Winters on the Base

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 16, 2016 11:49 AM
The RAF Norseman gasses up in Gander in the 1940s.

Gloria Durham's first airplane ride was memorable for several reasons. For starters, it wasn't exactly executive-level transportation. She was on the weekly "milk run" from Montreal, Quebec to Gander, Newfoundland aboard a Dakota cargo plane in 1944.

"No steward, just the pilot, co-pilot, stacks of cargo tied down in the centre of the plane's body, and us two girls. No pressurized cabin, no oxygen masks, no windows, no toilet, no cushioned seats - in fact, no seats. We were told we could sit along the side of the aircraft on part of the rib, an eight-inch-wide strip of metal which stuck into the cargo bay," she wrote in her journal. “It was cold, noisy and uncomfortable. But we were flying! How exciting to feel free as a bird!”

Secondly, she and her friend were new members of the Royal Air Force Transport Command (previously known as Ferry Command) being posted “overseas.” In her written account of the war years, Gloria noted that Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada so she would be serving her country on foreign soil. As an 18-year-old radio operator, she couldn’t imagine a more exciting opportunity. 

The RAF Base
During the Second World War, Gander airport contained three airbases - an RAF sector (British), an RCAF sector (Canadian) and a USAAF sector (American). Gloria described the RAF base in a recent interview. “It had the bare minimum - an airfield, two hangars, a cafeteria which doubled as recreation/dance hall, and three H-shaped barracks.” Most of her world was contained within these buildings. She walked from A building where she lived, across the road to hangar 21 where she worked, and to the cafeteria farther down the road for meals.  

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A page from the scrapbook of Gloria Durham

Hangar 21 was the centre of life on the base. It not only housed planes, but also a radio operations room, a waiting room for pilots and a transmitting room. From Hangar 21, encoded messages were sent and received between Gander and Allied communications stations in Labrador, Canada, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, England and the United States. It was a 24/7 station and operators worked eight-hour shifts, with every seventh day off. “The H building where we lived was usually quiet,” Gloria said, “because someone was always sleeping.”

Base personnel were housed according to their jobs. Gloria and other female radio operators lived on the second floor of one side of the H, in A building. Below them lived the non-commissioned officers who ran the base - mechanics and maintenance personnel. The other side of the H housed the Ferry Command pilots who delivered the planes to the British Isles.

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A page from the scrapbook of Gloria Durham

Newfoundlanders and their families lived in B building. Some were radio operators and others worked in the cafeteria, in housekeeping, or in maintenance. Gloria made friends with the Lush family who lived there. Eloise, who was Gloria’s age, was one of her bridesmaids.

All of C building was used to house the male radio operators. As Gloria pointed out, “Girls were few in Gander so we were often in demand; yet our virginity was safe - unless we chose otherwise, as some did. The boys respected our friendship. We would walk to the pond with them, talking about their families, or sit in their lounge joking about life over ’ome. I went sailing with a Welshman, hiked with a Scot, and listened to a Lancashire man talk about his little children. They were so homesick.” 

Winter in Gander
In all of Gloria’s memories of Gander, the winter stands out. Outdoor activities provided most of the social life for base personnel. “On our day off, we’d plan some activity to get together with whomever was off shift,” Gloria recalled, noting that skiing was one of their adventures. “When we put on the skis (which were six feet long), we were told to turn sideways and dig into the hill as we climbed, which I later learned is a cross-country skiing technique. I was exhausted just getting to the top. Once there, the prospect of careening down intimidated me, but I knew I must try! I stopped by sliding on the seat of my pants and had to apologize to the other skiers for flattening their smooth landing.”

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A page from the scrapbook of Gloria Durham

Then there was the wildlife. “On the way home from one of these ski excursions, a group of seven of us stopped dead in our tracks. We were faced by a moose. It stood staring at us, wiggled its ears as snowflakes tickled the hairs, and shook its huge head to dislodge some of the fallen snow. But when it bent its head to the ground we all drew in a collective breath thinking it was preparing to charge. We then breathed collectively as he/she merely licked the new snow then turned and walked into the forest. We still didn’t move till its tail disappeared behind a tree.”

Gloria spent most of her time on the RAF base, but sometimes took the bus that linked the three sectors. She went to church on the RCAF base, which had a small multi-denominational chapel that featured an altar at each end. Depending on which service was being conducted, the chairs faced one end of the room or the other. “One winter morning I stood by the post we used as a bus stop. The wind was so strong, it nearly toppled me into the nearby snow drift,” Gloria wrote. “I had to hang on to the post to remain on my feet till the bus arrived to take me to church.”

The local radio station was also located at the RCAF base. Gloria took part in a radio drama there. “We sat at the table in a small room. One of the men read the story into the microphone and another sat ready to add sound effects, such as wood hitting the table to sound like a door slamming. I was told to scream on cue, which I did. Later I was told that it was so loud it stopped conversation in the bar and all eyes turned to the radio.”

The USAF base had the most entertainment. An English dance instructor, who was a RAF officer, asked Gloria to be his partner for the New Year’s Eve dance. “We danced the whole night - Latin dances, waltzes, fox trots, jive - and he was pleased that I could follow his lead.” The second time she went to the USAF base was with an RCAF airman. “He had worked as a cartoon artist in Hollywood but joined the RCAF to help with the war effort. He knew of a visit [to the Gander base] by Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers and Saul Chaplin, who were on tour. He introduced me to them and they gave me their autographs.”

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A page from the scrapbook of Gloria Durham

While Gloria’s memories of Gander are vivid, they include few of Christmas. She can’t recall gifts being exchanged or a special Christmas dinner. She remembers a Christmas tree decorated with cards in the cafeteria and a few evergreen boughs in the lounge on the girls’ floor. “But you have to remember, it was just another working day on the base,” she explained in a recent interview.

In 1946, Gloria’s time with the Ferry Command was over. She returned to Ontario to work as a file clerk at Manufacturers’ Life Insurance for $43 a month. She married Bruce Lindsay on September 22, 1951. They raised five children in Newmarket: Claire, Joanne, Frank, Sylvia and Kevin. Bruce passed away in 1993. 

Today, Gloria lives with her daughter, Claire, in Newmarket. She is an active 90-year-old who fills her time with many of the activities she enjoyed on her days off in Gander - drawing, painting, sewing and crocheting. Claire recently said, “Living with my mother keeps me young!” - By Heather Stemp

The author would like to acknowledge the following for their help in creating this article: Sandra Seaward, North Atlantic Aviation Museum; Greg Seaward, Town of Gander; and Frank Tibbo, columnist for the Gander Beacon. Special thanks to Gloria Lindsay (Durham) and her daughter Claire Lindsay for sharing this story. Heather Stemp is the author of Amelia and Me, about her aunt’s meeting with Amelia Earhart in Harbour Grace, NL in 1932. She is currently working on her second book, Taking Flight.