"We had three units with equal competence and equal capabilities, take one and we’d sneak towards the front line, gathering information if we saw anybody."
I went over in early 1943, went to a Reinforcement Depot and worked there for odd jobs. Nothing very much, just waiting for a posting. And finally, I was posted to the 1st Battalion RCE [Royal Canadian Engineers], which was a work battalion that had gone over two months after the war started. And so they were old sweats. They were working all over the place, putting up fortifications, making camps to accommodate the soldiers that were coming in droves from the colonies.
Then came the critical time and just a month, well, I was with my company up near Leeds [England], we were doing storm boat training on the, some damn river they have up there with a big tide. And I got a call to come down; I was needed to the battalion headquarters. So I went down, went in, saw the adjutant, he said, oh, thanks for coming down, there’s a colonel up in army headquarters that wants to talk to you. So I went to see a man named Colonel Love and he said, well, I understand you like to be called Mac. And I said, yes, Sir. He said, fine, that’s good with me. He told me his name and he said, we’ve had a lot of trouble in North Africa with having our ground troops mistake and shoot down our own airplanes.
And he said, we’ve just wondering what we can do about it and we’ve decided to form a little group that can maybe give them some markings. So he said we have formed - or at least we have approval, we don’t have the people – but we have created the 1st Canadian Landmark Unit, Royal Canadian Engineers -period. And we’d like you. I’m sorry, we can’t give you a promotion, you’re due for promotion but no promotion. This is the first of May and you have 30 days to recruit your needs. You’ll need about two dozen people. You’ll have to design some sort of mark you can put on the ground and that’s visible at 15,000 feet. And he gave me just a little bit of that and he said, before I finish, he said, I want you to go over and see Captain So-and-So in Air Branch because it’s the Air Branch that you’ll be working for. But administratively, for food and stuff like that, you’ll still be with the Engineers. So you’ve got two bosses.
Well, we started with not having a clue. Or no hints. So this man in the air force unit, he said, we just need something on the ground that can be seen up 10,000 feet or more. And have a mark on it. What kind of a mark you’re going to make on the ground, we think it will have to be at least 100 yards by 50 yards. So again, we got 30 days, first to get people and to work out how to do it. Well, we finally worked out how to do it. We did a lot of extra work which is not uncommon when you’re covering new ground. We got ordinary potato sack material, hessian rolls. Laid them out. We had to use a lot of them, damn near a truck, well, a third of the truck full. Hardly any room for the boys to sit with their gear.
And we made 100 by 50 patches on the ground, 100 yards long. The captain in Air Branch, he was my activity boss. And he would tell me where to go and ask me to probe it. So I’d go with my batman [officer’s orderly] and sometimes with one more guy, a sergeant. I’d only take one of these units at a time. We had three units with equal competence and equal capabilities, take one and we’d sneak towards the front line, gathering information if we saw anybody and half the time we never saw a damn soul. And we’d go and if we heard anything going on suspicious, we’d find a place and put down our landmark. And then I didn’t have any communication with headquarters, so I had to go back and find somebody with a shortwave radio, which was a flaw in our planning, to tell them where we were, to give them the map reference.
That would alert the planes that that had a map reference. This is where you are, don’t shoot down somebody behind you. If you know the location of this, you can go from there to the targets that are being given you by the forward troops on the ground. So we did a lot of sneaking up. A couple of times we overshot. Yeah, well, what can you do. I mean, strange country and nobody and we just had the one section with the one truck. We parked our truck inside a barn, we were awakened by bagpipes and here’s a Highland unit going into the attack. So we let them go and I said, Fellas, let’s quietly get the hell out of here. So we did.
And we had a couple of, three or four more where we went too far. And caught ourselves. We never fired a shot in action and we never had a shot fired at us in action. So that’s very rewarding. And then when the Americans crossed the Rhine in May 1945, right, yes, then I got a call saying, we don’t need your unit anymore. So you can disband and you, Mac McDonald, are transferred to Engineer headquarters. So I disbanded, said goodbye to the guys, went to headquarters and I’m still a lieutenant.