Wednesday, December 21, 2022

RCAF Women's Division, Depicted in "Lighting the Stars"

 The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was one of Canada’s major contributions to the Allied cause. It graduated over 131,000 aircrew, almost 73,000 of them Canadians. 151 BCATP schools were established across Canada, with more than 100 new airfields constructed, thus becoming the world’s largest air training centre. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Canada the “aerodrome of democracy”.


Because of the BCATP and its many training facilities, women were invited in July of 1941 to join the new Women’s Division of the RCAF to release men for combat. 17,000 eventually signed up, including a few of my characters.


Unfortunately, there was public prejudice initially that women in the Forces weren’t quite respectable. There were actually fewer unwanted pregnancies among the RCAF women than in the general population.

In part to dispel the myths about women in the military being immoral and as a recruiting strategy, the fledgling National Film Board made a 10-minute documentary in 1943 about the RCAF Women’s Division, called “Wings on her Shoulder”. The NFB docs were shown in movie theatres before the main attraction. This one is available for free viewing from the NFB online, and gives an excellent overview of the training and jobs that the women did.


The RCAF Women or WDs, as they were called, worked in 69 different trades - everything from cooks and wireless operators to aircraft mechanics and operational clerks who plotted the locations of ships and planes, as shown here.

WD photographers dealt with aerial cameras that weighed up to 45 pounds. They had to install them in airplanes, teach the crews how to use them, and then develop the film. One girl said she would generally process 11 miles of camera-gun film a month.


But they also documented the people and activities of the RCAF in Canada and Britain, including one of my characters. This looks like it’s outside Buckingham palace. The photographers stationed in London took photos of Canadians receiving medals from the King, and any other RCAF personnel and activities, including weddings. And taking photos of graves for the families back home.


Here are three of the London WDs with their Speed Graphic cameras.

But London was a dangerous posting. I have a WD photographer who is involved in a V-1 rocket attack in 1944 between the Air Ministry’s Ad Astral House and BBC’s Bush House. 48 were reported killed at the time, including several WAAFs  - the British equivalent of the RCAF,WDs – who had been sunbathing on the roof or sucked out of the windows by the blast. You can see one of the "lucky" WAAFs in this photo. Estimates are now closer to 200 deaths.


In the memoirs I read, it seemed that most of the WDs wanted to be posted overseas and earn the Canada flash on their uniforms, like this lady, whose letters to a friend in Canada provide priceless information about everyday life in the RCAF in Canada and Britain.

It was originally thought that it would take 3 women to replace 2 men, but in practice it was a 1 to 1 ratio in most jobs, and even 2 women replacing 3 men in some cases. Although they never earned equal pay for equal work, that did increase from 66 % to 80% of men’s wages over the years.


The WDs did a great service to our country, but many never spoke of their roles after the war, even though they thoroughly enjoyed themselves. A friend’s mother told me she was just "doing her bit", like everyone else.


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Spitfire Girls, Depicted in "Lighting the Stars"

The women who had the most exciting and dangerous jobs during the war were the ATA - Air Transport Auxiliary - pilots in Britain. There were 5 Canadians (and one of my characters) among this international group that included 168 female pilots who ferried planes from factories to airfields. 


These “Spitfire Girls” included wealthy socialites like Diana Barnato, above, whom I mention in the novel. Her fascinating memoir and those of several other accomplished women pilots were invaluable to understanding daily life in the ATA and in wartime Britain. Accidents and near misses mentioned in Lighting the Stars were based on real incidents. 


This photo shows Jackie Sorour from South Africa stepping into a Spitfire. 

This is Maureen Dunlop from Argentina, who had just delivered a Spitfire when the photographer captured her. Little wonder the “Atta Girls” were also called “Glamour Girls”.

Ferry pilots of the ATA were expected to be able fly any of 147 different types of aircraft, even if they had never set foot in one before. They trained on types, like single or twin engine, and had a book of notes that described the most important information for each plane. Here’s Maureen Dunlop studying her notes before taking off in this Barracuda dive bomber.

