Bill McAndrew: Part I

Bill McAndrew joined the army at age 17, was commissioned the following year and served the next eleven years as an infantry officer in Canada, Korea, Germany and Ghana. On leaving the army, a high school dropout, he attended Glendon College, York University as a mature student and gained his doctorate at the University of British Columbia. McAndrew taught at the University of Maine at Orono and directed that university’s Canadian Studies programme before joining the Directorate of History in Ottawa from which he retired in 1996. His particular interest has been in the battlefield behaviour of soldiers.

This is an excerpt of an article which originally appeared in Canadian Military History, Autumn 2013 issue and is reprinted with permission of the author. 

Joining the Army

I joined the army in October 1951. My motivation was not unusual, I expect, in those days. I spent my adolescence in wartime Halifax and Charlottetown where I had been an army cadet and both a reserve soldier and sailor. But the primary drive was need; there were few opportunities for a high school drop-out on the Island short of Toronto factories or the military. Besides the Korean war was on and adventure loomed.

So after a summer as a sailor, and a voyage on HMCS Swansea to
Britain at the time of the Festival of Britain, I made my way across Canada and was lucky when I went into Vancouver’s No. 11 Personnel Depot. The recruiting sergeant, Smokey Smith whose Victoria Cross ribbon was unmistakable, asked me if I wanted to go to Officer Candidate School [OCS] . I didn’t know what that entailed but said sure and assured him that I was eighteen, really seventeen, and had grade 12, which I hadn’t. He completed the paperwork, I was sworn in and in a few days was off by train for Camp Borden. Many years later I learned the cause of the casual recruiting; each depot had a monthly OCS quota to fill and at the end of October No. 11 needed bodies.

The train took me to Toronto,  then a local went north to Angus near Camp Borden and knee deep in snow. A truck met the train and dropped me and the small cardboard suitcase holding my worldly possessions at the Orderly Room where my army career began with a bang. Sergeants pounced and I was on a non-stop run for several days until the course started. Run to the quartermaster stores, run to quarters, run to meals, run to nowhere and back again.

The training programme to produce a second lieutenant was two months at OCS, three months at a corps school, three months with a regular army unit as an understudy, and a final three months back at the corps school. The initial OCS phase was to select out – the failure rate was around 70 percent – and gauge suitability. For me it was also basic army training that most of the others had not only completed but instructed. The tenor was to push us as far as possible, physically, psychologically, emotionally, to see how we reacted and if we persevered. There was only one other direct entry young guy like myself in the course the rest being veteran NCOs going for a commission. Failures could be voluntary, for example, an RCR {Royal Canadian Regiment] warrant officer who left because he preferred being a company sergeant major to a second lieutenant platoon commander, or by decree as when the other direct entry wasn’t there one morning.

I managed to survive. My roommate was Jack Hanley an RCR sergeant and tough veteran who adopted me and guided me through bad patches. It helped that I had hunted deer and rabbits and birds as a kid so was familiar with weapons and the woods. Several group leadership exercises that seemed pointless were duly noted by strange officers with notepads. For the rest I just did what seemed needed. One obstacle course I recall had three tunnels running off a covered hole in the ground. You dropped in, were told to find a way out, and the hole was covered. Two of the holes led nowhere. The third arced downhill into water that rose the further you went. There was light further on but the last few metres to the outlet were almost completely under water. I reckoned that they wouldn’t want to fish out a corpse so kept going. I imagine its purpose was to test for claustrophobia.

We were in the midst of drill training for our passing out parade towards the end of December when I was told to report to the CO’s office. This was scary as he was a godlike figure totally remote from my experience. The RSM, Mickey Austin who wore a MC ribbon from his time with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, marched me in and the CO, Mike Dare, asked about my age and education. I told him the truth, fortunately, as he had a background check on his desk. He gave me two choices: be discharged, or revert back to the next course when I would be eighteen and of age. The thought of repeating the course was not exactly welcome but the alternative of being turned loose in the middle of a very rough winter was even less so. So I chose to repeat the course and he gave me a few days leave over Christmas.

My new roommate, Pat Paterson, had fought in Normandy with the Sherbrooke Regiment. During a Staff College battlefield study in Normandy a few incarnations later one of the veterans on the study, Syd Radley Walters, told me that Pat had commanded a Firefly 17-pounder gun Sherman tank in his squadron near Cintheaux on the road between Caen and Falaise on the morning of 8 August 1944. This was at the end of the first phase of Operation Totalize when four German Tiger tanks counter-attacked. All four were destroyed, one of which was commanded by the German ace, Michael Wittman, who earlier had single-handedly stopped a British Armoured Brigade. One claimant for the hit was a rocket-firing Typhoon, and another a British tank squadron on the east side of the road, but Rad was convinced that it was Patterson who got him.

The second course went more easily than the first. My birthday duly came, I graduated soon after and moved down the road to the School of Infantry. Why infantry I now wonder. I was strangely influenced by Charles McDonald’s, Company Commander, his memoir of the awful operations in the Huertrgan Forest and an account that should have driven anyone but a naive romantic to a safer job. In any case that two month course was a snap compared to OCS. We learned minor tactics, fired a variety of weapons, threw grenades, choked on gas, drove several types of vehicles including bren gun carriers which we jumped over high embankments making sure to keep the tracks moving quickly to ease the drops. In early May I was posted to 3 RCR in Wainwright where it was preparing to go to Korea.

Wainwright was at that time very basic, a few buildings and lots of bush. The battalion was trying to organize itself despite the chaos at that time that left hundreds of recruits unaccounted for, some coming in and leaving at will after getting clothing and a few meals. I was supposed to understudy an experienced officer but there were none around so I got my own platoon of brand new recruits. Soon after getting kitted out we joined the rest of the battalion for a lengthy exercise in the bush starting with a twenty mile march. With no NCO’s I had a Second War vet among them act as platoon sergeant. It was a rough beginning for unconditioned troops with new boots but we survived to reach a lake out there somewhere where I had the platoon strip and marched them into the water for a swim.

We scrambled through the summer, me learning an awful lot from the innumerable mistakes I was bound to make. We made one long compass march across trackless country towards another lake that felt like a real accomplishment when we made it within a couple of hundred yards of our aiming point. The CO, Ken Campbell, visited and must have been highly relieved that this novice had not killed someone or become hopelessly lost. That night we bivouacked on the shore and were awakened by a yowling that turned out to be a band of coyotes running through us. Later in the summer we went up to Jasper where a training camp had been set up in hills and mountains that resembled those in Korea. It was a valuable experience in preparing us for moving with full kit through the rough terrain we did find in Korea.

It was, for me, a productive time. I’m not as sure for the platoon. They were in the 3 RCR company that fought the last unit action in Korea when they were hit one night by a large Chinese attack. Several were killed, more wounded and others taken prisoner. I can’t help wondering about the training for which I had been responsible.

Part II – Joining the 2nd Canadian Rifles and The Queen’s Own Rifles.

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