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A perfect position

Owing to its unique location, Halifax became one of the most important cities in Canada’s wartime efforts. Three key factors contributed to this status:

  1. Its robust port facilities with ship repair capacity, played a vital role in naval operations.
  2. Its geographical features made it an ideal place for convoys to gather.
  3. As Canada’s most easterly major city, it was a logical main embarkation point for troops heading overseas during both world wars.

An important role

The port quickly became a major repair station for ships damaged in the Battle of the Atlantic. Throughout both world wars, Germany’s submarine campaign meant that thousands of Allied ships became targets. Halifax shipyards repaired countless vessels damaged by enemy attack or harsh conditions of the North Atlantic over the course of both world wars.

Many natural and man-made advantages also made Halifax an ideal convoy-assembly port. A quay wall completed in 1934—inside a naturally sheltered harbour—meant a large number of merchant and military ships could gather safely. The availability of fuel from an oil refinery in nearby Dartmouth – originally built during the First World War – provided a further advantage for naval operations there.

Both the First and Second World Wars each saw more than 300,000 Canadian men and women in uniform embark from Halifax piers for Europe. Troops ships regularly departed from the port, many of them well-known passenger liners of the day that had been pressed into wartime service. These massive ships, their once luxurious interiors converted to more modest accommodations, could transport thousands of people in a single crossing.

A city changed

These wartime changes were not without their challenges. Usually a modest, slow-growing city, war put a huge strain on Halifax.

The many thousands of embarking soldiers—plus dockworkers and personnel from nearby military bases—exhausted existing resources. Adequate housing was almost impossible to find for many families.

Other troubles ranged from social conflicts to outright catastrophe. In the First World War, a munitions ship exploded in the harbour. The blast killed almost two thousand people and destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings. It was, at the time, the largest man-made explosion in history. Recovery efforts took many months.

Even without a similar disaster, the Second World War saw fractures in the fast-growing community. Resources wore thin and so did patience. While demands of the wartime economy meant job prospects soared, tensions between the local population and military personnel based there or passing through were sometimes a reality.

Through it all, Halifax continued to grow and adapt. The wartime efforts, along with other infrastructure programs, helped the city evolve and today it continues to be one of Canada’s most important ports.

Date published: 2020-02-10

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