Bomb Girls

Bomb Girls: A Documentary

Coming to Bell Fibe Channel 1 and 1001

Fall, 2017

 

 

Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo

Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo

“Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo” is available for purchase at your favourite book store (including Chapters and Indigo.) Copies can be found at Amazon or Dundurn as well.

Introduction

The vast majority of people who live in Ontario are unaware that an extensive abandoned tunnel system runs under the city of Toronto. During the Second World War, the Canadian government built a sprawling top secret munitions plant outside the city limits in the rural community of Scarborough. The plant, called GECO, comprised 346 acres, over four kilometres of tunnels, and 172 buildings (built in five months!)

Bomb Girls:Trading Aprons for Ammo is a comprehensive, historical record of Canada’s biggest WWII munitions plant employing over 21,000 citizens, predominantly women, who courageously worked with high explosives around the clock over its four year history. The book offers a unique, intimate, and extraordinary glimpse into the lives and hearts of these dedicated Canadians. In-person interviews with the women who risked their lives every time they stepped onto the “cleanside” of the plant lend a personal, distinctive perspective to the book. Their stories reveal tenacity, dedication, patriotism, and resolve in a time when the concept of women working outside the home was a cultural anomaly. Bomb Girls captures, in a dramatic way, the dangerous work these brave young women performed. It’s imperative to pass along their enduring legacy to the generations to come. Bomb Girls can be purchased at Amazon and Dundurn or at a book store near you.

History of Scarborough’s Bomb Girls

Aerial View of GECO

Aerial View of GECO

The story of General Engineering Company (Canada) Limited, locally known as “GECO” (pronounced “Gee-ko”), was set against the backdrop of a world at war. On September 10, 1939, a mere two decades after the “War to End All Wars” ended, Canada once again was thrust into a growing global conflict.

Canadians knew if they had any hope to beat Hitler and his belligerent bullies, the Allied Forces would need not only every able-bodied man Canada could muster to fight, but a steady stream of ammunition as well.    With countless thousands fighting overseas, countless more men and women worked tirelessly in Canadian war plants, producing everything from planes and tanks to ammo and bandages. GECO personnel often referred to their workers as the “Fourth Arm of the Service” or the “Girls behind the Guns.”

On January 27, 1941, His Majesty, King George expropriated land from seven landowners in Scarboro, Ontario. On February 6, 1941, without pomp or circumstance, without a single speech or a silver shovel, the frozen ground to the future GECO plant was broken. Just three months later, the first shipment of “empties” arrived, and production was under way. By September, 1941, 172 buildings were built with GECO becoming a “mini-city” encompassing 346 acres amid the gently rolling farmland of Scarboro. GECO would become the largest fuze-filling plant in Canada’s history.

By the time Germany unconditionally surrendered on May 7, 1945, GECO had filled over 256 million munitions, enabling, by far, the greatest amount of heavy ammunition produced in Canada from 1940 to 1945.Incredibly, GECO would suffer no fatal accidents, despite over 21,000 employees—predominately women—handling high explosives and gunpowder twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, for four years. Truly, a rare accomplishment in global arsenal practice.

In the words of General Gordon Sullivan, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, “World War II was the largest and most violent armed conflict in the history of mankind.”

Filling Assembly at GECO - Primer 15

Filling Assembly at GECO – Primer 15

Over seventy years have passed, and while the events of World War II continue to stir the interest of military scholars and veterans, historians, and students, a generation of the global community has grown up mostly unaware of “the political, social, and military implications of a war that, more than any other, united us as a people.

These pages are dedicated, not only to the men and women who worked at GECO during the Second World War, but to the millions who gave their lives so that we, as a nation, can live in freedom.

Lest we forget.

