Had you walked into Aldershot sixty years ago you would have been pressed to find a British soldier anywhere in sight. For since Christmas 1939 the Canadian Army Overseas had made Aldershot their main base in the UK.
The first Canadian soldiers came to Aldershot for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations marking the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria's reign in 1897. The contingent which assembled at the Citadel, Quebec, consisted of 300 men, drawn from various militia regiments, commanded by Colonel Aylmer, the Adjutant General of Militia. The Infantry detachment included Major Henry Pellatt, of the Queens Own Rifles of Canada, who commanded a guard of honour at the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul's Cathedral.
Jubilee week itself saw twenty five thousand men of the British and Empire armies form up on Laffan's Plain for a celebratory parade and march past, reviewed by Queen Victoria. Besides the Canadians the Colonial Contingent consisted of detachments from India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
It was the year 1910 that has gone down in Canadian military history for an amazing event that probably will ever remain unique - the visit of the Queens Own Rifles of Canada to Aldershot to take part in the autumn manoeuvres. The Regiment was raised in April 1860 by combining six existing militia companies. In 1862 it expanded to ten companies and was then named Second Battalion, Queens Own Rifles of Toronto.
Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most colourful, of the Queen's Own Rifles' commanding officers was the millionaire financier and philanthropist, Sir Henry Pellatt. He was a man of great vision and foresight whose backing of land development in the far west, railways and electrical power made him one of the founding fathers of modern Canada.
The year 1910 saw the Queen's Own Rifles' Golden Jubilee. Sir Henry Pellatt felt that the celebrations should be marked by some memorable event and had discussed the possibility of a visit to England with the Governor General in 1909. The King heard of this scheme and gave it his whole hearted approval. Celebrations aside, it was felt by Sir Henry, a great patriot, and Lord Roberts, the Regiment's Honorary Colonel, that a visit to England by an Empire unit would demonstrate solidarity between Britain and the empire at a time of growing international tension.
So Sir Henry decided to bring a battalion of the Queen's Own Rifles to England to take part in the British Army's autumn manoeuvres and he personally paid for the sea passages of the whole contingent. Some 632 officers and men, assembled at the Toronto Drill shed on 13 august and sailed for Britain aboard SS MEGANTIC. A fellow passenger was Dr Crippen returning to England under guard to stand trial for the murder of his wife.
Arriving at Liverpool on 27 August, the "Overseas Battalion" encamped at Aldershot and settled down to some more hard training, hampered when six officers went down with typhoid. Lt R M Gzowski succumbed to the disease, the first member of the Regiment to die on overseas service. He is buried in the Aldershot Military Cemetery.
From 5-13 September, the Regiment took part in manoeuvres in the Alton area accompanied by a battalion of The Buffs and the friendships which grew up between the two regiments was to become an official affiliation which lasts to this day. The high point of the manoeuvres came in a mock battle with the East Yorkshire Regiment near Basingstoke, where the umpires decreed that the Queens Own Rifles had wiped out half the British battalion. At the end of September the regiment entrained for London, where they were billeted. The battalion sailed for Quebec aboard the SS CANADA reaching Toronto on 3 October to a civic welcome. It was not long before Canadian soldiers were back in this country, preparing for the First World War.
Although the great bulk of Canadian troops arriving in Britain early in the Great War were encamped on Salisbury Plain, three of the main Canadian bases were in the Aldershot Command area - Bramshott and Witley (mainly infantry) and Bordon (Artillery, Cavalry and Canadian Army Service Corps).
Bramshott Common was cleared of all buildings after World War One and in due course the government planted maple trees along the eastern edge of Bramshott Churchyard, where most Canadians are buried, and placed headstones on the graves. The War Cross was dedicated in April 1921 and little did anyone at that time guess that less than twenty years later the Canadian Army would be back in England again.
