During 1941, the 47th (London) Division (at right is the "Bows and Bells" patch of the division), a training formation of the British Army, began to demonstrate its new system of training, called "Battle Drill" to officers of the Canadian Army. Lieutenant Colonel J. Fred Scott and Captain John Campbell of The Calgary Highlanders attended a demonstration on 8 October and found their imagination fired by what they saw.
On 22 October, Captain Campbell, Lieutenant Buchanan, and Lieutenant Nixon attended a battle drill school at Chelwood Gate, and according to unit historian Roy Farran, "No more fanatical disciples of the new system could have returned to the unit."
The Calgary Highlanders immediately set up their own Battle Drill school at Burnt Wood, and on 23 October, a demonstration was made before Colonel Ralston, the Minister of Defence, General McNaughton (General Officer Commanding the Canadian forces in England), Lieutenant-General Crerar (commanding I Canadian Corps), and Major General Odlum (commanding 2nd Canadian Division). The platoon that participated in the demonstration were complimented by the senior officers.
The entire battalion began to cycle through the battle drill school in two week rotations, each course culminating in a demonstration to which officers of neighbouring units came to observe. While Battle Drill began to spread through the Canadian Army, opposition to it from the British War Office led to the 47th Division school being closed down in November. "Battle Drill bibles," originally printed by the 47th Division, had to be printed "surreptitiously" in the Calgary Highlanders orderly room, in order to be distributed to other interested Canadian units.
Opposition to the new training met with opposition in the Canadian Army as well; the First Canadian Division forbade their troops from attending the Calgary Highlanders' battle drill courses, to whom NCOs from other units were routinely invited. By the end of December 1941, the Highlanders had sold more than 50 of their "Battle Drill bibles", twenty of them in a single day after demonstrating the new training to the Second Canadian Division on 30 December.
For the Calgary Highlanders, and indeed, the entire Canadian contingent in the UK, Battle Drill was a relief from months of monotonous training. The War Diarist of the battalion, writing on New Year's Eve, remarked that "morale is higher than at any time in the past two and a half years. A man is proud to say "I have taken Battle Drill" because without a doubt it is a physical accomplishment, particularly to the private. To the Junior Leader who has added Battle Drill to his training, it is both a physical and mental achievement."
In January 1942, General Crerar wrote to the battalion to say "It is evident that a very satisfactory number, both of officers and ORs in the Canadian Corps have obtained the tactical and psychological advantages which are so evident in this particular course." On the 16th of January, demonstrations were held for representatives of many Canadian units, with another demonstration on the 30th. The orderly room printed 250 more copies of the Battle Drill bible.
What was Battle Drill?
Section Battle Drills
At its most basic, Battle Drill taught at the section level simply taught men how to react when coming under enemy fire. In an article in Military Illustrated: Past and Present (No. 20, Aug/Sep 1989 issue), section battle drills were described by eminent British historians Ian V. Hogg and Mike Chappell as follows:
On to a limitless expanse of asphalt march ten men, in step, arms swinging, rifles at the slope. The instructor bawls "Under Fire!": the men halt, face the enemy, order arms, and stand at ease. Then, in unison, they shout "Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!" and snap to attention. "Rifle group, follow me!" - and on the word "Fire" they snap to attention, which indicates that they are firing. The section commander gives his stereotyped orders: "Rifle group engage; right flanking; Bren group over there!" The Bren group stand at ease (no longer firing), turn right, and double off to the flank; they halt, turn to face the enemy; "Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!"; and snap to attention. "Rifle group, follow me!" shouts the section commander; they stand at ease to show they have stopped firing, and double off behind the commander, around behind the Bren group. They halt - and go through the whole rigamarole again. Finally, having reached the last position, the section commander orders "Charge!" Away go the riflemen, rifles at the hip, bayonets fixed, and shouting (officially...) "Bullets, bullets, bullets!" to show that they are firing.
It sounds ludicrous; but it impressed the system in the mind, until civilians-in-uniform could be relied upon to snap into it when cold, tired, scared, disoriented, and under real fire from real enemies.
The above illustrates several things; firstly, that at its most basic level, Battle Drill could be a parade square exercise. Also note the "Down, Crawl, Observe, Fire!"; more than just a motto, many Canadian regimental histories make mention of this phrase, which was driven home firmly into the minds of infantrymen, who would need to practice it instinctively when in combat:
Upon taking fire from the enemy, infantrymen were trained to:
The section had to be taught to operate in two groups; the Bren group and the rifle group. Ideally, one group would provide cover fire, to distract or inflict damage on the enemy, while the other group exposed itself by moving to close the range. The section commander had to be able to instantly appreciate what cover was available, and order an appropriate maneuver, such as a right or left flanking.
Once the section had mastered basic battle drills, the next step was platoon training, where the platoon commander had to also demonstrate his appreciation of tactical situations and be able to employ his three sections effectively.
Battle Drill Training
What the Calgary Highlanders found being taught by the 47th (London) Division went beyond mere Battle Drills however, and an entire system of training, also falling under the blanket description "Battle Drill", was not only observed, but quickly adopted by the Highlanders.
