Fourteen hundred fighters for the RAF, 800 dive-bombers for the US Navy and Marines, and G-23s for the Spanish Republican Air Force – where on the Great Lakes were they produced? Would it help if you knew all these aircraft were fabricated by Canadian Car and Foundry?

CANCAR (also known as CCF) is best known for the manufacture of railway and transit rolling stock, but the company’s production of aircraft in World War II helped make Fort William – today part of Thunder Bay – one of Canada’s almost forgotten arsenals in our fight against the Axis.

CANCAR had already departed from its usual product line in World War I when the Fort William works accepted a contract to launch 12 minesweepers for the French navy. Two of these are forever famous: The complete disappearance of the Inkerman and the Cerisoles with 78 French sailors and two Canadian skippers still represents the largest unexplained loss of life on the Great Lakes.

CANCAR entered the aviation field in 1936 when the company obtained a licence to assemble an export version of the American-designed Grumman FF-1, called the G-23. Ostensibly ordered for the Turkish government, it soon became clear that these biplanes were being flown by Spain’s Republican forces against Franco and his Axis allies. Delivery of the full order was stopped. In 1940, when no other aircraft could be obtained, the RCAF reluctantly bought the remaining CANCAR G-23s, designating them in Canadian service as the Goblins.

That year, other more suitable fighters were already available from CANCAR’s production lines but all were originally destined for the RAF. The first of more than 1,451Hurricanes manufactured at the Fort William facility were in action in the Battle of Britain. The first Canadian-made Hurricane is thought to have been shot down on 31 August 1940. Twenty-five RAF Squadrons, as well as 401 RCAF Squadron, are known to have flown Hurricanes in the skies over Europe, Malta, North Africa and even Burma. Some Fort William Hurricanes were among the more than 3,000 shipped to the Soviet Union. Others were later modified to be launched by catapult from merchant ships in mid-Atlantic.

Eventually the British released more than 400 Hurricanes for service with the RCAF in Canada. Mark 1 versions were produced at the CANCAR plant, but most of the 1,451 Hurricanes were Mark X, X1 and XII variants, designations given to the Fort William-made aircraft. Fifty Sea Hurricanes, as the carrier versions were called, were fabricated at Fort William. Some Canadian made Hurricanes are on public display, for example at the National Aviation Museum (a Mk XII), the Aerospace Museum of Calgary (a Mk XII), and the Reynolds Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin (a Mk XII).

The Chief Engineer of CANCAR for the production run of Hurricanes was Elsie MacGill. In addition to being the first to hold such an engineering post in Canadian industry, she was the first Canadian woman to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering (University of Toronto) and reportedly the first woman in the world to graduate with a Masters degree in aeronautical engineering (University of Michigan). Before becoming responsible for Hurricanes at the Fort William plant, MacGill designed a CANCAR trainer, the Maple Leaf, which reached flying prototype status.

Contracts to make 1,000 Curtis SB2C Helldiver dive bombers, to be designated SBWs for the American forces, were let in May 1942 before Hurricane production had ended. The first Fort William Helldiver flew in July 1943, just a few months after the last Hurricane rolled off the assembly line. Fairchild of Canada also made this version of the dive bomber. Intended as replacements for the Dauntless dive-bomber already making a name for itself in the Pacific, 833 of the SBW Helldivers in six variants were completed in Fort William before the surrender of Japan stopped production. Some of the Canadian-made Helldivers were based on the USS Bunker Hill, one of the carriers that supplied the armada of aircraft that sank the famous Japanese battleship Yamato.

The Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm did form a squadron using Canadian-made Helldivers based at Squantum, Massachusetts but the unit was disbanded before it saw action. Helldivers, perhaps of Canadian manufacture, did see service in Vietnam with the French. At its peak during the war, the Fort William CANCAR plant employed over 7,000 people, half of whom were women.

These Fort William employees were featured in a CBC documentary made in the late 1990s titled Rosies of the North. Women who had been part of the war-time workforce were re-united with flyable versions of the aircraft that rolled off the assembly lines and told their stories.

CANCAR did manufacture aircraft components at the company’s other Canadian facilities. Wings for the Handley-Page Hampden bomber were made at CANCAR’s Turcot plant in Montreal. Wings and fuselages for the Anson trainer, widely used in the British Commonwealth Training Plan, were made at CANCAR’s Quebec facility. Six hundred complete Ansons were manufactured at a new CANCAR factory in Amherst, Nova Scotia. CANCAR was also involved in overhaul, repair and modification of a great variety of aircraft at St. Hubert, Boucherville, and Dorval facilities. However CANCAR’s Fort William facility was the company’s biggest and, thus, made possible this Lakehead city’s significant contribution to the fight to defeat Japan, Germany and Italy in the Second World War.

CANCAR’s Fort William plant went on to produce Harvard and T-34 Mentor training aircraft for military use in the immediate postwar period. The company eventually became part of the Bombardier empire.

On a nautical note, just as CANCAR’s war production started with shipbuilding in 1918, nearby Port Arthur Shipbuilding Ltd. not only launched 13 minesweeping trawlers in the First Great War but completed nine Flower class corvettes, six Bangor and 22 Algerine minesweepers to combat Hitler’s submarines. Truly, the amalgamated city of Thunder Bay does rank as one of the Great Lakes region’s major arsenals, if only for a five-year span.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC), a retired Canadian Armour officer, is a recipient of Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross.