Scouts & Snipers Platoon
Scout and Sniper Platoon
By 1944, Canadian infantry battalions had as part of their organization a platoon of “scouts and snipers.” Specially equipped and trained in stealth and camouflage, they were the forerunners of today’s recce troops. The Scout Platoon came under the command of a lieutenant; they were responsible for reconnoitring ahead of the battalion on the advance.
It was dangerous business; Private William C. Alexander was a popular member of the Calgary Highlanders’ scout platoon. At Turnhout Canal on 29 September 1944 he exposed himself to friendly fire when the Fusiliers Mont Royal mistakenly mortared “D” Company during their attack. Finding a small rubber boat, he floated across the canal and managed to find an officer who would order the FMR to stop their mortar fire. He returned to the Highlanders, but when the FMR again mortared them, he went back across the canal again; this time the FMR stopped the firing altogether. As a scout, though, he was constantly exposed to enemy fire, and on 18 October, while on patrol in the vicinity of the “Coffin”, he was struck by automatic weapons fire and killed. He had enlisted in the first year of the war, and was only 21 years old when he died.
At right – Widely reproduced, but never redundant. This photograph of Sergeant Harold A. Marshall, a Calgary Highlanders sniper, is perhaps one of the most famous Canadian images to come out of the Second World War. Marshall’s equipment includes a No. 4 Mk 1 (T) rifle, specially selected, tested and fitted with a sniper scope for sharp shooting. The sniper rifle was was also fitted with a wooden cheek piece on the butt (visible on the photo below). He also carries a kukri (presumably for assisting him in camouflaging his position) and a Mills grenade. The binoculars would be used by his number two man for spotting targets.
His jacket is a Denison smock, one of but a handful of camouflage garments issued to Canadian soldiers during the Second World War. The Denison was originally issued to paratroopers, but snipers and scouts also took them in to wear, and “official” modifications to the jacket for wear by snipers had been carried out by war’s end.
The one item of camouflage clothing issued to all Canadian soldiers was the face veil. In green and brown, this veil could we worn at the neck for warmth, or worn over the head (Marshall is shown here doing both). The veil was made of a wide mesh, and could cover the face entirely (as shown below) yet permit vision; it was an effective personal camouflage tool.
The battalion War Diary offers the following information, recorded on 6 October 1944:
The Scout platoon came into the limelight when Lt. Bell of “Army News” came around to get pictures and a write-up about Calgary’s Western Scouts. The photographers found Lt. G. Sellar, Sniper-Sgt. H. Marshall and Scout J. J. Levesque very photogenic. The ‘I’ section had a “quickie” screen test when the I.O. appeared briefly with his Sgt.’s map board in a “briefing” shot. The entire Scout platoon had a group picture and in all, the Army photographers were very satisfied with their visit.
Lieutenant Gordon H. Sellar, Scout Platoon Officer, (shown below) continued his career after the war and achieved the rank of Brigadier-General with the Canadian Forces. His wife Gloria Sellar became well known as an activist with regards to veterans’ causes.
Some of the other scout platoon photos are shown below:
The battalion war diary also relates the following incident from 27 April 1945:
During the afternoon two scouts, namely Private Gould and Private Walton patrolled North from ‘D’ company and lay doggo in a hedge at (map reference) 533022. After a short time, they were surprised to see eleven enemy coming down the side road from the West. The Germans were much more surprised when suddenly confronted by two savage looking individuals in camouflage jackets. Though completely armed, they surrendered as one, and were dismayed to learn later that they were not in our lines as they thought when captured.