Links:

Original GECO Tunnel under Scarborough, Ontario

Tunnels under Scarborough, Ontario

Scarborough Police Dept at GECO

Post-war Emergency Housing at GECO

Original GECO Shift House in 2012

GECO in 2016

Bomb Girls Citations/Notes

Bomb Girls Citations/Notes

Readers Respond to Bomb Girls

Readers Respond to Bomb Girls

Archived Comments about Scarborough's Bomb Girls

Archived Comments about Scarborough’s Bomb Girls

Bomb Girls Cornucopia

Bomb Girls Cornucopia

 

54 comments for “Bomb Girls

  1. Laurie
    September 16, 2017 at 9:48 pm

    Hi, I am looking for further information on the Sept 23 tour – can anyone join?

    • September 17, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Hi Laurie, thanks for your inquiry. The GECO tour set for the 23rd of September is a private tour; not open to the public unfortunately. The site is very old, and much care is needed by participants to stay safe around hazards in the area. “Tourists” must be agile and be ever mindful of their surroundings. Many logistical problems around safety and accessibility would have to be overcome to allow public access. But I guess that’s one reason why the tunnels under Scarborough appeal to so many. Take care, Barbara

  2. Vivien Thompson
    July 28, 2017 at 1:23 am

    I would like information about the tour Aug. 13, the location and times. Vivien Thompson

    • August 3, 2017 at 10:14 am

      Hello Vivien, thanks for your interest in attending a GECO tour. I have forwarded your contact information to the tour coordinator. It’s a private tour so you’ll need their agreement. Hopefully you’ll hear something soon to see if there’s room for one more. If so, I’ll see you there! Have a great day! Barbara

  3. Tara
    July 21, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Thank you for writing about these amazing women! I did some reading on the ladies in Britain but had not been aware of Scarborough until my great aunt Mary Franklin (nee Bartlett) told me she was a bomb girl in Scarborough. She has just recently passed – a week before her 103rd birthday. I have a photo of her with all the women and men in her area now so I can continue to admire her unstoppable spirit!

  4. Gordon Maclennan
    July 20, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    great.scarborough to be proud

  5. June 27, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    I had a friend who his wife worked at GECO ,one day there was a terrible explosion
    my friends wife was terribly injured so bad that when she came home from hospital
    she never went out of the house. My friend nursed her till she died ,that,s were I met
    My friend at the funeral ,we became fast friends for many years.

    • June 30, 2017 at 9:51 am

      Hello David, thank you for your post. How terrible for your friend and their mother to suffer such a grave injury at GECO. This is the first time I’ve heard of a serious accident at the plant. What was your friend’s mother’s name? Do you know where she worked at the plant? I’d like to do some research into the event. Is your friend still alive? Could I meet with them or you? Please pass along my condolences. I look forward to hearing from you. Barbara

  6. Marlene Rankin (nee Renaud)
    June 18, 2017 at 11:02 pm

    Hello Barbara: My Mom, Irene Hall and her three sisters, Evelyn Hall, Mary Hall and Vera Hall all worked at GECO in the early 40’s. My Mom had her finger cut off when one of the machines that sewed the boxes with munitions in it jammed. Her finger was put into a bottle and displayed for many years re. safety in the workplace. They lived on Medford Avenue at Warden and Danforth. My Mom became a floor supervisor at GECO and that is when she met my Dad. Roland Renaud and they married in 1945. My mom had 7 brothers and sisters who have all passed, but I have an Aunt by marriage who is 84 years old and I am going to talk to her to see if she remembers anything about GECO. I am going to buy the book Bomb Girls and I was wondering if there are any other books about GECO. It is sad that we didn’t ask questions about GECO when they were all alive. I am 67 years old now.

