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History - 2 Canadian Special Wireless Section Type "B"

History   > 2CSWSectTypeB  > Page 4

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Special Wireless Command and Control

Having given this personal background. I would now like to talk about the buildup of signal intelligence units in the Canadian Army during World War II. I would then like to say a bit about the position that a Officer Commanding holds in such a set-up because it is different from most army units.

There were of course two main Y activities, fixed station operations and field operations. While field Y was developing, an expanding fixed station operation was also growing up in Canada. In addition to the Ottawa station, others were established at Grande Prairie and Victoria. I believe the main targets of the Canadian based stations were subversive activity, South American commercial and political events with the Axis countries, and Japanese operations in general.(1) However, as I left fixed station activity early in the war, I wish to restrict my remarks to field or tactical Y as it applied to the European theatre of military activity.

The lowest level or most forward field Y units that existed in the Canadian Army were those assigned in support of a corps headquarters. For those not familiar with army organization I should state that a division was the basic army formation. The size of a division was about eighteen to twenty thousand men. A division contained all arms and services. At times small battles were waged by parts of a division. Looking at a main theatre of operations, the generals always wanted to know how many enemy divisions they were facing; their own planning was also in terms of divisions. When you had two or more divisions you established a hierarchy headquarters formation with additional support troops, extra artillery, signals, medical, supply columns, etc. This was the corps. When you had two or more corps you formed a field army, and two or more armies formed an army group. Field Marshal Montgomery commanded the 21st Army Group in Europe.

So in terms of Canadian Army formations, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was formed, then the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, and then 1st Canadian Corps Headquarters with support units, one of these latter units being No.1 Canadian Special Wireless Unit Type B. This was the unit I joined at its formation in December, 1940. As Canada continued to build its field forces more divisions were formed - 3rd Canadian Infantry, 5th Canadian Armoured, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. Two smaller units, 1st and 2nd Canadian Independent Tank Brigades were also formed to function as additional armoured support to the infantry divisions. With this additional build-up, a second Canadian corps was formed in Canada to control these additional divisions. It was coincidental that my brother Bill and I became officers at that time and were assigned to the new Y unit being assembled in Kingston to support 2nd Canadian Corps. Our unit was mobilized 5 May, 1942.

When we arrived in Halifax by train from Kingston, in August 1942, the convoy was forming in Bedford Basin. I counted the troopships and found out we were to have twelve passenger liners or troop ships. As I viewed the destroyer escort I realized it was to be an American convoy with thirteen destroyers, a cruiser, and a battleship. Our unit thus left for England.

The ship we were assigned to was the HMT Cameronia which was a sixteen thousand ton ship. I later learned that she had been built in 1919 as a passenger liner, torpedoed in December 1942 by aircraft, reconditioned for the Australian immigrant service in 1948, and then scrapped in 1958. Now back to the story, the ship had just arrived from Africa and had unloaded German prisoners of war, and as soon as they were off we went on. As I think of this ship, I still ask myself why we put up with such things. I was shocked when I went on board and saw what the men were going to have to put up with. It was to be jam packed with troops. As far as I can recall there were forty-five hundred troops on the ship and tens of thousands of cockroaches. When I went down to the purser's office, a notice read that the ship was equipped to carry one hundred and twenty passengers. There were a few extra deck rafts but that was all. The hold had been loading for a day or so with the 4th Armoured Division's tanks and guns: when the loading was finished the ship had about a five degree list to one side. So we formed into the convoy in Bedford Basin and our ship was angled over for the whole trip.

I asked a crewman about the ship and he said: "Our Captain is not going to wait for this convoy. As soon as we get out, we will head off for England in a hurry". The convoy left with the troopships in three lines of four each and we were rear and centre. The thirteen destroyers formed around us. Somewhere in the middle of the convoy near us was the cruiser; further up, dead centre middle, was the battleship with the Commodore in charge of the convoy.

