The citizens of Medicine Hat found themselves in the thick of the war effort shortly after the beginning of the Second World War. Like most other Alberta communities, Medicine Hat had been battered by the decade-long depression of the 1930s.
Over the course of the war, the southeastern Alberta city, situated on the main Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) right-of-way, played host to a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) training school, a large German Prisoner of War camp and thousands of soldiers training at the nearby, newly established Suffield base and research centre.
Despite its seemingly remote location, Medicine Hat, on account of its well-developed infrastructure, was a good choice to host these and other wartime activities.The community’s proximity to nearby natural gas fields meant that it was one of the first municipalities in the province to enjoy the benefits of heat and electricity generated from this inexpensive and plentiful resource. Medicine Hat's proximity to a rich supply of natural gas and clay deposits, and its location on the CPR mainline, allowed the city to diversify its economy during the first half of the 20th century. These factors gave the city a leg up on other communities when it came to competing for war-related contracts.
Medicine Hat’s clay and pottery industry had developed shortly after the settlement of the community in the 1880s. Crockery containers made at the different clay works businesses proved to be the cheapest way to store food, beverages, and chemicals. Medicine Hat Clay Industries produced a variety of piping, kitchenware, and even toilets. Medalta Potteries, operating in Medicine Hat as early as the 1900s, also produced an assortment of crockery, kitchenware, and tableware, all of which were made for the Canadian military during the Second World War.
These and other area businesses benefited from the awarding of military contracts, and, in turn, were able to offer employment to hundreds of individuals. One such example was the Alberta Foundry and Machine Shop, which produced and manufactured anti-aircraft parts and shrapnel shells.
The establishment of the Suffield training base and Experimental Station, named for the small community of Suffield a short distance northwest of Medicine Hat, accounted for a large influx of military personnel in the region. The British were the primary users of these facilities. To make way for the establishment of the base and research station, 125 families were expropriated from their land. Some of the personnel assigned to Suffield were billeted with local families.
The BCATP training centre, No. 34 Service Flying Training School, opened in February 1941. Air personnel sent to this facility were trained in the operation and maintenance of both single- and twin-engine aircraft. Over 2,000 airmen were trained at Medicine Hat's facility. Forty-eight of these individuals were killed during training and are buried at the nearby Hillside Cemetery. The training centre closed in November 1944. This site is now the location of the Medicine Hat Airport.
The city was also home to the South Alberta Regiment (SAR), an infantry militia unit that was formed in 1924. The regiment’s 1st Battalion was mobilized in May 1940 and drew new recruits from across the southern portions of the province, as well as Calgary and Edmonton; the 2nd Battalion remained in reserve in Medicine Hat throughout the war and continued to recruit and train soldiers for eventual deployment overseas. The SAR trained in Edmonton, Dundurn, Saskatchewan and Nanaimo, British Columbia before being shipped to Nova Scotia and re-organized as an armoured unit within the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (RCAC).
The SAR sailed for England in August 1942. Shortly thereafter, the unit was reorganized as the 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance regiment (SAR/RCAC); the regiment had been selected to serve as the armoured corps' “eyes and ears,” undertaking reconnaissance work from the time it arrived in France in July 1944 to the end of the war. Major-General Worthington, commander and “father” of the Canadian armoured corps, referred to the members of the SAR as his “keen-eyed-prairie-men.”
One of those “keen-eyed-prairie-men,” squadron leader Major David Currie, received the Victoria Cross for his actions during the battle for the Falaise Gap (St. Lambert-sur-Dives, France) which resulted in the capture of thousands of German soldiers and the destruction of vast amounts of enemy equipment. Currie was the only member of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps to be awarded the Victory Cross during the Second World War.
Local Medicine Hat businesses thrived during the Second World War. Some, such as movie theatres, reciprocated with special rates and prices for service personnel. Medicine Hat had four movie theatres, a bowling alley, a skating rink, and a Wartime Emergency Training Centre that hosted Friday night dances. One of the films available to moviegoers was Women in the Wind (1939), starring Kay Francis. The film portrayed women as heroic and courageous flyers.
Gould, Ed. All Hell for a Basement: Medicine Hat, 1883–1983. Medicine Hat: The City of Medicine Hat, 1981.