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Thursday, 26 April 2012

Lt. Sholto Douglas Morrison - A Royal Flying Corps Pilot's Story

Date of Birth: June 27, 1894

Place of Birth: Canso, NS

Mother's Name: Margaret Waterston (Simpson)

Father's Name: John Aitken Morrison

Dates of Enlistment: December 21, 1914 (initial enlistment) & January 6, 1916 (after receiving officer's commission)

Previous Military Experience:  94th Battalion (militia unit)

Regimental Number: 2012

Rank: Lieutenant

Forces: Canadian Expeditionary Force; Royal Flying Corps

Names of Units: 2nd Divisional Engineers; 5th Field Coy. Canadian Engineers; 2nd Signal Coy. Canadian Engineers; 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles); 26th Reserve Battalion; 15 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps

Location of service: Canada, England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Cable Operator

Marital Status at Enlistment:  Single
Lt. Sholto Douglas Morrison, Canso, NS
The arrival of the Commercial Cable Company in the 1880s brought an influx of new families to Canso, Nova Scotia.  Amongst the new arrivals were John Aitken Morrison, a submarine cable man born in Dundee, Scotland, and his wife Margaret, a native of Glasgow, Scotland.  John and Margaret raised a family in this small fishing community and made Nova Scotia their home.  Their oldest child, Sholto Douglas, was born in Canso on June 27, 1894.  Three more children joined the Morrison household in the ensuing years - a daughter Mona (1895) and sons Gilbert (1903) and John (1906).

Sholto received his early education in Canso and England and followed his father into the communication field as a cable operator.  Like many young men of his day, he joined the Canadian Expeditionary force shortly after the outbreak of the war.  On December 21, 1914, Sholto enlisted as a "sapper" with the 2nd Divisional Engineers, 5th Field Company, CEF at Ottawa.  He spent the next year in the national capital - five months with the 2nd Division Signal Corps, followed by six months at the Engineers' Training Depot - preparing for an overseas assignment.

Unfortunately, health issues delayed a transfer to overseas duty.  A case of acute appendicitis in May 1915 resulted in two operations and a period of convalescence that extended into November 1915.  On November 30, Sholto was formally discharged from the Canadian Engineers, pending receipt of an officer's commission.  He was appointed a Lieutenant in the 94th Regiment on December 16, 1915 and promptly re-enlisted at Truro, NS on January 6, 1916.   Lt. Morrison was assigned to "light duty" until April 1916 as he continued his recovery.

On July 15, 1916, Sholto was transferred to the 106th Battalion - Nova Scotia Rifles - and appointed Signalling Officer in its Signal Corps.  Two other Guysborough natives - Pte. R. J. Feltmate of Canso and Pte. Charles R. Keating of Mulgrave - were amongst the men under his command.  The Maritimes' first rifle regiment, the 106th was founded in November 1915 and was based in Truro, with additional companies located in Springhill and Pictou.
106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) portrait
The day following Sholto's transfer, the 106th Battalion departed from Halifax on board the SS Empress of Britain, disembarking at Liverpool on July 25.  The battalion trained for several months at Lower Dilgate, Shorncliffe after arriving in England.  Its personnel were eventually dispersed among other regiments, the majority being absorbed by the 40th Battalion.

On July 31, Sholto was attached to the 1st Co. Signal Base, where he completed the "First Class 34 Field Telegraph Sig. Course" from August 16 to September 21.  He then returned to the 106th Battalion on October 5 and was assigned to "1st CTB Signal Base".  He  spent the next three months at the battalion's Bedfordshire camp near Folkestone, nicknamed "Caesar's Camp" because of its proximity to the famous Roman Emperor's 55 BC encampment.

On January 1, 1917, Sholto was transferred to the 26th Reserve Battalion.  Having spent almost five months in England, no doubt he was eager to put his communication skills into action with a signalling corps.  Fate, however, would take his wartime experience in a very unique direction.

Signal Corps, 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles)
On April 23, 1917, Sholto Morrison was formally transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and commenced training to become a "flying officer".  He thus became one of more than 23 000 Canadians who served with the RFC in various capacities during the war. Several became legendary pilots - William "Billy" Bishop, Raymond Collishaw, "Wop" May and Roy Brown are well known for their aerial combat accomplishments.  In later years, Sholto expressed the highest admiration for  Lt. Col. William Barker, a fellow Canadian pilot and 15 Squadron colleague whose combat record earned him a Victoria Cross.  Sholto's role would be less spectacular but no less significant - his communication skills made him an ideal candidate for a reconnaissance pilot.

