Comment and Articles

As an advocate of discussion and debate of Canadian defence and foreign policy, RUSI Vancouver will share opinions and observations from academia, the media, and respected historians.

For now, the category is not available for feedback to the website on published topics.



Gwynne Dyer Commentaries

We are pleased to introduce the noted independent, London-based, Canadian columnist and military historian Gwynne Dyer as a regular contributor in the Comment section on the RUSI Vancouver website. His thought provoking, well informed and pertinent commentaries will appear regularly.

Gwynne Dyer was born in St. John’s Newfoundland and educated at Memorial University, St. John’s; Rice University, Houston; Kings College, London. He served in the Canadian, American and British naval reserves. Dyer lectured at Sandhurst Military College following which he moved into a full-time career in journalism.

RUSI Vancouver appreciates any comment on Gwynne Dyer’s contributions on the RUSI website at RSVP@rusivancouver.ca

Gwynne Dyer’s website is: www.gwynnedyer.com

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Johnson’s Cunning Plan - 30 September 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


The plotting reflex is strong in the populist politicians who currently run both of the big English-speaking countries. President Trump dreams up underhanded tricks even when he has no need of them.

Why would he bother to sabotage the campaign of Joe Biden, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who would give him the least trouble in next year’s election? He’ll probably face impeachment over it, but he couldn’t help behaving that way. You might as well ask why even well-fed cats catch and kill mice.

They are acting on instinct, and so was Donald Trump. ‘Boris’ Johnson is a habitual plotter too, but this time he needs a cunning plan.

Britain’s prime minister has only been in office for ten weeks, and he is already in potentially terminal trouble. Boris Johnson was never an ardent Brexiter: he even voted for the relatively sane version of Brexit that his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get through Parliament. But he is consumed by ambition, and he saw in her fall an opportunity to seize the top job at last.

He won it in July, in an internal poll of Conservative Party members, by promising to ‘deliver’ Brexit quickly no matter what the cost. (The 60,000 Party members who chose him are far more extreme than most Conservative members of Parliament and certainly than the average Conservative voter.)

Unfortunately, Johnson can only deliver by crashing out of the European Union without a deal. The deal Theresa May negotiated would have caused Britain only moderate economic damage, but that deal was repeatedly killed by the votes of the ultra-nationalist ‘head-bangers’ on the far right of his own Conservative Party.

They’d kill it again, and Johnson’s long-sought prime ministership with it, if he made the kind of concessions needed for a negotiated deal. In practice, therefore, he had to deliver a kamikaze Brexit to stay in power at all – and then he had to hold an election immediately afterwards, to confirm his hold on power before the Brexit damage piled up and even dyed-in-the-wool Leavers turned against it.

So, Johnson’s Cunning Plan A went like this. Meet Parliament for a couple of days in early September when it comes back from recess, promise that you are negotiating hard with the EU and confident of getting a deal – only a “one in a million” chance of failure – and then close Parliament down for five weeks (‘prorogue’ it) .

By the time Parliament comes back in mid-October and there is no deal, it will be too late. The law says that the United Kingdom will leave the EU automatically on 31 October unless there is a deal. Parliament will then vote Johnson’ government out, but he’ll just call an election – for AFTER the 31st.

The election will roll around some time in November, and by then Johnson will be the Leavers’ hero for having delivered Brexit after 40 months of delay. He’ll win and be safely back in office for five years even if the economy then goes into slow-motion collapse. The plan would have worked perfectly if the opposition parties were hopelessly stupid.

Unhappily for him, they weren’t. In early September, before Johnson could prorogue Parliament, the opposition parties passed a law obliging him to ask the EU for a three-month extension if there was still no deal on 19 October. It passed, because 21 Conservative members of Parliament who saw ‘no deal’ as a disaster for Britain voted with the opposition.

Johnson promptly expelled them from the Party – and thereby lost his majority. But the opposition parties did not vote him out, which would have let him call his election as Plan A required. They just left him hanging there, twisting in the wind.

