Women of Ferry Command

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 06, 2016 12:00 AM
Hazel at the "front desk," with Marcel A. receiving a message at one of the stations (Courtesy North Atlantic Aviation Museum)

Ferry Command was one of the best-kept secrets of the Second World War and, at the time, that was a good thing. But 70 years later, Hazel Fausak (nee Bjornstad) thought it was time to let the secret out. She wanted people to know how the men and women who served with her in Gander contributed to the outcome of the war.

Ferry Command was formed in 1940 in response to what was happening in Europe. Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France had fallen prey to the Nazi war machine. Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew Britain was next - and he knew they weren’t ready.  

Canada and the United States were trying to help by shipping planes in convoys across the Atlantic, but the process was too slow. The aircraft had to be taken apart, crated, loaded onto ships, reassembled in Britain and tested. To make matters worse, the Nazi U-boats had perfected their wolf-pack tactic of tracking and sinking the Allied convoys.

Churchill decided to try flying the planes from North America to Europe, using an existing airport in Gander, Newfoundland, then a British colony. In May 1940, the quiet airport was transformed into a bustling wartime airbase. Local Newfoundlanders did most of the work to add the accommodations and services necessary to support the influx of pilots, meteorologists, radio operators and other staff who would be needed to run such a huge operation.

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Ferry Command turned Gander Airport into a bustling military base. (Courtesy North Atlantic Aviation Museum)

On November 10, 1940, the first seven Hudson bombers left Gander for Aldergrove, in Northern Ireland. All seven arrived safely 11 hours later. It was an amazing feat for a number of reasons. It was the first time the North Atlantic had been flown in the winter, the delivery had taken hours instead of days, and it was the beginning of many deliveries that some say shortened the war by months, if not years. Among those assigned to this base and its top-secret mission was a young woman from western Canada. Here is Hazel’s story.

Life at Gander During the War
Hazel Bjornstad stated in her journal of the war years that she had no idea of how the Ferry Command was formed. She was just a quiet, shy girl who wanted to do something to help the war effort. An ad in the local newspaper offered a course at the Radio College of Canada, so she packed her bags and took the train from Edmonton to Toronto. She may have been shy, but she was also determined once she made up her mind to do something. Following graduation, she joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) and began an adventure that would change her life. “The Ferry Command made me the woman I became,” she wrote.

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Hazel and the other female radio operators lived on the top floor of the H building that stood across the road from the hangar.

At first she was posted at the signal station in Dorval, Quebec. Then in September 1944, about 15 women and the same number of men were asked to relocate and operate the station in Gander, Newfoundland. There they were housed in H-shaped buildings. Hazel lived with the other women on the upper floor of one of the long arms of the H. The rooms were about 12' x 12' and accommodated two women, with a single bed, a dresser, a bedside table and a lamp for each. There was one bathroom per floor in the middle section of the H, with two sinks, two toilets and two tubs for all of them. 

A larger room served as a recreation space where they played cards, did puzzles or had small parties. They ate at the general cafeteria (the officers had their own). Emptying cockroaches from the cereal bowls was a daily occurrence, but they got used to the routine and, according to Hazel, the food was delicious. A local pig farmer named Joey Smallwood was a regular in the cafeteria. “He sat at the end of a long table talking, talking, and talking to his captive audience,” she wrote. (Could she have guessed he’d be Newfoundland’s first premier a few years later?)

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Hazel picking blueberries (Courtesy North Atlantic Aviation Museum)

The radio operators put in long, tedious workdays. The messages were all coded so they never knew the content. They sat at desks with a radio, set of earphones, typewriter, sending key and two boxes, for incoming and outgoing messages. The messages were brought from the cipher office to the “front desk,” where they were logged in and then distributed to the operators. 

Hazel was one of three radio operators who worked on the front desk. Weather reports and forecasts were in groups of five figures. Letter messages were in groups of five letters. For both weather forecasts and letter messages, the first group of five was a letter with four figures, for example, R1234. This gave the setting for the cipher machine to decode the messages received or to encode messages to be sent. 
The messages were graded with no letter if it was an ordinary message, P for important, OP for very important, and O for emergency. They were not allowed to send an O message over the air for security reasons.

“I remember one member of our group being relieved of his position for sending an uncoded message - ‘hi’ to his friends at another station. This was a very serious breach of security since it may have given the enemy a clue that this was a British station. They could then monitor it extremely closely. That operator was gone within hours,” Hazel said in an interview last year for this story.

The station operated around-the-clock. “Our shifts lasted for eight hours. We had every seventh day off and then changed to a different shift. When I think back, I am surprised at how we took the long hours and consecutive shifts all in stride,” she said. The work schedule was later improved with more breaks between shifts.

But life at Gander wasn’t all work. By the time Hazel arrived in 1944, there was an American and a Canadian base, as well as the original RAF base. “For us from the backwoods of Alberta, there was much to enjoy,” she recalled. “Many of us had never played sports in a big gymnasium, like the one at the Canadian base. There was a theatre at the American base where the latest shows were playing.” In their time off, there was Deadman’s Pond where they sailed and swam. They went hiking and even picked blueberries. The women used to walk to a little store half a mile up the road that kept them supplied with Nescafé - with powdered cream in it.

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Back row (l-r): Hazel Bjornstad, Ethel Hanna, Ralph Brophy. Front row (l-r): Mossie Doyle, Eve Grabinski

The Ferry Command Legacy
“Our work, we knew, was very important for the transportation of planes and supplies. The safety of the pilots and crews depended on the information we were receiving and sending. Without this ferry service from Canada, the outcome of World War II might have been much different.” This was how Hazel summed up her work with the Ferry Command, but she was also aware of the effect that time had on the rest of her life.

“I shall always be thankful for the privilege of working for the RAF Ferry Command. It gave me - a very shy and insecure person - a chance to open up and find out I could do things just as well as other people who had much more privileged upbringings. It also gave me the chance to meet so many wonderful people from a variety of places and backgrounds. I kept in touch with a number of the friends I made in Gander and Montreal, but sadly they have mostly passed away.

“I can’t help but be thankful that while unthinkable atrocities were happening in most of the civilized world, God allowed me to spend that time in a little slice of heaven called Gander, Newfoundland.”

Hazel returned home to Alberta in April 1946. She married Fred Fausak, a WWII veteran, and raised nine children on a farm near Evansburg. When they retired, they moved to the town of Evansburg. After 66.5 years of marriage, Fred passed away on December 30, 2013. Hazel lived in her own home, well looked after by family and friends, until she passed away on January 4, 2016. Heather Stemp

The author, Heather Stemp, wishes to thank Sandra Seaward, North Atlantic Aviation Museum; Greg Seaward, Town of Gander; Frank Tibbo, Gander historian; and Hazel's daughters, Marybelle, Valerie, and Donna, for their input in this article. Heather is the author of Amelia and Me, about her aunt’s meeting with Amelia Earhart in Harbour Grace in 1932. She is currently working on her second book, Taking Flight.