Jim Flynn’s Private Army
Having as much fun as a bunch of kids playing cowboys and Indians, the forty self-styled Cowichan Commandos use rotten eggs and blank ammunition as they provide an enemy to keep the militia on its toes
FOR THE Reserve Army troops of the 198th Battery, 66th Light Anti-Aircraft regiment, of Duncan, B.C., the infamous battle of October 4, 1953, started out as mildly as any other mock warfare exercise.
They were tracking an elusive “enemy” through the jungle-like Vancouver Island forest near Lake Cowichan, fifty miles northwest of Victoria. All morning they labored over fallen logs and up steep slopes. At noon, panting but triumphant, they surrounded enemy headquarters.
According to the unwritten rules of mock warfare, both sides should then have fired a few volleys of blank ammunition; the enemy should have bowed to superior numbers and the battle umpires should have given the day to the army.
Instead, as the army advanced, a great bear of a man in lumberman’s jacket and battered felt hat sprang from the shrubbery with a strange war cry: “Cowichan Commandos se-e-e-ecret
weapon!” Then he hit the foremost sergeant between the eyes with a rotten egg.
Other “enemy” troops leaped from hiding with more rotten eggs. For five minutes the air was heavy with eggshell and an overpowering stench.
The attack wavered, broke and became a rout. It was then the army realized that rules, written or unwritten, mean nothing to the Cowichan Commandos, a ragtag band of part-time guerrillas, numbering anywhere from seven to forty, commanded by a chicken farmer named James A. Flynn and including a lawyer, lumberjack, banker, carpenter, insurance salesman, Polish Navy veteran, former German Army corporal and a farm boy with flat feet.
“We simply gave the army an object lesson —when you’re attacked by superior numbers, don’t stand there waving a bloody flag,” says Flynn, a tall gaunt profane man of thirty-three, who spent four years in the World War II Canadian Navy and came out a lieutenant. “You’ve got to use imaginative unorthodox tactics.”
With such tactics Flynn’s private army—which has few weapons, no pay, no uniforms and no
recognition from the Canadian government—has made life miserable for the Duncan Reserves. The Commandos have nothing against the reservists; indeed, they usually join them in a beer after a battle. But they are dedicated to their selfappointed task of sprucing up Canada’s Reserve Army, which Flynn thinks is in a frightful state.
“Our peacetime militia has always been a dud,” he claims. “You can’t blame the men. They’ve had no esprit de corps and no interesting training. For one thing, experienced officers and non-coms are bogged down with paper work. Training is often turned over to inexperienced hands. For another thing, when they go out for a field exercise, they have to split the group in half so they’ll have an enemy. They never have an opportunity to fight as a unit.”
Although Ottawa doesn’t officially recognize the Commandos, there’s no ban on them either, so they’ve voluntarily served as enemy for the Duncan Reserves ever since the May, 1953, night when their band was born over a drink in the local officers’ mess. Flynn was the guest of Major Ted Sutton, reservist commanding officer, that night.
“We’re going on an exercise this week end,”
From zero-hour plans to sampling the loot, the ragtag Commandos enjoy a rousing night of harrying the Reserves
Sutton said. “I wish we had something a bit different to do.”
For months Flynn had been harboring his theories about the Reserves. During World War II he participated in navy-army-airforce combined operations, including the Normandy invasion. He particularly admired commando tactics. Now he saw his opening.
“How’d it be if I round up a few men from Cowichan way to act as enemy?” he suggested.
Sutton thought it would be all right.
“What’ll you call them?”
“Well, the thing I have in mind is a sort of hit-and-run commando force — that’s it — the Cowichan Commandos!”
Playing enemy is only part of the Commando role.
“In the past Canada’s always had time to revive the militia after a war started,” says Flynn. “If there’s another war, there’ll be no time. It’ll be right on our doorstep. That’s why we want Ottawa to form commando units wherever there is a Reserve Army. We’d help train the Reserves in peacetime and, in the event of war, we’d become a home guard or guerrilla unit.”
With these objectives the Cowichan Commandos have tackled the Duncan Reserves five times in the past two years in the strangest skirmishes the Island has seen since 1843 when the defenders of Fort Victoria peppered a band of thieving Indians with grapeshot.
The Commandos’ methods and equipment are both crude. They make their own blank ammunition with powder, empty rifle shells and paper wadding. For a while they manufactured hand grenades and land mines from stump-blasting powder, fuses, matches and cigarette boxes. Once they bobbed into battle from the sea, aboard a dilapidated war-surplus landing craft. On another raid Flynn persuaded the RCAF to drop paper-bag flour bombs (which turn to paste on rainy days) on army-held bridges and army guards.
