Halifax, VE Day: A Censor Describes a Riot
H. Bruce Jefferson
Jefferson, a long-time journalist in Nova Scotia, was the government’s press censor in Halifax during World War II. Jefferson was a packrat who, from his room on the top floor of Halifax’s Lord Nelson Hotel, acted more like a spy than a censor. He photographed convoys and warships as they came and left the city, kept tabs on all of the U-boat attacks in the northwestern Atlantic, was wired into Halifax’s busy gossip grapevine, and, months before the Halifax Riot, predicted there would be trouble at war’s end. During the riot of soldiers and sailors that followed the announcement of V-E Day, Jefferson wandered the city looking for material to send to his superiors and colleagues in Ottawa. Jefferson blamed the riots on the snobbery of Halifax business owners and residents who, he believed, had no qualms about fleecing soldiers and sailors stationed in Halifax while, at the same time, snubbing them. The riot ruined Adm. Murray’s career.
Because the weather forecasters predicted rain for tomorrow, the Halifax committee had decided not to await Churchill's announcement of VE day, but to shoot their fireworks ex George's Island this evening.
The display began about 2100 hours, and Citadel Hill was absolutely jammed with thousands of people watching the affair, which lasted for nearly two hours.
As soon as it was over the crowd began to come down from the hill, serious rioting broke out on downtown street. First I saw of it was a dull glare over Barrington street, where they had set fire to two street cars, and upset a police patrol car, letting the burning gas run over the pavement.
Through the open window we could hear the crash of glass as window after window went in, and soon over the roofs we could see the crowd breaking into the Sackville street liquor store.
About 2 a.m., I got a car and toured the devastated area, which did not look too bad at that time, broken glass being the main item. Three of the liquor stores bad been looted, and about 250 RCN shore patrolmen were gathered around the fourth, on Agricola Street in the North End.
This had not been touched.
By this time the rioters had gone home, and nothing more happened Monday night.
During the late evening I passed stories for Dennis, Ken Chisholm (Globe & Mail) and several others, all somewhat lurid and placing the damage at $1,000,000.
May 8, 1945.
This morning had several enquiries from locals and wire services about coverage of last night's riots, which I assured them were wide open, as no security was
In the afternoon I attended a short garrison drum-head service of prayer and thanksgiving on the Garrison Grounds, back of the Citadel, and just west of the old Atlantic Command HQ.
There was quite a large turnout of troops of all branches (Navy, Army, Air Force and women auxiliaries) but they did not show any particular enthusiasm over the business-- as it turned out, their thoughts must have been with their brethren down town.
Coming down Sackville Street, near the corner of Barrington, our ears were greeted with the now familiar sound of falling plate glass. I spent some time observing the scene from various angles, and it kept getting worse and worse as the afternoon advanced. When most of the plate glass had been smashed, people climbed into the windows and kicked in the glass or thin wood backs of the show windows, and entered the stores. In some cases goods were thrown from upper windows to the crowd below, in others the stuff was merely carried out.
Generally speaking, the service men, principally navy although there were lots of Army and Air Force boys, too, took the physical and other risks of breaking and entering, while the civilians cheered them on and carried off the loot.
There was absolutely no interference with them by city or service police or RCMP. There was so much going on that it was like a 43 ring circus, and no one person could begin to follow all of it. For example, one Barrington street crowd broke into Eaton's store, and for a time it looked as if nothing was being taken, but in the meantime another crowd had obtained entrance through Granville Street, and were carrying goods away by the ton through rear doors and windows.
It was the same everywhere.
As we passed the corner of Granville and Sackville, some people were looting the best shoe store in town. A man would appear at a window up two or three flights, with half a dozen shoe boxes in his hands, and throw them down to pals below. On the way down the boxes would open and the shoes get scattered, and then one fellow with a number seven worth $15 a pair would be hunting for somebody else who had the mate and vice versa.
There were all kinds of comic incidents, such as the old lady who must have been 75 or 80, with her dress covered with old war medals, who came up the
car tracks arm in arm with a young airman, each drinking from bottles of beer and singing lustily. Later they did a sort of square dance in the intersection of Sackville and Barrington, and one of the locals took and printed a picture of it. In some ways it reminded me of a scene from the French revolution movies.
