With Germany’s unprovoked attack on Poland – September 1, 1939 – World War II, a mere twenty-one years after the First, was underway.
Two days later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany (although Ireland would remain neutral, a great number of Irish quickly volunteered for the British Army). All the Dominions of the British Empire, including Canada, followed suit. England’s war was their war. But the awesome military might of Germany with its millions of well-trained idealistic troops, and its technologically advanced weaponry, seemed unstoppable.
Following the defeat of Poland, and in rapid succession, Germany blitzkrieged through Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium. Then France, the one country deemed capable of thwarting a German invasion, was attacked in May-June of 1940 and ignominiously defeated. Europe was being prostrated.
Having brushed aside French resistance, the invincible German Army now controlled the shores of Normandy. Their next prey: Great Britain. Cocky, battle-hungry German troops amassed in Calais in picturesque Picardy could almost make out the White Cliffs of Dover, a scant twenty miles or so west across the English Channel. This … was to be a very bleak period in the history of the British Empire!
As a “softening up” procedure, before a planned invasion by land, Germany assaulted England (especially London) with devastating bomb attacks, day and night. Only the very heroic efforts of a group of highly skilled R.A.F. pilots averted the threat of England being quickly brought to its knees [In the historically noted Battle of Britain, the German’s total loss of aircraft was 2,698 compared to the loss of 915 for the R.A.F.]. Throughout, the morale of the British people and their resolve under the gritty leadership of their new Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained steadfast. However, for any Allied country under siege at the time, morale and resolve were puny weapons at best against the superior power of the incredible German military machine.
More than anything else in those initial stages of the war, Britain needed a continuous supply of all manner of arms. To attempt to win a war, or at least to defend itself against a determined enemy, without the use of arms and shells, would have been folly – sheer suicide.
In a doomed, fateful attack on Dunkirk, May 26, 1940, some 300,000 Allied troops were quickly evacuated when swarms of rapidly advancing Germans stormed the area. In the process, vast stores of an entire British Army were either destroyed or abandoned to the enemy. British weapons, bolstered and stockpiled before the outbreak of World War II, were now dangerously attritioned. No longer could British production lines meet the unexpected increased demands. For one thing, and not the least thereof, the growing frequency of air raids with its necessary blackout conditions constantly interrupted and slowed the manufacture of desperately needed arms and munitions.
The growing tempo of the German offensive from the air daily constituted a very real threat to Britain’s arsenals and converted war plants. At the time, one such place was in Woolwich, a metropolitan borough of London – a continuous wrinkle in the brow for the Defence Department. Here was located one of England’s most productive arsenals (in the early stages of the bombing, the Woolwich arsenal had already been struck once, but damage was minimal). Although surrounded by acres of anti-aircraft weapons, and the new system of radar detection, there was always an excellent chance that enemy bombers would eventually destroy it. Of course if this were to happen, and with the concomitant eradication of other major arsenals, the survival of the whole of the United Kingdom would at once be in serious jeopardy, stiff British-upper-lips, high morale and firm resolve notwithstanding.
To be sure, and probably England’s main saving-grace in those early days of the war was Hitler’s preoccupation with assembling the greatest part of his armies for an invasion (on June 22, 1941) of Russia – a more formidable foe than England. Nevertheless, by late 1940, Britain stood very much alone against the German’s fierce air onslaught. The Brits needed help!
In one of his numerous famous speeches, Winston Churchill made an urgent appeal to all of England’s friendly allies, for “tools.” The United States (which remained neutral and would not, as a nation, enter the fray until the end of 1941) responded immediately. To help save England from imminent, total collapse, Congress, in early 1941, approved aid in the form of a Lend-Lease programme. Very soon, tons of military “tools,” in the holds of a dozen disguised British merchant ships, slipped out from a quiet bay in the state of New Jersey to begin the hazardous return trip to the arsenals of the British Isles. Of course, England’s Commonwealth countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, responded in kind.
Stepping into the breach, the Canadian Government under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, offered to expeditiously construct two major munitions plants and, as soon as practicable thereafter, to begin shipping vast caches of much needed ready-to-fire arms to the Allied effort in war-torn Europe. Apart from its armed forces (which were already overseas fighting at England’s side, along with Aussies and New Zealanders), there was no greater contribution Canada could have made. Without the export of munitions to reinforce England’s depleting arsenals, the Empire, the King and Churchill would eventually have to surrender to Hitler and his mob. Only the most astute of present day historians could speculate on the subsequent status of English-speaking countries of the world if that had occurred.