In 1939 the regular Canadian Army numbered only about 4,500, but with a steadily deteriorating political scene Canada had, since 1936, increased defence spending, mainly on the militia of which there were over a hundred regiments. Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939 Canada decided to raise two divisions for home defence or deployment overseas if called for. Volunteers flocked to the colours, nearly sixty thousand in September alone, and the British Government was informed that a division of Canadian troops would be available for deployment in Europe by December, provided the British could equip it.
The 1st Canadian Infantry Division arrived in Aldershot in December 1939 and January 1940, moving into barracks left empty since the British 1st and 2nd Divisions departed for France the previous September. It was a particularly bitter winter, the barrack blocks had little heating and the Canadians, though used to the cold, were not acclimatised to the damp British climate and they suffered much sickness. Few recall their sojourn in Aldershot that winter with pleasure.
But by the time the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division started arriving in July-August 1940 the weather was beautiful, the administration in the barracks had improved and with the threat of imminent invasion a sense of real purpose was about.
It was on 6 July 1940 that the Canadians suffered their first casualties of WW2. On a sunny afternoon men of 2 Army Workshop, Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps, were digging air raid shelters in Salamanca Barracks. A lone German bomber, which had probably failed to reach its target elsewhere, flew low over them firing its machine guns and dropping its bomb load which killed three men and wounded 29 others. A plaque in memory of the three killed was later placed on the wall of District HQ in Steeles Road.
The arrival of the 2nd Division brought Canadian troops in Britain up to 56,000 and on Christmas Day 1940 the Canadian Corps came into being, commanded by Lt Gen. McNaughton, who had initially brought over 1st Division. In the next eighteen months three more divisions and two tank brigades arrived, a second Corps was formed and all were put under command of a newly created First Canadian Army. This was the Army which fought alongside the British 2nd Army throughout the subsequent NW Europe Campaign, the two numbers being combined in the title of 21 Army Group commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery.
Throughout this time Aldershot was the main centre for Canadian units arriving in the UK. Initially most of their training was based upon Aldershot, but as successive formations received better training in Canada, so Aldershot and the surrounding camps became straightforward Reinforcement Units, with their Headquarters in what is now Wavell House. Before the war Aldershot Command, which included Deepcut, Blackdown, Ewshot, Bordon and Longmoor, could house about 25,000 soldiers. However with the sudden influx of both British and Canadian troops a large number of hutted camps were built. These included the reconstruction of the Canadian camps at Bramshott, Witley and Bordon, which had been dismantled after the First World War. Houses were commandeered, parks were taken over for stores and vehicle depots and country mansions became hospitals.
As the war went on the Canadians became part of the local scene and mutual relationships were extremely good. Children's parties were regularly organised, many Canadian soldiers married local girls (and some didn't) and many Canadians decided to stay in this country after the war. As the war in Europe drew to a close the reinforcement organisation turned to repatriation.
The repatriation process had begun as soon as the war in Europe was over. Over 400,000 soldiers returned to Canada in June and July and most of them passed through repatriation units in the Aldershot area. The return to barrack life after three years in the field produced inevitable problems of idleness and boredom and there were other complaints besides. Pay was restricted, food was poor both in quantity and quality and, worst of all, there is ample evidence that Aldershot shopkeepers and pub owners were only too willing to take advantage of the Canadians unfamiliarity with the unique British currency.
A number of Canadian soldiers who wanted to get home quickly had volunteered for service in the Far East. They thought they would thereby get an early boat home and reckoned there was a very good chance of the war being over by the time they arrived in Canada. Their ploy had not yet succeeded and they were getting impatient.
All kinds of occupations and entertainments were thought up like the "Khaki Universities" which were created to provide Canadian soldiers with higher education and job training. But inevitably tensions arose and led to outbursts of indiscipline, culminating in the Aldershot riots of 4-5 July 1945 when Canadian soldiers smashed over two hundred shop windows in Aldershot town centre.
