Cold War Manitoba


I’m currently travelling on work business. The placid prairies of western Canada: thousands of miles from the front lines of the Inner German Border or the DMZ in Korea, or the insurgencies and ‘wars of national liberation’ in Africa, Central America, and Asia…. Just north of the missile fields of North Dakota, well within the fallout ‘goose eggs’….

The Cold War played a notable role in the history of Manitoba, just as it did in the First and Second World Wars. In effect, Manitoba was a big training base for Canada and her allies. And, of minor note, was subjected to strategic air attack by Japanese balloon bombs during the Second World War, as were all of Canada’s Western provinces.

Cold War Manitoba


The training base network predates the First World War but during that conflict a site called Camp Hughes near Brandon, Manitoba, was constructed. Today and in the Cold War it was standard for deploying units to conduct live fire and manouvre training on terrain and against positions and units simulating enemy positions and emplacements: think of the National Training Center in California in the 1980s, for example which played a significant role in overhauling the post-Vietnam US Army.. Camp Hughes boasted a gigantic reproduction of a typical First World War German and allied trench system.

Near Camp Hughes was Camp Shilo, now Canadian Forces Base Shilo. Shilo is the home station of the Royal Canadian Artillery and as such boasts the Artillery Museum. This little gem has a lot of Cold War history in it: the first thing you see is the nuclear-capable 8” gun on the way in, followed immediately by the last Honest John nuclear free flight rocket launch system in captivity in Canada plus its reloading equipment. Inside in the ubiquitous M-109 self-propelled gun, another nuclear capable system that was the mainstay of the RCHA in West Germany for the last half of the Cold War. Beside it is a late 1960s-era Canadair AN/USD-501 Drone system (note: this is a DRONE, not a UAV….) Drones were useful in a nuclear environment for damage analysis and re-targeting….. One of the Airborne Battery’s droppable 105mm guns is also part of the gallery.

CFB Shilo has a number of other Cold War-themed aspects. Shilo was the home of one of the BRIDGE system continuity of government bunkers. This multi-leveled underground facility was deemed necessary for western Canada due to the proximity of potential targets in the northern United States and there were concerns that fallout protection was crucial for maintaining government under such conditions. Unfortunately, the bunker was sealed and all visages of it have been removed save the parking lot. All entrances were covered over and the facility is now entombed in grass.

Shilo was the host to West German forces starting in 1974. The lack of maneuver training areas and live fire training areas in crowded West Germany meant that the skills of the whole Bundeswehr were atrophying and with the increased emphasis on generating a conventional pause before tactical nuclear weapons use meant that the proficiency of West German troops had to be improved. In 1973 the German Army Training Establishment Shilo or GATES opened up. I recall this when I was very young because in 1973 it made front page news. The idea that a brigades’ worth of West German tanks, APCs, and self-propelled artillery would be deployed to Manitoba was radical to the media and it caused some hard feelings among a small number of Second World War veterans. The brigade set of equipment was deployed and over the next decades 140 000 West German troops flew in on rotation to GATES to train and improve their skills. There is a very early model Leopard standard panzer left as a GATES monument in the park at Shilo and the artillery museum has a notable display with personnel who trained at GATES.

Manitoba was also home to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War. This massive training base network, which included hundreds of air fields across Canada, was progressively shut down in the 1940s. However, with the advent of the Cold War and the incorporation of West Germany into the NATO fold, there was a need to use the wide open spaces of Western Canada for air training. And, as Canada was handing out Canadair-built F-86 Sabres to all NATO nations who needed jet fighter aircraft, it was crucial that the European air forces that were recovering from the Second World War receive jet training. Portage la Prairie, which is still in use today as a air training base, was one of the bases involved in NATO air crew training.

Northwest of Brandon is the remains of Canadian Forces Base Rivers. Actually, there aren’t even remains left, just some decaying concrete which was difficult to photograph. During the Cold War, however, RCAF Station Rivers was the home station of some very unique activities. In the early years of the Cold War Canadian defence planners was concerned about potential Soviet airborne incursions or raids against vital facilities in the north and the Arctic. Plans were made to re-role some units into the Mobile Striking Force, an airportable and airborne organization. Rivers was selected to be the parachute training centre. Later on, light air striking units of the RCAF needed better procedures for air-ground operations so this training was conducted at Rivers as well. Once the Royal Canadian Navy developed a jet capability for their aircraft carriers, RCN Banshee jets training at Rivers in supporting ground forces. As the 1950s progresses and helicopters were brought into the mix, early airmobile doctrine was developed here as well. Joint Air Training Centre Rivers was a busy place well into the early 1970s.

The most secretive activity at Rivers, however, involved 408 Squadron. 408 Squadron was equipped with Silver Star Mk 3 AT T-33 “training aircraft” and acted as the aerial enemy force for many exercises. 408 Squadron also retained expertise is the ground attack role at a time when the RCAF was mainlining air defence crack with the CF-100, F-86, and the AVRO CF-105 project. At another facility in western Canada were the mad scientists of the Defence Research Board or DRB. They weren’t as interested in nucs as they were in bugs and gas. And they had both at their disposal. 408 Squadron worked with DRB to determine what one small jet aircraft loaded with say, a nerve agent like Sarin, could do to troops on the ground….. 408 Squadron’s T-33’s were equipped to spray a variety of agents and they developed delivery profiles and tactics to do so. These were tested on exercises into the 1960s. Perhaps there was really no need to drop paratroops on enemy incursions if one could drop nerve agents on them……

Readiness was and remains part of deterrence. Readiness is not sexy and it is rarely exciting. However…… A country can have all of the shiny, fast aircraft it wants but if its pilots and ground crews are not trained or proficient at their tasks, they are just that: shiny lumps of aluminum sitting on a tarmac apron. The complex inter-arms skills and tank gunnery skills necessary for conventional warfare are perishable: they must be maintained. Manitoba contributed to maintaining NATO’s deterrent posture in West Germany and thus ultimately played an undramatic but important role in ensuring nuclear weapons were not employed during the Cold War.


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