Bomb Girls

It’s Remembrance Day this Sunday and I will always associate this day with my mom and dad.

My dad was in the Signal Corps with the Canadian Army during World War II and my mom was the War Bride from Holland who followed him back to Canada after the war ended.

Because of them, I grew up with the ghosts of WWII.

Although Remembrance Day is typically devoted to remembering those who have fought in the various wars over the years, and especially those who have lost their lives,  I’ve lately come to develop a new perspective on this day.

Last year around this time, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Barbara Dickson – the author of a Canadian book called Bomb Girls.  I am currently in the process of reading this book.

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She had written about the thousands of people – predominantly women – who filled the hastily built factories in the 1940s to make ammunition during WWII.  In Dickson’s words, the book was about “the women behind the men behind the guns”.

In Canada, the largest of these munition factories was build in what was then farmers’ fields in Scarborough – referred to as Scarboro at the time, and now a part of Toronto – not far from where I used to work.

Dickson has told a fascinating story that provided a glimpse into the wartime years on the home-front.  Although the statistics from the Scarboro munitions factory (sorry, but I’m going there) may not be particularly special by today’s production standards, they would have been extraordinary in 1941 – at least in Canada.

These are some of the facts of the Scarboro facility:

Called Project 24 and later known simply as GECO (General Engineering Company), the plant was operational in under 4 months and fully completed in only 236 days.  It was comprised of over 170 buildings that accommodated everything from production to shipping and receiving, change rooms, medical facilities and cafeterias.

The plant included almost 5 kilometres (3 miles) of underground tunnels.  These tunnels carried the service lines for electrical, water, etc so that once production began, repairs and maintenance could be completed as required without introducing a hazard to the production area.  It almost goes without saying that handling highly explosive materials requires elimination of every additional risk possible.

They operated 24 hours a day, 6 days a week for 4 years without a single serious accident in spite of handling gun powder and other highly explosive matter.

 

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In 2014, a mural was created near the former GECO site to honour the Bomb Girls.  Although I’ve passed this mural many times, I only recently learned of its significance.  It is in an area that’s difficult to stop and photograph.  Image borrowed from theviewingparty.wordpress.com

 

At the height of its production, the Scarboro plant had 5,300 employees.  Towards the end of the war, the women outnumbered the men 9 to 1.

The women who worked in the High Explosive section of the plant were distinguishable by their yellow hair and hands – stained from working with Tetryl – a solid yellow powder.  Tetryl was an explosive compound used to make detonators during WWI and WWII.

By the time the war ended, the Scarboro plant alone had produced 256 million units of ammunition with a 99% quality rating.  As you can imagine, ammunition that fails to detonate when required – or detonates when it’s not supposed to – would have been a major handicap, so the reliability of the munitions was critical.

Bomb fuse
I don’t remember what component this was – except that it happily didn’t contain any explosives. 

In today’s world of 6-Sigma*, 5S Lean**, and highly automated processes, 99% quality may not sound very impressive, but considering that these were completely manual processes that involved upwards of 100 distinct tasks, this level of quality is nothing short of amazing.

The area where this factory was once located is now all shopping malls and Big Box outlets.

GECO-View-of-berms-I0004896
Image of GECO plant borrowed from barbaradickson.ca.  The buildings where gunpowder and high explosives were handled were buried under earth berms.

The Scarboro factory and the women who worked there are the invisible heroes of the war effort.  As Dickson noted in her book, these women eventually returned to peace time life with no recognition, no fanfare, and no medals to recognize their contribution.

So today I recognize these women and the many thousands of others who worked in similar behind-the-scenes jobs to ensure the Allies would win and men like Frank Sisco could go back home.

Mom & Dad 1945
Jopie and Frank Sisco, Dec 1945

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(*) Six Sigma was developed in the 1980s and is a data-driven methodology for eliminating defects in any process.  Six Sigma refers to six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit.  In other words, a 6-Sigma process would be 99.999999% accurate.

(**) 5S Lean refers to the 5 steps of  Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain in order to eliminate the 8 types of “Lean” waste – Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing.

95 comments

  1. When love beckons, nothing will stop them. Your parents love affairs sounds so romantic. Another history about Canada. I suppose since most men were in the battlefield, who else would make the ammo but the girls left behind. I’m curious what the repercussion in women’s health handling the gun powder.

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    • You’re right – it sounds so obvious now, but I guess it just wasn’t something I gave any thought to.

