Articles

ROCKY

Brig. John Rockingham, who once dug holes for power poles, is back under a Balmoral as C.O. of our Special Force. Like most of the veterans under him, he’s finding that the Army hasn’t changed so much. For one thing, they haven’t got the 40-hour week there yet

PIERRE BERTON February 1 1951
Articles

ROCKY

Brig. John Rockingham, who once dug holes for power poles, is back under a Balmoral as C.O. of our Special Force. Like most of the veterans under him, he’s finding that the Army hasn’t changed so much. For one thing, they haven’t got the 40-hour week there yet

PIERRE BERTON February 1 1951

ROCKY

Brig. John Rockingham, who once dug holes for power poles, is back under a Balmoral as C.O. of our Special Force. Like most of the veterans under him, he’s finding that the Army hasn’t changed so much. For one thing, they haven’t got the 40-hour week there yet

PIERRE BERTON

THE BRIGADIER was up well before 7 a.m. in the tiny caravan on the back of an Army truck which has been his home for the past three months and will be for many more. He squeezed his 195-pound frame into the world’s narrowest shower, ran a razor over his square jaw, combed his unruly hair, then slipped into the freshly pressed battledress which his batman, Lance-Corporal George Wilson, had laid out for him.

For Brigadier John Meredith Rockingham, D.S.O. and Bar, C.B.E., E.D., a one-time sheep farmer and power-company lineman, it was just like old times.

He remembered what he’d said to Wilson in Ottawa four months before. Wilson, who had been his batman in World War II, heard Rockingham was to command the Canadian Special Force, quit his job at Canada Packers and arrived next morning at 7.30 a.m., newly enlisted and clothes brush in hand.

“Wilson,” the brigadier said at the time, “you’re crazy.”

“No crazier than you are, sir,” said Wilson staunchly, and there didn’t seem to be any comeback to that.

Now, once again, the Army was occupying all the waking moments of both of them.

It has taken most of the brigadier’s spare time since he joined the Canadian Scottish reserve in Victoria, B.C., in 1933—to play rugby. He had arrived from his native Australia only three years earlier. Out of uniform in the depression years, he was just another man on the pole line cutting brush and digging post holes. He had tried unsuccessfully to get started here as a sheep farmer.

But when war came his rise was swift. On September 1, 1939, when his unit went active, he was a lieutenant. By 1943 he was a lieut.-colonel in command of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. One month after going into action he had a D.S.O. on his chest and command of 9 Brigade—the Highland Brigade of the Third Canadian Infantry Division.

Even His Boots Are Vets

They called him “Rocky” and he built himself a reputation for personal bravery, and tough and sometimes unconventional leadership. The story goes that he once offered to discipline a delinquent soldier with his fists. He was a good tactician, had an unerring eye for detail and a hatred of red tape. All of this helps to explain why he was chosen last August to lead the brigade which Canada has placed at the disposal of the United Nations. Known as the “Special Force” it consists of three regiments—the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Royal 22nd Regiment together with supporting arms and reinforcements which bring it in strength to almost 10,000 men.

In his caravan the brigadier was pulling on his boots. Like Wilson, his batman, the boots were veterans of a hot war. So was his Tommy gun. He had brought it down here to Fort Lewis, Wash., from his home in Shaughnessy Heights, Vancouver, where it had hung during the five years of his civilian life in a den with his other trophies—the Gestapo arm band and the big map of the Channel ports, the German binoculars, the Dutch sword and the personal flag of Lieut.-Gen. Ferdinand Heine, who had reluctantly surrendered the French city of Boulogne to him.

The brigadier, who just foür months before had been a man in a tweed jacket working for Pacific Stage Lines, a subsidiary of the B. C. Electric Railway Co., reflectively munched on an apple which is all the breakfast he usually eats.

The Tommy gun had seen a good deal of action. He used it on the sniper who creased the bridge of his nose with a bullet, stalking him and killing him with a quick burst. He used it that time alone in the forest on the Schelde when a German Spandau crew opened up on him. He killed two of them with the Tommy and took the other three prisoner. (He’d been taken prisoner himself once but when his captor’s attention was diverted by firing on the flank the brigadier swung around, knocked him cold and escaped.) He used it again when in the confusion of battle he got lost and joined with two of hia forward companies in an attack on a chateau, routing the enemy and dropping them like ducks.

