Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes

Queen_of_the_Hurricanes_smallThe winner of this year’s Ontario Historical Society Alison Prentice Award was Crystal Sisson’s Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill from Second Story Press. For a change, I don’t feel behind the curve because I bought and read the book at this year’s Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities in May. MacGill, the first woman to graduate from the University of Toronto’s engineering program and to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan, became the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car and Foundry in Fort William, Ontario in 1938. The designer of the Maple Leaf II trainer, she was responsible during the Second World War for Can Car’s retooling and production of Hawker Hurricane fighters. Her anomalous position as a female chief engineer in what was still predominantly a male career garnered her media attention and a comic book in the True Comics War Heroes series.

Though her wartime career remains the best known part of her life story (as a quick look at these web pages at Wikipedia, the CBC, and the Women’s Engineering Society suggest), Sissons devotes as much or more space to her long postwar career. Her career as a consulting engineer lasted for more than thirty-five years, existing alongside an increasingly prominent and extensive commitment to public service with the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and a slew of other engineering and feminist organizations and causes.

Though her senior position at Can Car was unusual, wartime aviation production brought a large number of women in to jobs on the the shop floor at the Fort William plant. Back in the 1990s, the Canadian National Film Board did a documentary, Rosies of the North (streaming online at the NFB website) on Elsie MacGill’s career and their experiences working at the plant. Happily, they asked some of their interviewees about their memories of MacGill. The answers are interesting, with a wide variety of favorable and less-so responses.

One of the virtues of Sisson’s Queen of the Hurricanes has to be that it pushes beyond the wartime legend to show the many areas in which Elsie MacGill was involved: not just aeronautics, business, engineering, and civic action, but also as her mother’s biographer (the book was entitled My Mother, the Judge). Obviously, there’s still more to be said about all the parts of MacGill remarkable career, but Queen of the Hurricanes does a great job covering many of them.


Canada’s Counter-Insurgency Fighter Jet

When Canadians think about the Canadair CL-41 Tutor, if they think about it all, it’s as the airplane of choice for the Royal Canadian Air Force aerobatics team, the Snowbirds. The Tutor was designed in the late 1950s by Canadair as a basic jet trainer with side-by-side seating for better instruction, a role in which it served the RCAF until the year 2000. However, the plane is almost certainly better known as the mount for Canadian aerobatics teams since the 1967 Golden Centennaires (the Snowbird name dates to 1971, the team’s status as official armed forces demonstration team to 1977).

The CL-41 in Snowbirds colours. Wikimedia Commons; Bzuk (photographer)

The CL-41 in Snowbirds colours.
Wikimedia Commons; Bzuk (photographer)

If Canadair and the Canadian goverment had gotten its wish, the Tutor would also have had a wider and probably more sinister reputation as a strike aircraft in small wars. Taking advantage of the fact the CL-41 was agile and easy to fly – Flight magazine declared that it had “delectable virtues as a flying machine” – Canadair offered an export variant designated the CL-41G with an uprated engine and underwing hardpoints for carrying bombs, napalm, or rockets. A nimble, relatively simple, easy-to-fly attack plane, the CL-41G was well-suited to counterinsurgency operations by a country with the appetite to fly jets but a limited budget.

This was a niche that several aircraft were vying to fill. In the United States, the Cessna T-37 “Tweet” jet trainer was being evaluated for a similar combat mission; examples would be sent to Vietnam for testing in 1967 and the plane would be flown by the US Air Force, the South Vietnamese, and several Latin American nations. From the UK, the BAC Jet Provost was being armed and sold to Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Sudan, Iraq, South Yemen and Venezuela. Italy’s Aeromacchi MB.326 was offered in a similar way. And so Canadair went out into the world to find buyers for their new combat airplane and secure their slice of the market.

Canada’s military exports overseas were intermeshed with Canada’s policy of offering military assistance to states around the world. The Other Cold War: Canada’s Military Assistance to the Developing World 1945–1975 (available here) lays out the history of the Canadian missions, the most substantial of which were to the former British colonies of Ghana (1961–68) and Tanzania (1965–70). As Christopher R. Kilford’s history explains, military training missions in the developing world were part of Canada’s contribution to the Anglo-American alliance. Unlike Great Britain, Canada could offer assistance to newly independent Commonwealth nations as a fraternal equal rather than a former imperial overlord, keeping out Soviet or Chinese Communist military advisors in the process.

Sales of military material on generous terms were an easy complement to direct military assistance, though they did require permits from the Department of Trade and Commerce, which generally entailed getting approval from the cabinet. Airplane sales were a substantial segment of the market, with Harvard and Chipmunk trailers going to Israel and Egypt, Canadair Sabres to Columbia, and Dakota, Otter, and Caribou transports to India.

In the end, the only overseas buyer of the CL-41 was the Royal Malaysian Air Force, which acquired twenty CL-41Gs (which they named the Tebuan, or ‘Wasp’) in late 1960s. The purchase was a classic example of combining military training, financial assistance, and export sales in a potent strategic package. The Tebuan purchase came close on the heels of a $4 million Canadian military assistance package to Malaysia that included four Caribou aircraft, air and ground crew training, and 250 light motorcycles. That was provided in 1964–65, while Malayisa was in the midst of a “confrontation,” or undeclared low-intensity war, with Indonesia in northern Borneo. The Tebuan would have been a logical airplane for airstrikes and close air support during the war, but by the time the sale of the aircraft, unarmed, was finalized in March 1966, a final settlement between the two countries was only five months away. Instead, the Tebuan saw service inside Malaya itself, flying airstrikes against Communist base camps near the Thai border during the Second Malayan Emergency.

