On the homefront
The Royal Canadian Mint recently introduced the Victory Anniversary Nickel to commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of Canada’s fighting forces in the Second World War. In Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ont., that victory coin has many additional memories, especially for Inco Ltd. and its workforce.
During the war years (1939-45), International Nickel Co. of Canada, as it was known back then, and its employees in Sudbury and Port Colborne supplied 95% of all Allied demands for nickel–a vital raw material critical for the Allies’ final victory
In fact, for much of the past century the key location for this essential metal was the legendary Sudbury Basin, with the South Pacific island of New Caledonia coming a distant second. During certain periods up to the mid-1970s, Sudbury supplied up to 90% of world demand.
The Basin is an oval-shaped geological structure, approximately 60 km long and 30 km wide. It is believed to have resulted from a massive meteorite impact about 1.8 billion years ago. Located 400 km north of Toronto, these nickel deposits were discovered in 1883 during the construction of the Canadian National Railway. Currently, Sudbury supplies about 15% of world nickel production. It is still among the top 10 most significant mining districts in the world and by far, the richest mining district in North America. (See article in CMJ December 2004.)
International Nickel built the Port Colborne refinery, located on Lake Erie in the Niagara Region, in 1918.
Nickel’s properties essential for war
Nickel’s unique properties include a combination of strength, hardness, ductility, resistance to corrosion and the ability to maintain strength under high heat. It can transfer these properties to other metals, making nickel absolutely essential for a wide variety of both civilian and military uses.
Today nickel is essential to all facets of industrial manufacturing, primarily through stainless steel which uses about 70% of global production. The metal is found in over 300,000 products ranging from heart stents used in bypass surgery, to hybrid automobile batteries, jet engines and of course the kitchen sink.
The Second World War was a mechanized war that utilized more technically advanced equipment than ever before. In order to win, the Allied armies needed machines–guns, tanks, planes, battleships and a host of other weaponry–that could only be made from hardened nickel steels and other nickel alloys.
Thousands of pounds of nickel alloys were used in the mighty flying B-29 Superfortresses, ranging from oil cooling units and fastening devices to fuel pump parts, exhaust systems, instrumentation, and tubing and control assemblies for guns and much more.
The war in the Pacific was primarily an amphibious battle requiring rugged engines with many nickel alloy parts able to withstand the corrosive effects of salt water. Invasion landing craft, submarines and aircraft carriers contained various nickel steels in the hulls, propeller shafting, gas and water tanks and vital valve and pump parts, just to name a few uses.
Nickel-hardened armor plate for tanks, nickel alloys for anti-aircraft guns and ordnance, and even lightweight and tough portable bridges used in the invasion of Germany all required this essential metal.
“Given the chance, Hitler would willingly have traded the whole Silesian basin, and thrown in Hermann Goering and Dr. Goebbels to boot, for a year’s possession of the Sudbury Basin,” Maclean’s journalist James H. Gray aptly wrote in an Oct. 1, 1947 article on the city.
Inco facilities at complete disposal for Allies
From the beginning of the war, the company’s expertise and vast production and research facilities in Sudbury, Port Colborne, Huntington, W.V., and Britain were at the complete disposal of the Allied war effort. Some of the British facilities and the Huntington rolling mills were sold in 1997 and 1998.
In 1939 International Nickel’s CEO Robert C. Stanley stated, “The first obligation of every corporation, as of every individual, is to give the utmost support to his Government in the prosecution of the war.” As it turned out, these were not empty words. Company profits declined approximately 25% during the war years due to capital expenditures, war taxes and the use of more costly mining methods to accelerate the production of nickel, copper and platinum.
The price of nickel was under government control. From 1929 to 1941 nickel sold for 35 a pound. For the remainder of the war it was reduced to $0.315 per pound. By contrast, the metal cost between $0.40 and $0.55 a pound during the First World War.
Nickel was one of the first metals to require allocation. Non-essential uses of this strategic metal were banned, which included most of International Nickel’s civilian markets. Ironically, company scientists and metallurgists worked with former clients to find substitutes. The 1943 victory nickel coin was no exception. From 1942 until the end of the war the piece was made from a copper-zinc alloy. In the United States, the coin contained silver, a much less strategic metal than nickel.
Falconbridge‘s Norwegian refining facilities at Kristiansand were occupied by German invasion forces on April 9, 1940. For the duration of the war, International Nickel refined all of former-rival Falconbridge’s matte.
In 1941 the Allied governments asked the company to increase production. International Nickel complied by committing $35 million to expand nickel output by 50 million lb above 1940 productions levels, reaching this goal by 1943 without any government subsidies. However, the federal government did allow the company to amortize $25 million of its expansion expenditures over a five-year period, instead of 10 or 20 years.