At the outbreak of the war, Canada had only one major munitions plant, located at Valcartier, Québec. However, even here they were capable of filling only token quantities of small arms ammunition. Nothing bigger! They were not equipped and therefore were quite incapable of filling with combustible materials the much larger shells such as those used in anti-aircraft guns and tanks. Nor were they capable of fuse-filling. [The “fuse” was a very complicated, extremely important device in World War II weaponry. It was designed to detonate automatically when the shell, to which it was attached, passed near to the target, whether it actually hit it or not.] Shell casings, fuses and so on might be manufactured elsewhere, but without the addition of a combustible powder it remained a useless, curious artifact.
In Canada, the prodigious undertaking of filling the wide variety of larger shells was hitherto unheard of. Now, though, there was an urgent need. The time was pressing. The fortunes of war in mother England were rapidly turning in favour of the belligerent German nation. Churchill and all of the watching world fully knew that if Germany decimated Russia, then the preponderance of the military machine of the Third Reich would be re-routed and hurled into action against Britain; subsequently, and no historical reason to doubt otherwise, to the very shores of North America.
Immediately, for the location of the first of two proposed major shell-filling plants, the Canadian government chose a site in Bouchard, Québec. Construction began at once. The second more complex and much larger plant was yet to begin. For this larger plant, proposed to be of unprecedented production in Canada when in full operation, the Canadian government chose the Toronto, Ontario area.
“Project 24", as it was entered into the records of the Allied War Supplies Corporation, began in earnest on December 10, 1940. On that very date the decision was made that the responsibility for the design and construction of what was to become the principal fuse-filling plant in the Dominion of Canada should be given to a reputable, established American-owned company called the General Engineering Company (Canada) Limited. The proposed plant, to be built somewhere in proximity to the city of Toronto, and which was to assemble ready-to-fire fuses, and igniting devices for large projectiles such as for machine guns, field guns, tank and anti-aircraft weapons, was to be designed, built, tooled and staffed for full scale production as quickly as possible. There was not a moment to lose. England, Europe, indeed all those Allies at the frontlines were waiting. To the very best of its potential ability, Canada must do its part. Inherently, the Dominion of Canada (in area, second largest country in the world) possessed most of the necessary raw materials, but more than that, it now had a cause.
To be sure, for the General Engineering Company, theirs was no easy task in those initial days of the war. First, though, a suitable site had yet to be found, but this remained the responsibility of the Federal Government, and not of the newly commissioned General Engineering Company.
Soon after the outbreak of war, the Canadian Government, on April 9, 1940, had established by proclamation Canada’s “Department of Munitions and Supply.” This new Department was empowered to make all defence purchases and to immediately mobilize the Country’s existing industry, and other resources, to meet the escalating war needs – an awesome responsibility in those early days of the war. Their first priority was to organize themselves. In short time they established to operate under their jurisdiction groups of newly-formed Crown Companies which individually would control specific functions of the great variety of, but homogeneous war time needs.
One of the first of these new Crown Companies was Allied War Supplies Corporation, incorporated on July 23, 1940. Their task was to establish and then to supervise, direct and administer a series of Government owned, but agent operated plants for the production of chemicals and explosives and for the filling of complete rounds of ammunition – all according to British specifications. [As the war progressed, Allied War Supplies would eventually be responsible for the administration of fifty-three separate Canadian projects in full operation to meet the needs of the Empire forces.]
To convert existing industries into munitions manufacturing plants, or to acquire land for the construction of new plants, was the direct responsibility of the “Real Estate Department,” a sub branch of Allied War Supplies. To locate as soon as possible an appropriate site for the construction of a very extensive (and first of its kind for Canada) major shell-filling plant was now in their hands. Meanwhile, those at the helm of the General Engineering Company (most were highly qualified professional engineers with a variety of expertise) were not idly sitting back, feet on desks.
It was no accident, precipitated by a desperate war situation that the Canadian Government chose the General Engineering Company to undertake the momentous task (and it was urgent) of constructing the Dominion’s most major shell-filling plant. This company had earlier proved that it was made of the “right stuff.” They had already recently built in the province of Ontario, and for the Canadian Federal Government, a “No. 1 Elementary Flying School” at Fingal, and twenty-two large Ordnance Storage buildings at London, Ontario.
