The War of Baffin Island
BY JACK C. DOWNEY
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 5)

Though it was not so long ago, many of you folks will have never heard of this not-so-minor skirmish on Baffin Island. The media neglected to cover it, in point of fact nobody gave a Lemming’s (Arctic rodent) ass about it (rats do not live in the Arctic).

Pull up a bollard and I’ll spin you the yarn about how the Canadian Forces saved you and your kin folk from possible invasion by the USSR (Russia) during “the Cold War stand off” in the Northern part of Canada – the land of the frozen mukluk, seal oil and blubber.

Some bright spark on the General Staff in Ottawa came up with the “brilliant” idea that parabellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) was needed to get Regular Force troops back in the game of Arctic Defence. And so it began.

Canada’s 5th Brigade Commander selected Francophone B Squadron of the Twelfth Light Armoured Regiment of Canada (12e RBC) as the enemy force to be attacked by 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron, a Helicopter lift unit, and other assorted units of the 5th Brigade.

Air Transport Command was tasked with flying the troops, equipment and fuel to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit airport). The fuel consumption was four times more than estimated requirements for Hercules Freight and Personnel aircraft taking off in Arctic conditions.
 

Situation Normal All “Fouled” Up
Many of us believe that preparing for war is based on the SNAFU principle. Here are a few examples that stand out for me.
 
SNAFU : Arctic Gear
The first SNAFU for “Enemy Force” B Squadron 12e RBC, commanded by Major Paul Addy (later to retire as a Lieutenant-General) and myself as Squadron Sergeant Major, was the Arctic Gear that was obviously issued from an Ordnance Corps trash barrel. Worn out flannel shirts and parkas, mismatched mukluks (two left boots, different sized inner boot packs, etc.).

One look at this shambles sent me straight to Major Addy with a request for him to phone 5th Brigade HQ and inform them that “B Sqn would not be participating as the ‘Enemy Force’ due to the issue of useless and unsafe Arctic gear.”

The call was made, and the Brigade Commander tore a strip off the Ordnance Corps’ Commanding Officer (CO). Ordnance quickly sorted things out by working 24 hours straight, and we received new shiny, safe Arctic gear to issue to our men the next day.

A related SNAFU involved critical sleeping equipment. Major Addy is a tall chap, as am I, but the military-issue sleeping bag was designed for the average Canadian male (5’10”). If you were less than this height, snaps were provided at the bottom to shorten it, thereby giving you more insulation around your feet. Putting my three-piece bag together (a complex task) I stepped in and pulled it up, to find it barely reached the upper part of my chest! Knowing this would be applicable to Major Addy as well, I thought the solution to this conundrum was easy. I phoned the Ordinance Sgt Maj and suggested the Major and I be issued the RCAF Woods Eiderdown sleeping bag. I heard a gag and spluttering from his end, as he responded “no way, you both will be issued extended bags in two days” (click). Instead, the tailor cut up two, new, 3-piece Arctic bags, then sewed the extensions onto two other bags, ensuring the down was not lost or reduced. These modified sleeping bags cost far more than the Woods Eiderdown would have ever cost DND.

SNAFU : Cargo and Sleds
On reviewing our Arctic entitlements it was discovered each Squadron or Company was entitled to one Wannagin Cargo Trailer to carry the massive amount of personal gear and combat stores required to fight or move about in the Arctic. Our CO, LCol Bill Campbell phoned Ordinance to arrange our Sqn’s Wannagin. Ordnance informed him that Wannagins were long since declared superfluous and had been sold for pennies on the dollar to War Surplus, who then sold them at a huge profit to farmers who used them as luxurious winter hay ricks (these sleighs all had articulating runners and spring loaded upright supports with stake body hardwood box sides and rear opening ends!)

Warriors are not known for their concern over saving money, so Ordinance authorized the Units to manufacture their own cargo sleds – a fatal error if ever one was made. The design team came up with a sled based on the Quebec Logging sled used to pull large loads of pulp logs. A two or three horse team would slowly pull these monsters over deep winter Quebec snow trails. The runners were close to 2 feet wide and 5 to 6 feet long, and the sleds were made of solid hardwood, glued and bolted together.

A very large sum was expended on each sled, and I took it upon myself to inform these mavens that the sleds were useless, as there is very little snow in the Arctic and the many exposed boulders would quickly immobilize it, risking the loss of all personal gear, tents, and the Biffy! Alas, my advice was ignored and the environmental bloke even insisted that all waste, including human, would be removed by helicopter and deposited in the land fill of Frobisher Bay.

