by Brad St Croix

Chapter 4 — Ready for War? The Selection and Training of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers

(Link to footnotes for this chapter)

The selection of “C” Force’s units and the training their personnel had is subject to numerous myths tainted by predetermined assertions that have little basis in fact. Many popular and academic historians and writers have presented “C” Force soldiers collectively as having little or no training. Author Carl Vincent has alleged that “to say that these units were even close to being ready for action is arrant nonsense…,” adding “were these battalions adequately trained by the standards of the time? They were not…”1 The producers of The Valour and the Horror, taking cues from Vincent, claimed “The [Winnipeg] Grenadiers had a lot of time to polish their baseball game, but few of them had ever thrown a grenade. Some had never even fired a rifle.”2 Their presentation of the Royal Rifles of Canada was no different. The creators of the series needed the units of “C” Force to be viewed as a poorly trained to buttress their allegations of betrayal and government cruelty. Many writers and historians have claimed that “C” Force’s units were so poorly trained that their selection bordered on the criminal. Seeking to present the Canadians as the reason for the fall of Hong Kong, author Tim Carew described the Grenadiers’ garrison duties in Jamaica as trivial for “in the West Indies, the gravest military crisis likely to be encountered was a defective refrigerator or a mild hurricane; many of them had less than six months’ service.”3 In 2017, journalist Kevin Lui claimed that “trying to fend off the invaders were two battalions from Canada, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, totaling 1,975 men. Many of them were, at that time, deemed unfit for combat because of their lack of training.”4 All these statements are false.

As the training level of these two battalions was an important factor in their selection, it must be fully examined.5 Most studies of the Battle of Hong Kong do not examine the training of these units at length; even those studies that focus on specific units neglect this subject. This chapter will provide an in-depth examination of the training of the Royal Rifles, the Grenadiers, and the additional troops, whose training has been examined the least in the literature. I will argue that while these units were certainly not fully trained for the conditions they encountered at Hong Kong, no other units in Canada were so prepared. This chapter will demonstrate that the troops of “C” Force, far from being untrained, in fact, had received instruction that helped some of them to fight effectively at Hong Kong.

The Selection Process

Terrance and Brian McKennas, as producers of The Valour and the Horror, have propagated the myth that “because of their lack of training, they [the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers] were officially classified by the Canadian Defense Department as unfit for combat.”6 This statement is factually incorrect. The Royal Rifles and Grenadiers were not classified as unfit for combat because they lacked training; rather, their recent overseas garrison duties compelled that classification. The standard procedure was that all units returning from garrison duties must undergo refresher training. Unfortunately, the “C” Force units did not get such training prior to leaving for Hong Kong. The purposes of highlighting these distinctions is not to engage in mere nitpicking. Instead, it is an important correction that disputes the basis of the zombie myths surrounding the Battle of Hong Kong.

Many have erroneously claimed that Brigadier J.K. Lawson, before becoming “C” Force’s commander, had created his own unit list. Canadian Army official historian C.P. Stacey made this claim in Six Years of War, as did Grant Garneau in his own study about the Royal Rifles.7 Using documents from the Hong Kong Inquiry, Carl Vincent argued that Lawson assembled the list after Colonel W.H.S. Macklin asked him to do so.8 Author Nathan Greenfield has cited Vincent’s work to present the same information.9 However, historian Tyler Wentzell wrote that:

H.A. Sparling, a staff officer in the directorate, had the task of finding two battalions suitable for garrison duty in a tropical climate and Sparling created the infamous list. Lawson passed the list to the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), Major-General H.D.G. Crerar, who selected the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada for “C” Force. Both units were drawn from the “not suitable” category.10

Such incorrect claims require correction.

The process to select the units for Hong Kong began while the British request for troops to garrison Hong Kong was still under consideration. Two lists, putting active service battalions in Canada into categories based upon their fitness to serve overseas, were created. The first list was assembled by Lieutenant-Colonel H.A. Sparling, a staff officer in the Directorate of Military Training.11 During the Hong Kong Inquiry, Sparling claimed that he had worked with Lawson to create the list based on the training reports of all the battalions still in Canada. Such units were placed into three classes, “A,” “B,” and “Not Recommended,” based on the progress of their training and service as of August 1941. Both the Grenadiers and Royal Rifles were placed on the “Not Recommended” list that was then sent to the Directorate of Staff Duties for further consideration. During the Inquiry, when pressed about the “C” Force battalions’ level of training, Sparling asserted that the units were better trained than 2nd Division’s battalions were when these units arrived in England in summer 1940. As for individual and collective training, Sparling contended that the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers were equal to any unit in Canada.12 Sparling testified that he had no concerns with either unit, including issues of discipline, after viewing their training reports. When asked, “so if these two battalions did not get training, they were at no disadvantage as against other battalions in Canada?,” Sparling replied “hey were in exactly the same position.” As to why the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers were on the “Not Recommended” list, Sparling stated they would have been put on the “A” list had they undergone standard refresher training. As it was standard procedure to put all units through refresher training after coastal defence or garrison duty, not being on the “A” list did not necessarily indicate any training issue. Once the Grenadiers and Royal Rifles were chosen for “C” Force, Sparling claimed that he and Lawson saw no need to report any concerns about the battalions.13 As Lawson died at Hong Kong, there is no way to verify Sparling’s claims.