What Canada barely avoided was having the Canadair CL-41 getting caught up in apartheid South Africa’s wars. In 1963, the South Africans were as very interested in the CL-41G, and the cabinet seems to have come close to approving the sale of fifty aircraft. Though the 1963 Security Council arms embargo on South Africa scuttled the deal,  Canada still approved the sale of radar equipment and spare parts for Canadair Sabres to the apartheid regime. In retrospect, Canada dodged a bullet. The cabinet was willing to allow the sale to South Africa because they believed that the aircraft was inappropriate for internal security and therefore not intended for the suppression of the apartheid regime’s opponents. But, in a little over a decade, the South African Air Force was involved in a border war against the ANC, SWAPO, FAPLA, and Cubans in Angola and South-West Africa. Rather than the CL-41G, the SAAF ended up flying license-built copies of the MB.326. The Impala, as the South Africans named it, ended up flying airstrikes and close air support in a war that lasted more than twenty years.

Interaction and Meaning in the Canadian Holocaust Monument

Work and moving house seems to have killed The Devil of History stone dead, temporarily, but I felt like I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment on the plans that have been unveiled for Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, near the Canadian War Museum.

The six finalist teams have released their plans (summaries from the Globe & Mail here, and links to excerpts of their presentations here). There’s a lot of top international talent here, including the ridiculously omnipresent Daniel Libeskind with photographer Edward Burtynsky, and David Adjaye (National Museum of African American History) with Ron Arad (Ground Zero memorial). Aside from Libeskind’s design, which I loathe on the basis that it repeats the same motifs he uses everywhere, I don’t actually have strong feelings about any of the designs. They all seem like measured, well considered plans for a memorial that has to walk a fine line between universality and specificity.

(Some context for my rage against Libeskind. He’s clearly a very talented architect, but his work really never responds to the local context. Commentators are sure to note that his “journey through a star” evokes his Jewish Museum in Berlin, but that also means that it evokes his Dresden Museum of Military History and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. I’ve softened on the challenges of actually using the space in his expansion for the Royal Ontario Museum, but I still think the “air shafts” at IWM North are the most ridiculous waste of space I’ve ever seen in a museum.)

What struck me as interesting about the designs is that they all call for the viewer not to be a viewer, but a traveler or experiencer. Libeskind’s “journey through a star,” Adjaye’s twenty-two narrow paths to walk, and all the other designs call for the visitor to move into the monument and become surrounded by it. Unlike earlier generations of memorial, or even plaza-spaces like the US National World War Two memorial, they are not objects to be considered from a distance. Nor are they contemplative spaces where the visitor can enter and sit, but without engaging with the design. Instead, the proposed designs push to disrupt the separation between visitor and symbol, both with space and in several cases with audio-visual elements.

That’s an interesting trend, I think, and one that puts a new twist on the need to offer meaning without a level of conviction that becomes exclusionary. Putting the onus of the experience on the visitor means you get the vagueness of abstraction without the collapse of intent into neutrality. This also means that I probably have to give up the idea of an “age of memorial irony.” It seems we’re not quite so flummoxed by the problem of war and atrocity that we’ve given up trying to understand it.

Rough Poetry

I know that I’ve ranted from time to time about the truth once universally acknowledged and as often rejected that the only response to the horrors of the trenches was one of irony and horror.* So it’s in the interests of fairness and the greater good that I present Canadian economist Harold Innis’s recollections of the front presented in Chicago in 1918. Alexander John Watson reprints Innis’s speech notes in his biography, Marginal Man, noting that they constitute “a form of black poetry.”

As we had imagined it:

afraid war would end

chasing Germans with bayonets

Pleasure of going over the top

Loaded down with German helmets

As we found it:

Bully beef and hard tack

cars marked 8 horses or 40 men,

ditching ammunition,

bayonets used to toast bread and cut wood

Filling of sandbags.

Helmets to wash in

damned dull, damned duty and damned monotony of it

continual mud

continual reading of sheets

continual bread marmalade and tea

continual shelling

hide and seek warfare

With the monotony came fear

Instinctive location of deep dug-outs

Mathematical probability of shells

landing in the same place twice

Flattening against the trench wall

Drinking poisoned water

How long we were battery

eating cordite

Gradual longing

for blighty

Before these influences all men are alike





Innis’s speech, at least in this attenuated form, speaks to the deep impact of the horrors of the front, and Watson argues that Innis was seriously traumatized by his service – something which he would fight with for the rest of his life.

He also felt a great sense of fellowship with other veterans of the war. In 1940, when his colleague Frank Underhill courted public controversy in 1940 for saying that Britain’s global role was likely to diminish in the future, Innis wrote to the president of the university that “It is possibly necessary to remember that any returned man who has faced the continual dangers of modern warfare has a point of view fundamentally different from anyone who has not … Courage in the face of criticism of friend or foe means nothing to anyone requiring the courage to face imminent physical danger and death.”

Innis’s attitude to the Second World War is an interesting one. He seems not to have been opposed per se, but he did argue fairly strenuously that universities should not convert over entirely to war work and arts courses should (and their exemptions from conscription) should not be abandoned in favor of engineering and science programs that were perceived as more crucial to the war effort.

*Readers can relive the essence of the debate by reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. Canadians may find it more interesting to substitute Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble for the second book.

Did Canadians Invent the VLR Liberator?

I’m busy reading Paul Kennedy’s new book, Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. Still marshaling my thoughts—I’ll write a review eventually—but some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the tidbits of technical exotica that Kennedy passes along. Having seen him speak several times about the Merlin-engined P-51 Mustang, it’s no surprise that that story is one of the best parts of the book.

One throw-away line early in the book is about “the team of chiefly Canadian air engineers” who put extra fuel tanks in a B-24 Liberator to create the first Very Long Range (VLR) maritime patrol airplane. I’d never heard that there was a Canadian connection to the story. No footnote, sadly.