A few of the women, like petite Joan Hughes (5’2”), even got to fly 4-engine bombers. Sometimes when a woman delivered a plane to a squadron, the men searched for the “real” pilot.


Except in 4–engine bombers where a flight engineer was required to help – and some of those were women as well - the ferry pilots flew alone. They had no radios and were not trained or expected to fly on instruments, which made flying treacherous in the unpredictable British weather.  

16 women - nearly 1 in 10 - were killed on duty, and 1 in 7 ATA men died. 

Most of those who survived, like Joy Lofthouse, seen here, considered their work with the ATA as the best time of their lives. The colour photo shows Joy at 92 once again flying a Spitfire. She died in Nov. 2017 at age 94.


German Prisoner of War Camp 20 in Gravenhurst, Depicted in "Lighting the Stars"


Here I am at the exact spot where "Lighting the Stars" begins. 

This shows the view from that cranny. Merilee's home - fictional Hope Cottage - lies on the other side of that rocky promontory.

This is now Ungerman Park, which is part of the larger site of the sanatorium-turned-POW camp that actually existed here in Gravenhurst. If you go into the park at the waterfront entrance (at the west end of Lorne St.), you'll see a large board with photos and descriptions about the camp.

It's a lovely spot to ramble. And you can swim at the same beach that the POWs did.


Here's an aerial view of Camp 20. The boom fence delineated the prisoners' swimming area. The house at the bottom of this photo could have been Merilee's fictional home, although different in style. If you look carefully, you can see the top of another house at a clearing just beyond the mass of trees on the right, before the next bay. I used that as the Wildings' house.

The red-roofed building - the former private Calydor Sanatorium, which closed in 1935 - was where the German officers were housed, as seen below.

The old sanatorium building housed the German officers' quarters, classrooms, infirmary, kitchen, canteen, games and exercise rooms, library, mail room, and so on.  With an average of around 400 prisoners in the camp at any one time, you can see that the area for them to play sports in the grounds was limited.

This map shows the layout of the camp. The main prisoner enclosure is relatively small - buildings 1, 2, and 3 -  the rest were for the Veterans Guards and Canadian military personnel, with #7 being the Canadian officers' complex.  #15 right next to the outer fence was the detention centre. Building #10 is listed as "private residence", which is what I used for the Wildings' home. 

Here is the beach where the German POWs swam. You can see from the colour aerial photo above that the boom fence goes well beyond that rocky bluff. In this photo you can see a prisoner diving into the water at bottom left, and a few more awaiting their turn. The guards, like the one at the top right, might well have been envious of their charges frolicking in the lake on a hot summer’s day.

The concept of “parole” seems strange in the context of war. The German officer POWs at Camp 20 were obliged by their loyalty to the Fatherland to try to escape while in their prison compound. But if they gave their “parole” – promise not to escape – and were let out to swim, skate, work on their farm, etc., then they were honour-bound to adhere to that or face execution for dishonourable conduct back in Germany after the war.

There was a reciprocal agreement with Germany that the Canadian prisoners there could also get out on parole.

In these photos we see the POWs on parole skating – some in their prison garb with a big red circle on their backs – in front of the civilian house (#10 on the map) that was within the outer boundaries of the camp, and which I used as the Wildings' house.

This photo shows the POWs at their farm, which was a few miles from the camp, and which not only provided them with fresh food, but also with a sense of freedom to work the land, fish and bathe in the nearby stream, and even wander into the surrounding woods alone for short periods.

As many as 100 men at times would daily be marched the 3 miles each way by a couple of unarmed Guards.

I was lucky enough to find 3 fascinating English memoirs from Germans who had been interred at Camp 20. Two of them loved it so much here that they emigrated to Canada after the war. One of them appears to be the guy on the very right, who ended up owning a cottage in Muskoka.

Here we see POWs being marched through the streets of Gravenhurst to their "Gilded Cage". That's the title of the excellent and well illustrated history of Camp 20 written by Cecil Porter.

