Huffpost Canada ca
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Peter Worthington Headshot

Tanks For The Memory

Posted: Updated:

Last Monday at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, a six-ton American version of the World War One French Renault tank was unveiled -- one of two in existence in Canada.

The other tank exists in Camp Borden.

The press release announcing the acquisition notes that my father, "defacto founder of the Canadian Armoured Corps," acquired some 250 of these tanks in the early days of WWII, when they were already obsolete.

I was a kid, around 12 or 13 when a train load of these Renaults chugged into Camp Borden. Everyone in Borden was on hand to greet them -- the first tanks ever to be on Canadian soil.

The war was approaching its second year, and already it was a "tank war" with German Panzers rolling through Poland and gobbling up France. And Canada was without a single tank. Only infantry and cavalry.

Today, the Renaults are pipsqueak small -- in 1940, to a young boy, they were monstrous and formidable. Even if they were 1917 vintage, the Germans had better look out!

About 15 feet long, five feet wide, the Renault M1917 had a 37 mm gun and a machine gun, a crew of two, and a speed of seven miles an hour. Getting these tanks to run required ingenuity and innovation from members of the recently formed Armoured Corps, who'd volunteered or were transferred from other regiments, usually infantry.

What started as the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle Training Centre (CAFVTC) at Borden, evolved in the Canadian Armoured Corps and eventually the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (RCAC).

Even getting the tanks from the U.S. required some ingenuity, since the U.S. was officially neutral (it was before Pearl Harbour) and under its Neutrality Act the country was forbidden to get involved in another country's war.

My father, then a colonel, negotiated the purchase of the tanks (urban legend has it that he arranged the deal with General George Patton), and got them cheaper as "scrap iron." The opposition raised the purchase in Parliament, but the matter died when word came that the train delivering 1,500 tons of "scrap metal" had arrived at the "Camp Borden Iron Foundry."

Discreet silence prevailed thereafter.

We army brats, who swarmed Camp Borden, were awed and admiring of these Renault tanks which, even then, didn't much resemble the German tanks we saw in newsreels and newspaper photographs.

One of the techniques my father adapted for training was using the tanks to stop local farmers who poached deer in the Borden area. In those days, Camp Borden was mostly sand, scrub bushes and forest. There was the air force bombing range and wildlife -- including wolves -- was plentiful; civilians were prohibited from entering the area unless on business.

In deer season, poachers thrived. My father designated them as the "enemy," and Renault tanks scoured the area as a training exercise to catch poachers.

One of my cherished memories is walking down the concrete road through camp to the one-room school near the Air Force area one fall day, and seeing a Renault tank emerge from the bush area with a deer carcass draped over the tank's gun, and two disgruntled poachers in plaid shirts marching in front with their hands on top of their heads. Pretend prisoners of war.

The soldier in the tank's turret was beaming like an Olympic champion.

The officers' mess and the sergeants' mess subsequently dined on venison.

I don't think the Renaults ever left Canada. They were used only for training, and were invaluable for making Canadian tank men superb mechanics, which paid off in our two armoured divisions in WWII (4th and 5th) and two armoured brigades (1st and 2nd).

The arrival of the train load of Renault tanks at Camp Borden also ended the simmering feud with some longtime cavalry types, whose loyalty to the horse made them resent armour as the new weapon of mobility.

In subsequent years distinguished cavalry regiments switched to armour, yet kept their previous names: Royal Canadian Dragoons, Lord Strathcona's Horse, 1st Hussars, etc. In the pre-war days, when my father was trying to persuade the government that the next war would be fought mainly with tanks and the air force, some senior cavalry officers, who recalled the Boer War and early WWI, stymied his efforts.

As a kid I can remember by father railing at the dinner table, that so-and-so "was so goddam stupid he was often mistaken for a cavalry officer."

My mother's usual response: "Come now, Worthy, not in front of the children!"

In my childhood memory of the mid-1930s, based on my father's periodic dinner time rants, there were three great villains loose on earth: the Treasury Board which curtailed military spending; Mackenzie King, who as PM refused to see the danger of Germany; Hitler, who was spoiling for war. The order of villainy shifted from time to time.

I gather the restoration of the M1917 Renault tank unveiled at the War Museum is due to the generosity of Richard Iorweth Thorman, DEW Engineering, and Friends of the Canadian War Museum.

I know photographs exist of the arrival of the first Renaults at Camp Borden, and I hope they are on display at the museum -- they're more reliable than the memory of a small boy.