Colin McMechan died on Friday, January 12, 2018 at the age of 95. He lived in Stouffville north of Toronto. Shortly after his death, residents of St. Thomas and Elgin County may have noticed a sign on Wilson Ave. outside the Elgin Regiment armouries. Block letters spelled out the following: TPR COLIN MCMECHAN, 1922-2018, ARMATOS FUNDIT (Latin for ‘Bearing Armed Men’).
What is the backstory? Well, the armouries in St. Thomas have the distinction of being the official home of two regiments: first, the Elgin Regiment, and second, the only Canadian armed forces regiment ever to be formed, deployed, and disbanded overseas – the 1st Canadian Armoured Carried Regiment, nicknamed ‘The Kangaroos’.
Who exactly are the Kangaroos? Interestingly, the roots of the Kangaroo Regiment – and the connection to St. Thomas – take us back to World War Two, specifically Holland in fall 1944.
Two questions emerge: What circumstances could have developed at the time to necessitate the formation of a brand-new regiment? And more puzzling still, why would this Canadian group have taken on the name of one of the national symbols of Australia?
Grab a cup of coffee, here comes the history
In France, just a month or so after the landings at Normandy in June 1944, Canadian infantry regiments were attempting to advance against determined and well-equipped German forces. The Canadian units faced a serious problem: before they could even reach an objective, the enemy was decimating the troops. Forget the actual fighting at the Start Lines. The immediate need was to figure out some way to protect the soldiers who were trying to reach the battle site.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds came up with an innovative idea. Around the time of the Falaise Gap battle, he inspired a week-long overhaul of over seventy U.S. made Priest tanks. The plan included removing the guns from the tanks and welding additional armour into place, thus permitting many soldiers to get inside to be transported safely into battle. This new type of armoured vehicle was called a ‘Kangaroo’, apparently named after the tank repair shop where the transformative work had been done. It proved to be a most fitting name as these carrier tanks were essentially ‘pouches’ used to protect the infantry men. The technology proved highly effective during fighting at the Falaise Gap. A squadron was formed late in August 1944 featuring over fifty vehicles that remained following that engagement.
Further success at sites like Le Havre, Boulogne, and Calais confirmed the significance of the Kangaroos. Soon the initial vehicles were replaced by Ram tanks, which were produced in Montreal and proved very efficient at transporting troops, evacuating the wounded, and moving supplies. The turrets were taken off these tanks and the hulls were cleaned out to allow for maximum occupancy. The Kangaroo squadron travelled a long road. Their route wound from the village of Pierreval in northern France to Ypres, Belgium, and on to tiny Mill, Holland. In October 1944, under the command of the Second British Army, the Kangaroos were utilized in s’Hertogenbosch, a Dutch city fiercely guarded by the Germans.
The importance of these armoured carrier units was confirmed on October 24th when the First Canadian Army officially sanctioned the formation of the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment, then and forever after nicknamed ‘The Kangaroos’.
Shortly after V-E Day, the Kangaroo Regiment was disbanded after being awarded an impressive fourteen Battle Honours. A photo was taken. Some members left to join short-staffed regiments; others headed to England to await further directions. As the personnel in the Regiment had been assembled from many sources with roots across Canada, ‘The Kangaroos’ had no permanent home base. The conclusion of the war seemed to mean the end of the line for the 1st CACR.
Connection to the Elgin Regiment
When the Kangaroo Regiment was officially formed at Tilburg, Holland, in October 1944, the first Commanding Officer was Lt. Col. Gordon M. Churchill, Deputy Commanding Officer of the Elgin Regiment and a well-regarded World War One veteran. After the end of hostilities, he moved on to federal politics, serving as the Minister of Trade and Commerce in the Cabinet of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Fast forward to 2011. Current members of the Elgin Regiment in St. Thomas, Ontario, happened to discover the link between their own Regiment and the Kangaroos. The connection came not only in the person of Lt. Col. Churchill but through his entire Regiment at the time, as it was officials in ‘The Elgins’ that handled much of the administration of the Kangaroo squadron and eventually the 1st CACR. Given this significant link, a push was made to invite all surviving members of the Kangaroo Regiment to St. Thomas for a national reunion.
The emotional gathering took place from September 9th to 11th, 2011. Central to this occasion was the presentation of the official Regimental Guidon of the Kangaroos, a formal military standard that displays the 14 Battle Honours given to the Regiment. This Guidon now hangs impressively at the Elgin Regiment on Wilson Ave. in St. Thomas, very close to the Guidon of ‘The Elgins’. In this way, the Kangaroos now have a physical – and perhaps spiritual – home.
