The Canadian Corps Overseas- Part 1

Another one of my Canadian War Stories which will detail the deployment of the Canadian Army overseas. I will begin by discussing the training and equipping of the first Canadian troops who were sent to Britain.


“Reader’s Digest: The Canadians at War: Volumes 1 & 2” ISBN-10 0888501617 (A compilation of articles ranging from personal stories to overviews of Canadian involvement in a particular campaign. Contains excerpts from a number of more obscure Canadian books written after the war, published 1969)

Starting from just after the declaration of war, the state of the Canadian Army is related by Readers Digest in its “Canadians At War” collection. From “The Black Spring”.

"…While the military forces proceeded with the immediate tasks like convoys and dispatching troops, Ottawa was laying the foundation for the war effort as a whole. For various reasons, it thought relatively small. For one, there was little to build on. Not only was the navy tiny. The regular Army consisted of 4500 men, all ranks, and its arsenal consisted of 29 Bren guns, 23 AT-rifles, five 3-inch mortars, 16 tanks (all obsolete), and no modern artillery. Military industrial capacity was low, almost nonexistent. And national unity was fragiele even if, for the moment, it seemed otherwise primarily because of the rejection of overseas conscription. The result, wrote military historian C.P. Stacey in The Canadians, was an “unimpressive beginning. Peacetime ideas of economy and treasury control were dominant, and the war program was tailored to the domestic political situation rather than any military threat posed by Germany.”

This attitude was soon reinforced by an atmosphere of unreality both overseas and in the United States. In Europe, Hitler crushed Poland, then stopped. Across western Europe his armies faced those of Britain and France in uneventful stalemate. They didn’t attack seriously; they didn’t retreat. They stood fast behind Germany’s Siegfried Line and France’s Maginot Line in what grew into an unbelievable hiatus, a fall and a winter of Phoney War…"

The original military program, announced a week within the declaration of war, primarily called for sending the 1st Canadian Division overseas, expanding the navy, and the construction of a modest air training scheme at home. On September 26th, the British government suggested that Canada become the site of a much bigger air training scheme that would serve not only Canada but the Commonwealth. Ottawa replied enthusiastically and sough to make this the country’s chief military effort. Indeed, wrote Colonel Stacey of 1st Canadian Division, the first troops sent to Britain may have been kept at home for quite some time had the Government known how large a role the country was to play in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. But as this was the early weeks of the war, the few troops Canada had were earmarked for overseas service, as this was considered politically necessary.

Despite the “practical” war program that was laid out in these early weeks, Canada was to eventually field a large army overseas in support of the Allied cause, or at least an army large enough to fulfill Mackenzie King’s political fears. Its nucleus set sail for Britain on December 10th, 1939 in Convoy TC-1. The change in policy was mostly the result of public opinion. While King feared the casualties and potential for conscription crisis that came with a large army, there were also many Canadians who remembered the “glory” that the Canadian army had coveted itself in during the Great War. At Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele the Canadian Army had by far made the country’s greatest contribution to the war effort, and brought recognition and respect to a country which was not known for military prowess. So vivid were these memories that many Canadian citizens felt that the army playing the largest role was simply a matter of course.

Even before the country was formally at war, the army had begun to mobilize its tiny force for operations. The 1st Division raised three brigades, each composed of three infantry battalions and supporting units. Three of the nine battalions came from the regular army or Permanent Force; they were the only ones it had. The other six came from regiments of the reserve, the long-neglected Non-Permanent Active Militia.

One of these reserve outfits was the 1st Battalion of eastern Ontario’s Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. From Farley Mowat’s novel The Regiment comes this account of its mobilization and dispatch overseas:

"…Picton is a farm town, remote from the world beyond even as Prince Edward County is remote. Almost an island, the country lies with its south face to Lake Ontario, its north shore upon the placid Bay of Quinte. Picton, the largest town, partakes of quietude that in summer is close to somnolence. The Picton Armouries, a rococo monstrosity with red-brick face and foolish little battle towers, has looked out on the main street for decades. Within the iron-studded doors a drill hall stretches into dimness. Here, between the wars, 20 or 30 volunteers, the men of C company, had gathered one night a week for lectures on how to dig a trench, bayonet an enemy, read a map, keep a rifle clean. The rest of the time the mausoleum stood empty and silent except when the townsfolk needed space for a dance or a social event.

