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Le générique du Bulletin
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March/April 2003
Vol. 35, no. 2
ISSN 1492-4676

Contents Next Article

Ottawa’s Sappers

Tom Tytor, Research and Information Services

Mr. Bill Rawling, National Defence historian and author of the recently published Ottawa’s Sappers: A History of 3rd Field Engineer Squadron, presented the November 19, 2002, SAVOIR FAIRE seminar. His presentation about the unit was enhanced by slides depicting sappers involved in diverse operations and the results of some of their projects.

In the distant past, siege operations troops "sapped," i.e., dug trenches as protection from enemy fire. In current use, "sapper," as a rank, refers to a private in an engineering unit. In more general terms, it refers to all field engineers in addition to construction engineers, firefighters, surveyors, cartographers and others.

The 3rd Field Engineer Squadron, formed July 1, 1902, is one of many engineer squadrons assembled since the Militia Act [Canada (Province)] of 1855 was passed. It was created to ensure that infantry, cavalry and artillery units would be able to operate over considerable distances with the necessary supplies and equipment. From its inception until World War I, it was part of a mobilization plan to defend Canada against an invasion from the U.S.; it was also to be part of an expeditionary force to serve in Europe.

Although there were mobilization plans at various times during the 20th century (1902-1914, 1922-1939 and part of the post-war era), the unit mobilized only once in its 100-year history (WWII). It also provided individuals for various services in WWI. With the cessation of hostilities in 1918, the 3rd Field was again part of a mobilization plan, in 1919, but did not recommence training as a unit until 1921.

During the first 37 years of its existence, the only occasions when the entire unit worked together in a emergency situations were when they were in support of the local community. One example of such community support is the Field Company’s battling of the Lebreton Flats fire of September 1903, when it assisted firemen and area residents.

Members of the Ottawa sappers have served in almost every branch of the armed services. World War II saw the 3rd Field Squardon incorporated into the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which served in various theatres: England, 1940, Spitsbergen, 1941, and then Sicily, Italy and Holland, July 1943 - May, 1945. Several members earned decorations for gallantry for their support of combat arms units on numerous occasions.

WWII: Mobilized

In England, sappers learned how to build both fixed-span (non-floating) and floating bridges. They set up obstacles on beaches to hinder the movement of tanks, strung barbed wire, formed roadblocks and mined fields. They also prepared for an organized withdrawal, which would have necessitated demolishing roads and bridges.

While on Spitsbergen, they were called upon to destroy or remove all coal mining facilities, stocks of free coal, transit facilities between mines and wharves, harbor facilities, and wireless and meteorological stations. Moreover, they were instructed to repatriate two thousand Russians living on the island, while moving eight hundred Norwegians to the United Kingdom.

In Sicily, roads required clearing, and there were bridges and roads that needed rebuilding. Potholes and ruts required attention, broken culverts were repaired, and mines and booby traps were cleared.

Roads were kept open in Italy, large sections of which had been blown up by enemy sappers. Craters were repaired, routes of advance and communication had to be maintained while the sappers contended with the heavy autumn rain that wreaked havoc on roads, tracks and highways, as well as bridges, river banks and piers. Land mines, booby traps, unexploded bombs and mines that had washed ashore were removed.

The period in northwest Europe was spent guarding and escorting prisoners, removing thousands of explosive devices, and clearing many roadblocks.

Although new anti-mine devices existed during WWII, in order to remove the mines silently, the procedure was carried out by hand. Sappers were expected to use mine detectors and prodders to locate mines and then lift them out of the ground, resulting in more casualties than when explosives were used to clear the mines.

After the Spitsbergen experience, offensive rather than defensive operations were increasingly emphasized. When troops were preparing to move across a river, engineers would cross the defended river quickly with the fewest possible casualties and establish a bridgehead. They provided assault boats to the infantry, prepared approaches, cleared minefields and wire, constructed bridges or rafts, and maintained all crossing sites until the division could traverse.


Following WWII, community involvement, including bridge work and other tasks, kept the unit engaged. In the early 1960s, national survival, which had been the focus since the late 1950s, was no longer being emphasized. The beginning of the nuclear era, however, meant that the 3rd Field became part of a mobilization strategy yet again.

In the 1970s, individual members joined regular force units and, in some cases, served temporarily on international peacekeeping assignments. Community collaboration involving bridges and demolitions, among other undertakings, continued to be part of training until the 1980s. In the 1990s, militia units like the 3rd Field spent more time training with the regular force than had previously been the case. Furthermore, there was involvement in short-term service, including participation in the 1991 Gulf War. A group of seven assisted during spring floods in Winnipeg in 1997. During the ice storm of January 1998, more than 50 from the unit aided the community, making use of chainsaws, bailing out homes by means of pumps, supplying firewood, food and water, setting up shelters, helping hydro crews and clearing obstacles. Ten served in Bosnia that same year; in addition to carrying out their regular duties, including ordinance disposal and mine clearance, they built a play structure for a school in Bajici. Military engineers also built or repaired several bridges for the Trans-Canada Trail during their centennial year.

Mr. Rawling’s informative presentation served to illustrate how useful militia engineer units are. Appreciation of these units has, undoubtedly, been shared by all who have benefited from the multitude of services rendered both in local communities and far afield. Their community participation, even on short notice, can help reduce the effects of disasters, such as an ice storm or a major conflagration. Given sufficient time to prepare, a militia engineer unit is capable of constructing bridges or docks, and can be trained for involvement in battlefield formations.

Rawling, Bill. Ottawa's Sappers: A History of 3rd Field Engineer Squadron. Ottawa: Canadian Military Engineer Museum, 2002.

To find out the topics of the 2003 SAVOIR FAIRE presentations being held at the Library and Archives of Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, check out our Web site at www.collectionscanada.ca/1/9/index-e.html.