Then all eleven judges of the Supreme Court chimed in to say that Johnson’s decision to shut Parliament down for five weeks during a political crisis had been unlawful. Time for a different plan, and quickly.

So, here’s Cunning Plan B. There is an obscure law called the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 that allows the government to override Parliament in the event of a national emergency. If Johnson could engineer such an emergency, he could ignore the “surrender bill” (as he calls it) that forces him to seek an extension rather than crash out on 31 October.

What kind of an emergency? Well, it would probably require blood in the streets, which Johnson can only obtain by inciting Leave supporters to acts of violence. That is why he now uses such extreme language, talking incessantly about betrayal and treachery.

As the Labour Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, told ‘The Observer’ on Sunday, “Whipping up the idea of riots or even deaths if we do not leave the EU on 31 October is the height of irresponsibility. But it is also pretty obviously being orchestrated.” And the death threats on social media to MPs who are trying to thwart Johnson have multiplied fourfold in the past week.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Whodunnit? - 15 September 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the Houthi claim that the Yemeni rebel group had carried out Saturday’s strike on two huge Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities. There was “no evidence” that the drones belonged to the Houthis, he said. Instead, he blamed Iran.

No surprise there. The way things are at the moment, if an incoming asteroid were about to strike the Earth, the United States would blame Iran. But there’s ‘no evidence’ that the drones came from Iran either. Pompeo is simply trading on the assumption that Yemenis are too ignorant to manage that sort of technology, so it must be Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the alliance of other autocratic Arab States that have been bombing Yemen since 2015 push the same line all the time. It goes down fairly well in the Kingdom, where most people look down on Yemenis for being poor and less well educated, but it isn’t actually true.

Within a year of the war’s start, the Yemenis began launching a few small ballistic missiles (with conventional warheads) back at Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis refused to believe they were doing it themselves. The Houthis, they implied, were too backward to upgrade the Yemeni air force’s old Soviet-made Scud missiles themselves. Iran must have helped them.

In fact, the Yemeni air force had Scud missiles for decades before the government collapsed in 2015, and technicians to service them. Some, maybe most of those technicians threw in their lot with the Houthis, and upgraded those Scuds by cutting them in half and inserting a larger fuel tank in the middle.

It changed their flight characteristic and made them very inaccurate, but it did extend their range enough to hit targets all over southern and eastern Saudi Arabia. And by mid-2017 the Houthis, who controlled most of Yemen, were making their own improved copies known as Burkan missiles.

The ‘Super-Scuds’ were more a morale booster than a war-winner for the Houthis, who live under a merciless daily bombardment from the air (7,290 documented civilian deaths so far). The current attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, if the Houthis’ claim is true, would just be another morale-booster, even though it has temporarily cut world oil production by around 5 percent.

But was it really the Houthis? At this point there is no clear evidence either way, but it could have been. They certainly have the motive, and they may have the technology. They have used small drones in previous air strikes, and there are bigger drones available commercially that could do the damage seen at the Saudi facilities.

The biggest currently available is the Guardian, a monster that can carry a payload of 200 kilos (more than 400 pounds). It’s made by Griff Aviation, a Norwegian company whose Lakeland factory in Florida is producing one Guardian a day and selling them to industrial, agricultural and military clients.

It would be quite a trick for the Houthis to acquire ten of them (which is how many drones they say they used in their attack), but stranger things have happened. Or maybe they did get their hands on some military drones, which would certainly be up to the job. Or maybe it was Iran, but nobody really knows yet.

One apparent flaw in the Houthi theory is that there are no civilian drones capable of flying the almost 800 km from Yemen to the Saudi targets, but that’s not necessary. Most of the land around the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities is open desert and launching the drones for 25-50 km away would escape detection unless the Saudis were actively anticipating such an attack.

Who would launch them? There are a million Yemenis resident in Saudi Arabia, plus 2-3 million Saudi citizens who suffer severe discrimination because they follow the Shia version of Islam. There are even Sunni Saudi citizens (mostly Islamists) who are sufficiently disaffected to attack the regime directly.