    • June 19, 2017 at 7:51 am

      Hi Marlene,
      Thanks for your post. I would love to meet you for a coffee to chat about your mom and her sisters time at GECO. While I’m sorry to hear that your mom was injured during her time at GECO, I’m impressed they kept her finger in a jar! If you live in Southern Ontario and you are open to meeting, let me know and we’ll set up a date/time that’s convenient for you. Thanks. Barbara

  7. Ruth Liukkonen
    April 1, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    Barbara. I just found out tonight from my oldest sister living in Scarborough that our mom worked in the cafeteria at GECO, she couldn’t work with the bombs because she had nine children at home without a father. My mom worked nights mostly, she needed the job, we had just moved to Toronto from Barrie, my dad had left. I was three at the time, so not aware of all this.
    I still wrap sandwichs the way my mom learned at the cafeteria.
    I plan on purchasing the book, I’m excited to read it.
    Thank you for writing it.
    Ruth

    • April 2, 2017 at 10:03 pm

      Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for your post. I would love to meet you for a coffee to chat about your mom’s life along with any GECO memories that have been passed along. If you live in Southern Ontario and you are open to meeting, let me know and we’ll set up a date/time that’s convenient for you. Barbara

  8. Joseph Rochon
    June 7, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    This is so amazing…My mother as well as four of her sisters and my grandfather all worked in the munitions plant. Actually the Toronto newspaper did an article on them. The headline reads Dad and five daughters make the tools of war while son fights overseas. It is quite interesting to read….My mother was the last of them to pass away last year at 90. Before she succumbed to altzheimers she often talked about the time she worked at the plant…..

    • June 8, 2016 at 10:06 pm

      Hello Joseph, thanks for your comment. I would love to see a copy of the newspaper article. Could you e-mail it to me? My contact information is on my Contact page. You must be very proud of your family for their dedication, courage and Canadian pride in filling munitions to help win the war. Thank you for sharing. Barbara

  9. Joseph Rochon
    June 7, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    This is so amazing…My mother as well as four of her sisters and my grandfather all worked in the munitions plant. Actually the Toronto newspaper did an article on them. The headline reads Dad and five daughters make the tools of war while son fights overseas. It is quite interesting to read….My mother was the last of them to pass away last year at 90. Before she succumbed to altzheimers she often talked about the time she wored at the plant…..

  10. Scott Clayton
    March 13, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    Played in the tunnels as a kids in the late sixties. We had found an area that was open from some sort of demolition. Would run through the tunnels past the boiler room. Scary water rats.

  11. Mike Curran
    February 26, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    My father was ( I am told) the chief accountant at GECO during WW2. He became a Chartered Accountant in the mid 1930’s (1935 ?). His name was Emmett Curran, born & raised in Toronto. Unfortunately he died very young at age 47 in 1954. I was the eldest of 4 children in my last year of High School. I still have a typewritten copy of an accounting system devised by him for GECO. Would this be of any interest if donated by me to Barbara Dickson ? My wife and I live in Cambridge, Ontario.

    • March 1, 2016 at 11:45 am

      Hi Mike, thanks for your post. I would love to see your dad’s GECO accounting system. What a unique artefact! I’ll contact you privately and we can work out details. Thanks again. Barbara

  12. Rob Knight
    February 9, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    Hi Barbara,
    I have been waiting for your book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After completing it, I purchased extra copies to send to mom’s (Carol Knight-Lecappelain) remaining siblings, so they could read about their sister’s role at GECO.
    Congratulations on your excellent work.
    ~Rob

  13. Rosemary Ashworth
    December 30, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Our Mother Irene Hazelton told us that she worked at GECO in 1945 . In November 2015 we heard about your book.Mother at 95 years of age is reading a copy of the ‘Bomb Girls’ from the Barrie, Ontario library. I borrowed a copy from the Kitchener library and enjoyed the read. Thanks for putting this part of history into a book.

