Most readers know the Battle of the Bulge. Few may know that Canadians were involved in Hitler’s Ardennes offensive.
Canadians belonging to so-called “niche” elements – Companies 1, 9, 14, 25 and 27 of No.1 Canadian Forestry Group – found themselves in the path of the German Fifth Panzer Army at sites near St. Hubert; Company 16, working near Spa, encountered the Sixth Panzer Army.
Though other niche elements such as the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion – deployed from Britain with its parent formation, 6th Airborne Division, to assist in Montgomery’s planned counter attack – were tapped for their role through special selection and training, the Canadian Forestry Corps personnel were recruited from their civilian occupation.
The loggers were not the first Canadians to provide a niche capability based on civilian occupation. The voyageurs, deployed by the Canadian Dominion on the Nile with Britain’s imperial forces in 1884, were treated as a military unit and led by a military officer, though they wore civilian clothing – a practice followed by Newfoundland’s Forestry Unit in the Second World War.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, British forestry products met only ten percent of the United Kingdom’s lumber needs. In 1916, the first request was made to Canada to supply a forestry battalion to save shipping space for other items. The initial Canadian battalion grew into a corps of 60 companies in France and 41 in Britain totaling over 22,000 soldiers.
The Canadian Forestry Corps, characterized by its adaptability, was heavily involved in airfield construction for Britain’s emerging air defence force. When the Zeppelin attacks forced the creation of bases for the primitive interceptors, forestry personnel were called upon not only to clear sites for air bases but also to construct them. The Canadian Forestry Corps assigned 123 and 124 companies totaling 32 detachments to assist in this task. A hundred and ten aerodromes were constructed by forestry elements. These airfields probably contributed to postwar development of aviation in Britain. Even more significant was the impact on the British government’s approach to Britain’s forests.
British historian Joshua West attributes the “timber supply crisis” in the First War for passage of the Forestry Act of 1919, which established government management of Britain’s forests through a Forestry Commission.
When the Second World War commenced, the requirement for loggers to augment limited British manpower was already apparent. Requests for logging units were made in October 1939.
The Canadian Forestry Corps in the Second World War was smaller, reaching peak strength of about 7,000 in thirty companies. Ten companies were repatriated to Canada before the end of 1943, ten deployed to the Continent after D-Day, and ten remained in the U.K. The adaptability was again evident.
Lumber was going to be needed by the invasion forces once a bridgehead had been secured. Operationally, there was a problem moving the quantities of timber involved from Britain to France in view of the shipping available. Canadian loggers suggested and organized the assembly of 77 square and 54 round timber rafts through the work of an ad hoc element, No. 1 Special Forestry Section. Although rough weather at sea posed challenges, the lumber was delivered to the beaches.
The Waal River bridges, seized intact, were subjected to a variety of German air and water borne attacks. Frogmen and floating mines were among the latter. Various types of nets and booms were tried unsuccessfully to defeat the explosives being sent downstream. However, the “finning” boom constructed by No. 30 Forestry Company must have done its job because the Nazis sent a flotilla of one-man midget subs down the Waal in an attempt to destroy this special logging boom.
The Canadian Forestry Corps, unlike foresters in the British Army, were not part of the Army Engineer branch, and were disbanded shortly after each war. Their First War efforts are recognized by a figure that is part of the War Memorial in Ottawa.
The Canadian lumberjacks should be remembered not only for their work during two World Wars to free ships for cargoes other than lumber, but also as an example of a niche element whose members were specially selected because of skills already held as result of their civilian occupations.
While logging skills may not always be required for future conflicts, the brief war-time history of the Canadian Forestry Corps serves to make politicians, planners and the public aware of the possible need of niche military elements that utilize special Canadian skill sets.