Niagara’s Fort: Defending Canada in 1812 – Part 1

Just outside Fort Erie

Just outside Fort Erie

One day in September I had a chance to indulge in what I enjoy best. Become an historical time traveler of sorts, journeying back nearly 200 years to a point in time when British North America ( Canada) was invaded and came within mere inches of becoming part of the United States. My starting point was Old Fort Erie on the southern end of the Niagara River.

200 years ago, the Niagara River was a vital link on the supply route from east to west in British North America, a key part of the Great Lakes superhighway. This made it a prime target for any American army intent on invasion. To protect their interests, the British had constructed forts at both ends of the river, but their armies’ strength was depleted because of the war raging in Europe. What happened over the three years of the 1812 conflict would see Fort Erie and Fort George (30 miles north, near the mouth of the Niagara River) completely destroyed, the town of Niagara (now called Niagara-on-the-Lake) burned to the ground and lives changed forever on both sides of the border.

Old Fort Erie – Before 9:00 am

It was very early on a humid Saturday morning in late September. While waiting for Fort Erie to open for the day, I spent time walking around the perimeter of its earthworks.

Fort Erie Monument

Fort Erie Monument

A short distance away from the fort’s entrance, I encountered a monument to the British who died while attempting to retake the fort from the Americans in one of the bloodiest series of battles to take place in the War of 1812. It sits on top of a mass grave of over 150 British and American Soldiers uncovered during restoration work. I’ve included part of the inscription below:

“IN MEMORY OF THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,THE OFFICERS, NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND PRIVATES OF THE ROYAL ARTILLERY, ROYAL ENGINEERS, ROYAL MARINES, 1st ROYALSCOTS, 19th LIGHT DRAGOONS, 6th, 8th (KING’S), 41st, 82nd, 89th, 103rd, 104th, AND DEWATTEVILLE’S REGIMENTS, THE GLENGARRY LIGHT INFANTRY AND THE INCORPORATED MILITIA WHO FELL DURING THE SIEGE OF FORT ERIE, AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER 1814”

When you scan down thru the names, you can see the faces of all these men who fought so hard and gave their lives to re-take the fort from the Americans.

By the time I returned to the fort’s front gates, a trio of youth who worked as historic interpreters at the fort had already entered and were preparing for the days visitors. Like a good number of other places of living history, these interpreters were dressed in full period attire and if asked would readily provide you with volumes of information, the kind you don’t always find reading thru websites. Through a long discussion with one of the interpreters – a young man who appeared to be

Interpreter dressed as a member of the Canadian Militia

Interpreter dressed as a member of the Canadian Militia

, I discovered that there had been a Fort Erie in this area since 1764. The original Fort Erie was located close to the river’s edge and was the first in a network of forts that were constructed along the Niagara River and the upper Great Lakes after all of New France was ceded to Britain in 1763. For the next 50 years, Fort Erie played a number of roles; supply depot, a port for ships transporting supplies, troops and passengers and a link of communication.

By 1803 plans were authorized for a new fort on the heights further back from the river’s edge where the current Fort Erie stands today. When the Americans declared war in June of 1812, work on the new fort was not yet complete. In November 1812, members of Fort Erie’s Garrison fought in their first engagement at the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek. The years 1813 and 1814 saw Fort Erie changing hands a number of times, being dismantled then rebuilt by whoever was the current occupying force.

I encountered another interpreter, this time a young woman dressed as a soldier’s wife. Very few soldiers were allowed to bring their wives and children with them. Soldier’s wives were often employed doing the garrison’s laundry and sewing. I asked if Fort Erie was a typical design as far as British forts in North America. She smiled and commented that in its current design the fort has a lot of American innovations and in some ways has more attributes of an American fort. The summer of 1814 saw the American army, now occupying Fort Erie, hard at work extending and improving the fortifications.

Interpreter dressed as a soldier’s wife

Interpreter dressed as a soldier’s wife

At this point the interpreter excused herself and went off to greet visitors who have just arrived. Before leaving she pointed out where the fort’s three powder magazines are – only one of which is accessible to the public. I decided to visit the powder magazine first, then gradually work my way back to the other end of the fort. The magazine is located near the southwest end of the fort in a lower part of the stone fortifications, well out of the line of fire. Unlike the fort’s outer gate, which has iron studding and re-enforcements, the outer doors and ventilation shafts of the powder magazine are sheathed in copper to prevent any chance of sparking. In fact all the tools for the preparation of the gunpowder in this room are made of brass or copper to avoid any chance of ignition.