It was the accommodation for the men that shocked me. When you got down five decks, you found you had men in hammocks slung from the pipes, men laying on the table they ate on, and more men lying down on the deck. There was very little chance if the ship was hit that any would get out. They tried to compensate for this crowding by having extra long boat deck drills to stay out on deck for as long as possible.

Other things which interested me, being a signaller, were the messages passed to us by signalling light from the battleship. Like the one I read on the first day: "Why did you have a light on your port bow all night, please explain?" Then another: "You're making far too much smoke". Followed by: "Try and hold your position" and then: "The speed of this convoy will continue to be fifteen knots". At this point I went to the back and checked the ship's log; we were flat out at thirteen and one-half knots. About four days out of Halifax, the Commodore signalled: "If you cannot hold your position, I am going to recommend your immediate return to Halifax". He sure didn't seem to think much of our troopship but there was a solution. The convoy zigged and zagged and we went straight ahead. We would see the convoy disappear over the horizon, and three to four hours later we would see the convoy again and be back in position momentarily till it disappeared off in the other direction. So every six to seven hours we were in position. The cruiser had a plane on board but to my knowledge there were no enemy attacks. The plane was catapulted several times and dropped a few bombs but only for insurance or practice. It was nice to be greeted by the Sunderland flying boats as we got near England, and a day or so later by some Spitfires.

One condition which aided our adaptation to the sea was the weather. It was reasonably good at start but got rougher as we neared England. By this time however, we had our sea legs. Eight days from Halifax we were in the British Isles and tied up in Glasgow at the King George V dock. When our ship tied up, it started to get dark and strict orders were given to not light a cigarette or show any light. They decided to layover all night and unload us in the morning. Other ships in the convoy came in, and my rough estimate was we must have had eighty thousand troops in the convoy. We were by far the smallest ship. One of the big American ships pulled up in front of us nose to stern and "on" went all the flood lights; the entire dock was lit. It was unloaded all night and the troops were gone by the time we woke up. So there is some difference of opinion on the unloading of ships.

The day we unloaded was the day of the Dieppe raid and, of course, we were very interested in what was happening. We moved all the way down to the Aldershot area and went under canvas with the 2nd Corps Signals. Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Eaman was their Commanding Officer; Bill and I knew him very well. We asked if he knew where Odiham Airport was because our youngest brother, Flight Lieutenant D.M. Grant, DFC, was there with the Royal Canadian Air Force 400 Squadron flying Mustangs. Jake Eaman said to take a couple of motorcycles and go see him. It was my first indoctrination into the fighting part of the war because my brother had been flying over Dieppe most of the day at tree-top height. After looking at the holes in his plane's wing, I wasn't sure how he got back. It makes you think of the slim margin there is between life and death. One pilot had a band-aid over one eye covering a bullet burn. His head could have been an inch further forward or his speed marginally different. Major Ron Marks, who was the army-air liaison officer we met there, was very shaken having just lost most of his friends when his regiment the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed at Dieppe.

Sometime later in 1943, while we were in England, the First Canadian Army was formed and amongst its support units was a new Y unit, No.3 Special Wireless Section Type A. Captain J. W. Anderson was promoted to major to command this larger Y unit. A still larger field Y unit did exist in the European theatre. It was known as a special wireless group and was in support of the 21st Army Group Headquarters. Canada did not field an army group in Europe. However, there was a Canadian Special Wireless Group formed in Canada late in the war to operate in Australia. Lieutenant-Colonel H.D.W. Wethey commanded it. Its activities are briefly described in History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals 1903-1961, edited by John S. Moir.

