A History of the Military Medical Units of Hamilton, Ontario
in Peace and War 1900-1990
by Colonel A.R.C. Butson, GC, OMM, CD
Major Rennie was very successful in recruiting and training a good unit, which had its headquarters on James Street South, just south of the Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo Railway. A photograph in the Hamilton Spectator of that time shows about twenty members in the unit. An article in the Hamilton Spectator in 1918 records that Colonel G.S. Rennie subsequently commanded base hospitals in England during the First World Companies of Hamilton were formed in 1907 and 1910 respectfully. Lt. Col. G.S. Rennie commanded the 12th Field Ambulance and Major R.Y. Parry the 19th Field Ambulance when these units were formed. For his service in the war, Colonel Rennie was made a Companion of the order of St. Michael and St. George.
The First World War
Training in Canada
In 1914 Major (later Colonel) George Devey Farmer commanded the 12th Field Ambulance Company of Hamilton. On 11 November 1914, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and ordered to recruit and command a Field Ambulance for the 2nd Canadian Contingent; for overseas service. Hamilton was to contribute 106 men, Toronto and Owen Sound a further 162. The Hamilton recruits came mainly from the members of the 12th and 19th Field Ambulance Companies.
On 19 November 1914, the unit took up quarters at Exhibition Camp in the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. At that time there was considerable political influence and interference in the promotions, and Lt-Col. Farmers status was in doubt for some time. The 2nd in command of the unit was Major D.P. Kappele and in addition there were seven other medical officers, one dentist and one quartermaster captain, namely Captains H. Jones, W.C. Silcox, W.F. Nicholson, H. Buck, F. Clarke and Lieutenants N.J. Barton, J.F. Burgess, R.Y. Kenney and O.A. Elliott.
At that time a field ambulance was composed of three medical “sections,” headquarters and a transport section of 57 men. Each medical section had a capability of acting independently. The transport section had 55 horses, 7 horse-drawn ambulances, additional wagons for supplies, and a motor section of several motor ambulances. Each ambulance could transport four litter cases.
For the next five months the unit remained in Toronto undergoing training. This included twelve-mile route marches to Long Branch and back, and getting inoculations and vaccinations. Exercises were conducted in the Don Valley. In March 1915 these was a big parade in Toronto, and in April the unit visited Hamilton.
Interlude in England
On 15 April 1915, the unit left Toronto by train for Halifax, a two day journey. There the unit boarded a ship for the ten day journey to England. In all, about 1,800 troops were on board. After landing on the west coast of England the unit had a twelve hour train journey to a camp on the south coast in Kent, near Folkestone. There the unit for four and a half months, taking more training. During this time the weather and countryside were most pleasant, and leaves in London and other parts of England were enjoyed. During this period Italy entered the war on the side of the allies. While in southern England, the unit was inspected by King George V.
The Early Days in France
On 15 September 1915, the unit sailed for France, landing at Le Havre. There the unit was loaded into box cars and had an uncomfortable journey to St. Omer. French box cars had signs painted on them, “40 hommes 8 cheveaux” so men and horses were loaded accordingly. From St. Omer the unit marched to the front, starting at 4:30 am. By 22 September 1915 the unit had relieved an RAMC field ambulance unit at Dranoutre and was established in farm buildings and a field.
Casualty evacuation during the First World War was difficult. Battalion stretcher bearers would bring the wounded to the Regimental Aid Post, where the Regimental Medical Officer would initiate treatment. From there, wounded were evacuated by field ambulance bearers to an Advanced Medical Dressing Station, usually situated in a dugout or cellar about one mile behind the front line. Casualty carries were usually at night and often in relays.
At the Advanced Dressing Stations field ambulance medical officers would control hemorrhage, immobilize fractures, change dressings, administer morphine, and anti-tetanus serum. Occasionally, emergency amputations and minor operations were performed at this level. The wounded were then transported to a Main Dressing Station, usually at night and usually by horse-drawn ambulance. Main Dressing Stations were situated about 2-3 miles behind the front and here more definite triage and treatment was given. The field ambulance headquarters were co-located with the Main Dressing Station. From here the casualties were transported to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) situated several miles back from the front for definitive surgery. From the CCS, casualties were transported by hospital train to base hospitals. Field ambulance personnel often had to reinforce battalion medical personnel. Although names have changes, It will be seen that this system is similar to the modern, efficient method of casualty evacuation.
It is recorded that, although irascible and a disciplinarians, Colonel Farmer had a wonderful way with the wounded and endeared himself to all. At this time the unit was issued with gas masks of felt impregnated with a chemical through which one breathed with difficulty. These gas masks were found to be inefficient and stifling. They were reissued every few weeks until a more satisfactory box respirator was introduces later in the war. In spite of this a number of the 5th Field Ambulance men suffered severe lung damage from chlorine gas, which had been introduced into the war by the Germans.
On October 1915, the unit moved a few miles to La Clytte and Mont Noir, where the men took up quarters in an old chateau. A 5th Field Ambulance newspaper was produced and Christmas 1915 was celebrated with a dinner. The activities and history of the First World War 5th Field Ambulance were well described in C.F. Noyes’ book “Stretcher Bearers at the Double.”
In March 1916 the first man to be killed from the unit was Pte. Jack Barron, a farrier who was shoeing a horse. On the 23rd of March 1916, the unit moved to Remy Siding near Poperinge, where the 5th Field Ambulance took over from a British field ambulance. At that time Canadian troops held the whole of Ypres salient, where fighting was severe, and many casualties had to be evacuated at night. Germans had tunnelled under the Canadian trenches and exploded mines, which resulted in many casualties.
At about this time about twenty men from the 5th Field Ambulance were commissioned and sent to combat arms units, where a number of these new officers were subsequently killed. In July, the 5th Field Ambulance moved to Boeschepe, and in August the Canadian front was visited by King George V of Great Britain and Kind Albert of Belgium.
The Battle of the Somme
On 26 August 1916, the unit started to move to the Somme battlefield on foot and then by train in the usual box cares through Calais, Boulogne, Etaples and Conteville, arriving at the Somme front on 14 September, 1916. Large numbers of casualties had to be evacuated and the wounded filled every barn behind the front line. The weather was wet and the ground very muddy, making wheeled stretchers useless. Wounded men fell off stretchers when bearers stumbled at night, and there were often only two men for each stretcher.
After the first day on the Somme, nine men of the unit had been killed and six had been wounded. For a time there were no rations and food was taken from the haversacks of the dead. If a horse or equipment was lost, there was a big investigation, but if a man was killed, there was none! The 5th Field Ambulance started to get reinforcements of men during the Battle of the Somme, and by the end of the war there had been 500 men reinforce to the unit.
The Battle of the Somme lasted from the beginning of July to the end of November 1916, during which time the Canadians sustained 24,000 casualties on a 3,000-yard front and had advanced 4,000 yards. At this time tanks were first used by the Canadians and proved to be very effective. Sgt. Wartman was a popular NCO who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), but was killed one month later. When thanked by a wounded man he was attending he was heard to reply: “That’s what we are here for. We’re not fighting soldiers and it’s our job to help you. Our hats off to you lads, and there’s nothing in the world too good for you.”
After three weeks on the Somme, the unit was marched north for nine days to Fosse Ten. At this time Captain Nicholson was awarded the Military Cross (MC) and Sgts. Kelso and Hogg Military Medals (MMs). Cameras were officially forbidden, but were secretly used by the men. In early November 1916, Colonel Farmer was moved from the unit and shook hands with every man. He was much loved in spite of his temper and his severe punishments, such as field punishment of being tied to a wagon wheel. The new Commanding Officer was Lt. Col. McGuffin. In January 1917, the unit was involved in the evacuation of the large number of casualties sustained in the raid at Billy Grenay. Near the end of January 1917, the unit was marched back 15 miles from the front for three weeks rest. During another rest in mid-March many of the unit were given 10 days leave in Paris.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge
On 12 February 1917, the unit was moved up to Cambligneul to relieve another Canadian field ambulance and dressing station. At this time 65 men of the 5th Field Ambulance spent six weeks digging an enormous dugout on the Western Canadian-held slope of Vimy Ridge. The digging took place at night under poor conditions of rats, lice and wet mud. Two hundred steps were needed to get into the dugout and the cave was large enough to accommodate six thousand casualties and men. This was one of several similar caves that were dug on the slope of Vimy Ridge.
On 8 April 1917, the Canadian attack of Vimy Ridge was launched. Casualty relay points and Advance Dressing Stations were set up. There was usually a medical officer at each Advanced Dressing Station. The headquarters of the 5th Field Ambulance was set up in the Thelus Cave. The capture of Vimy Ridge was a triumph, as several attempts to capture it earlier in the war had been unsuccessful. On the far side of the Ridge, casualties had to be hand-carried to the top of the Ridge, whence horse-drawn and motor ambulances took the casualties and transported them to dressing stations in the caves. German prisoners were used extensively to help transport the wounded.
