Defence Industries Limited: A History

The Town of Ajax: A History

On September 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Germany. On that day, the present site of the Town of Ajax was peaceful rolling farmland nestled on the edge of Lake Ontario in Pickering Township.It had been to this area, 150 years prior, that the first white settlers had arrived to start their new life in a new land. All this was to change very quickly.

In 1941, this farmland became the site of Defence Industries Limited (D.I.L.), Pickering Works. Thus began a vast shell filling plant which  before 1945 had: filled 40 million shells; employed over 9,000 people at peak production; boasted of its own water and sewage treatment plants; a school population of over 600; 30 miles of railroad and 30 miles of roads. The entire D.I.L. plant site included some 2,985 acres. People came from all over Canada to work at D.I.L.

This enormous burgeoning war plant community needed a name. The name was supplied by the first significant British naval victory of World War II. From December 13 to December 19, 1939, a flotilla of British warships – HMS Ajax, HMS Exeter and HMS Achilles – commanded by Commodore Henry H. Harwood – engaged and routed the powerful German pocket battleship Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate, near the Uraguayan port of Montevideo in South America. The name Ajax and the names of her sister ships became worldwide symbols of courage and determination. Ajax was chosen, therefore, as the name of this war-born community.

“DIL: The Beginning of a town called Ajax: Forty Million Shells Later…”

(Written by, Joshua May for Ajax: 50th Anniversary Edition)

Much of Ajax’s History has its roots in munitions plant…

Ajax may have never come to be had it not been for the Second World War.

In the bitter cold temperatures of February 1941, army surveryors first visitted the vast open fields of Pickering in the hopes of constructing Canada’s largest ammunition shell-filling plant. The result, a site some 2, 985 acres that employed more than 9, 000 people and produced more than 40 million shells. It was the birth of Defence Industries Limited (DIL).

The tightly-secured, highly secretive DIL plant first commenced operations in 1941, employing both men and women for its potentially dangerous endevours. Commissioning many of its male labourers from the General Motors plant in Oshawa and females that spanned the nation from as far as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to Peace River, Alberta, largely due in part to job competition with smaller munitions plants across the country, employees worked six-day weeks of 48 hours at a rate of 80 cents per hour for male and 50 cents for a female. These rates were significantly higher than the standard Canadian wages of the time.   

“We were paid quite handsomely for our work,” said Louise Johnson, a line worker for nearly three years. “The company offered wonderful working conditions for its employees and the satisfaction of knowing you were working to help the war-effort was very gratifying”.

Enclosed by an eight-foot tall, barbed wire fence that surrounded its perimeter, the DIL plant was a business-oriented atmosphere that featured many employees who took great pride in their wartime efforts. Arthur Silk, a former line employee and auto-mechanic at DIL poured his heart and soul into his work, ensuring every shell he filled was of the highest standard.

“If I had been overseas, I’d want worrying about faulty gun shells to be the least of my concerns”, said Mr. Silk. “It was very important to us that we always put the highest quality of my work into the shells we made. It could have meant a matter of life and death for the soldier using them”.

Having been in operation for more than four years before its inevitable closure in 1945, the DIL plant’s impact on Ajax can still be felt by the residents of Ajax to this very day. Without DIL, many institutions such as the Ajax Hospital, fire department and even the town itself, may have never existed, said Ms. Johnson.

“The town of Ajax owes a lot to DIL”

“Munitions plant fired life-altering experience…”

(Written by, Joshua May for Ajax: 50th Anniversary Edition)

DIL changed perceptions of women, shaped lives…

Louise Johnson credits Defence Industries Limited (DIL) with changing her life.

A war-time munitions plant that employed more than 9, 000 people at the height of production, Ms. Johnson moved from her home province of Saskatchewan in 1941 to be a part of the budding industrial company and the job opportunities that women were presented.

“Women were looked at a lot differently back in those days, However, with all the men off to war, the munitions plants and other establishments needed people to keep their businesses running. DIL offered great wages and an opportunity for women to work outside their homes. I am very grateful for the time I spent at the plant” said Ms. Johnson.

Leaving her family and friends long behind for the promising prospects of a life of her own, Ms. Johnson hopped aboard a steaming locomotive towards a budding new career, and, what turned out to be, her livelihood.

“After the war had ended, I had the choice of moving back home. However, my husband had already found himself another job here and we had made so many friends already, it just didn’t seem to make sense to leave. Ajax had become our new home”.

From the fun-filled activities of public dances and bowling events to the eight-foot tall barbed wire gates surrounding the pant’s exterior, DIL was both a haven of community joy and security for its residents.

Most of all however, DIL was an institution that helped change the perceptions of women in society and forever shaped the lives of the individuals that worked there.

“DIL influenced my entire life. I owe so much to that plant. If I had the choice now, I’d never do it any differently” said Ms. Johnson.

* For a more detailed description of the history of Ajax and Defence Industries, check out “A Town Called Ajax”, written by the Ajax Historical Board. 

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15 Comments

15 thoughts on “Defence Industries Limited: A History

  1. For additional information also review the Ajax Public Library’s Online D.I.L. Exhibition: “Ajax, Birth of a Town” at http://images.ourontario.ca/ajax/2372171/data.

