Before retiring, NATO Supreme Commander General James Jones told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Quetta, Pakistan, was the base of the Taliban headquarters. Ironically, today’s source of insurgency was once a source of Canada’s officer development.

At the end of the First Great War, responsibility for staff education of Canadian officers was assigned to the British Army’s staff college at Camberley and the British Indian Army’s staff college at Quetta, in what was then India. These two institutions would provide the staff qualification for many Canadian Army officers between 1924 and 1939.

In 1905 when the British Indian Army staff college was opened in Quetta, the garrison town was the southernmost of a line of British India’s military stations facing northwest towards Afghanistan, placing the new college on the frontline for British responses to both Baluch and Pathan tribal armed activity.

At 6,000 feet above sea level, Quetta lies strategically between the Bolan Pass, which drops down to Sind Province and affords access to the port of Karachi, and the Khojack Pass, which leads to Kandahar via Chaman/Spin Boldak.

Fourteen Canadian officers of the rank of Captain or Major attended the Quetta staff college between 1924 and 1939. They were part of an illustrious group that included as Directing Staff (DS), Montgomery, Auchinleck, Leese and Hobart. No interwar Canadian students reached the rank of “Field Marshall” achieved by some of the British army attendees but nine of the fourteen Canadians did reach general officer rank before World War II ended.

Three interwar Quetta Canadian graduates commanded brigades in action, one a division and one a corps. Brigadier General Megill commanded the 4th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division (Feb 44–Jun 45). Brigadier Bradbrooke commanded the 5th Armoured Brigade of 5th Canadian Armoured Divison (15 Sep 42–22 Feb 44). Brigadier Lawson commanded the Canadian contingent in Hong Kong in December 1941. Major General Stein commanded the 5th Canadian Armoured Divison from 15 Jan 43–18 Oct 43, while Major General Burns commanded this same formation from 30 Jan 44 – 19 Mar 44, then the 1st Canadian Corps.

Brigadier John Lawson was the only one of these interwar Quetta students to die in WW II. Lawson, an RCR officer, was the first Canadian to attend Quetta in 1924. Interestingly, not only did Brigadier Megill, as a signals officer, command an infantry brigade in action but he was also the last Canadian to attend the Quetta staff college when it was a “British” institution. In a rare coincidence he had a son who attended the postwar Pakistan Army Command and Staff College also located in Quetta.

The staff college facilities in Quetta were taken over by the Pakistan Army Command and Staff College when India was partitioned. (The Indian Army Staff College was created in a former British hill station, Wellington, in southern India.) After WW II, Canada created an Army Command and Staff College in Kingston and, after unification, a Canadian Forces College.

Though British institutions were no longer the sole source of staff qualifications for Canadian Army officers, 46 Canadian students attended the Pakistani staff college at Quetta between 1947 and 1996. A similar number of Pakistani officers have attended either Canada’s Army or Canadian Forces’ College on an exchange basis.

The exchange brought different benefits to all who attended, both from an individual and CF perspective. In my case, it permitted me to be deployed by the CF on three weeks notice to the United Nations Good Offices Mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan (UNGOMAP) in 1989 two years after completing the Pakistani staff course. Personally, it made my job as the Deputy Chief of Operations for the UN force in Haiti much easier in 1995 as the Deputy Force Commander had been a DS at Quetta when I attended and the Pakistani battalion commander in the UN force had been at the Pakistani Staff College the year before me.

The CF was particularly fortunate to have a Pakistani Staff College graduate, Colonel Brian Jackson, as the CF attaché in Islamabad on 9/11. Both the most recent military rulers of Pakistan, General Musharraf, and before him, General Zia, were Quetta alumni. In a country where few institutions except the Army have a “national” perspective, the benefits of this connection cannot be valued using monetary accounting principles.

In 2008 Canada’s exchange with the Pakistani Army Command and Staff College was renewed after a hiatus of 12 years. It remains to be seen if our military, or NGOs under CIDA auspices, can take as much advantage of the Canadian Quetta graduates in the ongoing regional conflict revolving around Afghanistan as was done by Canada’s Army in WW II. Certainly the founders of the Quetta Staff College in 1905 could relate to being “in location” with a wily foe.


by Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA(RMC)