1942: Spies, saboteurs and swing music

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s part of the assembly line
She’s making history
Working for victory
Rosie the Riveter
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage

– From the song Rosie the Riveter, 1942

A scene from a recent episode of Bomb Girls was filmed at the Fox Theatre, an iconic Beach location.
A scene from a recent episode of Bomb Girls was filmed at the Fox Theatre, an
iconic Beach location.

Everything seemed to be coming up ‘Rosie’ for the series Bomb Girls until Global cancelled the period drama after this, its second season. Rosie O’Donnell made a recent guest appearance and Meg Tilly won a Canadian Screen Award for Best Actress in a Continuing Dramatic Role. Bomb Girls also won for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. Set in 1940s Toronto, the show will be given a ‘Gracie’ award for Outstanding Drama (presented by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation) on May 21 at a gala in Beverley Hills.

Co-creator Adrienne Mitchell is proud that “this series honours the incredible stories of the sacrifices made by women on the home front during the Second World War.”

When the chips were down, women took over traditional male factory jobs. Even Norma Jean Dougherty (Marilyn Monroe) worked in an airplane factory.

The iconic Canadian precursor to ‘Rosie the Riveter’ on 1941 posters was ‘Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl’, Toronto’s Veronica Foster. She represented the nearly one million women who worked in our wartime munitions plants. Women found a new taste of freedom and went from baking pies to making bombs, triumphing over adversity by finding strength in one another.

The Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1942, but things were not looking so rosy on the war front. Britain had its back to the wall. Continental Europe was overrun by Germany. Ships were sunk by U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. In Long Island, New York the FBI captured eight Nazi saboteurs from a sub. The war really hit home for Canadians in August 1942 when so many of our young soldiers were killed or captured in the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France. Spirits were low.

During the war, going to the ‘pictures’ was not only popular, but also the best way to see what was going on overseas through newsreel reports. In the Bomb Girls episode Fifth Column (which refers to enemy sympathizers) the women of Victory Munitions go to watch Saboteur at our local Fox Theatre on Queen Street. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller tells the story of an innocent man blamed for a fire at an aircraft plant.

One of the ‘bomb girls’ is recruited by intelligence forces to watch out for enemy spies. Italian-Canadian worker Marco proves he’s no traitor. In the US the posters shouted, “Loose Lips Might Sink Ships.” Here in Canada, 1943 posters warned ominously, “I was the Victim of Careless Talk.” Sitting in the cosy seats at the Fox, Vera asks, “A saboteur in a war factory doesn’t seem so far-fetched any more, does it?”

Back in October, a trusty spy informed me that there was filming at the Fox Theatre (open since April, 1914) with actors in 1940s clothes and a vintage car on Queen. I knew it had to be Bomb Girls. Period pieces take us back to a different time and place … the music, fashion, romance and intrigue of living in a dangerous era.

In 1942, Bogie said “Play it, Sam” in Casablanca and Bing Crosby sang White Christmas. Japanese-Canadians were interned. Commander Ian Fleming of British Naval Intelligence (later author of James Bond novels) visited the ‘Camp X’ spy training school near Bowmanville. Fleming was also head of a commando raid at Dieppe that tried to capture a German Enigma code machine.

Bomb Girls is much more than nostalgia. It has a lot to say about prejudice and equality and reminds us of the sacrifices made by all Canadians in the Second World War. The grandfather of Charlotte Hegele, who plays Kate, fought at Dieppe where tragic lessons were learned for the 1944 Normandy invasion.

While American posters warned that ‘Loose lips might sink ships’, Canadian posters were no less dramatic warning of  secrecy during wartime.
While American posters warned that ‘Loose lips might sink ships’, Canadian posters were no less dramatic warning of secrecy during wartime.

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