Citizen Army

They’re tough, eager, disciplined ... these 100,000 civilian soldiers who march and camp and train with Canada’s Reserve Army

TRENT FRAYNE August 15 1943

Citizen Army

They’re tough, eager, disciplined ... these 100,000 civilian soldiers who march and camp and train with Canada’s Reserve Army

TRENT FRAYNE August 15 1943

Citizen Army

They’re tough, eager, disciplined ... these 100,000 civilian soldiers who march and camp and train with Canada’s Reserve Army


ZERO hour was 5 a.m. Ten hours earlier they had marched out of camp in full battle kit and the orange ball in the west which was the sun dropping down for the night had made a black blob of their steel helmets as it struck them.

They had left the camp and by the time they had reached their rendezvous there wasn’t any sun. Instead, there were stars over their heads and the dampness of night had taken hold of the sweat on their bodies and sent chills up and down their spines.

They turned into a schoolyard and their commander halted them there. The officers stepped into the vacated schoolhouse and the men spread their blankets on the soft damp grass outside and settled down after the long march.

This wasn’t the prelude to an important battle. This was only the Reserve Army on manoeuvres. This wasn’t the southwest coast of England or the northeast coast of Africa. This was only a schoolyard in the Niagara Peninsula. But in a sense, this was important too. It wasn’t as important as an invasion of Europe or Italy, of course, but to the men involved and perhaps indirectly to all the people of Canada, it was an important step in training civilians to guard their country in the event of an emergency.

That, you see, is the Reserve Army’s reason for existence; a well-trained, well-disciplined body of men capable of defending Canada should the need for defense arise.

So, by way of training its men for just such an emergency, the Reserve Army sends upward of

100,000 clerks, salesmen, lawyers, butchers, bankers into camps all across the country for two weeks every summer. For twro weeks the Reserve Army gives upward of 100,000 civilians the works. It throws the book at them. In two weeks it crams into them all the practical training humanly possible and it covers more territory than a magazine digest.

This particular manoeuvre happened to take place in the Niagara Peninsula but it might as well have been the flats of Shilo Camp in Manitoba or the valleys of the Okanagan in British Columbia or the rock-bound coast of Nova Scotia. It is the same across the nation and more than 100,000 men like your grocer or your insurance agent or your bank president are doing it.

So zero hour was 5 a.m. and the bivouac was in a schoolyard. Inside the schoolhouse the staff officers double checked plans which had been days in the making. Signals officers tested and retested communications with other units which were part of the scheme and which were bivouacked elsewhere over an area of 35 square miles.

Their objective was the Welland Canal and this set war history because since August of 1941 the vulnerable and vital Welland Canal had been excluded from all military manoeuvres by Government order for security reasons. But for this show, embracing mere than 4,000 men, special permission had been obtained.

Dawn was just poking its silvery fingers into night’s inky sky as the men stirred in the schoolyard. They moved in single file to the school’s basement and sipped hot coffee from big white enamel cups. In battle kit, their silhouettes stood monstrous against the single electric light in a corner of the damp, dim room. Then they moved along out into the greying dawn again and soon they were headed for their rendezvous near the canal.

Precisely at 5 a.m. they “attacked” and up and down the canal at three other points other units “attacked” simultaneously. The objectives were four bridges over a five-mile frontage and the bridgeheads were regarded in the scheme as being heavily guarded—one particularly. Actually, they were “guarded” by a handful of Reserve Army men who, like the attackers, were armed with Bren guns and rifles and bombs whose ammunition was dud. This made the scheme none the less realistic, however, for with each company of attackers there travelled an umpire and if in his judgment any attacker exposed himself to open fire he was immediately considered a casualty.

Element of Surprise

THE element of surprise figures prominently.

The defenders hadn’t suspected that the attackers would cross the canal anywhere but at the bridges and consequently weren’t prepared for a crossing by a company of Royal Canadian Engineers in rubber dinghies and assault craft. This wasn’t altogether the defenders’ fault, however, because never before in this war had the Welland Canal been crossed by military men in boats.

So, while they guarded the bridgeheads and peered through the early morning mist for the enemy, groups of Royal Canadian Engineers were creeping stealthily through the long thick grass toward the canal. If they came to a sharply angled incline in the terrain they would secure a blockand-tackle to a tree trunk and drag the assault craft to the crest, always keeping low in the long grass.

They reached the canal and a lieutenant and an NCO pumped up their rubber dinghy and dragged it slowly and cautiously to the canal’s edge. They lowered it, stepped gingerly down and paddled silently through the water to the other side for reconnaissance. Assured they had not been detected, they signalled back to the troops. The collapsible assault boats, constructed of canvas and wood, were hastily assembled then and quickly dragged to the water’s edge. Each could accommo-

date nine men—two paddlers and seven others crouched with rifles poised.

That went on for an hour and so efficiently did the men assemble their boats, cross the canal, dissemble them and camouflage themselves in the shrubbery that not once were they detected by the defending forces, whose lookouts still were scanning the approaches to the bridge. When landing was completed the men crept toward the bridge, surprised its defenders and overpowered them. They signalled to other troops acroas the canal and the troops poured across the undefended bridge.