      My mother once told me that they weren’t all happily ever after stories when the war brides arrived in Canada. Some of the women discovered that the man they had married had lied about their life back home. There were some rude surprises 😕
      Some women never even made it to Canada or the US, discovering that the man had even lied about who he was.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi J

    I enjoyed the post and reminds me of the special job some authors have when they do research like this. So many different authors and author focuses and this is great history to be recorded well like this. I am curious as to what the show was like – and thanks for adding the extras like the six sigma –
    Oh and enjoyed the comments but had to stop reading because there are so many – whew –
    But enjoyed Ben’s and a few others –

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    • Those of us who like to read get to experience all those different perspectives you mentioned. I think our lives are made richer because of it.

      I don’t know what the show was like – I never watched it. It wasn’t on for very long so I’m guessing it wasn’t wildly popular.

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  3. Ahhh … wedding photos. They’re always happy and a pleasure to see. And your parents have a natural, relaxed happiness that shines through. I’ve never heard of the bomb girls, but there were lots of bits and pieces of the war, and someone had to be down in the trenches (literally) taking care of the behind-the-scenes business. It’s unfortunate that it took a war to do it, but everyone in North America pulled together in those days. ~James

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  4. Thank you for this interesting commentary on the “Bomb Girls” Joanne. As you alluded to, there were of course many other factories to support the war effort, and while the unique characteristic of bomb making has a whole universe of both risk and quality control requirements, there are many other fields such as electronics, communication equipment, aircraft production which had to be ramped up rapidly and flawlessly to support the war effort. Since the work force of men had been gutted as the military pulled in men for military positions, it is not surprising that this created a gigantic suction sound for women to populate the factory floors.

    While you are right that the return of women after the wind down of the war did not come with much fanfare, I think it can be argued that once women proved that they were perfectly able to do manufacturing jobs, whether as direct labor or in supervisory/management positions, that in and of itself, was a game changer for women in the workforce. I think the statistics show that the percentage of women in manufacturing jobs started to grow significantly post World War II and there is little doubt that the high performance of the “Bomb Girls” and their counterparts in many other war era manufacturing, surely paved the way for women entering the manufacturing workforce after the war.

    Hats off to the “Bomb Girls” for busting the glass ceiling or at least the glass doors of North Americas’ factories.

    Ben

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do agree with you Ben – to a point. Yes, the numbers of women in the workforce had increased and continued to rise but I would argue that the majority of those numbers were in low paying clerical and service jobs.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Your reaction is the same as mine. When I first learned about this story, I immediately wanted to go down to this area and look around …. even though I’ve been in this area a million times and it’s all just Big Box stores now. I wanted to BE there and see it with different eyes.

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    • Sue, I don’t know if you remember a TV show that came out about 6-7 years ago on CBC called the Bomb Girls. I knew at the time that it was based on a true story but I never actually saw any of the shows.

      Hearing the author speak about her research on the actual Bomb Girls however was enlightening. She made those war years come alive.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’d never heard of these women they had a very interesting, dangerous, and important part to play in the war effort. Your post is a lovely tribute to them.

    Your parents meeting, and marriage is another neat story. They look lovely and happy in that image.

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    • They were a happy couple, Deborah … with their normal share of disagreements that a couple have 😉

      When I first heard about the Bomb Girls I was instantly curious. It’s a fascinating little piece of history!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such a lovely tribute to those women who worked behind the scenes! I had heard of Rosie the Riveter, but not the Bomb Girls. They had an impressive safety rating!!! And a good thing too. So glad that they worked hard so that your dad could make it back and bring along his bride!! ❤

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  7. So often you hear about the impact on the US and England but so many other countries participated like Canada and New Zealand in particular. It’s good to hear your accounts. My grandmother worked at the Torpedo Factory in Virginia…now I’m wondering what exactly she did there. I’ll have to ask my aunt when she comes to visit.

    Not surprised by your parents meet up…I know a few people who did the same. Lovely picture!

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    • There were thousands of war brides who followed soldiers back to North America after the war. There were many just in the small town of 5,000 where I grew up … and of course they were all friends 🙂

      I think this story of Bomb Girls played out in many areas around the world. These women did dangerous work for little-to-no recognition.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I miss that sort of dedication to survive as a whole. More than food and activity, I think this is what made that era…the greatest generation. Americans experienced it briefly at 911 but technology is so quick that the war was over in no time…or is that notion simply how we’ve been programmed. The minute one calamity is improving…look to the next.

        Our media today is not what it was back then. Today is exacerbates turmoil and dissent. Back then it told you half truths and PR to succor support for the troops and their cause…examples of unification and division…which is better. I sort of like the one that unifies.

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  8. This was really interesting. I’ve read many accounts of the women who marched into factories when the men went to war, but sadly only from the U.S. and British perspective. This was equally as fascinating for what went on in Canada too. I pray that mural is never removed in our lifetime. Great reading, Joanne. – Marty

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    • Even as a Canadian I’m used to hearing only about the American and British contributions so this was a revelation to me too. Who knew that we could be so secretive?