Two Englishmen who had emigrated to the United States of America originally founded General Engineering in 1903. They eventually established their company’s home base in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A Mr. Robert Hamilton joined the company in Salt Lake City in 1925. He was born in Anaconda, Montana, but later lived in Salt Lake City, attending high school there. After graduation, and with the intention of continuing his education, he migrated to Montréal, Canada. In 1925, he graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Science degree; thereupon, that same year, he returned to Salt Lake City and landed a job with the General Engineering Company. He started, in his own words, as a “lowly trainee.” While there, showing to his peers that he had great leadership qualities, he soon rose up the ranks to become Company president in 1933.
Robert Hamilton’s younger brother, Mr. P.D. Hamilton, a professional engineer, also had joined General Engineering. Years later in the company’s new Canadian operation located in Toronto before the outbreak of World War II, he was appointed vice president of the General Engineering Company (Canada) Limited.
Together the Hamilton brothers would be responsible for the construction and subsequent operation of “Project 24" to be located in southern Ontario somewhere near Toronto.
While government scouts were hastily seeking a suitable site, the Hamilton brothers and their staff of professionals were accumulating “reams” of information and data as quickly as possible from a variety of sources, domestic and abroad. Building a mammoth shell-filling plant was also a first for them. Very soon a group of the “top brains” of G.E.C.O. were off to Washington, D.C. to consult with some of America’s foremost Ordnance experts in an effort to correlate the best principles of filling plant design, as used in Great Britain, with those of the United States. From this, they hoped to select the most suitable for the harsher Canadian conditions. As well, layouts of British and American arsenals were sought out, scrutinized, and studied intensely. They worked around the clock. The Hamilton brothers knew that as soon as a site was found they had to be ready to start construction immediately. Time, not altogether on anybody’s side in those early days of the war, could not be frittered away.
The Government had issued to the “scouts” of the Real Estate Department of Allied War Supplies the following site requirements for the location of “Project 24":
“1) Accessibility to a labour market from which would be drawn up to 4000 employees (of whom the greater part would be women), as the company considered it desirable to avoid the necessity of hostels.
2) Good transportation facilities for employees and for shipment of filled products.
3) Accessibility to Hydroelectric power and an adequate water supply.
4) Land at a reasonable cost.
5) A relatively flat site to reduce costs of construction.
6) Freedom from other buildings and settlements within defined safety limits surrounding the plants.”
At first, a site was proposed at an existing munitions plant – “Defence Industries Limited” in Pickering [now Ajax] approximately twenty miles east from Toronto, close to the shores of Lake Ontario. But it was soon deemed of insufficient size to accommodate the additional construction of a fuse-filling plant. However, Pickering was important.
Because the decision had been made that a substantial segment of the production of the new proposed plant would be assembled into rounds (small-calibre) at the existing Pickering plant, and because Toronto afforded such an excellent labour market, a search was launched at once (in the latter part of December, 1940 and early January, 1941) for a prospective site close to the city of Toronto. Particular emphasis and importance was given to Scarboro (which lay midway between Toronto to the west, and Pickering, its closest neighbour to the east).
After constant scouring of the thousands of acres of countryside in the vast outskirts east, west and north of Toronto, the Government scouts finally located a suitable site early in January of 1941. The property selected was in Scarboro Township near the eastern limits of Toronto. Unanimously, all involved parties saw it as ideal.
Transmission lines of the Hydro Electric Power Commission were conveniently nearby and, if required [and it would be], the Canadian National Railways would run short spur lines into the property. The area was gently rolling farm land, sloping gradually towards Scarboro Bluffs, which overlooked Lake Ontario approximately four miles due south. Other than farms, there were no settlements in the immediate vicinity. After due consideration and acting on behalf of the Crown, the Real Estate Department of Allied War Supplies Corporation at once undertook expropriation of the required property.
Before the end of January 1941, His Majesty the King in Right of Canada acquired the site from seven different proprietors. In its final form, it comprised 357.85 acres, of which 272.1 acres were owned, 77.2 acres were restricted, and 8.55 acres were under easement. Some additional acreage would be secured later that year.
The site extended 4500 feet south from existing rural Eglinton Avenue on lots 31, 32 and 33, Concession ‘C’, Scarboro Township, and bounded on the east by Birchmount Road and on the west by Warden Avenue – a wrap-around farm area.
