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By Peter Barton – Parapet Productions

By the beginning of 1916 German forces dominated every ridge on the arc of the Ieper and Messines Salients – except one. At Mount Sorrel between the Menin Road and Hill 60 allied troops had repeatedly held out against persistent attempts to capture a bastion which had become a thorn in the German side. The stalemate at Mount Sorrel typified the attack and counter-attack nature of the Western Front where complex fortifications were proven time and again to be either unbreakable or untenable. Here on the sandy knolls adjacent to Armagh and Sanctuary Woods, as in many other locations, the deadlock on the surface was also mirrored in a bizarre and highly secret conflict fought deep beneath the killing fields of no man’s land.

Mine warfare in the Ypres Salient had been growing in intensity since the early days of the war. Its origins in ancient siege warfare were replicated on a grand scale in the stasis of trench warfare, and military mining flourished. By the middle of 1916 it was widespread along the full length of the Western Front and vast labyrinths of underground galleries had been driven by British, German, French, Australian and Canadian engineers. These men were engaged in a private war, a war which was largely divorced from that being waged on the surface, and one which contained almost unbelievable drama and heroism – yet it remained almost unreported for many decades after 1918. In September 1916, the Mount Sorrel tunnels hosted one of the most extraordinary underground incidents of the Great War. What happened beneath the surface was overlooked by diarists and historians at the time. It would be almost 40 years later that the story was at last retold by Lieutenant John Westacott of the 2nd. Canadian Tunnelling Company – who had seen more than enough of the affair.

It was not uncommon for a section of tunnellers to struggle cold and wet from their shaftheads at the end of a night shift to find a different battalion holding the front line trenches to that which had been in possession the previous day. On the morning of September 16th. 1916 Lt. John Westacott and his sergeant emerged blinking from the cramped and sodden depths. Vibrations from heavy shelling had shuddered down into their subterranean workings during the night and Westacott wanted to check for shell damage to his mine entrances on the surface. In their heavy rubber boots the two men began to negotiate the narrow traverses of the front line trench; from the battered state of parapet and parados it was clear there had been artillery action.

When his 80 man section had dissappeared into the depths six hours earlier the front lines had been garrisoned by British and Canadian troops, but as Westacott began his reconnaissance and turned into the very first firebay he found it was no longer occupied by the usual grubby and disgruntled khaki-clad Tommies, but by men in field grey – Germans! Unknown to the tunnellers working 10 metres below, the line had been lost during the night – the shelling they had heard and felt had been the precursor to a successful enemy raid. Westacott had almost collided with the German soldiers – the surprise and disbelief was mutual – both parties glared at each other for a moment before the Canadians turned, ran, and leapt into the nearest shaft, shouting for the alarm bell to be rung.

The Germans soon followed. Clambering into the narrow shaft they came singly at first, and man after man was sent down the ladderway into the galleries beneath. As each arrived at the bottom they were grabbed by the tunnellers, dragged around a corner, and shot. The Germans tried dropping two men at a time – with the same result. A dozen men had been killed when Westacott decided to blow the shafthead, and many other entrances along his half-mile tunnel system. Only one, which had been camouflaged with sandbags, was to be left undisturbed. Posting sentries at the bottom of each shaft to warn of any German attempts to dig through, he ordered all candles to be extinguished and electric torches to be checked. The Canadians prepared themselves for a fight.

Most of the tunnel galleries at Mount Sorrel were built in the ‘offensive’ style, just a metre wide and little greater in height – impossible for even the smallest of men to stand upright. A full section of tunnellers were now trapped inside the labyrinths beneath the hill, with all but one of their entrance shafts blocked; no pumps were working at the surface and it would not be very long before air quality began to deteriorate. Any underground fighting would make things infinitely worse. But Westacott had had personal experience of such a battle only a few months earlier and advised his troops carefully.

For the Germans, capture of the British mine system was matter of pride. They had at last seized Mount Sorrel after many attempts and many losses, and now commanded every ridge in the Ypres Salient; they were fiercely determined to hold it – and take final control of the underground battlefield as well. They decided to dig out a number of shafts to attack several tunnels at the same time. Below, Westacott spread his men out so that any point of entry could be swiftly reinforced. It was a game of cat and mouse – with no second place for the loser.

