February 19, 1942: If Day
by Michael Newman
During World War II, Canadians were certainly supportive of the allied cause, but for many, it was something happening Over There. It was not something directly affecting them. After all there hadn’t been a war in North America for years. “If Day” was designed to change this attitude and give North Americans (most North American newspapers covered the event) and Manitobans in particular, a very personal sample of the Nazi war machine.
It was co-ordinated with the Victory Loan Campaign, a campaign (the second) of the federal government to raise $600,000,000 in Victory bonds to fund the war effort. The campaign was opened on 16 February and ran for three weeks, until 9 March. Each province, city, and even some companies had their own prescribed objectives: Manitoba’s was $45 million and Winnipeg’s was $23,569,000. These were not mandatory objectives, but goals. Most, however, over-fulfilled their quotas.
Advertisements for the bonds often carried descriptions of soldiers’ dedication to freedom and democracy, asking if the reader could not at least buy a bond. “Brave men will not die because I faltered!” was a common slogan during the campaign. Although the federal government contributed most of the advertising, many private companies placed ads as well.
The idea was to stage a fake Nazi invasion of Manitoba. The “Nazis” were to occupy and administer the province for the rest of the day. The key was realism. One couldn’t ignore these Nazis any more than real ones.
Participation in the event was excellent. Both the active and reserve forces, as well as numerous volunteer organizations, were involved in making If Day as realistic as possible. Col. D. S. McKay was the commander of the “defence” forces. RCAF planes were used as Nazi dive-bombers. Trucks, anti-aircraft guns and other military equipment were used during If Day.
Nazi aircraft came in from the north, first sighted at Norway House. Selkirk was the first to fall prey, but by no means the last. The Nazi war machine was converging on Winnipeg. At 6 a.m., the sirens sounded and troops were stationed along a line five miles from city hall. By seven o’clock, the Nazis arrived at the first line of defence. Artillery opened fire in East Kildonan, and the fighting began. Forty-five minutes later, the defenders were forced to retreat. They blew up the main bridges, but the Nazis were not to be stopped so easily. They were forced to retreat twice more, the last line but a mile from city hall.
By 9:30, there was nothing left to do, and Winnipeg unconditionally surrendered. Brandon, Flin Flon, Selkirk and many other small towns, comprising most of Manitoba, had also been captured by this time. Manitoba was now a German province.
It was an incredibly realistic invasion, yet, aside from a soldier who sprained his ankle and a Miss Gorin who cut her thumb in her blacked-out apartment, there were no casualties. All of the shells and ammunition were blanks. The bridges were strewn with rubble and declared “blown up”. There were some faked casualties, though, giving the ambulances and medical officers some practice.
All of the maneuvers were planned out beforehand: the stands, the retreats, and the troop movements. There were many “warnings” in newspapers describing the events to come. There were still some people who had managed to miss the advance publicity and were caught by surprise, but this merely gave them an extra dose of realism, certainly not a disadvantage considering that was the overriding priority on If Day.
The government of the city was taken over by the Nazis, with Erich Von Neuremburg installed as Gauleiter of Winnipeg. He started his rule by arresting most municipal and provincial officials.
Mayor John Queen, Premier Bracken, Lieutenant-Governor McWilliams, the Norwegian minister to the U.S., who was visiting McWilliams at the time, several aldermen and the city clerk were all arrested and imprisoned in Lower Fort Garry, the Nazi internment centre. The Union Jack over the Fort was (of course) replaced with the Swastika. One alderman, Col. Dan McClean, managed to escape by hiding in an empty room. Fortunately, he was later capturedthe Nazis might have held the rest of Winnipeg responsible for his escape.
Meanwhile other stormtroopers scoured police headquarters for Chief George Smith. He was on his lunch break and had thus avoided capture. So they went upstairs (there was a store on the second floor of the police station at the time) and confiscated dozens of buffalo coats. It was, after all, the middle of February.
Proclamations and commands were plastered all over telephone poles, announcing Nazi supremacy and new civil rules, such as the following:
In front of the Main library (then on William Ave.), all books relating to liberty, democracy, freedom, or anything else the Nazis didn’t approve of, were burned. They were all old books headed for the incinerator anyway, but that didn’t dampen the effect.
Reichmarks were given out as change, and were to replace the dollar. One group of Nazis burst into the cafeteria at Great-West Life. Employees were kicked out and some jailed, while the Nazis grabbed all the food.
All churches were boarded up, and clergy members arrested or blacklisted. “Services of worship” were forbidden and people attempting to enter a church were arrested. Any ethnic, religious, and especially (of course) Jewish organizations were disbanded and all funds and property confiscated.
Nazi troops with Bren gun carriers patrolled Portage Ave. during the course of the day. As a final statement of conquest, the city was renamed “Himmlerstadt”.
But the occupation was not confined to Winnipeg. Although they could not afford the grandiose display, many of the smaller towns put on some sort of occupation. Virden was renamed “Virdenberg.” Registration was distributed by Gestapo in most towns. In Russell, all cars were redirected to the “registration office” (the Victory Loan purchase HQ) to obtain a vehicle permit. After all, the whole idea was to get people to go there anyway.
