Even a Little Norway has a big effect
M. Michael Brady
This past November 10 marked the 75th anniversary of the opening near Toronto of “Little Norway,” officially designated the Flyvåpenes Treningsleir (FTL) (Air Force Training Camp) that in World War II trained some 2,500 Norwegian airmen using a small fleet of Fairchild Aircraft trainers.
Its story starts in 1939, when pioneer Norwegian polar aviator, aeronautical engineer, and military leader Bernt Balchen (1899-1973) was sent to the U.S. to negotiate “matters pertaining to aircraft ordnance and ammunition with the question of the Norwegian Government’s possible purchase of such materials in the United States of America.” He had become a U.S. citizen in 1931 and put his dual citizenship to good use. After Norway was invaded in April 1940, the government in exile in London changed his mandate. He was asked to set up a training camp for the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF) in Canada. Balchen was the right man for that task. “Little Norway” was a success from its start. In May 1942, it relocated to a more spacious site at Muskoka Airport, 79 miles north of Toronto. It stayed there until February 1945, when it relocated again to the Winkleigh Air Base near Devon, England.
Soon after Little Norway was established in 1940, young Norwegians migrated there to join the RNAF. Many of them were well educated; the stories of two young engineers were typical:
Svein Heglund (1918-1998) was studying engineering in Zürich, Switzerland, when Norway was invaded. He left soon thereafter for New York, where he met Norwegian military officers, joined the Norwegian Air Force, and then went to Little Norway. He qualified as a pilot, returned to Europe, and became the leading Norwegian combat ace, credited with shooting down 16 Luftwaffe aircraft. His wartime service decorations included the Norwegian War Cross with two Swords and the British Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he returned to Zürich to finish engineering studies and then to Norway to serve in the RNAF. He held several posts in the Air Force Supply Command (LFK) and advanced to the rank of Major General as the LFK director before retiring in 1982.
Torberg Haaland (1915-1945), had started his career as a design engineer for Norwegian State Railways (NSB). But in the spring of 1941, he fled from Norway to England and from there to Canada and the Little Norway camp. There he became a qualified pilot and instructor, before returning to England for active service in a squadron of de Havilland Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft. Back in Norway after its liberation, he was killed in an aircraft accident in July 1945.
The legacy of Little Norway is sparse yet significant. In 1946, the Norwegian Post Office issued a Little Norway commemorative stamp. Upon his death in 1973, Little Norway initiator Bernt Balchen was buried with full military honors in the Arlington National Cemetery. In 1986, the city of Toronto established a Little Norway Park with a plaque commemorating the site of the original camp. In 1998, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at the Hamilton, Ontario Airport, acquired a Fairchild Cornell trainer in the Little Norway camp colors, meticulously restored to airworthy condition by former employees of Fleet Aircraft of Ontario that had built it during the war and named it “Spirit of Little Norway.” In 2007, the governments of Canada and Norway joined in erecting a memorial inside the Muskoka Airport terminal building to commemorate the camp’s location near the city from 1942 until the end of the war. In Norway, Wings Forlag now is compiling a comprehensive illustrated history of Little Norway, scheduled for publication in 2017.
But the story of Little Norway is mostly about people, which may be why it endures. It’s also a story of a more rapid than usual mix of cultures, impelled by the urgency of war. Canadian nurse Laura Patricia McDowell, who at Little Norway met and then in 1944 married Norwegian aviator Svein Heglund, recalled a unique Norwegian esprit de corps: “The Norwegians had unity that I had not seen before. Whenever one of them got into trouble, the others joined in and helped. Such close camaraderie among people driven from their homeland was moving.” (back translation from Svein Heglund’s memoirs, Further reading).
• A Message of Liberty to the Hills of Home by Per C. Hansen, Gardermoen, Military History Foundation of Eastern Norway, 2007, 152 pages hardcover.
• Høk over høk (Hawks above hawks), memoirs by Svein Heglund, Oslo, Wings Forlag 1995, 220 page hardcover, ISBN 82-992194-2-6 (in Norwegian).
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.