A Campus at War

The Second World War erupts, first in Europe when Nazi Germany unleashes its blitzkrieg on Poland and all too soon, in the Pacific with Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and beyond.

It seems as if the world is conspiring to test the university’s Tuum Est motto but after the initial shock, each and every member of the UBC community take their cue from war poster headlines to ‘do your bit’ and the university shifts its priorities to support Canada in the war against Germany.

Many faculty members sign up, often at the officer rank. Others participate in war-related research. It’s made mandatory that male students join the re-formed Canadian Officer Training Corps (COTC), juggling academic priorities with the COTC’s compulsory six hours per week of training.

Barred from military combat roles, female students join the Red Cross to learn first aid, map reading, and how to drive army vehicles. Many go on to serve in noncombatant roles with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (WACs), Women’s Royal Canadian Navy Service (WRCNS a.k.a. Wrens) or the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (WDs).


UBC’s response to Canada’s call for help is not limited to laboratories on campus. In the Forestry Department, faculty members are granted leaves of absence to help manage and increase production of Sitka spruce, the ‘skin and bones’ of the famed Mosquito fighter-bomber, an aerial nemesis of the Nazi war machine.

Of the 1,680 enlisted UBC students, 170 will never return home

On the home front, rationing is now a reality on all levels. Despite these constraints, UBC researchers find innovative ways to help in Canada’s war effort.

In 1943, the federal and provincial governments form the War Metals Research Board. Made up mostly of faculty from the UBC Department of Applied Sciences (whose dean is chairman), the board provides research and consulting on wartime supplies and equipment. More than 200 projects are developed in mining and metallurgy. The success of the board will lead to the development of the BC Research Council.

The campus is now dotted with military camps and emplacements. Near the site of today’s Museum of Anthropology, the hastily built Point Grey Battery keeps nervous guard over the approaches to Vancouver harbour, even as Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens patrol the campus.

With the shadow of the enemy darkening Europe, UBC and other researchers shift their focus from agriculture to technology. Chemistry and electrical engineering is at the forefront. Rapid production of war material, coupled with advances in communications and intelligence and industrial technologies, become key differentiators for the Allies. Research at UBC turns to munitions, developing short-wave detection devices, mineral and chemical engineering.

Special ‘war centric’ courses are developed including radio technician, chemical warfare science and defense, and aerial navigation. Graduate students involved in war research receive academic credit for their efforts.

The outcome of the war hinges on the applied research that enables these new technologies, and UBC faculty and students work tirelessly to bolster Canada’s contribution to the Allied efforts in Europe.

UBC’s response to Canada’s call for help is not limited to laboratories on campus. In the Forestry Department, faculty members are granted leaves of absence to help manage and increase production of Sitka spruce, the ‘skin and bones’ of the famed Mosquito fighter-bomber, an aerial nemesis of the Nazi war machine.

In 1944, lawyer and First World War hero Norman Archibald Macare “Larry” MacKenzie becomes UBC’s third president and quickly establishes himself as a capable and decisive wartime leader.

UBC physicists George Volkoff and fellow alumnus Robert F. Christy quietly slip off to the University of Berkeley to become part of a huge team that will develop the atomic bomb — code name Manhattan Project — led by American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. (In 1961, Volkoff will return to UBC to help develop the university’s nuclear physics program, first as an assistant professor, and then as dean of Science from 1970 to 1979.)

On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany formally surrenders but the War in the Pacific rages on. On August 6 and 9, 1945, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are obliterated by the atomic bomb. Imperial Japan quickly surrenders. In the same year, on August 19, 1945, Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King writes in his personal diary: "I do thank God with all my heart for his mercy in bringing this terrible war to an end."

At war’s end, the massive influx of veterans changes UBC almost overnight. The overall student population jumps from approximately 3,000 students in 1943 to 9,374 eager students by the 1947-1948 academic year. By the end of the 1940s, UBC graduates almost 5,000 veterans, in no small part due to generous rehabilitation programs, and the personal and vocational counselling the university affords to the veterans.

With war’s end coinciding with the surge of new students, UBC moves swiftly to adapt to its new reality. It negotiates with the federal government to acquire 15 surplus Quonset huts. Shipped to Point Grey, the ex-military huts are transformed into much-needed classrooms, laboratories, and residences for students and faculty.


“By hook or by crook we’ll make it possible for every ex-service man and woman to come to the university if he seriously wants higher education.”

Norman A.M. MacKenzie
President

Not waiting for permission, UBC President MacKenzie lays the concrete foundation for the huts before he receives official sales confirmation from Ottawa. MacKenzie’s commitment to providing a place to learn for returning veterans is unwavering. Or in his words: “By hook or by crook we’ll make it possible for every ex-service man and woman to come to the university if he seriously wants higher education.”

The post-war attention to domesticity ignites a ‘baby boom’ as the nation focuses on rebuilding and growing its economic health. Social sciences, history, international studies and economics, oceanography and medicine begin to emerge as priority areas of research supported by the UBC administration and President MacKenzie who underline the importance of courses directly related to the social good of the province.

The university’s influence grows across the entire province of BC through the courses delivered by the Department of Extension in remote areas of the province such as Alert Bay, Smithers and Pemberton. By 1949, however, UBC’s reputation reaches far beyond its provincial borders and begins to be known internationally as a leader for its cutting-edge research.

1940–1949: Timeline

Explore the era

  • Canadian World War II poster featuring a cartoon of a beaver and Hitler.

  • Gun emplacement at Point Grey Fort (located behind the current site of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology).

  • August 6 and 9, 1945, the atomic bomb, a product of the Manhattan Project, lands on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. UBC physicist George Volkoff is a member of the Manhattan Project team.

  • UBC graduates on the stairs of the National Research Council, 1947.

  • UBC’s first law class posing in front of the law huts, 1945.

  • Researcher Malcolm Knapp at the Loon Lake Camp, University Research Forest in 1949.

Norman Mackenzie

“For myself, I will do what I can for British Columbia, for the University of British Columbia and for Canada, and with the co-operation which I know I will get from the rest of you, I believe we can together accomplish a great deal. If we do this, the University will maintain its present excellent record and will go on to become one of the best and greatest universities in Canada or on this Continent, and that I am sure is the kind of future all of us wish for it.”

Norman A.M. MacKenzie
President, 1944–1962

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