There were three obvious choices when Enlisting in the Canadian Armed Forces – Army, Navy or Air Force. The Air Force was my first choice. However. after a rather fast eye examination, I learned that they would like to welcome me but with my vision, there was no chance of air crew duty and very little chance of an overseas posting. There were lots of places for me on an air field in Canada. Thanks – but no thanks, that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
At the time I chose the Air Force, I had never been on a plane in my life. But I had never been on a ship, either – so my next stop was to talk to the Navy.
The Navy proved to be no more hospitable than the Air Force had been – lots of spots where they would like to have me – but these spots did not include sea duty or overseas posting – just some naval establishment in Canada. Still not what I had in mind – and that left the Army. This time, some other tactics were called for, other than just barging in and saying “Here I am, you lucky people!”
After checking around, I learned that there were two types of military: the Active Army and the Militia. The Militia refers to the NPAM (Non Permanent Active Militia), men who work at their regular jobs but train at the Armouries one or two evenings a week plus two weeks in a military camp in the summer. They were usually referred to as Saturday Night Soldiers. I found out three things about the Militia: First, their medical exam was much easier; secondly, the Active army continually recruited personnel from the Militia and thirdly, a general Order had just been issued authorizing certain Militia Units to call out three men for full-time duty – one officer – one WO or NCO for training – and one man to handle the administrative duties of the unit. I figured out a plan and, having been interested in radio and building crystal sets in High School, the Signal Corps looked like a good bet. So I applied, was accepted, and ended up as the full time Orderly Room Clerk of the Divisional Signals Unit of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, stationed at the Signals Armouries on Spadina Avenue in Toronto.
While the work was not terribly exciting, it was certainly better than spending my days in a dusty vault, and I learned a lot about the army and military procedures, rules, etc. As well, I received basic training to become a soldier. There were three of us on permanent staff – one officer, (Lt-Col. J. D. Conover , who was a lawyer and had previously been the Sheriff of the County of York), one Warrant Officer, (Charlie Morris, the Regimental Sergeant-Major WO1, a veteran of World War 1), and myself, as orderly room clerk (who, at the start, didn’t know my right foot from my left insofar as Army was concerned).
One of the first things I learned was just how horribly unprepared this country was for fighting a war. A good troop of Boy Scouts could have given us a real battle! For example:
(1) Uniforms: My first uniform was a strip of khaki cloth about 2″ wide and 1′ long. Pinned to the right sleeve of whatever I was wearing, it meant I was in the army. In a short while we got better uniforms—a well-worn, patched tunic left over from World War I, a pair of light brown cotton work pants, and a cardboard sun helmet. (Just don’t get caught in the rain with it). No boots were issued. We wore whatever we had—rubber boots, dress shoes, slippers, running shoes, or whatever.
(2) Weapons: We were issued a few rifles. These were the old Ross Rifles declared obsolete and unsuitable for military use back in 1915. They were a foot longer and a few pounds heavier than the Lee Enfield and if fired more than a half-dozen rounds, they seized up. Not that that mattered—we didn’t have any ammunition, anyway.
(3) Signals Training: Three types of signalling were taught—by lamp, by flag and by wireless (as the army insisted on calling radios). For lamps, we had none—we bought a couple of two-cell flashlights from the local hardware and tried to use them to send Morse Code! For flags, we had one set of semaphore flags. But the real prize was the wireless—we had one Wireless Set C Mk III—another item that was declared obsolete in World War I. The set was in a box about 2′ wide, 5′ long and 1′ high, and came complete with four bolted-on carrying handles. It took four men to carry it. The antenna was a separate 8′ pole on a spike. The power came from a generator. This was mounted on the rear forks of a two-wheel bicycle in place of the wheel, and the front wheel was replaced by a stand. In action, four men would carry the set. (carefully, it was full of tubes—not transistors). They would set it down, while two men came up with the generator bicycle and antenna. When all was connected by cables, one man would jump on the bicycle saddle and pump on the pedals like crazy. If all went well, the tubes would light up and a coded message would be sent. The range was, I understand, about two to three miles. (but we never could test this, having only one set) In time, we got proper equipment – but it was surprising that men could be taught to do a good job with such obsolete and second-rate equipment.
Since the Militia had no barracks of their own, I continued to live at home and was paid a subsistence allowance in lieu of rations and quarters of $1.25 or $1.50 a day, which I signed over to mother.
It was a busy time for a while. In the beginning, I had to learn the administrative work I was supposed to be doing and, at the same time, I had to complete my basic training: drill on the parade square, weapons training, signals training, etc. I became quite adept at signalling in Morse Code using lamp or flag or key – but very little of it has stayed with me since I never used the knowledge operationally. The Colonel was quite a character! Once a week, he would send for a Sergeant and bawl the dickens out of him. He had the idea that sergeants were always “up to something” and needed to be kept in line, so he gave a bawling out to one sergeant every week. His theory was that if a sergeant had already done something wrong, he deserved to be told off. If he hadn’t done anything wrong yet, he soon would, and the telling off was already taken care of.
Being the only one looking after the admin. work, there was very little competition. I guess I must have been doing all right since I was promoted to L/Corporal – to Corporal – to Sergeant fairly rapidly. For some reason, the Colonel never included me on his “bawling out Sergeants” roster – Maybe he was afraid I would poison his morning coffee, or something.
The Armouries became a depot for the recruiting and training of the Veterans Guard of Canada. They were veterans of World War I. I had the job of lining them up – having the proper forms filled in – getting them enlisted – and then marching them off to their designated duties. (There was a funny sequel to this a few years after the war was over. I was employed by the Wear Ever Brush Company and held the position of Vice President and Sales Manager. One day I had a meeting with Bob Metcalf, the President of the firm and Bud Smith, the General Manager. I noticed the President staring at me frequently. Finally, he asked me if, during the war, I had ever been a sergeant in the Spadina Avenue Signals Armouries. I replied that I had, and he said, “I thought you looked familiar. I enlisted in the Veterans Guard at the Signals Armouries and I’ll never forget the miserable SOB of a sergeant who told me off for not behaving in the ranks!”)
Garrison church parades were another unforgettable item. We marched in our mismatched uniforms and whatever footwear we had. Signals march at the regulation army speed of a 30″ pace with 120 paces to the minute. Scottish units march at a slower pace – 100 or 110 per minute, and Rifle Battalions march faster – 130 to 140 paces per minute. Signal’s band was overseas, so we had to rely on the bands of other units. When we marched behind a Highland band and in front of a rifle battalion band, we had no hope of keeping in time.We looked as if we had just spent a hard day plowing the back forty with a team of oxen.
After a few months, the Active force began recruiting for the 4th Division so it was time to put the next step of my plan into action. I volunteered to go, having found that my militia medical would suffice. I would have to give up my sergeants stripes and would lose my subsistence allowance. I was accepted – received a very nice Efficiency Report from the Colonel – cut off my stripes – and reported to Stanley Barracks in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto.