Few among Canada’s military have enjoyed the distinction of creating a unit and then leading it into combat, but an idea born on a Royal Canadian Navy boom vessel in a Newfoundland port was responsible for the Commonwealth unit of swimmers that led Field Marshall Slim’s 14th Army across the Irrawady River en route to Rangoon.

Sub-Lieutenant Bruce Wright RCN (Reserve) not only conceived the concept, which became the Sea Reconnaissance Unit, but as a LCdr, formed, trained and commanded this unit throughout its short life.

Wright, while doing his duty on the boom vessel, speculated on the best method of attacking this port. An article on the use of paddle boards, diving masks and swim fins by abalone divers in California gave him the idea that such techniques could be used by military units to overcome harbour defences. Wright discussed the idea with his captain after assignment to a corvette on North Atlantic convoy duty. His superior encouraged him to put his thoughts together on paper.

The result, submitted in early 1941, passed through various levels of naval headquarters until it eventually reached Lord Mountbatten, then heading Britain and the Commonwealth’s Combined Operations. In hindsight it seems amazing that such a junior officer’s proposal should have passed through all these headquarters. His original essay must serve as an example of how to write a proposal.

Once his suggestion reached Mountbatten, Wright was taken from duty and told to report to Combined Operations in the UK for an interview. Although the paddleboard, mask and fins that he intended to use in a demo were lost in a U-boat sinking, this junior Canadian naval reserve officer convinced Lord Mountbatten of the feasibility of his concept. Promoted to Acting Lieutenant Commander, Wright was entrusted with the task of forming and commanding the Sea Reconnaissance Unit.

The unit, after extensive training at Camp Pendleton in California, at Nassau in the Bahamas, in England for parachuting and finally in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), went into action in early 1945 with Slim’s Army in Burma. Combat operations never did utilize the ‘jump’ benefit of Wright’s training program – the ‘parachutist-frogmen’ he developed for the Sea Reconnaissance Unit – but idea would stick: the US Navy SEALS would train to be both divers and jumpers.

The unit conducted the reconnaissance of the Irrawady in preparation for the river crossing of this water obstacle with its two to four kilometres of shifting sand bars and islands. Although the assaulting infantry had hundreds of casualties, the Sea Reconnaissance Unit swimmers who swam ahead to lead them suffered none. These pathfinders won two Military Crosses and a Military Medal for bravery, all the more noteworthy in view of the isolated nature of their activities.

At Ramree Island off the Arakan coast, another Sea Reconnaissance Unit not only encountered Japanese but crocodiles. The vast maze of mangrove swamp was reckoned to be the most fearsome in the world, where the crocs happily fed on war dead and not-so-dead of the various fighting forces.

Amazingly, all members of the Sea Reconnaissance Unit who served in Burma survived these man- and nature-made hazards, a remarkable feat and a tribute to the extensive training program. Hopefully this will be borne in mind when training funds are on the chopping block.

There is also a special Canadian tri-service dimension to the unit’s actions under fire. A member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Flight Lieutenant Avery, won a Military Cross as an air force officer serving with a navy unit while leading an army assault river crossing.

Of course, there were many other special elite units in World War II of which the Sea Reconnaissance Unit is only one. Although unaware of the fact, Wright’s idea was similar to others including the Japanese and Italians. One does wonder how our history would have perceived the Sea Reconnaissance Unit if it had been more than just a Canadian idea, trained and led by a Canadian, but rather an entire Canadian unit!

Lieutenant Commander Wright remained in the naval reserve at war’s end but returned to civilian life to eventually become director of the University of New Brunswick’s North Eastern Wildlife Station.

Wright had the rare distinction, for a Canadian, of conceiving an idea for a unit, and then actually forming it, training it and leading it into combat. One wonders whether such a feat would be possible in today’s Canadian Forces.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) is a retired Canadian Armour officer with service in multiple UN missions, and is the recipient of Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross.