History of Ajax, Ontario

Ajax CN rail sign with Mayor William Parrish. October 1963
The old DILCO (Defence Industries Limited Company) sign, by which CNR trainmen identified the wartime munitions community, was turned over to Ajax Mayor William Parris at a special ceremony in October 1963. (Toronto Telegram photo from Toronto Sun library)1

The history of Ajax is synonymous with the HMS Ajax, the Battle of the River Plate, and the thousands of women who filled shells for the war effort at the Defence Industries Limited Ajax plant.

Ajax was likely never to exist had Canada not declared war on Germany in support of the Allies on September 10, 1939. Canada’s role in the Second World War and the events that followed gave birth to this town on the north shores of Lake Ontario.

Ajax is located just east of Toronto, bordered by the City of Pickering on the north and west sides, the Town of Whitby on the east.

The events that led to the Town to incorporate in 1954 are remarkable and significant in understanding its character and its rich history.

Let’s explore the history of Ajax!

Early Settlers

The earliest record of settlers to Ajax dates back to the 1770s when a settler named Duffin took up residence here. Present-day Duffins Creek was named after this individual.2

Duffin was a fur trader who reportedly bartered with the resident Ojibwa natives. A tradition that was continued by settlers arriving in the area later.3

Want to learn more?

Check out a collection of early settler photographs at Ajax Public Library Digital Archive.

Timothy Rogers

Timothy Rogers was a 19th-century pioneer who helped to establish many colonies in Upper Canada. After settling families in Newmarket, Timothy moved to Pickering and set up the first saw and flour mill on Duffins Creek.4

Timothy was instrumental in bringing many Quaker families to the area.5

Yonge Street Monthly Meeting House of Friends
Meeting House of the Religious Society of Friends Newmarket c. 1810. Located at 17030 Yonge St, Newmarket, ON L3Y 7A9. Courtesy of Quaker Archives and Library of Canada.

The photograph above (unknown date) shows the first permanent place of worship in north Toronto. The Society of Friends still continues to worship here.6

Want to learn more?

Learn more about the Society of Friends and the role Quakers played in settling Upper Canada below.

Population Peaks

Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and England began rapid colonization of the area into the middle of the century.7

By 1861, six grist mills, one tannery, and twelve sawmills existed in the area.8

In the early years, agriculture was used primarily to feed the farmer and his family. By the mid 19th century, farming focused on grain production for the Toronto wheat market.9

By the end of the 19th-century large portion of the population had emigrated and the local economy was devastated.10

The Hamilton Farm House (below) built 1850 still stands on the corner of Brock Rd and Kingston Rd in Pickering and offers a glimpse into what life must have been like sitting out on that porch and seeing rolling fields for miles on end.

Hamilton Farm House, erected c. 1850 on highway near Pickering, Ontario. July, 1925
Hamilton Farm House erected c. 1850 on a highway near Pickering, Ontario. July 1925. Library and Archives Canada.Colborne Powell Meredith fonds/3642927.

Early 20th-Century

In the early 1900s, there was little local industry or commercial activity. Residents in the area relied on farming and logging to feed themselves.11

A few decades later, in Europe, Germany’s war machine was busy turning out warplanes, tanks, armoured vehicles, and an army that would reclaim its humiliation in the First World War.

Canada Declares War

On August 23, 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between Germany and the Soviet Union. This agreement allowed the two powers to divide up the Polish territory between them.

Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact in the Kremlin
Stalin and Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the pact in the Kremlin. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Two days later on August 25, 1939, the Agreement of Mutual Assistance was signed between Britain and Poland. Through a secret protocol of the pact, Britain offered assistance in the event Germany attacked Poland.

Hitler watching German soldiers march into Poland in September 1939.
Hitler watching German soldiers march into Poland in September 1939. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

On September 1, 1939, German troops invade Poland at dawn. Hitler did not anticipate Britain’s involvement in this seemingly regional conflict – he was wrong. Answering their obligations under the assistance pact, Britain and France declared war on German on September 3, 1939.

Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King leaving his office after a special emergency session of the Cabinet held shortly after the announcement of Great Britain's declaration of war on Germany
Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King leaving his office after a special emergency session of the Cabinet held shortly after the announcement of Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. Library and Archives Canada/Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau/XB-58.

On September 10, 1939, Canada declares war on Germany.

Even though Canada was an independent nation after the Statute Of Westminster 1931, loyalty for Britain was strong. Canada’s decision to declare war in support of Britain was a test of its character as an independent nation.

Could Canada sustain a prolonged war with Germany?

Did we, as a nation pass the test? Absolutely, Canadians did.

We demonstrated that when called to war, we could fight and bring the fight to Germany.