Other areas like the Soldier’s Barracks, Officer’s Quarters, Officers Kitchen and the Guardroom all provide valuable insights into what life was really like for those who were part of Fort Erie’s garrison. A number of other displays at the fort have uniforms, maps, weapons and other artifacts. One display is dedicated to the remains of 28 US soldiers who died during the occupation of Fort Erie. Their graves were discovered in 1987, the archaeological dig that followed attracted great public interest and media attention on both sides of the border. The soldiers were eventually returned to their homeland and given an honorary reburial.

Explosion

Explosion

The last place I visited in the fort was the North East Bastion. It was here in the early hours of August 15 that a massive explosion took place during a British attempt to retake the fort from the Americans. It was the first of two major attacks that the British launched on the fort. Initially the attackers made little progress, until an attempt was made to take the North East bastion. The British surprised the American defenders driving them away from their positions. The fighting would go on for an hour with both sides attacking, retreating and counter-attacking. British soldiers had just begun to fire one of the captured cannon on the North East Bastion when the powder magazine beneath their feet ignited. The explosion destroyed in the entire bastion taking twenty-five percent of the fort and the lives of some 200 British and Canadian soldiers. The resulting havoc saw the British retreating to their siege lines having suffered nearly 1,000 casualties in that night alone.

Total casualties for both attacks would number more than 2,000 making Fort Erie the bloodiest battlefield in Canada. The Americans ultimately broke the siege in September, the British lifting their siege lines and withdrawing to positions north of Chippawa. By November with the cold damp winter weather settling in the Americans destroyed what was left of the fort and withdrew.

The British army continued to occupy the ruined fort until 1823 under the suspicion of further American attacks. In 1866 the Fenians used the ruins of the old fort as a base during their raids into Ontario. It wasn’t until 1937 that a major re-construction and restoration effort was undertaken. Jointly sponsored by the Provincial and Federal governments and The Niagara Parks Commission, the project restored Fort Erie to way it looked during the 1812-1814 period. The official opening took place on July 1 st 1939. Thousands of visitors have continued to visit the fort every year since. In more recent years, on the second weekend in August hundreds of historical re-enactors travel to Fort Erie to take part in a re-enactment of the siege of Fort Erie focusing in on the battle of August 15 th, 1814.

It had been three hours since I entered the gates at Fort Erie and I felt like I had just scratched the surface of what there is to learn here. Expressing my thanks to the interpreters, my historical travel guides, I left Fort Erie and began my journey north along the Niagara Parkway. My next destination Fort George.

Next : Fort George -Part 2

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HMCS Bonaventure: Canada’s Last Aircraft Carrier

“The Cuban Missile Crisis was really exciting. I don’t think, still, the public are aware how near a thing it was.” – Captain F.C. Frewer

Her keel was laid down on the 27th of November 1943 at the Harland & Wolff in Belfast, the same shipyards that were responsible for building the Titanic and her sister ships. Fifteen months later she slipped into the waves with the name HMS Powerful emblazoned on her hull. That same year she would go into mothballs at the end of World War Two. There she would sit in an incomplete state for 7 years until the RCN (Royal Canadian Navy) purchased her for $21,000,000.00 dollars. The deal was contingent on the unfinished carrier being fitted with an angled flight deck, a steam catapult and a mirror landing system. The Canadian government was looking for a fleet carrier that could operate in the jet age.

HMCS Bonaventure

HMCS Bonaventure

In a statement to the Toronto Telegram, Captain H.V.W. (Harold) Groos, CD, RCN said, “Canada is getting a good value in this ship. Our country is growing and so is the need for naval air power. That is why it is so important that we have made this advance, no matter how modest.”

The RCN’s fourth carrier and new flagship was commissioned on January 17th, 1957. It’s new name HMCS Bonaventure taken from the island bird sanctuary in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Affectionately known as the “Bonnie”, she carried a force of about 34 McDonnell Douglas F2H-3 Banshee jet fighters, Grumman CS2F Tracker ASW aircraft (built by de Havilland in Toronto), and Sikorsky HO4S helicopters. Even with the refit, landing a Banshee on the Bonaventure’s relatively short flight deck was pushing the envelope. A number of American Banshee pilots actually refused to try landing on the Bonaventure’s short flight deck. The wide-winged Trackers also proved to be a tight fit. Despite this, and because of the hard work and dedication of her crew (numbering 1,320 in all), the Bonaventure was able by 1958 to conduct around-the-clock sustained operations, keeping four Trackers and two HO4S’s in the air at all times, saturating an area of 200 square nautical miles with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft.

