Details of the Radar chain that protected Canada's west coast against the one-time possible attack by Japanese were revealed exclusively to The Vancouver Sun today. In darkness and daylight, in fog, rain or sunshine, month in and month out, the war's most fabulous development gave British Columbians the safety behind which they were able to live and work.
For almost four years the invisible all-seeing eye of radar scanned sea and sky from the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle to the International Boundary for the expected approach of the enemy. He could not have come within 100 miles of the coast before his presence was detected by some of the 800 RCAF personnel who manned the chain.
History of radar in BC is not the glamorous, action packed story of similar organizations in England and on the fighting fronts. It is story of lonely vigils in outposts and utter boredom that can only come in complete isolation, the monotony of constantly repeated tasks and little or no diversion.
Late in 1941 it was decided that radar protection was top priority for east and west coasts. The decision for the establishment of the chain in British Columbia was just out of the typewriters of stenographers when the skeleton organization went into action. Most important factor for operation of a radar station is location, which must be high above the surface of the sea and have an unobstructed "view" of all possible approaches of attack. Parties of RCAF technicians traveled up and down the coast in aircraft and boats to select the sites to be used, and out of the mass of material they collected in a short time, they chose the locations for the electronic defence posts. No thought of comfort for personnel or ease of communication entered into the considerations of the scouting parties. Efficiency of operation was the only factor to be considered. The other difficulties would be solved.
And so the party selected, Langara Island, Marble Island and Cape St. James, in the Queen Charlottes; Spider Island, between Vancouver Island and the Charlottes; Cape Scott, Ferrer Point, Amphitrite Point, Tofino and Patricia Bay, on Vancouver Island, and Sea Island on the mainland.
Builders and technicians moved into Amphritite Point in December 1941, and started construction of the first radar station that guarded the approaches to Vancouver.
Other construction and installation work went ahead with amazing facility and Canada's west coast had its protective screen in a minimum of time. All of these installations were of the general purpose type of station known in the radar parlance as "CHL", which means "Chain Home Low", or "Chain Low Angle", the stations which defeated Germany's wave-hopping aircraft in attacks on England's coastal targets. Aircraft could be detected up to 150 miles depending on their altitude, and surface vessels were made visible to keen-eyed watchmen from 30 miles away. Filter rooms, where operational data is collected and analyzed before being passed on to fighter, bomber, and other stations, were established at Prince Rupert and Victoria.
Every item of equipment that went into the radar gear was manufactured in Canada by Research Enterprises Limited, the government owned plant at Leaside Ontario, an outgrowth of the National Research Council. Basic electrical design of the gear came from England, which pioneered in radar detection, but the circuits were redesigned for the use of Canadian radio tubes, thus eliminating supply problems.
Mechanical design of the equipment was entirely Canadian, and a great amount of the Canadian equipment was supplied to the United States when requirements of radar installations here were met. The west coast stations were self-contained units, and besides the CHL equipment, maintained radio navigational aid -beacons for guidance of friendly aircraft, and gear for the identification of aircraft coming in.
Plots on ships were passed up to the navy, and communication with filter rooms and other supervisory units were maintained by landlines terminating in frequency modulation links and straight radio telephone.
Ground controlled interception units were established at Patricia Bay and Sea Island to guide fighters to enemy aircraft that dared to penetrate the defences.
Day in and day out a 24-hour watch was maintained on these stations, which saved Canadian aircraft of greater value than the entire cost of installing the chain, as well as providing an infallible defence.
Leave for the personnel manning these stations was scarce and the transportation problem was hazardous. In some cases men had to be swung ashore in cradles suspended from overhead lines. Weather was so bad at times, that mail and supplies could not be got into the stations for two or three weeks at a time. When the sea was calm enough, the supplies and building materials were taken ashore on rafts.
On Canada's West Coast radio transmission and reception was unreliable, to say the least, at that time - often due to turbulent weather, coupled with the mountainous terrain, etc. Landline communication circuits were installed in many places to make sure connections from coastal Radar and other defence sites would be sure to reach Command Control Centres in Victoria and Vancouver.
#9 CMU headquarters and its orderly room had been established in RCAF #2 Equipment Depot, Kitsilano, Vancouver, almost under the Burrard St. bridge where it touches land at Kitsilano after spanning False Creek. I think I recall it may have had a Chestnut St. address. RCAF buildings have long since gone and the area is now known as Vanier Park. Included on the Equipment Depot property were wharf facilities on False Creek. This allowed small military boats to arrive and leave for points north, up the coast, with personnel, supplies, machinery, and construction materials directly from #9 CMU headquarters.