I forgot to mention that when I came out of the hotel shortly after noon on my way to the Garrison Grounds, I noticed a number of beer parties beginning on the lawn around the Cornwallis statue across the drive from the Nova Scotian. Other sailors kept arriving with cases on their shoulders, and I vaguely wondered how they had been able to save it from the night before. It turned out that they were even then looting Keith's Brewery, and as we went up South street more sailors kept arriving, and a standard salutation was "Well, I see the liquor store is open today, after all."
At one point a civilian came dashing down the line to warn the sailors that RCN patrol trucks were touring the city snatching cases back from sailors, and that they had better get rid of the boxes at once. This proved to be a racket. When the sailors would rush to hide their boxes under verandahs, etc., other civvies would call them away on one pretext or another, while still others made off with the cached beer.
One man told me he was looking for hard liquor but was unable to locate any. Some friends invited him into have a drink of beer. While they were chatting,
a policeman who knew him came in and said: "What are you doing here?" He said: "Having a drink of beer." The cop said: "O.K. but let me have that box of brandy you're sitting on."
One of the last places attacked was Birks' store, and they made quite a mess of it. While watching the crowd go through Birks, I ran across A.D. MacNeill, former owner of the Glace Bay Gazette who sold that sheet to the U.M.W. when he had to retire on account of ill health, and learned for the first time that A.D. has been living since October at 129 Spring Garden Road.
It was at this time (about 1855 hours) that I heard a horn car coming through the crowd, and a voice which I recognized as that Admiral Murray commanding the service people to go home to their barracks. For a moment I thought that he must have made a record of the kind sometimes used in these cars, but in a few seconds, I heard an impromptu remark from the horn which showed me that the Admiral himself was on board, and when the car came past I recognized him in the front seat.
The gist of his remarks were:
"This is the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Murray, in person. The mayor of Halifax has declared a curfew effective at 8 p.m. Any service personnel found on the street after that hour will be subject to the full penalties of the law."
Some sailor must have interjected a wisecrack as the car went by, as the Admiral said: "This is the Commander-in-Chief speaking -- and that’s not funny at all." I did not hear the statement attributed to him by the Chronicle and Star and others to the effect that "You don’t want to get caught with loot, do you?" or words to that effect. From the general tenor of his remarks, I would gather that if he did make such a remark it was only ambiguously worded, and meant that they would not want to expose themselves, etc. for staying after 8 P.M.
The Admiral came around several times, completely circling the district, and there were slight variations in his remarks each time. For example, someone must have asked if this applied only to service people, because on his second circuit he took pains to specify civilians as well as personnel were subject to the order. (Which, incidentally, I am informed by one of the brightest legal minds in Cape Breton is all baloney and has no standing in law whatever.)
However, the bluff, or whatever it was, worked. As soon as the Admiral came around the first time, all service people on the spectator side of the street
began to move away toward barracks, etc. and within a short time even the rioters departed, except for a few in the stores who possibly could not hear the horn or had not taken in what it said.
To my mind this indicates that if similar action had been taken earlier, the whole business could have been avoided. It was the slowness of action that permitted the chief destruction to occur.
I have been told that while there was some desultory activity in other parts of the city, on Gottingen Street and elsewhere, no damage of importance took place after the admiral made his rounds. Thousands were still AWOL but were parked with beer cases in such dark spots as Point Pleasant Park, Camp Hill Cemetery, etc.
The job was a very thorough one, and cleaned out the various business areas completely. Barrington was smashed and looted on both sides from the Convoy cafe (which is between the Nova Scotian park and Morris Street, for a distance of two miles to the end of the store district above the Dockyard. Gottingen is smashed from Cogswell to Stadacona. The East-West streets like Spring Garden Road and Quinpool Road escaped attention altogether. But all the hill-side streets lying between Brunswick and Water street in the old city were cleaned out in toto.
Woods’ -- the place Jacques was asking about -- was the only downtown store to escape glass damage or looting. Why, Lord only knows as their clothing prices were terrible. They took no chances on a second visitation and boarded them up right away. Everything else along there was smashed.