Want to learn more?

Read more about Canada’s role in the Second World War.

Learn more about the Second World War.

The Battle of the River Plate, 1939

In addition to protecting its own coast, British naval policy was to protect trade routes, detect and destroy U-boats, and generally maintain a blockade of Germany’s naval activities.

On the morning of December 13, 1939, the Ajax, Achilles, Exeter and the Graf Spee square off in a fierce battle that takes place off the coast of Uruguay.

Admiral Graf Spee
Captain Hans Wilhelm Langsdorff

The Graf Spee was named after Admiral Graf von Spee who died at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914 aboard the SMS Scharnhorst.12

Admiral Graf Spee
Admiral Graf Spee. Moored in harbour, circa 1936-1937. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The Graf Spee launched in 1934 and was commissioned into the Nazi Navy in 1936. Her primary mission was to destroy merchant ships and draw allied naval ships away from their assigned missions in an effort to hunt her. She weighed over 16,000 tons and was equipped with eight diesel engines that propelled her to 26 knots. Her deck was loaded with six 11-inch guns and she was over 610 feet long. With a range of almost 32,000 kilometres, she was designed to stay out on the water for long periods of time, wreaking havoc on merchant ships and then quickly disappearing into the vast seas. 13

HMS Ajax
Captain Charles Woodhouse

The Ajax was named after the Greek warrior Ajax the Great. He was a significant figure in Greek mythology. Priam, King of Troy upon seeing Ajax at the Trojan War described Ajax as, “…valiant and tall, towering above the Argives (local Greeks) with his head and broad shoulders”.14

HMS Ajax. Sometime prior to the Battle of the River Plate 1939. Unknown source.

Ajax was 555 feet long, weighed in at almost 7,500 tons, had a maximum cruising speed of 32 knots, and a range of 7,500 kilometres. She was fitted with eight 6-inch guns.15

When war was declared on September 1939, Ajax formed part of Force G, Commodore Harwood’s south Atlantic squadron that also included HMS Exeter, Cumberland and Achilles. In late October 1939 Commodore Harwood transferred his broad pennant to Ajax and made her his flagship.

Jonathan Harwood (Grandson of Admiral H Harwood). “HMS Achilles”. HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association. https://www.hmsajax.org.
Want to learn more?
HMS Ajax returns home on February 5, 1940 after the Battle of the River Plate.

Learn about the Greek hero AjaxGreek Mythology Link

HMS Exeter
Captain Frederick Bell

The Exeter was named after the city, of the same name, in Devon, England. Commissioned in 1931, she had a length of 575 feet, weighed in at 8,400 tons, and a top speed of 32 knots. She was fitted with six 8-inch guns.16

HMS Exeter
HMS Exeter heavy cruiser.  In Balboa harbour, canal zone, 24 April 1934. Naval History and Heritage Command, U.S Navy.

In August 1939 she was ordered to return to the South Atlantic as Commodore Harwood’s flagship in Force G (HMS Exeter, Cumberland, Ajax and Achilles) and with Captain Bell as her captain. Approximately six weeks prior to the Battle of the River Plate Harwood transferred to HMS Ajax as his flagship.

Jonathan Harwood (Grandson of Admiral H Harwood). “HMS Achilles”. HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association. https://www.hmsajax.org.
Want to learn more?
HMS Exeter returns home to Plymouth, Devon 1940 after the Battle of the River Plate.

HMS Achilles
Captain Edward Parry

In Greek mythos, Achilles was a great warrior and hero of the Trojan War. The H.M.S Achilles was the fifth vessel to use this namesake.17

Achilles was commissioned in 1933, she had a length of 555 feet, weighed in at 7,500 tons, and a top speed of 32 knots. She was fitted with eight 8-inch guns.18

HMS Achilles. Ref: 1/2-049007-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

HMS Achilles was attached to Royal Navy’s New Zealand Division in March 1936. On August 29, 1939, Captain W. E. Parry received orders to sail for the West Indies. On September 2 the ship was reassigned to cover Allied shipping along the west coast of South America, and in October Achilles joined Commodore Henry Harwood’s South American Squadron — HMS EXETER and AJAX — which fought the German pocket battleship ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE on December 13 off the River Plate. 

Pope, Dudley. The Battle Of The River Plate. Naval Institute Press, 1989.
Want to learn more?
HMS Achilles returns home Auckland Harbour, New Zealand 1940.

HMS Cumberland
Captain Walter H. G. Fallowfield

The Cumberland was named after the English county of the same name in England. Commissioned in 1928, she had a length of 630 feet, weighed in at 10,000 tons, and a top speed of 32 knots. She was fitted with eight 8-inch guns.19

HMS Cumberland
HMS Cumberland c. 1937. Photograph by Mei-Fei Elrick and Tess Johnston. Image courtesy of Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol.