    • Judy Georgieff

      My Mom worked as a bomb girl in the 1940’s.Her name is Eileen Geddis,she came from the west(alberta).I have a picture of her standing in front of Whitby sign,in the white overalls and hat that she wore.Do you have more pictures that I can see.Do you or any one know or worked with my mother!!!!!!!!Judy Georgieff(daughter)

      • Hi there,

        Was your mother a DIL employee? We are in the process of compiling all related DIL history records. Would you be willing to send us a copy of the picture you have of your mother? If so, please send it via e-mail to ireland.kaitlin@gmail.com or honourajaxbombgirls@ajax.ca. As we compile more records, I will let you know if we find any other photos or information about your mom.

  2. Marianne Mullan

    My mother, who now has severe dementia, always told me that during WWII she made “dummy bombs” in a factory. My brother, who has since passed away, informed me that she used to take a factory bus to work. My question is: is there a list anywhere of the employees of these factories? Thanks for your help.

    • Hi there,

      We are in the process of compiling all DIL related historical records. I am also trying to track down an employee list, which we do not have as of yet. As my investigation continues, I will let you know if I find anything. What was your mother’s name? It is also helpful if we have her maiden name as well.

  3. Karen Cameron

    My mom worked at D.I.L., she came from Alberta to work. Her name was Maude May Dell, she was born on March 30, 1922 and died on August 18, 1960 from Breast Cancer. You probably already have her name from Mae Winters.

  4. Martin Brown

    My mother-in-law Alice Effie Brown may have been/was employed at DIL. We have/had a photo of her in coveralls and hair covering. The photo may be in Alberta currently and we will see if it can be retrieved and forwarded

  5. Kristy Flys

    My Grandmother came from Saskatoon to Ajax with her sister to work in at DIL with her sister, her name was Margaret Mitchell Grant. she is passed now so Im not sure which sister as she had a few, but It would have been Vivian Grant, Ina Grant or Mae (or spelled May ) Grant. My grandmother married her supervisor there, my grandfather, William (Bill) Jay who came over from England. I wish I had asked them more questions when they were alive, unfortunately I didnt. I read online that the badges with their picture on it and payroll # were all destroyed when the factory closed, do you know if there is any sort employee list ? I would love to learn more about what they did there, and am so curious if there is any pics of them there. I have looked at the pics avail. online, and so far I havent seen them in any , but its so hard to tell, alot of them are grainy.
    Can you suggest anything where I may be able to find more info, I would love to honor my grandparents for their work at dil , but currently i dont know much.

  6. Kristy Flys

    My grandmother came over from saskatchewan with her sister to work at the munitions factory,she ended up marrying her supervisor there, my grandfather…wish i had asked more about it when they were alive, I suppose at the time I didnt realize the enormity of it when I was younger. Is there is any way to get infomation on them and their time them? Their names were Margaret Mitchell Grant and William (Bill) Jay.

    • Hi there,

      We are currently in the process of compiling records, photographs and any information about the men and women that worked at Defence Industries. I will do my best to find photos and any information about your relatives. In the mean time, please feel free to take a look at our website http://www.honourajaxbombgirls.ca. We have a section available for family members of DIL employees to donate to the campaign in their honour. You might also wish to look at http://www.pada.ca. This is the Pickering Ajax Digital Archives. This website has a large collection of DIL photographs and also holds many editions of ‘The Commando’. This newspaper was written and published at DIL during the war years and highlights many of the achievements of its employees.

      Kaitlin Ireland
      History Records
      Ajax Bomb Girls Legacy Campaign

      • Judy Georgieff

        My mom came over from Alberta.

        On Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 8:11 AM, Honour Ajax Bomb Girls wrote:

        > kaitlinireland commented: “Hi there, We are currently in the process > of compiling records, photographs and any information about the men and > women that worked at Defence Industries. I will do my best to find photos > and any information about your relatives. In the mean time, please” >

  7. kathleen greenley

    Hi, My grandmother and grandfather both worked at the plant in Ajax ontario,and I would love to see some pictures. Their name’s are William Burton Smith and Josephine May Smith.

    • Hi there,

      We are currently in the process of compiling records, photographs and any information about the men and women that worked at Defence Industries. I will do my best to find photos of your relatives. In the mean time, please feel free to take a look at our website http://www.honourajaxbombgirls.ca. We have a section available for family members of DIL employees to donate to the campaign in their honour. You might also wish to look at http://www.pada.ca. This is the Pickering Ajax Digital Archives. This website has a large collection of DIL photographs.

      Kaitlin Ireland
      History Records
      Ajax Bomb Girls Legacy Campaign

  8. Kathleen Kennedy Calvelli

    I can across a photo in the pada site and the women was a DIL worker who looks just like me. I am not sure if there is any relation?? I would like to know who the women is and what her name is, can you help me???

    • Hi there,

      Please send me a link to the photo on the PADA website. I will try to track down the names or a caption to that corresponding photo.

      Kaitlin Ireland
      History Records
      Ajax Bomb Girls Legacy Campaign

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