Battle Drills, whether at the section, platoon or company levels, came to encompass more than just the drills themselves. Soldiers were put into their full battle kit and made to double time everywhere they went. Battle inoculation became part of Battle Drill training, where live ammunition was fired over and around them, with the addition of simulated artillery fire and grenades ("thunder flashes"). Some troops were taken to livestock slaughter houses, or else made to run obstacle courses littered with blood and animal entrails, in order to accustom them to the sight of gore. The obstacle courses were quite popular with instructors, and combined with speed marching, contributed to "hardening training" - turning soft civilians into tough soldiers.
Terence Robertson (in his book The Shame and the Glory) described Battle Drill as:
...that incredible British conception in which dummy bullets were thrown away and replaced with live ammunition. This compensated to some extent for the lack of a real enemy, and if a soldier had a particular feud going, he could often settle it with the live rounds he carried quite legally. There were plenty of accidental woundings, but how many or how few were caused by malice could never be determined. Instead, the troops were ordered to approach battle drill with a good deal more care and a little less enthusiasm.
There were other reasons to "tone down" Battle Drill training, according to Farran's history. One Calgary Highlanders company is reported as having refused to attend church parade, citing that since they were given such "barbaric" instruction during battle drill, they could not see the point in attending church.
The opinions of several Calgary Highlanders towards Battle Drill training is recorded in Bercuson's regimental history:
Bert Pittaway: "....running wide open and killing yourself for nothing...it was crazy, you never did anything like that in action."
Arthur Wildeman: "Us ignorant privates, we're supposed to run across there, and jump through this god-damned stuff, and wade and hold your rifle up so you don't get it wet. You don't go around any obstacles, you go through them or over them....The sarge was running around yelling 'kill, kill, kill."
Calgary Highlanders during Battle Drill training
Perhaps, however, the most revealing description of Battle Drill training comes from a lieutenant in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment named Farley Mowat, in his book "And No Birds Sang":
Major Ketcheson turned...to teaching us "real soldiering" by packing us off to a battle drill school where we joined twenty or thirty other raw (junior officers) in a course that was intended to toughen us up, both physically and psychologically.
Other Calgary Highlanders had great appreciation for the training they underwent. Again, from Bercuson's history, several Calgary Highlanders veterans comment:
Arthur Ames: "It was a tough course....In December...you were out there in the wet...soaking wet...we never saw a hot bath...the whole time the course was on....(it was) the only training we got in the army that was realistic."
Floyd Rourke: "(When a machine gun opened up) You would drop and hit the dirt, and then possibly return the fire or give covering fire so that somebody else could move in from another direction...you have no time to stop and think, you have to deal with it right now."
Red Anderson: "When you went into action, you knew that you would be in good shape and know what to do."
Robert Bingham: "We didn't like that kind of tough training, but it was all for the good. When you got into battle, everything felt so simple."
Battle Drill training has been soundly criticized by many historians after the fact, feeling that it contributed little to preparing the Canadian Army for the combat it would encounter in Normandy and afterwards. It is worthy to note that British General Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time the commander of South East Army in England (under whom the Canadians were placed) had some very definite criticisms as early as March 1942, when he visited the battalion.
Montgomery (quoted in Terry Copp's book "The Brigade") wrote that as far as the Calgary Highlanders were concerned, "It does not seem to be understood that Battle Drill is really a procedure, applicable to unit and sub-unit action. The company still has to be taught how to carry out the various operations of war." His notes further elaborated his criticisms:
The Co(mpan)y Training period is now nearly over. But so far no company has done more than about two days really proper co(mpan)y training i.e. complete company exercises, as a company. A good deal of battle drill training has been done; but this is not Company training; it is practicing a procedure. The Co(mpan)y has got to be taught the art of war:
How to fight the contact battle.
At this time, Montgomery was inspecting all the Canadian units in the United Kingdom and passing his judgements (often very quickly reached) to the senior Canadian commanders. The Calgary Highlanders benefited from his low appraisal of their state of training when the Dieppe forces were selected; while Fourth and Sixth brigades were tapped to comprise the assault force, the Fifth Brigade was only asked to contribute a company of the Black Watch and a platoon of Calgary Highlanders.
Battle Drill's Fate
The British Army placed General Utterson-Kelso, the former commander of the 47th Division, in charge of the infantry-training directorate, and his chief Battle Drill instructor, a Lieutenant Colonel Wigman, took command of a newly created GHQ Battle School, while authorizing the formation of battle schools in each division. In the Canadian Army, Calgary Highlanders carried the new doctrine to the rest of the army. Lieutenant Colonel Scott, sent to Canada to instruct at RMC, soon found himself in command of the new Canadian Battle Drill School at Vernon, BC, while the Battle Drill Wing of the Canadian Training School in England was commanded by Captain John Campbell.
Battle Drill, in the end, prepared platoons and companies for battle, but the Canadian Army would have to look beyond simple battle drill to prepare their brigades and divisions for combat.
Considerable credit is being given to this regiment for its aggressiveness and initiative in pushing this battle drill school . Other majors in the unit, besides Major Langston, are T. B. Donald, Jack Taylor, Doug Robertson, H. C. A. Hervey, all of Calgary, and R. D. Bryan of Innisifail . Lieutenant Vern Scott (sic) of Calgary is adjutant.
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