Cumberland was assigned to Force G of the South American Division under the command of Commodore Harwood. She was the toughest of the squadron but was unable to join Ajax, Exeter, and Achilles during the attack on the Graf Spee until the following day. When the Cumberland arrived at the River Plate estuary she, along with the other ships under Harwood’s command sealed the fate of the crippled Graf Spee. To escape, the Graf Spee would have to sail the Ajax, Achilles, and Cumberland.

Want to learn more?
Launch of the HMS Cumberland heavy cruiser at Vicker’s famous Yard at Barrow-in-Furness 1926.

Admiral Sir Henry “Bobby” Harwood

Born in London, England on January 19, 1888, Henry Harwood joined the British Navy in 1903. He excelled academically and had an exemplary naval career. Harwood rose to the rank of captain in 1928 and became commodore in chief of the South American division of the fleet’s America and West Indies station.20

Commodore Henry Harwood 1937
Commodore Henry Harwood 1937 at Valparaiso, Chile. Courtesy of Jonathan Harwood.

On orders of the Admiralty, Harwood set out to find and sink the Graf Spee. In command of Ajax, Exeter, Achilles, and Cumberland, the commodore correctly predicted where the Graf Spee would make its appearance on the morning of December 13, 1939.21

I decided that the Plate, with its larger number of ships and its very valuable grain and meat trade, was the vital area to be defended. I therefore arranged to concentrate there my available forces in advance of the time at which it was anticipated the raider might start operations in that area.

Despatch submitted to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty on the 30th December 1939, by Rear Admiral H. H. Harwood, K.C.B., O.B.E., Rear Admiral Commanding South American Division.

For his heroic actions during the battle, Harwood was promoted to rear admiral on December 13, 1939, and knighted. He was further promoted to commander in chief of Mediterranean naval forces in April 1942 and vice-admiral in February 1943. He retired from service in August 1945 with the rank of admiral.22

Admiral Sir Henry Harwood died at Goring-at-Thames on June 9, 1950.23

Harwood Ave Ajax

The main thoroughfare in Ajax, Harwood Ave. is named in honour of Admiral Sir Henry Harwood.

Want to learn more?
Watch Admiral Sir Henry Harwood speak at a London luncheon 1940.

The Battle

On the morning of December 13, 1939, Ajax spots smoke on the horizon. Harwood instructs the Exeter to investigate and shortly after Harwood receives confirmation that smoke on the horizon belongs to the Graf Spee. Within minutes the Graf Spee opens fire at the Exeter and Ajax.24

At 6:20 AM the Exeter, opens fire first, followed by Achilles and Ajax. The commodore instructs the Achilles to match Ajax’s course while the heavy cruiser Exeter maintains a more independent course.25

Shortly after the Exeter was directly hit by the Graf Spee’s 11-inch shell on the “B” turret. Shrapnel exploded and riddled the bridge killing and wounding all with exception of the Captain and two others.26

The Graf Spee then shifted its focus and begun to fire its massive 11-inch guns at the Ajax and Achilles. The shells straddled the ships, luckily.27

Meanwhile, the Exeter fired its torpedos which seemed to result in the Graf Spee altering its course. Smoke could be observed on the Graf Spee.28

As Exeter maneuvered to fire its torpedos again, she was hit with two 11-inch shells.29

Shortly after a shell exploded on the water close to Achilles sending shrapnel into the control tower killing four and temporarily knocking out Captain Parry.30

HMS Achilles - Damage to director tower by the Graf Spee's shells.
Photograph showing damage to the director control tower of the HMS Achilles. Photograph by S.D. Waters War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington 1948.

An hour into the battle Harwood ordered the squadron to increase speed and bring all available guns to bear down on the enemy ship. The resulting assault seemed to have damaged the Graf Spee and fires were seen onboard.31

Graf Spee lands an 11-inch shell on the Ajax which burst into the commodore’s cabin. A portion of the shell struck the base of the gun turret killing four and wounding six. The resulting hit put the rear guns on Ajax out of action.32

The Exeter had been badly damaged and need to repair herself. Soon after the commodore received reports that the munitions aboard the Ajax were down to 20%. Harwood, therefore, decided to break off the attack and wait till dark to move in closer.33

The squadron followed in the shadows as the Graf Spee sailed for the River Plate. She anchored in Montevideo at approximately 1 am on December 14.34

During this time Harwood managed to get a message to the Cumberland and ordered her to the River Plate at full speed.35

On December 17, there were reports of the Graf Spee transferring a large portion of its crew to another German vessel. Further reports suggested that she may scuttle herself. Shortly after she was reported to be making final preparations to leave anchor.36

Harwood signalled his squadron for readiness in the event the Graf Spee took on its crew offshore. Harwood ordered Ajax’s aircraft to take flight and report on the Graf Spee’s position. Soon after the aircraft relayed, “Graf Spee has blown herself up.”37

Admiral Graf Spee blows herself up at the command of its captain.