During this battle, the Germans frequently used gas, which meant that the Canadians often had to work wearing gas masks. During the battle three men of the 5th Field Ambulance were killed and three were wounded. The timings and statistics for the Battle of Vimy Ridge are of interest. The attack was preceded by artillery bombardment from 27 March to 9 April 1917, and the first objective was taken 700 yards from the start line, at 6 a.m. The second objective, one mile from the start, was taken by 9:30 a.m. and the third objective secured by 1 p.m. the same day, two miles from the start. By 28 April the battle was over; defeated nine Germans divisions. At 7,000 German prisoners were taken, but Canadian casualties were over 20,000.
After the capture of the Ridge on 5 May 1917, the 5th Field Ambulance was relieved by the 6th Canadian Field Ambulance and retired to a rest area. Leaves were granted to the men, mainly in Paris, but also to Nice and Monte Carlo. The Canadians were treated as heroes by the French after Vimy. At this time Sgt. Dick Thomas was awarded the MM, Sgt. Major Gardner was Mentioned in Despatches and Lt. Col McGuffin was awarded the DSO and was transferred to the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance. He was replaced by the popular and well respected Colonel Kappele, who rejoined the unit having commanded the 7th Canadian Cavalry Field Ambulance. He also had been awarded the DSO.
On 1 July 1917, Canadian troops celebrated the 50th anniversary of Confederation. On 15 August 1917, the Canadians attacked at Lens and Hill 70, with the 5th Field Ambulance in support. The assault on Hill 70 lasted ten days and involved three Canadian divisions which sustained 11,000 casualties. On this occasion the Germans used mustard gas, which clung to the low spots on the battlefield and caused extensive damage to the skin and mucous membranes. Casualties were evacuated by a small-gauge railway. Three members of the unit were awarded the MM.
The Battle of Passchendale
On 1 November 1917, the unit was moved to Ypres by truck to evacuate casualties of the Passchendale battle, which was in progress from 12 October to 10 November, 1917. In this battle the British and Canadian casualties were horrendous, numbering 300,000, of which 30,000 were classified as “missing,” having drowned in the liquid mud. The names of the men killed and lost are engraved on the Menin Gate, the magnificent war memorial now standing in the centre of Ypres. All trenches were infested with rats and lice. Scabies and “crabs” (pediculosis pubic) were prevalent. In one week, eight members of the unit were killed and many more were wounded. In mid-November the unit was moved back to a rest area, and leaves in Paris and other parts of France were granted. Captain Sinclair was awarded the MC and seven others were awarded the MM for their actions at Passchendale. For two months the unit was billeted in rest areas, first at Estree Cauchies and then at Ames. In mid-January 1918, the unit marched for two days to Villers-au-Bois, then deployed and evacuated casualties for one month.
At the end of March 1918, the Germans launched a large successful offensive, and the 5th British Army was in retreat. On 26 March 1918, the 5th Field Ambulance moved by a forced night march 35 miles to the south, first to near Arras and then to Wailly, where it stayed for three months evacuating casualties. The 5th Field Ambulance headquarters were situated in a quarry. During this time, two of the unit were killed and one was wounded. On 6 April the unit’s headquarters moved to Gouy, in an orchard where there were comfortable recreational facilities and the officers were quartered in a chateau.
About this time, many of the troops, including men of the 5th Field Ambulance, contracted influenza or “pyrexia of unknown origin” and had to be hospitalized. Such cases were often poorly documented, resulting in the soldier’s treatment and pensions being prejudiced as veterans, years later. (Good records when under battle conditions seem wasted effort, but are extremely important years later.)
The Battle of Amiens
When in rest areas behind the lines, football, boxing, wrestling matches and concerts were organized. About this time, one member of the unit was killed and another received the Meritorious Service Medal. At the end of June 1918, the unit was marched to Grand Rullecourt and were billeted in a chateau and its grounds. Dominion Day, July 1st, was celebrated with sports. At the end of July the unit was moved into quarters in an empty girls college in Amiens.
At 4:20 a.m. on 8 August 1918, the Canadian artillery commenced a heavy barrage, and, when the barrage was lifted, the whole Canadian Corps of 120,000 men advanced on foot, gaining eight miles in one day. Heavy casualties were sustained and German prisoners were used to help transport the casualties. In this attack tanks were used to good effect, as was the cavalry who charged the enemy. Many of the enemy had sabrecuts, usually at the junction of neck and shoulder and some were even pinned to the ground by lances. The Casualty Clearing Station was set up in an asylum in Amiens, twelve miles to the rear.
The Battle of Arras
On 20 August 1918, the unit was transported by train and then by bus to take over the dressing station at Achicourt. This was in preparation for the Battle of Arras which commenced with an artillery barrage at 3 a.m. on 25 August 1918. For the first time the NCOs were briefed before the battle by the officer, and it was thought that this helped the efficiency of the unit in the ensuing battle. Two Advanced Dressings Stations were set up. Again, because there was a large number of casualties, many German prisoners were used to carry the wounded. Captured German medical facilities revealed the gross inadequacy of the German medical supplies. On the fourth days of the battle, the 5th Field Ambulance evacuated the casualties of the 22nd Battalion or “Van Doos,” later to become the Royal 22nd Regiment of Canada. Out of 850 men of this battalion at the beginning of the battle, only 70 survived uninjured. In this battle, the 5th Field Ambulance lost one man killed, one wounded and one severely incapacitated in a gas attack.
At the end of August 1918, the unit was moved to a rest area for one week and then were back again in the front line evacuating casualties for another week. The unit was again rested in billets in Arras for a week, returning to the front line on 26 Canadians on 9 October 1918. During this battle Captain Hart was awarded the bar to his MC, Captain Mossman the MC, and five others were awarded the MM. Between 8 August and 11 October 1918, the Canadian Corps had defeated 47 German divisions and captured 31,000 Germans. Canadian casualties were 43,000 during this period, during which one quarter of the German army on the western front had been defeated by the Canadians alone, a remarkable achievement.
The End of the War
On 12 October 1918, tragedy struck the 5th Field Ambulance when a shell exploded between two motor ambulances, killing four members of the unit and wounding Colonel Kappele, Major Burgess, Captain Clark and Captain Kay. Major McGill was temporarily put in command for three weeks, until Major Lomer was posted to the unit to take over for command.
On the same day the unit was relieved, moving to quarters in a chocolate factory in St. Olle, a suburb of Cambrai. While in St. Olle, many pathetic, starving civilian refuges were housed, fed and blanketed by the 5th Field Ambulance. Later, the unit marched to Monchecourt to man a dressing station, and then on to the mining and steel city of Denain on 2 November. The unit was quartered in a school which has been used by the Germans as a prisoner of war camp, and was in a filthy state, with human excreta everywhere. The school had to be cleaned up before it was habitable. The townsfolk of Denain gave the Canadians a great welcome and the sojourn there was made more memorable and joyous by the news that the war was over on 11 November. Initially everyone was stunned by the news but, on the following day, there were wild celebrations by Canadians and townsfolk alike.
Of the total 611,000 Canadians who had enlisted in the First World War, there had been 190,000 casualties.
On 12 November it was announced that Major Elliott had been awarded the DSO, Captain Dunham the bar to his MC, and Captain Moses the MC. It was also announced that the unit was to march 250 miles to the Rhine, keeping six days march behind the retreating German army. Accordingly the unit moved on 15 November, marching 12 to 15 miles each day. On 19 November the men of the unit had not been fed for two days due to administrative inefficiency. The men had been prepared not to be fed during the heat of a battle but not after the war was ended. The unit refused to parade and march until the third day, when plentiful food arrived. Under the circumstances, no-one was punished for this mutiny. On 5 December the unit marched into Germany, and on 13 December marched across the Rhine, past General Currie, who had commanded the victorious Canadian Corps. En Route there was evidence of the food shortages suffered by the retreating German army, where they had slaughtered and butchered horses for food.
Harry Friday was awarded the Medaille d’Honneur of France, Dalton and Graves were awarded MMs and, some weeks later, Colonel Kappele and Major Elliott were awarded bars to their DSOs. Major Burgess was awarded the Order of the British Empire in the rank of officer, and was also mentioned in dispatches and Sgt. Morgan was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.
Return to Canada
On 19 December 1918, the unit settled into quarters in the German towns of Villichand Geislar. Here the unit celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day. After a month the unit was transported by train and bus to Auvelais in Belgium, where the unit was quartered for two months. It was in Auvelais that the unit was responsible for looking after many influenza victims. In March 1919, command of the unit passed to Major Treleaven. On 2 April 1919, the unit left Auvelais by train, arriving at Le Havre on the French coast two days later. On 7 April the unit crossed the English Channel and took up quarters in Whitley Camp for a month, then sailed for Canada from Southampton, landing in Halifax. The unit finally arrived in Toronto on 19 May 1919, for demobilization.