These small boats, which provided much of the transportation for #9 CMU, were mostly small seagoing fishing vessels. Some taken from Japanese internees, and boats expropriated by the government for wartime service, or lent to the government for the duration of the war by generous citizens wishing to contribute something to the war effort. Some of these boats eventually found their way into the RCAF Marine Section, the RCASC, and the RCNVR. Two boat names come to mind that wore the RCAF Roundel; the "Midnight Sun"; a small fishing boat, and the "Deer Leap", a slightly larger MV that was lent by the Woodward family who operated a department store in Vancouver. Another boat, the "Lady Rose" a small coastal packet steamer, was taken over by the RCASC in 1942. It transported most of the Army and Air Force, including # 9CMU personnel, mail, etc, back and forth between Port Alberni on Vancouver Island and RCAF Station, Ucluelet. As of this date this ship is still in service making stops along the coast.
Sometimes these boats would carry #9 CMU personnel and also tow a barge loaded with construction supplies and equipment. This could be particularly hazardous in rough seas. At the time of the loss of the "BC Star" with all on board, it was thought to have been caused by the barge in tow, sinking, and dragging the boat down with it.
Construction and maintenance of telephone lines by # 9 CMU was carried out under a variety of mostly adverse conditions. Few, if any, connecting roads existed up the coast of mainland BC or on Vancouver Island, or on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Men, material and supplies had to be landed from boats as close to the work site as they could get. This in itself was no easy task and much of the material had to be carried on backpack boards through thickly forested areas and often over very rough terrain. Temporary tent work camps housed personnel. The size of the work forces varied depending on the size of the job at hand.
From my own experience, everything about those tent work camps was always WET, including the insides of the tents. Rain and winds seemed to be endless. #9 CMU issued outer clothing and hats called Bone-Dries (supposed to keep you dry), made of a heavy material. We eventually would sweat in these outfits, and the outfits would eventually leak so that we were wet both inside and outside most of the time.
#9 CMU remote tent work camps and line maintenance sites received Coast Watch rations, which were equivalent to a standard ration plus one third. No power was available on most sites, therefore no refrigeration. So most rations were canned or dehydrated. Fresh meat, fruits and vegetables were a rarity. The RCASC had stocks of dried rations destined for our Army in Hong Kong, but when it fell to the Japanese in 1941, these stocks eventually became part of our rations.
#9 CMU had very definite rules about not getting involved with native people who inhabited coastal villages, and to respect their property and lifestyle. Non-native people were few and far between in the remote areas, and we missed not having the company of young ladies of our own age group. Personnel on some line maintenance sites that happened to be close to more populated areas made friends with the locals and sometimes became involved in home and church visits and social gatherings, dances, etc.
Three non-native people come to mind that lived in separate places in the northern part of Vancouver Island. Their help was invaluable to #9 CMU maintenance people. At first they usually referred to us disdainfully as "you city slickers from down East", which I suppose some of us were. But as time went by they taught us about ocean tidal patterns, how to tell what weather conditions were coming, all about animals in the forest, which to be afraid of, which not to be afraid of, types of trees, plants, which ones were edible and which ones were not, etc, etc.
The government had issued them carbines and asked them to watch remote coastal areas for signs of unusual or enemy activity. I believe they were known as Coast Rangers.
They were recluses, each in his own eccentric way, but they became firm friends with some of us. We in turn helped them occasionally with chores that required young muscles.
Remote line maintenance sites typically were prefabricated wooden buildings, always referred to as "shacks", with a number. These buildings had been transported in and erected sometime before our arrival, possibly by other #9 CMU personnel, or perhaps by Army construction units. Four bunks with straw mattress and several blankets and a firewood cook stove were provided. Drinking water was obtained from whatever stream or lake that could be found nearby. Two kerosene or gasoline lanterns provided light.
A number of these telephone lines were simply a single circuit of two #14 gauge copper wires on side blocks fastened to trees. Tree climbing spurs and safety belts were a must. Machetes for slashing through forest undergrowth were also a #9 CMU issue. The line usually would follow an irregular foot trail through the forest, up and down steep ravines, over rough rocky areas, and across very difficult terrain. No vehicles here, everything done on foot and most things done by hand labour. Material and supplies were carried on backpack boards.
Remote maintenance site personnel usually consisted of three telecom persons and a GD person who acted as a cook. (Truly some of them were only "acting" as cooks!)
Isolation was a factor. The only contact with the outside world was through the mail (which was often delayed, along with rations, if rough water or storms prevented supply boats making their rounds), and also through a small battery operated table radio supplied to each shack by the YMCA/YWCA. Radio reception was poor and only intermittent although we most often got music and the news from stations in California. Radio batteries ran down and replacements were difficult to come by. At one point some of us were "adopted" by girls from a "Friday Night Club" in Vancouver. These were teen-age students who wrote to us, sent the odd battery and perhaps some cookies, and became our friends although I never got to actually meet any of them.
Telephone line patrols and inspections were ongoing on a daily basis. Storm damage caused the most problems requiring repairs to the lines.