By the end of the battle, Exeter had 61 killed, Ajax 7 and Achilles 4, in addition to which a total of 47 men were wounded.  Graf Spee lost 36.38

For the entirety of the battle, Harwood was based on the Ajax.

On December 20, Captain Langsdorff shot himself upon the Graf Spee’s battle flag. In a letter to the German Ambassador in Buenos Aires, he took responsibility for the fate of the vessel and that he would happily pay with his life to protect the honour of his country.39

Funeral procession of Captain Hans Langsdorff
Funeral procession of Captain Hans Langsdorff December 21, 1939. Courtesy of Louis A. Davison, 1977. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Captain Hans Langsdorff was buried in the La Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires with full honours.40

The letter to the ambassador offers a rare insight into his decision to scuttle the ship and the taking of his own life.

To the Ambassador, Buenos Aires.

After a long struggle I reached the grave decision to scuttle the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, in order to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. I am still convinced that under the circumstances, this decision was the only one left, once I had taken my ship into the trap of Montevideo. For with the ammunition remaining any attempt to fight my way back to open and deep water was bound to fail. And yet only in deep water could I have scuttled the ship, after having used the remaining ammunition, thus avoiding her falling to the enemy.

Sooner than expose my ship to the danger that after a brave fight she would fall partly or completely into enemy hands, I decided not to fight but to destroy the equipment and then scuttle the ship. It was clear to me that this decision might be consciously or unwittingly misconstrued by persons ignorant of my motives, as being attributable entirely or partly to personal considerations. Therefore I decided from the beginning to bear the consequences involved in this decision. For a Captain with a sense of honour, it goes without saying that his personal fate cannot be separated from that of his ship.

I postponed my intention as long as I still bore responsibility for decisions concerning the welfare of the crew under my command. After to-day’s decision of the Argentine Government, I can do no more for my ship’s company. Neither will I be able to take an active part in the present struggle of my country. I can now only prove by my death that the fighting services of the Third Reich are ready to die for the honour of the flag.

I alone bear the responsibility for scuttling the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. I am happy to pay with my life for any possible reflection on the honour of the flag. I shall face my fate with firm faith in the cause and the future of the nation and of my Fuhrer.

I am writing this letter to Your Excellency in the quiet of the evening, after calm deliberation, in order that you may be able to inform my superior officers, and to counter public rumours if this should become necessary.

Commanding Officer of the sunk pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee.

Captain Hans Langsdorff. Letter to German Ambassador in Buenos Aires. 19/12/39.
Want to learn more?

Learn more about the Ajax, Exeter, Achilles, Cumberland and Graf Spee at the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association.

Join the HMS Ajax and River Plate Veterans Association

“The Association is open to all who served on the Ajax Cruiser 1935-1948; the Ajax Frigate 1963-1985; served at The Battle of the River Plate in any of the ships; or are relatives or friends of those who did so, or indeed those who served on any previous Ajax and those connected to Ajax and residents of Ajax, Ontario.” (hmsajax.org)

Learn more.

Canadian Industries Limited

Today, Canadian Industries Limited is commonly known as C-I-L, a paint and coatings manufacturer. However, in the early part of the 20th century, a conglomerate of several explosive manufacturers formed a single entity known as the Canadian Explosives Company to supply the war effort during World War I. In 1927, they changed their name to Canadian Industries Limited and diversified their business into paint, fabrics, chemicals, and plastics.41

On September 14, 1939, C-I-L created a subsidiary company to separate its commercial business from its war supply production efforts. This new entity was named Defence Industries Limited.42

Canadian Industries Limited C-I-L Paints.
Canadian Industries Limited C-I-L Paints. Library and Archives Canada/Hayward Studios fonds/3554011

Defense Industries Limited

The purpose of Defense Industries Limited was to construct and operate munition plants in Canada at the request of the Department of Munition and Supply. The parent company, Canadian Industries Limited transferred personnel experienced in engineering, operations, and management to the newly formed subsidiary.43

The following excerpt from the Veterans Affairs Canada – Industries Gear up for War highlights just how extensive Canada’s wartime production was.