The creation of the second list began on 23 September 1941 after the Cabinet War Committee approved the British request. Crerar ordered the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence, Colonel R.B. Gibson, to determine how two battalions based in Canada could be chosen to reinforce Hong Kong.14 Gibson in turn asked Colonel Macklin, Director of Staff Duties, “to give consideration” to the matter. Macklin conferred with Lieutenant-Colonel L.M. Chesley of the War Organization Section.15 In a 26 September memorandum, Macklin outlined the many criteria used to choose the two battalions. The first criterion had many parts. First, Macklin recommended that the units of “W” and “Y” Forces in Newfoundland and Jamaica respectively not be selected. Second, troops furthest along in their training should be given priority for selection. Finally, selecting units from different parts of the country should be considered. The second criterion divided the remaining battalions into three classes based on their progress in training. Class “A” units were sufficiently trained to continue their preparation independently overseas. Class “B” units, “not so far advanced in training,” could go abroad if their training was supervised. Finally, Class “C” units required refresher training if they had been deployed elsewhere or lacked sufficient training. Battalions earmarked for the 4th Division, destined for Britain, were the furthest along in training. Macklin, not wishing to take battalions from the 4th Division, suggested that Class “B” units be selected. However, Macklin provided a word of caution regarding inspection reports for Class “A” and “B” battalions. As those documents were written by different inspectors, “it is practically impossible to secure a sound basis of comparison” between the reports.16 Thus, Macklin suggested two alternatives for selecting the units: Alternative “A” was to select battalions from the 4th Division; Alternative “B” was to choose two battalions, one each from Atlantic and Pacific Commands.

After a conversation with Crerar, Macklin drafted a memorandum recommending that the Royal Rifles and the Grenadiers be chosen for “C” Force. Unwilling to take battalions from the 4th Division which was slated to move overseas soon, Crerar wanted to ensure the chosen battalions came from different parts of the country. In his memorandum to Minister of National Defence J.L. Ralston, Macklin noted that the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers had done garrison duty akin to conditions at Hong Kong. Like Sparling, Macklin claimed that excepting the 4th Division’s battalions, there was little difference between the Royal Rifles, the Grenadiers, and other Canadian-based units for they all had similar duties.17 The final memorandum that went to Ralston thus was partly Crerar’s work and partly Macklin’s. When pushed at the Inquiry about the battalions’ selection, Macklin supported Crerar’s decision.18

Once the units were set, “C” Force’s leaders was chosen. On 9 October 1941, the office of the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence hosted discussions about despatching troops to Hong Kong. The attendees opted first to call the expedition “C” Force and decided to send it as late as possible in the departure dates window provided by the War Office.19 But that same day, the British government telegrammed to state “it would be most desirable if the two Canadian battalions could be despatched at a very early date and hope that His Majesty’s Government in Canada will be prepared to make arrangements accordingly.”20 In a 11 October memorandum, General Kenneth Stuart, recently appointed as CGS, discussed appointing Lawson as commander of “C” Force. Colonel Patrick Hennessy, Director of Organization at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa (NDHQ), would become “C” Force’s Officer in Charge of Administration and second in command. Stuart discussed this recommendation with Ralston, and it was approved by acting Minister of Defence C.G. Power.21 Lawson was informed of his appointment as “C” Force commander in a 20 October memorandum.22 His various duties were outlined, the most prominent being to balance Canadian sovereignty of action despite being under British command. On 11 October, as per the request of Major-General C.M. Maltby, Hong Kong’s commander, the War Office asked Canada to provide a brigade headquarters plus various specialist units, including a signal section.23

Lawson’s Part in the Process

To comprehend Lawson’s role in “C” Force’s formation, a re-assessment of his military career is needed. Born in Hull, United Kingdom, on 27 December 1886, Lawson moved to Canada just before the First World War and enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1914. Promoted to Lieutenant in the Canadian Machine Gun Brigade in early 1917, he was later appointed to the Staff of the Canadian Corps in March 1918, giving Lawson valuable experience in the running of a large military organization. Lawson’s military competence was clear. He was twice mentioned in despatches and won the French Croix de Guerre. Despite Carew’s claims that Lawson was a schoolmaster and an executive at the Hudson’s Bay Company in the interwar period, Lawson was a regular soldier in the Canadian Permanent Force during this time.24 Though demobilized in June 1919, Lawson, quickly rejoining the Canadian Army in November 1919, and became part of the Permanent Force in

April 1920.25 As the first Canadian to study at the Staff College in Quetta, British India, in the 1920s, Lawson occupied a unique position in the Canadian Army:

Additionally, as one of 14 Canadian graduates of Quetta. . .Lawson was among an even smaller group that was exposed to the British Indian Army. At Quetta, Lawson observed Indian Army exercises which were larger and more complex than anything occurring in Canada. He visited training establishments and he got to know Indian Army officers, including Major-General Charles Maltby, his future commander in Hong Kong who was his classmate at Quetta.

Yet Wentzell has rightly argued that Lawson’s “military education and experience was not by any means perfect—he never commanded a company, for example—but it was as good as a Canadian PF [Permanent Force] officer could get.”26

Being too ill to travel with the 1st Division to the United Kingdom in 1939, Lawson was appointed Director of Military Training and Staff Duties at NDHQ in May 1940. He was charged with creating the training plan for the first round of conscripts drafted under the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA). Despite a reliance on older military training methods such as hygiene, physical training, and drill, Lawson had a keen interest in combined arms warfare.27 Having inspected many units in Canada and Britain, Lawson was in a unique position to judge which units should go to Hong Kong. As historian Yves Tremblay has noted about Lawson’s work, “Toute la causerie de cet officier à l’esprit ouvert vaut la peine d'être lue. D’ailleurs, une suggestion est faite officiellement en septembre 1941 de relire cette causerie devant toutes les troupes. Mais la guerre est cruelle et Lawson ne verra pas les mesures de redressement qu’il avançit porter fruits.”28

Ralston’s Role in the Selection Process

Ralston had a small role in “C” Force’s composition. As previously noted, Ralston had asked that the battalions be selected from units in Canada, not from those stationed in Britain. Testifying at the Hong Kong Inquiry, Ralston said the “memorandum [recommendations from Crerar for the battalions to “C” Force] is the only written document which I saw or of which I had any knowledge whatsoever with regard to the selection of the battalions. I had either one or two conversations with General Crerar about it.” When Ralston queried whether it might constitute “discrimination” not to choose the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers, Crerar responded “that these units, having done duty abroad and having served well, were entitled to have this assignment; and that it would make for the morale of the army that it be given to them rather than that other units be selected, and these two units reassigned to coast defence duty in Canada.” Ralston testified that the discussion with Crerar was short although the subject was raised a few times after the fact. Having “every confidence” in Crerar, Ralston accepted Crerar’s recommendations.29