The crowd also smashed some of the windows in the Mounties barracks (old Halifax Hotel) not the plate glass lobby windows, but smaller panes in the adjoining Julien section. There were all kinds of queer sights, such as looters using the RCMP verandah to lay out their dresses, stockings, etc. and pack them into neater bundles for carrying. Cash registers lay all over the streets with their keys bent and twisted.
(I picked up a brand new quarter on the curb in front of the little Ideal store, where some fellow was busy bagging up sugar for himself out of a bin beneath the counter.)
When we went home to dinner, a sailor's dream was being enacted on the front steps of the Nova Scotian. A captain (four striper) was standing in stiff dignity waiting for a taxi, with a sailor in a jersey haranguing him and the crowd on the Navy and what he thought of it. In front of the captain in civvies, was an old jovial veteran of the last war, with one leg and crutches. Both the veteran and the sailor were pretty drunk, and behind the captain was an open mouthed audience of retired duchesses from the hotel hanging on every word. The sailor, however, was good-natured and polite, although drunk, and refrained from any really naughty language. The conversation as I came up was going something like this:
Old Vet: "Now, me lad, you shouldn't be carrying on like this. Remember you are a member of the Silent Service."
Sailor: "To hell with the Silent Service. I wasted three years and a half in it, and they can take their silent service and put it you know where."
Old Vet: "Tut, tut. That's no way to be talking in front of your captain."
Sailor: "He ain't my captain and you can put him you know where."
Old Vet: "You wouldn't talk like that to him if you were on the quarter deck."
Sailor: "I ain't on the quarter deck, and neither is he, and you can take your quarter deck and put it you know where."
Old Vet: "Have you no respect for your superiors in rank? Don't they teach you any discipline in the Navy?"
Sailor: "They ain't my superiors except in rank, and I've seen all the captains and admirals I want to see for the rest of my life, and you can take your captains and admirals and you can put them you know where."
The sailor carried an open bottle of rum in his left hand and never lost his polite leer and this went on and on until the skipper's taxi finally arrived and he left in a cloud of dust much to the chagrin of the aforesaid dowagers and duchesses who apparently were getting quite a kick our of it. Similar scenes were going on all over town, although there were no attacks on officers with the exception of Commander Smith, who was found on King's campus with his head bashed in, but there is some uncertainty whether this was an accident or someone settling up old scores.
Although I did not see it myself, I understand that some of the Cwacs and Wrens also distinguished themselves in the "Battle of Halifax," which was a long while getting here but turned out to be a lulu when it finally arrived.
I heard one yarn about two Wrens who were fighting half a dozen sailors in a vacant lot bounded by a board fence, lined with spectators who applauded lustily as one side or the other scored a particularly telling point.
The harbor side of Citadel Hill staged the biggest beer picnics in the history of the city, and there are some almost incredibly, but apparently yell authenticated yarns about genuine "orgies" which went on in such public places as Grafton Park and Cornwallis Park (in front of the NSH).
One of the features on the Commons was a nude dance put on by members of several of the services. Apparently old Robespierre and the boys would have felt right at home in the Warden of the Honor of the North on May 7-8/45.
A lot of this stuff no doubt will come out at the official hearings.
We had very few submissions on this event, in fact mostly enquiries, from the newspapers and services. The wire censors (as old soldiers mostly) were shocked beyond words, and frequently referred the flamboyant stuff that was being sent, out in query and story form by various local feature writers at last free to give full rein to their natural instincts in the matter of exaggeration.
I passed everything, telling the boys that there is no censorship on this. I had a particularly strong kick about Eric Dennis including rape as one of the features of the day, and I think this is a fake, or at least based on very slight grounds, as no such charge has appeared since in local courts. All accounts of the day's activities agree that this would have been a work of supererogation.
Neither of the locals had intended to publish today, but on account of unusual circumstances, both Mail and Star put out extras replete with editorials, stories and pictures.
The Mail blew rather hot and cold, one front page editorial deploring the incident and demanding vengeance and recompense, while another took pains to point out that the whole Navy should not be blamed for the actions of a comparatively small number.