During the first field exercise in 1953 one Commando stole a Reserve officer’s trousers from the army camp overnight and nailed them to the door of the Duncan armories. Another night a Commando crept near an army tent, spied two officers lounging just inside the flap with tumblers of Scotch and surreptitiously broke a rotten egg into the nearest man’s drink. Rotten eggs are now outlawed at the army’s request.
The Commandos realize, of course, that eggs and horseplay won’t defend Vancouver Island if the island ever needs defense. From the beginning they’ve clamored for government recognition and with it Flynn wants a modest supply of rifles, blank ammunition, a mortar, one or two castoff walkie-talkies, some practice grenades and perhaps some distinguishing arm bands.
“Then we’d have an annual training scheme
lectures, bush survival and battle exercises, rifle, demolition and foot drill,” he says. “We’d build a camouflaged barracks in the bush. We’d salvage the thousands of old logging-truck tires that are discarded every
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Jim Flynn's Private Army
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year. When sealed up they’d make ideal weatherproof containers for dumps of blankets, rifles, ammunition and blood plasma.
“After all, Vancouver Island is a strategic objective. It commands one of the greatest harbors on the Pacificcoast. Our self-appointed territory is thirty by eighty miles and we know every trail in it. We could lead a regular army through it or, if invaded, could defend it from the hills. We could deal with fifth columnists and, believe me, there’d be a lot of them right here in this district. Maybe someday the country will be damn grateful to the Cowichan Commandos.”
Their earnestness offsets the Com] mandos’ ludicrous weapons and tactics. I
I watched a Commando raid last October. It was the mildest exercise of their j career because the Duncan Reserves, ! then in the process of changing from j an artillery to infantry unit, had to j withdraw at the last minute. Thirty members of Victoria’s Rainbow Sea Cadets were the only available opposition. Nevertheless, the Commandos turned out as conscientiously as though they were meeting a real enemy.
The cadets pitched camp on Saturday afternoon near Flynn’s chicken farm, five miles north of Duncan and | forty-two miles north of Victoria. In ! the evening Flynn overhauled the Commando arsenal: eight ancient .303 rifles, a few rounds of homemade blanks, two cap pistols, several strings of fire| crackers and a box of blasting powder. I
Briefing a Motley Crew
Around midnight a dozen Commandos drifted into headquarters, a hatchery room lit by two naked bulbs. They were a rakish-looking lot in assorted battledress, heavy sweaters and j rubber boots. Most were World War
II veterans: forty - eight - year - old
Freddie Mills, a ruddy-cheeked carpenter; stocky Jack LeQuesne, partner in a Duncan secondhand store; insurance salesman George Sinden, an exRAF pilot; RCAF veteran Norman Stone, partner in a lumber company, and quiet scholarly looking Adrian Stone (no relative), assistant manager of Duncan’s Bank of Montreal.
A Duncan lawyer, Jack Davie, a former Canadian Navy lieutenant who won the DSC at Normandy, arrived in black battledress, his face smeared with lampblack, commando style. Flynn’s three hatchery employees turned out loyally: little Walter Kizyma who
served in the Polish Navy after escaping from a Russian World War II prison camp; blond twenty-seven-yearold Joe Bieling, an ex-corporal in the German 19th Panzer Division who went to war at fifteen, spent four years in a British prison camp and came out with a pukka English accent; and twenty - year - old Roger Hilliard, of whom Flynn says, “Roger was turned down by the army because of flat feet but flat feet or round he sure as hell can run rings around the militia.”
The star attraction was big George Whittaker, a middle-aged loggerfarmer, councilor of North Cowichan township and the most swashbuckling Commando of them all. It was Whittaker who led the rotten-egg charge of 1953. A year ago, while defending a bunkhouse from the army he fell from a doorstep and broke his wrist and four ribs. Now it was Whittaker, looking around the room, who grinned and voiced a thought that must have
occurred to the others: “Well, if the
men in the white coats came around here, they’d sure get a wagonload tonight.”
The Commandos passed around beer and rum and sat chatting and joking until 1.15.
“We allow drinking,” Flynn said. “We don’t let it get out of hand but you’ve got to use your head when you’re working with civilians. We have discipline but not the petty discipline of the Reserve Army. That’s one reason so many veterans prefer our outfit. Another reason—we have no damn parades or paperwork!”