In record time, the Government of Canada had found and secured an almost perfect area for the construction of “Project 24.” By now the General Engineering Company (Canada) Limited [GECO] had done its own homework, also in record time, and was as ready as it could be to start. Technically complex blueprints, barely dry with ink, were on standby ready to be doled out to the various trades in the field. There was no time to lose.
Even before that same month – January – had ended, surveying began. On February 6, 1941, the first fleet of bulldozers and other heavy earth-moving machines pushed their blades and buckets into the frozen barren fields.
From the very outset, the construction superintendent, a Mr. George Price, was confronted with a variety of problems. The ground held between eighteen and twenty-four inches of frost, impeding the progress of excavation. Very quickly, the project engineers made the decision to begin blasting with dynamite. There was no time to await the spring thaw. Daily, and in most sections of the 358 acres, plumes of frozen earth could be seen exploding into the frigid air.
Surrounding the area of “Project 24" (especially to the north, east and west) sat several enterprising, long-standing farms, untouched (or slightly reduced in acreage) by the recent process of expropriation. Soon, complaints began to flood in of “spooked” cattle and horses; and then of chandeliers and other fixtures, which crashed down onto dining room tables during the height of the blasting. More than once the on-site super, George Price, faced the wrath of vehemently complaining farmers and their wives. More than once threatening fists were held in front of his nose. But there was a motive here – war! Under no circumstances was work to be delayed. Petty complaints of marred tables and restive animals would seem rather insignificant indeed if Hitler and his boys invaded the shores of North America. By the beginning of March, around-the-clock shift work began.
As spring approached, the frozen earth was soon converted to thick, oozy muck and every day bulldozers would have to break away from their normal assignments to push away mud, a foot or so deep, from the main construction access roads. Periodically, a heavy-earth moving caterpillar would itself be almost completely mired in the swamp-like, cold muck.
Close on the heels of the bulldozers and caterpillars, workers began the process of pouring “miles” of footings. Then the bricklayers converged on the site. But no sooner had they started than they went on strike, prompting urgent deviation from the original plan. All sub-structures calling for layed-brick would at once be changed to poured concrete.
The problems for “Project 24” did not end with the arrival of spring and with the solution to the bricklayer’s strike. Due to war conditions, non-availability or delayed delivery of construction materials resulted in snap decisions being made for such innovations as “no window” construction for the filling shops and construction of laminated wooden beams instead of structural steel. Time could not be wasted awaiting the arrival of delayed materials. Improvisations were made on the spot.
This was a big project! In Europe, the war still raged on unabated. The need was greater than ever. England, Churchill, Canadian and other Allied forces overseas were very much depending on the successful completion of significant projects such as this one. Even Canada’s Prime Minister McKenzie King, in far off Ottawa, ordered that he be kept informed on the progress of “Project 24,” underway in the farming community of rural Scarboro, Ontario.
As the weather warmed, several of the workers took the time to prepare a baseball diamond just north of the development in the fields (also part of the expropriated lands) across Eglinton Avenue. This was to provide the construction crews with a little “batting practice” during their off hours. One enterprising individual, not directly connected with the project, set up shop at one corner of the new ball part. He did a land office business as “Tony’s Sandwich Bar.” Hundreds of workmen dined in fresh air canteen style along the roadside.
Construction progress peaked during the month of June 1941, with 2,585 construction workers employed at one time. The preponderance of skilled and unskilled labour had come from neighbouring Toronto with the actual employment office located at 1218 Danforth road, Scarboro. In one week in the middle of June 1941, 100,000 man-hours were worked. At an average wage of 80¢ per hour, a total of two million man hours would be required to complete the project – a final labour cost of $1,600,000.
With further additions added to the complex (necessary addendums to the original plans), Federal Government “Project 24,” now called simply “Geco” (pronounced Gee-ko), was one hundred percent completed by the beginning of December, 1941.
The total expenditure for labour, machinery, equipment, buildings and so on, was $7,181,124. A lot of money in 1941! Geco had been built fast, but built well. All the buildings in the complex were designed to have a limited life (for better or for worse, the war could not last forever), but were constructed to provide maximum protection for workers under rather stringent conditions. With the additions to the original plan, the complex on completion was comprised, in total, of 172 buildings with an overall floor area of 789,433 square feet.