Two additional acknowledgements of The Kangaroos exist in St. Thomas. First, there is a ‘Kangaroo Regiment Award’ handed out annually to the top student in the Welding Techniques program at the St. Thomas/Elgin campus of Fanshawe College, a graceful recognition of the importance of skilled tradespeople inside and outside the armed forces. Second, the STEAM Centre has a collection of animated animal characters called ‘The Wildmakers’, which through stories hint to kids the importance of learning how to make things, whether through welding or 3D printing or computer coding. One of the characters is an orange kangaroo named ‘Tilley’, an artful reference to Tilburg, Holland, where the Kangaroo Regiment was formed in 1944.
Colin McMechan 1922- 2018
Colin McMechan was one of the small group of Kangaroos who attended the national reunion in St. Thomas. For many years, he served as the Chairman of the Regiment Association, helping to preserve the story of the Kangaroos. In advance of the reunion, I had the opportunity to speak with him. He was happy that the Regiment had finally been recognized officially. He shared his memories of his war experience. Typically, he would operate the radio and a machine gun in a Kangaroo tank. He recalled having to run tanks over dead comrades in the battlefield, and all the soldiers ripped apart by landmines. Clearly, the images had barely faded in his memory.
Here is the transcript of our interview from August 2011.
Andrew Gunn: You were living in Toronto in the years before the war. How did you get involved originally to go to Europe?
Colin McMechan: Well, my dad was in the First World War. He was wounded. I guess the army had always held some attraction. When I was nineteen I joined the army, specifically in tanks. I didn’t like that walking business! So I went to tanks and stayed in tanks, and eventually ended up with The Kangaroos.
There are a few stories I can tell you about. After I got to England – that would be about ’43 I guess when I got to England, after playing around in Canada. There were twenty-three of us moved over, and we were put on loan to the British Army at a town called Slough, which is about twenty miles straight west of London. It was a tank depot. The twenty-three of us were sent down there on a loan for two weeks. Four of us raised enough hell that we got out of there after nine months. The others must have got out because they closed the depot after the war!
An interesting part was that we had about ten thousand all told, and there were about two thousand ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) girls next door to us. So it was an interesting time in my life! We would only have been about twenty-one or twenty-two. I had to learn how to ride motorcycles in Camp Borden. I spent over a year in Camp Borden. Then we got to England, and as I say, we were on loan. They found out that I could ride a motorcycle, so they gave me one of these little one-cylinder Norton’s. I was to guide tanks down. Well, I did a fair amount of that.
There was one time when we had to go up north to pick up what they called DD tanks. They were the floating tanks. They put the canvas up the side of them, and once they left the ship they were supposed to float in, which is a great theory as long as there are no waves! I would say we lost the majority of them – sank. The people inside were drowned. When they let them off the ship on D-Day, it was hell.
Anyway, so we went up to get these tanks up in the Midlands – I think it was Crewe or something, up where they built the Rolls Royce. They weren’t ready, of course. They never are. But they decided that the next day they would be ready. It was about six o’clock at night before they were allowed to go. We took about fifty or sixty of these tanks south back down to Slough. We were driving them.
At about two o’clock in the morning – well, they have these roundabouts. I’m all dressed with these white gloves on, trying to guide them around. The first guy didn’t go around; he drove straight across the roundabout, right over top of my motorcycle! Thirty-two tanks went right across that motorcycle!
I was yelling and shouting and hollering. Eventually one of the guys stopped and wondered what I was doing. Then they picked up the motorcycle and threw it in the back of a truck we had with us. I rode in the truck with the motorcycle.
Then, we had a court of inquiries. I can still remember the old Major that was hearing this. He said, ‘I’ve got to have some evidence.’ So they bring the thing in. ‘My God,’ he says, ‘it really was a motorbike, wasn’t it?’
I was glad I survived that routine. I’ve ridden a little bit on a motorcycle since, just to test, but normally I don’t test motorcycles now. No way! Not after that experience. Then, I got back to the unit, and in the meantime D-Day had started.
We were, from this tank depot, we also had a depot over in France. We had to take some of our tanks over. There was a proper landing, a dock. The tanks didn’t have to go down in the water. They stayed on land. We took them over and made this depot for when the other tanks were knocked out.
