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Peacekeeping memories: Canada's first mission to the Middle East.

With the events in the Middle East heating up, it brought back memories of the time I spent serving on so-called peacekeeping tours with the Canadian army. My experience was with the first contingent to be mounted in 1956 and again with the third contingent in 1958.

These were year-long excursions with nothing but boredom and mail. There was no entertainment save a movie for all comers. The movies were shown in the RCEME workshop and were generally black and white with the occasional colour flick, which was a great treat for the pongos. It was a time when you mailed a letter home and about two weeks later a reply would come back. There were no such things as e-mail, VCRs, DVDs or exercise equipment, but then we did not expect such luxuries even if they did exist. The initial tours of duty were for 12 months unless you were sent home early due to sickness, crimes, or you simply went off your head.

On December 28th, 1956 I was one of about 1,000 soldiers who left Canada via the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent for Egypt. I was one member of 150 personnel destined to create 56 Canadian Infantry Workshop, Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers (RCEME). Other Canadian units included the newly formed 56 Canadian Reconnaissance Squadron, RCCS, RCASC, RCOC, C Pro C, RCAMC, Postal Corps, and Headquarters Company.

We were the first Canadian contingent of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) and were generally referred to as the United Nations International Police Force. The force was struck by a United Nations Security Council mandate in November 1956 that dictated this international force would see the withdrawal of British and French forces from the Suez Canal zone and the Israeli forces from the Sinai Desert. Thus ending the 1956 war to determine ownership of the Suez Canal.

In the initial years of UNEF (I served two year-long tours in the first and third contingents) we were known as members of UNEF. I do not remember the name "peacekeeper" entering the lexicon in its present meaning until the early 1960s. I have always been of the opinion the name was used as a political ploy to demonstrate the kindness of the Canadian armed forces. I really cannot recall a so-called peacekeeping mission that was successful other than to allow one side or the other rearm for the next phase of their usually ongoing wars.

The first UNEF contingent was comprised of troops from Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Yugoslavia, and India. With the exception of the recce squadron, Canada was in support only. Canada originally planned to send the Queen's Own Rifles, that storied regiment from Western Canada, but they were denied "permission" to participate by Egyptian President Col. Abdul Nasser. It seems the unit's name offended him. The Queen's Own actually arrived in Halifax preparing to load to HMCS Magnificent when their orders were changed. Can you imagine? All those needles then returned to base. Other contingents were comprised primarily of infantry. I understand he also held veto on what arms the various countries could bring with their mission. We had the always trustworthy .303 and a Sten gun (9-mm machine gun) neither of which would be much good against heavy weapons.

How did I end up on this adventure? I was a young soldier who joined the army in November 1954 after basic training at Barriefield, Ontario with the RCEME. I was posted to Borden for an admin course and was then shifted to 210 Workshop with the Royal Canadian Artillery (Heavy Ack-Ack) in Picton, Ontario, hence to an advanced work detachment in Camp Gagetown for summer exercises in May 1956 where we were under canvas until October. I returned to Picton for about three weeks then posted to Branch Ag, "D" Personnel in Ottawa. That was November 26, 1956. Being the new inexperienced man, my work was mundane but things brightened with the establishment of UNEF and the demand for the 150 or so personnel for the workshop.

The selection process was an interesting exercise. For each position a minimum of 10 files of possible candidates were drawn. The selection process involved a detailed study of each candidate to determine suitability. I played a minor role. I learned the selection was based on something more than availability, but also on the candidate's overall survival skills (my interpretation) as much as anything else. Selections were made based on trade classification, overseas experience and crime sheet.

After several selections I asked why a soldier's disregard of Queen's regulations had a bearing on their acceptance? I was told that since this was the first such multinational force being mounted and guidelines on what they may expect were vague to say the least it was deemed important to have a group that could easily coalesce. That meant sending soldiers with a broad range of experiences. This was not limited to military experience but also their ability or inability to interact with the civilian authorities. I was told that there was really no way to assess exactly what the future of UNEF held. It was therefore better to send guys who would willingly meet any challenge thrown at them.

I learned later that the advance party for UNEF, who were flown into Abu Suweir, Egypt in late November 1956, were provided an intelligence report of questionable value. At one point the "I" officer spoke of their routing, and I'll paraphrase, "You will fly from Montreal to the Azores, then on to Naples and from Naples--Gawd knows where." I volunteered to go. The "D" Personnel Captain asked why I wanted to join the newly formed workshop. He was from Western Canada and wearing the Atlantic Star as well as five other ribbons. I said for the same reason he probably volunteered for the navy and I supposed that was because he wanted to see the ocean, which he did, in corvettes. He smiled, took the nominal roll, crossed off a name and added mine. I was on my way.

Thirty days after arriving at Personnel RCEME I was on my way to the Middle East aboard HMCS Magnificent. It was 41 days since my posting to Ottawa to January 11, 1957 when HMCS Magnificent hove into Port Said. At this point we were officially posted to 56 Canadian Infantry Workshop RCEME.

