Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Accidental Submariner (Part III)

Arrival in England was at Gatwick Airport, courtesy of the RCAF. I reported to the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff in London, then was directed to Gosport and the Royal Navy's submarine school.
To the best of my recollection there were perhaps four of us RCN refugees in our training class at HMS Dolphin, along with a smattering of Aussies and Kiwis but mostly RN types. Some of the RN fellows were sporting ribbons from the Malaysian campaign, and a few went on to distinguished careers.
Many of my classmates lived on board Dolphin while enrolled in the shore-based officers’ submarine course. The British submariners were a breed apart, with their own traditions and culture, the foundations of which were laid down by their predecessors in the two World Wars.
An activity at which we “colonials” from Canada did not excel at was the game of cricket. For us, the match seemed to go on forever, and to make it more difficult, the rascals bounced the ball before it got to home plate! Very hard to hit.
I can’t say that physical fitness was high on the list of priorities for our training regimen. One of our instructors explained that he belonged to AA: Athletics Anonymous. If he ever felt the urge to do something sporting he would phone his sponsor, who would come straight over with a half dozen bottles of the local brew.
Much more attention was paid to technical aspects of our training. Main line, six-valve chest, cross-connections, kingston valves....The details went on and on, focussing mainly on what we would encounter in Porpoise or Oberon class boats, with some T- and A-boat specifics. Just as well, because it was to an A-boat that the Accidental Submariner was next dispatched. 
(Note--I'd be very happy to hear from other ex- or present-day submariners about their training or other experiences. Feel free to contact me via a comment or email at

Monday, September 24, 2012

S. H. Williams, author: Stand to your Horses

One of my most prized possessions is a first edition of “Stand to your Horses”, subtitled “Through the First Great War with the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (R.C.)”. It was written by Captain S. H. Williams, M.C., and published in 1961. Sam Williams based the book partly on his own diary, which he had written in 1926, using as a foundation notes he made during the war. He also by then had access to the Regimental War Diary and to other first-hand accounts of crucial battles.
My father, who was living in Surrey at the time, received a copy of the book from Williams in October 1961.
S. H. Williams, 1917
In the Foreword, Sam Williams laments that he only knew of five survivors of the “epic charge of “C” Squadron led by Lieutenant Flowerdew” (my father being one of them). He also comments that the “average Canadian infantry or artillery soldier” knew little about the Canadian cavalry.
And if that was the case even among veterans of the war itself, how much more true about the Canadian population today.
More about Sam Williams and his book in future posts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Accidental Submariner (Part II)

USS Rasher
Part I of the Accidental Submariner detailed how my friends John and Bob and I had ended up spending two weeks on board USS Rasher, a United States Navy Gato-class submarine in 1964. Rasher’s captain, Lieutenant-commander Meader, wrote letters to our commanding officers. Mine read in part: “...Mackay...participated actively...ship’s routine...(h)e and his two compatriots were a refreshing change from the usual passive observer...” Somehow, it seemed, that letter had surfaced in my personnel file in Ottawa, and now the powers that be wondered if I indeed wanted to be a submariner.
I didn’t hesitate for long. Specifically, if I volunteered, I would be in England in May, undergoing submarine training with the Royal Navy. I’d be in England for a minimum of six months. A foreign appointment. A chance to visit the continent.
Would I volunteer?
You bet!
Short weeks later, in May 1966, I was on a Canadian National train to central Canada, on my way to Trenton and an RCAF flight to Gatwick, England. While wandering through the train I noticed a couple of RCN sailors in the familiar bell-bottomed uniform.
Closer inspection showed they were stokers, and submariners to boot, on their way to the same service flight, returning to the UK. Short minutes later they were regaling me with salty dips about RN and Canadian submarines and submariners—some of which later turned out to be true.
That was the start of my initiation into the silent service.
(More to come in future posts)

Monday, September 17, 2012

1917--Canadians in the Indian Army

9th Hodson’s Horse; 20th Deccan Horse; and the 3rd (Ambala) Cavalry Brigade. Magical names, names to conjure with, straight out of the Aghan Wars of the 19th century and Kipling’s “Great Game”, redolent of the far-flung British Empire on which the sun never set. Those were some of the units of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, which sailed for France from Bombay in October, 1914—the same month the Canadian cavalry regiments, coming from the other direction, arrived in England .

2nd Indian Cavalry during the Battle of the Somme
Their paths were fated to cross. In January 1916 the Canadians, who had spent months operating as infantry, were remounted, courtesy of horses provided by the Indian Brigade, although they were able to return them weeks later when they were allocated their own horses. Meantime, the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division was attached to the British Fourth Army, eventually becoming known as the British 5th Cavalry Division; and in June 1916 the Canadian Cavalry Brigade became one of three brigades in the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division.

Thus it was that in March 1917 the Order of Battle of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division (although renamed) included 9th Hodson’s Horse, 20th Deccan Horse, and...the Dragoons, the Strathcona’s, the Fort Garrys, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Brigade, and the CCB Machine Gun Squadron.
Modern Canadians are aware that Canadian forces are integrated with American and NATO troops at times; but who would guess the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was part of an Indian Division almost a hundred years ago?

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Accidental Submariner (Part I)

Early in 1966 I was a young sublieutenant in the Canadian navy serving aboard HMCS Saguenay. We were on a training cruise and showing the flag in the Caribbean and west coast of South America, with visits scheduled for various exotic ports. Along with us were our aircraft carrier, Bonaventure, other ships of our destroyer squadron, frigates from the Pacific fleet that had transited the Panama Canal, a British A-boat, and HMCS Grilse, our Pacific-based ex-USN Balao-class boat.
HMCS Grilse

I was summoned to the captain’s cabin. He said, “Do you want to serve in submarines?”

I must have looked puzzled, because, contrary to many of my cohorts, I had never volunteered for submarine training. The submarine option was appealing to many, and in fact many of the outstanding members of my vintage of junior officers. My heritage, though, and that of the Canadian navy, was anti-  not pro- submarine.

Click to show "HMCS Margaree" result 5
HMCS Margaree
An event of two years prior came to mind. I was then serving in HMCS Margaree, and our ship, along with others in Esquimalt, was about to commence a two-week exercise with USS Rasher, an American diesel-electric submarine. As part of our training, three of us from different ships were selected to spend a day in the sub, then transfer back to our own ships at sea via whaler. The Pacific, however, did not live up to her name; the weather was atrocious, and at the end of the first day of the exercise it was too rough for the Rasher to surface and transfer us to our own ships. My friends John and Bob and I therefore became “honorary” submariners (USN spelling and pronunciation!) for two weeks.

(More on the Accidental Submariner in future posts)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Battle of Amiens

Gordon Flowerdew, VC.
courtesy Barney Flowerdew
In his novel “Kanata”, historian Don Gillmore’s character Michael Mountain Horse is in France with the Canadian army. In 1918 he is transferred to the Royal Canadian Dragoons because he can ride. He listens to two of his comrades who are arguing over Flowerdew’s charge earlier that year. Victory or defeat? The Canadians were annihilated, but the Germans retreated.
On August 8th, 1918, Mountain Horse plunges into battle along with the Dragoons, the Strathconas, and the Fort Garrys. They are part of a cast of tens of thousands: French, Brits, Aussies, and Canadians, all buttressed by tanks, taking part in the Battle of Amiens. They were within five miles of Moreuil where Gordon Flowerdew and many of his men had galloped to their deaths just four month before. At Amiens many of the cavalrymen perished in yet another mounted charge. A bleak victory, but an important one, to be sure. As German General Ludendorff said later, it was the "black day of the German Army in the history of this war".