“We, who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young…..” “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young:” Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway (Random House -1992)
I will call him Jim—though that isn’t his real name. He is elderly now, a reserved gentleman who doesn’t speak much anymore about something that happened over half a century ago when he was a youth born and bred on Canada’s prairies and thrust as a young man into a strange and brutal world four thousand miles from his home, a worrisome world, a world at war.
“Jim” and his pals in the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment are the last living element of a remarkable chapter in our nation’s military history, a chapter which will fade away like the old soldiers that they have become—if something is not done to keep their legacy alive.
For Jim is a Canadian Kangaroo, a proud veteran who served in the only fighting regiment in Canada’s history that was formed, went into battle and was disbanded, without ever setting foot on Canadian soil.
This is his story. And theirs….
The place? Somewhere in Northwest Europe. The time? The summer of 1944.
By the end of July 1944, the Allies had punched their way out from the D Day beachhead at Normandy. The German front they faced was teetering on the verge of total collapse
Accordingly, Harry Crerar, General Officer Commanding 1st Canadian Army (North-West Europe) had instructed Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, commander of II Canadian Corps to plan a major operation to break through the German positions. The plan which unfolded—TOTALIZE- was to be the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy. Taking its name from the area around the town of Falaise, a place in which the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies had become encircled by the advancing Allies, the battle is historically referred to as ‘Falaise Gap’—after the corridor which the Germans sought to maintain to allow for their escape. The ensuing combat resulted in the destruction of the bulk of Germany’s forces west of the River Seine and opened the way to Paris and the German border.
TOTALIZE contained two features of marked originality- both required considerable preparation. One was the directed intervention of heavy bombers in a ground battle in darkness. The other was the use of what have since come to be called armoured personnel carriers in what seems to have been their first appearance on the battlefield.
To effect the latter purpose, Simonds ordered the conversion of US M7 Priest self-propelled guns into armoured personnel carriers capable of carrying twelve troops apiece. The Priests were taken from artillery regiments of the three infantry divisions involved in the initial D Day assaults on 6 June 1944. At a field workshop codenamed Kangaroo, they were stripped of artillery equipment, their front apertures welded over, their guns removed and armour-plate was welded over openings. The Allied navy personnel soon complained vociferously that Canadian soldiers were cutting pieces of plating out of craft stranded on the beaches; but to no avail. When the supply of armour-plate gave out, two sheets of mild steel were substituted with space between them filled with sand. And thus the Kangaroo was born.
To soldiers anxiously waiting on the ground at 2300 hrs on the night of 6th august 1944, the start of “TOTALIZE” was marked by the deep rumble of aircraft in the sky. Then came the rolling thunder of bombs as Halifaxes and Lancasters began to unload onto targets illuminated by artillery marker shells. A total of 1020 bombers took part in that assault and 3,462 tons of bombs were dropped on villages on the flanks of the main attack. The cost to Bomber Command was 10 aircraft.
Although the initial attack had not gone precisely as planned, the armoured infantry carriers and tactics based upon them were fully justified by the event. The Royal Regiment of Canada lost three killed and 25 wounded on 8 August, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry only one killed and 14 wounded, the Essex Scottish three killed and 17 wounded.
The marching infantry battalions suffered far more heavily by comparison. The Cameron Highlanders of Canada lost 30 killed and 96 wounded in their fierce struggle at Fontenay. Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal had eight killed and 17 wounded. The South Saskatchewan Regiment’s casualties were 16 killed and 42 wounded, the Calgary Highlanders’ 14 killed and 37 wounded.
The Kangaroos had proved their value and history was made.
When the “defrocked” Priests were returned to the US Army, modified Ram tanks were introduced into service in their stead. There was no question about converting Rams to their unique new role. Here was a machine which would have been only marginally successful in its original role as a cruiser tank, but which, divested of turret and main armament, was light, agile and possessing a comparatively low profile; in short, a perfect carrier of armed troops into battle. The Ram, a Canadian built tank manufactured by Montreal Locomotive Works, was found in great quantities in England, having been superseded as the battle tank by the Sherman which had been declared the standard for Commonwealth armoured formations.
A formal Kangaroo Squadron was subsequently organized on 26 Aug 1944 and attached to the Canadian Elgin Regiment for administrative purposes. Both the Elgins and Kangaroo Squadron were assigned to First Canadian Army. The second in command of the Elgins, Gordon M. Churchill, took command of the Kangaroo squadron in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
The Squadron was employed against Le Havre on 2 September 1944 carrying British soldiers of the 51st Highland Division, followed by actions at Boulogne and Calais. At Le Havre, only one infantry casualty was suffered and Kangaroo actions were again deemed successful. At Calais, a Canadian Kangaroo driver rammed a German Tiger tank capturing it and earning a Military Medal.