Power’s Role in the Selection Process

Associate Defence Minister Power played a key in the selection of the Royal Rifles for duty in Hong Kong, although some authors make that claim without offering much evidence for their assertion. For example, Vincent has claimed:

It seems likely that soon after Power’s reply to Price the Royal Rifles of Canada were earmarked for Hong Kong. In that event it would have been awkward to send a battalion from the 4th Division as the other half of the force. The Winnipeg Grenadiers, with similar experience in a garrison role, would most nearly match the Royal Rifles in its standard of training, and so was the battalion selected.30

Vincent only cited the existence of letters between Power and John H. Price, the second in command of the Royal Rifles, and one diary entry from Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, as proof for his accusation. Power’s strong connection to the regiment is underexplored for he had considerable influence upon this process.

When asked at the Inquiry, “So that we can say, then, quite definitely, can we, Mr. Power, that after the decision was made to send this expedition to Hong Kong, and the subsequent approval of Colonel Ralston and of the General Staff had been obtained, that other than such casual discussions as might take place that you had in no direct control over this expedition?,” Power answered that “I did not direct the organization of the expedition.”31 But Power did influence the selection of the Royal Rifles. His place among the Anglophone elite of Québec City helped him to form many connections with the regiment. Some Royal Rifles soldiers believed that the presence of so many wealthy men in battalion led to the Hong Kong assignment. Many years after the war, Private Arnold Graves of the Royal Rifles recalled: “I feel we were sent to Hong Kong because it was considered a safe place. Ours was a ‘million dollar’ regiment. There were a lot of very prominent people in the Royal Rifles,” which included Power’s son, Lieutenant Francis Power.32 Power had other connections with the Royal Rifles. On 25 September 1940, Lieutenant L.G. Levie of the Royal Rifles had asked Power’s secretary, James Sharpe, about using the battalion to protect the ammunition factory at St. Malo, Québec.33 While nothing came of this letter, it was not the last time that a Royal Rifles member sought a better assignment for the battalion.

Aside from his son, Power had close relationships with others in the battalion, notably John H. Price. Power and Price’s fathers were both political rivals and friends in Québec City.34 Price and his brother Arthur took control of the Price Brothers company, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of newsprint upon their father’s death in 1924. But when the Great Depression’s advent nearly induced bankruptcy, the Prices lost control of the company.35 Despite this setback, Price still moved in influential Anglo-elite circles in Québec. Power and Price were responsible for the mobilization of a Royal Rifles active service battalion and the inclusion of the 7/11th Hussars, another local militia regiment, in the unit.36 Upon mobilization, Price, a First World War veteran, became second in command of the Royal Rifles. On 13 September 1941, Price sought Power’s help to get the unit a better assignment. As the officers and men of the battalion were “first class soldiers” and “above the average,” Price believed they were being wasted with garrison duties. Concerns over the other ranks’ morale plus the difficulty in explaining why the battalion was passed over for assignments demonstrate some of Price’s motivations. In his final recommendation memorandum to Ralston, Crerar emulated the language that Price had used in his correspondence with Power when discussing the morale of the other ranks. Certain that politics was playing a role in keeping the Royal Rifles from Britain, Price wrote to Power that “I hope that, with the interest you have in our welfare, you will be able & willing to convince the military authorities that it is bad policy to keep a unit like ours just killing time for the officers & men have joined from serious motives & if this type of policy is to continue we had better know it now so that we may govern ourselves accordingly.”37

In mid-September, Power received several letters in support of the Royal Rifles obtaining an overseas assignment. On the 15th, Lieutenant-Colonel G.F. Berteau, temporary Commander of Military District No. 5 based in Québec City, wrote that the Royal Rifles were “one of the most efficient ever mobilized in this District, with a splendid type of men, excellent N.C.O.’s [Non-Commissioned Officers] and well trained and most efficient officers.”38 The same day, Major J. Gignac, Deputy Assistant Adjutant-General of District No. 5, told Sharpe that “Nothing in the letter is over-emphasized. Not because they come from the old home town, but they are really outstanding in efficiency and organization. They easily stole the show in yesterday’s Garrison Parade.”39

Power’s correspondence with Price continued after the 19 September request arrived in Canada. Power received the original British request telegram on 22 September.40 Writing to Price that day, Power stated:

In answer to your letter of September 13th, the whole question of your regiment has been giving me a great deal of concern, and I have repeatedly made enquiry as to what it is proposed to do about it. I know very well that by far the greater number of Officers, if not all of them, will be thoroughly disgusted if there seems to be no prospect of going overseas in the near future.

Promising that he had “made certain representations and will continue to do so,” Power claimed “I have some hope that events overseas may soon develop to the point where it will be possible for your lot to have the opportunity which it deserves.”41 Thanking Power on 10 October, Price was sure “good results will come of it. I quite realize that, owing to the lack of battlefields at the moment, there is not much chance of proceeding overseas and our men all appreciate that.”42

By the time of Price’s second letter to Power, Crerar had recommended that the Royal Rifles and the Grenadiers for Hong Kong. Crerar and Power discussed the Hong Kong proposal several times between 19 and 30 September. Asked at the Hong Kong Inquiry if he had had “occasion to discuss the matter with General Crerar,” Power answered:

As soon as I received the cable, I telephoned to General Crerar and discussed the matter with him in a broad and general way; I do not think I could give any details of the conversation. Then I am not quite clear, but I am under the impression that the next morning, that is the morning of the 23rd, I went to the Woods Building, the National Defence Building, and had further conversations with General Crerar there; but I would not be definite on that point. I do know I was there on the morning of the 24th and discussed matters with him with respect to Hong Kong again.43

There had been ample opportunity for Power and Crerar to discuss selecting the Royal Rifles to go to Hong Kong. Power’s letters with Price plus his meetings with Crerar undoubtedly played a key role in ensuring the Royal Rifles were sent to Hong Kong.