That’s a pretty large pool to fish in if you’re looking for local collaborators to smuggle the drones in and launch them – which is what the Houthis themselves say happened. In their statement claiming credit for the attacks, they express thanks for “co-operation with the honourable people inside the kingdom.”

None of this proves that it was the Houthis, or that it wasn’t the Iranians. It does leave the identity of the attackers up in the air, where it will remain until conclusive proof emerges one way or another (if it ever does). Mike Pompeo’s confident attribution of blame to Iran, later echoed by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is just politics, not proof.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday, “having failed at max pressure (anti-Iran trade sanctions), Sec Pompeo's turning to max deceit.” Fair comment, really. And we should be grateful that Donald Trump, for all his faults, is the grown-up in the house this time.

On Sunday Trump tweeted: “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Trump doesn’t want a full-scale war with Iran, and neither does Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t happen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Climate – Jonathan Sees the Light - 10 September 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


Jonathan Franzen has finally seen the light. Unfortunately, it has blinded him.

The distinguished American novelist and essayist has a piece in the current issue of The New Yorker entitled ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?’ Stopped pretending that the climate apocalypse is not going to sweep us all away, he means. As he writes: “to prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

It’s very elegant, philosophical – Marcus Aurelius-lite. Yes, we have wasted thirty years and not cut our global emissions at all. Yes, we are heading for the ‘never exceed’ average global temperature of +2̊C. And yes, that means there will be famines, huge waves of climate refugees, a lot of killing at borders – and then it will get serious.

So far, I’m with Franzen all the way. In fact, I know exactly how he feels, because I got there about a dozen years ago and I felt awful.

I had spent a year and a half interviewing everybody you ever heard of in the climate field (and many you haven’t) for a book I was doing, * and at the end of it I had a kind of double vision. Not a physical double vision, of course, but overlaid on current reality I could sort of see the hell that was coming.

That kind of thing can ruin your breakfast, so I manfully set the visions aside and got on with my life. Maybe Franzen will get over it too, eventually, but at the moment he thinks we’re doomed, and all we can do is little things to slow the apocalypse down a bit and relish the brief time we have left.

“It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come,” he writes, “but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep...trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes.”

We really shouldn’t be surprised that he thinks like this. Franzen’s Wikipedia entry (I take my research seriously) say that he was heavily influenced by Franz Kafka and Albert Camus, so stylish despair is his default setting. But it’s not time yet to give up on the big things, like survival.

First, change your perspective and stop deploring the human race’s failings. A million years ago, our ancestors were clever apes. Even ten thousand years ago, they were all hunter-gatherers who had little time or motive to worry about the longer term. Don’t write us off because we’re still not very good at it.

Now we’re in deep trouble, and our evolutionary baggage means that we’re still having difficulty even in acting to avoid disasters that are only a decade or two ahead. We may be able to rise above it when the crisis becomes present and palpable, but the procrastination, the disbelief and the delays were inevitable.

In fact, it’s a safe bet that if there are other intelligent species who have recently built high-energy civilizations – and there probably are, given 400 billion stars and two or three times as many planets in this galaxy alone – then they will doubtless be facing similar planetary crises, and having to deal with evolutionary baggage of their own. Any intelligent species is bound to have knuckle-dragging ancestors up its evolutionary tree.

So here we are, and it’s going to be tricky. We are almost certainly going to crash through 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere in less than fifteen years, which in the natural course of events would take us up through +2̊C about a decade later. Welcome to the climate apocalypse.

Unlike Jonathan Franzen I do talk to climate scientists, and it’s hard to get them to say this on the record. They don’t want to sow panic. But if you back them up against a wall and threaten them with a knife, most will admit they think going beyond 450 ppm is nearly inevitable now – mainly because human politics can’t change fast enough to stop it.