During the Second World War, Canadian industries manufactured war materials and other supplies for Canada, the United States, Britain and other Allied countries. The total value of Canadian war production was almost $10 billion – approximately $100 billion in today’s dollars.

In 1940, the Honourable C.D. Howe became the Minister of the newly-created Department of Munitions and Supply. This government department controlled and coordinated all aspects of war production.

This department was, in a sense, one of the biggest businesses in the world. It coordinated all purchases made in Canada by British and other Allied governments for things like military transport vehicles, tanks, cargo and military ships, aircraft, guns and small arms, ammunition as well as uniforms, minesweeping equipment, parachutes, firefighting equipment and hospital supplies. It also created 28 Crown corporations to produce everything from rifles to synthetic rubber.

Excerpt from Canada’s Industries Gear Up For War. – Veterans Affairs Canada. [online] Available at: https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/industry.

By 1941 Defence Industries Limited had over 24,000 employees in plants across the country. By the end of 1942, that number had increased to almost 32,000. One-third of this workforce was women. The company produced explosives, small arms ammunition, chemicals, and operated shell filling plants and a fuse assembly plant.44

Men and women workers assemble 25-pounder field gun cases to be shipped to the Ministry of Supply in England at a munitions plant (prob. Robert Mitchell Co.)
Men and women workers assemble 25-pounder field gun cases to be shipped to the Ministry of Supply in England at a munitions plant (not the Ajax plant). Nicholas Morant/National Film Board of Canada. Library and Archives Canada/3195696.

Why Ajax

Much of the land south of the 401 and east of Church Street to Pickering Beach Road was part of an extensive munitions factory built to support the Allies after Canada declared war on Germany.

This, mostly agricultural land, just east of Toronto was sparsely populated, had access to water and transportation routes. However, existing landowners would not give up their lands easily – so the government expropriated the lands for $125 an acre.45

The Defence Industries Limited plant in Ajax consisted of dozens of buildings designed to support a large operation that included structures for, men’s and women’s residences, staff housing, cafeterias, administration buildings, a steam plant, a recreation hall, warehouses, and six production lines.

D-I-L at Ajax

The construction of the D-I-L plant in Ajax began in the latter part of February 1940. One of the first buildings to erected was an office for the construction company contracted as a general contractor for the project. 46

Over 5 million board feet of fir was brought over from British Columbia. Construction of the buildings was temporary but of high quality. 47

Over 2,000 carpenters were involved in the construction of the various buildings. Many of these men were farmworkers who came forward to help the war effort. Some became carpenters and later joined the production lines. 48

Watch the online Defence Industries Limited Exhibit at the Ajax Public Library website below.

Defence Industries Limited Online Exhibit
Watch the complete video series here.

Each line had its own cafeteria, large enough to feed the entire production line workers in one sitting. The meals were served hot and cooked using steam. There were no open flames in the building due to the explosion hazards of the dangerous chemicals used in the production of the shells.49

The Canadian Nation Railway or C.N Rail played an important role in the shipping and delivery of goods to the plant. Completed munitions would be loaded onto C.N. boxcars and would head to Montreal or Halifax to be shipped to Europe by sea.50

Cap and Det Line

The Percussion Cap and Detonator line produced percussion caps and detonators for shells and mortars. Percussion caps are screwed to the top of a shell and would detonate on impact igniting the explosives within the shell.51

Women were chosen to handle the dangerous chemicals used during the production of the fuzes and detonators due to their greater dexterity.52

Defence Industries Limited - Shells and Mortars
A variety of shells and mortars processed and filled at the D-I-L plant at Ajax. Provided by The Town of Ajax – Ajax Archives.

Pellet and Tracer Line

The Pellet and Tracer Line was the smallest of the six lines at Ajax. This line produced pelletized R.D.X explosives that were loaded into shells. R.D.X was 40 percent greater in strength than T.N.T in a shell of the same weight and size. Some 15,000 tons of R.D.X was produced at the plant between 1942 and 1945. Tracer chemicals allowed the artillery crew to see where the shell was landing. This visual indicator allowed them to fire at the target more accurately.53

Line 1

Line 1 filled lighter shells compared to the other lines at Ajax. In particular, the 40mm anti-aircraft shell was filled here. This shell would detonate at a predetermined altitude and send exploding splinters of steel into enemy aircraft.54

Gunners passing ammunition for a Bofors 40mm. anti-aircraft gun.
Gunners passing ammunition for a Bofors 40mm. anti-aircraft gun aboard an unidentified merchant ship at sea, 5 May 1941. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-105353

Line 2

Line 2 filled 25-pounder shells and 3-inch mortar shells with T.N.T. The explosive was melted and then poured into the shells. The quantity and temperature of the liquified explosive were closely monitored.55

Line 3

Line 3 processed and filled a large 3.7 calibre anti-aircraft shell. The shells were loaded with cordite, an explosive made up of nitroglycerine, guncotton and petroleum jelly. The mixture would be extruded into long spaghetti shaped strands. Upon detonation, the cordite would produce high-pressure gases, propelling the shell. The amount of cordite would also determine the altitude of the shell.56

Defence Industries Limited Ajax. Line 3. Showing a worker with several large calibre shells ready to be processed.
Showing a worker on line 3 with several large calibre shells ready to be processed. Provided by The Town of Ajax – Ajax Archives.