RCAF Station Ucluelet and RCAF Station Tofino were on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. To reach these stations from Vancouver, the trip consisted of a ferryboat ride to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, followed by an uncomfortable bus ride to Port Alberni. Usually an overnight stay was required here. Beds in private homes (some complete with bed bugs!) could be had for 25 cents a night. Early the next morning a boat ride on perhaps the "Lady Rose" or the "Uchuk I" would eventually get personnel to Station Ucluelet. Speculation always centred on how rough the trip might be as the boat headed toward open water near Ucluelet. Personnel going on to Station Tofino, would eventually be picked up by truck to go the rest of the way. Usually a long and tedious trip from Vancouver.
Station Ucluelet was for seaplanes mostly PBYs and Stranraers; Station Tofino for land planes, mostly Curtis P40 Kittyhawks. These two stations had recently been connected by a road pushed through the bush, a distance of about 16 miles. This road approximately followed the shoreline; part of which I think was called Long Beach, now part of the larger area known as Pacific Rim National Park. The pristine beaches and tidal flats of that area that we know today were at that time covered with randomly placed piles, - logs driven into the ground sticking up 6 or 8 feet. This was to prevent the landing of Japanese aircraft. In many places along the edge of the tree line at the beaches, sandbagged entrenchments and bunkers had been dug, all vacant, but ready for when the expected eventual Japanese invasion took place.
On June 20, 1942, a coastal Light House & Radio TX site at Estevan Point, about 40 miles north of Station Tofino, had been shelled by a Japanese submarine, which had surfaced offshore. Locals thought the invasion was about to start.
Alongside this newly constructed Ucluelet/Tofino road, #9 CMU built a pole line to connect the two stations together. Weather at the time was particularly poor, and postholes and anchor holes were hand dug with considerable difficulty in the wet gumbo clay, mixed with rocks and endless tree roots.
Two ten pin cross arms of open wire (copper #14 gauge) were placed, which provided about 10 circuits.
Our crew of #9 CMU for this job consisted of about 20 to 25 men. We were attached to Station Tofino for rations & quarters. For those of us who had experienced tent work camps, this was like living in a posh hotel; showers, hot & cold running water, dry bunks, electricity and above all a proper mess hall with good meals. Also the use of a Rec hall.
#9 CMU members were included with Station personnel in weapons training. This included firing of the Lewis and the Vickers machine guns and learning of their stoppages, rifle and bayonet drill, hand grenades, etc.
The original #9 CMU rifle issue was a Springfield 30.06 calibre (I think), a finely crafted rifle left over from World War I US Armed forces. It had an excellent long-range graduated sight. At about this time these rifles were replaced by the Lee-Enfield, much lighter, shorter and simpler operating, but less accurate.
A little north of Ucluelet, the present day highway coming from Port Alberni connects with the Ucluelet/Tofino highway. At this point there was a tent work camp known to #9 CMU people as "Joeville". It was used in the construction and the maintenance of a single telephone circuit traveling easterly across the centre of Vancouver Island, alongside Kennedy Lake and Sproat Lake. Eventually it joined civilian telephone lines at Port Alberni. This was the landline connection for both Stations Ucluelet and Tofino.
Langara Island lies off the Northwestern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands. It's a small island that was uninhabited at the time. A Radar defence site had been established there. Protected incidentally, by one small field gun manned by four or six members of the RCA.
About 20 to 25 of us telecom people sailed from #9 CMU headquarters in Vancouver aboard the MV "Deer Leap", a former private pleasure boat that had accommodation for just a few people along with its small crew. A trip by way of Masset that would cover about 500 miles. The rear deck was open to the weather on three sides but had a canvas awning top for sun and rain shade. To stay out of the weather, most of us spent our time under tarpaulins covering material and supplies on the rear deck. The tiny galley worked endlessly to prepare our rations. Traveling through the Hecate Straits, south of the Queen Charlotte Islands, introduced some of us to seasickness for the first time, but not the last time.
Langara Island is a plateau on top with steep rocky cliffs leading straight down to the surf, which pounds on the rocks. Much of the Island shoreline is inaccessible except for a few places where stony beaches exist. The #9 CMU tent work camp was located at one of these places. Here supplies and gear could be landed by rowboat and small barge or rafts, often with difficulty, from an off shore supply boat. This camp was located on the opposite side of the Island from the Radar site. The project was to construct a pole line with one ten pin cross arm of #14 gauge copper wire which would provide about five circuits. This would connect the Radar site to a new Radiotelephone transmitter site. This site again was on the opposite side of the Island from the Radar site. No vehicles here, all hand labour and much effort to drag and carry materials up steep slopes covered with thick forest underbrush to reach the plateau area. I recall once when the supply boat was delayed by stormy weather for an extended period, most rations had been consumed, including the mandatory hardtack & bully beef emergency rations, and we were reduced to beer and chocolate bars that the cook had thoughtfully put aside.