The 5th Field Ambulance had acquitted itself well during the First World War. Over five hundred men had served with the unit. At times there were over a dozen members of the unit were under the age of sixteen, having falsified their age. Forty-four members of the unit had been killed in action, or died of wounds. Honours that had been awarded were one CMG, one CBE, two OBEs, two bars to the DSO, six DSOs, three bars to the MC, fifteen MCs, two Distinguished Conduct Medals, two bars to the MM, and 36 MMs. Two men had been twice Mentioned in Despatches and another seven had been Mentioned; five had received the Meritorious Service Medal and one of the Medaille d’Honneur of France.
The Inter-War Years
Between the wars, the veterans of the 5th Field Ambulance held reunions in 1919, and yearly from 1927 onwards. The tradition of a yearly reunion was continued by the veterans of the 5th Field Ambulance who served in the Second World War.
The 5th Field Ambulance was not the only medical unit from Hamilton that served in the First World War, but is the only one that has a good written history. We know that the 19th Field Ambulance was a Hamilton unit that was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J.E. Davey, DSO. Dr. Davey continued to practice in Hamilton until the age of 93 and died in the 1960s.
After the war, Colonel Kappele revived the 5th Field Ambulance as a Militia Unit in 1921, and served as Commanding Officer again from 1921 to 1924, when the unit was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel W.F. Nicholson MC, VD, until 1931. In the meantime, Lieutenant-Colonel D.A. Cannon VD commanded the 19th Field Ambulance in the Militia from 1923 to 1927 when the command was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel D.A. Warren MC, ED, CD, who commanded the unit until 1932, when the 19th Field Ambulance was amalgamated with the 5th Field Ambulance, retaining the latter name. At that time Lieutenant-Colonel K.E. Cooke was commanding the 5th Field Ambulance.
Captain Ernest L. Garinger joined the 19th Field Ambulance as a private at the age of 17 in 1930, and recounts how both units parade at the same time two evenings a week in the old James Street Armouries. Each unit had no more than twenty all ranks on parade, with a combined paper strength of less than eighty all ranks, so it was logical that they should be amalgamated. At that time there was no pay for parades at Niagara-on-the-Lake for one or two weeks. In 1929, 37 all ranks attended a summer camp.
Records reveal that second-hand uniforms were issued and then men used their own boots. The only vehicle was a second-hand van donated to the unit. Compared to those days, the Militia of 1990 is superbly outfitted and equipped. Lieutenant-Colonel W.J. Deadman took over command of the 5th Field Ambulance from 1935 to 1938. Deadman had been a Staff Sergeant with the 5th Field Ambulance during the First World War, and following graduation in medicine after the war, became the chief Pathologist at the Hamilton General Hospital. In those days the unit paraded two evenings a week. One evening in early 1939, only the Commanding Officer and RSM showed up for a parade.
As war clouds were gathering with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Lieutenant-Colonel G.R.D. Farmer took over command of the 5th Field Ambulance. Dr. G.R.D. Farmer was a general practitioner and neurologist, and the son of the officer who founded the 5th Field Ambulance in 1914. Lt. Col. G.R.D. Farmer rose to the rank of Brigadier before the war ended, and was awarded a CBE as well as receiving the ED for twenty years service. In mid-July 1939, Lt. Col. Farmer started work on a mobilization plan. On 31 August 1939, 39 officers and 35 other ranks showed up for an evening parade.
Outbreak of Second World War
On 1 September 1939, Lt. Col. Richard Farmer received a curt telegram: “Mobilize Stop Ack.” On 2 September 1939, members of the Militia 5th Field Ambulance were medically examined and sworn in. On 3 September 1939, Britain and France honoured their treaty with Poland, which had been invaded by the German armies on 1 September, by declaring war on Germany. On 10 September, Canada declared war on Germany.
A number of First World War veterans of the 5th Field Ambulance, including the Regimental Sergeant Major, Jimmy Bell MM and several other senior NCOs must be given great credit for organizing and getting the unit into shape. Much to their chagrin, most of these men were either too old or medically unfit for active service, but they lent their expertise and formed the nucleus of the active service unit. Because of the excellence of the reputation of the 5th Field Ambulance in the First World War, the unit was moved from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The majority of officers and NCOs were soon enrolled and, in the following weeks, volunteers from the streets rapidly filled the ranks. Many of these volunteer recruits came medically trained from the local hospitals.
On 5 September 1939, Lt. Col. Farmer was loaned $150 by a friend to feed the men until pay day. By 8 September, unit strength was nearly 100, by 13 September was 141 and by 18 September mobilization was complete at over 180. On 15 September $3,000 was paid out on the first pay parade.
On 21 September 1939, the unit paraded 11 officers, 15 NCOs and 156 privates. The officers included 9 medical officers, namely: Lt. Col. G.R.D. Farmer, Major G.A. Sinclair, Major W.G.B. Cornett, Major C.H. Playfair, Major F.B. Bowman, Captain I.C. Clindinnen, Captain G.C. McGarry, Lieutenant H.T. Ewart and Lieutentant W.E. Glass. Soon after, Dr. T. Gibson joined as a medical officer. In addition, Captain T.W.D. Farmer was Quartermaster and Lieutenant H.R. McLaren was the dental officer. In those days there were no non-medical administrative officers in medical units. Lt. Col. Farmer recorded in his diary that Dr. “Hugo Ewart was a marvel in the orderly room-a brilliant officer manager.” Dr. Ewart ended the war as a staff officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and became the Medical Administrator of the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium, later Chedoke Hospital. Over half the medical officers who joined the unit at the beginning of the war were promoted to senior positions in the RCAMC.
On 21 September 1939, the Regimental Sergeant-Major was H.M. Blythe, the Quartermaster’s Sergeant was J.F. Jardine, there were two Staff Sergeants, namely: W.E. Duncan and H.G. West; there were five sergeants, including E.L. Garinger, T.G. Anderson, G.H. McLea and A.B. McFarlane. Other NCOs were Corporals W.F. Binstead, J. Fox, L. Harvey, A.L. Plant and A.D. Robson ad Lance-Corporal E.H. Sturt.
Lt. Col. Farmer was concerned that the unit was situated too close to the medical officers’ practices. In those first few months the unit had to release two medical officers because of serious illnesses, one of these being Major Gordon Cornett, described by Lt. Col. Farmer as a “tower of strength.”
Training in Canada
Once they had received basic military training, most of the recruits were rapidly promoted to Junior NCO rank to fill positions of those who had been promoted. Senior NCO and Warrant Officer promotions were made to replace those who not qualify for active service. Suring the early months, equipment and uniforms were of First World War vintage, as was the parade square drill e.g. forming up in fours. Modern drill was introduced in November.
In spite of many difficulties, the unit was soon whipped into shape. Training was carried out in the old James Street Armouries and in vacant industrial properties. The unit was never in barracks in Canada; personnel lived at home, or in local hotels and boarding houses on a subsistence allowance. This accounted for the frequent “no shows” at morning roll call in those first few weeks, but this situation was soon rectified by the application of military discipline. In those initial weeks a bugle band was formed and trained by Corporal Bobby Hines, which led the unit in daily parades on the streets of downtown Hamilton, unique for a medical unit. This band went overseas with the unit and was the pride and joy of the unit during the first few months of route marches and training in the Aldershot area in England. The powers that be decided, however, that the unit did not warrant a band, so the instruments were shipped back to Canada. Cpl. Hines retained his personal set of bagpipes, which helped keep the troops going on long marches along the lines of Hampshire.
Voyage to UK
In the latter part of November 1939, the unit was issued the new army battle dress. In early December an advance party left for overseas and new quarters in England. On December 18 the unit fell in at the old James Street Armouries and, carrying full pack, marched down James Street to the C.N.R. station and boarded the train for the two-day journey to Halifax, N.S. A brand new luxury liner on its maiden voyage, the SS Andes, was boarded in the dark. The next nine days, except for rough seas and Christmas dinner, were uneventful. Shipboard routine soon became boring to the troops, who were all anxious to see action before the war ended, the general feeling at the time being that the enemy would be defeated quickly. On Boxing Day one of the soldiers developed appendicitis and an appendectomy was performed by the 5th Field Ambulance medical officers with a good result.
On 30 December 1939, the convoy sailed up the Firth of Clyde and were welcomed by Anthony Eden (later Sir Anthony), who came aboard. The troops disembarked over the next 24 hours, the 5th Field Ambulance being last to disembark. It took 24 hours, mainly by train, for the unit to arrive at the medical barracks at Crookham Cross Roads, near Aldershot in Southern England, which became the home of the unit for the next six months. This time was the only period when the 5th Field Ambulance was ever in military barracks. On 24 January 1940, and again on 8 June 1940, the unit was inspected by King George VI, accompanied by Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). Lt. Col. Farmer noted in his diary that “the King was wonderful.”