But what the climate scientists all know, and some think might save us, is that 450 ppm and +2̊C are not indissolubly linked. What we need is more time, and it is theoretically possible to hold the global temperature down while we work frantically first to get our emissions down, then eliminate them entirely, and finally draw down the excess CO2 that we have already put into the atmosphere.

There are several potential methods for doing this, all of them controversial. The leading proposal now is injecting sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. (No living things up there.) That would reflect a small portion of incoming sunlight and keep the planet below +2̊C and its attendant calamities for the time we need.

There are no safe and painless courses left, but there are still choices to be made. The game is not over.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Three Small Victories: A Turning Point? - Sept 04, 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


Have we reached peak fascist in Europe? Well, all right then, peak hard-right nationalist, but are we there yet? That would be reassuring, and three events in the past week give some cause for hope.

First, on Sunday Germany’s far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), failed to win first place in the two state elections where it had a chance of forming the government, Saxony and Brandenburg.

Both states seethe with resentment because former East Germany is still poorer than the western part of the country thirty years after reunification. Never having experienced immigration under Communist rule before 1990, many people in the east live in permanent panic about being overwhelmed by immigrants (although there are actually very few immigrants there).

So out of Germany’s sixteen states, Brandenburg and Saxony should have been the easiest wins for the AfD – but they didn’t win. They came a close second in both states, but they were beaten by an unusually high turn-out, clearly made up largely of people who don’t ordinarily bother to vote but realised that their votes were needed to stop the AfD.

Secondly, on Tuesday it became clear that the hard-right League party in Italy has been comprehensively snookered. Back in the days when it was the ‘Northern’ League it was more openly racist, and wanted to secede from Italy to get away from the allegedly lazy and corrupt southern Italians. “South of Rome lies Africa,” as the nastier variety of northern Italians say.

The League, although renamed and prettied up, is still the Nasty Party, but for the past eighteen months it has been in a coalition government with the anti-establishment (but not so nasty) Five-Star Movement (M5S). The League was doing well in the opinion polls, however, so its leader, Matteo Salvini, broke up the coalition in the hope of winning sole power in a new election.

Instead, the Five-Star Movement found a new coalition partner, the Democratic Party, and the League is out in the cold. On Tuesday 79,634 members of the M5S ratified the deal in an online vote – the party is ultra-democratic – and the League may have to wait another three-and-a-half years for a general election. Maybe by then its polling numbers will be down.

And then there’s the United Kingdom, where new Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson met parliament for the first time on Tuesday and immediately lost a key vote – because 21 members of his own party voted against him.

Boris –‘Al’ to his friends, family and many lovers, but he switched to ‘Boris’ as a young man because he thought it was more memorable – is not a neo-fascist. He is not ideological at all, just an opportunist who will wear whatever identity gets him where he wants to go. At the moment, his identity is hard-right English nationalist.

Many of the people around him have drunk the Kool-Aid, however, and really are ‘Little-Englander’ nationalists who don’t care if Brexit breaks up the United Kingdom. Together they have hijacked the Conservative Party.

Johnson is currently pretending to negotiate with the European Union while actually planning to crash out of the EU in a ‘no-deal’ exit that would do severe damage to the British economy. But it would secure his own political future as the man who finally delivered Brexit (albeit a Brexit far more extreme than anybody imagined back when they voted for it in 2016).

Such a Brexit would create enormous opportunities for the ‘disaster capitalists’ who have been quietly funding the Brexit movement, and who hope to asset-strip a crippled England. It certainly offers the non-English parts of the ‘United’ Kingdom, and especially Scotland, a perfect pretext for holding independence referendums of their own.

But Boris’s political future is unclear. He is currently a contender for the title of shortest prime ministership in British history, because his defeat in parliament and the defection of so many moderate Conservative members of parliament mean that there will have to be an election – which Johnson may well lose.

There have been no epic victories this week, no decisive turning points. The virus of nationalism still infects the politics of many European countries, and even the long-term future of the European Union, guarantor of peace in the continent for the past sixty years, cannot be taken for granted. But clearly the far-right nationalists can lose as well as win.

