Bill McAndrew: Part III

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

If you missed them, you can still read Part I  and Part II.

Part III – Returning to Canada, Preparing for Egypt, and off to Germany

We were three weeks returning to Seattle on an elderly American trooper and on to Gordon Head, now the site of the University of Victoria. After a leave I took a demonstration platoon to the School of Infantry at Camp Borden, and in the fall of 1955 was posted to our Regimental Depot, first in Edmonton then Calgary. Soon after it was back to Camp Borden for a course on Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Warfare, a basic introduction to that complex topic – fifteen minutes being allotted to the theory and practice of nuclear physics. While there the Suez Canal war broke out when the UK, France and Israel attacked Egypt to depose President Nasser who had nationalized the canal. Lester Pearson, at the United Nations in New York, hammered out the concept of a UN peace keeping force to separate the attackers and the attacked. This was sufficiently controversial to provoke a fist fight in the Mess between those who approved of Canadians being involved in a UN mission and those who thought the country should have said “Ready, Aye Ready” to support the Brits. Our 1st Battalion in Calgary was designated as the main Canadian component and a message went out for all QOR officers who were away from their units to return immediately. I was called from class, told to pack up, handed an airline ticket to Calgary, and given a staff car to get me to Toronto. We had to rush, with a police escort part of the way, but they held the aircraft for me. It was a bit of a fraud as I was with our Depot not the battalion that was going and my job then was to wangle a posting to the battalion. Luckily a newly married subaltern in the unit didn’t want to go and I got his spot.

The RCAF flew us to Halifax in slow C119s where we were to board HMCS Magnificent for the voyage. “Maggie” was undergoing major refit to accommodate us so we were housed across the street in HMCS Stadacona. There wasn’t much for us to do while waiting except some marching around and physical training, until we were put on 24 hours notice to move and paraded, very proudly, through the streets of Halifax amidst applauding crowds. The day’s notice extended to two, then more before word came that we would not be going after all. Two reasons were floated about in the press. One was that the Egyptians understandingly objected to our name, Queen’s Own, having just been invaded by soldiers of the same queen. The other was that the UN force being raised had enough infantry and needed logistical, communications and other support units. I had an occasion not long afterwards to meet Mr. Pearson who assured me that it was the latter. What to do with us? For some reason the RCAF couldn’t fly us back and as Christmas was approaching trains were fully booked. We busied ourselves as we could, drinking duty free gin on Maggie, scuba diving with the navy in the less than pristine harbour and visiting a hospitable Olands brewery that welcomed the troops. The train that eventually materialized was an ancient steam engine with arrows sticking out from its last trip west. We got as far as Moncton the first day where the crew stopped to rebuild the engine fire. En route we were shunted off tracks to make way for passenger trains, freights, cows and anything else moving.

1957 Currie Barracks – Lt Bill McAndrew (c) and Major Fred Swan (r)

That summer I managed a posting back to my old battalion, the 2nd, that was leaving for Germany. Arriving in Dusseldorf was a shock. In 1957 much of the city was still in desolate ruins from allied bombing, and I carried the emotional baggage of growing up in wartime when all Germans were the bad guys. We were picked up at the airport by the battalion we were replacing, 1 PPCLI, and driven to our camp near Hemer a couple of hours away. The Canadian Brigade was spread over quite a distance – Soest, Werl, Hemer, Iserlohn – and our camp, Fort McLeod, was adjacent to another, Fort Prince of Wales, where the artillery regiment lived. We had good facilities; a rink, gym, squash courts, sports field, and officers, sergeants, corporals’ and mens’ messes. The troop quarters were basic barrack rooms, sergeants and junior officers had private rooms with common ablution facilities. I wish I knew then what I do now. I didn’t realize that the area had a fervent Nazi past, where several notable SS formations had been raised. Werl had a prison where a number of war criminals were still incarcerated. One, Kurt Meyer, who had spent prison time in Dorchester in New Brunswick before being returned to Werl, had been released not long before. One day I walked into the Mess with Danny Osborne, our battalion second-in-command, where a German was holding forth. It was Kurt Meyer who then was the sales representative of a brewery and sold beer to the Mess. The last time Danny had seen Meyer was when he had escorted him at his war crimes trial.