It happened that way at three bridges and at a predetermined hour the troops headed for the fourth and most heavily defended bridge, advancing upon it from two sides in a pincer movement. While they attacked other units stormed across in a frontal attack and five hours and 23 minutes after the initial canal crossing the “cease-fire” was sounded. The attackers had “wiped out” the defenders.

This, then, is the Reserve Army in action. This is what infantry units are doing across Canada these days as the 100,000 civilians spend their two weeks under canvas. This is the culmination of practical training in summer camp and of theoretical training two nights each week all year at home. This, in short, is what Joe Doakes does at camp where, for two weeks, he becomes a soldier in every sense of the word.

But maybe you’re an artilleryman yourself. Maybe you figure the infantry is all right for guys with strong backs and large feet but you’ll take the artillery where the big guns boom and a guy isn’t walking himself blue in the face. Well then, come along to Petawawa, the biggest artillery camp in Canada—tent-spotted, sprawling Petawawa, lying there beside the Ottawa River only a stone’s throw from Quebec. For the first time since the war, artillery units of the Reserve Army are taking their training there under instructors directed by

Maclean's Magazine, August 15, 1943

Lieut.-Col. G. H. Ellis, the camp commandant, who was overseas in this war with the 7th Army Field Regiment. One of his instructors there was General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery of the British 8th Army. He says 7,000 Reserve Army men will have spent two weeks at Petawawa before the camp closes late in August.

Thundering 18-Pounders

AT PETAWAWA they don’t play with dud . ammunition. They play with 18-pounders which, granted, are obsolete. But the very fact they are obsolete is the reason the ammunition is real. The Active Army is occupied with the business of getting rid of all the 25-pounders—like the kind which routed Rommel—so the Reserve Army can have the 18-pounders.

Eighteen-pounders make the combined noises of Winnipeg’s Portage and Main, Vancouver’s Hastings and Granville and Toronto’s King and Yonge, at high noon, sound like a gnat’s whisper. The sky echoes and re-echoes with the thunder in their wake after they’ve been snorted out of the sleek-nosed gun in a vicious bark.

But the men who went to Petawawa with the idea they’d have nothing to do but sit around and listen to the thump of the big guns were somewhat astounded when they discovered they were confronted by a syllabus which included 25 subjects ranging from traffic control to map-reading. Even the spud-peeling department wasn’t overlooked. And they were equally surprised to find they had been categorized into groups: recruit, intermediate cr advanced, depending upon how well they had learned the two-night-a-week lessons back home.

One of the least-publicized points about the Reserve Army is that it is the greatest recruiting tonic of them all. The theory is that many reserve men have no conception of Army life until they get to camp. Then, when they get there and taste its rigorous 10-hour nonstop daily routine, they move in permanently. One Colonel at Petawawa confessed he was having a desperate time with his outfit—three times it had done a complete turnover to active service.

What these part-time soldiers think of their two weeks at camp, whether it does them any good and how they react to it are questions that probably couldn’t be answered by anyone more qualified than the soldiers themselves.

A vigorous, greying sergeant, who’d first seen Petawawa in 1911 and later served four years’ overseas in the last war, thinks two weeks at camp make an artilleryman a real soldier. “They go through everything a soldier needs to make him really fit to handle a gun under any circumstances,” he said. “You can’t get that in the city two nights a week. There you can study the theory but only at camp can you get the experience or the feel of the gun. Up here we’re under the same conditions as the men on active service.”

A young, black-haired lance corporal, a category “C” man with four brothers overseas, stepped up to say two weeks at camp “is better than a whole year in the city.” He continued: “We get instruction on the 25-pounders and we get practical work on the 18-pounders. That’s the real thrill, firing those guns. We’ve all heard about them and read about them but we didn’t know what it was all about until we’d actually been part of a gun crew.” In passing it might be pointed out that Army officials insist that the six men who constitute a gun’s crew be termed a “gun detachment,” so it isn’t surprising that every man jack in the Army calls it a crew.

The men’s reaction to jumping cold from the relative comfort of an office desk to the vigorous, continuous and changing manoeuvres of an Army camp was explained by a middle-aged insurance company branch manager who had gone to camp expecting the worst from his seldom-used muscles and then discovered that the fresh air and change of food had created more havoc than creaking joints. He’d never slept so much in his life, he confessed, nor felt more like sleeping—this despite a 6 a.m. reveille. “Sleep,” he paraphrased, “it’s wonderful.”

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Citizen Army

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Col. Ellis, the commandant of the camp, says self-sufficiency has become a by-word of the Reserve Army. “We like to feel units are independent,” he said. “If one gets separated from the rest it carries on alone. That is successful, concentrated warfare—the kind of cards played by Montgomery and what we stress now.” He was speaking of the Reserve Army as a whole; not of Petawawa individually.

“In 15 months,” he continued, “our syllabus has widened, our equipment improved and our complement increased. We are active in every sense of the term. We prepare for any emergency which may arise. After 115 hours of packed instruction the men who come here will acquire the knack.”

And with the kind of training they are getting these days, it is entirely likely that all of Canada’s 100,000 Reserve Army men will, as the colonel says, acquire the knack.