On September 2nd, 1939, it was a hot and dusty vault. In the orderly room a fly buzzed with a shocking resonance in a silence that had become almost tangible. Around noon a boy bicycled down the sleepy main street and stopped at the Armouries’ door. The telegram he carried read: “Lt. Col. S. Young -KM2- Mobilize.” It shattered the peace of Hastings and Prince Edward counties. Lt. Col. Sherman Young grasped his telephone and he and an adjutant began a series of rapid phone calls that tied up the local exchange and threw the operator into confusion. In Marmora, Trenton, MAdoc and other towns, men threw down shop aprons and stripped off overalls. From the Regiment;s five company offices in five towns the telephone call multiplied. men drove to back-country farms to pass the news. In poolrooms and beer parlors other men were silent for one long instant, then crowded to the doors. The word soon reached every corner of the counties.

At the Picton HQ, men were stunned by the magnitude of the task. In less than 20 days the unit was to turn itself from a peacetime group of 100 civilians into a battalion of more than 900 soldiers. Each man had to be documented, medically examined, provided a place to sleep and three meals a day, given uniforms and boots, paid, and set about tasks that would make him a fighting soldier. Within two hours, mobilization had begun. On a beach on Lake Ontario, a 22-year old company sergeant major was on a date with a young woman. A stranger approached, spoke half a dozen words, and the sergeant major promptly drove off with said strangerm leaving his companion marooned on the beach. Within an hour he reported for duty in full uniform.

A number of men who had fought in the First World War showed up to enlist. Some were accepted, but many were either too old or had suffered injuries that made it impossible for them to reenlist and they were turned away. Some were, depressingly, reduced to tears at the news. Many of their sons enlisted in their stead. men born in the area who were in other parts of Canada heard the news and raced back home as quickly as they could to enlist. Telegrams came pouring in: “Returning first train east stop hold a spot for me.” One man in Toronto, having found his first job in three-years, spent his $2 advance pay on gasoline for his motorcycle. In the morning he was waiting at the Picton Armouries’ door. The numbers in which they rallied can not be contributed to any great patriotic fervour as it was in the Great War. Indeed, many came simply to escape hard times, some to escape the consequences of failure, the younger to escape boredom, ugliness, and misery at home. It was work with pay. In Trenton a man who had been a railroad worker now stood behind the cold-storage building, wearing the puttees, breeches and stiff jacket of 1918, shouting drill orders. His platoon wore bright sweaters, jackets, flannel trousers, grease-stained overalls. They carried broom sticks or pieces of wood shaped to resemble a Lee-Enfield, for there were not even enough of the antiquated rifles.

Uniforms and boots were just as lacking. Men wore their civilian shoes until they disintegrated, then bought farm boots from the Picton stores out of their own pockets. What uniforms were available were taken from the bins in which they had lain since 1919. They were moth eaten and shabby, and they never fitted. Some men were issued khaki breeches while their comrades received tunics. Tailors worked miracles but on parade most men looked like comic-opera soldiers. A few ancient Lewis guns, long since replaced in active service by Brens. represented the sole “heavy” armament. On the memorable day that a real Bren was received, officers guarding it like a chest of solid gold, the men could only stare in awe at what the future might possibly hold.

A force of carpenters and masons descended on the armoury, converting the ancient cellars into accommodations capable of housing the hundreds of men the battalion would recruit. In early October the outlying companies flooded into Picton and the town turned khaki overnight. Now the regiment was whole.