The Canadians were armed with revolvers, grenades, and a special kind of dagger with a short blade called a knuckle-knife which was strapped to the wrist by leather thongs and was devised so that when the fist was
clenched the blade projected at right angles to the hand – more like a claw than a knife. Everyone hoped they would not have to use them but, as Westacott had expected, the German troops broke through and began to advance down the tunnels. The Canadians waited in the darkness – and in silence – around barricaded traverses until the enemy drew close, and then opened fire:

‘ They kept rushing us, two or three men, with bayonets, and they were throwing grenades too. The place was smoky and the grenades were bringing a lot of the sap ( tunnel ) down with it. We were managing to hold them for three or four hours around the traverse, but then they kept smashing so much stuff in, the smoke was bad, we kept pulling our own men out – they got a lot of us you know.’

The Germans penetrated Westacott’s defences in several places and eventually the dreaded hand to hand fighting broke out. In close combat the beam of a torch was an easy target for a revolver so they had been extinguished – the fighting continued in impenetrable darkness. It was in these conditions that the knuckle-knife came into it’s own as it was light, easy to wield, and impossible to lose as it was tightly strapped to the fist. But the problem was now one of recognising friend from foe in the blackness – knowing who to kill and who not to. The mundane solution lay in the design of military uniforms – the German troops wore epaullettes on their shoulders, the Canadians had none. This meant that any potential foe had to be felt before he was stabbed :

‘ The only thing was to put your hand over quick, to feel if the man had any epaulettes. It was murder down there – I’ve had some shocking nightmares since. We lost a lot of men; in the rough and tumble and in the darkness they’d rush us and we’d lose two or three men. We got so jammed up that I decided to pull back, and I went back 50 yards or so to a sort of cross-roads where I could work from two points. We held that right up to the afternoon. We had a terrible scrap down there; he had a lot of men, he seemed to push them through just like a sausage machine. I’d never seen anything like it – as fast as we got them down, there would be somebody on top of you again. The corpses blocked the place right up, we had to drag them out before we could do anything. But we knew our mines, knew our own workings – they didn’t. The German infantryman was always at a disadvantage not knowing anything about tunnels, and it must have been frightening for them fighting in that small dark area.’

The struggle continued through the afternoon and parts of the galleries became choked with dead. The Canadians were exhausted, and sick from gas fumes from grenades and the smell of blood. The constant German pressure meant that it had not been possible to open a shaft entrance to clear the air and Westacott had been forced to give the only order possible : ” Fight it out until the end.” Towards late afternoon the enemy was still pressing :

‘We did our dressing where we could. We’d pull the men back round the corner and down to my own headquarters – we’d turned that into a dressing station. I got my own injury from a grenade. A few sappers and myself were in D Section  when the Germans blew out a corner of our barricade and started throwing grenades at us. I put my left arm up to protect my head from the blast and my elbow was shattered. I was blown off my feet by the explosion and then dragged out. Many of my men were gassed by the grenades – carbon monoxide.’

Westacott lay on the tunnel floor unaware that 60 of his 80 man shift had already become casualties. It was only a matter of time before the final debacle. But unexpectedly the German attacks began to dissolve :

‘ We could tell something was going on….the Jerries pulled out late in the afternoon – they sort of gave it up – something we were very thankful for. Those sappers fought well and never gave their ground. It was ‘no surrender’ with them, and they would have fought till the last man dropped. We could not have lasted more than a few hours longer before we should all have been gone as we had such a small number of men left, and these totally exhausted. ‘

But as time passed the silence became worrying – what were the enemy planning? More hours passed without further incident. On the morning of the 17th. September the tunnellers summoned the courage to creep from
their shafts to assess the situation on the surface. As they gingerly peered out into the trench they would experience one of those moments of supreme irony for which the Great War above all other conflicts is renowned – their first glimpse into the front line revealed a group of grubby Tommies making tea. During a night counter-attack the infantry had retaken their original positions and Mount Sorrel was once more back in British hands.

This counter-attack received great attention – the glorious pluck and spirit of the infantry was paraded across the front pages of every newspaper in the British Empire – whilst the endeavours of the Canadian tunnellers went unoticed and unsung. No decorations were received – not even a mention in despatches – as far as the rest of the world was concerned it had been another trench raid gallantly repulsed by the infantry.