The Biffy was a five gallon oil drum fitted with a Standard Toilet Seat and lid. After inserting a plastic garbage bag, you were ready for your daily constitutional. This was aided by a large chocolate bar laced with “ex-lax” from the ration pack of 4200 calories per man per day, and many sweets and cigarettes.

Why did the Biffy need a lid, you ask? According to our hygiene expert “if there was no lid, an Arctic fox may jump in for a free lunch, and if you sit on it, the fox will attack your gonads and butt trying to escape and you will be singing in a high voice with the Vienna Boy’s Choir.”
Myself, the Second in Command Captain Bill Snieder (2 I/C), the Sqn Quarter Master Sergeant (SQMS) Mike Luceia, and two of his staff were assigned to be the advance party with the Sqn stores (including the rum rations).

We expected to set up a 10-man Arctic tent for ourselves and stores but, on arrival, we found that all the other Loblollies (Navy slang for slackers) had commandeered a heated serviceable ex-US Air Force tar paper shack.

Knowing that any pilot will seek out the most suitable place to lay his/her head, I strolled in like I was RCAF WWI hero Billy Bishop and found an unused washroom to hooch up in. Captain Snider immediately went into a blue funk (culture shock) and set up under a row of sinks.

SNAFU : Slackers
The 2 I/C is responsible for resupply. The SQMS and his gang were responsible for loading and unloading resupply items on the Helicopter for forward movement and are also responsible for acquiring new items called in by radio from the front.

It was –30°F, clear sky and sunny, with no wind when the Hercules aircraft arrived carrying “Enemy Force” troops who disembarked before their vehicles were offloaded. I was dressed in Mukluks, wind pants, Arctic mitts, flannel shirt and winter cap – sans parka – but the resupply gang was wearing every rag they owned, they looked like Napoleon’s army on their retreat from Moscow! I called them to order and reminded them in my broken french that “–30°F here is the same as –30°F in Quebec, so get out of that gear and get your vehicles unloaded, rucksacks, stores into the cargo trailer, and let’s get you forward to take up your defensive position out on the Arctic tundra.” The CO approached me after this little harangue to say “Sergeant Major Downey, that is the first time I have ever heard a person speak French and never include a verb in it.”

Off he went to Brigade HQ while Major Addy rounded up his “Enemy Sqn” and disappeared over the horizon with the cargo trailer hooked up to his M113 APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier).

SNAFU : Helicopters
About two hours later, I got a call to get a helicopter and pick up the broken cargo trailer – the left front skid was torn off by a huge boulder. The troops had it unloaded and wrestled the skid into the cargo box over the plywood side. The Crew Chief hooked up a sling to the aircraft and we both went inside and opened the floor observing door. Lying on our bellies, he instructed the pilot to take up the slack and then lift. Up we went to around 800 or 1000 feet and proceeded back to base. Suddenly the plywood side panels were ripping off, putting the whole A/C in danger of crashing. The Crew Chief threw me a questioning look and I replied “cut her loose!” We watched her hit the frozen tundra and shatter into a zillion splinters.

I reported to Major Addy that his trailer rests in some unknown place on or under the tundra. Not amused, he instructed me to ask the CO of the attacking Force (the Airborne Battalion of the Royal 22 Regiment, a.k.a. “Van Doos”) for the loan of their trailer. This I did, and was granted permission to fly it out to Major Addy with the proviso that I have it back in two days for the Parachute drop – the battle would be over and his troops would need to bring in their parachutes, pick up their gear, and set up an “Arctic Tepee Town” until the Hercules could return them to Valcartier.

We hooked up and took off, only to watch our valuable cargo being torn apart by the down draft on arrival – again putting us in harms way. Again I cried “cut her loose”, and down went the second trailer, smashed into a thousand bits.

Shaking in my mukluks, I wondered how I could fulfill my promise to the CO of the Van Doos. I went to the mess hall and got a handful of wooden matches and cut the heads off. Carrying these matches in my left hand, I was shown into the Van Doos CO’s office. I halted in a soldierly manner, saluted smartly with my right hand and informed him that Major Addy had returned his sled. I then dropped my handful of matches on his desk, saluted, about turned and smartly left his office. I feel certain that I heard the Lord’s name taken in vain as I moved swiftly to my hooch.
 
SNAFU : Camouflage
The “Enemy Force” took up a defensive position where they were. They intended to camouflage their M113 with a box of parachutes provided by the Ordnance Corps, only to find they were cargo parachutes, and every third panel was a bright florescent orange. These were eventually given to the Inuit ladies.
 