His apple finished, the brigadier buckled on his web belt and popped into Brigade Headquarters next door.

Crumpled over a chair lay his old tank suit, one sleeve still torn by mortar shrapnel. He had been wearing that suit on VE-Day when he took the surrender of the big submarine base of Emden, sitting up on the turret of his scout car for effect, in spite of the pouring rain, on an 18-mile drive through thousands of armed German troops.

“You had better put up a white flag,” the German commander told him, “or I cannot be responsible for your safety.”

“Go to hell,” Rockingham said. “You drive up ahead and if any man raises a weapon I’ll empty a whole Bren mag in the back of your neck.”

After the war his old employers, the B. C. Electric Railway Co., in Victoria, put him in charge of veterans’ rehabilitation. You couldn’t have a brigadier digging post holes.

“The vacillations of modern business almost drove me crazy,” Rockingham told a friend, “but after all if I couldn’t settle down myself there wasn’t much bloody use trying to settle the veterans down.”

He settled down and moved ahead to a personnel job with Pacific Stage Lines. Then one day a call came from Ottawa and he was a brigadier again.

So here he was at 7.30 a.m. in his Brigade Headquarters with his brigade major, a dapper Permanent Force officer, studying a TEWT which the BM had made up on the principles of The Attack. A TEWT is a Tactical Exercise Without Troops and the brigadier spent about half an hour working it over.

“You say ‘smooth deployment’ here,” he said to the BM. “Wouldn’t ‘rapid’ be better? You get a platoon deploying into the attack and it’s not very bloody smooth.”

The brigade major agreed. The brigadier made some further changes from the filing cabinets of his memory, then leaped into his jeep and drove himself down the lines to the orderly room of the PPCLI to greet some incoming officers of the regiment’s new third battalion.

He rattled back to his headquarters, pausing to check a mustached major for wearing a forage cap instead of operational beret. “We’re strictly

operational here,” the brigadier said.

Back at HQ, his aide, Capt. Geoflf Corey, a bespectacled young officer in black tank coveralls, met him. He had served in the brigadier’s first unit, the Canadian Scottish, during the last war and had been working for his master’s degree in history at U.B.C. when the Special Force was formed. Now, with more history in the making, he was back in uniform.

Corey had the brigadier’s map board ready and a route marked out in grease pencil. The 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade is sprawled over most of Fort Lewis’ 90,000 acres and it is the brigadier’s habit to drive about 70 miles a day to observe his various troops in training.

His scout car, a tanklike armored vehicle, was waiting for him. He and his aide and a signalman climbed aboard. The brigadier sat on the edge of the turret and began to relay orders through

the intercom to the driver as the car threaded its way out onto the state highway toward the rolling scrub country.

Major Jack Peterson, commander of Charlie Company, Royal Canadian Regiment, who was with 9 Brigade in the last war, looked up as the scout car passed and the sight of it took him back five years. The major, who left the mayoralty of St. Thomas, Ont., to join the Special Force, recalled with some nostalgia that during the heat of an assault you would always see Rocky burning up the road in his scout car, dressed just as he was today in Balmoral and red tabs and battledress, his big frame half way out of the turret.

By 9.20 the brigadier was half a dozen miles away in a wooded hollow watching the Field Ambulance Corps training on motorcycles. He donned a crash helmet himself, kicked one of the machines into action and shot off at a fast clip around the hilly course.

By 9.30—a time when most business executives are just arriving at. work—he was on his way to the training area of the Royal Canadian Regiment. This time he drove the scout car himself. He believes in being able to do anything his men can and has learned to drive every Army vehicle from Field Artillery Tractor to M-10 tank. As an executive of Pacific Stage Lines he learned to drive a bus around Vancouver and would have taken fares, too, if the union had let him. In the days that followed his new appointment he flew a total of 42,000 miles around the country visiting his troops in half a dozen scattered camps and a good deal of the time he flew the plane himself.

