Bill McAndrew: Part IV

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 IV 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,   Part II, and Part III.

Part IV – Ghana

Bill McAndrews in summer whites while in Ghana.

In 1960 I returned to Canada, now a captain, in luxury aboard the liner SS Homeric, off-loaded my new Porsche at Quebec, and drove to our battalion station in Calgary. One evening the following summer I was duty officer at Brigade Headquarters in Wainwright when a signal came in listing the names of officers who were being posted to a training team that was to be sent to Ghana and was delighted to see my name. We proceeded immediately to Camp Borden for briefing and orientation and left shortly after for Accra.

Most of the team stayed in Accra at the military academy or army headquarters. Four of us continued on to Kumasi in the Ashanti rain forest to the Ghana Armed Forces Training Centre where we found that we were replacing a 20-30 man British unit that had been recalled for political reasons. The Army had evolved from the Gold Coast Regiment and the Royal West African Frontier Force with British officers and with independence was becoming Ghanaian. Most of its officers trained in Britain and the Soviet Union until the academy was able to graduate sufficient numbers. It was a commonplace that the former came back socialists the latter capitalists. That was a touchy point. Ghana was the first of the British African colonies to gain its independence and the course of its politics was watched with interest in the midst of the Cold War. Its nationalism and anti-colonialism were too easily seen as socialist, communist, and anti-West.

To me, at least, in the Kumasi weeds, this was a somewhat esoteric matter. We had been briefed on the background but by people who had no experience, little knowledge and less empathy for a country newly emerging from a colonial past. My concerns on the ground were more mundane and immediate, training the very willing soldiers we had. I was first the School’s weapons training officer and then commanded two different companies. It was engaging, challenging and rewarding work. The day began soon after the tropical dawn, with breaks for breakfast and lunch, a siesta to escape the heat and then back for a couple of evening hours. The training was basic; more interesting were the soldiers. Each day was different and we were left delightfully on our own to find our way. Our Ghanaian CO gave us full leeway and Canadian headquarters in Accra was too detached especially as the telephones seldom worked. Ghanaians found our informality a bit unusual at first but became used to it and we got along well. I was truly honoured when on leaving the unit, my soldiers enstooled me as a sub chief of one of the clans in a formal traditional ceremony that included drinking several tots of distilled palm wine known accurately as “kill ‘em quick.”

Tribal, clan and religious differences played a large part and there were marked differences between them, from the sub-Sahara north to the Atlantic south. As a company commander I had delegated authority to conduct summary trials for various infractions. When my company sergeant major marched in an alleged offender I had on my desk a Bible, a Koran, and a bayonet (for others) for swearing oaths but plausible stories were rare. My Muslim Imam was unfailingly helpful in sorting out conflicting tales.

One of my extra jobs, we all had several, was recruiting officer for the Ghana Armed Forces. Demand was high for limited spaces in the army and we kept records of all who applied whom we called in order as training space allowed. After a quiet period of several months I was startled to read in the Ghana Times one Sunday morning that Army Headquarters in Accra had announced that full scale recruiting was to open the next day. My staff of three dusted off our files of applications but they were quickly made redundant when on Monday morning between 3,000 and 5,000 eager would-be recruits turned up all trying at once to get through a small access gate in a strong metal fence. Several were injured in the crush and we had to summon three police platoons to restore order while processing around 1,000 in a few days. In the midst of the chaos an MP marched up a group who, he informed me, were from the president’s village and were to be given priority. I declined and sent them to join the mob. A couple of hours later my CO called me to his office for an explanation as he was to fly immediately to Accra and explain this apparent insubordination personally to the president. I tried to persuade him to let me take the hit; I could only be sent home but he had a career in his army. To his lasting credit he refused, said I had done the right thing not to give preference, and that he would back me up. It was an admirable display of moral courage and I can only hope that his career didn’t suffer.

There was time for limited travel around the country, to Accra, Cape Coast, Tamale, over to the Ivory Coast and I managed one lengthier trip, an attempt to reach Timbuktoo. I loaded up my VW Beetle with tinned food and beer and headed north for Ouagadougu, in what then was Upper Volta, then east across the Niger River on a raft to Niamey in Niger. Perhaps fortunately the roads beyond through Mali were closed because that drive needed more substantial transport as I found out on returning through game reserves in Dahomey and Togo where car repairs were not easily arranged.

I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time but I was growing uneasy with the gap between what I was told to believe and what I was experiencing. An earlier experience while in Germany had caused me to question some of my assumptions. I was on a NATO air transport supply course at Old Sarum – where we tried to move troops and supplies around the world matching infrastructure, aircraft ranges and capacities, fuel supplies and other useful factors without losing too many airplanes. At a mess dinner I was seated beside a British Army gunner lieutenant-colonel who in the course of conversation remarked that he was a Labour Party supporter. I was shocked, completely taken aback. My woefully restricted political awareness, finely channelled as it was by Cold War truths, assumed that Labour Party meant socialist, ergo communist, ergo the enemy we were gallantly resisting in NATO. He seemed such a pleasant, reasonable chap and far out-ranked me. It occurred to me that perhaps my political and ideological blinkers were a tad tight and caused me to begin thinking at least slightly about those given premises, a process that is on-going half a century on.

Ghana was certainly demonstrating a diversity of experience well beyond my limited horizons and caused me to question the premises underlying much of the received wisdom in the recommended readings for young officers. Bernard Fall’s Street without Joy on Vietnam and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 on war were powerful movers. I began to feel a need to put them and other random readings – Greene, Waugh, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Camus, Lewis, Thoreau, Conrad, Sassoon and others – in context so I wrote to several universities asking if they would consider a thirty- year-old high school dropout. A few replied including Glendon College at the new York University which accepted me as a mature student.

Bill McAndrew writing the Staff College exam while in Ghana.

Leaving the army wasn’t an easy decision. I had just gained the second highest marks in that year’s Staff College entrance exams (it amuses me now that my lowest mark was in military history, I assume because I raised some questions of that year’s text, Montgomery’s Normandy to the Baltic) and my Canadian commander, Roger Schjelderup, recommended me for the coming two-year staff course. But it seemed the right time; too many unanswered questions had pierced the institutional bubble that gave the army its internal logic, so I cut the cord and enrolled at Glendon in the fall of 1963.

Part V – Leaving the Army, Back to School, and Directorate of History

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