The Canadian Government had hoped that full military participation in the Second World War would not be required; a single division of infantry had been sent to the United Kingdom in December 1939 while the 2nd Division remained in isolated garrisons in Canada to train. The Calgary Highlanders wintered in Calgary with little in the way of modern clothing or equipment. In Europe, the “Phoney War” was time of relative calm. The storm broke in the spring, when Germany invaded first Denmark and Norway, in April 1940, and then on the 10th of May, when the attack on France, Belgium and the Netherlands finally came. Not only was the 2nd Canadian Division finally geared up for a move overseas, but two more infantry divisions were mobilized that month. Eventually, Canada would raise eight divisions – three infantry divisions and two armoured divisions for overseas service, and three infantry divisions for home defence.
As German soldiers poured through the Low Countries and into France, the Calgary Highlanders prepared to say goodbye to Calgary.
The first Calgary Highlanders arrived in Shilo – a remote training base in Manitoba – at the end of May 1940; these were 77 men of the advance party under Captain Hervey. On May 26th, the battalion arrived at 6:15 am and moved into the tent lines along with their new brigade-mates the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. The Calgary Highlanders were now part of the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade; an all western brigade that would make up part of the 2nd Canadian Division, along with the 4th Brigade from Ontario and the 5th Brigade, made up of Quebec units. Being part of a brigade gave the regiment new pride, the tent city gave an air that at last they were training for war, and the presence of other units allowed a competitive spirit to grow.
Training began on Monday the 27th of May, and sunburn cases were almost immediate under the hot prairie skies. The Medical Officer had to order that men not go shirtless for more than five minutes on their first day, then ten the next, etc. Sun helmets were ordered to be worn as well, but it should be noted that the troops still had not received summer clothing.
The next Sunday, 1000 visitors had come from nearby towns and villages to the camp. Every weekend also, 25 percent of the battalion was permitted walking out privileges, to travel to Brandon or other nearby locales.
In June, five officers and six NCO’s left for the United Kingdom, after taking anti-gas courses in Winnipeg. They would be the first Calgary Highlanders overseas; the rest of the regiment would have to wait more than three months before joining them.
Summer Dress was finally issued to the battalion on June 13th, consisting of khaki shorts, shirt, and long puttees.
Much serious training was finally done when the battalion was in Shilo, and the unit began to transform steadily into a war-ready infantry battalion. In the middle of June, several men who had lied about their age were returned to Calgary, and Farran’s history cites a steady decrease of men due to confessions of this type. If the battalion shrank in terms of numbers, it grew in equipment. The first respirators were issued (and consequently weekly anti-gas drills began), the regiment received enough transport vehicles to pass 50 men as qualified drivers (total battalion transport consisted of three light delivery trucks, two 30-cwt trucks and two 15-cwt trucks). New recruits helped to counteract the wastage caused by underage men, and when 44 more recruits were added on July 18, the battalion stood at 971 officers and men.
Sporting and competition dominated life in Shilo as well, with inter-unit baseball, softball, hardball and football teams competing against other units in the brigade, as well as competitions for everything from transport to who had the cleanest tent lines.
It was in Shilo that the appointment of Platoon Sergeant Major was phased out.
The regiment also had access to weapons; on August 2, all ranks fired the Bren gun (5 rounds automatic and 5 rounds single shot), having access to 16 guns, more than they had been able to use since mobilization. A report on August 6 noted that there were enough rifles for all ranks, but the unit only owned 4 Brens, two Boys anti-tank rifles, and 25 ancient Lewis guns.
The battalion received orders to prepare to leave Shilo on Tuesday, August 11, but the orders were cancelled that day. Men were advised to change their Canadian money for pounds sterling at local banks, and the largest hint that an actual move was imminent was the withdrawal of summer uniforms on the 15th. Orders came down for a move on the 17th, which were again cancelled.
On August 18, Gracie Fields entertained the brigade; Fields was a very famous entertainer from Lancashire.
Blankets were withdrawn pending the upcoming move, leaving the troops to spend two nights in considerable discomfort. Kit bags were packed and marked and finally, the battalion left Shilo on the morning of the 21st of August. The train left Shilo at 10 am, stopped at Winnipeg at 2 pm to pick up the Platoon Sergeants Major who were attending courses, and finally on the evening of the 23rd, after stops in Smiths Falls, Outremont and Quebec, arrived in Halifax.
Gracie Fields, pictured here at an event in Canada wearing an Indian bonnet