England 1940-41

A Calgary Highlander bids farewell to the Pasteur in Gourock, Scotland.

England 1940-1941

The period of training in England would prove to be a long one for the 1st Battalion. It would be a period of great change, growth and transition, and provide a great deal of frustration as the armies of other nations continued to prosecute the war – notably the Soviet Union and the United States, both of whom would enter the war in 1941 – while the bulk of the Canadian Army remained on the sidelines.

The Calgary Highlanders debarked from SS Pasteur on 4 September 1940 at Gourock, Scotland. They entrained for Guillemont Barracks, near Cove in Sussex, and arrived there just in time to hear air raid sirens.

Individual and Platoon Training: Guillemont Barracks – September to December 1940

The Calgary Highlanders had arrived in the UK at the height of the Battle of Britain; the German attempt to gain mastery over the Royal Air Force as a prelude to invasion. When off duty, the Highlanders were witnesses to the great air battles; German bombers were visible by day flying to London, and at night searchlights and flames were in evidence.  Those lucky enough to go into London itself could see the effects of the bombing.  The air battles were a distraction to training, and the Highlanders found themselves standing to for long hours during air raids, and confined to barracks for long periods of time.

Not long after arrival in England, the Highlanders were moved from the 6th to the 5th Infantry Brigade, a change made permanent in November. Training at this time was on a small scale, usually with borrowed equipment and consisted of such activities as platoon drill, route marches by night and day, map and compass work, small arms training and support weapon training with the Bren, Boys, and Thompson guns.   Deficiencies in transport were a problem (and would remain so into 1941) and the Calgary Highlanders had only two motorcycles, 34 motor vehicles, and 35 bicycles; which still represented the most lavish distribution of transport to the battalion up to that point in time.  As transport began to trickle in, the battalion began to practice moves, the first coming on 16 September and followed by others.

Towards the end of September, the danger of invasion was seen to wane, and five-day landing leaves began to be granted to the men, 80 man parties leaving every day. On 1 October a German bomb damaged the battalion’s cookhouse and killed a soldier from the Lorne Scots.  The battalion’s first fatality occurred when Private F.E. Brown collided into a truck while riding a motorcycle.  Sundays allowed for 100 man parties from the battalion to go to Windsor Castle for church parade, and several men of the battalion were spoken to by the King and Queen whilst on the grounds.

Company and Battalion Training – Talavera Barracks – December to January 1940

On 16 December 1940, the Highlanders moved to Talavera Barracks, near Aldershot to the south of London. Tactical exercises were conducted, simulating conditions in the field, and involving the concepts of fire and movement, as well as practice in patrolling.   The companies began to exercise as companies, and battalion sized exercises were also conducted.  A brigade exercise allowed the Highlanders to practice moving in concert with the Black Watch and Le Regiment de Maisonneuve.

The first marriage of a Highlander to an English girl occurred on 15 December; the first of many such unions.

Coastal Defence – Portsdale – January – February 1941

The six Canadian infantry brigades in the UK in early 1941 were rotated through coastal positions, and the Highlanders relieved the Essex Scottish in positions near Brighton on the 19th and 20th of January.  Their area of responsibility stretched from Shoreham-by-the-Sea to Hove.  The weather was either foggy or rainy, and always cold.   No training was conducted during this period, but the battalion did much work in improving defences.

Divisional Training – Talavera Barracks – February 1941

The Highlanders returned to Talavara barracks on 15 February 1941. The first battalion set-piece attack was conducted on 23 February 1941; in support were the 5th Field Regiment, RCA, a troop of anti-tank guns from the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, two platoons of medium machineguns, and a section of the 7th Field Company, RCE.  The battalion was complimented for its conduct in this exercise.

Exercise DOG

The 2nd Division began to test its own ability to move. Exercise Dog, on 26 February 1941, was disappointing.

The 5th Brigade was to defend a line from Chichester to Arundel against a fictional German landing between Bognor Regis and Lillehampton. The battalion moved between 5 pm and 8:45 pm on the 26th and bedded down in the open with Battalion HQ at Holland’s Heath Farm.