HMCS Bonaventure never saw first line combat during her career. She was involved primarily in flying training in support of the RCN’s various roles. These included control of the North Atlantic and adjacent areas, tracking Russian submarines operating in considerable strength there, and supporting North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments. Her jet fighters, until 1962, were designed to provide protection in the event of enemy attack, while her Trackers and the helicopters assisted attendant destroyers and frigates in their anti-submarine searching and attack roles.

One of her closest brushes with a role in active war service was in late October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. On October 18th Bonaventure had just finished NATO exercises with British, Danish and Norwegian ships in the North Atlantic and was docked at Portsmouth. The next day Commodore Robert Welland (former commander of HMCS Haida) took up his new post as SCOA (A) (Senior Canadian Officer Afloat (Atlantic)) onboard the Bonnaventure. Welland was stepping into a potentially dangerous situation. Tensions were beginning to rise between the United States and the Soviet Union over missile bases in Cuba. A confrontation appeared to be unavoidable. On October 23, American President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba. Because of Canada’s commitments thru NATO, the Bonaventure and her escorts were ordered back into North American waters.

Captain F.C. Frewer (commander of the Bonaventure, August 1961 to August 1963) put to sea with all dispatch. “The Cuban Missile Crisis was really exciting. I don’t think, still, the public are aware how near a thing it was.” He would later say.

“Aircraft carriers were spaced about 150 miles apart all the way north of Cuba. One of the Essex Class Carriers was just to the south of us, the LAKE CHAMPLAIN, I believe it was. We were at the northern end of the picket line, and I think the decision was going to be made within two to three hours as to whether we were going to war. So we were part of the operation, covering the northern flank alert and ready to go with war-loaded aircraft. It was exciting because we knew at the time that there were some submarines accompanying the missile-carrying freighters.”

For the next ten days the Bonaventure remained at operational readiness, exercising with various destroy escorts. The crises eventually cooled down and the Bonaventure returned to Halifax to begin preparations for a long refit beginning early the following year.

The year 1962 also saw the loss of Bonaventure’s Banshee Squadron. During their lifetime the Banshee squadrons had played an important role in the defence of the Canadian Sector for the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). The Banshee jet fighter even out-performed the RCAF’s CF-100 jet fighter, a great source of pride for Canada’s naval aviators. They were slated for replacement, but instead of acquiring a new fighter for Canada’s Navy, the Canadian Government disbanded the Banshee squadrons. HMCS Bonaventure’s fighter squadrons had lasted only 5 years.

Late in March of 1964 the Bonaventure was used to ferry army equipment and supplies to Cyprus in support of the UN Peacekeeping Force. While the RCAF transported the majority Canada’s UN Peacekeeping forces, the Bonnie transported the balance of 95 army soldiers, 54 vehicles and 160 tons of equipment.

Grumman Tracker, part of Bonaventure's Air Group

Grumman Tracker, part of Bonaventure’s Air Group

From April 1966 until September 1967, Bonaventure went thru a long half-life re-fit designed to carry her into the mid 1970’s. The re-fit not only vastly exceeded its estimate of $8.0 million, it took much longer than planned. She arrived in Halifax by mid-September for sea trials and re-working-up to efficiency by both the crew and the air detachment. At the end of January the following year, the Royal Canadian Navy ceased to exist upon the unification Canada’s armed forces. The Bonaventure’s air squadrons became the responsibility of the air force.

1969 turned out to be a very bad year for aircraft carriers. The carrier USS Enterprise suffered a crippling explosion when a rocket loaded on a F-4 Phantom jet exploded setting off a number of other explosions and killing 27 people and injuring more than 300. There were murmurs in the British Parliament about the desirability of staying in the aircraft carrier business. Similar discussions were happening in Ottawa. The government announced “a phased reduction in Canada’s NATO commitment” in April 1969. Bonaventure and her aircrew would be a major part of the navy’s contribution to that reduction.

It was while Bonaventure’s air crew were making their final flights that Canada’s worst peacetime naval disaster happened. The Bonnie had just finished naval exercises off the coast of England with seven other Canadian warships including HMCS Kootenay and was en route home. The Kootenay’s captain had decided to test the engines by powering them up to full. Only moments after the ship’s engines were pushed to full power an explosion occurred in the gear box of one of the main engines.