Following is a breakdown of the approximate quantities of some of the principal construction materials used:
Lumber, board fee 11,700,000
Reinforcing steel (tons) 290
Hardwood floors, square feet 389,650
Linoleum, square feet 346,250
Plywood and weatherboard (square feet) 1,645,000
Roofing, square feet 870,000
Insulation, square feet 985,500
Nails, pounds 420,000
More than just a place for wartime employment for the Allied cause, Geco had been designed, built and would soon be operated as a “mini-city.” It had several features making it unique among similar government projects at the time. A chain link fence eight feet high and 11,500 feet in length surrounded the entire complex, with a frontage on Eglinton Avenue of 2,016 feet. Most of the 172 buildings were connected by a series of galleries, raised about two feet from the ground and having a combined length of 16,000 feet, through which workers could move and munitions quickly carted.
Not visible from any overhead aircraft was a vast labyrinth of underground tunnels branching to the various buildings and galleries. The main tunnels were 5,254 feet in length from which another 8,696 feet fanned out to the buildings – a total linear length of 13,950 feet. The main function of these was to protect from the elements (and enemy bombers) such necessities as service lines for water, electric power, steam and compressed air, underground transformer vaults and switch rooms, and to simplify the installation (below the tunnels) of sanitary sewers. This vast concrete subway system, about eight by eight feet, was a unique feature of the new General Engineering Company (Scarboro), Geco.
Located in an open field area in the southeast corner of the complex were grass-covered (camouflaged), igloo-type buildings, made of concrete and semi-buried in the ground. These were to store thousands of rounds of live ammunition while they awaited transportation by rail or truck to the docks of Toronto harbor, or other areas. There was also a large central heating plant with two boilers, each with the capacity for creating 25,000 pounds of steam per hour. Two water storage tanks holding 250,000 gallons each, and an excavated reservoir with a capacity of 2-¼ million gallons, were constructed at the eastern extremity of the complex. Then there was the main two-storey Administration Building (or building “Number One”) located close to the main entrance at Eglinton Avenue. This building, housing the main switchboard, would at its peak have thirteen trunk lines and 240 local numbers and handle a volume of calls averaging 50,000 per week!
Long before the completion of “Project 24,” henceforth called “Geco,” hiring had begun. Employees of this new place with this strange name in the boondocks of Scarboro, Ontario started to work at once in the barely completed buildings. At one point in Geco’s search for employees, a small hiring office (scant more than a big “phone booth”) was rented at the corner of Eglinton Avenue and Yonge Street, Toronto. A sign, which had been conspicuously posted in the window, read: “If you can walk, talk, creep or crawl, sign here!” It was no surprise for Geco’s personnel department to learn that the majority of prospective employees who responded to this and other more sophisticated modes of advertisements were predominantly women. Because of the war, available men were scarce. Eventually 5,000 people, mostly women, were photographed, fingerprinted, and assigned to a wide variety of duties.
From the outset, work began on a twenty-four hour rotating shift basis. By the summer of the following year 1942, Geco was running smoothly and at peak capacity. Tons of all manner of shells, fuses and tracers were assembled, filled with powder, crated and shipped on their way to the front in war-ravaged Europe.
It should be noted that Geco’s role during the war was only the ultimate stage of a long list of manufacturing and processing industries across the country. Geco received shipments from no less than fifty-three different manufacturing plants. The Geco plant did not manufacture anything. They assembled and filled. But this final step before the loading into the breaches of Allied weaponry abroad, was quite intricate and potentially very dangerous. For example, to prepare a particular fuse, just one of some forty-two different items assembled and filled at the plant, required no less than seventy different operations. Only then was it ready to be passed on to the Military.
Because this huge and new shell-filling plant, Geco, was physically separated from Toronto proper and deemed by the workers to be “out in the sticks,” many unusual amenities were offered to the employees.
One entire building [”Number Thirteen”] was set up for use as the Company’s cafeteria called the “Canteen.” In no time, they were serving an average of 1,000 meals per half hour. At its peak, it reached a demand of 65,000 meals per month! A retired housewife, a Mrs. Ignatief, who had previously headed the Eaton’s Company food service in Toronto, was in charge of the Canteen. Working under her, she had a staff (chefs, dishwashers, servers, and so on) of eleven full time men, sixty-seven women, and thirty-six part time women. It was an operation unto itself. There were no restaurants for miles around. They were busy. Building Number Eighty-Six became Geco’s new Medical Building complete with an ambulance, five full time physicians, and twelve nurses. Any injuries, illnesses and so on, would be attended to on the site. Like the Canteen, they too must have been very busy with 850 to 1500 visits made by ailing employees each week.