    • December 30, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      Hi Rosemary, thanks for your post. Glad to hear you and your mother enjoyed Bomb Girls. She should stand proud knowing her war effort contributed to the winning of the Second World War. If you are interested, I would love to meet you and your mom to chat about her GECO days. Let me know and we’ll set something up that’s convenient to you both perhaps in Barrie or Kitchener. Thanks again. Barb

  14. Jean Bartlett
    December 29, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    I heard about your book and requested it for Christmas. I wish I had had knowledge of it before it was published. My mother worked at GECO and I have a picture of her with a large group of ladies and a few men. I would love to be able to learn the identities of some of the women she was photographed with. Mother has an armband on and it looks like she has a hankerchief on her shoulder and some insignia on her sleeve.
    I also have a handwritten notebook were she has written explicit instructions and made diagrams on assembling tracers and primers. The book indicates that she had association with building 26 and shop 29A. I wonder if the book was for her own use or as a training manual for others. Her name was Dorothy Rye.

    • December 30, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Dear Jean, thanks for your post. I hope you enjoy reading Bomb Girls. I would love to see the photograph and notebook you have of your mother’s work at GECO. You should be very proud of the invaluable contribution she made to the war effort. She, in her own way, helped win the Second World War! Is there some way for you to copy the book and send it to me? Or perhaps, if you live in the GTA, we can meet for coffee. Let me know. Thanks again. Happy New Year. Barb

  15. Evelyn Fitzakerley
    December 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    I heard about the tours of Geco.Are they still available

    • December 12, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      Hi Evelyn, thanks for your post. I’m available to give a tour of GECO, as requested. If you have a group of people who are interested in walking around the site, let me know and we can arrange something. Take care, Barb

      • December 29, 2015 at 12:21 am

        I teach French Immersion Canadian History in Toronto. BOMB GIRLS was fascination itself. Many of my students live in the GECO area. I would like to join any tour that takes place in the next few weeks, if possible. Merci infiniment! Mme Anna Graham

        • December 29, 2015 at 1:37 pm

          Bonjour, Anna, thank you for your post. I would be happy to add your name for a tour of GECO. However I have no tours planned at the moment. There are other options available though. Perhaps I can come to your classroom to speak to your students or your school. However, I am not bilingual so the presentation would be in English.

  16. November 6, 2015 at 9:43 am

    We are looking forward to your talk at Lake Scugog Historical Society meeting, in Port Perry, on November 19th. I hope you don’t mind me using a couple of photos from your site for our small advertising flyer.

    • November 6, 2015 at 11:50 pm

      Looking forward to a great evening with you in Port Perry. Thanks for your post!

  17. MARGARET WILLARD
    October 30, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Barb
    My Mom worked at GECO during WW11. She was pregnant with me at the time & got snowed in. My Dad was very worried about her. My aunt also worked there at the same time. Mom’s name was DORIS KELLY PANNIER & my aunt’s name was FRANCES KELLY. I don’t know if you knew them, but I thought I’d just let you knpw.

    Margaret Willard

    • November 2, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Hi Margaret, thanks for your post. All employee records from GECO were destroyed after the war, so unless Doris or Frances were featured in the employee newspaper, or some other media, there’s probably no remaining record that they worked there. A shame, really. Your mom’s experience at GECO is unique from two perspectives: she was pregnant (in her early weeks I’m sure as she wouldn’t have been allowed to work around explosives; although maybe she worked in a supporting role on the dirty side of the plant?), and she was snowed in during the bad snowstorm that crippled the city in December, 1944. Although “Bomb Girls” has been published, I’m still collecting the oral histories of GECO. It’s so important to capture this important time in Canada’s history. If you’re interested in sharing your mom and aunt’s stories, please let me know. Thanks again. Barb

  18. Lesley
    October 8, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    I just found out from my Aunt that my Grandmother Helen Leslie is in this book. She died when I was still quite young and I just didnt know this about her. I cant wait to buy this book for my entire family – best Christmas gift ever.

  19. Laura Jacobs
    September 12, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    My mother has often referred to the time after the war when she lived in emergency housing down by the lakeshore. Recently, I looked at a photo of two of her siblings that had a label “Geco housing” on it. This prompted me to conduct an online search for the meaning of Geco. I came across your site, and have preordered your book. I am looking forward to reading it, as I am sure my mother, aunts, and uncles will as well.