On a visit to Sudbury to promote the victory loan campaign in February 1942, the Hon. C.D. Howe, Canada’s famous minister of munitions and supply, said, “Those of you who live in Sudbury and are employed by one of your nickel companies need not feel that you are not taking part in this war. … But I can say this, that if anything should happen to interrupt the production of nickel in the city of Sudbury, the whole character of the war will be changed. I know of no important munition of war that doesn’t have a nickel content.”
Critical role of rolling mills and refineries
Like Falconbridge, French nickel producer Le Nickel was unable to refine its New Caledonian matte at its European refinery in Le Havre, France. International Nickel built a new plant at its Huntington rolling mills to process New Caledonia nickel. The Huntington Works was honoured six times by the Army and Navy for the high quality and efficiency of its service in producing ordnance equipment and special nickel alloys.
Rolling mills at Birmingham and Glasgow and refineries at Clydach and Acton, all in the U.K., were integral parts of the war effort.
In the early 1940s, at the request of Britain’s Air Ministry, company scientists worked feverishly to solve the problem of appropriate materials for emerging designs in jet and gas turbine engines.
What became one of the most noted contributions during the war by International Nickel metallurgists from the Henry Wiggin & Co. Ltd. facilities in Birmingham was the invention of a new alloy for jet-propelled aircraft engines.
This new nickel alloy called “Nimonic 80” allowed the jet engine’s turbine parts, particularly the blades, to operate for long periods under tremendous stress, high heat and corrosive exhaust without deforming or melting. This new alloy was far superior to German aircraft technology and by 1944 found its way into the spitfires and other aircraft coming off the production lines. After the war, Nimonic 80 set the stage for a revolution in jet-propelled aviation.
Women working for International Nickel
From the onset of the wa
r in Canada, labour shortages were a constant struggle. Miners were released from the gold camps to work in the nickel operations. Wartime housing shortages in Sudbury probably kept many more gold miners away.
Since 1890, Ontario mining legislation had prohibited the employment of women in mines. Using its powers under the War Measures Act, the federal government issued an order-in-council on Aug. 13, 1942 allowing women to be employed, but only in surface operations. On Sept. 23, 1942, a second order-in-council was issued to allow women into the Port Colborne refinery.
Over 1,400 women were hired for production and maintenance jobs for the duration of the war. They performed a variety of tasks such as operating ore distributors, repairing cell flotation equipment, running ore trains, and working in the machine shop.
Elizabeth ‘Lisa’ Dumencu, a resident of Lively, was 21 when she answered the call. “Women didn’t normally do this type of work, but we had to do our part,” she recalls. “It was really remarkable, but my husband Peter, worked even harder underground at Creighton.” She ran a 14 ore-car train and later became the first woman to work in the machine and blacksmith shop, running a steam hammer. Lisa recalls that “the fellows in the shop treated me beautifully,” but adds that she often looks back on those days and asks herself, “However did I do this?”
Commenting in a 1946 speech about the role played by women, International Nickel vice-president R.L. Beattie said, “Production of nickel and copper in sufficient quantities to assure an Allied victory world have been impossible had the women not stepped into the employment breach early in 1942, when labour was critically short, and the need for our products on the battlefronts steadily increasing.”
At the end of the war, Ottawa rescinded the Order-in-Council allowing the employment of women in the company’s surface operations. International Nickel had a policy to save the positions for all former employees who joined the services, so most of the returning men came back to work for the company.
Sudbury and Port Colborne should be proud
From 1939 to 1945, International Nickel delivered to the Allied countries 1.5 billion lb of nickel, 1.75 billion lb of copper and over 1.8 million oz of platinum metals. The tonnage of ore mined during the war years equaled the production of the company and its predecessors during the previous 54 years of their existence.
On May 17, 1943, a live CBC Radio broadcast from Sudbury announced, “The ships, guns, tanks and planes that today are taking part in a victory which in our hearts, makes us proud and grateful, have been lightened, strengthened or toughened by nickel mined here. …And every minute of every day, the nickel produced by the men and women in our audience tonight, toughens and multiplies the sinews of war that will help spell the annihilation of the Axis forces. Here, then, their task is tremendously vital, and their record a distinguished one.”
For obvious reasons there was a decrease in nickel consumption immediately after the end of the war. However, the rebuilding of the world’s devastated economies and the pent-up civilian requirements for nickel-containing products helped ensure continued demand.
When the people of Sudbury and Port Colborne look at that Victory Nickel, they should remember with pride the wartime contributions from their communities that truly helped to shape the course of world history.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and freelance journalist who writes extensively on mining and Ontario issues. [[email protected]]