Monthly dances were held chiefly in the Canteen with an average attendance of between 800 to 1000 persons. Then a group of talented employees started a “Glee Club.” Soon, and on a regular basis, fifty-six members were holding weekly rehearsals in the company Canteen. Their concerts proved to be very popular among the workers and visitors. Building Number 16 (indicated in the original plans as a “change house”) was soon converted to a Recreation Club. A wide variety of activities were offered to all of Geco’s employees: Calisthenics, health-training, indoor (or outdoors in summer) badminton, volley-ball, shuffleboard, lawn bowling, darts, table-tennis, handicrafts (glove making was very popular), card parties (euchre and bridge being the two favourites), “jive sessions,” and so on.
Across Eglinton Avenue, north of the complex, were nineteen acres of unused fields that had also been expropriated by the Canadian Government. “Victory Gardens” for the exclusive free use of Geco employees began in the summer of 1942. The land was plowed and divided into 640 garden plots, each about twenty feet by sixty feet. A large shack was also provided for storing garden tools and other implements. In that first full summer of Geco’s operation, no less than 510 “green thumb” employees availed themselves of this company-offered, unique diversion. The committee on Geco’s Recreation Club built four baseball diamonds adjacent to the Victory Gardens. Three men’s softball leagues and two ladies’ comprised a total of twenty-five participating teams. As an indication of the popularity of baseball among the employees, it was recorded that during a three month period in the summer of 1942 equipment released for practices and games neared the 4500 mark. A well known sports writer for Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, Bobby Rosenfeldt, made mention of one particular Geco league game when a total of “72 runs were piled up.”
Plant picnics also became extremely popular with turnouts averaging five hundred employees and their families. These enjoyable summer events gave the workers the chance to mingle, chat and associate with others who worked in more remote sections of the complex. On one “field day” in the summer of 1942, a total of 2500 people showed up to take part in a variety of organized outdoor games and events. Feelings of camaraderie were at their highest during such happy occasions.
These folk were not working on shifts just to make ends meet. They had another motive: there was a war to win … a big one! Diversions such as picnics and field days were necessary “stress vents.”
Moonlight cruises on Lake Ontario were also available to the employees of Geco, and these nocturnal and aquatic excursions proved to be a huge success. A boat called the “Dalhousie City” was chartered solely for this purpose. To be sure, this boat out in the middle of the lake, bathed in moonlight on a sultry summer evening, rated the highest on the “romance list.”
Almost from Geco’s inception, a company paper (the pages of which were approximately eleven inches by fourteen inches) was published and distributed among the workers. Issued monthly, it served to keep the employees informed on all social activities as well as providing tidbits of gossip, progress of plant production, and news of the war. In booklet form, the paper was called the “Geco Fusilier, a Powder Magazine.” In smaller print under the title were the words: “Issued in the interest of employees by General Engineering Company Limited, Purveyors of Head-Aches for Axis Assassins.” This paper helped to unite the five thousand employees, scattered among the 172 buildings into a single unit.
In one issue of the Fusilier in late summer of 1942, it was recorded that Geco employees held their first corn roast, replete with a “flagstone patio, a huge open fire, coloured lights and rustic benches.”
It was also recorded that on that same summer evening Geco’s maintenance crew (who called themselves the “Mad Macs”) held their own first, exclusive corn roast at a place known as “Glen Eagles Golf Club” several miles to the northeast in a remote area of Scarboro bordering Pickering Township. For this one event, paid admission was over 400 “Mad Macs,” friends and spouses.
Many notable people such as Government dignitaries, heroes of World War I, and contemporary Military Brass often visited Geco. Some of the famous names welcomed within Geco’s gates at the time were: His Excellency the Earl of Athlone, Governor General of Canada and Princess Alice, Lieutenant General A.G. McNaughton, Minister of National Defence, Air Vice Marshal G.G. Brooks, R.C.A.F. High on the list were also movie stars, one of whom was the famous Canadian born actress of the silent screen era, Mary Pickford [born Gladys Mary Smith, April 9, 1893, Toronto, Ontario]. Holding a large bouquet of roses, Mary Pickford was formally photographed amid a group of sixteen Geco women employees. Visitors such as she came to look, to entertain, and to inspire. Visits and speeches by dignitaries were always a morale booster for the workers. On occasion, thousands of employees would applaud and cheer a concert artist performing during a War Bond Rally. People on the outside, especially the media, started to take an interest in this new, vast, Government-sponsored wartime munitions plant, know only as “Geco.”
