Memories of the 1917 Halifax Explosion were top of mind when explosions shattered windows across Dartmouth and Halifax on July 18 and 19, 1945.
The evening sky lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks display as munitions detonated at the Bedford magazine, all thanks to a fire onboard a barge.
That night, the army unit at Eastern Passage got orders from their commanding officer to prepare for at least a thousand Dartmouth evacuees.
This was a nightmare for Major Alan Coolen and his limited staff at the A23 Artillery Centre. The war in Europe had ended and most of Elkins Barracks had been shut down with the huts stripped of bedding and plumbing.
Nevertheless, all the ranks gathered at Hut 68, the administrative building, to prepare for the evacuees. But before a plan was fully hatched, the civilians were knocking at the door.
A 1945 army report describes the chaotic scene. “The plan of registering all entrants to the camp soon fell by the wayside, as people arrived by truck, private car, vehicles, any mode of conveyance whatever and began to pile up at the registration booth in such numbers that had we continued to insist on registering them, elderly people and babies would have been kept standing around the best part of the night.”
The A23 unit put out a call for help—and the community responded within hours.
The Woodlawn Dairy sent 500 quarts of milk. A thousand blankets were received from a local supplier. The Red Cross delivered supplies and personnel to the camp. Tons of food and six cooks arrived.
The Canadian Women’s Army Corps prepared the beds in all the overflowing barracks, plus they stationed 4 personnel at each of the women’s barracks. The evacuation report praises the “Herculean” efforts of the Corps and commends their dedication to the women and children evacuees.
Caring for babies and civilian women was a challenge for the WW2 army encampment. Thankfully, a local reverend rounded up nursing bottles and the Red Cross took care of “hundreds of requests for baby diapers and women’s requirements.”
To distract the worried minds of civilians as the explosions continued into the next day, the army band played in the square and a movie was shown in the auditorium.
Meanwhile, the Messing Officer, Lieutenant Urquhart, and his staff worked 30 straight hours feeding civilians.
The report states: “By rough count, 2300 were fed at the mess hall in four sittings. In addition to this, there must have been hundreds of babies who were fed in quarters.”
Unfortunately, the evacuees offered little support for their Army hosts. “It should be noted that in spite of all the work accomplished, very little assistance was received from the evacuees themselves, less than ten people volunteering to render any assistance and most of the others taking a rather poor view of being asked to assist in the kitchens.”
By noon on July 20th , all the evacuees had left the camp and returned to their homes. The exhausted staff of A23 could finally collapse into their bunks and enjoy some well-deserved sleep.