Crerar’s Role in the Selection Process

Crerar’s decision to send to the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers to Hong Kong made him one of the most controversial figures of Canada’s Second World War. Despite the work Sparling and Macklin had put into the lists, Crerar rejected their recommendations. As he explained to Ralston on 30 September, Crerar believed that representation from western and eastern Canada was important.44 Crerar noted that their time spent as garrison troops in Newfoundland and Jamaica, respectively meant that “the duties which they there carried out were not in many respects unlike the task which awaits the units to be sent to Hong Kong. The experience they have had will therefore be of no small value to them in their new role. Both are units of proven efficiency.” While giving the battalions another stint of domestic garrison duty would damage morale, Crerar also cited the Royal Rifles’ connection to French Canada as another reason to choose the battalion.45

Many of Crerar’s thoughts and reflections about the selection process were recorded due to the Hong Kong Inquiry. Crerar, however, did not attend the Inquiry in person. As he was in Britain commanding the 2nd Division, he answered counsels’ questions with written responses. As the training issue was a key focus of the Inquiry, many of the questions directed at Crerar revolved around this topic. When asked if he thought the units sent to Hong Kong could not have been fully trained given equipment shortages, Crerar responded:

Training is an unceasing process. There were, however, in Canada at the time in question a number of battalions (amongst which were the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers) which although somewhat handicapped by the lack of supplies of certain platoon weapons (mortars and anti-tank rifles), in my opinion were generally adequately trained to undertake defensive responsibilities such as those in prospect at Hong Kong.46

Crerar’s personal observations about the two battalions was also of interest to the Inquiry’s counsels. Crerar had visited the Royal Rifles during their time in New Brunswick in autumn 1940 and then again at St. John’s, Newfoundland, in summer 1941. As for the Grenadiers, Crerar had met with Lieutenant-Colonel Kay when he was transferred to Ottawa to become Deputy Adjutant-General at NDHQ. Crerar testified that Kay informed him that the Grenadiers, anxious for “more active service,” hoped not to be brought back to Canada.47 Kay did not mention this conversation in his testimony, nor was he asked if he a role in “C” Force’s organization. Like Sparling, Crerar said the Royal Rifles and the Grenadiers had been placed in Class “C” given their need for refresher training. In light of the terrible events at Hong Kong, asked if he still supported his decision, Crerar said “yes, and in the light of the situation in the Far East obtaining at that time, I selected those particular battalions for the reasons given in my Memorandum dated 30th September…In the known circumstances at that time, I continue to regard this recommendation to have been soundly conceived.”48

Several historians have agreed with Crerar. Stacey has concluded “there were in 1941 no troops in the Commonwealth properly trained as training was understood at a later period of the war.”49 Canadian historian Terry Copp has argued that context was also important for “neither the Royals nor the Grenadiers could remotely be considered ‘an efficient and well trained battalion’ except by the standards prevailing in Canada in 1941.” The context of the time when the units were selected is the important factor to consider when evaluating their selection, not the horrific events that followed the battle.

The Royal Rifles’ Training and Service Prior to Hong Kong

The Royal Rifles of Canada, designated Canadian Active Service Force (CASF) and ordered to mobilize for war on 28 June 1940, was an amalgamation of troops from the Non-Permanent Active Militia units of the Royal Rifles, the 7/11th Hussars, plus other volunteers.50 Major W. J. Home commanded at the unit’s headquarters sat at Québec City in the drill hall overlooking the Plains of Abraham. Their training began on 23 July 1940. The men were in high spirits, the war diary’s author asserting that this condition derived from the recruits being asked at their enlistment about their readiness to serve overseas for extended periods of time. The Royal Rifles’ time in Québec City was short as the unit moved to the famed First World War camp at Valcartier at July’s end. The early focus was on physical training to improve the individual soldier’s conditioning and self-esteem.51 Training started at the squad level but moved on to company instruction on 26 August 1940.52 Bayonet practice formed a large part of early training to acquire practical skills and boost morale. By September 1940, bayonet training had been placed at morning’s end so that its positive effects were maintained throughout the day’s training.53 With a little hyperbole, the war diarist explained that “in this training their hearts are overwhelmingly in their work and their imaginations can run rampant. We keep bayonet training as the last period of the day, and the men return to their hut in the best possible mood—a little tired may be, but happy.”54

The Royal Rifles moved to Sussex, New Brunswick, on 22 September 1940. The unit’s disappointment in their new surroundings was made clear as the war diary asserted that “the camp itself seems to be a wretched exchange for Valcartier.”55 At its arrival, the battalion had completed elementary training, but some training in drill remained undone. Many route marches were conducted during the battalion’s time in New Brunswick. Firing on rifle ranges and Bren gun training started on 28 September.56 As the war diary had recorded:

Our men think that nothing better than the Bren Gun was ever invented. They are always practising loading, unloading, naming the parts, etc. in the break-off periods, and have a good time seeing how long it takes them to do a certain part of the drill. They use stop-watches on themselves, and every platoon is setting up its champion for each particular drill sequences.57

Given a shortage of Bren guns, troops had to take a Lewis gun course as “the idea seems to have been to teach the men to handle the Lewis, and to convince them it is not an inferior weapon so that when they may be forced to use it on active service they will not feel that they are at a disadvantage. This two-fold aim has been accomplished.”58 Despite the war diary’s optimistic representation of the training in New Brunswick, Garneau called any training done in New Brunswick beyond elementary tasks plus basic platoon and company tactics “a farce.” 59

The Royal Rifles were sent to Newfoundland to perform garrison duty in late 1940. Some of the troops were posted to the town of Botwood. As with Sussex, the men disliked their posting, with the war diary noting that Botwood was “the most dismal apology for a town any of us had ever seen.” A duty rotation system where companies alternated weekly was set in Botwood; one company trained while the other did guard and fatigue work.60 The rest of the troops went to the Gander airport, with the companies being rotated between the two postings.

