When war came to Westmount

Morgan Lowrie
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Life on the Home Front: Montreal 1939-1945

On June 3rd, 1941, residents of Westmount woke up to an unexpected sight: a German Messerschmitt fighter plane, nosedown in front of the library, with a parachute in a nearby tree.  A sign in front read: Don’t let this happen here! Buy Victory bonds.

On June 3rd, 1941, residents of Westmount woke up to an unexpected sight: a German Messerschmitt fighter plane, nosedown in front of the library, with a parachute in a nearby tree.  A sign in front read: Don’t let this happen here! Buy Victory bonds.

The plane, made of cheap black iron and celluloid covering a wood frame, was one of the city’s more innovative ways of raising money for the war effort.  It was designed and built by Arthur Stanway, a 16 year-old model plane enthusiast whose father, the owner of Stanway Signs, was paid $350 by the city.

This story is one of the many appearing in Life on the Home Front: Montreal 1939-1945, recently published by Patricia Burns.  At the book launch, Arthur Stanway’s brother, Frank, explained that the model plane was made in pieces, and assembled under the cover of darkness in the park.

At the time, Frank himself was overseas, serving in the Italian campaign.  The now 91-year-old still remembers going downtown with three of his NDG hockey buddies to sign up.

“My parents had both come from England, and in 1940, the Germans were pretty much taking over France,” he said. “We were scared they were going to take over all of Europe.   So that was one of the reasons.  And…I guess it was kind of the thing to do.”

Seventy years later, he still remembers everything: the incessant bouts with malaria, travelling on cattle cars, and the horrible night just before Christmas in 1943 when a bomb blew him out of his pup tent, killing the man lying next to him.

“That’s just what it was,” he said. “We came through, and I’m still living…too long!”

As for his brother Arthur, he moved on from building model planes in Westmount to flying real ones when he joined the Air Force in 1944.  He too survived, and now lives in a hospital on the West Island.

“Looking back at what we went through, it seems amazing now,” Frank Stanway said. “I was 19 when I left, 24 when I came home. For five years, I lived out of a kit bag: An extra pair of shoes, a tin hat, and a gas mask.  That was it.”

I was 19 when I left, 24 when I came home. For five years, I lived out of a kit bag: An extra pair of shoes, a tin hat, and a gas mask. That was it.” Frank Stanway

John Bieler, 77, was just four years old when he waved his father good-bye. 

Guy Bieler left his wife and two young children to become a special agent, a saboteur who blew up trains behind enemy lines in his native France.

“He looked like a Frenchman, he had a beret and all the trappings,” John Bieler said.  “But underneath was a man of steel who was going to get the job done.”

Guy Bieler never came home.  Captured by the Nazis, he was tortured for over a year without giving up any information.  Assassinated by firing squad in 1944, his name is written on a memorial at Victoria Hall, and he has been posthumously recognized as one of Canada’s great war heroes.

But, although he clings dearly to his father’s memory, most of John Bieler’s war memories center on a different kind of hero.

“What I do remember is that those people who didn’t go to war were very supportive of the boys and girls who were left behind,” he said.

A boy who gave his mother trouble could expect a tap on the shoulder and a talking to from any of the neighbourhood men.  They all pitched in to help with broken furnaces and home repairs.

“They became all of our surrogate fathers,” he said. He also remembers the courage of the wives and mothers who struggled to raise children and make ends meet on a tight wartime budget.

“We all talk about the heroes of the war as being the people on the front lines,” Bieler said.  “We don’t talk very much about the heroism of the ones that were left behind.”

Patricia Burns’ book Life on the Home Front: Montreal 1939-45 is available from Vehicle Press.

 

 

 

Organizations: Air Force, Vehicle Press

Geographic location: Westmount, France, England Europe West Island Canada

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