In my early twenties, I was posted to Lahr, Germany. Initially I was a transportation platoon commander in Supply and Transport Company in 4 Service Battalion in the Canadian Army. To put it simply, I had a platoon of 30 soldiers who drove MAN 10-ton trucks (these bad boys, as seen below)
which would carry supplies: ammunition, water, rations, various needed items, and spare parts for forward fighting troops and other support units within the Brigade. During peace time, we conducted training operations such as weapons use, field exercises and fitness competitions to improve morale, esprit-de-corps and to prepare for future deployments. As the Platoon Commander, I routinely conducted all manner of administrative duties, personnel evaluations and reports, test and inspection readiness, subordinate training, orders groups, equipment maintenance checks, and many other duties in accordance with my rank and position.
For the weapons aspect, a couple of times per year, we would all dispatch by military road move (huge convoys of jeeps, light and heavy trucks, trailers, kitchen trucks and the like) to a Gun Camp in Valdahon, France for two weeks of training on the shooting ranges.
While there, we were assigned to a room and a cot in one part of the camp. The other two-thirds of the place was inhabited by French and German units. We shared the mess hall with them and as such, had opportunities to observe them. Our uniforms kept us together as a unit but apart from them. It was interesting to consistently see and remember this all this time later, that the Germans were the physically largest of us all. The French were the smallest and we, the Canadians, were right in the middle. The female soldiers were almost always the smallest of all and there were only a few dozen women there in total, myself included.
As an illustration of one aspect of being a female officer, while there, one of my colleagues, a fellow officer no less, decided he would make a move on me. I hadn’t yet started to date Dean (the guy I was completely in love with but hadn’t been able to solidify a relationship with…yet) so this guy figured he could go for it. He cornered me in my barrack room and started to physically block me from leaving. He had this creepy, predatorial look on his face. It dawned on me that I was alone in this huge old building with him. I was going to have to get defensive if he tried anything. So, with two hands on his chest, I pushed him back roughly and told him I was NOT interested. He seemed surprised. He didn’t bother me again, but, can you image thinking that that tactic would work?
So back to the story at hand…
this one day, I was on the rifle range with a couple dozen soldiers. I used to really enjoy shooting on the range. The controlled breathing. The focus. The single-mindedness of it. There was nothing but the trigger and the target. Nothing. I would take position. Take preliminary aim. Exhale slowly. Hold it. Confirm aim. Squeeze the trigger. Check. Repeat. Writing this in my fifties, I am there again.
There was a master corporal who was in command of this particular range, of which there were many in this training area. Technically I outranked him but on shooting ranges, the ranking soldier is the one in command of the range and wore an arm band indicating this. He had done a specialized course to be qualified to command the range. This guy was a know-it-all, loud mouth with an attitude from Cape Breton, as was apparent by his accent. I have always found the Cape Breton lilt to be endearing. Not on this guy.
Anyways, we were there shooting our C7 semi-automatic assault rifles and I, my Browning 9 mm pistol as well, and enjoying a hot, very dry day. It was so bright that it was actually hard to see our targets and the holes we made in them, from where we lay in a line in prone position. Then Master Corporal Attitude says he’s going to get out the tracer rounds in order to be able to see our target shooting better.
It’s too dry for tracer! I thought, with alarm.
Tracer is a training round that has a small, burning, highly visible pyrotechnic flame coming out of its back end. It is like shooting lit matches down the range. The kind of matches that don’t extinguish easily.
Alas, I didn’t say anything to dispute the idea and then someone shot tracer and started a field fire almost instantly.
Next thing we know the whole Battalion is out chaotically fighting fires in acres and acres of dry-as-tinder hay. We worked for hours, burning and blackening ourselves, ruining uniforms and boots and breathing a lot of smoke. Water trucks eventually showed up but the village was ill equipped for such a huge fire. I recall a water tank truck with a little garden hose type attachment spitting out drops of water. Grampa Dalton would have said, ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job‘. He was usually referring to a trick in the nightly card games of Euchre but, that’s what I thought when I saw that water truck. Finally, proper fire trucks arrived from a city and we were stood-down. We ate, drank a few beers, showered and hit the rack (army-speak for bed).
I pondered the hours of fighting the field fire and the exact moment I found my command voice. When I would see a soldier not knowing what to do, or not moving fast enough to help, I would loudly encourage him or her to
‘COME OVER HERE’!
‘TAKE THIS RUG TO THAT PATCH OF FIRE, SOLDIER’!
And… they responded to me. Little ole new-to-the-Battalion me. It was invigorating and felt right, like I was falling into step. Again I realized that there are some of us who need to lead but, there are more of us who just want to follow.
As far as I know, nothing was ever investigated about the use of tracer rounds on a hot and dry day in Valdahon, France in 1990.
I often wondered though if the fire would have happened had I just opened my mouth.
(Pictures found on google images. Thank you.)
The following is a comment from Col Gordon Grant, from his perspective at the top:
This training event caused considerable angst for the leadership. There are three incidents I vividly remember. First, I was the Second in Command of the Battalion. The Commanding Officer was away for the day so I was the acting Commanding Officer. The Commandant of the French Camp invited me to lunch. We enjoyed a good meal and engaging conversation. Suddenly, the door flew open and a French captain ran in and whispered something to the Commandant. The captain wore a pained expression and I knew it was bad news for someone. The Commandant dabbed his mouth with his napkin, smiled and said, “Apparently, your Canadian soldiers are attempting to burn my camp down.”
I left the luncheon and returned to the field. The wind carried the fire to several locations and we actually faced three separate fires – the battalion divided into three groups and built fire-breaks to slow the advance. I overheard on the radio that one of our corporals was down with smoke inhalation and the medics declared her dead. A Sergeant Traclet refused to accept her loss and he worked on her for 20 minutes and successfully resuscitated her.
The fires were spreading toward the Camp’s ammunition depot. The danger radius of potential explosions included the civilian hamlet just outside the camp. We now had to prepare to evacuate the local population. The officers and soldiers were outstanding. With only shovels to combat the fires they faced a 30-foot wall of flames, stopped the fire’s advance, and saved both the ammunition depot and the hamlet.
That night the Commanding Officer authorized free beer. I remember coming into the building where 500 soldiers were streaked with soot as they drank and tried to outdo each other with war stories. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Gremlins. The fire went down in Battalion history as a huge morale booster – but it came ever so close to being a catastrophe.