The Fall of France
In April 1940 the commanding officer and “A” Company for the Unit were issued with new equipment and heavy winter clothing, including sheepskin coats, and dispatched to a port in Scotland where they joined a force which was to land in Norway. The expedition was called off at the last minute, when Germay successfully invaded Norway in a lightning campaign. The next two months saw Germany invade and occupy Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, driving the British Expeditionary Force back to Britain’s shores after the evacuation from Dunkirk.
In the last desperate days, as the defence of France was collapsing, the 1st Canadian Division was readied to return to France. A large part of the Canadian 1st Brigade actually landed in Brittany and started by train for the crumbling front lines, only to be turned back, losing most of their equipment and vehicles. During this time the medical personnel of the 5th Field Ambulance tended to many of the British wounded, who had been left in open fields in the vicinity of Crookham Camp. It was said at that time that the 1st Canadian Division was the only equipped and battle-ready military formation in all of the British Isles and even so had only half its complement of vehicles.
After the fall of France in the summer of 1940, the whole of the 1st Canadian Division was sent on a massive propaganda and deception move, traveling throughout a large area of southern and central England for two weeks during daylight hours. The 5th Field Ambulance was constantly on the move with the Division during this period. Often cities and towns would be passed through two or even three times, so that those passing information to the Germans would get the impression that the country was flooded with the Canadian troops. To accomplish this manoeuvre it was necessary to acquire a large number of civilian trucks, so depleted were the numbers of military vehicles at the same time in Britain. The unit ended this trip at Reitgate, in the south of England, bivouacking in the woods of a large estate for two miserably wet weeks before being issued with tents. A large hospital tent was set up, which was used to treat minor ailments and emergencies for the 5,000 men of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division, and was used for this purpose for the next three years. Personnel for units who were so treated were not struck off strength from their regiments, as were those who were evacuated back to Canadian military hospitals in Britain. This practice encouraged greater cohesion within the regimental system and shortened the time the patient was “off sick.”
Air Raids in England
During the autumn and winder of 1940, when Britain was under constant air attack, personnel of 5th Field Ambulance were very busy assisting the civilian authorities in rescue and treatment of wounded civilians. This gave the medical personnel valuable experiences in extricating and treating bombed victims. The unit continued this practice for the next three years when it was stationed near towns on the south coast of England, which continued to be subjected to minor air raids.
The unit was under canvas for the whole of the summer of 1940. It was moved to billets in large homes near Godstone, Surrey, in mid October 1940, close to units of the 2nd Brigade. In April 1941, Lt. Col. Farmer was promoted to Colonel and transferred to No. 15 Canadian General Hospital as commanding officer. Command of the unit was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. (“Rusty”) Playfair. This was the beginning of the exodus of the original officers of the 5th Field Ambulance, all of whom eventually went on to higher ranks, mostly NCOs, many of whom were commissioned. During those years in England, three members of the unit were killed-Sgt. Bob Drury in a motorcycle accident, then Jimmy Cameron in an air raid, followed by Bill Scime, killed accidentally when receiving his rifle from a soldier while going on guard duty.
The Spitzbergen Raid
In August 1941, a detachment of the unit was involved in the Spitzbergen raid. This force boarded the Empress of Canada in Glasgow and sailed to the commando training area on the Duke of Argyll’s estate at Inveraray, Loch Fyne, where assault landings were practiced. The subsequent raid was a success; the coal mine installations were destroyed by Canadian Army Engineers, and the small population of Norwegians and Russians were taken off the island. The Russians were delivered to Archangel in northern Russia, and the Norwegians brought back to Britain. During this period of the war the 1st Canadian Division concentrated on defensive training and it was not until 1942 that training changed to offensive manoeuvres. Some members of the unit took part in commando raids on the continent, but as these raids were top secret, few in the unit were aware of them happening.
Training in England
During the next two years in England, the unit was moved from Godstone to the south coast at Worthing and Bournemouth, and then to Bexhill-on-Sea, where the unit was subjected to daily air raids. During this time, the unit was reorganized for moderate warfare. The introduction of the jeep as a stretcher-bearing vehicle was an important innovation. Members of the transport section were the first to design a steel pipe frame to accommodate the stretchers. The initial design took three stretchers, but this proved to be unwieldy and top heavy, so the final design was a two-stretcher jeep ambulance which proved to be very satisfactory in action. The two companies of the unit-A and B Companies-were divided into small sections which were stationed ahead of Advanced Dressing Stations (ADS), allowing them to be more readily deployed in mobile warfare. In early 1943, training intensified, with many manoeuvres carried out against defensive forces and the Home Guard. The training included assault courses and landings from assault craft.
In May 1943, the whole unit was moved to the commando assault and landing training courses at Inveraray, Loch Fyne, Scotland. Here, Lt.-Col. C.H. Playfair turned over command of the unit to Lt.-Col. J.A. Noble. Lt.-Col. Playfair was promoted to Colonel and appointed Assistant Director of Medical Services (ADMS) of the 1st Canadian Division, ending the war a Brigadier-General with a CBE. Col. Playfair was the last of the original officers who had come overseas with the 5th Field Ambulance. Training at Inverary was vigorous, with assault landings, cliff climbing and forced marches. There was a lot of practice in evacuating casualties from the beaches onto hospital ships, one of these being the Royal Yacht Britannia. Many members of the unit, having acted as mock casualties, were taken on a complete tour of the ship at the end of the exercise. Training ended with the whole of the 1st Canadian Division conducting a full scale assault landing on 22 May by British forces including the Home Guard. At the end of the exercise the entire 1st Canadian Division was billeted in towns and villages in that part of Scotland, the 5th Field Ambulance being quartered in Larkhill, near the city of Hamilton, south of Glasgow.
The Landings in Sicily
In mid-June, 1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade and supporting Canadian units boarded ships in the River Clyde and spent the next three weeks in very cramped and uncomfortable quarters as they steamed towards the shores of Sicily. The actual assault on the beaches in Maucini in Sicily at 6:00 a.m. on 9 July 1943, went off well in spite of rough seas. For the landings in Sicily the two Companies, “A” and “B,” of the 5th Field Ambulance were formed into small stretcher bearer sections attached to the assault regiments of the 2nd Brigade, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Seaforth Highlanders, while Headquarters Company landed with the reserve regiment, the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. The assault landing craft had to descend forty feet from the troopships into the sea, which at the time was very rough. Several of the assault landing craft capsized on hitting the water, resulting in the drowning of several infantrymen in the first wave of the landing.
Personnel of the 5th Field Ambulance were designated to the second and third waves, and as there was by then a shortage of assault landing craft, many were loaded onto the larger Landing Craft Infantry. These larger landing craft were unable to cross the sandbars that were present far from the shore. The 5th Field Ambulance en were heavily laden with medical equipment, and the Private Fred Patterson describes how he was carrying a heavy steel pack-board loaded with supplies which weighed over 100 lb. When the ramp of his landing craft was lowered from the bow of the craft it was over the far side of the sand bar and he was dumped into seven or eight feet of water. The men were all wearing an inflatable life vest called a “Mae West,” named after a movie star with ample bosoms, but in spite of this, Patterson could not float. Fortunately the first off the landing craft were army engineers who had strung a life line to shore, and on Patterson’s first leap upwards form the sea bottom he was able to grasp the line and pull himself into shallower water.
All the medical sections on the beach quickly joined up with their assigned regiments and advanced away from the broad sandy beaches. Enemy resistance was very light, so there were few casualties to be taken care of by the medical personnel. The 5th Field Ambulance was fortunate in suffering only one killed in the landing-Private Tom McEwan, hit by shellfire on the beach. Sgt. Gerry McLean was taken prisoner by the Italian defence force and shot in the arm when he resisted their attempt to interrogate him. He was freed the next day by a platoon of the PPCLI which was dispatched to rescue him.
The Sicilian Campaign
In the first few miles of advance from the beaches there were a few sporadic engagements with the defending Italian forces, who rapidly crumbled, and the Canadian troops had to contend more with surrendering Italians than wounded. The first casualty that Private Patterson had to look after had severe gunshot wounds and had to be evacuated by stretcher a considerable distance back to the beach. A donkey and cart were pressed into service, for which the protesting peasant was presented with a promissory note from King George VI. In the days that followed, other promissory notes were issued in the name of Captain Phony.
Once onto the inland plains of Sicily, marching was exhausting, as it was extremely hot, with white dust permeating everything. For several days the troops had to carry all their equipment and supplies as three transport ships carrying the bulk of the Canadian Division’s vehicles had been torpedoed. The medical section attached to the PPCLI was fortunate, as that regiment had captured a horse artillery unit, and was able to use mules to ride and carry equipment for several days. The infantry rode horseback on the forward patrols, and as most of them came from the prairies and were accomplished horsemen, they were quite at home. Eventually some replacement vehicles were obtained, and with many requisitioned civilian and captured enemy lorries, the advancing troops became mobile.