Captain J.M. Cutts, Bonaventure’s captain, commented, “Suddenly there was a mini mushroom cloud like that of a nuclear blast. It was the fireball coming out of the top of the hatches, I guess. Right away we got a distress call from her saying that she had an explosion.”

“We closed at best speed. She had problems controlling the fire and she couldn’t stop her engines initially. On board, they couldn’t steam drench the engine room they were afraid somebody may be alive and that was the problem. When the gearbox exploded, it spread oil all over the bulkheads and deckheads partly smothering the CO2 extinguisher full effectiveness, putting the fire out of reach of the foam.”

“We started a lift to both Kootenay’s aft deck and her bow with all our helicopters going. They took nearly all our foam. In the end, if I remember correctly, we lifted across the flight-deck boys and the damage control team. They put the fire out and they went into the engine room and helped with all the grisly work. There were nine killed and 40 injured. We sent her back on a tow to the UK and we proceeded west. Two or three of the more seriously wounded came aboard with us. The doctors became more and more concerned for one fellow, and we started heading for the Azores. Unfortunately he died before we got there.”

“We saved Kootenay. I doubt if she would stayed afloat if it hadn’t been for Bonnie.”

Time was running out for the Bonaventure. Despite the fact she was newly re-fitted, her aircraft (Trackers) were only ten years old and she was operating at peak efficiency, it was announced in September 1969 that she would be scrapped. Bonaventure was de-commissioned in Halifax on July 3 1970 (only three years after her refit) and was scrapped in Taiwan in 1971.

As with any navy ship, HMCS Bonaventure’s greatest asset was her people. She was possibly the finest in her class due in large part to the dedicated efforts of her officers, chiefs, petty officers and men.

Book Review – Second Summer of War by Cheryl Cooper

Second War of War

Second War of War

Cheryl Cooper’s Second Summer of War (sequel to Come Looking For Me) continues the adventures of Princess Emiline Louisa (Emily) – the grand daughter of King George III and estranged wife of British traitor Captain Thomas Trevelyan. Emily is returning home, leaving those she cares about most behind. Her Uncle Clarence (the future King William IV) has arranged for her to stay at Hartwood Hall, home of the Duke and Dutchess of Belmount and their family. It’s a cold suffocating environment for someone with Emily’s free spirit and passion for life. She is restricted to the estate while she awaits Captain Trevelyan’s trial to begin. A battle of wills erupts as the Duke and Dutchess attempt to have her married off. It’s all part of an effort to gain favour with her uncle the Prince Regent.

Meanwhile the war in the Atlantic rages on as the Royal Navy struggles against the superior firepower of the US Navy frigates. Fly Austen and Dr. Leander Braden, now aboard HMS Amethyst are required to return to England to testify at the trial. It’s a journey marked by a vicious storm and warships hunting for them. Just getting home will be a struggle to survive.

Will Emily and her beloved Dr. Braden have the reunion they both have envisioned?

Like its predecessor, Come Looking For Me, this story draws you in from the opening pages. We feel like we’ve only left Emily and her companions for a brief moment. The transition is seamless. Cheryl Cooper’s extensive research really shines through in the definition she gives each of her characters and the world they inhabit. You’re struck by the hard unforgiving lives of the sailors aboard these warships. Every moment, every breath that is taken seems a stolen one. Death has claimed so many of these men like those aboard the ill fated HMS Isabelle. How could the inhabitants of Hartwell Hall or Emily’s relatives even begin to understand what she has gone through in her life aboard these ships?

Cheryl’s attention to detail and her mastery of her craft painted vivid living images of each character, their struggles, passions and sorrows. Once the last sentence is read on the final page, you know you haven’t seen the last of Emily, Leander, Fly, Gus, Magpie and the rest. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long before we can continue their adventures with them.

Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart – Born In Canada

“The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.”

– Mary Pickford

pickford-l2The word superstar gets tossed around a lot these days in the media. Some of Hollywood’s top actors and actresses have had the word ‘Superstar’ used to refer to them. People like George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, Will Smith and Angelina Jolie have achieved a good deal of notoriety for their work in films but their names are also constantly kept in the media because of the work of Press Agents, PR firms and image makers. Back in Mary Pickford’s time this system did not exist. Hollywood was still very much in its infancy. As the film industry exploded out into the world so did the fame of Mary Pickford.

