Exile Air tells the story of Little Norway

Book review

Exile Air: airplane

Photo courtesy of Old Stone Books
The base at Little Norway trained pilots, gunners, navigators, and aircraft mechanics, most of whom were Norwegian or Norwegian Canadian.

Barbara K. Rostad
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Exile Air book cover

Photo courtesy of Old Stone Books
Exile Air World War II’s “Little Norway” in Toronto and Muskoka by Andrea Baston is the story of Norwegian recruits who wanted to train as pilots, gunners, navigators, and aircraft mechanics, then return to Norway to defeat the German military forces that had invaded their country.

“We Norwegians who are present have no more homes—our dear ones whom we left behind in Norway live under tyrants. But we stand here today resolved to play our part in liberating Norway” (p. 13). These stirring words were spoken Nov. 10, 1940, by Maj. Gen. William Steffens at the official opening of Camp “Little Norway” in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

But even before German forces occupied Norway, after their invasion in May, negotiations were underway with Canada about establishing an air training program there. By September, an agreement was signed with the Toronto Harbor Commissioners to use the Toronto Island Airport for flight training.

Little Norway opened in November with several hundred new recruits who wanted “to train as pilots, gunners, navigators, and aircraft mechanics, then return to Norway to defeat the German military forces that had invaded their country” (p. 13).

Many of these patriots had escaped Norway. Some were in Norway’s Merchant Marine, ignoring Quisling’s demand to return to Norway and instead choosing to train for a new role. Other recruits were Norwegians living in Canada or the United States.

Exile Air: World War II’s “Little Norway” in Toronto and Muskoka, is easy to read. The 240-page soft-cover book by Andrea Baston features short chapters, numerous well-labeled photos, maps, and a timeline, plus a back section with detailed footnotes, references, and an index.

It leads readers through the invasion of Norway, its 60-day war, and the June 10 surrender to Germany. Later chapters continue with the establishment of a Canadian site to train Norwegians for air warfare as separate units in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and extend through D-Day, V-J Day, and the closure of Little Norway. Finally, an epilogue describes the memorials established in honor of that remarkable effort involving cooperation between Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom, their allies, and interested individuals everywhere.

The author modestly presents her book as relevant to the histories of both her native Canada and of Norway, but in truth it is also England’s history, as well as that of France and all Allied nations of World War II with far-reaching global threads, not only because the 1939-1945 conflict affected all the world at some macro level but also because this story includes the micro level of personal contributions from around the world. One example is the Norwegian coffee-plantation owner from Guatemala who not only contributed coffee to the cause at Little Norway but also donated a Fairchild aircraft to the Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNAF).

Author Andrea Baston does not have Norwegian heritage, but added in a telephone interview, “I wish that I did, especially the blonde hair part.” She is, however, Canadian-born in the region where Little Norway had its second home, Muskoka.

Though her career as a lawyer honed her meticulous attention to detail, her first degree in English literature was also a boon when it came to tackling a book after retirement. Her initial effort focused on the first tuberculosis sanitarium in Canada, which happened to be in her hometown of Gravenhurst. A similar strategy of history enlivened by personal accounts was followed for that 2013 publication as well. She is now at work on her third writing adventure but when asked about her subject, she demurred, saying, “It’s too soon to talk about it.”

Exile Air: Soldier at Little Norway

Photo courtesy of Old Stone Books
A soldier stands guard at Little Norway.

Photographs and their editing was also conducted by a Gravenhurst native, Candis Jones, whose degrees in Fine Arts and Education prepared her for researching and selecting the dozens of pictures that accompany Baston’s text. She too is retired and lives in Gravenhurst.

Both she and Baston attended school with some of the children of RNAF members who returned to Gravenhurst after the war. Candis has relatives linked to Little Norway, including her husband, Robert Olafson, son of a flight instructor there.

Interspersed throughout their book are personality profiles, such as those on John Stene, Rolf Hauge, and Rolf Kolling. Also described are the visits Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha made to Little Norway. Noted too is Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame, who trained at Little Norway in 1942 as a radio officer and also Sonja Henie’s stop there in 1944.