      Apparently the reason why it’s so unknown is because the government required that all the records related to these munitions factories be destroyed after the war.

      The two brothers who were responsible for the building and later operation of the Scarboro facility kept a secret record of everything they did because they felt it was important in case a similar event ever occurred again.

      All the records they kept were eventually handed over to the Archives of Ontario in the 1990s – a remarkable 50 years later!!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – they really were 💕 I was lucky to grow up in a home with parents who obviously loved each other.

      I think the safety record of this plant is what blows me away the most (pun not intended 😉).
      I was reading yesterday that the government had aggressive quotas it needed met, but the management of the plant never passed those quotas down to the plant level. They wanted safety to be the primary focus of the workers – not volume. That kind of value-driven thinking amazes me considering today’s bottom line myopia.

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  9. Fascinating story. Both the factory and your parents. I wonder how many of the 9 out of 10 women who worked in the factory kept on working after the boys came home? And if within their families they were considered the heroes that they were? Most interesting.

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    • I suspect the numbers were very few – if any.

      I just finished reading one story about the woman who managed all aspects of the food services at this plant. Following the war, she was offered a very lucrative job with Ford to manage their global food services. She deferred to her husband who had returned from the war and turned the job down because it would be unseemly for a woman to ‘rise above her husband’. Yes, I know it was 70 years ago and social standards were very different then but REALLY?!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks Joanne, I’m wondering if the women didn’t also have a roll in the design/construction of the facility and development of production processes as the safety performance which sounds exceptional! I love this blog and sharing of your family history.

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    • Thanks Tracey. I don’t know how much collaborative effort there was in the beginning. The time period from first ground breaking to production was so short, I expect that the collaboration occurred at a pretty high level. I did however get the impression that over time, there were continual improvements added into the process.

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  11. Joanne, thank you for writing this. As you probably know, I also grew up with the ghosts of WW2. My parents were children at the time, and survived the Hunger Winter in Holland, barely. My dad saw things no child should see and it scarred him for life. My mom was scarred too, but it came out in far less destructive ways.

    I hope our children and our children’s children and so on never have to face anything like that. I wish we humans would learn from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. Fingers crossed the latest threat to working towards peaceful coexistence is quashed on this American election day….Deb

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    • We share many of the same ghosts, Deb. The echo of those horrifying years has certainly affected our generation.

      I would like so much to believe that we have learned critical lessons from that time about what NOT to do. Unfortunately there isn’t a day that goes by where my faith in humanity doesn’t get challenged.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow, you really know your quality control. I think it would take a lot of courage to work in a bomb factory. Seems all it would take is one goof-up and everyone goes up in smoke. Those were brave women.

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  13. Fascinating, Joanne. Thanks for sharing this. I’v always been interesting the WWII in particular. There are quite a few books out now about women who helped in a variety of ways, including code breaking. It must hae been very difficult for everyone when the men came home and roles were topsy turvy! My f-i-l landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and was also later in the Pacific front. He rarely talked about it, either. War, even when necessary, takes a terrible toll.

    janet

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    • That seems to be a common theme, Janet. Our parents’ generation didn’t talk about those years and the experiences they had. For my dad, it’s like he shut a door, locked it and never looked back.

      It is heartwarming to see stories start to emerge about the role women have played in significant events – like the Apollo missions and the movie Hidden Figures. These are stories that need to be told and the women given the credit that is long overdue.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. WWII has always been a part of my life since I lost two uncles. My grandparents and mother never got over the loss. You provided a great history lesson here, and I appreciate it. I love the photo – two happily ever after folks who would be very proud of you and yours.

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    • Awww – thanks Judy 💕

      Losses like this stay with a family and leave permanent scars. Sadly, there are too many stories like this. Didn’t one – or both – of your uncles receive a Purple Heart?

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  15. History has so such sobering lessons to teach us. But to be learning and thinking about family involved is rather humbling. My grandfather flew a plane with the Allied Forces in WW2, and I recently read an academic article on him. I was at once proud and regretful that I never knew this side of him when he was still alive.

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    • I know what you mean Ju-Lyn. Virtually everything I know about my dad’s time in the Army and how he came to be in Holland for the Liberation I learned from research years after he passed away. He never talked about it.

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  16. What a fascinating glimpse into a horrible chapter of our past.
    But then, even in war there’s a silver lining – just look at the happy faces of Jopie and Frank, whose paths may never have crossed otherwise.

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  17. As you know, I was born and raised in Europe and I grew up hearing about the stories of the true heroes of WWII, the women who were left behind. As always, they grew when it was needed and filled men’s positions by the thousands.

    I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I always feel pride when I hear stories like that. Great post!

