Exercise Moccasin

Excerpts from Sgt. Dick Watts' letters home - February/March 1948
© Jean Watts 2003

Part 1

Exercise Moccasin

Exercises "Muskox," "Moccasin" and "Sigloo" came and went. Each one required a Signals unit and each time an ad hoc organization was formed and then dispersed at the end of the exercise. These organizations were always headaches to Army Headquarters which had to form them, and to Commands who had to provide the personnel.

- History of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, 1903-1961 (p. 242)

The photographs in this series were taken during Exercise Moccasin. They are accompanied by extracts from letters written by Sergeant Dick Watts during the exercise.

February 7, 1948
We leave for Churchill tomorrow (Monday) afternoon at approx. one o'clock and don't arrive there until Wednesday morning.

February 11
We arrived in Churchill at about three o'clock this afternoon after a good, but slow, trip from Winnipeg.
On the way from Ottawa to Winnipeg we passed the time by playing mild games of cards and reading, eating, and sleeping. Imagine getting paid for it, too! When we arrived in Winnipeg, we phoned Fort Osborne Barracks and they sent a car for us to take us out to the barracks. As soon as we got there, we changed into our winter underwear, as we had heard that the temperature in the city had gone down to about 30 below the night before. As a matter of fact, before we arrived at Winnipeg, the train stopped at a place called Reddit, where the temperature was all of 42 below! At the barracks we found that there weren't many troops there, so Jerry [Bowen] and I picked out a cosy room for ourselves. . . .

We then had supper in the barracks, but as the meal wasn't up to much we decided to go downtown and have a really good meal. . . .

Everyone we saw in Winnipeg seemed to be dressed for the cold; saw quite a few women wearing slacks and high boots, etc.

Well, as Winnipeg is more dead than Toronto (I think) on a Sunday, we decided that there was no point in staying downtown any longer than necessary. . . .

We've been eating very well on the trains since we left and of course we've been sleeping well in our berths. We stopped in The Pas yesterday (population 3,900), but of course there wasn't anything to do but have a few quiet beers in the "local," and I do mean that when I say that there wasn't anything to do!
Saw a herd of caribou, about four miles away, when we were coming up here [to Fort Churchill], and later saw a small caribou running along about half a mile from the train. He looked as if he was lost and was looking for his mother.

Dick Watts and Jerry BowenS/M Thompson and Sgm McMartin

Winter Clothing
Dick and Jerry Bowen outside Igloo -----------------S/M Thompson and Sgm Mcmartin at 70 mile camp

So far the weather hasn't been too bad here, as today the sun has been shining and the air clear. However, they say the weather is always fine when the train arrives, and people get the wrong impression of the weather here as a result! I don't think we'll have any difficulty keeping warm, though, as the clothing they issue to us here is excellent and we should have no trouble keeping the cold out. Haven't seen anything of the "Mad Trapper" [Major Frank Riddell] yet, but expect to see him tomorrow.

February 12
Haven't heard anything more about going into the bush, but expect it will be within the next few days. . . . We were joined in Winnipeg by another Sigs chap, a signalman named Stewart Berg, whose home is in Vancouver. After he is through his work with us in the bush, he is staying on here, as he is posted here for about a year. . . . I was talking to another chap today . . . he has been out with Neil Wiberg and says that Neil is "in his glory" out in the bush!

We are now well-equipped with winter clothing and I fail to see how anyone could feel cold even in the coldest weather. It's really wonderful clothing and no fooling - the very best. So far the weather seems milder than it was in Ottawa. This morning Jerry, Stewart and I walked up to the shore of Hudson's Bay and had our first good look at it.

view overlooking Hudson's Bay

Overlooking Hudson's Bay

The country around here is very flat and bleak-looking and there is absolutely nothing to look at, because wherever you look you just see a flat white plain with perhaps a cluster of scrawny, small trees here and there. I've seen only two birds since we left The Pas, and as we travelled up to here the trees became smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing altogether in most places. Any trees I have seen up this way have branches only on one side (the south side), as evidently tree branches don't care for north winds! (Hope I'm not giving away any military secrets!)

I'm sleeping in the Sergeants' Quarters here and share a room with another chap, and am really quite comfortable. The meals have been fairly good too, so have no complaints. There is a comfortable Sergeants' Mess here too, with lots of reading material and a gramophone well-stocked with records. As far as I can make out, I will be drawing a separation allowance but won't be getting northern pay unless I am here over two months. By drawing only separation allowance, I lose approximately 13 dollars a month, which isn't very good, but there's nothing I can do about it. C'est la guerre and all that!

There is a bowling alley here and a show every night in the week, with a change of show four times a week. The pictures are very modern, so modern, in fact, that the picture Golden Earrings was shown here three months ago, and I don't believe it has reached Ottawa yet!

Have seen several Indians up this way and yesterday saw an Indian mother with her papoose. The little baby was asleep and looked just like a wax doll, as it had very rosy cheeks.

View of Exercise areaView of exercise area

Two views of the Hudson's Bay region where Exercise Moccasin was conducted

February 14
I went to see This Happy Breed last night and enjoyed it very much. . . .

The show cost 25 cents, by the way. The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper, is showing tomorrow. . . .

