Winnipeg, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, is 4,307 miles from Berlin, Germany. Much farther than Hitler's more immediate enemies in Britain and Russia. Away from the Atlantic seaboard, it seemed an unlikely place for him to invade North America.
Yet, in the early-morning darkness of February 19, 1942 the city's residents were woken by gunfire. They looked out their windows to see warplanes painted with swastikas buzzing overhead, driving off the few Canadian fighters that rose to intercept them. German troops marched through the outskirts of the city, backed up by tanks. Air-raid sirens sounded, and the city was put under blackout.
Canadian defenders (composed of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Winnipeg Grenadiers, Veterans Guard of Canada, and others) formed in the center of the city, and were directed by telephone and signal lights. Anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on enemy planes, without success. As artillery thundered and rifles cracked, German forces gradually pushed the defenders inward. Explosions were heard in the distance, as the Germans blew up bridges that might have brought reinforcements to town.
The Canadian forces fought valiantly, but were hopelessly outnumbered. By 9:30 a.m. they'd all surrendered.
|Victorious German troops drive through Winnipeg|
Unopposed, Hitler's troops spread through the city. City leaders were rounded up, arrested, and taken to detention areas. Col. Erich Von Neuremburg (the German commanding officer) issued the following decrees:
No one will act, speak or think contrary to our decrees.
- This territory is now a part of the Greater Reich and under the jurisdiction of Col. Erich Von Neuremburg, Gauleiter of the Fuehrer.
- No civilians will be permitted on the streets between 9:30 pm and daybreak.
- All public places are out of bounds to civilians, and not more than 8 persons can gather at one time in any place.
- Every household must provide billeting for 5 soldiers.
- All organizations of a military, semi-military or fraternal nature are hereby disbanded and banned. Girl Guide, Boy Scout and similar youth organizations will remain in existence but under direction of the Gauleiter and Storm troops.
- All owners of motor cars, trucks and buses must register same at Occupation Headquarters where they will be taken over by the Army of Occupation.
- 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.
- All national emblems excluding the Swastika must be immediately destroyed.
- Each inhabitant will be furnished with a ration card, and food and clothing may only be purchased on presentation of this card.
- The following offences will result in death without trial
- Attempting to organize resistance against the Army of Occupation
- Entering or leaving the province without permission.
- Failure to report all goods possessed when ordered to do so.
- Possession of firearms.
Churches were closed, and all services banned. The few clergy who dared object were arrested and taken to detention camps. City buses were stopped by armed soldiers, and their passengers were searched. The city flag was replaced by the swastika, and Winnipeg itself was renamed "Himmlerstadt." German soldiers pulled books off library shelves and burned them in the street.
|German soldiers confiscating papers from a newsman.|
Surrounding communities were also affected. Crowds confronted German soldiers in the streets of Neepawa. Virden was taken over and renamed Virdenberg. Brandon and Selkirk were bombed by Luftwaffe planes.
As troops fanned out through Winnipeg they attacked newspaper sellers and destroyed their papers. They took over radio stations, filling the airwaves with martial music and excerpts from Hitler's speeches. The now-puppet local CBC broadcast a program called "Swastika over Canada." The Winnipeg Tribune was forced to publish an edition with a front page written in German. Canadian dollars were banned, and banks were forced to issue freshly printed Reichsmarks.
The German troops went into workplaces and restaurants and took meals from citizens. They also raided stores and police stations for heavy coats, as it was a chilly 18°F (-8 C).
At one local school the principal was arrested and replaced with a German headmaster. He distributed lessons to the students about the "Nazi Truth," explaining why Hitler's leadership was in Canada's best interests.
|German soldiers leading arrested officials out of city hall.|
Of course, none of this quite really happened.
The entire occupation, called "If Day," was an elaborate, and remarkably successful, campaign to sell war bonds. The planes were Royal Canadian Air Force fighters painted with swastikas. The German troops were volunteers in rented costumes. The explosions were just show pyrotechnics. The gun, artillery, and anti-aircraft fire were all blanks. Even the books that were burned were old ones that, due to wear, had been marked for disposal. The "Reichsmarks" were counterfeit German money on one side- and an ad to buy war bonds on the other.
The Winnipeg Tribune afternoon edition was satirically renamed the Lügenblatt (German for "lies sheet"). It included an "official joke" (approved by the authorities) which ordered readers to laugh or be imprisoned.
The event was announced in advance, but many were still taken by surprise. 4 years earlier a radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" had caused widespread panic through the eastern U.S, and the Canadians didn't want a repeat. The days leading up to the "invasion" were filled with newspaper and radio warnings that it would be a staged event. Even people in neighboring Minnesota, which received CBC radio, were told.
As the invasion continued, a large map of Manitoba was posted at the intersection of Portage & Main streets in the city center. When money came in to buy war bonds from different parts of the province, areas were marked as having been "recaptured" from the Germans when they met their fundraising goals.
|The "war map"|
The idea was the brainchild of John Draper Perrin. People in the central regions of the country were far removed from the war, and he felt that a good fundraiser would be one that made them realize what life was like for civilians in occupied countries.
All-in-all, it was a very successful event. The cost of the staged invasion was $3000, and $3.2 million in war bonds were sold during its 24 hours. The total collection for the month-long campaign was $60 million. Vancouver was so impressed that it staged a smaller invasion, with similar success, and several American cities looked into doing their own.
The invasion ended at 5:30 p.m. with a ceremonial release of prisoners, victory parade, and speeches. The only real casualties of the day were a Canadian soldier who sprained his ankle, and a housewife who cut her thumb while cooking during the early-morning blackout.