Diggers: Canada's underground specialists.
They were a feisty lot with a common contempt for things southern, and Toronto-bashing was endemic. There was Harry Oakes who arrived broke after prospecting around the world, struck gold, and brought in the Lake Shore which made him the richest man in Canada. As Sir Harry, the most taxed, he moved on to the Bahamas where he was spectacularly murdered in 1943. Bill Wright was a former painter's apprentice who staked claims adjacent to Oakes. He later bought The Globe & Mail and kept his prospecting gear in an office corner as a reminder of where he came from in case the newspaper business didn't pan out.
Roza Brown was a pungent Hungarian entrepreneuse who helped grubstake Hargreaves and Oakes. Dressed in rags and a fur coat in all seasons and surrounded by a pack of feral dogs, she roamed the town haranging passers-by on the issues of the day. When Town Council condemned some shanties she owned (which were being used as brothels), Roza, an avid monarchist, simply draped them with bunting and Union Jacks and announced that they were gifts to the Crown. Council was not amused. Her neighbour, the Chinese immigrant Charlie Chow, once loaned the Royal Bank $250,000 in small bills to meet a mine payroll. Except for banks, money was seldom a problem in a town where the mines produced $8 billion over the years.
In addition to gold and wealthy eccentrics, the town produced more NHL hockey players per capita than any other place in Canada. A cenotaphlike monument listing their names stands near Government Road, the town's main street. It produced sailors, soldiers and airmen too, who served with great distinction in every theatre of war in both World Wars and Korea. In the Second World War, many served as infantrymen alongside fellow northerners in the Algonquin Regiment under the proud Cree regimental motto: "NE-KAH-NE-TAH" (We Lead, Others Follow). Their progress from the beaches of Normandy through Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland and into Germany is commemorated in framed front pages from the "Northern Daily News" and period photographs in the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Others put their mining skills to use. Wally Floody, "the Tunnel King," who designed the tunnels at Stalag Luft III during the Great Escape, was a graduate of a local mine. So too were many of the engineers, sappers and hard-rock miners of the No. 1 Tunnelling Company.
Practitioners of the ancient art of siege warfare, they were the least visible of Canada's soldiers - and the least remembered. The first modern tunnelling companies were formed in response to German activities on the Western Front early in the Great War. As the Front became static, there was a growing appreciation of the need for some means of destroying the enemy's trenches before an attack, or of cratering No-Man's-Land to provide cover for advancing troops. The Germans took the lead, blowing a dozen mines beneath the British line along a half mile of trenches near Festubert in the Ypres Salient in December, 1914. While the shocked troops of the Indian Sirhind Brigade dug themselves out, German infantry pounced on their devastated positions. Morale was badly affected and some units grew so jittery that they had to be withdrawn from the line. After more explosions in February, 1915, Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, authorized the formation of special mining and counter-mining formations attached to engineering field companies.
Since the Royal Engineers lacked the required experience, skilled volunteers were recruited from the mining industry. Commanded by the flamboyant John Norton Griffiths, a former Member of Parliament known as "Empire Jack," and offered handsome pay by Army standards, they confounded the High Command with their stubborn independence. One company, paraded for the first time, sent a delegation to inform the commanding officer that "drill or any form of military training was not in their `contract.' " The Canadians were an independent lot as well, equally contemptuous of military etiquette. Formed into a single unit, the 3rd Tunnelling Company, Canadian Engineers in mid-January, 1916, with a distinctive red "T" shoulder flash, they assumed responsibility for all mining in the Canadian Corps area south of Ypres. They were soon joined by two other companies recruited at home from coal and hard-rock miners in Central and Eastern Canada, Alberta and British Columbia.
Like infantrymen, they spent alternating periods of several days in the front line and in the rear. At the front, they worked eight hour shifts in pairs in narrow tunnels lit by candle light and ventilated by hand-cranked bellows. One man dug while the other filled sandbags which were dragged out on ropes by the men at the tunnel mouth. Cave-ins were a constant hazzard. From time to time they would come upon decomposing bodies from previous battles which had to be removed and smothered in quicklime. Absolute silence was essential for if the Germans detected the sound of digging, they would explode a charge in the area to shake the tunnels down. German and Canadian companies often mined close together and races developed to complete the work and detonate a mine ahead of the enemy. There were no second prizes. Occasionally, the tunnels actually met and eerie subterranean battles ensued.