In November the first battle dress arrived and the lucky few who received them were envied mightily. The first rifles were issued, stripped, reassembled, strppied again. The first paydays came. A regimental sergeant major imported from the Permanent Force trained the handful of militia corporals and sergeants who seemed a little more competent than their fellows. These became the first instructors. The men of the regiment acquired a mascot in the form of a 40-year old Tecumseh statue that had sat atop the Tecumseh Canning Factory for decades. The building had been retrofitted into a barracks, and three men, with great difficulty, removed the statue one night after bribing a sentry to look the other way. He was set up in the sergeants mess with a bottle of whisky under each arm. The next morning word arrived from Ottawa; the regiment was to entrain that night for Halifax. The statue went with them across the Atlantic.

(Infantrymen of the Scottish Toronto Regiment embarking aboard H.M. Troopship Empress of Australia on December 7th, 1939.)

The 1st Canadian Division was under the overall command of Major General Andrew McNaughton and was sent across in two convoys. One departed December 10th, the other December 22nd. By January 1st, 1940, the second convoy was ming its way up Scotland’s River Clyde. The men of the Regiment were packed aboard HMS Ormande. The trip was a trying one. The wet and piercing cold of northern seas penetrated the crowded troop decks with their makeshift nunks and seamen’s hammocks; HM Transport Ormande possessed air conditioning to guard against the equatorial sun but no heating. Neither did she have an easy motion. Most passengers had never been to sea before and were terribly sick. By the time they dropped anchor in Greenock, they were a mob of grousing and grumbling troops. Soon they boarded trains for southern England and Maida Barracks in Aldershot, Hampshire.

(Major General Andrew G. L. McNaughton. Circa 1942.)

The Regiment found Aldershot a city of frigid barracks blocks with the smell of antiquity and an atmosphere as bleak as Depression labour camps. There were no provisions to defeat the winter cold save for tiny open fireplaces, for which there was no coal. That first month in England was a dark one. Had officers been able to take hold, all might have been well. But the whole military situation in England was chaotic. Shortages were so chronic they’d become accepted. A single typewriter was issued to the battalion for staff work. Three ancient cars were the transport. A few Bren light machine-guns became the main armament. There were insufficient clothes and boots, and the weather was frigid. At one time 300 of the men had influenza. The food was abominable; men who had taken good victuals for granted were revolted by musty mutton, by Brussels sprouts, by sausages which contained so much bread that they wondered whether to use mustard or marmalade. Mail didn’t arrive. Morale dropped lower. Men began to go absent without leave. At a garrison church parade the unit appeared to such poor advantage that the divisional commander called the CO on the carpet. There were ugly rumours the unit was to be used as a work battalion or turned into a pioneer battalion.

The Regiment would get a new strong hand on January 30th. Lt. Col. Harry Salmon, a Permanent Force soldier who might well have taken insult at the order to take over a militia battalion. Certainly the men of the regiment were insulted by his appointment. Nevertheless, this man was the catalyst needed to transform promise into reality. He knew the way, and he was ruthless. A number of officers and senior NCOs were on their way home within a week. Salmon’s guiding principle was simple. He believed the private soldier was never wrong. If the soldier got in trouble, it was the fault of his officers or NCOs. If officers expected the support of their troops in battles, they had to give the men service during training, and give it unstintingly.

(Harry Salmon after war, when he carried the rank of Major General.)

Salmon was firm, but fair. He quickly gained the nickname of “Iron Guts” with the regular men, and although he was a harsh leader, the haphazard basic training they received in Canada was relearned, and this time it stuck with them. Even sor, they learned only the principles of soldering, not how to actually fight a war. The combat training of every regiment in England was still a farce. Each day the companies marched to the broad plains beyond Aldershot and learned about war as it had been. The 1918 pamphlet of field engineering was the Bible. Fascines, fire steps, revetments, traverses, communications trenches, these were the key words of the last war, and this is what the men of 1st Canadian Division learned through the winter and early spring through the phony war. Miles of trenches grew and spread across Salisbury Plain and the pathetic futility of it all went unnoticed…" Farley Mowat, The Regiment.

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