Now to talk organization, as it specifically applied to the smallest Y element - the Type B unit. It consisted of two main parts, the Signals component known as Special Wireless Section Type B and the Intelligence component known as Wireless Intelligence Section Type B. The Signals component was about seventy-eight personnel, i.e., two officers and seventy-six other ranks. The Signals personnel included operators, drivers, despatch riders, technicians, cooks, storemen, and a clerk. The Intelligence component included three Intelligence officers and about nineteen other ranks, the latter being linguists and analyst corporals except for one sergeant. These two components functioned as one unit with the Senior Signals Officer being the nominal commander and administrative officer, as well as running the Signals side from a technical and unit movement point of view. The Officer Commanding the Wireless Intelligence Section controlled and assigned the frequency coverage of the various radios in the set vans and the Direction Finding (DF) tasks. The other Intelligence officers and corporals did the analysis and compilation of signal intelligence and passed it to the Corps Headquarters Intelligence staff. As a composite group we were five officers and approximately ninety-five other ranks.

Because all of our activities were directed against the German Army, most of the Intelligence corporals were European immigrants living in Canada with a knowledge of German. They also tended to be a little older than most of the Signals operators. The operators had been selected from general signaller recruits and were mainly around eighteen to twenty years of age upon entry. Now to interpose some information on the actual staff control of Y in the First Canadian Army which developed in 1943. The control consisted of a two officer staff element located with Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Wright's Intelligence staff at Army Headquarters. An Intelligence (special) General Staff Officer l(s)GSO2 position, held by Major A.H. MacKenzie as the Senior Y Officer, was an Intelligence trained and oriented position. My brother Bill held the second position. He was the l(s)GSO3. His position was Signals oriented. The Senior Intelligence Officer saw the production of signal intelligence through these two I(s) positions. This staff element was physically located at the nearby Army Headquarters Y unit which was No.3 Special Wireless / Wireless Intelligence Section Type A. Major H. Bowes commanded the Wireless Intelligence portion while Major J. W. Anderson commanded the Special Wireless portion of the unit and was the overall Officer Commanding.

I would now like to say a few words about "command". Although I did not realize it when joining the unit, command of a signal intelligence unit is a special kind of command because it gives you a good overview of what's going on. If you must go to war and can choose a job, in my opinion, it is one of the better ways to go. As a relatively junior officer you have much more freedom than in the usual army unit. Let me explain this.

When we arrived in England the unit was under the umbrella of the 2nd Canadian Corps Signals, a unit of about eight hundred to one thousand men. For about six to eight months we were administratively under their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Jake Eaman, while we took special training at the Special Operators Training Battalion, Trowbridge, Wilts.

At the request of British Army Intelligence it was decided we should be operationally deployed in England. We were told to move away from the 2nd Corps Signals and take up a location in an area on the south coast of England. I now found that I was a Detachment Commander, an arrangement which continued for the remainder of the war. Functioning under "Kings Regulations Canada", I found, I had almost the full disciplinary power of a lieutenant-colonel and also, in my case, no boss except Brigadier-General S.F. "Fin" Clark who was the Chief Signals Officer of 2nd Canadian Corps. There were no Signals majors or lieutenant-colonels to report to. I saw Brigadier Clark only once in this initial period of about a year when he, at my request, agreed to join me in viewing a new British intercept van design I wished to have procured and mounted on our Canadian truck chassis. We were controlled by the 21st Army Group in London; their interests lay only in locating us in a certain area and in our producing a daily output of signal intelligence which went to London on a daily despatch rider run.

So upon being told to detach ourselves from 2nd Canadian Corps and find a location on the coast near Worthing, the Wireless Intelligence Officer Commanding, Captain Stu Parker, and I went down to the area in a jeep, and looked around until we found a nice location in Angmering-on-Sea. The street along the coastline had about ten to fifteen evacuated houses and a small gambling hall of some sort, a nice size for an intercept receiving set room. So we stopped by the British Garrison Engineer's office in the area and I informed him I wanted to take over the street of empty houses. An officer checked them over, I signed a "marching in" statement and we had a home. Then I went looking for money, medical and dental facilities, food, and gasoline. We drove to a nearby British supply depot and were added to their indenting list for daily supplies. I found the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, I believe originally called the 2nd Canadian Independent Tank Brigade, in Worthing who had a paymaster, doctor, and dentist. Our other immediate problems were solved when they agreed to provide these services.

