The Volunteers

How Halifax Women Won the Second World War

Reviewed by Governor General's History Awards Winner Tim Cook

Posted September 13, 2022

“Disgrace to Canada,” raged the Halifax Mail in April 1941, as a photograph and accompanying story depicted a Canadian sailor sleeping on the floor at the YMCA on Barrington Street. He had been consigned there because of a shortage of hotels and beds.

From 1939 to 1945, wartime Halifax was bursting at the seams, having become a crucial naval base from which merchant vessels and warships crossed the perilous Atlantic Ocean through a gauntlet of German submarines trying to sink them. Lezlie Lowe, a Halifax-based journalist, tells the story of Halifax as it throbbed with tens of thousands of service personnel who brought both excitement and trouble in their wake. “You were constantly being proposed to,” recounted one woman who fended off lovesick sailors and soldiers who were hoping to marry someone before they shipped out.

With a shortage of everything from food, to entertainment, to housing, it was the women of Halifax who stepped up with volunteer work to keep the soldiers’ and sailors’ morale from collapsing. While the subtitle of the book, How Halifax Women Won the Second World War, is a significant overreach, Lowe provides much new insight into women who engaged in salvaging and recycling or who provided free meals (including tomato soup cake!) and took on boarders in the electric atmosphere of a bustling city at war.

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This article originally appeared in the October-November 2022 issue of Canada’s History.

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