The War raged on in Europe. From the daily news reports in all of the major newspapers, Canadians were given no reason to be optimistic for an early end to the war. Losses on both sides, Axis and Allies, were now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. To be sure, Geco was doing its fair share for the war effort. Production on a twenty-four-hour basis never slowed or slacked. It was a gigantic effort by veritable hoards of dedicated workers – not only at Geco, but also at other similar industries across the whole of the Dominion of Canada. Absenteeism due to extreme fatigue may have been a common malady among those employed at munitions plants, but malingering was seldom seen. The incentive was high. In 1941-42, there was much evidence in North American newspapers that the Allies in Europe, especially the Brits, were having no easy time of it.
On June 21, 1941, German Field Marshall, Erwin Rommel, launched a final attack on the British held town of Tobruk, Libya. Rommel captured the town, its garrison of 35,000 men, and a vast stock of supplies and arsenals. This was one of the worst disasters up to then to befall the British Empire. National news of this magnitude always added impetus to the workers on the production lines at Geco.
A lot of blood would be spilled before the Allies could retake Tobruk, and defeat the rest of the enemy army entrenched in North Africa. Finally after months of bitter warfare, a quarter of a million German troops surrendered to the Allies on May 12, 1943. The Axis Empire in North Africa had come to an end. But there was no time for complacency and celebration. Heavily armed German forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands were spread across Sicily and Italy. The war was far from over. The need for a constant supply of arms was greater than ever. Furthermore, most Canadians knew that thousands of their own boys were already doing battle in Sicily.
By July 1943, the number of Geco employees peaked at 6,000. It was full steam ahead. Daily, by rail or by road to waiting ships, thousands of ready-to-fire shells were on their way to Europe. The workers had all the incentive they needed. To contemplate the German Empire eventually invading the shores of Canada was a frightening prospect indeed, and never a remote possibility in mid 1943. For the remainder of that year and into the next, plant production at Geco was at an all time high. One of the most complimentary accolades ever bestowed upon the thousands of Geco employees for their contribution to the war in Europe, came over the airwaves of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (C.B.C.) on Friday, February 25, 1944:
“SALUTE TO THE EMPLOYEES OF THE GENERAL ENGINEERING COMPANY (CANADA) LIMITED BY THE COCA-COLA VICTORY PARADE SHOW OVER THE C.B.C. NETWORK
“The Spotlight Points with Pride ... to-night takes aim ... and fires its salute at the men and women of General Engineering Company (Canada) Ltd., at Scarboro near Toronto, Ontario. Pays tribute to their spirit and efficiency ... to their workmanship and sure skill of their hands. For here is Canadian wartime industry dedicated to Victory with all the speed and energy and heart that workers and management can muster. Right from the time that ground was broken, just three short years ago, and continuing into production which started only four months later, there has been an unbeatable spirit in the ceaseless efforts of this great army of war-winning workers. From their hands are flowing vital parts for the missiles of war that are blasting the enemy. Yes, they have loaded tens of million of fuses, primers and tubes without which ammunition would not fire ... and anti-tank mines would not explode. Here too, are filled the tracer bullets that help the anti-aircraft gunner to down the invader and the airman to make his kill. These careful, fast moving explosive experts are engaged in work requiring the greatest skill in shops that are kept spotlessly clean through constant care. And because of the nature of this work, seventy-five percent of the 5,000 employees here are women, and women occupy nine out of ten places on the filling lines. Indeed, no higher tribute can be paid to these folks than their own production and safety record. Over 99% of all work turned out passes inspection and goes into service ... and their safety record is among the highest in the industry. And so to you Scarboro men and women war-workers ... whose production is becoming Freedom’s message on every fighting front ... your Nation through the Spotlight ... POINTS WITH PRIDE!”
Slowly over the next two years, the Allied victories outnumbered those of the Axis powers. The once powerful might of the German Empire had withered to an unrecoverable point.
On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered. The European phase of World War II had come to an end. With this most welcome news, production which had remained constant until the final day, ceased at once and forever at the General Engineering Company in Scarboro, Ontario. The need for arms was gone. A Canadian wartime legacy had ended.
Of the thousands of employees at the plant, the distinction of putting the final touches to the last shell produced at Geco went to a Mrs. Eva Needham. Surrounded by four of her fellow workers, she was duly and formally photographed as doing so.