The Tribune published a special four page supplement on If Day, reflecting its views on what a Nazi controlled press would look like, and some theories of what Nazis might do in a long-term occupation of Manitoba. It was entitled “Das Winnipeger Lugenblatt.”
An editorial apologized for the lack of good quality articles and promised to remedy the situation quickly. The Nazis did not have time to bring in “good” reporters so they had to use mildly censored articles written by “accursed freedom writers.”  These were merely blank columns with titles, a few odd words and a blacked-out picture of the author. The Nazis even left in a blank space entitled “Bible Message.” 
Regular columns were replaced by Nazi “equivalents.” A popular society column was replaced by a Nazi version. It described, in bad English, permissable humour: “Explained it should be that whenever the word (Joke) appears thus in this column from now on, the reader is expected to laugh.”  But the Nazis were not always cruel. They approved for use a “very popular Canadian joke”:
At 6 p.m., the head of the family MUST read this column out loud, while family members laugh three regulation German laughs in unison at each (Joke). Dissidents were to be reported to the Gestapo by other members of the family. Only official jokes from this column may be told and all of them must be memorized. Official “laughing classes” were to be set up as soon as possible to better instruct the population in German humour. This was (obviously) one of the less serious proclamations of If Day.
A regular food column was printed, but also in a modified form. It displayed warnings of new rationing limits. Milk was only given to children five years old or younger3½ cups per week. The Nazis were appalled at the huge amounts of soap available, and immediately reduced this to one tablet per family per monthincluding detergent.
It also contained a recipe for “a meat dish approved and recommended by Der Fuehrer: a hamburger made from a cow’s udder.”  None of these rations were actually carried out. They merely served as an example of how trivial the war-time rations and other sacrifices were, compared with what would be enforced in a Nazi state.
Politically, the Nazis had plans for their new prize. All of Canada would surely fall, with so little population for its area. Hitler (as well as Emperor Hirohito and Premier Mussolini) supposedly planned to colonize Canada, exterminate the Canadians and use it as a colony to accommodate excess population in the Axis nations. Although they hadn’t used any of their conquered countries as colonies, the Nazis (the real ones) certainly had exterminated enough people to make this supposed plan quite believable in this situation.
Special lessons were taught in schools on If Day. Most classes were let out at 11:30 so that they could hear “Swastika over Canada,” a radio play broadcast by the CBC. At Robert H. Smith School, the principal was arrested and the sole curricular teaching was to be the “Nazi Truth.”
At the end of If Day, a huge map was erected on the Bank of Montreal building at the corner of Portage and Main. It was divided into 45 sections, one for each million dollars of Manitoba’s objective. For every million dollars actually collected, one Union Jack was placed on the map. When the map was full, Manitoba would have successfully defended itself, and it would be symbolically freed. Anything after that would be an “offensive drive” against the Nazis. 
Manitoba achieved its quota (of $45 million) on March 3, 12 days after If Day. Winnipeg, much more involved in If Day, was 10% over its objective (of $23,569,000) by 25 February, 6 days after If Day. The day certainly had an impact.
On 4 March, the Lieutenant-Governor congratulated Manitobans on their commitment to the Loan Drive, and encouraged them to pass on to offensive maneuvers (over-fulfill their quota). They certainly did this. Even though the objective was later raised to $60 million, Manitoba’s final total was near $65 million, 45% over the original goal.
The actual occupation lasted only one day. At 5:30 p.m., the participating groups held a parade down Portage Ave., waving signs proclaiming “It Must Not Happen Here” or “Buy Victory Bonds.” A banquet was held that evening to round off the event. It was attended by the Mayor, Premier, and many other officials. They had nothing but praise for the day’s efforts. It was judged quite a success. The visiting Norwegian minister to the U.S., De Morgensterne, called If Day a noble, constructive action in the war against the Axis Powers.”  As a military operation, If Day was also judged a complete success. Col. D.S. McKay, the commander of the defensive forces said that the troops got more practice and benefit out of 2½ hours of If Day maneuvers than they would get out of a week’s worth of training. 
There was one very un-Nazi aspect of If Day: reporters and cameramen followed them everywhere completely uninhibited. Nearly every major North American newspaper and all the newsreel companies covered the event. It is estimated that 40 million people saw Winnipeg fall prey to the Nazis.  Local radio stations broadcast Hitler’s speeches and martial music throughout the day to set the atmosphere. Warnings were given to neighboring U.S. towns, as well as customs officials. Reports of Nazi armies and nothing but Hitler on Canadian radio stations could have created mass hysteria in the U.S.
Vancouver later planned an invasion of its own, borrowing German currency and other materials from Winnipeg. The United States government even wrote, asking for details of organization.
If Day brought home the reality of Nazi occupation. Manitobans got a very bitter taste of nearly every aspect of Nazi brutality. Support this war with a bond purchase or Manitoba might someday go through this for real.
“IT MUST NOT HAPPEN HERE!”
1. Winnipeg Tribune, 19 February 1942.
6. Tribune, 3 March 1942.
7. Tribune, 5 January 1985.
8. Tribune, 19 February 1942.
9. Tribune, 5 January 1985.
Page revised: 10 November 2011Back to top of page