The next morning, the Calgary Highlanders led a brigade column across the River Rother, and formed for an attack in driving rain, with “C” and “D” Companies leading. “A” and “B” Companies stayed in reserve with the battalion headquarters at Littleton Farm.  The battalion had to fight its way to the start line, however, as the entire brigade had to move its transport through three miles of a single road.  Poor communications and poor weather finally led to the cancellation of the attack.   “B” Company had to wait a fair amount of time for their vehicles to arrive and retrieve them; “D” Company made its own way back to Talavera Barracks.

Another Brigade exercise was held on 3 March 1941, and improved communications allowed the Highlanders to cross their start line only five minutes late. The exercise, near the Half Moon Inn, took place in good weather, though the battalion had to march back to camp some 10 miles in driving rain at the conclusion of the scheme.

March 1941

The first fatality attributable to enemy action occurred when Private D.A. Stewart was killed in an air raid in Glasgow on the 13th of March. He would be one of only two Calgary Highlanders to die due to enemy action until the battalion came ashore in Normandy over three years later.  While the Battle of Britain was officially over, enemy aircraft continued to make their presence felt.  A crash landed German aircraft had to be guarded by Calgary Highlanders as well.

The King and Queen visited the battalion while training at Hornley Common on 27 March.   Individual companies as well as the carrier platoon put on demonstrations.  The Pipe Band played as the Royal Couple arrived.

Exercise Benito

April Fool’s Day (1 April) brought a false start to Exercise Benito, which was cancelled abruptly after the battalion moved to an assembly area near Southwater in the rain.   The exercise began for real on 16 April, and was a four day long advance-to-contact scheme conducted on foot.

At the end of April a brigade night maneuver went not at all well; the Officers’ Mess benefited from Lieutenant Wynn Lasher running down a rabbit with his motorcyle as he attempted to get the convoy into order.

Exercise Waterloo

In June, Waterloo tested the ability of the British and Canadians to defend the south coast against enemy invasion. Confusion once more was the order of the day.

Second Canadian Division Carriers on maneuvers; June 1941. The carriers at left with the unit sign “62” belong to the Calgary Highlanders. These carriers are no doubt mustered for the camera; in actual combat conditions they would not be deployed so close together The Carrier Platoon was detached during this period to Hill Force and Farran’s history notes that they became “lax in discipline” at this time. They returned to the Highlanders in August 1941, beginning a “drive for greater smartness and the lavish use of blanco throughout the unit.”


The South Coast – July 1941

Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavillion today.

Late in June, the 2nd Canadian Division as a whole moved to the south coast of England in order to “exchange roles for approximately a month with 55 (British) Division.”   The Division had been in barracks in Aldershot since their arrival in the UK the previous year.  The Division moved under the operational control of IV Corps while the British division came under Canadian operational control in the Aldershot area.

July saw the Calgary Highlanders again moved to the south coast; on the 3rd they moved into positions around Bexhill-on-Sea. Farran’s history describes the move to Bexhill as a happy one, for relations with the local populace were very warm.  Platoons were billeted in houses along the sea-front and close contact was kept with the local Home Guard troops.  A secondary preoccupation for the troops was the care of the many flower gardens among their billets.  The locals held parties and dances for all ranks in private homes and clubs such as the De La Warr Pavillion, an impressive structure built in 1935 able to seat 1500 patrons and also providing a 200 seat seaside restaurant.

The Division moved during the week ending 5 July 1941. The move of the 5th Brigade was observed by the Commander of I Canadian Corps, the GOC of the 2nd Divisions, and the Minister of National Defence (Air), C.G. Power as well as Ian MacKenzie, at that time Minister of Pensions and National Health.

The move was to achieve several aims; to alleviate boredom among the Canadians, but also to give the division experience in coastal defence operations.  The move was popular among officers of the Division, according to a contemporary CMHQ report, and also “brought the men the opportunity of bathing in the sea.”