    • September 12, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      Hello Laura, thanks for your post. Thank you too for pre-ordering my book. I hope you will enjoy learning more about the incredible work carried out by the women of GECO during the Second World War, as well as life in GECO’s converted post-war emergency housing complex. Kind regards, Barbara

  20. William Henry
    July 22, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    My mother left the farm near Blackstock on which she was born, moved to Toronto, and worked at GECo in the early 40’s.
    Her maiden name is Margaret Adeline Thompson.

  21. Anne MacLellan
    December 22, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for a fascinating page about GECO. My late father-in-law, Peter Brown worked at the plant. (He was too young to enlist and his dad who was a disabled WWI vet discouraged him from lying about his age to enlist.) My mother-in-law told me that one day, there was an explosion at the plant and his parents were frantic with worry, no information was given out and they had to wait to see if he came home from work. I have copies of the newsletter that was issued to the plant workers, would you be interested in them?

    • January 2, 2015 at 12:44 am

      Hi Anne, thanks for your post. I would love to learn more about your father-in-law’s experiences at GECO. If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, we could meet for a coffee, perhaps? I’d love to see your copies of the company newsletter. I hope we can get together soon. Let me know. Take care, Barbara

  22. Catherine Staples
    November 13, 2014 at 4:16 am

    I have a copy of my Grandmother’s separation slip from GECO at the end of the war. Her name was Bridget McManus. My paternal Grandmother also worked there–Lola Staples.

  23. Linda Weatherston
    October 27, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    My Mother worked for GECO in the early 40’s. Irecently found her GECO pin Her name was Elizabeth Weatherston (Libby)

  24. Meg
    October 17, 2014 at 12:54 am

    Hi Barb,

    I’m hoping your book is published soon (I’d love a copy). I was one of the lucky group that you organized to tour the tunnels – thank you.

    Thanks, Barb

  25. Thomas Brown
    August 6, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    We were visiting my wife’s 93 year old Aunt(nee Nora Rea)the other day when the subject came up where she had worked in the past. General Eng. was mentioned by her where, from 1941 to 1944 she worked mainly in the fuse assembly line. She said that her memories of that time were very pleasant recalling the people she worked with. She emigrated from Ireland in 1927 with her family to PEI. She had travelled from PEI to Toronto to seek employment. She has resided in Halifax and area for many years with her husband, now deceased. Her mind is as sharp as a tack and she lives in her own apartment still.

  26. kerry sullivan
    July 26, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Hi Barbara………I have been at the cottage without internet available and just received your request for my approval to use the info I gave you.However I have lost your email and the request form.Please forward another and my approval will be forwarded.Would my email approval be acceptable?I will be returning to the cottage July 27 or 28….regards…Kerry Sullivan..ps..congratulations on your book

  27. Bethany Ward
    December 2, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Hello Barbara,

    My great grandmother, Margaret (she went by ‘Peggy’) Ferguson Wallace Mackay worked at the GECO plant preparing fuses. In fact, Peggy told her story in the March 27th 1943 issue of the Geco Fusilier.

    “Peggy MacKay, a mother of five, filled fuses in Shop 35B while she worked at GECO. As of March 1943, her son, Sergeant William MacKay who had left for England two weeks before Christmas 1942, had not been heard from since, and was officially reported “missing.” Two of her other children had died already. Private Peter MacKay, her husband, had been in England for two years, recently transferred to ‘parts unknown.’
    Remarkably, while Peggy was a woman who lived with profound loss and sorrow, she yet was forever hopeful . Her smile was pure sunshine.”

    I have a photo that they included of her as well, should you be interested.

    I was wondering if you know where building 35B would have been located on the site, was there ever a map of the buildings? I just recently looked into my family history and wanted to learn more about the GECO and the women/men that worked there, so thank you for your research!