The advance through Sicily was rapid and all objectives were taken ahead of schedule until the central mountains were reached by 15 July 1943, where German troops were contacted for the first time. These forces put a tenacious rearguard action. In the mountain town of Leonforte, on about 23 July 1943, the 5th Field Ambulance suffered its heaviest casualties of the Sicilian campaign. Elements of Headquarters Company had entered the town with the object of setting up a Main Dressing Station half an hour after the Germans had left. They immediately came under heavy fire from the German 88 mm guns and suffered numerous casualties. Among those killed were Pte. Harry Brown, a dental Sergeant and Pte. Currie. The following week the transport officer was killed by small arms fire and Pte. Jerry Howard wounded while scouting forward by motorcycle. In the next two weeks there were many casualties to evacuate as the fighting went from one mountain town to the next.
Members of the 5th Field Ambulance quickly became seasoned veterans, handling the wounded with efficiency and speed. In addition to the battle casualties, there were many cases of dysentery and malaria which had to be cared for by the medical units. In six days the medical facility of 5th Field Ambulance a Leonforte admitted more than 650 casualties of all types. In Leonforte the 5th Field Ambulance found a large stock of medical supplies.
In the mountains, casualties had to be evacuated by stretcher bearers for distance of up to three half miles, as even jeeps could not travel in the rugged terrain. In August 1943, the war diary of Lt.-Col. Noble recorded that the unit could not keep pace with diagnosing, by microscope, the large number of suspected malaria cases, as the troops had not been taking anti-malarial drugs. In one day 184 blood smears were examined, nearly half of which were found to be positive. By 7 August 1943, the front had narrowed and the Canadian First Division went into a rest area in the malaria-free Mount Etna region, where preparations were made for the assault on the Italian mainland with the 51st Highland Division. By mid-August, the whole of Sicily had been taken. In the Sicilian campaign he Canadian forces suffered 2,310 casualties, of which 40 officers and 522 other ranks were killed.
The Italian Campaign-The Landings on Mainland Italy
On 3 September 1943, the 1st Canadian Division crossed the Strait of Messina and made an unopposed landing on mainland Italy near Reggio Calabria. Contact was soon made with defending German forces in the central mountainous country to which the division had been assigned. Mule teams were used extensively, and for casualty evacuation much use was made of the invaluable jeep ambulance. By mid-September the 5th Field Ambulance was at Catanzaro and by 20 September 1943, the unit had established a Casualty Clearing Station at Crotone in the toe of Italy. By 14 October 1943, the mountain city of Campobasso, 60 miles north of Naples, was taken and was designated a Canadian recreational centre. The Canadian Legion, Salvation Army and Knights of Columbus set up recreational facilities. The town was called “Maple Leaf City,” movie theatres name the “Savoy” and “Capital” opened, as well as clubs titled “The Beaver Club” and “Aldershot Officers Club.” Campobasso became a leave town for all allied forces in the area, which was ironical, as many came from safer locations only to be subjected to sporadic shellfire from German artillery for weeks after its occupation. It became the practice from the second day of occupation for each regiment of the division, the first being the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), to mount a ceremonial guard in the town square to the pipes of the 48th Highlanders. The 5th Field Ambulance set up an Advanced Dressing Station and Campobasso which cared for large numbers of cases of malaria, dysentery and “desert sores.” The latter condition was probably caused from infection of minor lacerations abrasions, as the whole countryside was fertilized with human feces.
At that time Headquarters Company was stationed in the foothill town of Lucera, near the Adriatic coast, in a large modern building which had been a Fascist headquarters. This became a temporary field hospital to relieve the rear army hospital units, which were filled to capacity. This hospital was used for fever and jaundice cases and as a clearing Main Dressing Station with the added burden of several wards of sick to treat. The liberated inmates of a nearby political prison were pressed into service to do fatigue and maintenance duties, thereby freeing medical personnel for medical work.
By 1 November 1943, most of the 1st Canadian Division’s objectives had been taken and Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds left to take command of the newly arrived 5th Canadian Armoured Division. Major-General Chris Vokes, the 2nd Brigade Commander, then took over the 1st Canadian Division. The month of November 1943 was spent in rest and rebuilding the division with reinforcements and equipment in preparation for the next offensive up the Adriatic coast of Italy to break the German Bernhard line. In the latter part of November, the 5th Field Ambulance moved to new positions near the coast in severe winter conditions, sleeping outdoors on the frozen ground as it moved from the mountains to the coastal plains. Pte. Fred Patterson recounts how he found warmth on a few of these nights by burrowing down into manure piles wrapped in one blanket and his groundsheet. Once on the coastal plain, the constant downpour of the seasonal rains began, and the advance was made mos difficult by the resultant mud and the many swollen rivers that had to be crossed. 21/2-ton amphibious vehicles (DUKWs) were utilized to evacuate wounded across the flooded streams and rivers. Notable large scale crossings were the Sangro and Moro rivers. The 5th Field Ambulance had established an evacuation centre north of the mouth of the Sangro river.
The 1st Canadian Division was engaged in constant large scale action throughout the month of December 1943, and suffered many casualties, especially during the assault and occupation of Ortona, which was partly occupied but not completely taken by Christmas Day. Men of the 5th Field Ambulance celebrated Christmas 1943 suitably with wine in the winery at Rocca. It was in Ortona that the 2 i.c. of the 5th Field Ambulance crawled through the rubbled streets, while fierce fighting was still taking place, marking with chalk, buildings suitable for the Main Dressing Station. This farsighted action by Major Coleman was most commendable, as there were few buildings left intact and these were to be the quarters of the 5th Field Ambulance for the rest of the winter.
During this offensive the 5th Field Ambulance also took care of hundreds of civilian casualties who had nowhere to go, as the fierce battles had razed their towns and villages. Although medical facilities were strained to the limit at times, all were given medical care and evacuated to the rear of the allied lines. Ortona was the most northerly held position of the allied front for three months and was under daily harassing fire from German artillery, which became trying on the nerves. While in Ortona, Pte. Poirier of the 5th Field Ambulance was killed by a shell.
On 10 January 1944, a large scale offensive was launched by the 11th Infantry Brigade of the newly arrived 5th Canadian Armoured Division, in part to give the green troops battle experience. Unfortunately they were up against the best German troops in Italy-parachute battalions-and all attacks failed, with heavy casualties. The 5th Field Ambulance Dressing Station was busy for over 24 hours, treating the steady influx of wounded. Apart from this there were few casualties to treat in Ortona. While in Ortona, Lt.-Col. Noble turned over command of the 5th Field Ambulance to Lt.-Col. Agnus Spence, who remained as commanding officer until the end of hostilities in 1945.
The Battle of the Liri Valley
During January 1944 the 1st Canadian Corps was formed under Lt.-Gen. H.D.G. Crerar, who turned over command to Lt.-Gen. E.L.M. Burns, in March 1944. On 20 April 1944, the 1st Canadian Division turned over the Ortona front to the 10th Indian Division and the 12th South African Brigade. The 5th Field Ambulance was sent to the central mountainous area for rest, relaxation and, for some members, training for mountain warfare at a U.S.A. Alpine school in the hills. The 1st Canadian Division was once again reinforced and equipped so that by 1 May 1944, it was poised to attack the Gustav Line in the Liri Valley west of Cassino. This was breached by the 8th Indian Division. Then the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade and 2nd Canadian Brigade went through to mount the offensive on the Hitler Line. This was to be the fiercest and bloodiest battle of the entire Italian campaign. Canadian casualties were very heavy, and the 5th Field Ambulance cleared and treated hundreds of casualties non-stop for many days. About this time penicillin became available in small quantities, but was extremely expensive.
On 23 May 1944, the Hitler Line was broken, and at the same time the troops in the bridgehead at Anzio broke through and the roads to Rome were opened. The 5th Field Ambulance advanced with the Canadian troops toward Rome, only to be halted with the rest of the Canadian Corps just short of the city to allow the Americans the honour of freeing Rome. Pte. Fred Patterson describes how, while he sat by the roadside, the announcement was made that on 4 June 1944, the American 5th Army had liberated Rome, and on 6 June the Second Front had begun in Normandy. During this part of the Italian campaign, Canadian units had lost 903 killed, 2,574 wounded and 116 taken prisoner. During the same period, 4,000 were admitted to Canadian medical installations for sickness. All this occurred during the 25-day battle in the Liri Valley.
On 7 June 1944, the Canadian Corps began the long journey back through the old battlefields to a rest and training area near Piedimonte in the upper Volturno valley. The rest of June and July was spent regrouping and training for combat units. Leave and educational trips were granted to all 1st Canadian Division personnel to visit Naples and Rome. A new formation, the 12th Infantry Brigade, was formed by disbanding anti-aircraft regiments, the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards and reducing the strength of many units, including the 5th Field Ambulance, which became No. 5 Light Canadian Field Ambulance.