The Divisional reconnaissance battalion did not make the move with the Division – and the move was not publicized for security reasons. Divisional Headquarters was located at Heathfield Park, approximately 15 miles north of Eastbourne.  The Division eventually held a total frontage of 46 miles of coast, from the west edge of Peacehaven to a point three miles east of Rye Harbour and encompassing four topographical sectors.  From a a CMHQ report:

(a) From PEACEHAVEN to EASTBOURNE the eastern end of the great ridge of the SOUTH DOWNS lies close to the coast, and in the vicinity of BEACHY HEAD forms steep cliffs which are regarded as impassable from the sea and on which therefore there are no company localities.

(b) From EASTBOURNE eastward to the vicinity of BEXHILL the coast is completely flat and landings on the open beach would be possible.

(c) From BEXHILL to the vicinity of PETT (314325) the high ground sometimes called BATTLE RIDGE intersects the coast and provides another range of high cliffs between HASTINGS and FAIRLIGHT. On these again there are no company localities.

(d) From PETT eastward the coast is again very low, with tidal flats on either side of the mouth of the ROTHER.

The Division was flanked by 38 Division (also of IV Corps) on its right, and 56 Division (of XII Corps) on its left.

The port of Newhaven was considered to be a natural objective for enemy forces, as it was the only decent harbour in the divisional area, located at the mouth of the Ouse.  Good roads led from Newhaven, Eastbourne, and Hastings towards London.  The nine infantry battalions of the division were predominantly located in beach-defence positions, with only one of these battalions placed in a reserve position.  With the battalions placing three companies each in line positions and keeping one in reserve, the line was still very thinly held given the length of the line being held.  These positions were constructed by the 55th Division and the 2nd Canadian Division made no attempt to alter them, concentrating instead on strengthening defence works already begun.  LCol Guy Simonds – at that time a General Staff Officer of the Division but later to command the entire II Canadian Corps in Normandy – objected to the lack of depth of the positions, and also the fact that no provision had been made to counter enemy air landing of troops to seize the northern edge of the Downs.  Ironically, this was a “German” tactic in Exercise WATERLOO from the month before.

To the rear of the Division was a triangular sector of Home Guard units, also under command of the 2nd Canadian Division, responsible for the area Plashett Park-Turnbridge Wells-Bodiam.

Divisional positions – as shown on the map above – are described in the CMHQ reports as follows, from west to east:

The Canadian Army historian reporting on this deployment noted that

The fact that a French Canadian battalion should be holding the region where William the Conqueror landed in 1066, with its headquarters on the grounds of a Norman castle whose outer works are partly Roman, and some of its posts in Martello Towers built to guard against invasion by Napoleon, is a matter of some historical interest.

The extreme left of the divisional positions were located at Broomhill, where “A” Company of the Essex Scottish Regiment located its headquarters. Divisional artillery and the Toronto Scottish Regiment (divisional machine gun battalion) deployed across the entire front in a close supporting role, with the Toronto Scottish adding an additional company from personnel of 1 Canadian Machine Gun Holding Unit before moving to the coast.

The beaches on this front were mined and wired heavily. Use of concrete pillboxes and even the ancient Martello towers were incorporated into the defensive positions.  Extra Vickers guns were also emplaced in addition to the Toronto Scottish’s weapons.  Coastal artillery was also in place to supplement the divisional artillery, with guns ranging from 13-pounders to 6-inch guns.   Finally, flame-throwing apparatus were installed along the Essex Scottish front.

The Division manned these positions, and returned to Aldershot in the second week of August, returning not to their former barracks but to billets or tented camps.

July 1941 – A Typical Month in England

July began with the Dominion Day holiday being observed throughout the Canadian Corps, with a Sunday routine following. The battalion moved to the Bexhill area on the 3rd of July, taking over billets and defensive positions.

Friday, 4 July to Sunday 6 July: “settling in”

7 July – training and recreating recommence

8 July – short route march of the companies to enable men to see points of local interest, six men detached to assist local farmer with haying and stacking

9 July – company commanders meeting; one point discussed was control of civilian beach area in Bexhill, which opened to the public on 6 July.

10 July – “C” Company on field firing range, with MMG and mortar support.

11 July – “D” Company on field firing range.   Communications tests.

12 July – one platoon of “B” Company on field firing range. The War Diary notes this is the first time the battalion operated with supporting fire from MMGs and mortars.

