Digging a tunnel under one of the most scenic parts of the Scottish Highlands seems a roundabout way to help win a war. In 1941 that is exactly what a group of Canadian hard-rock miners in army uniform were told they were doing.
As Hitler was preparing to launch his panzers into Russia, the Loch Laggan detachment of the 1st Tunnelling Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers was brought into north Scotland. Their role would be to bolster what was proving a lacklustre project to expand a hydro-electric scheme which was used to power an aluminum plant key to British aircraft production during the Second World War.
The detachment was formed out of a core of goldminers from Northern Ontario who had volunteered to join the Royal Canadian Engineers after war broke out. They turned out to need very careful handling and often behaved more like civilians in uniform than disciplined soldiers. Three, denied an extra 50 cents a day they felt entitled to, refused to work at Loch Laggan and had to be sent back to base in England. Others faced gradual starvation on army rations deemed inadequate for the hard physical labour involved and, Robin Hood-like, were accused of illegally killing a local landowner’s deer for survival.
Not a week went by without at least one of the detachment failing to show up for his shift or being unfit to work due to easily avoided illness, often alcohol-related.
And on top of this a civilian drilling team working on the same project was not above sabotaging the Canadians’ efforts.
The Canadians were sent to Loch Laggan to help dig a two-mile tunnel which would divert the flood water of the River Spey into Loch Laggan. The hydro-dam there fed the turbines which powered the aluminum plant at Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. The tunnel from Loch Crunachdan was expected to boost production at Fort William by almost 15%.
The 700-foot-long dam at Loch Laggan, east of Fort William, was part of a hydro-electric scheme completed in 1930 with a water catchment area of just over 300 square miles.
Work on the new tunnel was going painfully slowly due to a shortage of experienced tunnellers in wartime Britain. So, the civilian contractor involved, Balfour Beatty, turned to the Canadian Army for help. The British company agreed to pay the soldiers’ wages, accommodations, and food, and supply the drilling equipment. The money was to be paid to Ottawa. The Army was responsible for medical costs, injury compensation, and sending the soldiers on leave.
The Army sent 60 men, many of them former miners from Kirkland Lake, commanded by a mining engineer turned Lieutenant called H.A. Hosking. Balfour Beatty meanwhile combined the two civilian drilling teams which had been working on the tunnel and based them at the Loch Crunachdan end of the tunnel. The Canadians would work from Loch Laggan, where the drilling was harder going. The site of the Canadian camp would decades later become the main location for the long-running British television drama “Monarch of the Glen,” which made much of the glorious scenery. The camp was 18 miles from the nearest village of any size, Kingussie, and two replacements later sent there declared the isolated location would have made an excellent site for a military prison.
Hosking’s first headache when the detachment first arrived at Loch Laggan in April 1941 was over pay. The miners in army uniforms were unhappy that some of them would not be getting the full extra 50 cents a day “trades” pay that the men at the rock face were judged to be entitled. Some were getting only 25 cents more while others would get no trades pay. The 18 members of the detachment who had previously worked with Hosking at Kirkland Lake insisted to their colleagues that he would treat everyone fairly but this, plus talk of the vital contribution the drillers were making to the war effort, failed to sway three of the men. The trio had to be sent back to England.
The drilling equipment provided by Balfour Beatty proved far inferior to what would have been used for the same work in Canada. It was also almost worn out. The Canadians themselves were not in prime physical condition after two years away from the mines and this also contributed to disappointing early progress on the tunnel. Worst of all it was quickly realized that the standard British Army rations being issued were no way near sufficient for men engaged in such heavy physical work. A medical officer who inspected the detachment pulled four of the men off the job because they were grossly underweight.
A detachment of Newfoundland lumberjacks from the Forestry Corps working nearby was able to provide more suitable rations than the British in Kingussie could and the amount of food going to the Loch Laggan tunnellers was increased by one-third.
The Ardverikie Estate, which included Loch Laggan, was one of the largest private game preserves in Britain and the owners were convinced that the starving Canadians were habitual deer poachers – with Hosking the main culprit. Before arriving at Loch Laggan, Hosking had ordered the men to turn in the ammunition for their rifles. The daily sound of rifle fire as the men shot at rabbits clearly demonstrated that the order had not been obeyed. However, in what must have been scenes reminiscent of then-Canadian Governor General’s John Buchan’s 1925 novel about daring poaching adventures, John Macnab, neither the estate’s game wardens not the local police could catch the Canadians shooting deer.
Kingussie was home to 2,000 people and was also the focus of the recreational ambitions of several military units, British and Commonwealth, stationed in the area. One of the hottest spots in the village was the Royal Army Service Corps canteen. Sadly, with so many bored but fit young men from such a variety of backgrounds looking to blow off steam, fists inevitably flew on occasion. Though the Canadians were very far from the worst culprits, the tunnellers were banished from the RASC canteen.
The Canadians built their own canteen and a recreation room at Loch Laggan during their off-duty time. Three women volunteers were brought in to run it and lived in accommodations provided by the estate. Female company was always in short supply at Loch Laggan. The Canadians sometimes managed to bring some in from Kingussie for organized dances but they all had, in theory at least, to be returned to the village before family curfew. Competition for the women’s attention was fierce. The detachment’s Sergeant, J. McKinnon, spotted Hosking’s driver, Yugoslav-American Sapper Matkovich, in the arms of one attractive young woman at a dance. He could not resist supposedly commiserating with Matkovich over a supposed paternity suit involving a woman from Surrey. The driver got his revenge a few weeks later when he coached a five-year-old girl to approach McKinnon at a dance with the words “Daddy”.
McKinnon also delighted in telling women who phoned the camp that whatever soldier they wanted to talk to was down at the loch having a swim with his latest paramour.
Long distance calls requesting vital replacement parts for the decrepit mining machinery long proved a headache for Hosking. Very few people outside the detachment knew what the Canadians were doing at Loch Laggan. This meant calls from there had very low priority and it could take more than a day and a half for a call to be connected to its final destination. [After some lobbying?] British Army headquarters for Scotland intervened and Hosking quickly found his calls taking less than five minutes to go through. Hosking and McKinnon often worked all night to repair the mining machinery. And during bids to break tunnelling records, Matkovich was strong-armed into operating and maintaining key machinery.
Hosking found it difficult to maintain military discipline. He was the first to admit that he was an engineer and not a specialist in psychology or military law. Eventually, Canadian Army headquarters in London sent him a parcel of books on military law and he was given disciplinary powers not usually devolved on the commanding officer of such a small unit.
One soldier, caught stealing sheep, refused to accept the punishment Hosking wanted to impose. Hosking found himself organizing a full-cale court martial. The commander of the Canadian Army in Britain, Lieutenant General Andy McNaughton, was visiting Loch Laggan at the time and made sure Hosking got all the support and advice he needed. The soldier in question ended up spending 60 days in a military prison and was kicked out of the detachment.
But everyone knew that Hosking’s real job was to get the tunnel completed. When work first began, the company was cutting less than 70 feet a week. Hosking reckoned that once the men reached peak fitness they could make 100 feet a week. Balfour Beatty management promised a slap-up meal to the half-starved Canadians if they could beat the record 114 feet in a week cut by civilian tunnellers.
By eliminating non-essential maintenance and suspending the laying further track for the cars used to carry rock from the cutting face to the surface, the Canadians tunnelled 121 feet in the week of June 11th.
Two days later tragedy struck. Shift foreman Corporal James “Scotty” Hendry, 29, came to the surface to find the hut used to store blasting explosive was on fire. He ran to warn the men in the nearby machine and maintenance shops to get clear. He then ran towards the explosives store with a bucket of water to douse the flames. He was killed in a massive explosion which levelled almost all the buildings in the camp. Sapper John Stewart, 28, was killed by a falling rock as he emerged from the tunnel entrance.
Sapper Blow was buried under the debris of the machine shop and was not expected to live. After he was dug out, Blow and five others who were also badly injured were put in a station-wagon and driven 30 miles over mountain tracks to the hospital in Fort William. Blow was later able to return to duty and Scots-born Hendry was awarded the George Cross for bravery. The Geraldton miner had been the first shift leader back in April when the Canadians began work on the tunnel.
With the camp levelled, work had to stop for a week. The estate owners let the miners using the shooting lodge as temporary accommodations until new huts could be built using timber cut by the Newfoundlanders. Food came from the kitchen at the civilian camp at Loch Crunachdan.
Balfour Beattie introduced a bonus scheme if 100 feet a week was cut, with a double bonus for anything over 110 feet in the same period. The civilian tunnellers already hated it when the Canadians cut more rock then they did. They realized that if they could make two Canadians a week miss their shifts due to hang-overs then the military miners would lose 12 feet of tunnel a week. The civilians started showing up at Loch Laggan and treating the Canadians to copious amounts of alcohol in the canteen. Once the true motivation for this apparent generosity was recognized, the civilian tunnellers were ejected from the canteen and told they were no longer welcome.
The Canadians went on to cut 142 feet in one week, though not before four of the miners were jailed for being unfit for duty. Balfour Beatty had cannily structured the bonus scheme to average out the length tunnel cut over a four-week period. This avoided a repeat of the 121-foot record achieved earlier at the expense of neglecting routine but necessary maintenance work.
In December the two tunnels finally met. They were only two inches out of perfect alignment. A job that had been expected to take a year and been done in nine months and an extra three months’ worth of winter rain and snow run-off was available to power the aluminum plant’s turbines.
There was one last hitch. Work had been completed on December 21st and the detachment were looking forward to some well-earned festive season leave. But Headquarters in England declared on the 22nd that the detachment would have to clear the rails and electrical wiring out of the tunnel before it left Loch Laggan. This meant 24 men working over Christmas and New Year’s. Hosking asked for volunteers and all but one man stepped forward. Attitudes had changed since the row over the 50 cent “trades” pay dispute in April. Hosking decreed that men who had family in Britain they could spend the festive season with should go on leave immediately while the others handled the clean-up.
The tunnel is still in use today – a hidden monument to a less than obvious but none the less important contribution to the Allied war effort of 1939-45.
Other articles you might be interested in -
* Read about the blunder that made Canada an easy target for invasion from the United States - Undefended Border
*Read about the Second World War's Lord McHaw Haw
*Serious questionmarks over the official version of one the British Army's most dearly held legends - The Real Mackay?
* Read about the veterans of Wellington's Army lured into misery in the Canadian Wilderness in a new article called Pension Misery
*A sergeant steals the battalion payroll. It’s called Temptation
*Read about how the most Highland of the Highland regiments during the Second World War fared in the Canadian Rockies - Drug Store Commandos.
*January 2016 marked the centenary of Winston Churchill taking command of 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front. How did the man who sacked so many British generals during the Second World War make out in his own most senior battlefield command? Find out by having a look at Churchill in the Trenches .
*Just weeks before the outbreak of the First World War one of Britain's most bitter enemies walked free from a Canadian jail - Dynamite Dillon
*Click to read - - Victoria's Royal Canadians - about one of the more unusual of the British regiments.
*This is one of the most popular articles on the site - Scotland’s Forgotten Regiments. Guess what it's about.
*The 70th anniversary of one of the British Army’s most notorious massacres of civilians is coming up. See Batang Kali Revisited