I suppose this independence arises from the situation where the Intelligence people say; "We are not really your boss, all we want is your output". The Signals people say "you are really attached to Intelligence so we are no longer responsible for you". Therefore, as long as you keep a bit of communications going between Signals and Intelligence you acquire tremendous freedom in getting on with your operations.

We were not completely forgotten. Canadian Military Headquarters (CMHQ) in London knew we existed as copies of various administrative directives arrived. We had to produce Part I and Part II Orders, normally the requirement of a unit of eight hundred to one thousand people. These orders we sent directly to CMHQ Corporal McKnight, the Orderly Room corporal, looked after this administration in first class style.

Another example of not being forgotten by CMHQ was when we were told to look within the unit for good operators who could speak French and were willing to volunteer for other duties; shortly after some British interviewing officers arrived. Of the operators they interviewed, Signalman AI Sirois was selected and CMHQ told me to strike him off strength in Part II orders. Some of the men, at a later date, said that they had seen him in London and he was wearing a British Army captain's uniform. A year or so later, when we were in France and had overrun a certain area, I received a welcome letter from him telling me he had been operating behind the German lines with the French underground and was now returning to Canada. Needless to say I was pleased to know he was alive and well. I have since read about some of his activities in Canadians Behind Enemy Lines 1939-1945 by Roy MacLaren. I believe he is now a judge in Saskatchewan.

Another example of administration which raised new problems I had not dealt with before was a serious and most unfortunate accident whilst at Angmering. It was a beautiful June day and one of the men decided, after we had been there for several months, that he would like a better view of the sea and ships. The barbed wire and checkerboard of little concrete pillars at the front edge of the lawn which dropped off on to the beach were weather-beaten as were the signs which said "Danger Mines". With familiarity breeding a little contempt he walked through this twenty foot deep barrier, but on the way back stepped upon an anti-tank mine and more or less disappeared.

The first thing to do was to contact the Engineers, go into the mine field with a sapper and mine detector, and pick up the little bits we were able to find. Then deal with the local police, arrange for temporary storage of the human parts at the local infirmary, and complete the coroner's inquest. The next step was to arrange for the casket, the burial site, and the military funeral party. Setting up of the Board of Inquiry was greatly helped when a nearby British major agreed to head up the inquiry. This was followed by the filing of the report to CMHQ and, then the hardest part, the writing of a personal letter to the man's mother.

We had a fairly heavy administrative load but in exchange for the freedom it was worth it. I went through the entire war without any close personal direction. When in Normandy I went to see Brigadier Clark on about three occasions. He always left me with a feeling of complete trust in my command and gave me one hundred percent support any time I needed it, whilst not leaving any doubt that he would let me know any moment he was not satisfied with the unit's performance.

I would like to mention command responsibility in unit movement. After rejoining the 2nd Canadian Corps, just before Normandy, we received copies of all operations orders and other related material needed to plan moves. This helped us to synchronize our location with that of Corps Headquarters. Upon arriving in Normandy we kept ourselves fully aware of the pulse of battle with information from the Corps Intelligence staff. This was done by visiting the corps operations briefing tent and also by keeping our ear to the ground for other word-of-mouth sources. We knew when Corps meant to move. We tried to make sure we did not get needlessly too close to the fighting, although on the odd occasion we did, but nevertheless be far enough forward at all times so we would have an advantageous position to pick up radio signals and carry out intercept operations. We did not want to be moving too often or over too long a period, because our support to Corps was difficult to maintain during these periods despite using a forward and rear party type of operational set up. The key to successful moving lay with the experience and able support given by the Non-Commisioned Officers (NCOs) and men. Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds also helped greatly, probably not knowing it, by keeping his lines of communication to the divisions short, i.e., keeping Corps Headquarters well forward.

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