The two companies posted at the airport rotated between administrative work, training, and guard duty.61 Such responsibilities limited how much battalion-level training could be done as “it is difficult to get sufficient time away from fatigues for a whole company to be together to train, but fatigue company can normally have two platoons on training, while the outpost company can expect to train each of its platoons every day for two hours.”62 The considerable time spent on guard duty helped somewhat with training for there was some value in learning how to take cover, take orders, and practice observation skills. Further Lewis gun training was undertaken at Botwood in December 1940 through January 1941.63 Bren gun training was done at Gander as this light machine gun was used in an anti-aircraft role, allowing for more practice time.64

There was little opportunity for advanced training once winter arrived. The Royal Rifles’ time during this season was marked by many lectures about weapons, tactics, and military procedures. There were fewer route marches as deep snow made marching problematic, while field craft exercises, too, had been difficult given the conditions.65 Some of the training, notably ski training undertaken at Botwood in March 1941, did little to help at Hong Kong.66 The problems imposed by winter were recorded in the war diary. “Regimental training took second place during the winter of 1940–41. As 24 hour guard duty at Gander strained the resources of the force to the limit, a series of lectures for officers and men plus a few NCO courses was all the training accomplished over a six month period.”67 Spring’s advent did little to help the battalion’s situation. Most of the war diary entries for May 1941 were marked by the words “today it rained.”68 Thanks to the wet weather, many lectures and handling of weapons training had been conducted, but little firing took place. Few sports activities or route marches had occurred during this time. Only on four occasions when practice alarms were raised was any collective action taken that could be loosely considered as training.69

June 1941 saw an uptick in training despite the continuation of poor weather. During this month, the Royal Rifles practiced responding to enemy landings, called “stand-to” duty, by taking actions to repel them at the various coves and bays near St. John’s. Operational orders had been issued detailing the best methods for defending different locations. The troops were despatched in trucks to the practice locations, a method of transportation largely absent during the Battle of Hong Kong.70 The companies rotated “stand-to” Duty. “D” and “C” Company conducted a practice “stand-to” was conducted on 14 June by at Broad Cove.71 On 16 June, the battalion conducted a practice Battalion ‘stand-to’; “Of late there has been many Stand-Tos called so that we may get to know our jobs if called upon to defend this Island of Newfoundland at any of the numerous bays around St. John’s. We are getting good training in coastal defence work. Back in Canada we would only have been able to get the theory of that kind of work but here we get both theory and practical experience.”72 “A” Company had practiced their own stand-to at Logy Bay on the 16th.73 Once the troops arrived at the various locations, defensive positions were established, with weapon pits dug depending on the terrain. Patrols had been conducted between the defended localities, while additional ‘stand-tos’ had been conducted on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th.74 After the exercise on the 23rd was completed, the war diarist recorded, “On their return all ranks were tired but they said that the Stand To was a lot of fun and good training. They claimed that they must have changed their positions out there about fifty times. There is to be a Stand To every day this week. This will certainly keep the Stand To companies hopping.”75 The benefits of these exercises were discussed the next day: “Again the chaps were full of their experiences. This work is different to them and for the time being at least all ranks will be willing to learn all about coastal defense work.”76 While these exercises were far from true tests of combat, they gave troops an opportunity to work together and establish defensive positions. Officers and NCOs obtained chances to lead men in situations they would encounter in battle. By the beginning of August, the battalion had moved frequently, starting with Valcartier, then back to St. John, New Brunswick, then back to Québec City for the transfer to Hong Kong.77

While the Royal Rifles’ training left much to be desired, many positives came out of this period as “night exercises, field exercises, training in field-craft and section leading, stand-to alarms, and long route marches brought the unit up to a satisfactory standard of individual training and a high level of physical fitness.”78 The Royal Rifles’ stay in the Maritimes incited some bold statements in their war diary. Some men were described in a December 1940 diary entry: “Still another can neither read nor write, but give him a job to do and he does it thoroughly, using his own initiative and making decisions that call for the wisdom of Solomon.”79 The diary made clear the desire to get into combat: “All in all, the actual theatre of war is about the only place we would be unanimously glad to move to, and the sentiment at present is that we’ll see our share of fighting long before the war is over.”80 As late as June 1941, the diary bragged that “a few recruits have proven after only a week’s training that they are good enough to take their place along side the rest of us in the regiment. Of course a few of the chaps who have come in the latest drafts have had previous military training. This is a great relief to our hard working instructors.”81

Not all views about the unit’s training were positive. Some Royal Rifles officers believed that the battalion’s training was not where it should have been by that point in the war. Writing to Power, Price believed that coastal defence duties made it impossible to do battalion-level training. Seeking to improve the battalion’s situation, Price wrote “all I ask is serious consideration of our problem & the placing of the unit in an area where continuous advanced collective training may be carried out to the end that the regt. [regiment] may be brought to the ultimate in fighting efficiency which, after all, is all that we are interested in to completely ready for the ultimate test of battle which must inevitably come.” Price “was rather apprehensive when we were sent to Newfoundland for I had seen the decay of units kept too long on coastal defense but on the whole the experience did us good & the men have come back well seasoned & with a lot of experience.”82 While Price’s pleas may have been a tactic to obtain a better assignment, concerns about the battalion’s level of training were legitimate. Unfortunately, there would be little opportunity to undertake more training in Hong Kong.

The Winnipeg Grenadiers’ Training and Service Prior to Hong Kong

The Grenadiers, activated for war service on 1 September 1939, were initially designated as a machine gun battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel O.M.M. Kay. Upon activation, over fifty percent of the militia regiment enlisted for active service.83 The recruitment campaign began immediately with advertisements in the local newspaper, but forty percent of potential recruits were rejected for poor health and physique. In the early days, while the men were foot sore and cold, their physical conditioning improved as sports were employed to increase fitness levels.84 In spring 1940, the Grenadiers were ordered to garrison two British colonies in the Caribbean to free British troops for service elsewhere. Before the battalion moved to the Caribbean, it converted to a rifle battalion, cutting its establishment from 770 to 660.85 On the way to Jamaica, “A” Company disembarked at Bermuda at May’s end and spent almost three months there. As recorded in the war diary, the company was “assigned Garrison duties. No men available for military training.”86 The remaining Grenadiers continued on to Jamaica.

The Grenadiers had spent time in three different camps while in Jamaica. Two camps were pre-established training centres, the Grenadiers set up the third themselves. Up Park Camp, near Kingston, was the unit’s main base. Garrison responsibilities for Up Park Camp required that most of the troops were occupied with duties other than training. An internment camp set up in Jamaica for prisoners of war and enemy aliens required guards from the Grenadiers. Troops also had to check neutral ships entering Kingston harbour. There were defence responsibilities in case of enemy attack on the island plus aiding the civil power in case of unrest among the Jamaican population. Individual training at Up Park consisted of bayonet fighting, the instruction and employment of Lewis and Bren guns, instruction on the Boys anti-tank rifle, stalking, use of cover, fighting patrols, and building roadblocks. But various equipment deficiencies limited the Grenadiers’ chances to properly train. There were no active or dummy grenades and, as noted by Kay, no range firing occurred in Jamaica.87

Newcastle Camp, located in the Blue Mountains, was the other established training facility used by the Grenadiers. According to Kay, “possibly the best description I can give of Newcastle is to say that the only level piece of ground in the vicinity of the camp was a parade ground that had been built 30 yards wide by 100 yards long. The first hut was 780 feet lower than the last hut in the camp.” As Newcastle duties required just sixteen men, the company stationed there spent most of its time conducting route marches, small platoon training, and company-level tactical schemes.88 Acting Corporal Wilfrid John Middleton, who deserted from the Grenadiers thanks to his untreated medical issues, claimed there was little room at Newcastle for infantry tactics and only enough for route marching and dispersing on roads while practicing against air attacks. Middleton did not once recall training for mountain warfare, adding that, “as a battalion we never went out together at all, on any scheme.”89 Kay offered a different assessment: “The training had to be of an individual type or section or platoon training. The country was extremely mountainous, and if you did not utilize the small parade ground you had to spend your time in what might be called practising mountainous warfare; that is really what it amounted to.” Kay asserted that the kind of training done at Newcastle was helpful for Hong Kong’s conditions.90 The Montpelier Camp was purposefully set up for the Royal Rifles as a short-term training camp. As Middleton asserted:

The first week was that of platoons doing infantry tactics under the platoon commanders, that is, the sergeants and junior N.C.O.’s. The last and second week the company went out together and would as a scheme or tactics together, but we had no blank ammunition or anything like that. We had one night scheme with the whole company, and that night we used firecrackers for ammunition, I believe.91

Kay noted that the time at Montpelier was spent on tactical training by section, platoon, and company in both attack and defence.92

Many questions directed at Middleton during the Inquiry revolved around weapons training. He claimed he did not once fire his rifle during the battalion’s time in Jamaica. Instead, they got “sloping arms rifle drill given on the parade square; none other than that. Oh, yes, there was more, there was loading and unloading and sighting.” Middleton noted three instances when rifles were fired while on duty. A sergeant was accidentally shot but was unharmed. “Another man shot the swastika down off the wall of a German hut; he took two rounds to do that, and I think he missed it. The other fellow shot a goal outside the fence.” Lacking light machine guns, little training could be done with them. Middleton did not see a Bren gun until Jamaica. But he never fired it, never took it on any training exercises, nor did he use it to practice anti-aircraft fire. He handled a Lewis gun but did not fire it. Middleton saw a Thompson sub machine gun and a three-inch mortar in Jamaica but not the two-inch version. He claimed to never have seen a dummy grenade, nor did he practice with live ones.93 Much like the Royal Rifles, the lack of weapons and ammunition made bayonet training a focus in Jamaica. There was no training with other branches such as the artillery or reconnaissance units. The lack of training, as Middleton noted, stemmed from the Grenadiers’ time being occupied by guard duty at the internment camp, searching neutral ships, and various administrative duties. As Middleton deserted from the Grenadiers on the train trip to Vancouver, he was able to comment on the training after the unit’s return from Jamaica. As Middleton recalled, “some of the men from the first draft that came back fired approximately thirty–five rounds with the rifle at the rifle range at Winnipeg.” Some firing was also done on a miniature range.94

Brigadier Kay’s testimony presented a more positive picture of the battalion’s overall training. As the Grenadiers were originally a machine gun battalion, they had trained with the Vickers heavy machine gun. Only the anti-aircraft platoon had trained with the Lewis gun while in Canada. As the battalion’s focus had been the machine gun, rifle training was neglected, and no actual firing had occurred in Canada. While the second flight was still in Winnipeg, they had fired rifles at the 350 and 375 yard ranges.95 As the training at Newcastle and Montpelier counted as field training, Kay did not believe the gaps in training rendered the battalion inefficient. Despite Kay’s departure from the battalion in mid-June 1941, when asked about the battalion’s fitness to serve in Hong Kong, Kay responded, “I would have said it was good, my Lord, really good.”96

Concerns existed in the battalion over the state of training after its return from Jamaica. As historian Cameron Pulsifer has noted, “the Grenadiers had received a large number of new recruits. [Company Sergeant Major John] Osborn considered these for the most part woefully undertrained...He told his boys that he knew he and his unit were headed for a highly dangerous spot and that, given the poor state of training, he had grave doubts about their fighting capacity.”97 Osborn had previous combat experience, having enlisted in March 1917. But he had been in the front lines with the 63rd Royal Naval Division for only a short time before being gassed on 15 March 1918. Sent back to England, he was demobilized in April 1919.98 Still, his experiences on the Western Front had given him the ability to evaluate the condition of the men for combat. Though Osborn’s concerns were well founded, the battalion had a trained core of troops.