Lt. John Westacott spent a year in hospital and was sent back to the Western Front in September 1917 on demolition and booby-trap detection duties. He never regained the use of his left arm.
‘ Tunnelling!! All the tension all the time – it was terrible. Because of the strain underground….. and the darkness. It did get you down a bit. Do you know – I’d send the batman for a mug of rum before I got out of bed in the morning!’

John Westacott
February 1960
With thanks to the Royal Engineers Museum


Peter Barton is an established First World War historian, writer, filmmaker and consultant well-known for devising and leading archaeological excavations on the Western Front, especially those connected to tunnel warfare. His first venture underground was on the Somme in 1984.

He currently is involved in the La Boisselle Project, which is a detailed long-term archaeological, historical, technological and genealogical study of a battlefield in the village of La Boisselle, Somme.

Published with permission




By Ken Holmes

Gibraltar Key

Gibraltar Key

The Rock of Gibraltar was important as an Allied outpost during World War II. Thrusting 1300 feet above the Spanish plain on the Bay of Algeciras, it dominated the Atlantic entrance to the Mediterranean Sea,  Gibraltar had been a “point of turmoil”  throughout much of recorded history. The Muslims captured Gibraltar in 711 and occupied it for almost 700 years; Spain annexed the Rock in 1501, holding it until the War of Spanish Succession when it fell to British and Dutch troops. Then an arrangement with France during peace negotiations in 1711 gave the British sole possession of Gibraltar.

During its occupation by various nations, Gibraltar was extensively excavated to provide underground defensive stations. These excavations continued during World War II and the need for this work prompted the British government to request Canada’s assistance. This request led to formation of No. 1 and No. 2 Tunnelling Companies of the Royal Canadian Engineers in 1940 and the recruiting of hardrock miners – mostly from Ontario and Quebec.

A detailing of the work of these Canadian tunnellers in Gibraltar is covered in Volume II of  The History of the Corps of the Royal Canadian Engineers”. During their two years on The Rock, the Canadians mined and removed about 140,000 tons of solid rock  as well as putting in some 46,000 man hours on construction work. The efforts of these Canadian tunnellers on Gibraltar was noteworthy and warranted recognition.

The  Canadian Geographic Journal  [July 1944] reports: “As a reward for their achievements it was suggested …. that the Canadian Tunnellers might be given some special mark of distinction. The first proposal was to grant them the privilege of wearing the Gibraltar Key in the form of a cloth badge on the right sleeve. It was not considered desirable, however, to create a precedence whereby a unit  might be given such special distinction and thus a silver watch fob was substituted for the cloth badge. The fob was designed by Sapper R. J. Cunningham of No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Company.” Since the presentation of the souvenir fobs was of an unofficial nature, production was a private venture and the cost was borne by James Y. Murdock, Esq., President of Noranda Mines. The keys were minted in Canada.

There is significance to the featuring of a ‘key’ on this device. The 1944 Canadian Geographic Journal article offers the insight: “Not only was Gibraltar christened the ‘Key to the Spanish Dominions’ …. but the Key has been part of the official Coat of Arms for centuries. The ceremony of handing over the keys at the changing of the guard has been carried out by the various (British) regiments since the days of the Great Siege by the Spanish in 1779-83.”

The designer of the Key, Robert Cunningham, passed away in January 2011 at the age of 91. Born in London, England, he immigrated to Canada in 1928, settling in Melbourne, QC. Educated at St Francis College & Hailebury Mining School, in his life Robert was a prospector, miner, tunnel worker, surveyor, wood carver, artist, published author, and poet.

In 1939 Robert enlisted with the Royal Canadian Engineers and was one of the hardrock miners recruited from Quebec and Ontario when No. 1 and No. 2 Canadian Tunnelling Companies were formed. Once overseas, he was initially involved In mapping for artillery ranging in the south of England (1940) and surveying tunnel construction for the defence of Gibraltar (1941 – 42). He then transferred to the Royal Canadian Artillery as a Gunnery Instructor (1943) and, finally, to the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders as a Infantry Line Officer who saw action in Belgium and the Netherlands. A draftsman and surveyor during the war, after the war Cunningham had a career as an engineer, tunnel supervisor and chief draftsman.

The Gibraltar Key is an uniquely Canadian military award that was originated for an unique Canadian military group – the Canadian Army Tunnellers.  On 27 March 1943 General McNaughton presented the keys at a special parade to the 324 men and officers of the Canadian tunnelling companies who had worked on the massive fortress.  It is one of the rarer of Canadian ‘badges’ since a relatively limited number were made.

Sources Credited:   and

Kirkland Lake War Hero: Daniel Giannini

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By Bernie Jaworsk

Lieutenant Dan Giannini, a former Lake Shore miner and underground superintendent at the Toburn mine, was instrumental, along with his company of Royal Canadian Engineers, in restoring a water supply to 260,000 people in a European city during WW II.

The Allied Forces in 1944 were slowly moving northward along the Italian peninsula. The Germans were retreating but not without a fight. Many tough battles had taken place and numerous casualties were sustained on both sides as the battle front gradually moved towards the Arno River. The city of Florence, located on the river, was bombed by the Allies for 18 days and the Italian Partisans fought the Germans in the streets for a week. The street fighting was brutal with the Partisans suffering many casualties including 300 killed. As the British Eighth Army approached the city the Germans retreated across the river to make their stand on the other side.

In advance of the infantry, Dan Giannini’s unit of Canadian Engineers was selected by the Allied Forces Commander to cross many times, no-mans land—the Arno, from the south shore to the north shore, to complete a mission.

Geographically, the flowing waters of the Arno divide Florence. Northern sections of the city had been provided with potable water by a pipeline running across the river from the southern shore.

As the British Eighth converged on the city from the south, the retreating Germans hastily and deliberately set charges, damaging this water system before fleeing over the river.

Giannini, of Italian parentage, was a valuable asset since he was fluent in Italian. He made contact with the Partisans and in company with them secretly crossed over the river on many occasions to gather information despite obvious dangers.

The water supply, it was learned, originated from eastern wells in the southern part of the city and from there it was piped westward to a pumping station and then across a weir to the northern bank. The pumping station was powered by revolving turbines turned by the flowing waters of the river. However, the Germans in their retreat had blown up the sluice gate and thus lowered the depth of the river to the point where the power source to the pumps was eliminated.

Despite enemy rifle and machine gun fire from the north bank, Giannini’s unit erected a temporary wooden sluice gate in the weir. In the meantime a British division had moved to the river and, finding almost all bridges destroyed, used the weir as an access to the other side. The wooden sluice gate was now a barricade to them, therefore, they blew it up. The Canadians grimly watched as about 30 German retaliatory shells exploded in the vicinity of the weir, causing damage to the pumping station on the south shore.

The Canadian Engineers returned quickly to rebuilding the sluice gate, this time with metal, and completed repairs to the pumps at the station. The system was put into operation but unfortunately a hitch was soon realized as there was an immediate loss of pressure due to a large hole in the 24-inch diameter pipe, crossing the river.

The city’s chief engineer was ultimately located and from him it was learned where a suitable plug could be procured. To reach the hole and install the plug the brave engineers had to again expose themselves to enemy snipers.

Somehow, Giannini and his men made their repairs much to the glee of the thirsty, but patient, northern Florentines.

For “gallant and distinguished services in Italy,” Daniel Giannini of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers was awarded, on May 31, 1945, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire: Member Of British Empire (Military) Medal.


In Memory of Daniel Giannini

Daniel worked in the mines of Northern Ontario, as an underground supervisor at the Toburn Mine, before volunteering as an Engineer in WWII . He served with the Canadian Tunnelling Company in Gibralter, England and Europe, rising to the rank of lieutenant and earning an MBE. At the time of the incident, Lt. Giannini was in command of 3 Drill Pl (Sec), Canadian Tunnelling Company.

After the war, he returned to Canada and moved with his wife, Cecely, from Kirkland Lake to Burlington, Ontario. Daniel switched to insurance with Empire Life rising to Vice-President by retirement. After retirement with no slowdown in sight, Dan became chairman of D.A. Stuart Oil Co.

