Sapper John McDougall Stewart

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With the outbreak of the Second World War one of the many units to be formed was The Canadian Tunnelling Companies.

There were initially two Tunnelling Companies, No. 1 Tunnelling Company and No. 2 Tunnelling Company.

In April 1941, a detachment of No 1 Tunnelling Company was dispatched to Scotland to assist with a hydroelectric expansion project. The tunnels that where being built at the Loch Laggan area were part of a project to connect Loch Laggan and Loch Crunachan with a tunnel. This would allow for the production of hydroelectricity to help increase the amount of power to the local British Aluminum Smelter Works at Fort William. This facility was a crucial part of a group of facilities that were used to make the fighter and bomber planes of the Royal Air Force. [1]

On 13th June, 1941, disaster struck. At about 1600 hours, Corporal James Hendry came out of the tunnel to find the powder house on fire. Shouting an alarm he ran to warn the compressor man and the steep-sharpener in the workshop, both unaware of the blaze tough close by, and picking up a pail of water he headed for the powder house to try to put the fire out. Although he could easily have gotten clear, others nearby were also in danger, and if the magazine blew up, the resulting damage would put a stop to the job for some time. He was an experienced miner and fully aware of the chance he took. The gallant attempt failed: there was a devastating explosion in which Hendry died. Hoist house, workshop and powder house disappeared. The steel-sharpening shop was flattened and caught fire. A number of men were hurt, two seriously and one was killed by a falling stone as he emerged from the tunnel.

Corporal Hendry was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his devotion to duty and disregard of his own safety. [2]

Fall 2012

Almonte District High School teacher Jennifer Yake gets her history class, involved in the Lest We Forget Project. The Project encourages students to learn more about those who were involved with the First and Second World War. Students were tasked with researching and writing about individuals who whose names are listed on Almonte Cenotaph. Assistance was provided by the President of Almonte Legion Branch 240, the North Lanark Historical Society in Appleton ON and a visit to Library and Archives Canada.

One of the students, Kyler Gaboury, selected Sapper John McDougall Stewart for his research. Sapper Stewart was the soldier who was killed by the falling stone. Kyler has granted CME History permission to publish his biography of Sapper Stewart. The biography can has been posted on the Echo 2 website. http://mypage.uniserve.ca/~echo2/Don.htm

Notes
– Almonte District High School is located in Almonte ON, just outside of Ottawa. From Almonte it is a 45 minute drive to Library and Archives Canada.
– this was the second year that Ms Yake got her class involved in the Lest We Forget Project. She plans to involve her 2013-2014 students, in the Project.
– George M Hendry (no relation to Corporal Hendry) researched Corporal Hendry and the Tunnell project. Unfortunately he passed away before he had completed his work. His daughter, Susan Hendry, completed her fathers’ work and produced a DVD.

Links
Lest We Forget Project – http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/cenotaph/025009-1104-e.html
The Almonte Cenotaph – http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~onlanark/Cenotaphs/almonte_cenotaph.htm and https://www.cdli.ca/monuments/on/volunteer.htm

[1] Gaboury, Kyler Biography John McDougall Stewart, 2013
[2] Kerry, A.J. and W.A. McDill. The History of Royal Canadian Engineers, Vol II 1936-1946. Ottawa: Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1966.

110 years of Military Engineering

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The 1st July, 1903, was the official birth date of the “Canadian Engineer Corps” as a “Permanent Corps”. It’s organization had been recommended by the G.O.C. Canadian Militia in 1899: in his report one year later he advised that the initial steps to form the Corps had already been taken and that a “Military Engineer of high standing” would shortly be required to command and inspect it. The first officers were Major P. Weatherbe, promoted lieutenant-colonel to command and Captain G.S. Maunsell, promoted Major and made second-in-command.

The initial establishment was seven officers and 125 other ranks. Those seven officers were Lieut-Colonel P. Weatherbe, Major G.S. Maunsell, Lieutant (later Brigadier) J.L.H. Bogart, Lieutant A. Stewart, Lieutant W.B. Lindsay (later Major-General), Lieutant P.S. Benoit (later Major-General) and Lieutant H.T. Hughes (later Brigadier-General).

The Corps was re-named “The Royal Canadian Engineers” on 1st February 1904.

The non-permanent engineer corps acquired sole title to the name “Canadian Engineers” after the establishment of the permanent corps.

The badge was the Royal Cypher surmounted by the Imperial Crown. The cap badge was similar to that of the Royal Engineers except for the addition of the word “Canadian” and the substitution of a wreath of maple leaves for the Royal

Note – the permanent force is today’s “regular force”, the non-permanent force is today’s “militia/reserves”.

Source

– Kerry, Col. A. J. and Maj W.A. McDill, The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume 1, 1749 – 1939. The Military Engineers Association of Canada, Ottawa, 1962.
edvii-badge prior-badge

WWI Veternas of Guysborough County

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Bruce MacDonald of Antigonish, Nova Scotia has a blog “World War I Veterans of Guysborough County” (http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/). The goal of the blog is to compile a biographical sketch of each WWI veteran who was born and/or lived in Guysborough County.

With 38 posts to date, he has the story of 19 individuals and a side story providing information of the unit/corps/situation. As a bonus, Bruce has provided references for each post, including online sources.

The Canadian Military Engineers are well represented with the following stories:

Pte. James Leo McDonald – A Canadian Forestry Corps Soldier’s Story / The Canadian Forestry Corps – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2012_02_01_archive.html

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton ‘Burt’ McLane – A Sapper’s Story / BEF & CEF Tunnelling Companies – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2013_01_01_archive.html

Sapper Francis ‘Frank’ Stewart Manson – A ‘CRT’ Soldier’s Story / Canadian Railway Troops – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2013_02_01_archive.html

Canadian Forestry Corps

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The importance of the Canadian Forestry Corps to the nation’s war efforts is symbolized on the Canadian National War Memorial in Ottawa where one of the twenty three statue figures is a member of the Canadian Forestry Corps.

As the First World War raged on and on, it was realized that huge quantities of lumber were needed. Trenches, tunnels, rail and road systems all required large quantities of lumber in their construction. Lumber was also required for duckboards, shoring timbers, and crates.

The British recognized that Canadians had the experience and qualifications to harvest timber and asked for Canada’s assistance. Thus the Canadian Forestry Corps was created on 14 Nov 1916 to harvest the forests in the United Kingdom and France. The Corps would serve until being disbanded in 1920. Almost 32,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the Corps and produced  43.5 million cu ft of lumber products.


Again during the Second World War, there was a requirement for men to harvest timber for the war effort. The Corps was re-activated in 1940 for the duration of the war.

Bob Briggs has researched the Canadian Forestry Corps, posting his efforts on the web at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~jmitchell/cfc.html

 Bob comes from a military family with connections to the Forestry Corps. Among family members was a great-grandfather who served with the 222nd South Manitoba Overseas Battalion in the Canadian Forestry Corps, during the First World War. A grandfather served with No. 28 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps during the Second World War.

Newfoundland also contributed the Newfoundland Forestry Corps during the First World War : http://www.heritage.nf.ca/greatwar/articles/forestry.html and the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit for the Second World War: http://www.mgl.ca/~cpike/NOFU.html

Provincial Labour Companies

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One of the lesser know activities of military engineers in Canada is the Provincial Labour Companies in Upper Canada, 1813 – 1815. With the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 being observed, the War of 1812 website has posted an article on these early engineers. http://www.warof1812.ca/artificers.htm

THE SECOND CANADIAN TUNNELLERS AT MOUNT SORREL

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KLEIN ZILLEBEKE, SEPTEMBER 1916.

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. http://www.laboisselleproject.com/

Published with permission

THE GIBRALTAR KEY

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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:

http://users.eastlink.ca/~columns/editorial/1999/e99dec03.html   and
http://users.eastlink.ca/~columns/editorial/1999/e99dec10.html

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