The brigadier heaved himself out of the scout car in the lee of a small wood and took the salute of an officer in steel helmet and coveralls. The anti-tank platoon of the RCR’s was bivouacked here and one of the 17-pounder guns was concealed in the bush. The brigadier looked at the position critically. How about the muzzle flash? It would give the position away after the first couple of shots. Couldn’t the gun be moved back a couple of feet?

He moved to a neighboring copse where troops were digging pits for two more guns.

“Pretty close together, aren’t they?” the brigadier asked in his slight Australian accent. “I don’t like the looks of it too much. The lead tank could lob HE in there and pin both your crews down.” Moving back to his scout car he noted that someone had dragged a tree along the ground toward one gun, leaving a tell-tale trail which would give the position away to enem y aircraft.

Among the coveralled members of the carrier platoon, farther back in the woods, the brigadier spotted a familiar face from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry which he had commanded before his promotion to brigadier.

“Morning, corporal,” he said. “Just like old times, eh?”

“Just like old times, sir,” said the corporal.

The brigadier began to inspect the carrier platoon’s bivouacs leanto shelters thatched with fir boughs and covered with groundsheets. An NCO piously explained that his men weren’t sleeping on the groundsheets because that* wouldn’t be fair to some of the other troops who didn’t have any.

Rockingham smiled his slow smile and said that he personally had never heard of a carrier platoon which didn’t succeed in making itself about twice as comfortable as any other outfit and recalled that in France and Holland the carrier boys had reclined like kings on mattresses lifted out of captured chateaus.

A slight drizzle was falling as the scout car moved on and Capt. Corey’s teeth began to chatter. But the

brigadier, coatless in the open turret, seemed in high good humor.

On the sharp December wind floated the echoes of a familiar song:

Why don’t you join up?

Why don’t you join up?

Why don't you join old Rocky’s army?

The brigadier grinned. His old

brigade had sung that as they raced up the Channel ports and helped clear the Schelde Estuary and breasted the Rhine—the first Canadians across the river.

Plenty of sleep

Nothing to eat

Great big shoes and ...

Blisters on your feet.

And they had not lost an inch of ground to the enemy in the 10 months he had commanded them.

Why don’t you join up?

Why don't you join up?

Rocky, you bastard, why don’t you join up?

The brigadier grinned again as the car sped on to the winding valley where the Royal 22nd Regiment the “Van Doos”—was practicing Platoon in The Attack with live ammunition. He was hardly out of his car before the wiry little Canadien troops came under fire and began to deploy—rapidly if not smoothly.

For the next half hour Rockingham hardly stopped running. He ran forward to watch the deployment. He ran back to the left flank to listen to the platoon commander issue orders for the attack. He ran with the attacking sections to the right flank, his aide a few yards behind, puffing slightly.

“Fire and movement!” the brigadier said. “The whole basis of infantry tactics.”

Behind him a Bren began to chatter and up ahead smoke bombs from the two-inch mortar burst in white puffballs.

As the troops rushed in, bayonets fixed and firing from the hip, the brigadier, quite obviously delighted, rushed behind them. With him ran the lithe figure of Lieut.-Col. Jimmy

Dextraze, commanding officer of the regiment.

“They’re bunching a little in the centre, Jimmy,” the brigadier said.

Yes, they were, the colonel admitted, but they were watching the dam’ safety angle the Americans insisted on that. They thought the Canadians were crazy to use live ammunition anyway.

“How about that reorganization?” the brigadier asked. “They ought to reorganize on the left. That’s where the counter-attack’s going to come from.”

The colonel agreed.

“Well it was a bloody good show, Jimmy,” Rockingham said. “It took us three years to get to that stage in England, I can tell you. What’s the platoon commander’s name?”

“Cireux,” Dextraze said. A young officer with a fierce black mustache and a good deal of chest came by.

“Très bien, M.Cireux,” the brigadier said and climbed into his scout car

Hires

again. He ate his lunch in the field standing up, resting his mess tin on the hood of a 15 cwt. truck.

