The Calgary Highlanders mobilized for war on the 1st of September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, though Canada was not officially at war until Parliament debated the issue and made its decision on the 10th of September.
The 1st Battalion, Calgary Highlanders served faithfully overseas, overcoming adversity and contributing no small part to the successes of its parent formation, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
Certainly, the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, to whom the Highlanders belonged, had few easy tasks asked of them during their service in the Northwest Europe campaign between July 1944 and May 1945. The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, a brother unit in the 5th Brigade, suffered appalling casualties on more than one occasion, the most famous being Operation Spring in July 1944, with Black Friday in October being another occasion in which the rifle strength of that battalion was sorely depleted. The division suffered great loss during these ten months of battle, with some battalions setting the record amongst the First Canadian Army as a whole for battle losses. Over 400 Calgary Highlanders were killed during the fighting, and many more were wounded – many more than once.
Their determination to carry on, however, enabled them to stand toe to toe with many of Hitler’s best troops such as SS panzergrenadiers and Luftwaffe paratroops. Even in bleak episodes such as Walcheren Causeway, the Highlanders refused to quit, and carried on the proud traditions inherited from the 10th Battalion, CEF, of the earlier World War.
MOBILIZATION: September 1939
The Canadian Army began actively committing resources for the Second World War on 25 August 1939, even before the German invasion of Poland. Units across Canada were tasked to provide men for local protective duties, guarding vital installations. These units included the Calgary Regiment, but not the Calgary Highlanders.
On 1 September 1939, war in Europe broke out with the German invasion of Poland. War was officially declared by Britain on 3 September 1939; Canada would debate the matter in Parliament until 10 September, when a state of war was declared to exist between Canada and Germany.
However, the Canadian Army began to mobilize forces on the 1st of September; the Commanding Officer of the Calgary Highlanders received a now famous telegram from the commander of Military District Thirteen, with the stark order:
The Dominion Mobilization Scheme had originally called for the Edmonton Regiment and the 15th Alberta Light Horse to be immediately mobilized for war. During the 1930s, however, Britain had mechanized its army and replaced all the horses with motorized transport. In the summer of 1939 – while horse cavalry continued to train in Canada – the decision to replace cavalry units in the mobilization scheme was made, and the Calgary Highlanders were selected to be the second infantry regiment in Alberta to mobilize alongside the Edmonton Regiment. When mobilization came, the other infantry units – the Edmonton Fusiliers and the South Alberta Regiment – continued to train in their pre-war part-time capacity.
The mobilized battalion was to join the newly created Canadian Active Service Force (CASF).
The mobilized battalion was to join the newly created Canadian Active Service Force (CASF).
Many of the key personnel of the Calgary Highlanders would be drawn from other units of the Non-Permanent Active Militia:
15th Alberta Light Horse
The Commanding Officer of the Calgary Highlanders was considered medically unfit for active service, and so Lieutenant Colonel J. Fred Scott, the commander of the 15th Alberta Light Horse, was offered the position, which he accepted. (Interestingly enough, the commanding officer of the 15th Alberta Light Horse’s predecessor unit in 1914 was Russ Boyle, who resigned his command of that unit in order to take command of the Tenth Battalion, CEF – forerunners of the Calgary Highlanders.)
Lieutenant Don “Donnie” Munro came from the 15th ALH as well and resigned his commission to become a Platoon Sergeant Major with the Calgary Highlanders. He was commissioned again in 1940 and served with the battalion until 1943, when he was sent to Sicily as a reinforcement officer for the 1st Canadian Division and served in Italy with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
Lieutenant Sherwin Robinson also resigned his commission with the 15th ALH to go overseas with the Calgary Highlanders. He would later become a company commander with the battalion and be wounded twice in February 1945.
In all, six of the officers on the Calgary Highlanders initial nominal roll had come from the 15th Alberta Light Horse. By war’s end, 17 officers in total from the 15th would have passed through the Calgary Highlanders.
Calgary Regiment (Tank)
Despite the (Tank) designation, the Calgary Regiment was considered an infantry unit, and recruits for the Highlanders were also drawn from this unit. Most notable was Captain E.V. Stanley, who resigned his commission to become the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Calgary Highlanders.
Three of the battalion’s officers had also come from the Calgary Regiment.
South Alberta Regiment
The South Alberta Regiment (or SAR) in Medicine Hat would mobilize later in the war as an armoured reconnaissance regiment for the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division. In 1939, however, they were a standard rifle battalion. Three of the Calgary Highlanders’ initial slate of officers came from the SAR.
Organizing a Battalion for War
The Calgary Highlanders were authorized to recruit up to a full strength infantry battalion – consisting of 26 officers officers and 810 men. They were given a deadline and expected to make up the necessary numbers by voluntary enlistments.