By the autumn of 1916, 33 British and Canadian tunnelling companies were operating on the Western Front under the authority of a Controller of Mines at GHQ. That year, they blew 750 mines to their opponents' 696. The next year, as part of the Passchendaele offensive, they blew the greatest mine of all at the Messines Ridge. Some of the tunnels under the Ridge ran an unprecedented 3,000 feet and had been planned as far back as the end of 1915 in anticipation of an assault. Month after month the miners inched forward, fighting underground battles, coping with tunnel collapses and German camouflets. A mechanical borer from the London Underground was put into use but was abandoned eighty feet underground when it bogged down in the Flanders' clay. At 3 A.M. on the morning of June 6, they set off nearly a million pounds of gunpowder and ammonal in an explosion that was distinctly heard in London and reputedly at Dublin, 500 miles from the Front. The entire summit of what was left of the ridge was overrun by noon.
The tunnelling companies were also employed in more constructive activities, assisting engineer battalions and building subways and dugouts leading to the trenches. At Vimy, the Canadians bored six miles of tunnels and carved out a Headquarters, communications centres and dressing stations, the entire complex serviced with electric light and a narrow gauge railway for excavating soil. When the tunnel entrances were blown at Zero Hour on the morning of the assault, the infantry emerged wraithlike onto the battlefield with complete surprise.
At the outbreak of the WWII, R.A. Bryce, President of the Ontario Mining Association, recalled the diggers' achievements at Messines and Vimy and was quick to offer the expertise of his members to study the feasibility of adapting mining techniques to crack the fortifications of Germany's Siegfried Line. Newly-recruited miners, were assigned to the 12th Field Company, RCE, of Winnipeg and proceeded overseas with the third flight of Canadian troops in January 1940. Mustered into the No. 1 Tunnelling Company, a few crossed the Channel in May to survey a planned Canadian base area near St. Valery-en-Caux. The rest were packed and ready to go when France was overwhelmed.
As the Army settled down in bleak barracks at Aldershot for a seemingly endless round of training excercises, the diggers set off on a grand tour of the British Isles - a busman's holiday. With British sources of tin cut off by the Japanese occupation of the Malay Peninsula, they moved into Cornwall to reopen mines dating from Roman times. In the ancient mines, they drilled, blasted out adits and opened up old shafts to reach the remaining deposits. They also assisted the British Ministry of Supply in developing deposits of flurospar, hematite, manganese, zinc and wolfram. By August, 1942, the No. 1 Tunnelling Company had eight separate detachments searching for strategic minerals in northern England, Wales and the Shetland Islands. A separate detachment, equipped with diamond drills, set off for Gilbraltar.
Italy's entry into the war in June, 1940, had greatly increased the importance of the Rock and called attention to the fact that its defences had been sadly neglected. The Canadians set to work with a vengeance blasting down limestone scree from the face of the Rock to provide fill for extending the airfield runways into the Bay of Algeciras. This was a vital project; without it, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, launched in November, 1942, might not have been practical. "Gibraltar," Eisenhower later wrote, "made possible the invasion of northwest Africa."
In the heart of the Rock, they excavated galleries, magazines, resevoirs and "Harley Street," an east west tunnel leading to the bombproof Gort's Hospital. Off duty, they bathed at a few small, sandy beaches for relief from the torrid summer heat or aimlessly strolled the streets of Gibraltar town whose 20,000 civilians had been evacuated to the English countryside. They too soon longed for England. "On behalf of all of us, I want to wish Godspeed and good luck to our Canadian tunnellers," the Governor told them months later as they happily prepared to leave. "You are the only Dominion troops we have had on the Rock, and you have carved out a monument which will stand as long as the Rock remains. You have done a great job of work and we wish you all good fortune and good sound rock wherever you may go."
Good sound rock awaited them in the north of England when they started work on a hydro-electric project in the spring of 1942. After building surface plants, a coffer-dam to prevent flooding, hoist-shop, machine-shop and a compressor-house, they began boring into the face of a mountain in a frantic race to meet civilian workers tunnelling from the other side. After a slow start, they increased their footage from eighty feet a day in May to one hundred in July and August and a hundred and ten in October. On November 26, they registered a record one hundred and forty-two feet. Cave-ins injured several men and Cpl James Hendry lost his life in a gallant attempt to extinguish a fire in a powder magazine. He was posthumously awarded the second George Cross won by the Canadian Army. On December 15, fortified by extra rations and game poached from neighbouring estates, the afternoon shift hit the pilot hole of their competitors' tunnel and three days later, with local dignitaries on hand, Brig C.S.K. Hertzbeg, Chief Engineer of the Canadian Corps, fired the last charge.
The diggers get together from time to time and, like veterans everywhere, reminisce about old friends and the good times. They remember leaves in London, village pubs, dances in country parish halls, evenings on Gibraltar. They remember Harry Oakes too, and Bill Hargreaves, Roza Brown and Kirkland Lake in boom times. Then, wistfully, the conversation moves on to rumours of gold and diamond prospects in nearby townships. Now, there's the stuff of dreams.