Line 4

Line 4 processed solid steel anti-tank shells in a variety of sizes. These shells were simpler as they were made up of a base, filled with cordite and received a shell made of solid steel. The solid steel shell was designed to pierce the armour on a tank.57

Defence Industries Limited Ajax 40mm shells
Photograph showing women filling shells with explosives at the Ajax plant. Alexandra Studio/Library and Archives Canada/RD-000823.
Must Watch

Watch this wartime film produced by the National Film Board of Canada showing the processing and filling of shells during World War 2.

Handle with Care, George L. George, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Shutting Down

The D-I-L plant at Ajax was built on some 2,800 acres, the largest munitions plant in the British Commonwealth at the time.58

During its construction, operation and eventual shutdown in August 1945, the plant realized many milestones:

  • Employed some 9,000 men and women.59
  • 2,000 carpenters were involved in the construction of production lines and hundreds of other buildings.60
  • Women workers were recruited from across the country.61
  • Nearly 15,000 tons of R.D.X was produced at the plant.62
  • The reinforced concrete walls, to separate areas where explosives were stored, were so thick that after the shutdown of the plant large trenches were dug and the wall toppled into them since they could not be demolished easily.63
  • Completed rounds (shells) were stored in large buildings. 22 of these buildings were built and stored a combined total of nearly 3,700 tons of explosives.64

Shortly before the war ended in 1945, Defence Industries Limited was tasked by the government of Canada to build the atomic research facility at Chalk River. D-I-L was to design and engineer the reactor, the laboratories, construct the town for the employees, and operate it all under the direction of the National Research Council of Canada.65

The collective knowledge and skill amassed by the Defence Industries Limited company must have been staggering. As Canada transitioned to a peacetime economy, these same men and women went on to build Canada into the strong economy and best place in the world to live that it is today.

Wartime Housing

Many of the men and women who came to work at D-I-L had young children with them or were newly married. These young families wanted affordable housing close to the D-I-L plant. In many cases this allowed both husband and wife to work rotating shifts at the plant so the other parent could care for the children.66

To meet this challenge, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation was tasked with building 600 houses in Ajax.67

The majority of these houses were built north of the 401 and east of Harwood Ave.68

Wartime Houses on Queen Street Ajax
Wartime houses built on Queen St in Ajax. These houses still stand today, some in original condition while others have been completely renovated. Provided by The Town of Ajax – Ajax Archives.

The houses were pre-fabricated and put together like a 3D puzzle. With pieces fitting together to form the main structure of the house, floors, kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms.

Workmen demonstrate the Loxtave (lock-stave) principle of prefabricated housing, using tongue and groove joints to hold walls tight
Workmen demonstrate the Loxtave (lock-stave) principle of prefabricated housing, using tongue and groove joints to hold walls tight. British Columbia. Pre-fab techniques in northern climates (like Ajax) varied to accommodate insulation and etc. Harry Rowed/National Film Board of Canada. Library and Archives Canada/3197231.
Want to learn more?

Watch this video from the National Film Board of Canada showing production of houses during World War 2.

Wartime Housing, Graham McInnes, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The University of Toronto Takes Over

When the Defence Industries Limited plant in Ajax closed down in 1945 the University of Toronto took over many of the D-I-L buildings to handle the influx of veterans enrolled in the university after the war ended.

The government of Canada was busy transitioning from wartime to peacetime activities. One of the initiatives launched by the federal government was to provide an allowance to veterans enrolled in a university or college.

This initiative and others like it ensured that veterans returning from war could be educated in skills required to transition Canada from a wartime economy to a peacetime one.

After an intervention by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the University of Toronto managed to secure the former Defence Industries Limited buildings in Ajax. Within months the D-I-L buildings were converted from shell filling production lines to a fully functioning campus.69

Students of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering listen to lecture by Ernie Wall while in class at the Ajax Campus
Photograph showing a classroom of the University of Toronto Ajax Campus. Photograph by Alan Walker, Toronto. Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering fonds. University of Toronto Archives.

