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The effect of Canada’s Jamaica Garrison

‘Effects based planning’, in military lexicon, describes a process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome. Canada’s deployment of a garrison to Jamaica between 1940-1946 offers some lessons for the achievement of ‘operational’ and ‘strategic’ goals today.

In 1940, the collapse of Allied armies in the face of blitzkrieg tactics forced Britain to request additional help from Canada beyond the division already in England. Two battalions were initially requested for Caribbean garrison duty, but Canada’s offer to replace UK forces in Iceland with an infantry brigade reduced the Canadian Caribbean commitment to one.

This battalion replaced the British Jamaica garrison, which in May 1940 was required to defend Dutch Curacao as the French moved to defend Dutch Aruba. Both held key refineries that processed oil from nearby Venezuela.

With the fall of France, Canada was asked to deploy its battalion to Aruba. The apparent UK motive was to placate the Americans who felt that the Japanese might use the British example to excuse similar actions in the Dutch East Indies. Canadians were perceived as a more acceptable option. The Mackenzie King government rejected this proposal, however, stating that the Grenadiers, being on ‘garrison scales’, lacked the required mortars.

The argument was accepted, and British troops went to Aruba. In Jamaica, the task of garrisoning Newcastle, guarding the internment camp and providing a mobile reserve fell to four Canadian battalions in turn over the next four years.

From the outset, there were concerns Canadian troops might be used to quell civil unrest in Jamaica. And when the UK government dragged its feet on the repatriation of the Canadian garrison at war’s end, Mackenzie King personally intervened to set a March 1, 1946 date for withdrawal of all Canadian garrisons in the Caribbean. By that time, Canada also had companies in Bermuda and Nassau.

The operational level effects of the Canadian garrison were immediately obvious. The British battalion in Jamaica was freed to deploy to Curacao and to assume protection of Aruba until relieved by Americans.

Less apparent was whether the presence of Canadian troops aided civil authorities. There were casualties although not on operations: two of the dead were from the Winnipeg Grenadiers, five from the Irish Fusiliers, and three from the Brockville Rifles. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada completed their Jamaican tour without fatalities.

In hindsight, however, there were long-term strategic consequences. The Caribbean Battalion, which included over 300 volunteers from Jamaica, was deployed in the Middle East and at times did nothing more than guard prisoners. At a time when the Canadian infantry was experiencing severe shortages overseas, the commitment of a battalion to Jamaica only exacerbated that shortage – particularly when one considers that battalion was undertaking tasks that the Jamaicans were themselves being asked to do in Egypt.

Additionally, a case could be made that the presence of the Canadian garrison delayed Jamaicans from assuming more responsibility for their own defence. In WW II, Jamaicans could only see combat by enlisting as individuals in British and Canadian units. In contrast, during the First World War, the two battalions of the West Indies Regiment, which also included many Jamaicans, earned 5 DSOs, 9 MCs, 8 DCMs and some MMs.

Perhaps if Canadians had pushed for the Caribbean Battalion to join the Canadian First Army, which included units from other nations, Canada might have furthered a West Indian identity and brought a fresh reservoir of manpower into combat.

The shortage of infantry is once again an issue. Canada has been involved ‘on and off’ since World War II in training military personnel from Caribbean countries. It’s not clear what this training aims to achieve, but one wonders whether any consideration has been given to having Canadian-trained Jamaicans join us in any of our present overseas deployments.

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