In a January 1942 report about the Grenadiers, Sparling noted that “training consisted, generally, of individual subjects so that personnel were versed in L.M.G. [light machine gun], A/tk. [anti-tank] Rifle, Thompson Sub Machine-gun, rifle and bayonet, signalling, map reading, fieldcraft, anti-gas, assault training, A.A. [anti-aircraft] drill...” Sparling had little to say about the Grenadiers’ collective training in Jamaica aside from the island reserve which “carried out its duties quite satisfactorily” when the alarm was raised.99 Lieutenant-Colonel John Sutcliffe wrote a more complete report after taking command of the Grenadiers on 6 October 1941. Sutcliffe recorded that all elementary weapon training was completed with refreshers given to those who needed them. The rifle companies and anti-aircraft platoon had received elementary training on both the Lewis and Bren light machine guns. No grenade training had been conducted, a lack of experience that impaired both battalions’ battle performance at Hong Kong. Most of the personnel of the rifle companies had completed fieldcraft exercises, and all personnel, excepting the newest recruits, had finished their Tests of Elementary Training (TOET). The majority of the seventy–five new personnel who had arrived recently, although no actual date was supplied, were given a basic full training course and had six weeks of training upon leaving Jamaica. But Sutcliffe had noted, “in the matter of drill and general deportment their standard is high, and in spite of the many months (15½ in all) of monotonous duties, during which time they had no leave, the morale, discipline, and Esprit de Corps has been maintained at a very high level.”100

The Grenadiers, thanks to their time in Jamaica, had trained in the same warm conditions and hilly terrain that they faced in Hong Kong. No other unit in Canada had this type of experience when “C” Force was being created.101 While the Grenadiers’ time in the Caribbean was not part of the reason they went to Hong Kong, they were certainly better prepared for its unique geographic and climatic conditions than the Royal Rifles.

Assorted Troops Attached to “C” Force

On 10 October, the War Office informed NDHQ that the two battalions should be classified as garrison battalions for medical category purposes. British troops in the Hong Kong garrison were classified as B7, equivalent to the Canadian category of C2.102 The Canadian category C2 was defined as “able to see for ordinary purposes. Able to stand Home Service conditions of a sedentary nature.”103 Troops designated C2 were fit only for service in Canada. Those overseas who were designated C2 were to remain on base duties. British category B had the overall criteria of “unfit for general service abroad but fit for base or garrison service at home and abroad...” The B7 designation, men already serving who were required to take their place on the lines of communications, meant they must be able to march at least two miles in fighting order.104 Another request on 11 October from the War Office asked that the units sent to Hong Kong should include first reinforcements,105 demonstrating that British planners did not believe that these troops were being sent to an area where combat operations might soon occur. Still, both battalions needed more troops to fulfill their roles.

Troops from other units had to be added to the Royal Rifles and Grenadiers as both battalions were below strength. Major-General B.W. Browne, the Adjutant-General at NDHQ, provided a memorandum to Ralston about the extra troops attached to both battalions. Written after Hong Kong’s fall, Browne’s memorandum was clearly an attempt to shift blame to others for the supposed poor quality of troops. As Browne wrote, “no general directive has been issued by me to the effect that reinforcements or personnel transferred from T.C’s [Training Centres] to units destined for despatch overseas shall be fully trained.”106 As noted by Stacey, “the accepted policy governing reinforcements for the Corps in Britain was that men should not leave Canada without undergoing ‘the full period of training laid down,’ which was 16 weeks.”107 The policy was created by Lawson in August 1940.108 According to Browne, the sixteen-week policy apparently did not apply to “C” Force. But shifting blame to “C” Force’s commanders, Brown stated “should it have transpired that some men not fully trained were transferred to either of the units, it was without doubt with the knowledge and concurrence of the Officers Commanding. No complaints in this regard were received prior to the unit’s departure.”109 Browne’s deflection of blame was an early example of a trend that scarred the battle’s legacy.

The reinforcements sent to “C” Force came from various depots and units. The Royal Rifles were reinforced with 102 troops from two Advanced Training Centres at Camp Borden and fifty–two men from the Midland Regiment. The Grenadiers received 189 other ranks and twelve officers from the Advanced Training Centre at Winnipeg, forty from No. 10 District Depot, twenty–three from the Basic Training Centre at Portage la Prairie, and thirty from the Advanced Training Centre at Dundurn, Saskatchewan.110 Commanders of the units who supplied the reinforcements provided statements to the Inquiry about the quality of the troops. Lieutenant- Colonel J.C. Gamey, commander of the Midland Regiment, addressed the concerns about the length of training of the reinforcements from his unit. As only two of these men had enlisted after 1940, both in March 1941, Gamey concluded that “all of the draft dispatched were considered as trained soldiers.”111 Captain W.T. Shrives of the A-10 Infantry (Advanced) Training Centre echoed Browne by averring that no information was provided about the required level of training that the reinforcing troops should have achieved.112

A significant number of former conscripts were included in the troops attached to “C” Force. Of the thirty troops from the training centre in Dundurn, four were former “R” recruits, conscripts drafted under the NRMA who had opted for active service and thus “were in a very high state of training before leaving.”113 Under the NRMA, men were first drafted for thirty days of training, then attached to a Reserve unit for the war’s duration. By 1941, the system had been changed to keep drafted troops in training centres or to transfer them to active duty units within Canada. Enlistees and draftees began training together in 1941.114 The change in training policy placed many forms of pressure on the “R” recruits to “go active.” Historian Daniel Byers has detailed the positive and negative pressure employed by recruiters at the training centres. Speeches were given to appeal to a recruit’s sense of duty or patriotism and public displays were made of their choice to “go active.” Negative pressure included offering a week leave to those who enlisted or assigning men to unpleasant duties such as cleaning, kitchen fatigues, and sentry duty. Extreme measures were allegedly used, including publicly denying leave and the beating of one recruit.115 William Allister and Georges Verreault, both of whom have written memoirs about their experiences at Hong Kong and in Japanese prisoner of war camps, were former conscripts who volunteered for active service. Other men had served four months before choosing to “go active.”116 Several of the men transferred to the Grenadiers from No. 10 District Depot were former conscripts, including Frederick Sadova and Frank Woytowich, who began their military service as thirty-day recruits.117 The 100th Basic Training Centre also provided former conscripts for “C” Force.118