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    • I knew that you too grew up with the ghosts of the war … I would expect much more than me. There was so much tragedy – I prefer to focus on the good stories that reaffirms my belief that most people are basically decent and kind.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I didn’t know about this but women had to do the jobs with the men off to war. I’d be curious about health issues too. I haven’t heard the term “6 Sigma” since I retired. Don’t miss all those business terms! 🙂

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    • Although I knew about women having to do the jobs normally held by men, I just never clued in to the whole war industries aspect of it – and it was HUGE and very dangerous work.
      Kudos to all those women who rallied and worked like dogs to support the war effort.

      I admit I’m a ‘process geek’ and loved this kind of stuff when I was working. My fascination was usually pretty high level though. My eyes would glaze over at the detail 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  19. This is a fascinating post, Joanne. I read snippets about the women in the stateside wartime industry, and their stories are all amazing. Everybody contributed in that effort. Whatever the task, whatever the call, they served, and they served with distinction. They made quality products because they were personally involved.

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  20. I worked with a man years ago whose mother had lost both arms in a munitions factory explosion. She and her daughters all worked there, and all suffered ill-health (as well as limb loss!!) for the rest of their lives. Women signed up to do the work partly because it was seen as their patriotic duty, and partly because the pay gave them a degree of independence previously unknown. After the war, they were shunted out of the workforce to give returning servicemen the jobs “they were entitled to” … and once again women were forgotten. If you ever get a chance to see the documentary ‘The Life and Times of Rosie the Riviter’ — it tells this story very very well.
    It’s lovely that Remembrance Day has this special meaning for you Joanne. This helps keep it alive and women’s work not forgotten.

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    • Su, you have expressed the same thought I had in a comment to Susanne. The treatment of these women after the war was shameful. Even worse is the decades it would take to recover some of that ‘equality’.

      Your story about women who were maimed on the production line was unfortunately a common one. This was an extremely dangerous job and the fact that this particular plant operated at the level it did without a serious accident is truly remarkable.

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  21. I’ve seen that book out and about a lot lately, probably because of remembrance this time of year. It really is amazing how these women became munitions workers. I imagine the the camaraderie they must have felt at the time, the immense pride, in many ways not unlike those who served.
    I am so glad your father returned from the war and that your mother came along and now we have you 🙂

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    • When you think about the improbability of events that lead up to your parents meeting and eventually marrying, it will hurt your head.
      Even worse is when that sequence of improbable events occurs during the worst human conflict in history.

      I admit that up until the Bomb Girls, I’ve never really given any thought to the thousands of people left at home who supported the war in other equally important roles – and yes, I do believe their importance was equal. To them, I say thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Great story, Joanne. It makes me sad and not a little ticked off that women who did this important work to get the job done were not recognized – except for a mural in an inaccessible place. *sigh* Things don’t change. But, on the up side your dad came home with a bride and made a nice family! You are the image of your father.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susanne, it’s even more unfair than that.

      Think of all those women who proved their worth in the working world only to lose it all at the end of the war. Not only did they work 11-hour shifts – counting the shift change and commute – but married women still had to go home to manage their household and children.
      It would be decades before women would get any kind of work ‘equality’. That is what really burns my butt.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I thought there was a strong possibility that I wouldn’t be the only person fascinated by this story. This kind of behind-the-scenes story really appeals to me. These are the quietly amazing people quietly doing amazing things.

      I used to think I favoured my father but now I look in the mirror and my mother looks back at me.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. How interesting. We don’t hear enough about this kind of thing. But it sounds like a pretty dangerous job and you have to wonder what handling those materials did to the health of those women.

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    • I wondered the same thing, Jude, but haven’t found anything to suggest a problem.

      Sometimes I think I live in a naive little cocoon. Until I had heard about the story of the Bomb Girls, It never occurred to me the logistics required to provide the things that the military would need – like ammunition.

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      • My mother worked in a munitions factory in Coventry, she lived in a hostel with other women, but we never really talked about the work she did. All I know is that she loved it when the Yanks came to town and brought them stockings and chocolate and they went to dances! She had a fiance before my father and I now wonder if he was an American soldier who died. Again, not talked about.

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        • It seems that our parents were made of similar stock. Mine didn’t talk about the war years either. What I learned about my father’s service was gleaned years after he passed away.
          On my mother’s side, I picked up bits in pieces over the years and mostly just impressions as she got older – like a fear of fireworks which in her mind brought back the bombings.

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            • My friend Helen said the same thing about her father. He was career military and he died when she was a teenager.

              Part of the reason why I started blogging was for my sons – to give them some texture into my life. I didn’t want them to remember me as only “The Maternal Unit” … which is what they’ve called me since they were teenagers 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

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