    • December 3, 2013 at 2:02 am

      Hi Bethany, thanks for your post and inquiry. Your great grandmother’s story is truly remarkable and is included in my book. Do you have the original photo that appeared in the Fusilier? I’d be very interested in seeing it. Building 35 was situated just east of Warden Avenue between Eglinton Avenue and Sherry Road. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. “B” meant that Peggy worked in the second workshop situated within the building. Yes, there is a map of the site; I have a copy. Do you live in the Toronto area? If you do, perhaps you’d like to meet? Let me know. Take care, Barbara

  28. June Harris-Button
    September 6, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Hi Barbara,
    I’ve only just this minute discovered your website. I have two pictures of my grandmother Ivy Beatrice Harris (nee Ripton)in the workplace that I had spent two years trying to locate where it was. It wasn’t until the show “Bomb Girls” came on that I was able to achieve any success. I have two very clear pictures of my grandmother with her co-workers – similar to a school class picture – which I would think would be co-workers working on the same line – and also a larger group shot which may be of workers of that shift. My parents and grandparents never talked about it so that is why I had such a hard time in determining where it was taken. Best of it is that I grew up at Pharmacy & Danforth and had absolutely no idea that GECO was just down the road and that my grandmother had worked there (I am 100% sure that is where the photo is from). I have no idea who the other people are in the picture but you are welcome to copies if you’d like. I’d also like to purchase one of your books as soon as it comes out.

    June

  29. wayne curry
    April 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    my mother’s sister Jessie Preece worked at GECO in the late 40’s and we moved to Wilmar Heights in 1951, Eglinton and Victoria Pk. area. We used to go to the GECO grounds to play and were warned by our parents to stay away as the ground was unsafe and would cave in because of tunnels. I think there was a type of Low rental housing in that area and even a school.I lived in that area at Shangarry Dr and Biscaine Blvd. until I married in 1967. It was a wonderful place to bring up a family. I went to Wexford School.

  30. Derek
    January 17, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    Hi Barbara

    I was told that my grandmother and I believe a couple of her sisters worked at Geco during the War. That is all I really know as my grandmother passed away before I was born but the stories I have been told mentioned the tunnels and the secrecy of it at the time.

  31. Janis Corrigall
    October 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    My husband’s great aunt may have worked at GECO. Her name was Helen Mikalko and he thinks he remembers her saying that she had worked in a bomb factory in Toronto during the war. Unfortunately she passed away a few years ago and there is no one left that we could ask.
    I am attending a tour you are giving on Tuesday, Oct. 16, so just wondered if you had a list of people who worked there that you could check for her name prior to that.
    Thanks.
    Janis

    • admin
      October 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      Hi Janis, thanks for your inquiry. When the war ended, all government records for GECO were destroyed. Only personal files and mementos of the President and Vice-President were kept. Unfortunately, no employee records survived. If your husband’s great aunt spoke of her days at a ‘bomb’ plant in Toronto, most probably she worked at GECO since it was the only plant in the city which filled munitions. I look forward to meeting you tomorrow. Feel free to ask me questions about what Helen’s days at GECO would have been like. Take care, Barbara

  32. Gerry Parke
    June 24, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    I would to purchase your book about GECO. Has it been published yet?

    • admin
      June 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Gerry, thanks for your post. The book is in the early stage of revision. I don’t currently have a publication date, but will announce its forthcoming release once I know. Please feel free to check back regularly as I add more GECO content to the web-site, and sign up for my e-newsletter to keep in touch. Thanks for your interest in GECO. It’s story is a wonderful, valuable part of Canada’s history.

  33. Kathy Warner
    June 18, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    My mother in law (Betty Warner nee: Ellis) worked at Geco. She worked in the administration though and not in the plant. Are you looking only for those who worked in the plant?

    • Gordon Maclennan
      July 20, 2017 at 4:43 pm

      I just finshed your book,the Bomb Girls.My mom was one.I never appreciated what she did until I read your book.Mom passed 10 yrs ago, I wish I could thank her.Thank you for the writing.I didn’t appreciate the mural till I read your books. Thanks,its great.

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