The Star rather stole the show with a front page editorial actually naming Admiral Murray as the person responsible for the whole business by reason of his alleged failure to take prompt and vigorous action to stop the rioting before it got started again on the second day.
In the evening, over CHNS, Admiral Murrary made a short statement in which he maintained that naval personnel were only a small part of the shock troops and that civilians were primarily to blame for both breaking and looting.
He was followed at 1900 hours by Mayor Butler, who followed the Star lead in naming Admiral Murray as the chief cause of the trouble, demanded compensation, and added the charge that many of those (provosts) sent to quell the rioting had in fact deserted to the rioters.
(Mr. Pickering, an old soldier who works upstairs, had predicted this very result if small pickets were used against the rioters, saying that the same thing happened in 1900 when Halifax troops sent on a similar errand hid their rifles behind fences and joined in the disturbances. He was through Boer War troop riots in Newcastle and Durban, South Africa, in 1899, Halifax: riots in 1900, and additional local riots in 1917, 1918 and 1919, and qualifies as something of an expert on the subject.)
May 10, 1945.
Last night Bob Rankin (managing editor of the Halifax Herald) told me that they were going to give Murray the ride of his life. I said: "I thought he was a pal of yours"? Bob said: "Like Hell he is. He hates my guts and I hate his and I am going after him in good style."
Today they did assail the Admiral but still not as outspokenly as the Star did yesterday.
In reply to Mr. Isley's appointment of Cousins, Port Administrator, to investigate the riots, the Star ran another front page editorial "Cousins Won't do," and concurrently Cousins notified the acting premier that he felt this should be handled by a judicial rather than an administrative officer.
This about brings the developments up to date, and I add a few comments of my own, based upon local observation:
1. Apparently the Admiral did not realize the extent of the damage until he made his first round in the horn car at 6.55 p.m. Up to that time he had been relying on reports from subordinates, a bad feature of the Navy and also rampant in the RN. Even as good an officer as Bonham Carter sometimes would not know of the presence of an important ship until three or four days after she arrived.
2. There seems to be a tendency to jump on the Admiral now that they think they have him down. Stories even were circulated that he had left town when he heard about the murder or whatever it was of Commander Smith. I am also skeptical about the reports that the chief of police couldn't get him at 11 p.m. One surprising thing about Murray, for a conservative brass hat he certainly is, that he answers the phone himself at both office and home, instead of straining calls through servants, secretaries and so forth as is the usual custom of higher officers.
3. From the prompt response to his first order to get out of the devastated area, I think there would have been no afternoon riots on the 8th if this had been done during the progress of the one the night before. After all, although there were thousands and thousands of people on Barrington and adjoining streets, not a tenth of them were active rioters. The rest were merely spectators. Even the actual heavy civilian looters were confined mostly to men, women and children from the poor relief and red light districts on the streets immediately below the citadel.
At the same time there were thousands of what I might call "incidental" minor looters, such as well dressed people of all ranks who obtained small souvenirs of one kind and another, or picked up packages of cigarettes sown broadcast by celebrating sailors from tobacco stores, etc.
4. It was the best natured riot I ever attended. There were a few comedy fights between sailors and other rioters, but absolutely no friction between rioters and civilians. In fact it was not unusual for some fellow staggering toward a window with a club to bump a civvie and stop and say "Excuse it, please," only to resume his crashing the next minute. In fact the rioters seemed to enjoy their audience and were stimulated to new exertions by it.
5. There are said to be three main reasons for the riot, and no doubt dozens of minor motives. But in various parts of the disturbance I heard a number of scattered sailors giving reasons like these:
(a) They felt that their time in the Navy has been wasted. Presumably they expected to be sent to sea and instead were kept ashore on piffling jobs which they felt could have been carried on by any kid, thereby missing the promotion they might have had in their own trades.
(b) They felt that they have been rooked and robbed by Halifax landlords and profiteers. I heard many men make statements to that effect during the riots, and many civilians who were not rioters remarked that they had a just grievance there, although this was not an effective solution.