Initially, there was much friction due to the choice of an outsider – and a cavalry officer at that – to command the battalion.
By September 9th, 21 officers and 173 other ranks had been recruited.
By the end of September, all three of the services (Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Militia, and Royal Canadian Air Force) had grown from 10,000 full time officers and men to over 70,000.
The prewar Non Permanent Active Militia – the “citizen soldiers” who paraded once a week – numbered 52,000 men on paper in 1939. By war’s end, some 90% of all battalion commanders in the Canadian Army, 75% of brigade commanders and 60% of divisional commanders would have been men who once served in the part time ranks of the NPAM (as opposed to the full time soldiers of the Permanent Force).
Apart from command positions, the NPAM would also provide many of the senior Non-Commissioned Officers that would form the backbone of the new army that had increased 700% in just the first month of recruiting alone. By war’s end, including a small percentage of conscripts, the Canadian Army would have inducted over 730,000 men and women, with a peak strength in March 1944 of 495,804. The Reserve Army (as the Non Permanent Active Militia was renamed in 1940) numbered over 82,000 in March 1945. The three services combined would enroll all told over 1 million personnel – from a 1939 population of just over 11 million.
All soldiers enlisted had to be attested, or in other words, volunteer for active service outside of Canada.
The uniform of the Calgary Highlanders in September 1939 was still First World War style Service Dress, including the kilt, and these uniforms were available – like everything else – only in limited numbers. Battle Dress, the new uniform intended to replace Service Dress, was still not being manufactured in quantity in Canadian factories.
Since some units in Alberta were not mobilized for war, they were able to loan uniforms to the Calgary Highlanders. Some men paraded in civilian clothes, being issued a yellow armband with the words CALGARY HIGHLANDERS on them.
A variety of headdress was worn. Those lucky enough to get a military hat might have been issued either the red and white diced glengarry, a locally made khaki glengarry, a service dress cap (forage cap), or even a summer pith helmet, perhaps lined with felt. These types of hats are displayed at right.
At right is shown the First World War pattern single-breasted greatcoat; these garments – also in short supply – were replaced in 1940 throughout the army with a double breasted wool coat, half-belted in the back and slightly shorter in length.
Members of “D” Company photographed in December 1939. The company paraded in kilts that day for a parade, before having a group photograph taken. Standardization of uniforms has been partially achieved; however, many of the locally produced khaki glengarries are still in evidence. The soldier at middle left wears the 1903 Pattern seven-button front Service Dress jacket; most men are lacking collar badges. Soldier in centre of photo appears to be wearing the cap badge of the 10th Battalion, CEF.
Group of Calgary Highlanders photographed at Currie Barracks after the issue of the new Battle Dress uniform. The issue of Battle Dress did not solve all the battalion’s dress problems. The variety of headdress is still evident here; man at centre left wears the sun helmet while some still wear the glengarry or even the Field Service Cap. The majority of belts in evidence are 1908 Pattern web, and the No. 1 Mk III SMLE rifle would not be replaced with the No. 4 Mk I until much later in the war. Only the man at front centre wears the new 1937 Pattern Web Equipment. Note the fact that the Battle Dress trousers in the photo are of a darker shade than the Battle Dress blouses. BD was manufactured by a variety of firms and were not issued in complete suits, due to the number of different possible sizes of each. Mismatched uniforms of different colours are mentioned often in unit correspondence and war diaries across Canada during the first year of the war. Once the units were training in earnest, their attention moved to matters of higher importance.
Mewata Armouries – completed in 1917 and used between the wars to house various peacetime Militia units – was in no way large enough to house an entire infantry battalion. On 6 September, the Highlanders began to move to Sarcee Camp where they lived under canvas until huts could be completed adjacent to the Armouries in Mewata Park. They moved back to the city at the end of September.
As winter set in, the draughty huts and lack of uniforms conspired to create a high rate of sickness, especially colds and flu. The hospital at Sarcee, the Colonel Belcher hospital in Calgary, and a facility at Mewata Camp became filled to capacity.
The Canadian Army in 1939 had very little equipment. The Bren Gun, intended to replace the Lewis Gun, was still not on inventory (fewer than two dozen examples existed in the entire country) for example. Much of the training in the early days of Mobilization consisted of route marches, lectures (including on regimental
history), “interior economy”, and other subjects. Weather also played a part in keeping the troops indoors much of the time.
Off duty time was spent on uniform maintenance, as shown in the photos at right. Brown and black leather items like boots and belts had to be polished, and for soldiers with Highland kit, the sporrans had to be groomed, kilts had to have pleats pressed, and spats had to be whitened.
Standard elements of the syllabus included PT (physical training) each morning, target shooting with the Lee Enfield rifle, and of course the time honoured tradition of doing drill – moving a formed body as if it were one man.