I can still remember – they hit a Tiger, one of the German Tiger tanks, which was one of the best tanks during the war; they hit it with an artillery shell. We had to take it back to England. We took it on the carrier, got it back to the depot, and there were seven guys inside. This was D plus six or something, June. These seven guys were inside. They were all killed, of course, when it was hit. I’ll tell you … the guns were all loaded. We were right twenty-two miles from London, where it’s all built up. It was a little scary to try and find out the German identification. We got them all out. We had to break some legs, but we got them out, hauled them out through the top. Then we had to sort out and take the guns apart so they wouldn’t fire. They got a booster to start the engine, and it started just like that! The German machinery was so superior to ours, their engineering. They didn’t build as fast. Now, Shermans were being turned out at about two thousand a day, but if you wanted to attack a Tiger tank, you would have to have at least twelve Shermans– and it was better to have twenty – to attack one Tiger tank. And the guns that they had, that 88 …
During the operation, I had the greatest respect for the Typhoon airplane, and it’s hardly mentioned. It used to come over and there would always be about six of them in a row. They would come over at about five thousand feet. They were high enough that small arms couldn’t touch them. Then they would dive and they would start their machine guns, and then their rockets. They knocked out lots and lots of German placements, and also their tanks. They were deadly in that. I had great respect. But we also had to have the right colour. There was a piece of cloth, and it was all in orange or red or something, and you put it on the top of your tank. Some of the tanks carried the main gun, but it doesn’t always face forward. That’s how the guys up in the airplanes, they would see which way the gun was facing toward; if it was facing the other way, you were just as liable to get shot. So they had to have this colour-coded thing. You hoped the Air Force knew what was the colour for the day!
As I say, we had lots of incidents, but as you get older, they start to fade.
AG: So your involvement began at the depot west of London and then in the process of getting the tanks over to France. When did the practice of converting the tanks into carriers really begin there?
CM: At what they called the Falaise Gap – what happened was that there were so many of these shoe mines. The Germans sowed millions of shoe mines. They’re just little round cans, about the same size as a pop can, but they’ve got these feelers up on top and when a man steps on there, it comes up and explodes and just tears the guts right out of them. We were losing men galore. As a matter of fact, what was really a sad thing was that some of the tanks had to drive over our own dead. So somehow or other, they wanted to get some way to reduce the casualties.
I think it was General Simonds – he came up with the idea of using mobile artillery. They used what they called Priests or Sextons. Sometimes they took the gun out and sometimes they didn’t; they left the 25-pounder right in there, and then the infantry would go inside. After a while, the artillery wanted their equipment back. Then they found that there were about five hundred Ram tanks in England. Well, the Ram tank had the same suspension as a Sherman, and almost the same motor and transmission. The stupid thing was that they drove from the opposite side! Why they ever did that … our trucks were built by General Motors and Ford, and they all had right-hand drives, so when you got to England you were okay, but when you got to the Continent, you were back on the left-hand drive! We were issued, when I got to England at this tank depot, all Dodge trucks. They hadn’t changed, except for a four-wheel drive; they stayed on the left-hand driver.
As I say, the idea that this Simonds had was that he found these Ram tanks. The Ram had a very poor gun in it, a very small gun – it was only a two-pounder or a six-pounder. When you’re facing a German 88, that isn’t the gun to have! So what they did is that they lifted the turret right out, which also weighed about nine tons, the gun and the turret. When they lifted it out, our tanks were so much lighter, that nine-ton lighter, which made it that much more adaptable – in Holland, especially. When it was muddy, we could get going, whereas some of the gun tanks got bogged down in the mud. We also got what they called ‘extenders’. We took the end off the tracks and put these extenders on, which gave us almost a foot extra surface. That was a real handy thing for us to be using in Holland. Not many of our tanks ever got stuck in the mud. It was quite handy. Once they took these turrets out, we would carry anywhere from twelve to fourteen men inside. It reduced the casualties, especially the casualties on the mines. It almost wiped those out. They tried to keep it as much of a secret as possible because they didn’t want the Germans to know that they had overcome this mine problem. I know that some of the Germans were quite surprised – plus the fact that, when you take the turret off, you’re that much lower so you can hide a little easier than with a tank that sits up. I’ve often wondered why tanks didn’t get periscopes, but that’s another story!
AG: The conversion of the tanks then, as I understand it, happened after the landing and on the battlefield.
CM: Oh yes, it happened in the Falaise Gap. Well, there was one guy in REME (the ‘Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’ Corps) … he was with the Kangaroos ever since the beginning of it and right through to the end. He was in charge of the maintenance and procurement of engines. Those right whirlwind engines that he had – that was an airplane engine. It was supposed to be changed every hundred hours. They were air-cooled, too, and instead of having a propeller on, they put a flywheel on and the flywheel had blades on the end to suck the air right through the tank to cool the engine. I guess that’s the way you do things, but I liked when we had a few earlier Shermans that had diesel engines, but apparently the Navy had more seniority so they got the diesel engines for their landing crafts! We had to go back to the right whirlwind engines.
