Called to War

Norman McLeod Paterson

In September 1939 Canada joined the forces of freedom in the battle against Nazi Germany. Without hesitation Norman McLeod Paterson cabled the Federal Government and offered himself and his ships for the war effort. The offer was accepted immediately and in no time Paterson made the transition from the grain business to the war effort.

During the Second World War, 20 Paterson ships hauled bauxite (aluminum ore for war production) from British Guiana to Alabama, served on convoy duty in the north Atlantic, and took part in the cross-channel invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Fifty-eight men and 15 ships were lost in hostile waters during the war, a great loss to the close-knit company.

Although he was too old to volunteer for combat, Norman Paterson was drafted into service by the Prime Minister himself. In February, 1940 he received a telephone call from C.D. Howe, the so-called “Minister of Everything,” who told him “Well, we have another job for you. The Prime Minister wants you to be a senator.”

Senator Paterson was sworn in on May 16, 1940, and he and his family moved to Ottawa after donating their home to the local hospital. During the war he worked tirelessly for the Allied cause, using his expertise to tackle many problems. Prairie farmers were in difficulty because Atlantic shipping was dedicated to the war effort so there was no way to deliver grain to international markets. Senator Paterson helped devise a system by which farmers could stay productive and support their families. His company built a network of “Distress Storage Annexes” across the prairies for grain that couldn’t be transported. The Canadian Wheat Board (which was established in 1935) paid storage fees to Paterson’s company to warehouse the grain, and his company passed these funds on to farmers as advance payments on future sales. The Annexes kept the grain safe and dry, and when it was shipped to market years later it was as good as the day it was harvested.

Senator Paterson also gave his blessing to his two sons, Donald and John, to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Both saw heavy combat. Donald Paterson served as the skipper of a Lancaster bomber and John as the pilot of a Spitfire fighter. At a time when the life expectancy of a Lancaster crewman was 10 or 12 missions Donald survived 29 flights over enemy territory, five of them over the most hazardous target in the Reich — Berlin. At the stick of his Spitfire John shot down three enemy fighters in heated aerial battles, and Donald was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “skill, fortitude and devotion to duty” at the helm of his Lancaster.

In 1944 John returned to Canada, completed a law degree, and joined the steamship division in 1947. Late in 1945, Donald returned to civilian life and joined the Winnipeg office, assuming duties in the grain division. Only five of the company’s 20 canal ships had been returned after the war and little compensation was provided for the lost vessels. It was a time of great difficulty for the company, but by acquiring some old canal boats, rehabilitating others, and buying new ones when they could, the Senator and his sons managed to restore the fleet to its pre-war status by 1960.

Next: Time to Grow