Later in life Giannini delved into philanthropy, establishing the Daniel Giannini Fund, ( with the Hamilton Community Foundation, to assist medical students.

Daniel and his wife Cecely are now deceased. Daniel passed away 15 August 2003.


Reproduced with the permission of the author; Bernie Jaworsky. Bernie continuously writes stories concerning Kirkland Lake area personalities for the local museum, websites, newspapers and magazines and anyone else who wants such stories. Daniel Gianninis’ story was one of them.

 This article appears in the book “Lamps Forever Lit” The book pertains to the 309 miners that were killed while at work in local Kirkland Lake mines. It doesn’t necessarily pertain to miners who served in the armed forces and were killed while on duty, although numerous soldiers returned home after the wars and worked in the mines here and lost their lives while at work.

Kirkland Lake to honour tunnelers

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Kirkland Lake town council approved the recommendation from the Museum of Northern History’s Advisory Committee to honour the Kirkland Lake members of the Canadian Tunneling Company of the Canadian Military Engineers.

The Canadian Tunneling Company will be instilled into the Kirkland Lake Hall of Fame.

Canadian Engineers at “A Bridge Too Far”

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“A Bridge Too Far” is a book (1974), later a movie (1977), written about “Operation Market Garden”, in WWII. It was an Airborne Operation to capture several bridges in an effort to move into the German industrial heartland.

Less known is the Canadian Military Engineers contribution/participation in the Operation. An article in the Canadian Military Journal, (Winter 2005 – 2006) – A BRIDGE TOO FAR:

RCAF Construction and Engineering Branch

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The following two paragraphs are an excerpt from an article titled Greek Tragedies, which appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Legion Magazine. The article is part of a regular Air Force history column which appears in the magazine. This article and several of it’s predecessors covers Canadian Airmen in WWII, who fought the war with British Air Forces – as members of the RCAF but as part of the British units. The article can be found here

Some members of the RCAF had unique experiences in aerial support of Greek guerrilla bands. Flt. Lt. Edwin J. Stockall of Kelliher, Sask., who had enlisted in the RCAF Construction and Engineering Branch, narrowly escaped capture in North Africa in 1942, and had worked with tactical bombers in Tunisia. On Sept. 26, 1944, Allied forces landed in southern Greece where they met weak opposition from a few German soldiers and Greek collaborators. Stockall’s task was to turn an improvised airstrip used by Spitfires into a forward operating base capable of handling Dakota transport aircraft.

Hundreds of civilian volunteers used hand tools to fill craters, and Stockall put prisoners to work improvising night landing flares from reeds soaked in oil and gasoline. British soldiers, meanwhile, cleared mines, and on Oct. 2 the first Dakotas were landing. The civilian workers had been recruited and organized largely by ELAS, the largest Greek resistance group which essentially governed three-fifths of occupied Greece. Rival Greek partisans had been fighting the ELAS and the Germans for over a year. When British troops attempted to disarm the various groups, they found themselves at war with ELAS. Stockall witnessed a virtual “Allied in Wonderland” situation—cheered as liberators in October 1944, and uncertain who to trust by December. He was witnessing the beginning of the Greek civil war—one of the most brutal conflicts in Europe—which would last until 1948.

Robert Service and the Canadian Engineers

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I’ve come across reports of an incident involving the poet Robert Service (The Cremation of Sam McGee, Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew) and the Canadian Engineers.

In the book Robert Service – Under the Spell of the Yukon, page 173, it is mentioned that Service was with the Engineers Oct 1918. This includes being with a recce party, which accidentally liberated Lille France.

From the web site

” He returned to the war with a chauffeured Cadillac and an officer guide, to write about the Canadian Expeditionary Force for their government. In the course of his work he accidentally liberated the town of Lille. He wrote another book, with the manuscript title War Winners, a file of prose reports on the support operations working to keep the Allied forces in the field. He wrote it furiously to promote the war effort, and tore it up on Armistice Day, in disgust with everything about the whole conflict.”

Basically Service and the recce party entered Lille France before the official liberation of the city on 17 Oct 1918. Thus were seen by some of the local population as liberators.

However other than these two references, I have not been able to locate any other mention of Robert Service and the Canadian Engineers. The Engineer unit is not identified in either reference.

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