That should have been obvious, but the populists seemed almost unstoppable when they first surged to prominence in 2016. Brexit and Trump, then Hungary and Poland, then Italy and Germany – the only question was ‘Who’s next?’.

Now the bloom is off the rose. They win some, they lose some – and they lost three big ones in the past week. They will doubtless be around for quite a while, but we may be nearing peak populist.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Italy: Salvini’s Folly - 1 September 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


There is something very gratifying about watching a political thug get hoisted by his own petard. Matteo Salvini, the hard-right populist who thought he could force an early election and become Italy’s strongman by breaking up the coalition government he served in, has publicly cut his own throat. And almost everybody is enjoying the spectacle.

It’s not even a year and a half since the last Italian election, when the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) and Salvini’s ultra- nationalist League party got enough seats to form a government together. They had very little in common, but political power is a great lubricant and they managed to rub along together with no major disasters for eighteen months.

What caused the break-up was not policy differences but the polling figures. Back in March 2018 the Five-Star Movement got 32% of the vote and the League only got 17%, so M5S was definitely the senior partner. Salvini only became deputy prime minister, but he used the job to appeal to Italians’ worst instincts.

He demonised migrants, Romanies, Muslims and left-wing ‘do-gooders’ as enemies of the people, and presented himself as the super-patriotic hard man who could see them all off and Make Italy Great Again. He prevented ships that had rescued drowning migrants from landing them in Italian ports, he carried a rosary and kissed it frequently, he thanked the Virgin Mary for all his ‘successes’.

And it kind of worked. Many Italians are sick to death of the country’s political and economic stagnation, and Salvini was brash and new. Nasty and bullying too, especially towards non-whites and migrants, but many people didn’t mind that. The League’s polling results began to improve, and M5S’s started to slide.

By the European elections last May, the two coalition parties had entirely reversed their positions: the League got 34% of the votes, and the Five-Star Movement got only 17%. The European poll had no direct effect in Italy, but inevitably Salvini began to dream of ditching his awkward M5S partners (who are neither racist nor neo-fascist) and going it alone.

The political arithmetic seemed to make sense. If the League’s numbers kept on going up, it would win enough seats in the next election to form a different coalition with a more congenial small party like the Brothers of Italy (which is openly fascist). By this month the League was hitting 38% in the polls, and Salvini decided it was time to pull the plug on his current partners.

He clearly knows how to count, which is a valuable skill in politics. But a good politician needs to understand strategy too, and in that department Matteo Salvini is as thick as a brick. He forgot that polling numbers are not the same as seats in parliament.

The League would clearly win an election if one were held today, but an election could only happen if no alternative government can be formed in the current parliament. However, last year’s national election gave the Five-Star Movement almost twice as many seats in parliament as the League – enough seats that it might be able to form a coalition with some other party.

It would be tricky, of course, because M5S is deeply unpopular with most other parties, and especially with the official opposition, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). Politicians hate being mocked, and the Five-Star Movement specializes in mockery. Maybe that was what Salvini was counting on to save him. If so, he got it wrong.

The moderate parties in parliament are utterly horrified at the prospect of a far-right government in Italy run by the League in coalition with the Brothers of Italy. So last week the Democratic Party began talks on a coalition with the Five-Star Movement.

They would both be decimated if there were an election now, and neither of them wants to see an extreme right government take power in Italy, so agreement on principle was relatively easy.

Agreeing on a program and a cabinet in the next week will be harder, and it could all still unravel. But it could also be a coalition that lasts until the next scheduled election in mid-2023.

Salvini is outraged, of course. He’s even talking about a ‘march on Rome’ next month, in a sly allusion to the March on Rome that brought the dictator Benito Mussolini to power in Italy in 1922. But his blunder has been huge, and for the moment at least his credibility is shot.

It almost makes you feel sorry for him. How could he have foreseen this? After all, this is only the first time he has ever lived in Italy all his life.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Amazon Fires - 25 August 2019

By Gwynne Dyer


The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there is every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump 'mini-me' who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Boris Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency...for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last years. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course, Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil's National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, now. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.