She was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8th 1893 in Toronto. At 5 years old, she made her debut at The Princess Theater in a production called The Silver King. Mary’s mother supported her by taking on the role of stage mother and manager. By the time Mary was age 14, she had moved to New York with her mother and had landed a role on Broadway. On the advice of a producer, she changed her name from Gladys Smith to Mary Pickford. By 1909, she had landed her first film role D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa. From there she would go on to star in dozens of films produced by Biograph Studios.

As her star rose over Hollywood’s landscape, Pickford would work with most of the greats of her era such as Cecil B. De Mille, Allan Dwan, Sidney Franklin, Maurice Tourneur and Ernst Lubitsch. She gained more control over her career. Using an assertiveness that was unusual for her time she would often dictate the terms of her productions, including who could direct her and who could play her leading man. Her paychecks also grew. By the time she was 24, she was earning an astounding $350,000 per movie making her Hollywood’s first millionaire and the film industry’s first major star.

Mary’s personal life around this time was dominated by the break-up of her first marriage to Irish born film actor Owen Moore. By all accounts it was a stormy relationship resulting in the couple living apart for several years. During a time when divorce was considering unthinkable for film stars wanting to maintain their stature, Pickford did exactly that. Less than a month after her divorce was finalized, she married Douglas Fairbanks, with whom she had been having a secret affair. Instead of facing a huge scandal their honeymoon in Europe caused a sensation.

Mary’s fame had grown so much that within 3 years no studio could hope to meet her demands. Taking a huge risk, Mary had joined forces with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., D.W. Griffith and others to found United Artists in 1919. In a system which was controlled up to then by studio bosses, United Artists was the first studio allowing filmmakers to take control over the films they produced. Writers and artists were also able to control their financial futures. It seems odd that at this point most of Mary’s best film work was already behind her. Still, the 1920’s brought a good deal of success including an Academy Award for her role in Coquette. By that point Mary had completely transformed her image and the future still seemed bright. No one knew that with the onset of the Depression, her career would be over after only 4 more films. She kept her stock in United Artists until 1956 and then finally sold it for 3 million dollars. She kept active in Hollywood for a good portion of her remaining years. In 1976 it was announced that she would be given an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards.

“Make them laugh, make them cry, and back to laughter. What do people go to the theatre for? An emotional exercise…. I am a servant of the people. I have never forgotten that.” – Mary Pickford

In her last years she became concerned about her Canadian Citizenship. She had lost it decades earlier by marrying American Actor Owen Moore. “I wanted to be a Canadian again because of my father and mother,” she said. The Canadian Government issued a letter welcoming her as a Canadian Citizen in November 1978. Mary Pickford died in Santa Monica, California on May 28, 1979.

Plains of Abraham: The Forgotten Hero

Horace Wallpole once said of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, “No man said less and deserves more.”

plains-imageMost of us Canadians know the story of the Plains of Abraham. How British forces under General James Wolfe defeated French forces under the Marquis de Montcalm after a dangerous climb up the cliffs near the city of Quebec. The main engagement only took moments and it quickly turned into a rout with French Forces in full retreat. Yet it can be said that the sailors and the commanders of the Royal Navy forces present were just as much responsible for the victory. The Plains of Abraham could be rightly called one of the earliest amphibious operations to be successfully launched on North American soil.

In command of all British Naval forces during the Quebec operations was Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders. At 46, this bulky man with fierce baggy eyes had seen 32 years of service in the British navy. Despite his deceptively quiet personality, Saunders carried out his orders with dogged determination. His career up to this point was marked by no outstanding sea victories yet he had a reputation for being one of the best and luckiest officers in the Royal Navy. Now he was placed in overall command of a quarter of the Royal Navy. This immense fleet included twenty-two ships of the line each carrying up to eight hundred people; 27 frigates, eighty transport ships; and fifty-five schooners – more than 200 ships in all. In total the fleet carried 9,000 soldiers, 18,000 sailors, 2,000 cannons and 40,000 cannonballs as well as surgeons, ministers, prostitutes, wives and their children and livestock. The fleet contained a population larger than that of Quebec. The challenge that faced Saunders was a daunting one: sail this enormous fleet down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec then position his ships so that no supplies or reinforcements could reach the French garrison there. All this would have to be accomplished on a river that had never properly been charted and it was said that no ship larger than a frigate could traverse the distance safely.