The Battle for Rimini
In the first few days of August, the 1st Canadian Division made a secret move, and by 6 August 1944 was camped on the banks of the river Arno on the outskirts of Florence. There the red patches of the 1st Canadian Division were put on, along with other identifying badges, and the enemy was made aware of the division’s presence. On 10 August, in another secret move, the 1st Canadian Division withdrew and assembled on the Adriatic coast for the assault on the Gothic Line, which was breached by the end of August, 1944. In the first week of September, the 5th Field Ambulance set up a Main Dressing Station in the seaside of the unit a few days rest in luxury hotels on the beach, with daily swims in the sea, which gave some respite from the heat.
The rest was short lived, as the assault on the Rimini defences had commenced and the 5th Field Ambulance Main Dressing Station was the clearing house for all the casualties of the division. In this hotly contested battle many more enemy wounded were treated than in any previous engagement. In addition there were wounded from the 3rd Division at that time, and from the New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians and Gurkhas. As might be expected, there was often difficulty in communicating with the wounded.
This was the longest sustained battle the Canadian troops in Italy were to experience, and the longest period that the 5th Field Ambulance stayed in the line without rest or relief. From 25 August to 22 September 1944, when Rimini was taken, the 1st Canadian Division suffered 2,511 battle casualties, 626 of them fatal, and an additional 1,005 were evacuated because of illness. The 5th Canadian Armoured Division suffered 1,385 battle casualties, of which 390 were killed. When one takes into account the many German, civilian and other allied wounded who flooded through the 5th Field Ambulance facilities, Advanced Dressing Stations and Main Dressing Stations, a terrific strain was imposed on the unit’s human and material resources. Added to this, the rainy season had begun again, turning the countryside into a quagmire of mud and swollen streams, and there were few intact buildings, so the unit had to function under canvas most of the time.
The fighting was taking place in the flat plains of the Po River valley, with many streams, canals, marshes and dykes. The Germans would blow the dykes as they retreated, causing extensive flooding and similar conditions to what the Canadian army was to experience in Holland a few weeks later. During this period, the most forward surgical facilities (Casualty Clearing Stations) for treatment of life-threatening conditions were situated only 3,000 yards from the forward edge of the battle, and were most successful in saving life and limb. About this time the numbers of personnel in Field Ambulances were reduced.
At the end of September 1944 the 1st Canadian Division was withdrawn for a rest, and the Headquarters Company of the 5th Field Ambulance was moved into the large town of Riccione on the coast ten miles south of Rimini. This became a new “Maple Leaf City” with comfortable quarters. A Main Dressing Station was set up with two wards to look after the sick and minor wounded of the division. At this time duties were light, and leaves to Rome and Florence were granted.
The Battle of the Rivers
On 10 October 1944, the 1st Canadian Division was moved back into action for the assault on the ancient coastal city of Ravenna, with the ultimate objective of Bologna and the Lombardy Plains. At this time the swollen rivers were overflowing their banks and progress came to a standstill at times. There was one short rest period in November, but it was not until 4 December 1944, that Ravenna was captured. A front line for the winter was established from a few miles north of Ravenna westward. During January and February the only action was probing patrols towards enemy lines. The 5th Field Ambulance was quartered in a church-operated orphanage just north of the town of Russi and 15 miles west of Ravenna. In November, lots were drawn for home leave for those who had served five continuous years overseas, although the unit allotment was only about two a month.
In February 1945, the 1st Canadian Corps started to move to northwest Europe. The 1st Canadian Division was the last to leave the line along the Senio River, being relieved by the 8th Indian Division. The 5th Field Ambulance traveled overland to Leghorn and boarded troop transport ships on 7 March 1945, bound for Marseilles.
Of the 92,757 Canadians who served in the Italian theatre, those killed numbered 408 officers and 4,991 other ranks. 1,218 officers and 18,268 other ranks were wounded, 62 officers and 942 other ranks were taken prisoner. There were 365 who died from causes other than enemy action, to bring the total Canadian casualties to 26,254.
The Campaign in Northwest Europe
Upon arrival in France, the troops were transported into an area in the hills, where everyone was deloused. The Canadian units were then moved across France by truck convoy to Herenthals, 14 miles east of Antwerp. On 3 April 1945, the 1st Canadian Division moved into the Reichswald Forest, the only Canadian formation which had been in Italy to see service on German soil. A few days later the division moved north to Holland and stormed across the Ijssel River on 11 April 1945, to join the 1st Canadian Army in the campaign to liberate western Holland. From 14 to 17 April 1945, there was a hotly contested action to capture Apeldoorn, in which the 5th Field Ambulance supported the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. However, the 1st Canadian Division’s experience in northwest Europe was mainly of the mopping up type, and the 5th Field Ambulance did not have the huge influx of casualties to treat that it had handled in the Italian Theatre.
By the time there was only a handful left of those who had landed on the shores of Sicily. They were proud, indeed, to follow Col. Spence in the Victory Parade through the streets of Rotterdam in early May 1945. Spence had been appointed ADMS of the 1st Canadian Division and promoted to the rank of Colonel at Hilversum in Holland. Col. Spence writes: “I was very proud of my troops, there were excellent especially when they going was rough. I had very few disciplinary offenses. The men will always be close to my heart.”
In the latter part of the second World War, Major J.T. McDougall was awarded the DSO, Captains V.J. McKenty and S. Worobetz were awarded MCs and there were many members of the Unit Mentioned in Despatches.’ Captain Worobetz later became Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan from 1970 to 1976.
Many of those returning to Canada as veterans were to serve in the continuing Militia 5th Field Ambulance.
Although the 5th Field Ambulance made a noteworthy contribution to Canada’s war effort, it was not the only Military Medical Unit raised in Hamilton in the Second World War.
No. 1 Canadian Motor Ambulance Convoy
No. 1 Canadian Motor Ambulance Convoy was recruited in Hamilton in the early days of the Second World War. By 1941 it had been transported to England. The Motor Ambulance convoy was under direct command of the Corps. It was composed of platoons, each with 30 box ambulance cars and several troop-carrying vehicles for sitting wounded. No. 1 Motor Ambulance Convoy was involved in the transport of the Dieppe raid casualties from Portsmouth on 19 August 1942. It was attached to the 1st Canadian Corps in the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, and evacuated, mainly priority III, (i.e. not life threatening), casualties back from a divisional level to General Hospitals. In the Battle of the Liri Valley this Ambulance convoy evacuated casualties from the ADSs to CCSs or General Hospitals. In March 1945, it moved to Belgium and was involved in evacuating casualties to No. 2 Canadian General Hospital in Ghent, Belgium, and later to General Hospitals from the Rhineland battles.
No. 13 Canadian General Hospital
Another unit recruited in Hamilton was No. 13 Canadian General Hospital, which moved to Cuckfield, England, in 1942. Cuckfield, Surrey, is situated between London and Brighton. No. 13 Canadian General Hospital in Cuckfield was operational from 1 November 1941 to 11 August 1945. Medical officers and medical personnel from this hospital went on ‘Landing Ships Tank’ (LST) to assist evacuation of casualties from Normandy to England from 30 May to 17 June, 1944. This hospital received many prisoners of war casualties from 21 June 1944, onwards.
5th Field Ambulance
While the active 5th Field Ambulance was vitally engaged in the stirring events of the Second World War, in Hamilton the Militia 5th Field Ambulance carried on recruiting and training part-time soldiers for the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Lt.-Col. Ken E. Cooke, who had commanded the unit from 1931 to 1935, again commanded the Militia unit from 1940 to 1945. At the end of hostilities in 1945, interest in supporting the military was low, and Militia headquarters at Oakville requested Dr. John B. Neilson had had a distinguished war record, mainly as the Registrar of No. 15 Canadian General Hospital in England, North Africa, Italy and Northwest Europe, and then as Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services (DADMS) of 21 Army Group Canadian Section. At the end of the war he had been responsible for the repatriation to Germany of a large number of wounded German soldiers, for which had had been awarded the MBE. He returned to Hamilton as the Assistant Superintendant (Medical) of the Hamilton General Hospital, late in 1945.
Lt.-Col. Neilson’s “temporary command” continued over a four-year period from 1946 to 1950. During that time he recruited each year about five medical officers, including Dr. Ken Murray, Chief of Surgery at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and Dr. Joseph Lee, Chief of Medicine at the Hamilton Mountain sanatorium, which at that time was a large tuberculosis treatment hospital of some 700 beds. Capt. N. Simon, a dental officer, was a member of the unit. Unit strength was maintained at between 40 and 50. The Unit paraded one of two evenings a week at their quarters in the old James Street Armouries in Hamilton. Training was composed of common to arms subjects, casualty handling with stretchers and first aid. Once a year the Unit spent a day at the Winona rifle range for musketry practice. A small amount of pay was given one a year before Christmas, at which time there was usually an annual turkey raffle which was well supported by the doctors in Hamilton.