May 2

Korean War (1)

Sixty-nine years ago Kim Il Sung led North Korea. Kim had spent World War II outside his country as a member of the Soviet army. Following the war, and with the sponsorship of his Russian masters, he returned to Korea with the rank of major in the Red Army, eventually taking charge of North Korea, that is, all of the Korean Peninsula north of the 38th parallel.

In South Korea the government was led by Syngman Rhee, a man who had lived much of his life in the United States. He was autocratic and had been uncooperative with UN efforts to promote democratic reforms.

The Korea-wide free elections that the World War II allies hoped would lead to unification were never held, with the result that the two Koreas – North and South – Russian-influenced and US-leaning – followed ever-more divergent paths.

In the spring of 1950 the North had a population of nine million, contrasted to the South’s 21 million. North Korea, however, had a clear preponderance of military forces. Their army outnumbered that of the South and included thousands of veterans of the Red Army and the Red Chinese Army. In addition they featured modern tanks, aircraft, and weapons provided by the Russians.

Guerrilla warfare raged in the south, with irregular communist fighters taking on the beleaguered Republic of Korea troops. The US’s 500-man KMAG—Korean Military Assistance Group—were probably more concerned about the upcoming baseball season back home than they were with keeping an eye on the north.

The stage was set for a surprise. Kim mustered his troops for a bid to amalgamate North and South by force.

June 18

Korean War (2)

Kim Il Sung’s North Korean troops stormed across the 38th Parallel in the predawn hours on June 25th, 1950. Kim was determined to unify North and South Korea under the banner of international communism, aided and abetted by Stalin in Russia and Mao Zedong in Communist China. All three dictators assumed Kim would sweep the token American forces from the peninsula, and that the US would not come to the defence of the overwhelmed South. They were 90% correct about the former, but totally mistaken about President Harry S.Truman’s reaction.

Truman compared the Korean situation to that of Europe before the Second World War, when Hitler swallowed more and more territory from timorous neighbors. He appealed to the United Nations where, as it happened, the Soviet Union was boycotting the organization and so not in a position to veto any response. The result was a demand for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of North Korean troops. Predictably the demand was ignored.

The UN authorized the United States to lead Allied forces in Korea. But the Americans, as well as the South Koreans, had been caught napping by Kim. By August 1st his North Korean People’s Army had occupied nearly the whole peninsula, cornering US and South Korean forces in a pocket around the southeastern port of Pusan, an area barely 80 miles square, their situation desperate.

July 16

Korean War (3)

In sleepy Ottawa, Prime Minister St. Laurent and the members of Parliament, including Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester Pearson, were caught off guard by the US reaction as much as were Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung. As the situation in Korea developed they took their cue from prior Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who would surely have been content to wait and watch under almost any circumstances.

On July 5th 1950 one Canadian service was ready: RCN destroyers HMCS Cayuga, Athabaskan, and Sioux slipped and proceeded from Esquimalt bound for Korea in support of the UN.

Moving the government to committing the army, though, took a request from the Secretary-general of the UN on July 14th, when he asked Canada to consider sending ground troops to Korea.

What to do? Canada’s Active Force was exhausted after their heroic efforts in Europe; numerically they were grossly undermanned, and their veteran soldiers felt like the last thing they wanted to do was get into a far-off dustup having survived the most deadly war of all time. The army was unable to attract enough recruits to maintain its already slim ranks.

Minister of National Defence Claxton and Chief of the General Staff Foulkes cobbled together a solution: a Special Force, the backbone of which would be three new battalions (approximately 940 men each) named after current army regiments, thus the 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment (2RCR); 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) and 2nd Battalion Royal 22e Régiment (2R22eR).

Ultimately, the infantry battalions would be supported by artillery, a field ambulance detachment, workshops, a transport company, engineers, a signal squadron, and an armoured squadron—some 7,500 personnel of all ranks.

