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Cold Signs: Winter Exercise Patches 1944-1950

September 17, 2016

© B.Alexander 2016

Over time, cloth sleeve insignia has evolved from identifying positions of authority and membership in units, regiments or formations to incorporate other purposes, including participation in short term operations or taskings. Intended to be worn only for the duration of the particular deployment, this use for Canadian insignia appeared during the Second World War. Unique formation patches were worn by some Canadian personnel participating in Task Force 9, the invasion of Kiska.  Ordered taken down when these units returned to Canada, their issue had established a precedent. Unique patches for a short term deployment were issued for personnel participating in winter exercises held in northern Canada.

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Formation patches worn by Canadians of the 13th Infantry Brigade participating in Task Force 9, the invasion of Kiska. Author’s collection

Defence of the northern reaches of Canada took on a new priority towards the end of the Second World War. The spectre of Soviet Russian expansionism impacted strategy and operations; developing the capability to defend Canada’s northern territory in the event of an incursion or invasion figured prominently in NDHQ planning. The army recognized the need to develop winter warfare capabilities and staged several exercises for this purpose. Over the winter of 1944-45, Exercise Eskimo was held in northern Saskatchewan to test equipment and develop doctrine for dry cold conditions. Two other exercises were held the same winter; Exercise Polar Bear and Exercise Lemming. Exercise Polar Bear, a corollary to Ex Eskimo was held in northern British Columbia and was intended to test equipment and doctrine for wet cold conditions. Exercise Lemming, conducted in late winter, focused on operating vehicles in barren lands of the far north.  Approximately 1750 personnel were committed to Ex Eskimo, another 1150 to Ex Polar Bear, but only 17 personnel were assigned to Lemming.[1]

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The exercise patch created for Exercise Eskimo held in northern Saskatchewan over the winter of 1944-45. Author’s collection

A special patch was made for Ex Eskimo. In white embroidery on a blue Melton circle, it shows an igloo with a plume of smoke and the North Star in the upper right quadrant. A white half circle border is embroidered around the upper half of the tasking sign. The patch was intended to identify participating personnel only for the duration of the exercise. Consistent with contemporary formation sign policy, the patches were worn on both sleeves. Photo evidence indicates that they were worn both on battledress and winter parkas. It is not known if the patch was also worn by the personnel of Ex Polar Bear, the wet cold scheme held in British Columbia.  The small size of Ex Lemming and its remote location make it unlikely the patches were issued to this group. Along with the exercises’ stated purposes of testing uniforms and equipment, the patches were subjected to evaluation. At the end of the scheme the patches were deemed acceptable.

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The Ex Eskimo patch was worn in battledress as well as on the parka and was displayed on both sleeves.

In the winter of 1946, a far more ambitious non-tactical exercise was mounted. Designated Exercise Musk Ox, it was “intended to study the problems of living and moving with over-snow vehicles in the Arctic barrens in winter”. A team of army personnel would navigate the Arctic barrens, starting in Churchill Manitoba, proceeding north, circumventing the Northwest Territories, and finally heading south to end in Edmonton Alberta, 3100 miles later. The convoy was manned by 48 officers and men plus some observers, with an additional 221 army personnel in supporting roles. Resupply of the expedition was by 1 Air Supply Unit No 9 Transport Group RCAF. [2]

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Patch worn for Exercise Musk Ox, held over the winter of 1946. Author’s collection

As with the previous year’s exercise, Ex Musk Ox personnel wore a unique tasking patch. Reflecting the land, sea and air elements, and their round, fully embroidered, cut edge, patch had representations of an aircraft, a naval vessel and once again an igloo. These were placed on a background of arctic mountains and a fjord. The fully embroidered patch was made with field colours in white and pale blue, with details picked out in black embroidery and a black embroidered border. Photo evidence indicates the patch was worn on both sleeves of the battledress tunic. The patches were worn by both the convoy team and supporting elements.  The patches became redundant with the successful conclusion of Ex Musk Ox in the spring of 1946.[3]

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After 1946, dedicated arctic exercises fell off the agenda for NDHQ.  Demobilization of the army and setting and implementing post war defence policy pushed arctic adventures to the back-burners of the planners in Ottawa. That abruptly changed. The growing Soviet threat and the strategic importance of the north necessitated a military capability to defend Canadian sovereignty. The US Army, already interested in northern operations, had staged Exercise Yukon, held only in Alaska, from late 1947 into March 1948. Concepts and doctrine for winter warfare were tested.  For the participating elements of 2nd Division, US Army, a special fully embroidered shoulder arc reading Exercise Yukon, in white on black was issued. With no Canadian military participation in this exercise, no Canadians were issued the arc.

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No Canadians participated in Ex Yukon. Author’s collection

A year and a half later, in February and March 1950, a joint US-Canadian scheme named Exercise Sweetbriar was held in Alaska and the Yukon. Based on the premise of an enemy incursion into an area along the Alaska Highway, a combined operations response was launched to eliminate the threat. Elements of the US 5th Army and the Canadian army including 1 PPCLI, an artillery troop from the RCHA, an Air OP Section, detachments from the RCE, RCCS, RCAMC, RCASC, RCEME, and the C Pro C, supported by elements of the RCAF conducted tactical exercises to test winter warfare doctrine and the equipment of both armies. As part of the exercise, a company of the PPCLI staged an air assault on an objective in extremely cold weather.

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Cover page of the post-exercise report for Exercise Sweetbriar. Author’s collection

To mark participation in Exercise Sweetbriar, a shoulder arc, (called a “blaze” in period documentation, but more commonly called tabs), was issued. The fully embroidered cut edge title read US ARCTIC CAN embroidered in white on a blue field with a red embroidered border. The US 5th Army components were issued the blaze, to be worn above the army formation sign. Evidence shows some Canadian personnel wearing the titles, but it is not clear if the entire contingent wore the arc during the exercise. It has been suggested that the tabs were given to Canadian participants as a souvenir.[4]

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Two variants of the shoulder title worn by some Canadians at Exercise Sweetbriar, held in February and March 1950. Author’s collection

The patches worn for Exercises Eskimo, Musk Ox and Sweetbriar marked a transition in the purpose of formation signs worn by the Canadian army.  In addition to identifying a formation or unit, the signs now marked participation in an exercise and served to show the short term tasking of the personnel. Ultimately they became a souvenir for the participants. This would become a common practice for many future deployments.


Notes

[1]Halliday, Hugh A. (1997) “Recpaturing the North: Exercises “Eskimo,” “Polar Bear” and “Lemming,” 1945,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 6: Iss. 2, Article 4. Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol6/iss2/4

[2] “Exercise Musk-Ox”, Reports Re, Dept of External Affairs, General File No. 8458-40. RG 25 Vol. 3811. And Thrasher K.M. Exercise Musk Ox: Lost Opportunities, M.A. Thesis Submission, Dept of History, Carleton University, 1998. LAC distribution.

[3] Halliday, Hugh A. (1998) “Exercise “Musk Ox”: Asserting Sovereignty “North of 60”,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 7: Iss. 4, Article 4.Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol7/iss4/4

[4] Rottman, Gordon L., SFC. “The US and Canadian Arctic Blaze” publisher unattributed and undated. Clipped article found in an LAC file.

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