Numerous fascinating tidbits are scattered throughout such as:

  • The existence of Norwegian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
  • The Norwegian Resistance stealing a truckload of ration cards as leverage with the Nazis about registering Norwegians age 18 to 25 for training to help fight Russians
  • Espionage efforts known as “The Operational Egg”
  • Wrestling with bears at Little Norway
  • The “Passion Train”
  • The “Shetland Bus”
  • 1,500 pairs of gingham curtains sewn for Little Norway by Toronto Norwegians

Baston makes it apparent that, even in the midst of a major war, there’s love and joy, hatred and tears, an intensified microcosm of life. Between bombing missions there’s still music and dancing, sports, and even high society.

Yet central to this book is the process for developing Little Norway. The plan hatched by the UK and Norway was that after training in Canada, distinctive Norwegian units would fight within the RAF and would be used strictly for the purposes of defending the UK or for regaining Norway.

At the start of Little Norway in Toronto, Norway had both Army and Navy Air Services, but shortly after training classes began there, King Haakon decreed that the two would merge to become one body, the Royal Norwegian Air Force.

A month later, the first Little Norway squadron departed for active duty, becoming 330 Norwegian Squadron of the British RAF. John Stene, whose wartime experiences are recounted throughout Exile Air, said of his bombing missions over both Germany and France, “We knew we were all volunteers and that we had taken on a job which had got to be finished and that in this game we were all ‘playing for keeps’” (p. 169-170).

In August 1942, Squadrons 331 and 332 took part in “Operation Jubilee” against the German-occupied port of Dieppe, France. “Three of the RNAF pilots received the British Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions over Dieppe” (p. 142). “You can with justice be proud of your boys” (p. 142), wrote a British RAF commander to NRAF’s commander-in-chief. In 1943, one of the Norwegian squadrons was named top-scoring Allied fighter in all of the British RAF.

But pride in the NRAF’s achievements was not limited to their combat record. For example, the first civilian-sponsored military ski tournament in Canada took place in February 1941. The Norwegians, unsurprisingly, took the honors in almost every contest. The Norwegian airmen excelled at swimming and track and field too, usually beating their opponents in charity games.

More importantly, they also excelled when it came to civic contributions. For instance, on May 17, 1941, a “17th of May Greeting” was sent to the Spirit of Little Norway Fund, a savings account started to pay for new airplanes. According to Baston, “every member of the RNAF pledged a portion of his monthly pay for the duration of the war,” an idea that “originated among the airmen themselves” (p. 107).

By early 1942, all space at Little Norway in Toronto was in use with no room for expansion. This plus a desire for a safer spot to train flyers plus inadequate hangar space and citizen criticism of the noise prompted a move to Muskoka Airport for the duration of the war. The RNAF purchased an adjacent farm with room to build. The official opening was May 4, 1942, and there Little Norway remained until a closing ceremony on Feb. 17, 1945.

Also used by Little Norway residents was “Vesle Skaugum,” named in honor of Crown Prince Olav’s home near Oslo. This served as a recreational camp but since it was near Muskoka, it later became the site for the Radio School after the camp was moved from Toronto.

It was at Vesle Skaugum that five-year-old Prince Harald set forth about 7 a.m. one frosty September morning in 1942. He was “observed dashing from the main building in a bathing suit, running to the lake and diving into the cold water. He swam out to a diving tower, climbed to the top, jumped off, and swam back to shore. Harald repeated his fearless swimming adventure every morning during his stay at Vesle Skaugum, to the amusement and admiration of the airmen” (p. 122). Of such stuff are Norwegian kings made.

But this same determination and courage is also found among many everyday people when placed in the pressure cookers of war, natural disasters, and other calamities. That is the point that comes across repeatedly in Baston’s book, making it a pleasure to read, not just for those with Norwegian, Canadian, or Norwegian Canadian heritage, but, as Baston amply illustrates, with human heritage, which dictates that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Reviewers’s Note: Baston says there are many more stories to tell of the Little Norway era. She included little about anyone from the United States. training at Little Norway. Perhaps a follow-up article is possible if some of these stories are relayed to this reviewer via email, bkr9950@gmail.com.

Exile Air is available for $28.95 at www.oldstonebooks.com and at select bookstores.

Barbara Rostad, a North Dakota Norwegian, has been writing for The Norwegian American since 2014. A versatile writer with degrees in journalism and sociology plus teaching experience in sociology, English, and speech, Barbara has published articles and poems, edited newsletters, compiled a book about Ski for Light, and received writing awards from Idaho Writer’s League. A 45-year member of Sons of Norway, she’s often both newsletter editor and cultural director.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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