On 24 October 1944, an official communication was received which marks the official birth of the Regiment as an independent entity.
...By authority of the GOC 1st Canadian Army, 19 October 1944, the 1st Canadian Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron ceased to exist as a separate entity and became a squadron of the newly-created 1st Canadian Armoured Personnel Carrier Regiment. The Regiment to be commanded by Lieut. Col. Gordon M. Churchill, formerly 25th Canadian Armoured Delivery Regiment (Elgin Regiment) and 10 Canadian Armoured Regiment (Fort Garry Horse) with Major F.K. Bingham Sherbrooke Fusiliers and 1st Hussars as Second-in-Command. Regimental Headquarters to be at 83 van Ryswick St., Antwerp.
The new Regiment came under command of 31 Brigade of the British 79th Armoured Division. Accordingly, Canadians of 1CACR were authorized to wear the 79th ‘Bullshead’ flash. The same was painted on their vehicles, along with the unit designation “157” in white on a green-and-blue square.
The Regiment first went into action at ‘s-Hertogenbosch on 23 Oct 1944, followed by a number of battles- among them Schilburg, Boxtel, Esch, Moergestel, Kaatsheuvel, Waspik, Waspik-Boven, Raamsdonk and Laan. In the first two months of its existence the Squadron carried out thirty operational lifts.
A letter from the Kangaroo’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Churchill, to the Brigadier, Royal Armoured Corps at the headquarters of First Canadian Army dated 16 Nov 1944 spoke about the unique identity of the new unit.
“The sample badge herewith submitted represents the Kangaroo. This animal is in a sense associated in all minds with Australia, but the term ‘Kangaroo’ has been applied to this organisation from its inception in July ...and had become widely and favorably known throughout the field formations of the First Cdn Army and Second British Army. The Kangaroos of Canada have been in action successfully at Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, Schindel, St. Michills Gestel, Hertogenbosch, Geertruindenberg and Tilburg. It is difficult therefore, at this stage, to overlook the use of a term & a symbol that have become so closely associated with the activities of the regiment.
The motto of the regiment (was) taken from Virgil’s Aenid Bk II, where reference is made to the first “Kangaroo” recorded in history, namely the Trojan Horse which so successfully transported Greek Warriors right into the midst of the enemy’s fortifications. Freely translated the motto read: “It pours forth armed men.”
“...Arguments in favour of adopting the Kangaroo for the cap badge apply with equal force to the use of the word “Kangaroo” on the shoulder flash. The colour scheme makes use of black as used in the beret of the CAC & orange because of the link with Holland in which country the regiment has been formed.
:“The officers & other ranks who have served with the original squadron the last four months are unanimously in agreement upon the design of the badge & shoulder flash herewith submitted.”
On 1 November 1944, the Kangaroos moved formally to Tilburg, Holland- the acknowledged ‘birthplace’ of the Regiment. On 21 November 1944, a positive reply was received from Brigadier Royal Artillery (Canada). The name of the unit was to be 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment. Its cap badge worn on the black beret of the Canadian Armoured Corps was to be an erect Kangaroo above the legend “Armatos Fundit.”
The Regiment went into action again in January 1945 in the province of Limburg, assisting in a variety of assaults on Susteren, Baakenhoven, Dieteren, Oud Roosteren, Echt, Schilberg, Koningsbosch, Steaten, Erpen, and the German towns of Uetterath, Dremmen and Heinsberg.
In February 1945, the Regiment saw action in The Rhineland during Operation Veritable, taking part on attacks on Kranenburg, Frasselt, Schottheide, Bresserberg, Kleve, Moyland, Hasselt, the road to Veen and Xanten. After a short rest, the regiment participated in Operation Plunder. On 26 March 1945, it become the first Canadian armoured regiment to cross the River Rhine while also participating in Allied attacks on the Nazi held Dutch towns of Millingen, Megchelen, Landfort, Ruurlo, Borculo, Barchem, Lochem, Haarle, Assen, Hooghalen, Rolde, Balloo, Loon and Groningen.
The last lift of the war was made on German soil on 5 May 1945, near Oldenburg.
On 11 May 1945 the last full parade of the 1st CACR was held and Lieutenant Colonel Churchill addressed the Regiment.
