Peter Voormeij's BC Series

Peter John Voormeij

Mar 12, 2004 – Mar 12, 2004

On the eve of World War I there were several Lower Mainland militia units, in addition to the 6th Regiment (DCOR) and New Westminster's infantry regiment: they included the No. 18 Field Ambulance, Army Medical Corps (founded 1909); the 6th Field Company, Canadian Engineers (1910) of North Vancouver; the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders (1910); No. 19 Company, Army Service Corps (1912); No. 19 Company, Canadian Signal Corps (1912); and the 11th Regiment, Irish Fusiliers of Canada (1913).

Businessmen, senior civil servants, insurance agents and a few professionals provided the militia's officers. The first commander of No. 5 Company, B.C. Battalion of Garrison Artillery (1893), was Thomas Owen Townley, barrister, land registrar and future mayor of Vancouver. The Seaforths' costly Highland regalia meant this regiment's officers came from wealthy families. Militia commissions confirmed the social status of leading citizens. They gloried in being addressed as "Captain," "Major" or "Colonel" and wore scarlet mess-kit at armory dinners, which reproduced the formalities of professional soldiery. The loyal toast, "Gentlemen, the King!" was a signal that smoking was now permitted, while the diners drank port. Wartime experience and medals attesting to bravery in combat were an additional source of prestige. World War I veterans provided most of the senior officers and non-commissioned officers in the 1920s and 1930s.

The butchery of World War I, functional khaki uniforms and the greater emphasis on military proficiency rather than ceremonial pageantry ought to have cooled British Columbians' military ardor; they did not. With fewer than 200,000 inhabitants, Greater Vancouver had 22 militia units in the 1920s. The range of arms extended to artillery and cavalry units with a machine gun corps company located in South Vancouver. The UBC Officers Training Corps (1915) completed the picture. More than 3,000 citizens were part-time soldiers in the army reserve. The permanent forces were now represented by Jericho Beach Air Station, established in 1920. Seaplanes from Jericho surveyed the coast and provided flight training. Air Force and naval reserve units would appear on the Lower Mainland during World War II.

On guard in war The declaration of war between Great Britain and the Central Powers in August 1914 created panic in British Columbia. Germany's Pacific Ocean squadron of five cruisers was rumored to be sailing toward the West Coast. Against them, Canada had one training cruiser, the Rainbow, that had just escorted the Komagata Maru, with unwanted East Indian immigrants, out of Canadian waters. Premier Sir Richard McBride augmented this vessel by purchasing two submarines (actually constructed for Chile) in Seattle. Once enemy warships had passed the big guns of Victoria-Esquimalt, they would be unopposed. The Vancouver Daily Province pointed out the mainland port's weaknesses: "Vancouver has no fortifications. There are no batteries which could be used for defence," and the militia infantry would be impotent "against a naval force with long-range guns." The federal government's response was to install two 4-inch calibre guns near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park, manned by naval volunteers. Another battery of 60-pounder, long-range field guns from the Cobourg (Heavy) Battery of Ontario was emplaced on Point Grey, near Washout Gully. This was the first time the military reserves had been used for their intended purpose: the protection of Burrard Inlet. These two gun batteries were only temporary, stopgap measures. After the destruction of the German squadron in December 1914, fear subsided and the guns were withdrawn. Reservists and new recruits proceeded overseas to fight in Europe.

In the 1930s Japan was no longer a British ally and was an aggressively expansionist power. The defence of Vancouver against this or another foreign state was not going to be left to last-minute improvisation again. A British coast artillery expert, Major B.D.C. Treatt, assessed the port's needs in 1936 and his report, with a joint staff sub-committee's recommendations, became the basis for planning Vancouver's defences in the event that "the British Empire is at war (U.S.A. neutral) with Japan, alternatively with a coalition of European Powers headed by Germany" The threat of an attack by Japanese armed merchant vessels, submarines, motor torpedo boats and, possibly, by carrier-borne aircraft was taken seriously. In wartime all inbound shipping was to be inspected and cleared before entering the inner harbor. Gun batteries would enforce security regulations and protect the air station, moored vessels and port facilities. Canadian resources during the Great Depression permitted only a beginning in 1938 on the Ferguson Point Battery in Stanley Park, which was to cover detained vessels anchored in English Bay and to provide close- in defence. A three-gun counter-bombardment battery was to be located on Point Grey and close- defence guns were to cover the First Narrows, where a boom with net would act as the harbor's gate. Aircraft patrols would provide an early warning of attack. Ten searchlights along the shoreline would furnish night-time illumination of the maritime approaches. The local Field Brigade, Royal Canadian Artillery (1920), was converted to a coast artillery regiment to man the guns here and on Yorke Island, at the head of the Inside Passage.

The war against Nazi Germany, beginning in September 1939, accelerated construction of the defences. Anti-aircraft batteries, to be coordinated with the coast defence batteries, were proposed, but Canada did not have the weapons for them. British industry was the traditional source of heavy armaments and, after the Dunkirk evacuation in May-June 1940, all production was needed to re-equip the British forces defending the island kingdom against invasion. B.C. coastal batteries were armed with old weapons already in Canada. When Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the inadequacy of the Lower Mainland defences against an aerial attack was apparent to everyone. Blackout curtains were strung across windows and car headlights were painted blue, causing night-time collisions. Hysteria led to the forced evacuation of all Japanese-Canadians from the coast in March 1942.

At their peak in 1942 the Lower Mainland's coastal batteries, from Steveston to Point Atkinson, were manned by 720 gunners, supported by infantry regiments and auxiliary units. Anti-aircraft batteries of 40-mm and 3.7-inch calibre guns appeared at point Grey, Little Mountain, Ambleside and elsewhere. False alarms were many, but it was the lax observation of port security rules that resulted in the sinking of a ship. Alas, it was one of our own. On September 13, 1943 (the anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham), a fish-packer blithely entered the inlet, ignoring all signals to identify itself. A warning shot from a 12-pounder gun at the Narrows North Fort ricocheted off the water ahead of the offending vessel and went on to tear through the newly built freighter Fort Rae exiting below the waterline. The sinking craft struggled to return to its birthplace, the Burrard Dry Dock, and settled ingloriously beneath Lions Gate Bridge. The vessel was later patched up and restored to service after causing red faces and recrimination all around.

The receding danger of attack in 1943 brought a gradual reduction in the local defences to release trained personnel for the Canadian Army in Europe, which was now in continuous action. Soon after the war's end in September 1945 the gun batteries were dismantled and closed. Fort Point Grey was the last to go, in 1948, and there, appropriately, is a historic marker at the restored No. 1 Gun position that recalls the battery's history. Complaints about the establishment of Ferguson Point battery and HMCS Discovery the naval reserve station, in Stanley Park revealed the public's forgetfulness about the park's origins. This is not to begrudge Lord Stanley his namesake or Mayor David Oppenheimer his statue at the park's Beach Avenue entrance. Spare a grateful thought, however, for the likes of Captain George H. Richards and Master Daniel Pender of the Royal Navy as well as Colonel Richard C. Moody, Royal Engineers, for this and for the other parks that we now enjoy.

Peter John Voormeij

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