Presentation September 2011
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Independent researcher and author Owen Cooke is a former chief archivist at the Directorate of History, Canadian Department of National Defence.

Cooke's talk concentrated on the 5th Canadian Armoured Division's involvement in breaking the Gothic Line during Italian campaigns (July, '43-January '45) of World War II. Cooke feels in some ways that was the epitome of Canadian armoured action as well as a terrible time in the history of Canada's military, in terms of difficulty and losses.

After Italy withdrew from the Axis in August in 1943, Cooke says the remaining Germans fought a delaying action there. (Both sides wanted to tie up opposing troops, in anticipation of D-Day and the fight for other European theatres ahead.) The Canadians were part of an alliance system, meaning they were deployed to front lines in different places. The Germans fiercely defended every ridge, river and bridge.

Cooke recounted that of the 93,757 Canadians who served in Italy, fully one quarter were either killed (5400), wounded, captured or went missing. Cooke's own Uncle, Harold Dixon, was only there for a few days before he was killed by artillery fire. Dixon is buried in Cassino, Italy. Cooke made particular mention of Major General B.M. Hoffmeister, a self-made, successful businessman from Vancouver, who commanded the 5th Canadian Armoured Division in Italy. Hoffmeister's leadership style was to build consensus and then allow subordinates to get on with the job. Cooke reported that “everyone was under strength” in those Italian campaigns, so when Hoffmeister needed another infantry brigade, he had to cobble one together from this unit and that.

Cooke's presentation was also too detail-rich to repeat here, but in the “small world” department, the commander of the First Canadian Corps, Lt. General Tommy (“Smiley”) Burns, later retired to Manotick. The only Canadian Air Force Squadron in Italy at that time was commanded by Burt Houle  who later became a fire chief in Manotick.

Sherman tanks undergoing maintenance

Sherman Tanks Undergoing Maintenance

In the easily-forgotten dept., Cooke mentioned that tanks require significant daily maintenance. (Cleaning the guns, opening the armoured covers over the engines, cleaning air cleaners, fixing the tracks – all with hand tools, like crowbars). Everything is dreadfully heavy and the upkeep cannot be ignored.

Some of the nicknames for armoured tactics sound quaintly amusing, from the safety of a peace-time lecture: reconnaissance scout cars might “sneak & peek”, more heavily armoured vehicles went out to “shoot & scoot” (draw fire to reveal enemy positions and retreat), others still got busy doing “mix and mingle”.

Who won the Italian campaigns is well-known, but it is difficult to fully appreciate the challenges that entailed. We thank Cameron and Cooke for expanding our awareness of tanks in general and their role in some of World War II's most difficult fighting.

(End note: the pair's participation was also a splendid example of the talent vested in our members. All members are invited to consider presenting a favourite subject at some future meeting, after our up-coming Christmas dinner and January's ever popular “bring and brag” smorgasbord!)  

17-year-old Scott Cameron is not RTHS's youngest member. But (thus far) he's the youngest featured speaker at our monthly meetings. Cameron teamed up with a slightly-older Owen Cooke for a joint presentation on tanks before an appreciative crowd of 30 at the Mill Carriage Shed.

Remembrance Day made November the logical month for a military-themed talk. Cameron said he suggested the presentation as a way to 'give back' for all he's gotten out of RTHS activities.

   Scott Camerson and Owen Cooke

Owen Cooke and Scott Cameron

Tanks sort of began as steam-powered tractors that used tracks instead of wheels as transport vehicles in the Crimean War (1853-56). A sort of armoured car was used in the Boer War. Interesting, but hardly transformative. Tanks (as we think of them today) only became important beginning in the 20th century.

The horrific trench-war stalemate of the Great War provided a pressing need to develop something like the tank –  a way to move, and do damage, while staying protected. Tanks came along late in that morass, but the new device did help end the war, by November of 1918.

As Cameron explained, tanks represent a sort of all-purpose balancing act – an iron triangle, if you will. They must incorporate the right combination of firepower, mobility and armour. As happens with most military technology, anti-tank weaponry constantly improves too, creating a back and forth in research and development.

Along the way, nations saw that early tank flops could be re-designed to overcome many obvious flaws. By World War II, tanks had become decisive weapons of engagement – able to do more, with ever-smaller crews (a trend that continues to this day).

Tanks remain an indispensable element of the all-round combat team, especially when they can deliver their firepower while being protected by infantry from such threats as enemy in close country - built-up areas or jungle - or from roadside explosives as so often encountered in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Cameron's presentation was both detailed and expansive. Rather than recount an entire history of tanks (and the many versions made) in this article, interested readers would do well to read an over-view, such as can be found in old-style encyclopaedias, or on-line summaries, such as Wikipedia.

Cameron's keen interest in military history comes naturally, as his father and Grandfather are also military history buffs. World War I is one of Cameron's passions, for a variety of reasons, starting with the incredible human sacrifice endured by so many, including some of his relatives.

Cameron is also intrigued by that conflict's technological side. In conversation after his presentation, he put it this way: “The pure military advancements that came out of the war were just phenomenal. The tank is just one example. Flame throwers were largely created in the First World War.  Air war was pioneered in the First World War, as was the use of mechanized vehicles. It was basically setting the stage for what was to come in modern history.”

Asked if he hopes for a future in the military, Cameron said he is applying to the Royal Military College after high school, but it's too soon to know what else may happen. If he does end up in uniform, he knows he'd prefer to serve in some branch of the artillery. As Cameron explained: “I have a fascination with tanks, but really, I just love the big guns, everything about them! I feel that's where my heart lies.” Cameron recounted that two first cousins are currently serving in the Navy, but thanks to a tilt toward sea sickness he'll stay a land lubber.

Return to

Meetings/Events Page

Home Page

The Development of the Tank, and Canadian Armoured Activities in Italy in 1944  

Presenters:  Scott Cameron and Owen Cooke 

Article by Lucy Martin