In the March 1, 1946 issue of MacLean’s, Gerald Anglin writes about Tom Brandon of Regina, who, in 1945 was in a prisoner-of-war camp at Lamsdorf, eastern Germany.70

Tom must have been one of the hundreds of POWs who marched in front of the Red Arm in the bitter cold to be liberated by Allied armies.

Upon reaching freedom, Tom happens upon a leaflet announcing the Canadian government’s benefits for veterans to enroll in universities. Almost a year to the date, in 1946, Tom boards a bus to the newly occupied University of Toronto, Ajax Campus. In the following excerpt, Gerald captures his own impressions of the landscape and buildings that once operated as the largest munitions plant in the British Commonwealth.71

The Ajax property is four square miles of onetime farmland, sloping down to the shore of Lake Ontario. Over it are the scattered more than 350 low, rambling buildings in a spider web of connection corridors, rushed to completion in six urgent months of 1941 by 2,400 workmen.

Now, the fighting over, the University of Toronto has leased 450 acres of Ajax for 5 years from the War Assets Corporation. In four months another 450 construction men have worked a postwar miracle.

The network of a dozen buildings which used to comprise “No. 3 Production Line” (6,000 75-pound anti-aircraft shells a day) has been transformed into chemical labs, classrooms, drafting rooms and faculty offices–better designed, equipped and lighted than anything on Toronto Varsity’s old Queen’s Park campus.

In another 50-building settlement, camp-style barracks have been turned into college residences more attractive than those in most hallowed university halls, and a bright and modern cafeteria set up which can serve 1,800 meals an hour. The parent university’s faculty offices in dignified Simcoe Hall find their counterpart in “York Hall,” a two-storied frame building which till recently housed offices of Defence lndustries Limited.

And out of a bare-raftered structure with all the exterior glamour of a barn bas been conjured an elegantly fitted students’ club as a branch of Toronto’s famous Hart House, and the copy need nod to the original in little but its handsome Gothic stonework.

This is Ajax-U. of T.’s answer to the biggest boom in higher learning in the history of Canadian universities, created by a mass migration of Canadian servicemen out of uniform into cap and gown.

Twenty-two thousand of them have left planes and ships, slit trenches and camps to invade labs and classrooms. And this invasion has skyrocketed registration at the Dominion’s universities from 36,343 a year ago to an all-time high of 62,820.

Anglin, Gerald., 1946. Colleges In A Jam. MacLean’s, [online] (Vol. 59 No. 5), pp.21,46. Available at: <https://archive.macleans.ca/issue/19460301#!&pid=46>.

By January 1946, the first classes were in session. At its peak, there were over 3,200 students enrolled at the campus, and between 1946 and 1949 the campus trained over 7,000 students. The last session was in late 1949.72

Imagine working on one of the lines at D-I-L Ajax, then returning as a student of the University of Toronto years later in the same building where you filled R.D.X into bombs.

Naming Ajax

Early contenders for the town’s name included Powder City, Dilco, and Dilville. When a competition was held to decide the name, Frank Holroyd suggested the name “Ajax” due to its historical significance and the HMS Ajax.73

In 1950 the Ontario Municipal Board, at the request of the residents, declared Ajax the Corporation of the Improvement District of Ajax. As an Improvement District, Ajax could not elect its own council until it proved to the Ontario Municipal Board that it had matured enough to govern its own affairs. In 1954, the OMB granted full municipal status to Ajax and the town’s residents attained complete voting rights.74

A Rich Heritage

Ajax is undoubtedly unique in its wartime heritage. Not only because of how it was conceived but also because of its success at attracting people of all backgrounds to make modern Ajax the thriving community that it is today.

It is remarkable to consider that this town would likely not exist today had Canada not declared war in support of the Allies.

The legacy of the D-I-L employees leaves an everlasting impact on the present and future generations of this town. Their actions demonstrated loyalty, love, strength, honour, perseverance, inventiveness, creativity, and hope. Hope for a better future.

The actions and attitudes of the D-I-L workforce are the embodiment of what it means to be Canadian. We are all benefactors of their efforts.

I am proudly Canadian and humbled to call the Town of Ajax my home.