The Unit was held together in large part by the ex-RSM, Harry Blythe, who had been commissioned in 1943 and had risen to the rank of Major. Blythe was a tower of strength to the Unit before, during and after the war. Lt. Ernest Garinger, CD returned to the Unit at this time. He had been commissioned from the ranks of the 5th Field Ambulance and had been with the RHLI in Northwest Europe from the invasion of Normandy onwards, as an infantry officer. A Regular Force sergeant supported the Unit on a full-time basis. During this period, old clothing and equipment were replaced, and there were inspections by the Militia headquarters in Oakville every three or four months. Armistice Day parades were attended by about thirty members of the Unit. There were, however, no vehicles, no summer camp and no officer training.
In 1950 Lt.-Col. Ivan Clendinnen took over command, to be followed by Major Joseph Lee, CD in 1954. Training continued much as before, with summer camp for one or two weeks at Niagara-on-the-Lake, and, every third year, collective medical unit training for medical units across Canada was undertaken at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden. In addition, occasional training was undertaken at CFB Gagetown, N.B., and at CFB Petawawa. Tactical exercises without troops (TEWTs) were also conducted for officers on weekends in Toronto or at CFB Borden. The unit was quartered in the Old James Street Armouries and had an officers’ medical mess, a medical sergeants’ mess and a medical other ranks’ mess shared with the Signals and Engineers.
At that time the unit had a transport section commanded by Captain Plant and had a jeep ambulance, one box ambulance, two 3/4 -ton and one 21/2-ton trucks. Staff Sergeant from the RCEME and the RCASC, and was commissioned in 1961. The unit had equipment for river crossings with blocks and tackles, a field kitchen and instruments for a band. Major Harry Blythe was the quartermaster until 1961, when Lieutenant (later Captain) Keith Gage took over. It was during the 1950s that a few female nurses were brought into Militia medical units as officers and gave valuable help with the medical training.
No. 16 Medical Company
In 1956 the name of the unit was changed to No. 16 Medical Company, in keeping with the name change of Militia Field Ambulance across Canada. In the 1950s the Adjutant was Captain Ernest Garinger until 1961, when he retired after 31 years of service.
In 1958 Major Robert Appleford, CD succeeded Major J. Lee, CD in command of the unit. In 1959 all the Regular Force medical personnel from all three services were combined to form the Canadian Forces Medical Service (CFMS) under a Surgeon General. Militia medical personnel, however, continued as the reserve RCAMC until 1974 when, coincident with a visit by the Colonel-in-Chief, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps was finally disbanded. Militia units remained under the command of Mobile Command (the Canadian Army).
In 1962, when Major Appleford stepped down, command of the unit was taken over on a temporary basis by Major Harry Blythe, who was not a physician.
In 1962 the medical officers in the unit included Captain W. Noonan, Captain Homer Beattie, Captain R. Douglas Marriott, Captain R. Henning and Captain Kenneth I. Mustard. Nursing sisters included Captain Molly Scott, Lieutenants Eilish Graham, Jean Hughes and Eileen De Witt. N.C.O.’s included Sgt. (later Lt.) K. Gage, Sgt. F. Assiter and Cpl. R. Melville. Training included General Military Training, drill, and twenty-four procedures such as preparing casualty accommodation, medical documentation, first aid, wound dressings, sterilisation, applying suction, passing naso-gastric tubes and gastric lavage, washing and feeding casualties, and care of bedridden patients. This included the use of bed pans, the setting up for catheterization, tracheostomy, chest tubes, spinal taps and the application of plaster casts. Casualty evacuation included extrication of casualties from buildings, and transportation across rivers. The numbers of other ranks in the unit at that time varied between twenty and forty.
In 1963, command of No. 16 Medical Company was taken over by Lt.-Col. R.H.D. Farmer CD, on of Brigadier G.R.D. Farmer CBE and grandson of Colonel G.D. Farmer CBE. The family connection with the unit was reinforced by Lt.-Col. R.H.D. Farmer who, when he was Commanding Officer, arranged an annual unit church parade every summer at St. John’s Ambulance Veterans Association from both World Wars, followed by a garden party at the Farmer family residence in Ancaster. For seventy-five years the Red Cross flag that flew over the 5th Field Ambulance headquarters in France during the First World War has hung in St. John’s Church.
Reduction of the Militia:
Amalgamation of Medical Companies with Service Battalions
In 1956 the Government of Canada drastically reduced the numbers in the Militia, disbanding many of the units with proud traditions. Support service units such as the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Provost Corps (military police), the paymasters and the RCAMC were grouped together in Service Battalions, for the sake of economy. This was a disastrous move for Militia Medical Companies across the country. 16 Medical Company was forced to evacuate the quarters in the old James Street Armouries that they had used for nearly half a century. The Company was moved to the new Service Battalion quarters in the old, unused factory warehouse in the industrial section of Burlington Street in Hamilton’s north end. The furniture, decorations, pictures, silverware and memorabilia were retained by older members of the unit in their homes, most of which was recovered in 1974.
16 Medical Company became a company of the Service Battalion. The messes, orderly room, adjutant, clerks and typists were all part of the Service Battalion but were shared with the medical company. This proved to be a most unhappy marriage. On exercises medical personnel were given non-medical tasks as well as being expected to perform their own medical duties, and, in other ways, felt that they were being treated unfairly. In recruiting, for instance, after recruiting a potential medical recruit, the innocent neophyte, while doing his general military training with the Service Battalion instructors, would be persuaded that it would be much more interesting to handle and repair trucks rather than pass bedpans. As if the intricacies of the human body were less interesting than the internal combustion engine! The discord between the medical units and the Service Battalions occurred across the country, and was detectable in the Regular Force. Medical personnel have always got on well with the combat arms units, and transport personnel attached to medical units have usually worked in harmony. Discord and unfairness did not contribute to flourishing medical companies.
Worse was to come in 190, when the number of medical companies across Canada was reduced from twenty to six, each with an establishment reduced to 36 all ranks. The remaining fourteen medical companies were reduced to sections of service battalions with an establishment of twelve all ranks. Only twenty-four Militia regiments were allowed a medical officer.
At this time the abbreviated title for lieutenant colonel changed from Lt.-Col. To LCol and the second-in-command changed from 2 i/c to DCO (Deputy Commanding Officer). Likewise, unification of the three services resulted in the same rank designations being used for the navy, army and air force, much to the chagrin of some members of the services. The distinctive uniforms of the three services were abolished and a single type of green uniform was introduced. Rank insignia for officers changed from pips and crowns on shoulder epaulettes to rings on the sleeve for all three services. It took another eighteen years before this harm done to pride and tradition of service was remedied by reinstating naval and air force uniforms and summer “tan” army uniform. Combat dress was changed from the battledress to a more functional dress similar to the U.S. army combat clothing. However, the combat clothing was considered to be so sloppy that troops were forbidden to travel on public transport or the Canadian Forces’ Boeing 707s in combat clothing. These changes took about two years after their introduction in the regular force to be implemented in the militia.
In 1968 command of 16 Medical Company passed from Lt.-Col. R.H.D. Farmer CD to Lt.-Col. E.S. Gibson, CD, who had served in the Regular Force CFMS and in Owen Sound’s Militia medical company. Lt.-Col. Gibson was an industrial physician at Dofasco who, in one collaborative exercise with the Toronto Medical Company in 1968, arranged for simulated casualties at the sit of an explosion in Dofasco to be transported to HMCS Star where a brigade medical station had been set up for treatment of the wounded.
Quarters at HMCS Star
In 1968 the Hamilton Service Battalion moved to quarters at HMCS Star on the harbour front. The naval reserve had experienced similar cutbacks to the Militia so space was available. Messes were shared with the navy reserve at HMCS Star, an improvement from the drab rooms in the Burlington Street factory. A reorganization of the Militia resulted in a Hamilton Militia District Headquarters, which was also accommodated at HMCS Star.
During the years 1967-72, exercises were conducted at CFB Borden or Meaford with the Service Battalion every autumn and spring. Weekend courses were sometimes conducted by the Canadian Forces Medical Services School at CFB Borden. Winter exercises were also undertaken with appropriate equipment, and selected personnel participated in the Regular Force’s artic winter warfare training at Churchill, Resolute Bay and Southampton Island. Time consuming enrolment and other medical examinations continued to be done by the few Militia medical officers, detracting from their training in military medicine.
In 1972, command of the unit passed from LCol E.S. Gibson, CD to LCol G.S. Bickle, a psychiatrist practicing in Guelph who had just been released from the Regular Force. In 1973, command of 16 Medical Company was taken over by Major A.R.C. Butson, GC, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI). As a student during the war, he had served in the Home Guard and Light Rescue Squads during the London bombings, and later, for 18 months, had served as medical officer with a British combined forces expedition to the Antarctic. When Major Butson took over, he viewed with dismay the state of the medical company, which consisted of five nurses, three of whom were super-numerary, and six other ranks, including Sgt. N. Williams, CD who had had several years Regular Force service. All were subordinate to the Service Battalion.
