With the Second World War having ended more than 70 years ago, it may seem a little quaint that a major GTA suburb is named in honour of a mostly forgotten 1939 battle off the coast of Uruguay.
Yet Ajax owes not only its name, but its very existence, to the war effort. It’s a living reminder that war can have a long-lasting impact, even thousands of kilometres from a battlefield.
“We go out of our way to talk about that history and make sure a maximum number of people are aware of it,” says Steve Parish, mayor of Ajax. “We think it’s an important part of our community.”
Ajax, a half-hour drive east of Toronto, is a large town of approximately 120,000 people. But when Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939, it was open farmland — as it had been for the preceding 150 years when the first colony settlers arrived in the area.
Within two years of that September 1 invasion, the region’s landscape would change forever, beginning with the building of a giant munitions factory to service the war effort.
“It was important that munitions facilities be built far away from the action where they might be bombed, might become occupied territory,” says Parish. “So the Canadian government expropriated those farms and created one of the largest munitions facilities in the Commonwealth.”
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Before the war’s end, this 2,985-acre complex would fill 40 million shells. At peak production, 9,000 people worked there.
Brenda Kriz, records manager for the Town of Ajax, says if it wasn’t for those workers, the land today would likely be part of an extended Pickering Township, instead of a place with its own identity. The original plan was to tear down the plant and wartime homes surrounding it once the war ended. “But the people that were working at the plant, that were renting those homes, created a community,” she says. “That was one component the government had not counted on.”
No longer quiet farmland but a major war production facility, the place needed a name, so the community held a contest. The winning entry was inspired by the British vessel HMS Ajax, which fought and sustained damage in the Battle of the River Plate.
Ask most people today to name a battle from the Second World War and you are much more likely to hear answers such as Juno Beach, Stalingrad and Iwo Jima. But in the early stages of the war, many of the more well-known Allied victories had not yet occurred; the narrative was mostly one of Allied defeats at the hands of advancing German and Japanese troops.
“It kind of shone out from all the dismal news around,” says Parish. “And that’s why it was chosen as a symbol of victory.”
In late 1939, the German heavy cruiser Admiral Graf Spee had been sinking merchant ships in South American waters. On December 13, three British Royal Navy ships — Exeter, Ajax and the New Zealand ship Achilles — engaged the Graf Spee near the River Plate, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean between Uruguay and Argentina. British forces inflicted enough damage to force the German vessel to seek sanctuary in the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay. Once there, the Graf Spee’s commander, Hans Langsdorff, determined that his ship could not be repaired in time to defend against what the British led him to believe was a formidable array of warships waiting nearby. So he ordered the ship scuttled on December 17; it burned for days before sinking in shallow waters off Montevideo.
The battle not only inspired Ajax’s name, but those of most of its streets. More than 600 of them are titled after officers and men who served on the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter. Among them are Buggey Lane, in honour of Boy Seaman 1st Class Henry Buggey, who at 18 was the youngest member of the Ajax’s company during the Battle of the River Plate; Bashford Road, named after Corporal Cyril Bashford, who died during the battle at the age of 23; and Shale Drive, in honour of Sam Shale, who saw Bashford get killed.
Originally, streets were only named after people who served on the Ajax during the Battle of the River Plate. But as the community began to grow, the naming system expanded to those who had served on the ship at other times during its years of service as well. Kriz says the current naming policy also includes anyone who served on the Exeter and Achilles during the Battle of the River Plate, and anyone who served on the successor HMS Ajax that visited the town in 1976.
Naming those streets was a unique way of remembering individuals who served, many of them men of humble backgrounds who went on to live modest lives. Some even managed to make the trip from Britain to Ajax to see the streets named after them. Though today the the number of still-living Ajax veterans is dwindling, Parish says that hasn’t stopped the flow of visitors.
“We still have people who come to Ajax who tell us they never realized there was a street in Ajax, Ontario, Canada named after their father or grandfather,” he says.
Today, the land where the munitions plant stood is the site of many of Ajax’s businesses, housing and, more recently, rental and condo developments. After the war, many businesses eventually moved into the abandoned munitions buildings, helping to establish a local post-war economy. The complex also served for a time as the Ajax campus of the University of Toronto, turning thousands of ex-servicemen into engineers who would help build the GTA and beyond, and as a displaced persons camp that helped settle new Canadians fleeing Eastern Europe in the post-war years.
For Parish, Ajax brings two key stories together: the story of people in Canada who did so much to support the war effort, and in the process transformed the country and its economy, and the recognition of those who served overseas in the war and made victory possible
“I always think that Ajax is all about remembrance because of those things,” he says. “And Remembrance Day is an extra special day in Ajax because of that history.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Ajax as a city. It is officially considered a town.