On 4 July, a rumour began that three Canadian soldiers were in custody in Aldershot Police station. A crowd of about five hundred Canadian soldiers marched towards the station along Union Street, Wellington Street and Victoria Road, smashing windows all the way. On arriving at the police station the mob was calmed by a senior Canadian officer who allowed them to see for themselves that there were no Canadians in the cells. They then returned to barracks quietly.
The following night a crowd gathered in Prince's Garden and marched on Union Street, smashing those windows missed the night before. This time the violence took an ugly turn. Shopkeepers trying to protect their premises were threatened with physical violence and at one point a gun was drawn. Stones and bricks were thrown at passing cars. Canadian Military Police reacted forcefully, at one point replacing their truncheons with bottles.
Two hundred shops had been attacked and £15,000 worth of damage done, but there had been no looting and only £20 had been stolen. Exactly one hundred Canadian soldiers were charged and five were sentenced to jail by Courts Martial. The attitude of the average Canadian soldier to the riots was one of disgust.
The Canadian authorities immediately offered to arrange for the replacement of the glass and signalled Canada for a shipment. To their embarrassment the reply informed them that most Canadian glass came from England, so part of Canada's allotment from the Pilkington factory was diverted to Aldershot. On 6 July, General Montague, the senior Canadian officer in the United Kingdom, sent a letter of regret to Aldershot Borough Council condemning 'this small, irresponsible group of Canadian soldiers.'
That no feeling of animosity remained is witnessed by Aldershot Borough Council's decision to award to the Canadian Army Overseas the Freedom of the Borough of Aldershot. It was a token of appreciation of the Canadian's contribution to the victory over Hitler, and of the good relationship which had existed between Canadian troops and the people of Aldershot in the war years.
In a ceremony at the Aldershot sports ground on September 26 1945, the Canadian Army was represented by the Second Special Infantry Battalion, a composite unit formed for the occasion, and by a detachment of Canadian Women's Army Corps.
Marching into the packed stadium through street lined with cheering crowds, the Canadians first heard a speech by the Mayor of Aldershot who welcomed them:
to this historic ceremony - historic in the sense that this is the first occasion on which a Borough has presented its freedom to a complete overseas Army..This ceremony may be said not to be a gesture on the part of Aldershot, but rather as coming from the whole of the British Isles." The Town Clerk then read the formal Address which included the words.
...Friendly men they were, three or four thousand miles from home yet keenly conscious of home ties, and warmly appreciative of every effort we made to offer them a share in our home life... Many are the friendships formed, many the attachments which have led to the altar, and not a few Aldershot families have been saddened by the loss of friends who have made the supreme sacrifice...Our Canadian visitors... have expressed their gratitude in many ways by whole heartedly co-operating in our communal life, and not least by their most generous treatment of our children.
The Canadian Chief of Staff in England, General Montague, then accepted the Freedom Scrolls on behalf of the Canadian Army, and replied :-
"...Aldershot has been more than a place of bricks and mortar, training grounds and huts. It has been the centre of our life here in England. Here we have always been a good, happy family. A lot of our men have taken charming women as their wives and they have formed many friendships...Thank you for the great kindness and forbearance which has been shown to the men and women of the Canadian Army during the past five and a half years..."
We give you this assurance, that as long as the winds blow and the rivers run in Canada we will remain loyal to this mother country, and we shall never forget Aldershot." The playing of 'God Save the King' and 'Oh, Canada' was followed by a march past, with the Mayor taking the salute.
Throughout the autumn more Canadian troops passed through the repatriation units. More entertainments and occupations were arranged for them, including an enormous variety show, the Rhythm Rodeo, which played for a month under a "Big Top" erected in the grounds of a RCOC Vehicle Depot at Peper Harrow, nr Godalming. Children from all around were invited to a special performance on Christmas Day and each was given a present.
The last Canadian left Aldershot in April 1946 but the memory of them remains strong amongst the older population of the area.