An interesting sideline here. Access to the Radar site was by means of a highline lift to raise a rowboat with its occupants, out of the water and lift it straight up, then pull it horizontally along the highline and set the rowboat down on a flat rock surface. The highline was a steel trolley cable fastened to a high point on each side of a very narrow sea inlet in the cliff face. Riding this highline was a small-wheeled carriage with a centre pulley mounted so a lifting cable could be fed round the pulley and head downward toward the water. The highline was perhaps 70 feet above the water surface, and the lift up was probably about 50 or 60 feet (memory is vague on these measurements). The rowboat, having left the supply boat standing offshore, would have to be maneuvered into this inlet (by oars) when the tide was right, and sea swells not too menacing. Much credit should go to the Marine Section people for their skills here. A stationary gasoline engine powered the highline trolley. The high line operator became quite skilled in giving selected people a rather hair raising ride. Often visiting officers of high rank on an inspection visit! On an outward trip the operator would lift the rowboat (by means of four hooks attached to the lifting cable) from the flat rock surface, with departing people sitting inside, and let it slide along the sloping highline gathering speed quickly, then brake it suddenly as it centred over the water inlet. This would cause the boat to swing back and forth. As the rowboat stabilized he would suddenly release the brake, letting the rowboat freefall at gathering speed until it was right above the water, then brake it suddenly, then gently lower it the last couple of feet into the water where the four hooks had to be quickly released and the boat rowed out to the supply boat standing off shore.
One needs to have experienced this to really appreciate either the scare or thrill of it, whichever. I recall one highline operator who sat by the engine controls, usually with a cigar, and always grinning, while enjoying doing his thing! More often than not, officers so treated, seldom returned to the Island!
A Radar defence site was located at Cape Scott at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. I seem to recall it was manned by #10 Radar Detachment RCAF. They were connected to the Victoria/Vancouver Command Control Centres by a single telephone circuit that found its way across the thickly forested northern part of Vancouver Island to Port Hardy, on the East Side of the Island. Then south along beside Johnstone Strait to a point almost at Campbell River (a distance of about 160 miles) where it connected into civilian telephone company facilities that took it to its destination.
As an aside, F/O C O'Callaghan, a #9 CMU officer was awarded a "Mention in Dispatches" for directing a #9 CMU group in fighting a stubborn bush fire for several days. They were successful in saving several miles of RCAF communication lines from destruction. This was somewhere along the Johnstone Strait in 1945.
The telephone line over that distance was maintained by a number of remote maintenance sites, and I believe these sites were manned by #9 CMU and also by either RCAF #1 or #2 Land Line Maintenance Units. I spent #9 CMU Maintenance time at the most northern part of the line that connected with the Radar site. Our shack was located where the last decaying remains of the failed turn of the century Cape Scott village could still be seen. This was remote from the Radar site, and our supplies landing area was a rough stony beach at Fisherman's Bay. Supplies were carried on foot for some distance over a rough trail to our shack.
When our work took us near the Radar site, we were always welcomed in for a shower, and a snack in the mess hall. I think #9 CMU was mostly unknown to the Station personnel, and the officers in charge viewed us as some kind of an oddity - four persons living out in the bush in the middle of nowhere. One Station officer offered to issue us with side arms, which we accepted. Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolvers, along with a couple of Sten guns. We thought at the time this was unusual because I don't think side arms were issued to anyone below the rank of Sergeant.
As an aside, parts of the shoreline on this Part of Vancouver Island were littered with washed up debris from the Pacific war. Including endless numbers of lifejackets stamped USN and many life rafts, some relatively undamaged, with drinking water casks and rations still intact. These rations we added to our own ration supply.
RCAF Station Prince George in the British Columbia interior was part of the North West Staging Route and it was used extensively by the USAAF. Communication lines from the Station went from a telecom repeater station, south, beside what was called the Caribou Highway. Two ten pin cross arms of open wire. #9 CMU line maintenance persons were attached to Station Prince George for rations & quarters, another good accommodation. They also had a Jeep and trailer for their telecom line inspections and maintenance work. What a treat after all those miles of walking through the bush at those remote sites!
The next line maintenance site south of Prince George was located at the town of Quesnel. Here, maintenance people had the best accommodation that I had ever seen or heard of in #9 CMU. They were boarded in a local hotel (called The Caribou Hotel I think), run by a comical Chinese fellow, and the meals were almost home style. As an added bonus there were a couple of waitress/chamber maids on staff that our fellows could make friends with. We from Prince George were always envious!
I think #9 CMU may have had a strength of about 2000 people, but we in the telecom section always worked in small groups, probably 20 at the most, but generally in threes and fours. So as individuals we never got to meet many of them and we never were assembled together as a whole group.
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Updated: April 1, 2003