Was going to make a return trip out to the bush with Riddell tomorrow, but another sergeant is going instead. This other sergeant had made arrangements to go before I arrived here. Stewart Berg is going out to the bush for a while tomorrow, but Jerry and I will be in camp for a while yet. Have mixed feelings about going out into the bush. I'd like to go for the experience, and yet it's very comfortable right around here!
Saw Riddell for the first time yesterday afternoon, and when he saw me he said, "How did they ever pick on you to come up here?" Of course he's right in his element up here, and is happiest when the weather is at its worst, I think.

The wind has been blowing strongly here for the last couple of days and the high temperature the last two days has been 28 below! However, we dress so well that you can't realize that it is so cold. . . . When I get back to Ottawa, I'll probably be running around in a shirt and shorts! . . .

Managed to "bag" a nice new uniform from QM Stores today. Told the QM that we had to have an extra uniform for working outdoors, which actually is true, so think I'll wear my present uniform in the bush and fix up my new one for when I leave here.

There's a Valentine dance at the Sergeants' Mess tonight, and I may go over to have a look and something to eat. We have our suppers at 5:15 p.m. here, so by the time I'm ready for bed, I'm kinda hungry. Usually, though, they serve free sandwiches and coffee in the mess every evening about 8:30 p.m.

As far as I can make out, there are only two mail deliveries into here every week, and only two going out. However, I know one of the Air Force chaps here, and he says that he can send my letters out at various odd times, by plane. . . .

February 16
Was working with the boys all day Sunday but didn't mind as it helped to pass the day. We were getting things ready for Riddell's trip into the bush. He left this afternoon. He asked me if I found the clothing warm enough, to which I replied with a definite yes. He told me that the next time he goes out he'd take Jerry and me with him, but I don't imagine that will be for a week or two. At present we are helping out at our Sigs stores building, and so far can't see why they ever wanted some spare operators sent up to here. So far, the only one of us they've used is Stewart, who left for the bush yesterday afternoon. . . .

Since I came up here last Wednesday I hadn't heard a bit of outside news, but a chap just told me that there is a daily bulletin in the hall outside here, so I went and had a "looksee." We don't get any daily newspapers here and radios seem to be few and far between, so we're more or less isolated as far as news goes except for this daily bulletin which I just found out existed. Note that Barbara Ann Scott has won her world title in Switzerland and that they are planning a gala reception for her in Ottawa. . . .

Note also that there is a bit about our Moccasin expedition in the news. . . .

Went to the show here last night (on a Sunday, too! Tut, tut!).

Stewart has taken a couple of pictures of Jerry and me since we came, and we expect to have a few more taken before we leave. Of course, I won't be able to grow a beard until I get into the bush, as you just don't walk around with a beard in camp!

This is a very good place for taking pictures of snow formations both on the ground and on what few trees there are. I have never seen such hard snow as there is here. The wind blows so much that it packs the snow together and it is possible to walk right up the side of a huge drift and slide down as if you were on skis! Seems queer to be able to chop a piece of snow out of a drift just as if you were cutting a piece out of an enormous cake. Some of the drifts are so solid that it would take dynamite to remove them, believe it or not! Another thing I find strange but welcome is that the temperature may be very low, but you don't realize it because you are dressed for it. It might be thirty below with a 30- or 40-mile wind blowing, but the only place you feel the cold is on your face, if you should happen to face the wind. Well, as Stefansson, the great explorer, once said, "You don't have to endure the Arctic; you just have to dress for it."

February 18
Many thanks for your "PP" message, which I received this afternoon. The one I sent last night went via Winnipeg, as the other circuit had closed down, so I wasn't sure whether you would reply to my message or not. It's nice to be able to communicate with you by radio, isn't it?

Today the weekly train arrived. Cheers! Quite the occasion around these parts. . . .

Riddell came back from his trip into the bush at about 2 a.m. this morning. Jerry and I have been busy getting equipment ready for packing and shipment to Ordnance. We don't mind doing that, as it means we are on the home stretch; eventually we'll have to pack up everything. This afternoon we were digging in a huge snowbank, trying to dig up a huge packing case which was buried in a drift of snow about 10 feet deep. Some fun! I find that when I come indoors at the end of the day, my face burns from the effect of the sun and the cold air. I just put on some Vaseline. I think my face is becoming tanned or wind-burned or what-have-you, because I certainly look a lot healthier than when I was in Ottawa.

Dick Watts shovelling snow

Dick Watts shovelling snow

Colonel Wrinch arrived here today for a short visit but we haven't seen him yet. Expect he will go out into the bush with Riddell but don't know whether Riddell will take Jerry and me along. Kinda hope he does.
Today, or rather this evening, I moved out of the room I was in into a room with one of the other Sigs chaps here, Staff Sergeant [Cecil] Horton by name. He comes from Halifax, and seems like a good Joe.

The National Film Board is making a film up here and I believe it's going to be called Going North. They haven't taken any outdoor pictures yet but are going to begin it any day now. The whole film won't be about Churchill, as there will be shots of other parts of the North. . . .

If I seem to omit some items in my letters it's because we are not supposed to give out certain information about this place (sounds like wartime!).

February 19
I see that when it was 28 below in Ottawa it was only 8 below here, but don't let that fool you. Just to show you what a wonderful and bracing climate we have here, yesterday the high during the day was 24 below and by 10:30 last night we were down to 30 below again. Ah, yes, there's lots of fresh air to spare around here! Still, we have no trouble keeping warm; my feet haven't been cold once since I started wearing my mukluks.


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