There were some Shermans that had five Chrysler engines in them. They had one up, two behind and two in the bottom. They were great. They were quite acceptable, and they were easy to start. They were chain-driven and the whole thing. But we had a hundred and fifty gallons of fuel in them. When you stopped at night, you usually turned the fuel off because the weight of that fuel would bypass the float in the carburetor and the gasoline then would go down and fill the engines down in the bottom – if you forgot. Then there was a big thing: ‘Don’t tow them! Don’t tow this to get it started!’ If it were solid gasoline, it would just push the heads right off the engines. I’ll tell you, I don’t think I would recommend it to anybody, but I have taken the sparkplugs out. You hang upside down. You have these five engines, and down in the bottom you have to take the sparkplugs out and the gasoline all runs out. You have a place down at the bottom that you can open, and let the gasoline draw out onto the ground. But I’ll tell you, hanging upside down with the other guy hanging onto your boots – you do that when you’re young!
AG: How would you describe what your main activity was during this time?
CM: Most of the time I was a Crew Commander. The driver was usually assigned to the tank. I operated the radio and the machine gun. We only had two machine guns, two thirty-caliber machine guns. One was in a ball socket in the front. The other was on a U-mount, and you could move it anywhere around the ring, because the ring that they had lifted off was still there – it had holes all the way around it, bolt holes. It was very convenient. If you wanted to move, instead of firing out front, you could lift the machine gun out. We carried lots of ammunition. It was thirty-caliber ammunition, American ammunition, whereas the infantry were using .303, and some of those Lewis machine guns, they also used .303s. Anyway, we had lots of ammunition. We were never short too much of ammunition. Occasionally because of our ability to stay up on top of the mud, we would get too far out in front of the main group. You would end up being a pillbox, really. It got so bad that the infantry didn’t want to jump out, and I don’t blame them! They stayed in. Then, when we went to an objective and we stayed there, sometimes we had to stay for a day or two …
AG: Really? That long?
CM: Oh yeah, sometimes … until the other tanks caught up.
Another interesting story is that we found an objective, but there was a German pillbox there. We didn’t have any heavy equipment, so we went back. We had a Churchill tank. The Churchill tanks were converted to flame throwers. We decided that this was a good thing, so we took two tanks, two Rams, and you cross tie them and then you tie onto the Churchill. We towed that Churchill up to this pillbox, or near it, and the guy had a Howitzer. He bombed it a few times, and then he sprayed the whole thing. They had a trailer, too, with all kinds of fire – it was mostly gasoline and diesel fuel. When it hit the pillbox, you could see it creep – on fire – to the guys inside. They stayed inside. It was quite an effective weapon, but the damn thing was so slow. The Churchills were very slow tanks and didn’t have heavy enough guns. Eventually the Shermans, which were assigned to the British and the Canadians, we took them … there was a 75mm gun, which was a French-designed, First World War gun! And the Germans had better equipment.
Anyway, when I was at the depot, we changed quite a few of the guns. Then we got the Fireflies; instead of the Shermans, they named them Fireflies. They had a heavy enough gun that they could compete with the German tanks – but not the Tiger. …
AG: You mentioned that there would be twelve to fourteen men in the tank, and sometimes in order to reach an objective – I mean, were these long trips?
CM: Not usually. We were limited in our range. We had a hundred fifty gallons of fuel, but when you’re travelling across country, you were using about five gallons a mile. Once you got on hard pavement, you were down to about a gallon a mile.
Something that I have never yet understood was that the airplanes had a drop tank. They fly, and once they’re going into action, they dropped the tank. There were thousands of those tanks. Why not on a tank? There were Russian tanks that came over, this is one of the things that I really noticed – they had two big drums on the back of their tanks. Diesel, they were all these diesels, and they would use these tanks when they were going up to action. Once they got to action, they pulled a lever and the drums would fall off because they weren’t armour-plated or anything. They were just great big drums. It just seemed so natural. I would’ve questioned a General on the damn thing – but only after the war!
AG: During the war, a lot of the administrative body of the Kangaroo Regiment came from the Elgin Regiment …
CM: That’s right, yes.
AG: … and the commanding officer was Lt. Col. Gordon Churchill. What do you remember about the administrative group of the Kangaroos and their role in the whole thing? Were they present for you at all?
CM: No, no, I was a Private. I didn’t associate with that hierarchy – I just wanted to stay away! When you’re a Private that just invites problems.
AG: When the Regiment was formed on the fly, so to speak, what sort of instructions did you get? How did the Kangaroo group come together?