Between the open Atlantic and where the city of Quebec looks out over the St. Lawrence there is almost 1,120 kilometers of powerful currents, rapids and winds which blew mainly in the wrong direction. There were no proper charts of the river before the British arrived in 1759. To safely traverse the distance, a proper marine survey would have to be carried out. Saunders accomplished this by sending his ship’s masters in boats upriver to survey it in early spring while there was still ice in the river. The task of surveying the river was made all the more difficult since the French had removed the buoys and beacons and were busy fortifying the banks. Marine surveys take a good deal of patience and skill.

du-north-ships1

Those involved had to cross the river back and forth numerous times taking soundings at proper intervals, observing the boat’s position, allowing for stream and tide, and methodically writing down the depths. Because of constant observation from the enemy most of the work took place at night.

Among those taking part in this survey was a young James Cook, sailing master of the HMS Pembroke. Here in the St. Lawrence, Cook would establish his reputation for remarkable seamanship navigation skills. Utilizing his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to produce chart work, he took marine surveys at a wholly new level of accuracy. At one point when the fleet approached a narrow part of the river near Isle d’Orleans, Cook devised a method which eventually brought the whole fleet through that tight passage into the Basin just off Isle d’Orleans facing the fortress of Quebec.

With a sufficiently detailed marine survey at his disposal, Admiral Charles Saunders entered the river in early June. At one point the fleet stretched over 150 kilometers up the St. Lawrence. As they passed villages and farms, those onboard the fleet noticed that the inhabitants were making preparations to leave. By June 27th, the entire fleet including Saunders’ own flagship the Neptune was anchored off Isle d’Orleans. This was farther than Wolf had hoped the fleet would carry him and his troops and much farther than the French had expected. The Marquis de Montcalm remarked on the quality of British seamanship, “It is quite probable that in similar conditions a French fleet would have perished.”

Now Wolf and Saunders had their first opportunity to see the fortress of Quebec sitting high up on the steep cliffs across the river from where they anchored. The walls were imposing and appeared impregnable. Much to their dismay it was discovered that the north shore was now defended for at least 10 kilometers downriver by several thousand troops. The Marquis de Montcalm, in command of the combined French and Canadian forces, had received advance intelligence that outlined the British plans to take Quebec. General Wolf and his staff would now have to come up with a new plan. The next day Montcalm struck first. Boats and rafts carrying gunpowder were chained together and sent with the current toward the British fleet.

Aboard each craft someone waited for the signal to ignite the cargo then plunge into the river. One of the boats exploded too soon causing those manning the other boats to light their fires. It was a miscue that caused the downfall of the entire operation and saved the British fleet from damage. Another attempt was made with the same results.

On the night of Thursday, July 12, 1759, the British began ship to shore bombardment. Four large cannons and five mortars kept up a steady barrage until morning, sending cannonballs into the streets and smashing walls. Over three hundred British bombs fell on Quebec that first day. The shelling would last for nine weeks. British canons hurled more than 20,000 canon balls at the city. Still Quebec would remain in French hands. While all this was going on, Saunders pulled off another miracle by slipping six ships upstream past the guns of Quebec. This meant that Wolf could cut off supplies coming into the city and attack from the Plains of Abraham which Montcalm could not defend. The walls on the west side of the city were too weak and the fortifications inadequate to do the job. Eventually the attack would come from that direction but not until mid-September. In the intervening three months, Montcalm and Wolf would settle into a bloody chess match and time was on Montcalm’s side. With autumn approaching the fleet would soon have to depart the river to avoid being trapped in the ice that would form as winter approached.

After the failed frontal assault on Montcalm’s forces at the Beauport shore on July 31st and further set backs with the siege of Quebec, a humiliated Wolf was not only losing time he was fighting failing health and dissention amongst his brigadiers. By early September, Wolfe was in a desperate situation. In two weeks the Royal Navy would be forced to send all its ships back to their winter base in England. Wolfe’s health was fading. “I found myself so ill, and am still so weak,” he wrote, “that I begged the general officers to consult together for the public utility. They are all of the opinion… to draw the enemy from their present situation, and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced in their proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution.” But before that plan can be carried out, Wolf changes his mind once again. The new plan he has come with up shows some of the same sort of recklessness that he exhibited during the attack on the Fortress of Louisburg.

Wolfe’s new plan of attack would depend heavily on secrecy and surprise. Once again Charles Saunders and the British navy would play a huge part in its timing and co-ordination. September 12 saw a good deal of activity on the part of the Royal Navy, causing Montcalm to wonder where Wolfe was with the main part of his army. Saunders had stationed his fleet opposite the Beauport Lines, he didn’t give the French a moments peace all day or night. He had James Cook and others busy laying buoys perhaps in preparation for another assault. The bombardment came after dark as Saunders moved his fleet in at high tide and fired furiously at the entrenchments. All night long boatloads of Saunders Marines rowed up and down the river and kept the French on the alert looking for troops landing on the beach.