(c) They resented the actions of retailers who have made fortunes out of them during the war, barricading their places as against criminals. Particularly
they resented the closing of the liquor stores several days before VE Day.
Innumerable remarks were overheard to the effect that "this is one time the ratings as well as the messes will have their liquor."
(I am informed that in the Navy each officer is allowed a monthly quota of six bottles of rum or whiskey, which he is able to purchase for about $1 each, while the men have to come down town and pay full prices (averaging $5.) at the public stores.) Although I am not a liquor store or beer parlor fan, seems to me that better judgment was shown by old Enos Collins and the pioneer profiteers of 1812-14. Their custom on VE Day was to put a hogshead of rum in the public square and let all hands go to it. When that one was gone, hey put out another until all hands were dead drunk and there was no further danger to premises. It was cheap insurance and apparently worked.)
6. While the streets looked as if a V-bomb had hit them during the actual riot and shortly afterward, and a returned officer told me that it looked as bad as some the captured towns in Italy, actually the substantial damage is not so very great.
With the streets swept of glass, and the store fronts boarded up until new plate arrives, buildings show no other signs of exterior damage. Nor is the interior damage much, except to breakables like show cases and china.
For example, right after the riot I went in to see the damage at the Casino Cafe, just across the square from the NSH. The windows had been smashed, some of the pictures and silk fittings torn down and so forth, and the place was dirty and looked like the wreck of the Hesperus. Proprietor said "You buy bonds, you help the war, and look at this. Even the Germans wouldn't have done worse if they bad come."
However, I notice today that he had resumed business and the interior shows little signs of damage. Most other restaurants are making a similar comeback with the exception of a couple of notorious gyppers who were given the works. Norman had a close call, but showed great t presence of mind in meeting them at the door and lining them up at the counter for cigarettes, coffee, muffins and so forth. They left with three cheers, but later his windows were broken by another mob, but this did not damage the interior of his place.
As far as the general run of store-keepers is concerned, I think the situation is this: Actually the rioters have done them a favor by cleaning out the old war worn fixtures and junk. They will now get full compensation from the government and be in a better position than ever.
Col. Powers, who himself is highly indignant over the business, told me today that he had been talking to his Montreal of Ottawa HQ and had found that the reaction in Upper Canada was: "Served them right for profiteering. The Halifax store-keepers had it coming to them.” One bad feature of the affair was that owing to the large number of participants, no discrimination was made between those who had rooked the sailor and those who had treated them fairly. Local papers are compiling a list to show that some of those looted were war veterans, or had sons or daughters in the armed forces. This, however, in Halifax, means little or nothing, as I am told that some of the worst profiteers are war vets themselves. Since the place was founded in 1749, it has been noted for war profiteering, and for the unusual fact that profiteer families invariably have been heavily represented in the actual fighting forces.
7. Complete breakdown of police protection. There was absolutely no police attempt to interfere with breaking and entering, looting, etc. Some truckloads of naval police arrived at various times, and after standing uncertainly for awhile, disappeared just as the worst atrocities were being committed.
In Sydney, where rioting of the same general character occurred about the same time, city, service and RCMP combined forces and easily drove the rioters out of the business district. I think the same thing might have succeeded here. Instead the police adopted a policy of non-intervention and watchful waiting, meanwhile taking the names of all they could identify. These people are now being locked up and raided. A few already have pleaded guilty and been sent to the pen.
One comic aspect of the raids was that in many cases police searching for goods stolen from stores on the eighth, turned up big caches of United States Army rations, tinned fruits, candy, cigarettes, etc, from the wreck of the Martin van Buren (January) referred to by me in previous rulings. In one instance they unearthed a truck with the original January load still in it.
8. It appeared to me that most of the service MPs or shore patrols had no police experience. They drove up in their trucks and then stoop about uncertainly.
An example: When I visited Agricola Street at 2 a. m. Tuesday, there were about 240 shore patrolmen grouped about it, and no successful attack was possible. For some reason these men were withdrawn and only two Mounties remained inside. A few hours later the place was attacked by a large mob and the Mounties, unable to resist such a crowd opened the doors themselves, I am told, to avoid unnecessary damage to the building.