History of Ajax on YouTube

Check out my video on the history of Ajax below and subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Presented by Yasser Khan

1 Filey, Mike. Toronto Sketches 3. Dundurn Press, 2008.
2 MacDonald, Archie. A Town Called Ajax. Ajax Historical Board, 1995, pp. 15.
3 Ibid., 18.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 The Ontario Heritage Trust. [online] Available at: <https://www.heritagetrust.on.ca/en/plaques/meeting-house-of-religious-society-of-friends-quakers-1810>.
7 MacDonald, Archie. A Town Called Ajax. Ajax Historical Board, 1995, pp. 18.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., 19.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ellsberg, Edward. Marine Corps Gazette (pre-1994); Quantico Vol. 24, Iss. 1, (Mar 1940): 16-21,48.
13 Paine, Lincoln P. Ships Of The World An Historic Encyclopedia. HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, 1997. pp 3-4.
14 “Perseus Under Philologic: Hom. Il. 3.225”. The University Of Chicago, 2020, http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekTexts&query=Hom.%20Il.%203.225&getid=2.
15 HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association, https://www.hmsajax.org/hms-ajax-v11.
16 HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association, https://www.hmsajax.org/hms-exeter.
17 HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association, https://www.hmsajax.org/hms-achilles.
18 Ibid.
19 HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association, https://www.hmsajax.org/hms-cumberland.
20 Tucker, Spencer C. World War II At Sea. ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2011, pp. 341-342.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Smith, K., 1989. Ajax, The War Years., p.46.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid., 47
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid., 47-48.
29 Ibid., 48.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid.
34 Ibid., 50.
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid., 53
37 Ibid.
38 The Battle Of The River Plate — National Museum Of The Royal New Zealand Navy. [online] Available at: <https://navymuseum.co.nz/explore/by-themes/world-war-two-by-themes/the-battle-of-the-river-plate/>.
39 Navy Today, 2014. River Plate battle seen by both sides as ‘a square and fair fight’. (185), p.12.
40 HMS Ajax & River Plate Veterans Association, https://www.hmsajax.org/captain-hans-langsdorff.
41 Blog, L., 2020. CIL: The Story Of A Brand. [online] Library and Archives Canada Blog. Available at: <https://thediscoverblog.com/2020/09/24/cil-the-story-of-a-brand/>.
42 Ibid.
43 Canadian Industries Limited, 1940. Annual Report 1940. Montreal: National Trust Company, Limited, Montreal, p.18.
44 Canadian Industries Limited, 1942. Annual Report 1940. Montreal: National Trust Company, Limited, Montreal, p.44.
45 Smith, K., 1989. Ajax, The War Years., p.13.
46 Ibid., 20.
47 Ibid.
48 Ibid., 21.
49 Ibid., 32.
50 Ibid., 22.
51 Ibid., 29.
52 Ibid.
53 Ibid., 33.
54 Ibid., 34.
55 Ibid., 36.
56 Ibid., 38.
57 Ibid., 40.
58 Ibid., 4.
59 Ibid.
60 Ibid., 21.
61 Ibid., 24.
62 Ibid., 33.
63 Ibid., 34.
64 Ibid., 42.
65 Early Years Of Nuclear Energy Research In Canada. [online] Available at: <https://www.cns-snc.ca/media/history/early_years/earlyyears.html>.
66 Smith, K., 1989. Ajax, The War Years., p.76.
67 Ibid.
68 Ibid., 77.
69 MacDonald, Archie. A Town Called Ajax. Ajax Historical Board, 1995, pp. 57.
70 Anglin, Gerald., 1946. Colleges In A Jam. MacLean’s, [online] (Vol. 59 No. 5), pp.21,46. Available at: <https://archive.macleans.ca/issue/19460301#!&pid=46>.
71 Ibid.
72 MacDonald, Archie. A Town Called Ajax. Ajax Historical Board, 1995, pp. 58.
73 Smith, K., 1989. Ajax, The War Years., p.44.
74 MacDonald, Archie. A Town Called Ajax. Ajax Historical Board, 1995, pp. 76.


All photographs and videos used in this article are assumed to be under copyright by their rightful owners. War photos are in the public domain. This article is for educational and general interest only. For errors and suggestions please use the link here.

Last updated: November 30, 2020

8 replies on “History of Ajax, Ontario”

Thank you for your insight of Ajax. As myself and my wife grew up in the town, I have read your whole story with a few things that are close to truth. I grew up in the north end, north of the now 401, in a dil house,59 Windsor Ave. My father was a steam fitter with the powerhouse, and built 3 stores on the east side of Harwood. I went to Lord Elgin p.s. as well as my two older sisters.The largest building of dil houses took place west of Harwood with maybe 100, being built east of Harwood.My wife grew up in the central area as it was known. My mother was a school board trustee and my father was on the hydro commission. I am still observant of things about my home town.

Literally, the entire Town of Ajax is built upon the plant. The plant was spread across dozens of buildings. After the plant shutdown University of Toronto took over many buildings and converted them into lecture halls, student residence and etc.

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