Several miles to the west upriver the city was receiving heavy bombardment from British gun batteries stationed at Point Levis. The bombardment went on most of the night becoming more intense just before dawn. Meanwhile, Commander James Chade had begun the dangerous journey of ferrying troops to the Anse-au-Foulon. The boats were aided by a six-knot tide and current behind them setting the men ashore at exactly the right spot. The fifty five meter cliffs were a towering black mass above those on the beach blotting out whatever light was coming from the stars that night. The small French detachments at Anse-au-Foulon and at Salmos Battery were overwhelmed and the road to the top was secured. Wolfe would be standing on the Plains of Abraham only a few hours later ready to face the enemy with his own ‘thin red line’. The coordinated efforts of the British land and sea forces had been a complete success. Saunders would later write “Considering the darkness of the night and the rapidity of the current, this was a very critical operation and very properly and successfully conducted.”

While the British won the battle on the Plains of Abraham that morning, both commanding generals were mortally wounded. Wolfe’s body was laid out in the stateroom of His Majesty’s Ship Royal William. Immediately after the battle, Admiral Saunders devoted all his energy to consolidating the victory won by his dead colleague. On September 18, he and Brigadier General George Townshend accepted the surrender of Quebec.

The news of the surrender would not reach London until a month later in the dispatches of Saunders and Townshend. Saunders was, as usual, succinct and modest about the nature of his accomplishments. Yet his accomplishments did not end with the conquest of Quebec, he also provided the garrison with cannons, ammunition and provisions before he left, even to the extent of reducing his ships’ stores. It may be that Quebec might well have been recaptured by the French under Francis de Gaston, Chevalier de Levis the following spring if not for the troops and supplies Saunders had left behind.

Saunders returned to London on December 26. In April of the following year, he provided a permanent contribution to the safe navigation of the St Lawrence. Saunders informed the Admiralty that he had readied the materials for a new, detailed chart of the St. Lawrence and they gave him permission to publish. Horace Wallpole once said of Saunders, “No man said less and deserves more.” He died in 1775 and is buried in Westminster Abbey near the Wolfe memorial.

Across Mountains To The Sea

Lady Agnes Macdonald

Lady Agnes Macdonald

“I shall travel on the cowcatcher
from summit to sea!”
– Lady Agnes Macdonald

Lady Agnes Macdonald had probably one of the most unique adventures in rail travel. It all happened during a trip west where Lady Agnes and her husband Sir John A. Macdonald took a train over the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway. Out the windows of their private car they saw for the first time the country Sir John A. had helped to create. It was a trip to remember that included mountain vistas, grand cheering processions and Indian powwows.

When the train arrived at Lake Louise, Lady Agnes announced her intension to ride to the west coast on the cowcatcher at the front of the engine. Despite concerns for her safety by the railway superintendent and her husband -who asked her if she could hold on, Lady Agnes persisted in her plans. Converting an empty candle box they found lying near the track and mounting it to the cowcatcher, she had the ultimate front row seat. The train first climbed to the Kicking Horse Pass using it to cross the Continental Divide.

Enjoying the ride, Lady Agnes triumphantly announced “quite lovely; I shall travel on the cowcatcher from summit to sea!” As the train rushed down the Kicking Horse Pass she beheld some magnificent sights from her position on the cowcatcher.

Lady Agnes described her experience as “Breathless – almost awestricken – but with a wild triumph in my heart, I look from farthest mountain peak, lifted high before me, to the shining pebbles at my feet!” The train crossed the valley of the Kicking Horse River and continued on into the Selkirk Mountains. Lady Agnes indeed rode the cowcatcher on to the west coast becoming the first person known to do that.

Lady MacDonald later wrote a detailed account of her extraordinary trip in an article entitled, “By Car and Cow Catcher” in Murray’s Magazine (1887). It encouraged other women travelers to experience it for themselves. Riding the cowcatcher quickly became a fashionable activity.

A mountain bearing her name (Mount Lady Macdonald) is located near where the Canadian Pacific Railway as it passes through Canmore, Alberta.