The prime minister announced on August 7th that Canada would recruit the Canadian Army Special Force. To the shock of many, within a week 10,000 men had signed up.

August 13

Korean War (4)

If the Army had stuck to traditional procedures, there would not have been 10,000 recruits signed up in a matter of days. But Ottawa wanted troops and wanted them quickly, so they adopted a practise of signing men up, and only then assessing them. The result was that many who were recruited didn’t last long. It was up to the regular army NCO’s to whip the recruits into shape, with perhaps a fifty percent discharge rate. Let go were men with hearing impairments, weak eyesight, wounds suffered in WW II, partial disabilities…the list goes on, even including an apocryphal enlistee with an artificial leg.

One thing that could not be taken away from the members of the Special Force, however, that distinguished them throughout their service: they were all volunteers, and were there to fight.

The westerners were assigned to the 2nd Princess Patricia’s and trained briefly in Calgary then at Camp Wainwright, Alberta. Those from other parts of Canada landed in the 2nd Royal Canadian Regiment or the 2nd Vandoos, at Petawa Ontario or Valcartier, Quebec respectively.

After basic training at the platoon level, it was intended that the Special Force would complete their workups at Fort Lewis in Washington State.

Plans changed quickly when the war took an unexpected turn. US General MacArthur engineered his last great victory, the Inchon Landing outside Seoul. The US thereafter had the North Koreans on the run, pursuing them to the extreme northern fringe of the country, virtually to the bank of the Yalu River. It appeared the war was all but over, to the chagrin of the Canadians who had enlisted to fight.

The UN changed its mind—it wanted occupation forces, not fighters.

Located in the west, the 2PPCLI were handiest. They boarded a Liberty Ship in Seattle on November 25th, 1950, off to be what they thought of as some sort of glorified police force.

But the war was about to take another savage twist.




In 2010, several members of the Naval Officers Association of BC (NOABC) decided to salute the role of BC’s shipyards during World War Two. The project eventually transitioned into a monument to include all workers in the BC shipbuilding industry. The following article in the July-August issue of BC Shipping News by RUSI President Cam Cathcart, outlines the eight year journey of the project, with a few nautical miles left before it’s completed.

...why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute
the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry?

Honouring B.C.’s legendary shipbuilding industry

by Cameron Cathcart


Curious how projects get started. Many have a definite purpose. Others, the result of a dream. The shipbuilding monument project began with a question: why isn’t there something tangible on the Vancouver waterfront to salute the legacy of B.C.’s proud and illustrious shipbuilding industry? That question got a few people thinking in 2010.

The Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society was formed, and the concept of a memorial began to take shape. The idea was to position a statue of a Second World War shipyard worker on the North Vancouver waterfront. But, that hectic period of non-stop shipbuilding also included thousands of women, along with navy personnel acting as advisors. It was clear that all three had to be represented in a shipbuilding monument. The next step was to engage a sculptor.

The artist chosen was Norm Williams, who had recently completed the monument to B.C.’s fishing industry and its workers situated outside the old Steveston Cannery, now the Gulf of Georgia National Historic Site in Richmond, B.C. His first task was to develop a maquette, or model, showing the three statues in various poses within the parameters of a single monument. Mr. Williams has since created the Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn statues located at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Unfortunately, the initial flurry of excitement for a shipbuilding monument began to wane at this time and for several years the project suffered an overall lack of enthusiasm. That changed in 2017 when the Naval Officer’s Association of BC (NOABC) announced plans to mark its 100th anniversary at a fall 2019 conference in North Vancouver. This sparked renewed interest by the Society and the monument project was revived in earnest.

By now, project costs had increased substantially and it was obvious the final price for the shipbuilding monument would be much higher than originally contemplated back in 2010. Also, urban renewal had changed the old Burrard Dry Dock site at the North Vancouver waterfront with the area that now includes an art gallery, a new hotel, a residential complex, public market, restaurants, boardwalk and a public pier.