14 July – “Action Stations” drills practiced by platoons, then companies. Vickers MG training started under the instruction of the Toronto Scottish.

15 July – “normal training” in morning, followed by Battalion eliminations for Brigade Sports meet on the 17th, under Sports Officer Major Lockwood.

16 July – normal training

17 July – Brigade Sports day held at Polegrove Field, Bexhill.

The Black Watch won the day with, in the words of the Calgary Highlanders’ War Diary, “a fine display of athletics and sportsmanship.” The Battalion awarded prizes for Calgary Highlanders on the following basis: First Prize any Event – 10 Shillings. Second Prize any Event – 7/6 Shillings. Third Prize any Event – 5 Shillings.

18 July – Brigadier Whitehead visited the Battalion Area, had lunch at the Officers Mess and inspected HQ Area, ‘A’ Company Area and ‘B’ Company Area, mainly for billets and administrative details.  Tests of Elementary Training (TOETs) were carried out on men throughout the battalion by a group of officers from 2nd Canadian Division, under Major Moak of Division Headquarters.   The Pipes and Drums played in front of the Mayors house in Bexhill at 1830 hrs. and played retreat at 1900 hrs in conjunction with a visit by some of the battalion’s officers to the Mayor.

19 July – In the evening, the Rotary Club of Bexhill entertained a large number of all ranks at a Dance at the De La Warr Pavillion. The Regimental Orchestra played, and the Pipe Band was in attendance, playing for some time. Highland Dancing was done by Pipe Major Stoker. The event was a great success and apparently much appreciated by the members of the battalion.

20 July – Church Parades were held in HQ. and ‘C’ Company areas by the Padre, Capt. V. Ottiwell. ‘B’ Company and the Regimental School (N.C.O.’s) attended local Churches. Lt. Col. Scott attended a meeting with the Hon. Ian McKenzie at Eastbourne during the afternoon.

21 July – “Motor Transport holiday” in which only ration trucks and Quartermaster necessary vehicles moved during the day. Lt. Col. Scott and Maj. F. H. Johnson inspected ‘C’ and ‘A’ Companies respectively, to check on condition of web equipment and administrative matters.

22 July – The 2nd Regimental “Smartening up School” for employed personnel was begun.

23 July – An Orders Group was held regarding a practice Motor Transport move for the battalion to take place Aug 1 to practice in sudden deployment and action from a moving column.

Exercise “EDWARD”, a signal scheme began also during the evening with a Brigade Orders Group. A Spitfire – no.W.3427, crashed in the “D” Company area and a guard arranged for the aircraft; the pilot had been escorted away by soldiers of a nearby artillery battery. A concert party was arranged for battalion HQ. and HQ Company by Mr. Gamble of the Y.M.C.A. Auxiliary Forces.

24 July – Exercise EDWARD was carried out. The battalion HQ was established in the morning and an attack on a two company front was made, the Highlanders being the only forward battalion in the Brigade. The Umpires created several situations regarding enemy action and strength and equipment, which were intended to and which did, teach much about the information which should be sent back. By noon, it was conceded that the battalion had gained their objective and the Black Watch passed through to carry on the attack.

25 July – Exercise BIRD was conducted, being a practice stand-to and action stations held by the battalion under Brigade instructions. A paratroops situation was developed during the exercise to test the mobility and usefulness of the reserve Company. ‘C’ Company was dispatched in trucks to clean up approximately 50 paratroops with light machine guns.

26 July – BIRD exercise for the entire Brigade Group to start with a stand to at 0800 hrs. was cancelled at 0810 hrs. by “NEGATIVE BIRD'”, presumably due to rainy weather.

27July – Church Parades.

28 July – Another Motor Transport Holiday; only one ration and one water truck were allowed. A party of approximately 80 men under Maj. R. D. Bryan paraded in a Salvage Drive Campaign in Bexhill along with other local units, to publicize the Salvage Drive.