The Snowbirds – Canada’s Aerobatic Ambassadors

– by Kevin Patterson

demoteam-inlineThe heat on the tarmac at Hamilton International Airport was 105 degrees. It seemed like the earth was radiating as much heat as the sun. It had been a wonderful air show full of barrel roles, extreme stunts, vintage aircraft and precision aerobatics. For brief moments during each performance, I felt as if I was living vicariously the experience of each of the pilots. I had been looking forward to this show for 2 months. It was my first opportunity to see the Canadian Forces premier aerobatic team – the Snowbirds.

Two years previous, my friends and I had experienced the thrills and amazing feats of the US Air Force Thunderbirds. A growing desire was born then and there – to see Canada’s Snowbirds in flight. I had thought at first that the Snowbirds would be similar to the Thunderbirds, but as I looked more into it I found out the two teams took different approaches. With the speed and power of their four F-16 fighter jets, the Thunderbirds can fly higher and faster than the Canadair CT-114 Tutor jets the Snowbirds fly. The Snowbird performances are based more on finesse and precision flying. Now in the heat I stood along with my friend waiting for the nine Snowbird jets to taxi down the runway. The moment had finally arrived.

The Snowbirds now rocket down the runway and soon launch themselves into the air. Once airborne, the pilots fly in what’s called a Triple Vic formation (3 by 3) and soon vanish into a remote area of the sky beyond the airfield. I found out later that during this time an airborne visual inspection of each aircraft takes place. The team leader then calls for a “shake out”. Each plane performs a roll inverted, followed by a 5g climb (under these conditions each pilot experiences five times the normal pull of gravity) then a -2g dive. Once the final checks are performed its show time.

Meanwhile back on the ground, the show’s co-coordinators were feeding the audience background information, team statistics, details of show maneuvers and dedications.  They are the only 9 jet team in North America. Each season, they criss-cross the continent more than a half dozen times proudly representing all men and women in Canada’s military, who are serving both at home and deployed on missions overseas.

It all started in the rather humble surroundings of Moose Jaw Saskatchewan. In 1971, the original Snowbirds team was established by Colonel O.B. Philips, former commanding officer of the Golden Centennaires (Canadian Forces aerobatic flying team formed to commemorate Canada’s centennial year) and commander of Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw. The original team was made up of flying instructors from the Flight Training School. For seven years the team operated on a year-to-year basis before finally being established as a permanent unit in September 1977, their official designation became the Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team. On April 1st 1978, the Canadian Forces Air Demonstration Team was then renamed 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron. Since then the team has performed for more than 80 million people in communities across North America.

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The team leader’s voice now blares over the loud speaker as he speaks to the crowd from the cockpit of Snowbird # 1. He introduces himself and his team, announces the show dedication and explains the changes that have been made for today’s show. Scarce few moments later, you can hear the roar of the jet engines as the Snowbirds appear over the crowd flying in their “Big Diamond” formation. For the next 30 minutes (1800 seconds), we are treated to an exciting show full of precision formation flying, with 7 Snowbirds in formation performing loops and rolls, while 2 solo pilots execute a number of high-speed close passes. There is not one dull moment in this performance. The danger of a mishap or collision seems very real. These pilots are flying their aircraft right to the edge of the envelope.

The distinctive red and white Canadair CT-114 Tutor (the aircraft flown by the Snowbirds), is ideally suited for this kind of show. Its high maneuverability and relatively slow speed, allow for tight formation flying and the aerobatic feats performed by the Snowbirds. It doesn’t have the speed power of the Thunderbirds F-16 or the Blue Angels F-18 but then again this show is all about finesse. The aging CT-114’s are well maintained on a “shoestring” budget. Because the aircraft is so old, parts are usually not available so the technicians often have to manufacture their own spare parts.

The performance which has been a smooth and seamless one now comes to an end. For us it’s a chance to meet the snowbird pilots. A chance to get an autograph or a picture standing with one of the pilots. For the pilots it’s a chance to meet the fans here at the air show. The pilots and technicians also make innumerable public appearances at hospitals, schools and charity events. Their training has included dealing with the dealing with the public and the media, which can sometimes be tougher than flying.

The event is over. For my friend and I, we begin the trek back to the car followed by a long “hot” ride home. For the pilots and crew, there is a long debreifing session of every aspect of the show then everything will be packed up for the journey to the next show’s location. It’s a long season that stretches from May to October.

The Snowbirds have often been praised as a source of pride for Canadians around the world and as ambassadors for the Canadian Forces. They are truly a Canadian Icon.