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Okanagan Military Museum

OKANAGAN MILITARY UNITS

The Okanagan region has seen a number of military units formed and based in, or associated with, the area for almost a century beginning with the first cavalry units established in the late 1800s. Refer to the map below and click on the indicated units for a more detailed historical background:

A Brief Survey of Okanagan Valley Military History

By M. Vincent Bezeau

While armed clashes occurred during the pre-historic millennia of what is now Canada's Okanagan Valley, recorded aboriginal and first-contact history is mainly that of peaceful trade and commercial relations. The earliest permanent European settlers were missionaries who arrived in 1859, followed by ranchers, farmers, miners, and others. Many immigrants had some military experience, principally in imperial British Forces or the Canadian Militia. They provided a sight military flavour to valley society in the 19th Century. Imperial sentiments and connections were strong, and a small number of volunteers served in the South African War that began in 1899.


BCD parade in Enderby, 1910

Meanwhile, independent rifle companies were formed along the line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the north-south valleys, and mining communities in the British Columbia interior beginning in 1898, followed a decade later by independent squadrons of mounted rifles (cavalry). "B" Independent Squadron, Vernon, and a Company of Infantry, Armstrong, both formed in 1908, were the first military units in the Okanagan Valley. The Canadian Government encouraged the creation of rifle clubs associated with the Canadian Militia. The first local cadet organizations started. Armouries were rented or built. Soon, companies and squadrons, amalgamated into regiments - the 1st (later 30th) Regiment, British Columbia Horse, and The Rocky Mountain Rangers (abbreviated RM Rang) - gathered together for summer training. A common training ground was established in 1913 on Mission Hill, just south of Vernon. It became the principal training camp for units from Vancouver to the Rocky Mountains.


Major Ford and friends

When the First World War began in 1914, local units were called out for guard duty. There was a rush of volunteers, who served throughout the army, but most prominently in the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles (2nd CMR), raised by the local cavalry, which fought as infantry in France and Belgium. Thousands of others trained from spring to fall in tented camps in Vernon. The population at home formed support networks, including volunteer organizations such as the Women's Service Corps. An internment camp for 'enemy aliens' was established in Vernon. With fewer men available, society changed. Women went into the fruit packing plants and wore trousers while working in the orchards.

After the war, the soldiers returned home. They started veteran associations: branches and units of the Great War Veterans Association (now the Royal Canadian Legion); its older cousin, the Army and Navy Veterans in Canada (now the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada); and the Whizzbang Association (for members of the local regiment). Fewer returned than left: both because of casualties, and because some single British men remained 'home' in the old country.

The militia returned to its roots. The wartime 2nd and 11th CMR (the latter originally raised in the lower mainland, but supplying reinforcements to units fighting at the front) were perpetuated by The British Columbia Mounted Rifles - the renamed 30th Regiment, currently titled The British Columbia Dragoons (BCD). The wartime 172nd Battalion was perpetuated by the RM Rang, headquartered in Kamloops. These were lean years for the wide-spread valley militia. They trained locally and during summer concentrations at Camp Vernon. The valley population was too small to justify navy or air force units. Regular forces were mostly far away, although they set up and administered relief work camps for unemployed men during the Great Depression.

The Second World War broke out in 1939. Local units were immediately called out for guard duty, followed by mobilization. The BCD raised the 5th Canadian Motorcycle Regiment, later converted and redesignated the 9th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Dragoons), which fought in Italy and North-West Europe. A second, reserve regiment stayed at home. The RM Rang mobilized a battalion for home service. It was sent to oppose Japanese troops on Kiska Island in Alaska - the Japanese left before the American-Canadian assault landing on the island - and later transferred to England for reinforcement and training duties. A second, reserve battalion of RM Rang stayed at home. Many individuals joined other units of the navy, army, and air force, and served in Canada and abroad.

Unlike during the First World War, Japan was a threat and became an enemy nation in 1941. Large home-defence forces were kept in British Columbia to guard against possible invasion. While mostly based on the coast, some depth formations and support installations were located in the central plateau. An infantry brigade was based in Camp Vernon, which greatly expanded to handle year-round training. A special Battle School was in Coldstream, and, uniquely, a Special Operations Executive commando camp for Chinese-Canadians in an isolated area between Kelowna and Naramata in 1944. From 1942, companies of Pacific Coast Militia Rangers - a light, reserve, scouting force - were established to assist the army throughout British Columbia, including in the Okanagan Valley.

Volunteer organizations were formed on the home front, including for Air Raid Precaution. The BC Women's Service Corps re-formed - later becoming Canadian Red Cross Service Corps detachments - as did other support services. Two west-coast minesweepers, HMCS Kelowna and Kalamalka (chosen as an alternative to 'Vernon'), received much local support. Meanwhile, rationing and other changes brought the war effort home to everyone.

The veterans who returned in 1946 had greater help than after the First World War. Veterans' housing was built in many towns. Returning navy, army and air force personnel brought their experiences and memorabilia to enrich the valley's cultural pool. This continues today, as retiring Canadian Forces members make the Okanagan their home. Thus, the valley's military heritage is world-wide and from every service.

Post-war, the Vernon camp became a summer army cadet training facility, although still used by others. In the 1950s, with much of the world dividing into communist and non-communist camps, civil defence brought awareness of warlike threats home to the Valley. Ground Observer Corps detachments were formed and stood ready to report enemy aircraft flying through Canadian airspace until improved radar networks made them obsolete. However, the decades of peace that then followed saw a slow fading of the military in the public's midst. The militia returned to its roots, shrinking in size as times and budgets changed. The number of cadet organizations decreased as military support fell out of favour. Often, only commercial contracts - such as military trucks from the former Western Star Company or equipment from Pacific Safety - or remembrance activities by ex-service organizations made the news. But Valley men and women still proudly serve Canada and Canadians in the Okanagan - dramatically so by fighting forest fires in 2003 - and, through the regular forces and peacekeeping operations, around the world.

Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter flying over Kelowna during operations against the wildfires of 2003. DND photo
HMCS Winnipeg in the Arabian Gulf.
DND photo
Canadian Forces Coyote armoured vehicle in Bosnia. DND photo
Canadian soldier and friend in Eritrea.
DND photo

 

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