The new commanding officer perceived that the only way to resuscitate the medical unit was to recruit directly into the unit and to conduct interesting and exciting training. Captain J.E. Twelves, CD, who had served in the RCNVR during the Second World War, and had been medical officer for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (ASH(Can)) for some years, came in as DCO, and active recruiting commenced. Since the end of the Second World War, females in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) had been in militia units. In the early 1970s, the CWAC was disbanded and a certain number of females were allowed into Militia units. This percentage varied between 10% and 50%, depending on the type of unit and on policy changes, which occurred almost yearly. In 1973, 16 Medical Company was composed of about one third female personnel.
In October and November 1973, a most successful air-medical evacuation exercise was conducted by Major Butson involving about 350 personnel. At a preliminary exercise at Mount Hope airport, personnel were trained in loading and unloading casualties into a Regular Force “Huey” helicopter with the rotors running. In the subsequent main exercise, a battle took place between several platoons of RHLI and ASH (Can) in a ravine on Major Butson’s Ancaster farm, generating about forty simulated casualties provided by local cadet corps. These casualties were evacuated by helicopter to Mount Hope airport, where a brigade medical station had been set up. From there, they were transported by single Otter aircraft of Toronto’s Air Reserve Wing to Downsview, where the Toronto Militia medical unit had established a field hospital. In all, about 350 reserve personnel took part, including ten medical officers and six nursing officers. One of the single Otters was co-piloted by Richard Rohmer, DFC, the Honorary Colonel of the Air Reserve Wing, who was later to become Major-General and Chief of Reserves. The exercise received excellent coverage in the Globe and Mail, the Hamilton Spectator and a four-minute clip on CBC’s evening news.
Revitalizing of 16 Medical Company
The revitalization of 16 Medical Company had commenced, and recruiting was active thereafter. Because the unit had become familiar with helicopter evacuation, it was requested to provide medical support for the first Mount Hope air show in June, 1975. It was anticipated that, due to traffic congestion around the airport, it would be difficult to evacuate casualties by wheeled ambulance. Consequently, a helicopter was made available for casualty transport from Mount Hope airport to Chedoke Hospital, then an active treatment general hospital. This provided the Medical Company with a realistic task and two days viewing the air show. This became an annual task for the unit for a number of years.
At the air show in 1976, a most regrettable incident occurred. A corporal refused to obey a sergeant’s order. The sergeant struck the corporal on the head with a tent mallet, causing a depressed fracture of the skull. The victim fortunately made a good recovery following brain surgery, and the sergeant turned himself over to the civilian police and was charged. Needless to say, he was immediately released from the militia. He had shown evidence of unstable behaviour once previously, but because he was very good as an instructor, had not been released at that time. This exemplifies the need to weed out anyone with emotional instability in the forces.
In the fall of 1974, another medical evacuation exercise was conducted with the aid of HMCS Star. Unit infantry assaulted the beach at La Salle Park across from Hamilton Bay, at first light. The area was well defended and simulated casualties were transported back across the bay by the navy craft to HMCS Star, where a brigade medical station had been established. This again was a most successful exercise and was written up in a whole page of the Hamilton Spectator as being evocative of the famous Dieppe raid of 1942.16
Medical Company Independent Again
At the Hamilton Militia District Commander’s inspection in the fall of 1974, the Medical Company had nearly as many on parade as the rest of the Service Battalion. The District Commander suggested that 16 Medical Company become unofficially independent, and this opportunity was seized upon. Quarters above the Senior NCO’s mess at HMCS Star were allotted to 16 Medical Company. Major Butson was promoted to LCol, and the next year, Captain Twelves was promoted to Major. Major Roy Holmes, CD, who had commanded the Hamilton Signals Squadron, joined the unit as Medical Associate Officer (MAO) for administration.
In the spring of 1975, 16 Medical Company ran its own GMT course conducted by Major Holmes and Warrant Officer Norman Williams, the Company Sergeant Major. An influx of about sixteen recruits brought their numbers up to about 36. Medical training of the other ranks at the various levels continued. A unit senate was established, and close association with the 5th Field Ambulance veterans was maintained. At the annual inspection of the unit by the staff of the Command Surgeon Mobile Command in 1975, the Hamilton Militia medical unit won the Ryerson Trophy for being the best Militia medical company in Canada. It was the first time that the Hamilton unit had won the trophy since its inception in 1913. It was proven that medical companies could operate independently again. Largely because of Hamilton’s 16 Medical Company’s example, in the following year independent medical companies were re-established in the Order of Battle across the country. The part played by Master Warrant Officer Norman Williams, CD, in the unit’s success was considerable.
In the 1970s, Militia personnel were called out for attachment to Regular Force units for overseas duties for periods of up to six months and medical personnel were no exception. Because of the difference in the length of medical training between Regular Force and Militia medical assistants, the name in the Militia was changed to casualty aide. It was not until 1989, with the Total Force Concept, that the Militia casualty aide was upgraded to medical assistant and the name of the trade became medical assistant in the Militia again.
During the winters of the late ’70s, winter exercises were held in CFB Borden, in combination with a Regular Force platoon from 2 Field Ambulance, Petawawa. Evacuation of casualties by helicopter was practiced during these exercises.
In 1975, a Regular Force captain MAO and sergeant medical assistant were attached to the unit as Regular Force support staff. That autumn, an ambitious medical evacuation exercise was planned. The reserve navy was to transport infantry from the RHLI and ASH (Can) to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a first light assault landing on an area of D.N.D. property defended by the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. Army cadet casualties were to be simulated and transported from the Unit Medical Station by helicopter to St. Catharines’ airport, where a brigade medical station was set up, and thence by single Otter aircraft to Downsview field hospital manned by personnel of the Toronto Medical Company. At the last minute, helicopter support was denied due to a crisis in the Middle East, and a gale with rough seas on Lake Ontario prevented the naval “gate vessel” from sailing. Accordingly, troops were trucked into the battle area and the casualties transported by wheeled ambulance from the unit medical station to the brigade medical station. Road blocks were set up on this route to provide extra challenge. Over 70 simulated casualties were evacuated the 80 miles to Downsview, and all the priority 1 casualties were evacuated within 90 minutes, not a bad record.
As part of LCol. Butson’s concept of exciting training, all members of the unit were trained in rapelling and lowering casualties down buildings, cliffs and overhangs at Rattlesnake Point and at Meaford. During the Ryerson competition display in 1977, the Hamilton Fire Department’s four storey building training tower was used to evacuate casualties from the roof. A smoke bomb and lighted bale of hay in the basement of the tower provided a realistic scenario and some excitement. That year, 16 Medical Company again won the Ryerson Trophy. At that time, the unit had a strength of 55 all ranks, including Captains J.R. Mackenzie and T. David Marshall, both medical officers. For his efforts, LCol. Butson was appointed Queen’s Honorary Surgeon. In 1977, he handed over command to LCol J.E. Twelves, CD, and moved to the newly created post of Area Surgeon at Central Militia Area Headquarters, in November 1977.
23 (Hamilton) Medical Company
Later that same year the name of the unit was again changed to 23 (Hamilton) Medical Company. Under LCol. Twelves, the level of operation and training of the unit was maintained. Collective exercises were conducted, usually at Thanksgiving weekend, at CFB Petawawa, with 2 Field Ambulance. Militia medical personnel from Windsor, London, Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa were flown in by Hercules transport aircraft to Petawawa. Winter exercises were held and medical support for Militia summer concentration was provided. Officer training weekends and TEWTs were attended collectively with other Militia medical officers in Toronto almost every year. In 1981, command of the unit was handed over to LCol. R. Turnell, CD, a gynecologist who had previously commanded a militia armoured regiment, the Royal Canadian Hussars, in Montreal. During the early 1980’s, the trophy for the best military first aid team in both Regular Force and Reserves in Ontario was won twice by 23 (Hamilton) Medical Company.
In 1983, LCol. Turnell handed over command of the unit to Major Marcia Quinn, CD, a nursing officer, the first time the unit had been commanded by a female. To her credit, the unit thrived and numbers and standards were maintained or improved. The unit was given an operational tasking in time of national emergency. Equipment was modernized and the number of vehicles, including two box ambulances, 5 jeeps and 4 trucks, was increased to 11. The transport section of 23 (Hamilton) Medical Company was most active. In 1987, Major Quinn was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.
In 1984, LCol. S.M. Hudecki, MD, was appointed Honorary Lieutenant Colonel and, after his untimely death in 1988, was succeeded by LCol. H. Richardson, MD. In 1980, Col. A.R.C. Butson was appointed Honorary Colonel.
In 1989, command of the unit was passed to LCol. Robin Hesler, CD, a senior radiographer with a distinguished Militia record having previously commanded the Lorne Scots, a Militia Highland infantry regiment. In 1990, under LCol. Hesler, 23 (Hamilton) Medical Company is prospering; numbers, including officers, are up, and standards, deportment and morale are excellent and all augers well for the future of Hamilton’s Militia medical unit.