Then Flynn produced a small blackboard and rapidly chalked out the plan of attack. He wore tattered khaki battledress with Royal Canadian Navy shoulder patches and Combined Operations sleeve insignia, a red flannel shirt, a dark-blue Canadian Legion beret and a happy smile. Flynn’s detractors say, with some truth, that he loves to play soldier.
But if the Commando idea proves popular and spreads, as he hopes it will, Flynn will deserve the credit. Even if they recognize the need for home defense, most men consider mock warfare ridiculous, especially if they aren’t paid for it. But Flynn’s zeal and flair for showmanship keep his volunteers enthusiastic.
That night they listened intently as he finished his briefing. “ . . . Joe and Roger and I recc’ed their camp this afternoon and here’s where the sentries are. They’re sharp, too; we almost got captured. Now, numbers one and two sections approach from the north, numbers three and four from the west and Fll lead number five from the south. Questions?”
“Yeah,” said Whittaker. “Where’s their latrine?”
The Commandos guffawed. On one raid Whittaker fell into the army’s open-air privy.
The men gathered their rifles and firecrackers and slipped into the night. Flynn and Norman Stone paused to blacken their faces. For the next hour the valley echoed with shots and shouts.
Davie captured four youthful prisoners, who seemed delighted to get into the hatchery out of ten degrees of frost. Whittaker was in top form. Slipping into the navy camp he bellowed peremptorily from the shadows, “Awright, you men, get into the fight.” The small rear guard thought he was a navy officer and obediently charged off to battle. Whittaker stole the navy coffeepot as booty.
The engagement ended at three a.m. Theoretically, the Commandos won, although a clear decision is almost impossible in mock warfare. Both sides snatched some sleep and five hours later the Commandos hid out on a mountainside while the cadets took a turn at attacking.
It was a grey damp morning and from his post behind a rock the Commando chieftain shivered immoderately and fumed, “I hope these little so-andsos are getting something out of this because I’m bloody near frozen.”
Apparently the cadets did gain something from the exercise. In the beginning they moved in bunches across clearings. After a few tips from the Commandos and navy officers they spread out, took advantage of the terrain, surrounded the Commando hideout in twenty minutes and “shot” Flynn.
“We taught them something. That was our purpose,” Flynn says.
In fact, the Commandos have taught the opposition strange new tricks ever since the first raid in 1953. That time nine Commandos, including Bieling, Whittaker, Davie and Adrian Stone,
attacked the army camp at 3.30 a.m with two smoke bombs and a halfdozen tins of white paint. Paint daubed on army property signified a “capture.” Even with this meagre equipment the Commandos caused some confusion.
First they set up a smoke screen with such success that one valley farmer rushed outdoors in his nightshirt, thinking his barn was on fire. Then, faces blackened, they moved in. Bieling dismantled a gun barrel, a trick he’d learned with the Panzer Division. Another Commando poured a bucket of white paint into the mouth of a forty-millimetre gun. Flynn let the air out of truck tires and Whittaker vaulted into a supply truck, stole the army’s breakfast and began tossing other items into the bush. A soldier who had been dozing in the truck sat up; Whittaker tossed him out too. Then the Commandos slipped away. The army, accustomed to years of halfhearted field exercises, was flabbergasted.
For the second battle, five months later, nearly a hundred and fifty reservists and army cadets turned out from
Duncan and Victoria. Flynn met then with eighty Commandos and sea ca dets, plus some handmade grenades an land mines. A grenade was two ho’ lowed-out pieces of broomstick wirec together, with powder, sandpaper, : match and a fuse sandwiched between. To set it off, a Commando pulled the match which struck the sandpaper, lit the fuse and exploded the powder.
Land mines were similar. The same ingredients, minus the fuse, were tucked in an empty cardboard cigarette packet. The packet was partially buried, half open and standing on end. When the enemy stepped on it, the packet telescoped shut, struck the match on the sandpaper and immediately ignited the powder. One of these mines threw a reservist headfirst into the bush. The Commandos later abandoned both weapons as too dangerous.
On this second exercise the army held two railway and road bridges. The guerrillas employed their favorite trick—lying low until the enemy overran them, then proceeding to their objective. They planted their explosives on the bridges, took a few prisoners and treated them to beer and whisky.
“Awfully decent of you fellows,” said a grateful Reserve officer, gulping & bottle of beer. “This liquor must have cost you ten or fifteen dollars.”