We were trucked to Abu Suweir, an Egyptian air field about 35 miles from Post Said. The base was a former RAF station during the difficult time in 1942 when the Allies were attempting to stop the advance of the Africa Korps under Rommell before he reached Cairo. Our UNEF arrival was not the first presence of Canadians at this station. In July 1942 approximately two-dozen Canadian RCAF aircrew were operating Wellington bombers flying in support of the British 8th Army. The RAF had been pushed back with the 8th Army in various desert battles with Rommell and it was only after their arrival at Abu Suweir that the tide turned in favour of the Allies. Then as the 8th Army advanced so did the RAF Wellington bomber support who moved up to Libya.

One interesting thing I also learned on the history of Canadian flyers supporting the 8th Army was one Canadian from Prince Edward Island (Charles Trainor) claimed responsibility as the pilot of the fighter aircraft that strafed Rommell's staff car and wounded the "Desert Fox." Rommell was sent to Germany for recuperation and became involved in the attempted coup against Hitler. There was controversy on the attack of Rommell's staff car since another Canadian (Charles Fox--Ontario) flying in the same squadron claimed he was responsible. Needless to say I don't suppose we will ever know the truth, but one old flyer told me if Trainor claimed responsibility you could depend on his word. This decorated flyer was not someone known to be self-promoting. It would be interesting to see the respective logbooks of these pilots. But I digress.

We were in Abu Suweir for about three months before moving to Rafah in the Sinai Desert. In our time in Abu Suweir it offered this novice soldier, a RCEME craftsman (a sophisticated name for private), some insights into what exactly we were involved with. It was in the first few days my name was on the duty roster for sentry duty. On the appointed night five or six of us appeared at the company sergeant major's (CSM) office to be given our instructions for the night duty. After he completed his instructions I asked for ammunition for my .303 rifle and was told there would be no ammo issued. I then asked what we should do if an incident occurred?

"Well ..." said the CSM, a man of British birth with service in WWII from the ribbons he carried, he said something like, "Should something happen I suggest you move up on the problem area, just cock the bolt of the .303. That should scare the bastards away."

Of course we said "Yes sir" praying to God nothing would happen. You must remember we've moved onto an Egyptian air base the British, French and Israelis had bombed during the short 1956 war. Our electrical supply was from our own unit generators, which created only enough power to provide the necessary power for operations in the workshop. There were no external lighting systems. Not much wire had been laid and it seemed there was unlimited access for intruders. When the sun set it was as black as the inside of a camel's gut.

Away we go, the noble Canadians, on duty for the first time and, speaking for myself, scared for two reasons. I had no idea of what to expect nor did anyone else and we had no ammo if something did happen. Which it did.

In the late night it became apparent someone was trying to make their way into the welding shop that was a bit removed from the main workshop area. Two of us moved up as quietly as we could. Once the welding shop was seen in silhouette against the skyline we did as we were told. We cocked the bolt of the .303. They, you will recall, make a distinctive "click-click" sound.

We waited a few seconds preparing to move in closer when we heard a corresponding "click-click" from the welding shop. I made a hasty judgement that the other rifle could be loaded. I immediately nudged my partner and we eased back to a safer position.

Next morning the CSM lined up the overnight sentries demanding a report on how the welding shop had been pilfered. His comments were colourful as he expressed a fervent need to know who was on duty in that zone at the time. Being the bravest of the brave, I said, "I was sir."

"What the bloody hell happened?" he asked.

I said, "Sir, we followed your orders to the letter. When we advanced on the noise of the break-in and once at the site did as you ordered. We cocked the bolts of the rifles and when we heard a returning weapon being cocked we moved back. I had no intention of trying to apprehend a thief especially since he had a weapon I had to assume he also had ammo, sir."

We never heard another word, but nor did we get any ammo until we moved up to Rafah sometime in April 1957.

While in Abu Suweir it was common to see other contingent members carrying their side arms when in villages and towns around the base including Ismailia. We felt vulnerable and I suppose stupidly brave. A case in point was one night in the Voyageur Hotel in Ismailia. We were seated at the bar in the following order. An Egyptian, Bob, Ian and then me. It was late and we had enjoyed the hospitality of the bar. Suddenly Ian tensed, looked toward Bob when he saw the Egyptian pull a pistol on Bob. Ian didn't hesitate. He reached across Bob, snatched the pistol from the hand of the Egyptian and, with the delicacy and deliberation of an instrument technician, proceeded to pour his drink, a screwdriver, down the barrel of the .22 Berretta pistol. After he had drained his glass, with vodka and orange juice slopped across the bar, on his hands, and on Bob, Ian slowly reached across Bob, working hard to maintain a certain level of drink in the barrel, and presented the gun to the Egyptian. The Egyptian took his pistol, muttering to himself, got up and left the bar. Bob turned to Ian and said, "He was only showing me the G.D. thing."

Lloyd C. McKenna's "Peacekeeping Memories" will conclude in the next issue.
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Author:McKenna, Lloyd C.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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