On the evening of January 9, 1944, 500 soldiers arrived in the sleepy mountain town of Jasper, Alberta. Disembarking from the train, they marched through town accompanied by the skirl of their bagpipes and disappeared into the winter’s night. They were the Lovat Scouts, an elite British regimental unit sent to Canada to train for an Allied-led invasion of Nazi-occupied Norway. Far removed from the conflict in Europe, the mountains of Jasper National Park had been chosen as the location for this impressive undertaking.
Originally organized by the 16th Lord Lovat, the Lovat Scouts were a unique fighting force composed of Scottish Highlanders renowned for their excellent marksmanship and command of rugged terrain. The regiment served with great distinction in the South African Boer War and again in WWI where they won much acclaim at Gallipoli. In WWII, the Scouts were selected to be a key part of the Allied-led invasion of Norway. Recognized as having specialized skills adept to a mountain campaign, they were the only British unit to undergo formal training in high altitude warfare. Their training, which commenced in the mountains of Scotland and Wales, was completed under winter conditions in Jasper National Park.
The Jasper Park Lodge was selected to serve as headquarters for the operation. Already accommodating an advance party of officers and soldiers, it was well suited for such a large undertaking. The men were housed in the staff quarters; the golf clubhouse was converted to the officer’s mess hall and the convention room was used as a canteen. The laundry was transformed into a ski shop and one of the newer buildings became a 50-bed hospital. As training progressed, the men were also housed at established camps throughout the park at Mt. Edith Cavell, Tonquin Valley, Maligne Lake, Watch Tower Valley and the Columbia Ice Field.
The Scouts’ intensive education in winter mountaineering would include: skiing, ice climbing, survival skills, glacier travel and crevasse rescue. Skiing, the most important skill to master, was a challenge as most of them had never been on skis before. After learning the fundamentals on the golf course at the Jasper Park Lodge, lessons moved to Whistlers Mountain, Signal Mountain and the Palisades. On these more advanced slopes, many mishaps and injuries ensued and within the first three weeks of ski instruction, 10 percent of the men were treated for conditions such as fractures, sprains, concussions, frostbite and snow blindness.
After mastering the basics of skiing, the men were dispersed to outlying camps to undergo more advanced training. The Columbia Ice Field Chalet could accommodate 200 men with the addition of winterized tents. Men also slept in snow caves. It took two hours to dig a cave big enough for six men to sleep comfortably in subzero conditions at high elevation. Depending on accessibility and location, supplies were delivered to the camps by various methods. Packhorse trains were used at lower elevations and airplane drops were used to supply more remote locales. For more challenging terrain, like the Tonquin Valley, supplies were delivered by a U. S. Army amphibian snowmobile known as a “weasel.”
The Scouts’ newly acquired skills were tested during months of intense challenges that were both physically and mentally demanding. Summiting numerous peaks in the park, they impressively undertook the first winter ascents of Mount Columbia, Mount Athabasca, Snow Dome, Mount Kitchener and Mount Andromeda. One of the Canadian men who had trained them regarded them as one of the “fittest, toughest, most self-reliant group of men that the British Army had produced.” Their achievements, however, were not without their losses; there were many close calls and at least 50 serious injuries. Most tragically was the loss of Corporal Alexander Collie, killed in an avalanche on Nigel Peak.
For many, the war had been a looming shadow in a distant land. For Jasper residents, the arrival of the Lovat Scouts served to make the war and its grim realities seem less remote. Dressed in their kilts and speaking in Gaelic or with thick Scottish accents, the soldiers were met with a degree of curiosity and were warmly received by the community. They were also the center of various social events held to make them feel welcome. For soldiers with free time, the town provided many entertainments such as the Chaba Theatre, Big Jan’s Skating Rink and Olson’s Drugstore. Olson’s Drugstore was a popular hangout where Scouts drank coffee while becoming acquainted with the locals.
Wartime rationing was less severe in Canada and the men took the opportunity to acquire certain goods unobtainable at home. Stockpiling crates of oranges and nylons (for the women in their lives), they stored their belongings at a local garage, which unfortunately burned down the night before their departure. All was not lost however, as the community banded together with donations to ensure the men did not leave empty handed. After spending three months in Jasper, the Scouts departed by train on April 22, 1944. They travelled first to Halifax, before setting sail for Great Britain and the uncertainties of war.
The Lovat Scouts returned from Canada fit, healthy and prepared for their next deployment. Unfortunately, they never made use of their alpine training; instead, they were sent to Italy to fight the retreating German Army. Far away from the tranquil valleys of Jasper, the Lovat Scouts engaged in heavy combat, suffered serious casualties and lost 50 men. Their time in Jasper was brief, but for many Scouts, their happy memories served as a touchstone that could be relied upon in their bleakest moments. Lieutenant Sydney Scroggie, who lost his foot and sight to a German mine, found comfort in a sachet of balsam needles sent to him by a Jasper friend. He would later write about his experiences in Jasper saying, “Scouts look back on those days, for all their hard work, as the happiest times of their lives.”
Written By: Peggy Donnelly
Title Image: Lovat Scouts at the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, ca. 1944. Image Courtesy of Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives (84.32.44).
Findlay, N. 1992. Jasper: A Backward Glance. Jasper. Jasper-Yellowhead Historical Society.
Gibson, R. 1946. Training Troops in the Canadian Rockies. American Alpine Journal.
Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives. N.D. Scroggie. Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives Newsletter. [online]. Available from http://jaspermuseum.org/newsletter/2006%20Scroggie.pdf [Accessed 10 April 2017].
Peacocke, T.A.H. 1945. Training in the Rockies. Alpine Journal 55:32-45.
Power, M. 2012. The History of Jasper. Banff: Summerthought Publishing.
Taylor, C.J. 2009. Jasper: A History of the Place and its People. Markham: Fifth House Ltd.
Taylor, W.C. 1994. Highland Soldiers: The Story of a Mountain Regiment. Canmore: Coyote Books.
Udell, R.W., Stevenson, R. E., Peterson, T.W. 2007. A Hard Road to Travel: Land, Forests and People in the Upper Athabasca Region. Durham: Forest History Society.
Scott, Chic. 2005. Powder Pioneers: Ski Stories from the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains. Surrey: Rocky Mountain Books.