“Not really,” said Flynn. “You see, it’s yours. We stole it from your supply truck.”
The engagement ended with the rotten-egg barrage which even the Commandos later admitted was a foul tactic. The eggs had been under heat in Flynn’s incubators for three weeks,
had failed to hatch and were unusually ripe.
By now the Commandos were acquiring a reputation. At one stage they even had a genuine commando in their ranks—Jud Whitforb, an exsergeant in the British Commandos who has since moved to the Peace River district. They named Maj.-Gen. G. R. Pearkes, a Progressive Conservative MP from Vancouver Island, as their honorary colonel. Since the Commandos always represent the enemy in battle, Pearkes dubbed them “Her Majesty’s Loyal Communist Army.” The story was publicized and apparently garbled. One day Flynn’s mother-in-law phoned in alarm from Kelowna, B.C., to ask, “Jim, what are you doing mixed up with those Communists?”
The loyal Communists went to war again in December, amid snow and bitter winds. The army was scheduled to hold a lodge at Genoa Bay on the Island coast. The Commandos planned a surprise attack from land and sea, with navy support. The sea became so rough the navy canceled its operations but the brash Flynn and two companions borrowed a war-surplus landing craft and bounced in through the waves on time.
Meanwhile Whittaker, approaching by land, noticed an idle bulldozer on the main road, bulldozed a false trail through a few hundred yards of mud, pointed a detour sign at it and mired a couple of army trucks to the hub caps. What with Whittaker and the weather, the army arrived late. By that time the sea-borne Commandos were in control of the area.
A Bit Mad, But Careful
Battle number four was fought in May, 1954, at the 2,400-foot level of neighboring Mount Sicker. The night before the exercise, Flynn mounted another Commando’s shoulders, shinnied up the armories’ fire escape, pried open Major Sutton’s window and stole the army plans. But he left the window open, in most un-Commando-like manner, and Sutton warily changed his plans.
Only seven Commandos turned out against fifty reservists and cadets that week end but the latter were handicapped by lack of ammunition. At one point, a Commando lent his blank cartridges to two eager cadets so they could stay in the fight. The exercise ended abruptly when Whittaker broke his wrist and ribs. His is the only serious injury to date. Once before, a Commando fell down a well, but it was dry.
The Cowichan Commandos have aroused mixed feelings in their district. Reservist Major Sutton says cautiously that Flynn’s outfit is doing a useful job but their tactics “lack integration.” People who’ve been wakened by dynamite in the dead of night think the Commandos slightly mad. So does a bus driver who slammed on his brakes in panic when an explosion went off on the middle of a bridge he was about to cross. So does an elderly motorist who one day met a column of armed Commandos and asked, “Anything wrong?”
“Haven’t you heard?” said Flynn. “The Russians have landed, about twelve thousand of them. They’re right behind us.”
The motorist paled and fled toward Duncan.
In spite of such pranks, the Commandos are rarely irresponsible. They entrust their explosives to Mills, who had wartime demolition experience. Before exercises, Flynn briefs newcomers on the danger of firing blank ammunition at close range. Once a
Commando was immediately expelled after an explosive shook up a band of Boy Scouts.
Elsewhere in Canada, many veterans apparently agree that the Reserve Army needs some help. Letters enquiring about the Cowichan Commandos have come from Trail, Kelowna, Calgary, Toronto and Halifax. Last October a forty-man Commando unit was founded in Vancouver under a former captain of the Norwegian underground. Flynn is currently seeking more volunteers for the battle of May 1955, when he hopes to match one hundred Commandos against five hundred reservists.
“Eventually, I think you’ll see this idea spreading all over Canada,” Flynn says.
If so, it will be an all-male organization. The Cowichan Commandos drafted a few of their wives into their second battle. The reluctant women’s division took cover behind an apparently abandoned Indian shack and began lobbing homemade hand grenades into the woods. The shack wasn’t abandoned. The explosions brought a startled rifle-toting Indian outdoors on the double, firing in all directions with live ammunition. This was too much for the wives. They surrendered to the Reserve Army and haven’t attended a battle since.
Perhaps that’s why on the bleak Sunday morning last October when only the Commandos, sea cadets and Flynn’s roosters were out of bed, George Sinden, a new recruit, huddled in his sweater, squinted his weary eyes and muttered unhappily, “You know, my wife thinks I’m crazy.”
“You’ll get used to that,” grunted another Commando, as the shivering little band trudged off into the lowhanging mist. “All the wives think we’re crazy.” if