29 July – Maj. Gen. V. W. Odlum visited the battalion area, starting in HQ Company area at 0930 hrs. and inspecting billets and Administrative details in particular. ‘C’, ‘B’ & ‘D’ Company areas were all inspected in turn. In some of the billets and kitchens, minor defects were commented on, but the G.O.C. seemed pleased with the battalion.

30 July – Divisional Sports held in Polegrove field, with a good turnout of both Services and Civilians. M11246 Pte. DeBow, J. W. of ‘A’ company, was winner of the high jump event. Rain, which started about 1600 hrs., stopped the meet just before its conclusion and spoiled the expected crowds at the Brigade Headquarters Marquee tent set up for refreshments.

A successful Concert Party was held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. Maj. Johnson acted as Compere and also put on a very good turn of sleight of hand trick. Lt. E. W. Lasher, Lt. S. O. Robinson, Cpl. K.R. McLaren and Pte. Walker, T., sang various solos and quartet numbers. The costumes of the orchestra, which were of real foothill cowboy style, made quite an impression. The Pipe Band played several selections, and on the whole, the Concert Party was very well received.

31July – Lt. Col. J. F. Scott, Company Commanders and Q.M. went to Bde. HQ. at 1400 hrs. for a conference at which details of the move back to Aldershot Area and quarters to be taken over were discussed.

The battalion took up positions around Bexhill between St. Leonards-on-Sea and the Pevensey Marshes, with “A” Company on the left, “B” on the right, “D” in the centre and “C” in reserve

During the month, TOETs (Test of Elementary Training) showed the Calgary Highlanders to be excelling in training; the battalion scored 10 percent higher than any other unit in the Second Division.   Several small schemes for subunits were carried out; “Edward” was an internal signals exercise on the 24th, with “Bird” testing the reserve company the next day; “C” Company round up 50 “enemy” parachutists before the exercise was stopped on account of rain.

Many inspections and sports meets also helped pass the time for the battalion during this period on the south coast.

July also brought homesickness as memories of the annual Stampede came to the fore, heightened by the cover of that month’s Glen; a cartoon by CSM Sam Nickle showing a Calgary Highlander dreaming of home, cowboys, and the rodeo. Charlie Yule, the manager of the Exhibition and Stampede, sent a letter to the battalion that was reprinted in that issue.

Some Calgary Highlanders got to help out local farmers with the harvest; six lucky troops got to visit the Duke of Connaught at Bagshot. On 1 August, a transport move, and an attack exercise, were conducted with local Home Guard units near Eastbourne.

August 1941

The nice sojourn in Bexhill ended on 12 August when the battalion moved back to camp 49B at Aldershot. After the luxury of Bexhill, with its gardens and clubs, the Highlanders were now greeted with dirt and gravel roads, tents, and mud.  Practice in river crossings now began; on 21 August the Royal Canadian Engineers provided 11 small water craft and crossings were practiced on Hawley Lake.  A mock crossing was held at Tweedledown Race Track on the 28th, with table tops being used to simulate boats.

September 1941

The battalion celebrated their one year anniversary of being in England with steak and onions, potatoes, beer, ice cream and cake. A third night crossing exercise was held at Hawley Lake on the 11th, and on the 20th Exercise “Malcolm” brought an evening move to the Godalming area.  The Calgary Highlanders engaged several “enemy” forces in this period, then moved to an assembly area near Cowfold in Sussex.

Exercise Bumper

On 25 September 1941, the Calgary Highlanders joined a sizable force in an exercise once again simulating a German invasion of England. The battalion received the compliments of one British Umpire, and Bercuson tells us that the majority of movement difficulties that arose during the exercise “were the result of failures at higher levels or in the other battalions.”

In the first week of October, the Highlanders moved back to the Aldershot area.   It was at this time that training would take a dramatic new turn.

Calgary Highlanders on exercise in the UK. Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum and Archives Photo

Two photos of an Echelon Supply Point. Photos originally published in The Glen and scanned from a copy belonging to Private E. A. Kellar, provided courtesy of Bob Weir

Photos originally published in The Glen and scanned from a copy belonging to Private E. A. Kellar, provided courtesy of Bob Weir.

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