“... The history of the Kangaroos is brief, extending only from the latter part of August to May ... but it is packed full of actions from Normandy to Germany.” And of sacrifice, “... a casualty list of 18 killed and 71 wounded ... the price of success. We honour today our comrades who made the supreme sacrifice.” Of distinction, “... the only Regiment to be formed in Holland ... Hence the orange colour we have adopted for our shoulder flash; the only Canadian Kangaroo Regiment and the pioneers in the British Army of that form of service; the only Canadian Regiment in the 79 British Armoured Division…. Further, by good fortune, we have achieved some “firsts” which no one can take from us;
... First Canadian Regiment to be entirely within Germany (January ‘45)
... First Canadian Regiment across the Siegfried Line (February ‘45)
... First Armoured Regiment of the Canadian Army to cross the Rhine. (26 March 1945)...”
The 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment concentrated at Penheim, Germany and at 23:59hrs on 20 June 1945, the Regiment disbanded.
During their brief existence, the Kangaroos had successfully conveyed soldiers from 38 separate British infantry regiments and 20 Canadian infantry regiments into battle.
Correspondence dated 14 June 1945 from the General officer Commanding Headquarters First Canadian army best captures their true value to the Allied war effort:
“even though no territorial affiliation exists for this unit, I respectfully draw your attention to the following points in support of the subsequent recommendation
A / armoured personnel carrier regiments was a purely Canadian conception and first used in a Canadian planned operation
B/ the 1 Canadian armoured personnel carrier regiment was the first unit of its time to be formed
C/ the regiment did outstanding work despite exceedingly difficult administrative, training and operational conditions
D/ a high regimental and service spirit developed within the unit
I therefore recommend that the establishment of 1 Canadian armoured personnel carrier regiment be retained as one of the fine Canadian traditions of this war and that its name be preserved and that it be considered in the planning for the post war organization of the Canadian army
Signed JG Bingham Brigadier
BRAC First Canadian Army
Time of signature 1750 B hrs
On 29 August 1958, thirteen battle honours were officially conferred upon the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment and approved for emblazonment on its regimental flag: Le Havre, Boulogne, 1944. Xanten, The Lower Maas, The Roer, The Rhineland, The Reichswald, Moyland Wood , Goch-Calcar Road, The Hochwald, The Rhine, Groningen, North-West Europe, 1944-1945
Although the Regiment was formally disbanded on 20 June 1945, official correspondence affirms that ‘....should there ever be another regiment established in the Canadian Army as a successor to the Kangaroos, they will have these battle honours on their colours.’
On a very positive note, the Canadian War Museum has recently managed to secure one of a handful of Ram Kangaroos yet in the world and is currently refurbishing it for display. In addition, the remaining 1st Armoured Carrier Regiment members and their families keep the memory of their fallen and deceased comrades alive through a small but vibrant Association and a loyal following of military history buffs exists on the web including Geoff Winnington Ball of Toronto, one of the driving forces behind a movement to give the Kangaroos a real Canadian home. (sites: 1cacr.org and mapleleafup.org refer) and Bill Miller of Calgary, the son of a Kangaroo trooper and another elegant keeper of the regimental flame.(canadiankangaroos.ca)
There are also a number of books written about the regiment. There is even an active Facebook group “Its time to bring the Kangaroos home” that all readers and friends of the regiment are encouraged to join.
The 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment has no Canadian soul, no visible manifestation of its existence in the very land that populated its ranks with gallant young men, some of whom did not return. Though it is entitled to battle honours, it does not even possess a regimental guidon—the calvary pendant which is the armoured corps equivalent to a regimental flag—and even if it did, there is no regimental church that the Kangaroos can call home.
“Jim” is old and soon he will indeed fade away. As the years dwindle to nothing, he will continue to attend the Remembrance Day Service in the prairie town of his youth, leaning on a cane at the cenotaph with a dwindling group of comrades. His back will stiffen and his eyes will mist over as the bugler sounds the Last Post. And his mind will certainly wander back then to those cold damp days in Holland. And… if asked… he will proudly explain that he was once member of an amazing and uniquely Canadian regiment. He was a Kangaroo.
As Canadians, the remarkable tale of the Kangaroos should be an integral part of our nation’s story and not merely cherished as the rapidly fading memory of a few brave men like Jim and others like him.
“For they were soldiers once, and young…..”
And now, before it is too late, it is indeed the right time for us to bring the Kangaroos home.
For this is his story. And theirs. Let us as Canadians, make it ours.
Chuck Konkel is an experienced Canadian police officer serving in one of Canada’s principal police forces. Prior to that he was an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police. He is the creator of Canada’s Hate Crime Law and is an acknowledged expert in Asian and Eastern European Organized Crime; training the National Police of Poland and travelling to Moscow to execute a search warrant. He is a book reviewer for a major Canadian newspaper and was for twelve years a lecturer of corporate communications at a community college. He has a masters degree in international relations and is the author of two best selling novels. He is currently at work on a third.
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