Canada was in the war too.

Dennis initially assumed that war, if there was to be one at all, would be confined to a few little nations on the continent. But in March the Germans had gobbled up Czechoslovakia. In May, Hitler signed his Pact of Steel with Mussolini’s Italy. And then, less than two weeks ago, on August 23, 1939, the German leader reached a surprise non-aggression pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union that raised fears of a great power showdown. Ever since the German-Soviet deal, in fact, the Herald’s daily drumbeat of headlines had created a feeling that a much wider war was inevitable: EMPIRE STANDS WITH BRITAIN, his paper had declared the day after the announcement of the alliance. The next day it was FATE OF WORLD IN BALANCE, followed by a slightly more optimistic DRIFT TO DISASTER IS DELAYED, then a crushing HITLER REFUSES DIRECT TALKS WITH POLAND. By Tuesday, August 29, it had come down to PEACE OR WAR: HITLER HAS HIS CHOICE. The following morning’s BRITAIN’S FIRM STAND BRINGS NEW PROPOSALS FROM HITLER seemed encouraging, but was followed by the ominous ARMIES’ MIGHT IS INCREASED AS SECRET CRISIS NOTES EXCHANGED, and then -- on September 1, the day the Herald published its first extra of the conflict -- a chilling POLISH BORDER VIOLATED AT 4 POINTS. On Saturday of the Labour Day holiday weekend, the Herald’s headline read: HITLER IS GIVEN LAST WARNING.

Tonight, back in the newsroom, Edgar Kelley, the Herald’s editor-in-chief, and Bob Rankin, the managing editor, had already settled on tomorrow’s main-edition headline: EMPIRE AT WAR, set in the largest type yet. But events were unfolding so quickly that the paper’s editors had already had to make room above the Herald’s nameplate for another headline, nearly as large: LINER ATHENIA IS TORPEDOED AND SUNK.

War had really begun. Should he -- “

Eric Dennis stopped himself, tried to focus on the job at hand. He looked around at the departing passengers. The other regulars were here too, of course, including his opposite number from the Chronicle. Like Dennis, he was scouring the faces in the crowd. Like Dennis, he showed no indication he recognized anyone. A good sign?

Germaine Pelletier and her boyfriend were at their usual posts near the baggage counter. Pelletier operated the city’s most popular brothel, in a red brick building opposite the lieutenant-governor’s official residence a couple of blocks north of the station, on Hollis Street. Each evening, she would walk down to the station to meet the arriving trains in order to discreetly advertise the existence of her establishment and determine if any of the passengers might wish to partake of the services her girls had to offer. War, Eric thought, would probably be good for her business.

The railway station was part of Eric Dennis’s regular beat. He stopped by each day to see who was who among the arriving passengers. His job was to find out if any of them were interesting enough to write about for the paper’s “Yesterday I Saw . . .” photo feature. During his five years at the paper he’d befriended everyone from the baggage handlers, who would alert him to expensive-looking luggage, to the conductors and porters, who often knew their most prominent passengers by name. But these days he was much more careful to check and recheck every snippet of information they provided. Three years earlier, “Yesterday I Saw . . .” almost cost him his job. He’d been told the mayor of Shelburne, a small town on the province’s south shore, was visiting Halifax. Since the paper already had a photo of the mayor on file, Dennis, who hadn’t been able to track him down to talk to him personally, wrote it up anyway. “Yesterday, I saw the Mayor of Shelburne,” the caption under the photo began.

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Contributor notes

Stephen Kimber, Director of the School of Journalism at King’s College in Halifax and former producer for CBC and CTV, is the author of four non-fiction books, including the bestselling Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash. He has won an ACTRA award for documentary writing and a National Author’s Award. He and his wife and three children live in Halifax.

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Editorial Review

“Kimber has done a terrific job blending archival research with personal accounts of servicemen and locals . . . the book is a lively and engaging portrait of Halifax in flux.” -- Ottawa Citizen

“A rich smorgasbord of memories . . . fast-moving. . . . Everyone who loves Halifax as the vibrant place it has become must read Kimber’s book.” -- The Daily News (Halifax)

“Kimber brings an insider’s knowledge and storyteller’s eye for detail. The book is a panorama of the wartime city that unfolds from portraits . . . Kimber sweeps away the cobwebs.” -- Canadian Geographic

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