If you have spent any amount of time learning about World War II, you were probably taught that the lands of North America were blessedly exempt from combat. If so, you may be surprised to learn about the surprise invasion of one of Canada’s largest cities.
Safely located about as far as possible from the coastlines of Canada, Winnipeg seemed an unlikely Ground Zero for a German invasion. Concerns about direct enemy attacks were not foremost on the minds of most of its citizens when they went to bed on the night of February 18, 1942. While they slept, the unimaginable happened.
At 5:30 a.m., the car taking a disc jockey to work was abruptly halted by uniformed Nazi stormtroopers. They ordered the driver to take them to the radio station where they immediately assumed control of all programming operations. Throughout the city, radio studios and transmitters became the first prisoners of war.
At the same time, all road and railway access to the city was quickly and quietly taken over by advance forces. The lifeline to the city and all opportunities to retreat were cut off. The operation took less than 15 minutes.
At 6:30 a.m., the tranquil early-morning calm was shattered by the sound of gunfire, explosions, and aircraft. Radio stations interrupted their regularly-scheduled programming with the startling news that the city was under attack. Since the airwaves were controlled by the invading forces, there was no call for opposition. Instead, all citizens were ordered to remain indoors and comply with further instructions.
Those who had been complacent about the war instantly had a change of attitude.
As the frightened populace listened for updates, they heard the distressing news that the outlying communities of St. James, St. Boniface, Fort Garry, and others were under attack. Lest anyone think they were falling for another War of the Worlds radio hoax, the truth of the reports was quickly confirmed by the evidence of their own eyes. Amidst the sounds of gunfire and explosions, tanks and light personnel carriers patrolled the once-peaceful streets.
The invasion was obviously well planned. In less than three hours, the city was encircled. The radio reported skirmishes at the Pembina Highway, Provencher Bridge, and other key points throughout Winnipeg. The defending militia was caught totally unaware and unprepared. At 9:30, Winnipeg’s mayor, John McQueen, publicly surrendered and turned all authority over to Winnipeg’s new gauleiter (provincial leader) — Erich von Neurenberg. The capital city of Manitoba was firmly under the control of the Third Reich.
Winnipeg was just the beginning. Throughout the day, reports came to the city of the arrest of Manitoba’s premier, John Bracken, and lieutenant-governor R.F. McWilliams. Government and community leaders throughout the province had been taken prisoner and were being held in a jail at Lower Fort Garry, just 20 miles north of Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, the new Nazi head of Winnipeg was issuing orders. The Nazi swastika was flying over government buildings. Churches were closed. Libraries were ordered shut, and books were being burned in the streets. Schoolchildren were sent home and told that classes would resume once the new government could approve acceptable teachers.
As that horrible day came to a close, the evening newspaper, the Winnipeg Tribune, was released under its new name, Das Winnipeger Lügenblatt. It contained the orders signed by Erich von Neurenberg, listing what citizens were permitted to do, prohibited from doing, and the harsh penalties that would come from disobedience.
How did this great bastion of democracy fall so quickly, and why did this chapter fail to make it into the history books? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it was all an elaborate hoax.
The Canadian government was concerned that the nation’s distance from the European and Asian theaters was causing its citizens to become complacent. This could be reflected not only in the level of civil defense preparation but even more crucially in the purchases of war bonds to fund the military effort. Local governments were urged to bring attention to these vital parts of the war strategy.
Manitoba’s provincial leaders rose to the challenge and developed plans for “If Day.” Nothing would shake folks out of their complacency better than by getting a preview of what life would be like if Der Führer came knocking on their front door. They planned an elaborate mock invasion of Manitoba’s largest city.
The invasion force consisted of members of the young men’s section of the Winnipeg Board of Trade. Using uniforms borrowed from Hollywood, they played their roles with the assistance of equipment on loan from the Canadian military.
If Day was not supposed to be a complete surprise to anyone. Two days before the “invasion,” the Winnipeg Tribune carried front-page notices, letting the residents know “Winnipeg to be ‘Occupied.’” As one might expect, however, not everyone got the message.
Twelve-year-old Diane Edgelow went into town that morning to buy some bread for her mother. When she crossed the bridge and got her first look at the downtown businesses, she was horrified. “They were guarded by German soldiers; they seemed to be everywhere,” she recalls. “I was so scared.” She bought the bread only to receive a German Reichsmark in change.
“No one in our house would read the paper,” said Edgelow. “I don’t think my mom would have sent me down to the store if she knew there were going to be soldiers dressed like that. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so scared if I had been told before.”
One man was reported to have been startled by seeing the advancing German troops. Not being forewarned, he escaped and hid for hours, waiting to see what would transpire.
There were two casualties from If Day. One of the soldiers sprained his ankle, and a woman cut her thumb when distracted while preparing toast.
Aside from the panicked few who were taken by surprise and the minor injuries, If Day turned out better than its organizers could have hoped. Manitobans purchased $43 million of war bonds — 53.5% above the province’s quota. The nationwide quota of $600 million was exceeded by 41%. Much of the success was credited to If Day and the national attention it generated.
It also made the war real to many people. For the first time, they saw the fighting as more than a “European” conflict and realized that a lot hinged upon the success of the Allied efforts.
For many of the young men who were merely acting, it would not be long before they were doing the real thing. This time in the uniform of their country, they faced real bullets and daily life-or-death experiences. For the time being, however, it was a special opportunity to lay aside the instruments of war and return to the blessed ordinariness of life.