Most of this went right over my head at the time and it was an opportunity lost. Much later I got to know Meyer’s chief of staff, Hubert Meyer, who participated in several battlefield studies. An incarnation or so later, in my Clio phase, the Ottawa Citizen carried a review I wrote of Tony Foster’s dual biography of Kurt Meyer and Tony’s father, Harry who had fought each other in Normandy and who was on the court-martial that sentenced Meyer to death. I commented in the review that Meyer was the only German sentenced to death by a Canadian tribunal. A few days later I received a telephone call from a former RCAF legal officer who informed me that I was wrong. He had been involved in two or three Canadian war crimes trials that gave death sentences to Germans convicted of killing downed RCAF airmen. It was a good lesson to me of the hazards of being overly categorical. Few historical events are not heavily nuanced.

The ambience of the Germany at that time was distinctly old world. Village gasthofs were out of the 19th century. One Iserlohn café had an afternoon string quartet, male of course and in tails, in this time of Elvis. Waiters barely tolerated us and patrons were distinctly cool to our casual presence. We represented the war’s victors and our informality clashed with the general reserve. Moreover our relative wealth, at 4.20 marks to the dollar, could cause understandable resentment.

My job as intelligence officer was to learn about our operational commitments, locate our battle positions and prepare maps for the CO, Rod Mckay. We had two battle positions, the first on the Weser River to the east and the second on the Rhine west bank at Koln. The Patricia commander, Tom DeFaye, who became a dear friend in my Clio phase, took Rod on a recce of the positions with me along to carry the maps. It was more than slightly farcical. Security regulations said that we had to wear civilian clothes but as we traveled in a jeep and a staff car, and carried map boards and binoculars, our cover would hardly have fooled the most incompetent Smiley. It was here that I first developed doubts of the competence of those who had devised these operational commitments. We were supposed to delay a Soviet crossing of the Weser, which at that time could be waded with barely damp feet, until someone delivered a tactical nuclear weapon which, of course, would have taken us out as well as them. We didn’t have weapons with sufficient range to hit the river effectively from our battle positions and couldn’t delay anyone. It didn’t take a military genius to notice that some emperor had no clothes. As we were there supposedly as a deterrence and to wave the flag in the bigger NATO scheme of things it occurred to me that posting a senior civil servant on the border, perhaps a deputy minister or two, as a high ranking hostage would have been a more economical and equally efficient deterrent.

My main memories of our time in Germany, aside from the wonderful travel and cultural experiences, were training and sports. The battalion was always on an exercise, cleaning up after it , or preparing for the next. Sennelager, Hohne, Putlos and other locations became familiar and there were always new areas to explore. We did well, I think, with what we had but the aura of unreality persisted. Our equipment was lamentable, the most striking example being to pretend that our three-quarter ton vehicles were armoured personnel carriers. It was assumed that tactical nuclear weapons were just another weapon like the rest. This was, of course, before Chernobyl wakened at least a few minds, but it was evident to most anyone that they weren’t and that exploding nuclear weapons on a fluid battlefield would harm us and the German population we were supposed to be defending as much as the bad guys. We were all targets.

Sports were big in our lives. Jim Mitchell, who coached the basketball team in Victoria, said off-hand that we were going to be winners and we made it happen; the Canadian Brigade title, then the British Army of the Rhine, and finally the British Army championship. One summer I got involved in a team to participate in a NATO Olympic Military Pentathalon in Athens. There was a distance swim, a long cross-country run, rifle shooting, and a couple of other military-oriented events. Unfortunately the Pentathalon was cancelled but we were left with solid swimming and cross-country teams. I ended up swimmer-coach of the swimming team, training for a time in the Möhnesee dam, of Dambusters fame, for a NATO long distance race in the Meuse River in Belgium. We placed third, pretty well considering we were up against Olympic swimmers from both the US and France. Our cross-country team also won the Brigade championship. I had a harrowing time, losing consciousness a few hundred metres from the finishing gate which I somehow stumbled through to complete the team’s finish and woke up in hospital luckily with no ill effects.

Part IV – Ghana

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