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The “Nazi” Invasion of Winnipeg

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

“If Day” was designed to give North Americans a taste of what German aggression in Europe might feel like and to raise money through the sale of war bonds. Dressed in Nazi uniforms borrowed from Hollywood, men entered Winnipeg, Manitoba on a frigid February 19 with the goal of taking over and administering the city.

Nazi salutes as storm troopers enter Winnipeg.

Nazi salutes as storm troopers enter Winnipeg.

Methodical Planning

Fake Nazi occupations were held in several communities in North America, but nowhere was the exercise taken more seriously than in Winnipeg.

Planners wanted the attack to be as realistic as possible. Royal Canadian Air Force planes with Luftwaffe markings simulated dive-bombing the city. Anti-aircraft batteries fired blanks at the attackers.

Volunteers from the Young Men’s Section of the Winnipeg Board of Trade dressed up as storm troopers. The defence of the city was handed to 3,500 soldiers from the Winnipeg Light Infantry, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, and other units. There were simulations of bridges being blown up using dynamite and coal dust.

Dressing stations were set up to handle mock casualties. There were two actual casualties; one was a housewife who accidentally cut her hand when she was startled by the explosions, the other was a soldier with a sprained ankle.

The Attack Begins

At 6 a.m. on February 19, 1942, air raid sirens began wailing all over Winnipeg. On the outskirts of the city there were sounds of explosions and rifle fire.

Very quickly, Wehrmacht soldiers in battle dress and riding armoured vehicles rode into the city centre. They reached City Hall at 9.30 a.m. and arrested the mayor and other officials. Then, it was on to the Provincial Legislature where they captured the Premier and the Lieutenant-Governor.

By noon, the invading force had complete control of the city and jack-booted soldiers goose-stepped down Portage Avenue, Winnipeg’s main thoroughfare.

Life under Occupation

The “If Day” exercise was carefully designed to give residents a feel for what enemy occupation might feel like. Residents were warned by an article in The Winnipeg Free Press two days earlier that the make believe attack was about to take place. But, not everybody read the newspaper.

Many Winnipeggers, such as 12-year-old Diane Edgelow and her mother, did not know about the pretend invasion. Diane was sent out to buy a loaf of bread. She recalled later that bridges “were guarded by German soldiers; they seemed to be everywhere. I was so scared.” When she paid for the bread she was given her change in German Reichsmarks.

Road blocks were set up at main intersections and buses stopped. Passengers were ordered to show their identity papers and questioned “roughly” by one description. Storm troopers entered restaurants and ejected the customers.

A fake issue of The Winnipeg Tribune was printed renamed Das Winnipegger Lugenblatt. It trumpeted how “Everywhere the forces of the great and valiant Nazi army are bringing the New Order to the Provinz of the Greater Germany.”

The city got a new name, Himmlerstadt, and Portage Avenue became Adolf Hitler Strasse.

A gauleiter was appointed to manage the city along with a Gestapo chief. Soldiers stormed into the city’s main library and came out carrying books that were dumped on a bonfire (The books had been slated for destruction). Elsewhere, places of worship were locked and notices advised congregations that religious services were banned.

A newspaper vendor is harassed by pretend Nazis.

A newspaper vendor is harassed by pretend Nazis.

The Winnipeg Decree

Gauleiter of the Fuehrer, Colonel Erich Von Neuremburg posted proclamations across the city laying down the rules for citizens.

  • There was a curfew from 9:30 p.m. to dawn;
  • A limit of eight people gathering was imposed;
  • “Every householder must provide billeting for five soldiers;
  • Organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides were disbanded. This applied also to Kiwanis, Rotary, and other similar groups;
  • “Each farmer must immediately report all stocks of grain and livestock and no farm produce may be sold except through the office of the Kommandant of supplies in Winnipeg. He may not keep any for his own consumption but must buy it back through the Central Authority in Winnipeg.”
  • Death without trial was the automatic sentence for organizing resistance, possession of firearms, and entering or leaving Manitoba without permission.
Mayor John Queen and some alderman are arrested.

Mayor John Queen and some alderman are arrested.

Selling Victory Bonds

At sunset, the “invading troops” mustered in the centre of Winnipeg and marched out of town, their job done. The purpose of the exercise was to raise awareness of the conditions under which the people of occupied Europe were suffering and to sell Victory Bonds to help pay for their liberation.

The goal for Manitoba was $45 million; it topped this by raising $47 million. That adds up to about $660 million in today’s money.

Dr. Jody Perrun, author of, The Patriotic Consensus: Unity, Morale, and the Second World War in Winnipeg (2014), calculated that Canada spent $22 billion on the war effort, of which about $12 billion was raised through the sale of Victory Bonds. These were bought by people, often through payroll deduction schemes, and by businesses.

Bonus Factoids

  • The planners of “If Day” kitted the attacking soldiers out in regular Wehrmacht uniforms that left them close to hypothermia in the −8 °C (18 °F) cold. This was a lesson learned a few months earlier when the Nazis invaded Russia. The high command thought the conquest would be complete before winter and so didn’t equip the soldiers with cold weather clothing. The effect was devastating.
  • “If Day” in Winnipeg was covered by the international media: The New York Times, Life Magazine, British Pathé, and The Christian Science Monitor all sent reporters to the scene.
  • On the same day that Winnipeggers witnessed Nazi soldiers in their streets, the people of Darwin, Australia had to endure the real thing. On February 19, 1942, 242 Japanese airplanes bombed the northern Australian city, killing 236 people and wounding up to 300 others. The attack raised fears, thankfully unfounded, that Japan was about to invade Australia.

Sources

  • “February 19, 1942: If Day.” Manitoba History, Spring 1987.
  • “IF DAY: The Occupation of Manitoba.” Graham Chandler, Legion Magazine, February 1, 2017.
  • “Rare Photos from ‘If Day’ — the Time Winnipeg Staged a Full-Scale Nazi Invasion of Itself.” Tristin Hopper, National Post, February 21, 2019.
  • “When War Came to Winnipeg.” Christian Cassidy, Winnipeg Free Press, February 19, 2017.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on October 31, 2020:

I consider myself reasonably well-versed in Canadian history but I'd never heard about this until I tripped over a reference to it in an obscure place a while back. Once I started researching it I find multiple references. It always amazes me how fascinating stories can hide in plain sight.

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on October 31, 2020:

When I first read the headline I thought this might be an article on the radicalization of extreme groups in Winnipeg. I had no idea there really was a Nazi connection during the long ago war years. I am now enlightened.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on October 30, 2020:

Wow ... never heard of this.

"A limit of eight people gathering was imposed;" - Sounds like covid times lol

"The city got a new name, Himmlerstadt," - Haha!! Someone took the game very seriously lol I suppose since Canada never had any real serious wars (in contrast to Europe), faking a little war can have quite the effect on people.

Very interesting. Thank You for sharing this bit of history. Stay safe and all the best!

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on October 30, 2020:

This is informative and engaging like so much of your writing is.