CM: It was just a unit. It wasn’t even a squadron. It was a partial unit until they got up to Tilburg. Then, it was formed up as a regiment in Tilburg, Holland. The regiment was formed in Holland, went through the war, and up into Germany. We finished up near Bremen. We came back to s’Hertogenbosch in Holland and then disbanded. In the meantime – one of the few things that I ever did in the Army – I signed on for the Pacific. … I only had to wait in England, and those of us who signed on for the Pacific, well, I couldn’t have been there for more than two or three weeks at the most and we were shipped back to Canada. I was on disembarkation leave, which was a thirty-day leave, when the Japanese surrendered. So I came back. It was 1945, but it took me well into ’46 before I got my discharge. They were fairly casual on attendance and that sort of thing.
AG: As the story goes, the Kangaroo Regiment is the only Canadian Regiment ever formed, deployed, and disbanded overseas. On the actual disbanding of the Regiment at the end of the war, was there anything ‘official’ done in order to mark this? Or was it just that the job was done and you were all sent off?
CM: Well, they took a picture. It’s hanging in my bedroom. I had it rolled up for quite a few years, but I thought it would start to deteriorate badly. I had it mounted. It was taken at s-Hertogenbosch …
AG: So, they took the photo, and then you were sent – where? Did you have an original regiment that you went back to?
CM: No, no I didn’t.
AG: Was it common though for members of the Kangaroo Regiment to have been drawn from a regiment that they were in before?
CM: Some of them went back, but most of them were allocated to any regiment that was short-staffed. You know, conscription was a big issue during the war, and we used to call them ‘zombies’. But we would have to get into a political discussion on that! We were going to have conscription, or not – Mackenzie King could never quite make up his mind. He wanted to keep the vote from the French. The French were very much opposed to conscription. As a matter of fact, I think the Canadian Army was still the only army during the war that was voluntary. The Americans were conscripted. The British were conscripted. I guess there were a few Poles who had escaped that were voluntary. Certainly the Germans had conscription. …
AG: At the reunion in St. Thomas, there is going to be a Guidon revealed for the Kangaroo Regiment. It was explained to me that, since the Kangaroo Regiment was formed, deployed, and disbanded overseas, it had never really been formally recognized in the way that other regiments were. Has that been a source of some frustration for the veterans of the Regiment?
CM: Oh, I think so. Not as far as I was concerned, but I think there were quite a few who were great on tradition. It just died over there. Churchill didn’t seem to be that seriously interested in carrying it on. He was a Cabinet Minister under Diefenbaker. He didn’t even come to any of our meetings. … I found that kind of shocking, but everyone makes their own decisions. I only got into this position (as the current Chairman of the Kangaroo Regiment Association) by people dying off! Harry Tatchell, for instance, ran the thing for quite a while, but Harry is ninety-nine now. He’s quite an interesting fellow. We’ve had a lot of characters in our organization. I must tell you one other thing, thinking about characters. There was one guy …
The war was over. We were sitting up near Bremen. There was a great big lake, a reservoir. Somewhere along the way, they blew the dam and the water was slowly but surely going down. Anyway, we were sitting close by, and the war was over. We were in this compound, and all our tanks were there. There was a guy named Art White. He was a Newfie. He said, “I’ll bet you there are a bunch of fish in that pond.” I said, “well okay, let’s go fishing. But how are we going to fish?” “Oh,” he says, “we’ve got lots of hand grenades!”
We had been ordered to take the fuses out of all our hand grenades when the war stopped, and we buried them. We knew where we buried them, so we dug them up. We recharged these hand grenades, went down to the lake and threw the hand grenades. The cost didn’t mean anything. So we threw the hand grenades and we got quite a few fish! It was a little problem getting them in, but we got them in and we had a real fish fry with our troop, which was six tanks.
Somehow or other, headquarters found out about it. They asked, “how would you like to go fishing for us?” So this guy White says, “sure, we’ll go fishing.” We had boxes of hand grenades. We would charge them up, down to the lake we’d go, throw them in and ‘boom’, we’d get a few fish but not near as many. So this fellow says, “the things are going to low.” I said, “you could tie a board around the damn thing, and it wouldn’t sink.” “No, no, no,” he says, “come on over, I’ll do it.”
So he pulls the pin and he’s got a smoking grenade! I dropped down, getting as low as I can. He throws it in the water, and it doesn’t go that low. But hand grenades will kill up to one hundred yards … plus the fact that the different colours on the charge told whether it was a four-second fuse or a seven-second fuse. The infantry pretty well all had seven-second fuses. We only had four-second fuses, because we had thrown them out of the tank – but you can’t depend on that! I thought, “God, I survived the war, and I’m going to get killed by this!” So I said to Art, “I’ll never go fishing with you again!”