One of the officers said he guessed the brigadier would be going up to Vancouver for Christmas.

“No,” Rockingham said. “Most of the troops are from the East and can’t get home. It wouldn’t be fair to run off.”

He had had no leave at all. His wife, Mary-Carlyle, had been down once overnight and in her absence a burglar had broken into their home and stolen his medals. His two children, JohnnyBob, 11, and Audrey, 14, both born before the war, grew out of babyhood in his first absence and may well grow out of adolescence in his second.

Rockingham’s lunch hour lasted 20 minutes. Then he was off again, earphones clamped over Balmoral, speaking to his aide and his driver on the intercom and to his Brigade Headquarters on the “A” net in the strange rigid dialect of Army radio telephony — “Hello George Roger Jig. Message for Able Peter Zebra: Is your Sun-Ray

there? Over.”

He reached the artillery observation post in time to watch the afternoon shoot. Some of the PPCLI officers were picking targets in the valley below and relaying map references to the forward observation officer.

The brigadier was among them at once, compass to eye, map board on knee, checking bearings and distances and six-figure map references and correcting the officers’ radio telephone procedure. He had been sticky about this since the day before when he’d caught a couple of his staff using the word “repeat” instead of “say again” -—a deadly sin because “repeat” is an artillery term which could bring 25pounder shrapnel around your ears in short order. The brigadier had promptly ordered a series of ectures on the subject and conscientiously attended them himself.

A PPCLI officer with a great blond

mustache, who had served with Franco in Spain and the Australians in the last war and had quit a job in an advertising agency to go fighting again, called out a target and presently there came the low rumble of a 25 pounder and a white puff of smoke in the valley below.

The shot was 800 yards wide and the brigadier, grinning, recalled that he had once asked for support from the HMS Rodney and its initial shot had been two miles off.

By 3.15 the brigadier was watching a dozen M-10 tanks churning a green meadow into a sea of mud.

An officer came up and said the troops were just about to take their PT and this reminded Rockingham he had seen a group at PT the day before and had noticed a line of stragglers. Would the lieutenant present his compliments to the major and ask him if something couldn’t be done about these stragglers? It looked pretty bloody ragged.

It was raining hard again as the scout car wheeled about and headed for the river where the engineers were constructing one of the new pontoon bridges, an aluminum affair floating on inflated rubber.

The brigadier was quickly out on the bridge with the troops in the rain asking questions. “They say they like it all right but it’s slow to put up,” he said to the captain in charge.

“Well, the Americans say they can do it in four hours, sir,” the captain said, “and I think our boys can do as well when they’ve had a little practice.”

“As well?” Rockingham said. “How about seeing if they can’t do it a little faster than the Americans tomorrow?”

The captain said he’d try, but he thought the American instructors on the job were holding the boys back just a little bit so they wouldn’t beat any records.

The brigadier smiled wryly and moved off through the mud and the rain and the troops struggling with bridge equipment. It was dusk already. He set his course homeward.

More Brass to Polish

Back at his orderly room he sighed and got back to the paper war. Fortunately someone in Ottawa had forgotten to send any stationery so things could have been worse. But as it was he was late getting in to supper.

He breezed into the mess after 6 p.m., threw his Balmoral and web belt on a table, ordered a Scotch and water and downed his meal.

His evening as usual would be full. There were always odds and ends to clear up: Public relations releases to

read over—someone had been calling artillery batteries “companies” which was bad. He’d noticed that the RGRs building a new assault course were short of shovels and axes—that would have to be looked into. He didn’t like the looks of the unit Christmas card and he’d have to make sure they got an alternate.

Then there was the syllabus for the next day, a new route for the scout car to be plotted out on the map, and some brass coming in unexpectedly from Ottawa to be looked after.

All in all it was midnight before the brigadier crowded himself into the narrow bed on the back of the truck parked outside his orderly room. Reveille was just six hours away and a new day lay before him—a day much like the last one, full of fevered preparation for impending war.

For Brigadier Johnny Rockingham, who at 38 had already had his share of war, it was indeed just like old times —and it might easily be like old times for a long time to come. ★