SNAFU : Fighters and Helicopters
The troops ran their vehicles 24/7, spewing forth exhaust smoke which settled into the hollows. This cloud of smoke allowed the fighter A/C to locate the Enemy Force with ease and (in theory) destroy them. Since their arrival, the ‘Jet Jockeys’ had been training by flying further North of us, presumably using this slack time to machine gun any iceberg that looked like it should be hosed down with bursts of 20 mm cannon fire. They had their own SNAFUs too. One morning, several planes were to go on patrol. One went hurtling down the runway but refused to climb as it should, so the pilot ejected and a multimillion dollar jet skidded out of control down and off the runway to be stopped by the large ballast rocks protruding on the sides. The RCAF considered it a write off.

The 5th Brigade had it’s own workshop to repair or recover our vehicle break downs, and a bored Tiffy (artificer) asked permission to attempt to repair the damaged bird. After extensive repairs, she was airworthy and flew again. For the Tiffy’s ingenuity and successfully completing this task, he was awarded the crummy MID award (Mentioned In Dispatches).

The Helicopter Sqn had a few SNAFUs of their own (besides dropping my sleds).

The 5th Regiment of Artillery asked that their newest fire control trailer be airlifted back to Frobisher Bay. While flying back this extremely heavy and very expensive piece of gear, something went wrong and they were forced to release it over a large lake where, on hitting the ice, it disappeared into the ice cold Arctic waters, where it rests to this day.

Another SNAFU took place in a blinding blizzard. We had all moved into some WWII hangars in preparation for air transport home. A weather warning was issued telling all to stay inside unless guidelines were strung from building to building.

B Sqn had a plaque that we intended to present to the Helicopter Sqn for their good service. Knowing that as soon as the weather cleared, under the rule “First In, First Out,” we would be gone, I decided there was no time to waste. B Sqn was just across the concrete apron from the Helicopter Sqn’s hangar, so I tucked the plaque under my parka and foolishly decided to make a dash for the opposite hangar even though it was barely visible.
Half way across, I heard a heavy thump, a few more steps and thump again. A few more steps I could see one set of the Helicopter’s blades being blown around by the wind and hitting the fuselage. I quickly entered their hangar’s small door and shouted “One of your Helicopters is eating itself outside on the apron.” I nearly got trampled by the rush of pilots, crew chiefs, mechanics, including their CO.

I watched as they tried to get the blade under control in an Arctic blizzard, but one blade broke off before they could. Some brave chap got inside and applied a hand brake which had slipped off. They quickly ran safety lines from the remaining blades’ tip to the helicopter’s body.

Returning inside, I was profusely thanked and informed the rotating blades had broken three internal ribs and needed to be flown to California for repairs. On that note, and without further ado, I ­presented the commemorative plaque.
 
SNAFU : Military Regulations
Many more stories are shrouded by a ­conveniently recurring case of Tent Eye (where everything is a blur). However, in my opinion, Major Addy should be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for allowing me to get away with many things that are technically a breech of military regulations – the most serious being the giving away of DND food to civilians.

I had met the Principal of the large Inuit school. The students came from many ­villages across the North. They lived in good quarters (ex-USAF living quarters) at no charge, and had adequate rations. But there was not enough to allow the teachers to take the students out (on days off or the weekends) for “Adventure Days” such as hunting, fishing or other traditional cultural heritage activities they should learn.

I took it as a duty to have all spare rations saved by all units as a “Going out of their land” present.

A very large amount was deposited unnoticeably by all units at the “Dynamite Shack” outside of town. When the Hercules came in and were loading up, before it was completed, I phoned the school Principal and told him to pick up these rations that we had “FOUND” abandoned.

A Good Feeling
When we pulled onto the runway, getting to our takeoff position, I saw a great herd of snowmobiles led by the Principal followed by an alligator line of students with snowmobiles towing komatiks (Inuit cargo sleds).

I closed my eyes and was wondering “Who won the War of Baffin Island?” when a flash of insight occurred to me: “ALL WARS ARE SNAFUS, and the winners of this one were the Inuit school children.”

I want to leave you with one last thought. USSR intelligence were observing this Canadian war-game via satellite cameras. As the film was developed and sent to their General Staff, who must have gone into hysterical laughter, are said to have declared “worry not, the Canadians cannot fight tooth decay!” (A very untrue assessment indeed).

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Jack C. Downey is now retired and lives in Calgary, Alberta.
© FrontLine Magazines 2013

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