Little Norway

By Andrew Hind and Maria DaSilva

On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany attacked neutral Norway with overwhelming force. The tiny Norwegian armed forces, equipped mostly with obsolete equipment and unprepared for war, had little hope of standing up to the invasion and even the intervention of an Anglo-French expeditionary force could not alter the outcome. King Haakon VII, his family, and members of the government had fled the country to establish a government-in-exile in England. Many Norwegians followed suit in order to continue the fight against the Nazis, either making the dangerous crossing of the North Sea aboard fishing boats or with British commandos returning from raids.

Despite the fact that their country was occupied, the Norwegians made a substantial contribution to the Allied victory in 1945. Thirteen vessels of the Royal Norwegian Navy escaped to England in June 1940, and by war’s end the navy-in-exile had grown to 7,000 men and women crewing 50 ships. The huge Merchant Navy—38,000 men in 1,000 vessels—played a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and a 4,000 man Norwegian Brigade helped to liberate their homeland in 1945.

The Norwegian air forces—the Army Air Service and Naval Air Service, later amalgamated into the Royal Norwegian Air Force—played a similarly importantly role in winning the war. A shattered force after the German invasion, it had to be painfully built up from scratch. Much of this work of revitalization was done in Muskoka, where thousands of pilots and air crews received their training at a facility known as ‘Little Norway,’ located at Muskoka Airport just outside of Gravenhurst.

Today, Muskoka Airport is home to the Little Norway Memorial, which honours the memory of these brave men and women.

After the fall of Norway, only about 120 Norwegian Army and Naval Air Service personnel escaped to England. The decision was made for the Norwegian air forces to come to Canada where they could be retrained and reformed. The original numbers were pitifully small, but many new recruits came forward to join them; some had fled Norway, while others were expatriates residing in the United States and South America.

At first, the exiled Norwegians established themselves in Toronto at Toronto Island Airport. The location wasn’t exactly ideal and it wasn’t long before the inherent dangers of training young fighter pilots in a city environment became apparent. On June 20, 1941, while taking off from Toronto Island Airport, a Norwegian-piloted plane collided with the ferry Sam McBride in Toronto Harbour, killing both the student pilot and instructor. Clearly a new home was required.

Many places were looked at, but it was eventually decided to move the Norwegian air training program to the Muskoka Airport, built in the 1930s as a Depression-era “make work” project for unemployed men. In May 1942, Muskoka Airport was leased from Canada. The facilities grew to include three runways, hangars, and a collection of log buildings reminiscent of those found in Norway to house airmen and support their training. The cost was born by the huge Norwegian merchant marine, one of the largest in the world.

The Norwegians also purchased a 430-acre recreational retreat east of Huntsville called Interlaken, now the Olympia Athletic Camp at Limberlost. To the Norwegians, it was known as “Vesle Skaugum”, or ‘Home in the Woods’, the name of the Norwegian King’s residence. This facility was used primarily for rest and basic training.  Norwegians escaping from occupied Europe would arrive here to be ‘fattened up,’ strengthened physically with hiking and exercise, trained in the rudiments of military life, such as drills and marching, and given training in marksmanship and orienteering. They would then go on to advanced training at Little Norway, either as pilots or grounds crew.

Training continued at Muskoka until February 1945, by which time it was clear the war in Europe was in its final act and that Norway would soon be liberated. The RNAF moved their camp to England, in preparation for the final move back to its native land.

By the end of the war 3,300 Norwegian officers, air crew and ground personnel had been trained at Little Norway. Over the course of the war, Norwegian aircrews shot down more than 225 enemy fighters, while sinking six submarines and damaged five more. The contribution to victory was impressive, and could not been made had the RNAF not had a facility to rearm, re-train, and reestablish itself.

In recent years the Royal Canadian Legion, working with the District Municipality of Muskoka and the Norwegian and Canadian governments, began planning a memorial to Little Norway at Muskoka Airport. The purpose of the project was twofold: to recognize the historical significance of the Royal Norwegian Air Force training program in Muskoka during the Second World War, and to establish a new cultural heritage attraction at the airport. A ceremony announcing the project took place on May 8th, 2002, the fifty-seventh anniversary of Norwegian Liberation Day. On hand were King Harald V and Queen Sonja, hundreds of Norwegian veterans, and many Canadian dignitaries.

Five years later, the Little Norway Memorial was complete. The memorial itself—a proud upright stone with heritage plaque—stands outside the airport terminal. Enter the building to access a small but informative museum. A brief documentary film detailing the Little Norway story and the contributions made by the Norwegian airforces adds context to the artifacts, exhibits and photos that line the walls. A book of reminiscences by veterans adds poignancy; after five long years away they longed for home and their families. Admission is free.

The Little Norway Memorial serves to remind us of a dark period in history when the entire globe was embroiled in the most vicious of wars, of the important role Muskoka played in World War Two by hosting the Royal Norwegian Air Force.

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