After the war, the property became the Gateway Hotel, which, ironically, was the largest Jewish resort in Canada. But it also welcomed former POWs, who had fond memories of Muskoka. Here you see a former prisoner’s wife and son.

Over 35,000 German troops were sent to camps in Canada6000 of them asked to remain here, but had to be repatriated first. Many did eventually immigrate once Canada opened its borders to them in 1951.

Vintage photos courtesy of Gravenhurst Archives and National Archives of Canada

Colour photos at top, copyright Gabriele Wills and Melanie Wills

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The New Novel & the Book Nook Giveaway to Celebrate It!

Lighting the Stars
Book 4 of The Muskoka Novels - Lighting the Stars - is now available! It's a "riveting tale of a generation torn apart by war."

Find out more about it on my website.

Instead of a book launch, we're having an exciting contest to raise awareness of the novel and have some winter lockdown fun!

The prize is the complete collection of my 6 epic historical novels, signed and presented in a classy, handmade, Canadian, upcycled eco-bag from Echoes in the Attic - a $218 value!

To enter, take a picture of your favourite reading nook showing a copy of the new book, Lighting the Stars, or any of my novels.

If you don't have any, put a sign on your reading chair stating "Ready for Lighting the Stars and the rest of the Gabriele Wills collection".

Post your photo on FaceBook, tagging me at Gabriele Wills Author of The Muskoka Novels, or on Twitter using @GabrieleWills, or on Instagram using @muskokanovels, and any appropriate hashtags, as well as  #TheMuskokaNovels.

To ensure that I have your contact info, email me at with a link to your online photo, and your name will be put into the draw.

If you're not on social media, you can still enter by sending me an email with your Book Nook photo and permission for me to post it on my FB Author's Page with your name - just your first if you prefer.

The prize!

Draw Date: Valentine's Day

Sorry, this contest is only open to North Americans because of shipping costs. Watch for an international e-book giveaway in a few weeks!

Here's my Book Nook. Show me yours!

Friday, November 9, 2018

100 Years Ago: A Special Remembrance

CWGC Cemetery in Etaples, France - Photo copyright Melanie Wills
Wandering through this Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery at Etaples on the north coast of France, I felt a visceral connection to “The Great War”, now ended 100 years ago.

This photo can’t even begin to convey the enormity of the site or the profound sadness that you feel among the nearly 11,000 WW1 graves. Seeing the ages on the tombstones is heartbreaking. They are mostly young men and a few women - a Canadian nurse lies on the front right - who never had much of a chance at life.

Dud Corner CWGC Cemetery, France - Photo copyright Melanie Wills
There are endless pockets of small cemeteries, especially near the battlefields. Neatly walled, lovingly maintained, they appear like a bizarre crop amid farmers’ fields. The CWGC website allows you to do a search on fallen Commonwealth soldiers, and pinpoint the exact location of a grave. Armed with that info, my family visited my husband’s great-uncle’s grave at Dud Corner cemetery in 2008. He died at the age of 21 in the Battle of Loos in 1915.

But we also mustn’t forget those who survived, and had to rebuild lives shattered in trenches or aerial warfare. Veterans were haunted, but reluctant to talk about their horrific experiences. They often felt guilty that they didn’t lie alongside their comrades.

Families had to carry on without husbands, fathers, brothers, sweethearts, and friends. With about 60,000 Canadian men killed, there was a generation of “superfluous” women who would never marry and so, had to make careers for themselves. For some, the war was never truly over.

My “Muskoka Novels” pay homage to this generation tested by extraordinary times. They’re not war stories, per se, but are about people caught up in the cataclysm - young men who become aviators, soldiers, front-line medics, and their wives, sweethearts, sisters who endure their own hardships as ambulance drivers and nurses, as well as those anxiously waiting on the home front, who also made enormous contributions. It is by seeing the war through the eyes of individuals that we can truly understand the life-altering consequences of that tumultuous time.

The author paying homage at Canada'a Vimy Memorial -  Photo copyright Melanie Wills