The Society now had to re-engage with the City of North Vancouver to determine where the monument could be located on the revitalized waterfront. Meanwhile, the North Vancouver Arts Advisory Committee, along with the North Vancouver Museum and Archives, were consulted for artistic design and historical accuracy of the sculpture components. These were approved, and the City endorsed the project, agreeing that the monument be located east of the new pier on the North Vancouver waterfront boardwalk.

The building of vessels on the British Columbia coast has a long history. Well before European contact, coastal Indigenous people built large, sea-going dugout canoes for fishing, whaling, transportation and war. The first ship built on the B.C. coast by Europeans was at Friendly Cove, now Yuquot, in Nookta Sound in the early 1790s.

As European settlement took hold in the late 1800s, various types of vessels were built by B.C. shipbuilders over the years such as deep-sea sailing ships, paddle wheelers, lake ferries, tugs, fish boats and the occasional pleasure craft. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that U.K.-built passenger ships, used for West Coast service, began to be phased out and replaced mainly by vessels built in B.C. shipyards.

For most of the 20th century, the North Vancouver waterfront housed the largest shipyard in western Canada, with more than 450 ships launched from the site throughout this period. Opened in 1906 as Wallace Shipyard and re-named Burrard Dry Dock in 1921, tugs and barges for the forest industry, navy vessels, ferries, small cargo ships and icebreakers were launched from this historic location including the St. Roch, the RCMP schooner that achieved fame by traversing the Arctic in both directions in the 1940s.

The busiest and most record-setting activity on the North Vancouver waterfront occurred during the Second World War. Burrard Dry Dock, along with neighbouring North Van Ship Repairs, built close to 250 of Canada’s wartime Victory ships and 50 naval vessels, establishing a reputation for high standards of workmanship. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 14,000 workers were employed in round the clock shifts at Burrard, including 1,000 women, to feed the war effort. The B.C. shipyard was the first in Canada to hire women during the war. They filled the gap while men went to war with jobs ranging from store-keeping to welding.

When the war ended in 1945, shipbuilding in B.C. dropped dramatically and thousands of workers were let go, including all the women hired during the war. But, new contracts slowly picked up as the post-war economy began to surge. These included modern tugs, self-loading log barges, cargo ships, coastal tankers, patrol boats, state of the art icebreakers, arctic oil exploration ships and passenger and railcar ferries. In the 1950s the Royal Canadian Navy also began to modernize its fleet with new destroyers, several of which were built in B.C. shipyards.

Today, two replenishment ships have been ordered by the Royal Canadian Navy, along with a polar icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. All three vessels are at the final design stage at Seaspan Shipyards in North Vancouver, from which the first of three fisheries research vessels were recently launched. Along with building new ships, for several years cruise ship, ferry and navy vessel repair and upgrading work have been consistent and reliable activities for British Columbia’s shipyards.

The shipbuilding monument needs $350,000 to be completed and installed on the North Vancouver waterfront by October, 2019. To meet this challenge the Metro Vancouver Naval Monument Society has launched an appeal for contributions at eight levels that reflect the type of ships built by B.C.’s shipbuilders, ranging from Minesweeper to Victory Ship to Naval Supply Ship, to mention just three.

The monument will consist of three bronze statues that show a male worker using a torch to bend pipes, a female worker taking a break, while a naval petty officer unrolls ship plans. It is designed to engage people, with sculptures positioned at ground level on the walkway east of the North Vancouver waterfront pier.

The shipbuilding monument will salute the legendary British Columbia shipbuilding industry and its workers, and for its support of the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Merchant Marine during the Second World War.

The project began with a question: why is there no tangible recognition of British Columbia’s proud and illustrious history of shipbuilding?

The answer is the shipbuilding monument, now ready to be launched.


MEETINGS

RUSI Vancouver members gather for lunch on Wednesdays at 12:00 Noon at the Officers' Mess of the 15th Field Regiment (RCA) located in the Bessborough Armouries, 2025 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, BC.