Norway's War Heroes of the Air

During World War II, thousands of Norwegians travelled to the other side of the Atlantic. From there, they took the Norwegian Armed Forces to new heights.

Text by Anders Fjellestad, Norwegian Armed Forces Media Centre

When Norway was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1940, the Norwegian Armed Forces established a brand new air fleet in Canada. This was the start of Norway's present-day air force.

Over 3,300 Norwegians were trained as pilots, technicians and navigators in the training camp Little Norway in Canada. After training, they went to Europe to fight the enemy from the air.

The air missions were extremely dangerous. Nearly one out of ten were killed while fighting for Norway's freedom.

But many made it through the war, among them was Dagfinn Magne Stai. Today, the 100-year-old is a living piece of Norwegian war history. This is his story.


Winter 1942. The young man shivers as he steps out onto the train platform. At this exact moment, he has just finished his long and dangerous journey from occupied Norway and a war-torn Europe. The 22-year-old has finally reached his destination: the little community of Muskoka, deep into the Canadian forests.

He is struck by the similarity to his home village in the mountains of Norway: The scenery. The forests. The enormous amounts of snow. And the freezing 30 degrees below, obviously. Someone blows a whistle behind him, and the steam locomotive slowly pulls out of the station. As the train leaves, the snow starts swirling around him.

He is ready. Ready to embark on a new chapter in life – in service for Norway. But little does he know how the next months will fundamentally change his life.


The Air Force's cradle

When Dagfinn Magne Stai arrives in Muskoka this winter day, the Nazis have already controlled Norway for almost two years. The occupation has forced Norwegian key politicians and military personnel into exile abroad. From there, they are rebuilding the Norwegian Armed Forces. 

To Norway, it is vital that all-Norwegian units carry out the war efforts, rather than integrating Norwegian personnel into British and US units. This shows that the Kingdom of Norway, too, is fighting the enemy.


In 1940, Norway does not have its own air force, but instead air divisions in the Army and the Navy. Now the time has come to establish the Royal Norwegian Air Force. From the autumn of 1940, the educating and training of air personnel takes place at a training camp named Little Norway, in Toronto, Canada. In the winter of 1942, the camp is moved to Muskoka Airport, 150 kilometres further north.

Throughout the war, 3,323 Norwegian air personnel are trained in Canada. One of them is Dagfinn Magne Stai, now 100 years. The modest man from the mountains quickly thrives in the Canadian forests.

"The people here were fantastic, so friendly and nice. When you entered a store, they could not do enough for you. A lot of them had sons and husbands overseas", he recalls.


Deadly and demanding

Although Canada provided a pleasant environment for the Norwegians, it was highly challenging to undergo all the training. Dagfinn Magne Stai was trained as aircrew and navigator, and he visited airports and air bases all across Canada.

"Early in 1944, when I had gone through all the training, they shipped me overseas. And I was stationed in a place called Banff in Scotland, where we had a Norwegian squadron. And I flew with them", the 100-year-old says.

The rest of the war he served as navigator on various aircraft.

"We flew on the Norwegian coast and tried to do what they do in war", he tells, without wanting to elaborate.

Fairchild M-62As are lined up at the Little Norway training camp in Toronto. This was a two-seat training aircraft, and Norway ordered 86 of these in different versions. After the war, most of them were shipped to Norway and used for pilot training and as communications aircraft.

Ole Reistad was the commander of Little Norway. He initiated a fundraising campaign to provide the Norwegian soldiers with a recreational camp. For 12,000 dollars, Norway purchased an estate 160 kilometres north of Toronto in May 1941.

The estate was named "Vesle Skaugum" (meaning 'Little Skaugum', referring to the official residence of the Norwegian royal family). The Norwegians restored the old log house there, and built several new houses. Although a recreational camp, it was also used for training of recruits. At the end of the war, Norway sold "Vesle Skaugum", and today it serves as a holiday camp for Canadian youth.


Found love

Serving for the Norwegian Air Force during World War II could be fatal. Dagfinn Magne Stai survived his many dangerous air operations, but not everyone was as lucky. During the war, 309 Norwegian air personnel were killed. That equals nearly 10 per cent of all Norwegians who were trained in Canada. 

A far more pleasant statistic is that 213 of the Norwegians in Canada got married there. Dagfinn was among those who found love on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Well, I got married while I was over here, to a beautiful lady. And I loved it here, and I felt it was easier for me to come back instead of making her go all the way to Norway", he explains in English.

The marriage to Grace Patricia resulted in three daughters. And eventually he became a Canadian citizen and worked as an engineer for Ontario Hydro. He has lived in Ontario ever since.

Honoured with a medal

The Chief of the Norwegian Air Force met the 100-year-old in Muskoka in October 2019, as part of the Air Force's 75th anniversary. As one of the few Norwegian soldiers still alive, Dagfinn was honoured with a medal for his efforts during the war.

"It is an incredible experience to be back, of course. The buildings and facilities that we had here are gone, you know. But when you look around here, you almost have a feeling that you are coming back to it all", Dagfinn says.

 

 

en_266_warheroesoftheairen_266_warheroesoftheairhttp://forsvaret.no/en/Lists/RelatedMedia/DispForm.aspx?ID=749Dagfinn Magne Stai together with Tonje Skinnarland, Chief of the Norwegian Air Force, and Norway's ambassador to Canada, Anne Kari Ovind. The photo was taken in Muskoka in October 2019./media/PubImages/20191011_ODA_6806.jpg
en_266_warheroesoftheairen_266_warheroesoftheairhttp://forsvaret.no/en/Lists/RelatedMedia/DispForm.aspx?ID=750Several hundred Norwegian air personnel died during the war. Photo by Onar Digernes Aase, Royal Norwegian Air Force/media/PubImages/20191011_ODA_6835.jpg


He also appreciated being awarded the medal.

"I think it is wonderful to be honoured like this, of course. I was only one of so many, that I feel a little guilty about the whole thing. Many of my friends are gone, their names are written on the wall here. But apart from that, it is a great feeling to be back."

After nearly 80 years in Canada, his mother tongue is – unsurprisingly – a little rusty. The questions are asked in Norwegian, and Dagfinn answers them in English. When asked if he still considers himself to be a little Norwegian, the 100-year-old replies smilingly:

"You could say that."

Published 07 May 2020 22:27.. Last updated 07 May 2020 22:50.