On July 31, 1945, the last issue of the “Geco Fusilier” magazine/paper was distributed to the employees. An article under the heading “Thirty” (the newspaper symbol for “the end”) read as follows:
“It is with mingled feelings of regret and gratitude that we write ‘30' - regret for the breaking of ties with as fine a body of people as we ever hope to associate with - gratitude that the threat to everything we hold dear has been withdrawn and the urgent necessity to fashion weapons of death no longer exists.
“Now we can turn back to thoughts and plans for ultimate peace. Those of us who will continue to work can help make or do things that are constructive rather than destructive - things that make for people’s comfort and happiness. There is a staggering amount of constructive work to be done both in a material and spiritual sense.
“Perhaps if all of us who formed Scarboro’s proud company take with us into our new spheres of endeavour the same spirit of loyalty, the same determination to safeguard the things we worked so hard for in the Plant and the same benevolence toward one another - Scarboro will never die. The tradition, outgrowth of the tragedy of war, will live on, a vibrant shining thing through the happier years of peace to come.
“Long live Scarboro!
“So - till we meet again - so long.”
Thus, with those final words printed in the “Fusilier,” the gates to a magnificent wartime munitions plant, Geco, closed. Following closedown, the Hamilton brothers (President and Vice President of Geco) compiled a history of the facility that was so comprehensive and detailed that it prompted a personal letter from the honourable C.D. Howe, Minister of Munitions and Supply, Ottawa, Canada. He labelled it as the best he had seen from any divisions under his control. Documented were several very interesting statistics on the Geco plant:
The munitions complex had been built in a record-breaking time of 236 days. After completion and when the plant was in full production, there was only one recorded major mishap. In one of the filling-shops, a “tracer shell” accidentally ignited and a great flare filled the entire shop. On that occasion, twenty-five women quit on the spot.
Bus lines, namely the Hollinger and Danforth Bus Lines, were under contract with Geco and daily transported workers back and forth from Toronto. In one recorded twelve-month period, the bus systems carried approximately 2,700,000 passengers to and from Geco with a mileage accumulation equivalent to twenty-four times around the world. At peak hours, morning and night (shifts coming and going) fifty people per minute had to be taken care of. By the end of November 1943, thirty buses were available for each shift, including two large new tractor-trailers with accommodations for one hundred passengers. By July 31, 1945, the buses had transported 8,681,091 passengers. In all that time only one serious accident occurred. On Friday, January 26, 1945 at exactly 11:40 p.m., a Toronto-Peterborough Transport truck struck a Hollinger bus. Forty-one Geco employees returning home from the afternoon shift were injured and treated by the Plant Medical Department. Of these, five were transported to the closest Toronto hospital. One of these five, a Mrs. E. May Parkes of “Shop 33", died four days later.
The Geco plant had its own Laundry Department operated by forty to sixty employees working on two shifts. By the end of July 1945, they had handled a total of 10,171,989 pieces, most of which were company uniforms (these uniforms were given special treatment under a formula for flame proofing.) The employees of the filling shops were also required to wear special “Geco” shoes. The plant’s shoe shop during the life of the project reconditioned 10,238 pairs and repaired 8,781 others.
Plant production from 1941 until 1945 had been interrupted once, and then only by the whim of Mother Nature. On December 12, 1944, a record amount of snow fell on most regions of southern Ontario. The entire plant became snowbound and 1,400 employees were unable to return to their homes in Toronto. The shift to follow was unable to leave the City. That evening and only this one time, there was more “whooping it up” than work performed at the Geco plant.
During the life of the plant (1941-45) a total of 19,843 photographs and fingerprints were taken and filed with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.)
In the final analysis, total production from the inception of Canada’s most major shell-filling plant in July 1941 (while construction was still in progress) until its demise in July 1945, over 256 million units were prepared for use by the Military overseas. This was Geco’s response to Winston Churchill’s urgent plea for “tools.”
Late in 1945, the entire plant was cleaned up and decontaminated (i.e. powder residues removed) and desensitized. In the process, 6,804 pounds of various combustible powders were completely destroyed by burning. Geco was then turned over to the “War Assets Department” of the Federal Government to be made available for civilian uses.
Here, then, ends the story of one of Canada’s most successful contributions to the Empire during World War II. But the name “Geco” and the complex, albeit for the moment, deserted, remained.
And therein is another story ...
Warren W. Evans