Exile Air tells inspiring story of World War II “Little Norway” in Canada

Book review By Gord McNulty

Exile Air by Andrea Baston

The contributions of the young Norwegian airmen who trained in Canada during the Second World War, first in Toronto and then in Muskoka, are described in an excellent new book. Author Andrea Baston provides a comprehensive overview of the fascinating story of “Little Norway” in her well written and well illustrated volume, Exile Air.

Canada, home of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, quickly proved to be an ideal refuge for Norwegian airmen after Nazi Germany invaded Norway in 1940. The Royal Norwegian Air Force initially built a training camp at the Island Airport in Toronto. Recruits came from everywhere to join and many risked their lives just to get from Norway to Toronto.

Soon, Fairchild Cornell trainers and other aircraft arrived at Little Norway and were flying over the city. Torontonians welcomed the Norwegians with open arms and friendships blossomed. Little Norway’s airmen found ways to help the Norwegian government in exile, pledging a portion of their pay for a Spirit of Little Norway Fund used to purchase three Cornells.

It was a demanding and hectic period. The Island Airport became crowded and training fatalities occurred. The most serious accident occurred in June, 1941, when a RNAF Northrop Nomad seaplane struck the upper level of a passenger ferry, the Sam McBride, sailing across Toronto Harbour. Both RNAF pilots died. Luckily, no one on the ferry was hurt. The frequency of accidents was a major issue at an inquest.

Relocation of Little Norway to Muskoka Airport, a safer airfield that didn’t have much air traffic, became a necessity. The Norwegians received a rousing ovation from a crowd of 2,000 people at opening ceremonies in May, 1942. RCAF and RNAF flags were raised and Cornells flew overhead.

The relationship between Gravenhurst citizens and Little Norway was superb. Andrea Baston, a lawyer who grew up in Gravenhurst, describes living conditions in depth, with colourful details exemplified by at least three orphaned bear cubs raised by the RNAF. A black bear cub named “Funny” wrestled with the men in the evenings and loved to drink beer and Coca-Cola!

Before the Norwegians prepared to return to Norway after its liberation, they held a special ceremony to say farewell to Canada. On Feb. 17, 1945, more than 1,000 guests gathered at the Little Norway hangar. There was relief the war was coming to an end, but the day was tinged with sadness at the departure of the Norwegians.

LCol Ole Reistad, Commanding Officer of Little Norway, told the crowd Canadians would “forever occupy a special place” in Norwegians’ hearts for “the care and support that was given their flying sons on foreign soil in a dark hour.” He spoke of the friendship between the two countries that would grow stronger. At sunset, the RCAF and RNAF flags were lowered.

During the war, 3,323 personnel trained at Little Norway, nearly 2,000 of whom went overseas to fight the enemy. Flying in Norwegian squadrons of Britain’s Royal Air Force, they hunted enemy submarines off Iceland, battled Nazi fighter planes, flew bombers over Germany, and dropped secret agents behind enemy lines. Some 309 RNAF members died. A total of 213 Norwegians married during their time in Canada, and 93 children were born to RNAF personnel.

Today, the RNAF training camps in Canada are fittingly commemorated in a granite monument at Little Norway Park in Toronto’s waterfront and at a memorial at the Muskoka Airport terminal. Andrea Baston deserves full credit for further enriching a story that remains a significant, respected part of the history of both Norway and Canada.

Exile Air, published by Old Stone Books Ltd. (, 240 pages, $28.95 plus tax and shipping.