Some of the newly attached troops had previous experience in the Canadian militia or had other military service. George Harbour, who had served with the Grenadiers from March 1938 to August 1939, achieved twenty weeks of training after enlisting in April 1941.119 While the interwar Canadian militia had not provided much advanced training, soldiers were taught military procedures. Several other ranks had experience from the First World War. William Boulette had been in the Pay Corps, while Andrew Nairn had served with the 4th Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borders in the British Army from 1915 to 1919.120 As Stacey asserted, while there had been an absence of tactical battalion level exercises in Newfoundland and Jamaica, “to say baldly that troops were ‘untrained’ is to give a quite wrong impression.” Stacey argued that the context of the troop training was key. As the soldiers went to Hong Kong for garrison duty, NDHQ anticipated there would be plenty of time to correct any training deficiencies.121

Asked at the Inquiry about the 109 men who had only sixteen weeks training, as those troops would have been the first reinforcements, Sparling was “quite sure that the comparatively small number of men who had not had the benefit of the full course would not have a material effect on the sub-units to which they were posted.”122 Agreeing, Crerar stated that “this addition of a proportion of partially trained personnel would not be a handicap if the personnel were well selected, i.e. keen, intelligent volunteers.”123 The number of weeks of training was not a large concern of those who selected the troops of “C” Force for the focus was on the quality of the individual.

Training on Route to Hong Kong and in the Colony

Not all authors believed that the troops of “C” Force would have had much time to train once at Hong Kong. Vincent wrote, “The original belief that plenty of time would be available for refresher training should have been dispelled by 27 October, yet still the troops were despatched. After 22 days in the colony, the first part of which was spent finding their way about, the Canadians were face to face with the battle-seasoned troops of Imperial Japanese army…”124 Vincent was referring to a telegram sent by Britain that supposedly claimed war with Japan was imminent. The existence of this telegram, which made no such claim, became controversial in the post-battle period, something that will receive more attention in the coming chapters.

Some training was conducted on route to Hong Kong. Remarking that Lawson paid “the greatest attention to training,” Kay was not concerned about the quality of training conducted aboard the ships.125 Sparling, in touch with Lawson until the latter left Ottawa to take command of “C” Force, claimed that Lawson had said that he was going to Hong Kong with assurance that the deficiencies in weapons training would be made right while on route.126 Due to limitations in space, time, and equipment, only so much could be done. Training did not get underway until three days into the voyage given administrative issues and the need to integrate the new men.

Lawson filed a report about “C” Force just before its arrival in Hong Kong. Some of his observations were not entirely accurate, notably his claim that “both units contain excellent material and a number of good instructors. Having been employed most of their time since mobilization on coast defence duties, neither has done much field training, even of sub-units.”127 While both the Royal Rifles and the Grenadiers had conducted field training, Lawson incorrectly noted that “neither had completed its T.O.E.T.s for infantry weapons since many of these have not previously been available for them.”128

Lawson emphasized physical exercise and weapons training onboard. Lectures were given to officers and NCOs about conditions in the Far East, racial issues, religion, military geography, health in the tropics, the Japanese Army, and characteristics of Indian Army troops.129 Lawson kept a diary during the journey and his time in Hong Kong. “C” Force departed Vancouver on 27 October. By the 29th some training had begun, but by the 31st while training of the Grenadiers was going well, that was not the case for the Royal Rifles whose training was described by Lawson as “still sticky.” Drill was practiced as was physical training for all, including older officers and Lawson, while weapons firing occurred on the morning of 8 November. Lawson also vented some frustration about the political situation, writing that “Winston C says UK will declare war if Japs do so against US. Wish he would let us get to Hong Kong first.”130

Shortly after “C” Force’s arrival in Hong Kong, Lawson noted that officers from China Command met with their Canadian counterparts. On 3 December, Lawson had undertaken a “Tour of frontier with GOC [Maltby]” and he recorded he had “see[n] Japs.”131 Stacey commented that the period between “C” Force’s arrival and the outbreak of war was marked by drill, administrative arrangements, and weapons training. Reconnaissance was conducted by all officers and NCOs over the terrain which they were required them to defend. Exercises in occupying their action stations were conducted. Stacey noted that “Brigadier Lawson’s report for the week ending 29 November ran in part, ‘Battalions have carried out two 48-hour manning exercises each for approximately 50% of strength.’”132 While the planners who had sent “C” Force to Hong Kong expected that there would be more time for training, the two battalions did have an experienced core that had to be relied upon in the coming battle.


The various claims made about the selection process for “C” Force and the units’ training do not hold up to scrutiny. The reasons why the Royal Rifles and the Grenadiers were placed in the “Not Recommended” category had to do with standard administrative procedures, not because the battalions were poorly trained. Rather, the units were as well trained as could be expected in Canada during the early years of the Second World War. Many authors have promulgated this misunderstanding, thus fuelling the myths about the supposedly flawed selection of “C” Force. Personal relationships were a major influence in the selection process.

The communications between Power and Price undoubtedly affected the selection of the Royal Rifles. The timing and Power’s ability to influence Crerar make the unit’s selection more than just a mere coincidence. For the Grenadiers, the conversations between Kay and Crerar, plus its similar training and experiences as the Royal Rifles, led to its selection. I have rectified the problems associated with these myths and made a significant contribution to the battle’s historiography. The insights provide into the training of the units of “C” Force are also a much- needed addition to the historiography. I have examined the training of the units deeper than other works have done before and as a result demonstrated that their training was not as poor as previously argued. I While the troops of “C” Force were not highly trained in comparison to units later in the war, they were far from the untrained rabble that so many authors claim.