The Royal Flying Corps had been created in May 1912.  By the end of the year, it consisted of one squadron of airships and three aircraft squadrons, each equipped with twelve planes.  With the war's outbreak, its size increased rapidly, reaching a total of 166 aircraft by mid-1915.  The Corps, however, was still significantly smaller than its French counterpart, which boasted a fleet of 1150 aircraft by that time.

RFC aircraft initially focused on directing artillery gunfire and taking aerial photographs for intelligence purposes.  While its planes did engage in the occasional "dogfight" with German foes, such encounters were largely coincidental.  Aircraft were primarily considered to be "forward eyes" for infantry units on the ground, observing German positions and movements and passing this information to military headquarters.  As the war progressed, however, new roles emerged and specific planes were eventually designed for these purposes.

RFC Pilot Training School, Gosford, England (c. 1917)
In August 1915, the RFC adopted a strategy of continuous patrols over enemy lines, resulting in significant casualties.  When the major Allied assault at the Somme was launched in July 1916, the Corps consisted of 27 squadrons of 421 aircraft organized into four brigades, each assigned to a British infantry division.  The Corps' more aggressive role resulted in the loss of two air crew daily throughout 1916, a statistic that increased the following year.

By the spring of 1917, the RFC was losing nearly 50 aircraft a week.  The month of April saw its greatest losses - 245 airplanes shot down, 211 air crew killed and another 108 taken prisoner - in what came to be known as the "Fokker Scourge", a reference to the famous German aircraft manufacturer.  This dramatic increase finally prompted the development and adoption of aircraft designed for specific military tasks, particularly fighters and bombers.  The situation improved significantly during the summer of 1917 with the arrival of the Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Camel and Bristol Fighter, planes specifically designed for aerial combat.  By year's end, the British and French had managed to achieve aerial superiority over their German opponents.
On July 30, 1917, Sholto Morrison was "received for duty" with the RFC.  He proceeded to France on September 1 and was attached to the 2nd Aircraft Depot, where he awaited deployment at the front.  On September 17,  he was assigned to 15 Squadron RFC.  Founded on March 1, 1915, the squadron had crossed the English Channel to the front in December 1915 and participated in reconnaissance missions in preparation for the Battle of the Somme.  Its planes continued in this role throughout 1916, conducting risky, low-level flights over enemy lines.  The results were predictable - its fleet suffered heavy casualties and its pilots faced the strain of constant exposure to enemy fire from the ground in addition to German aircraft.

RFC members with aerial photography cameras
A typical squadron air station consisted of an open, grassy field that served as an airstrip, with canvas hangars along its edge.  The officers' mess was usually the only "solid construction" building.  All other structures - including living quarters - were "under canvas".  Two squadrons often shared the same air field, erecting facilities on opposite sides of the airstrip.   Crews flew year round, in summer heat and dust, spring and autumn mud and rain, winter snow and cold.  Dysentery, fever, nerve and stomach problems were commonplace amongst air service members.  A pilot's life expectancy was estimated at three weeks in the early days of the war and declined to a few days for new pilots entering the Corps in 1918.  These were the circumstances - physical and psychological - in which Sholto received his combat experience.

By the time of Sholto's arrival in France, RFC squadrons had been outfitted with a new aircraft, the R.E. 8 .  Nicknamed the "Harry Tate" because of its initials' phonetic resemblance to a popular British comedian of the day, the two-seater biplane was designed to replace the widely used BE 2 (Bleriot Experimental).  Its primary weapons were a synchronized, forward-facing Vickers machine gun operated by the pilot and one or two 303 calibre Lewis guns mounted in the rear gunner position.  While it could also carry a small bomb rack under each wing, its primary role was aerial reconnaissance.  By war's end, over 4000 "Harry Tates" had rolled off the assembly line, making it one of the most common aircraft flown on the Western Front. 

The cockpit contained a small radio and photographic equipment.  On a typical mission, the pilot operated the camera and directed artillery fire using a Morse code key connected to the plane's radio.  Meanwhile, the observer in the rear seat scanned the skies for enemy aircraft and strafed enemy positions on the ground.  One can imagine the strong bond that formed between the air crew during combat.  Family sources state that "the pilot-observer partnership of Sholto Douglas Morrison with [observer] Ted Wrelton Smith became a life-long friendship".  It also explains the "strong allegiance" that Sholto felt to 15 Squadron in the years after the war.  A pilot's survival was indeed dependent on the individuals who repaired and maintained his plane, in addition to the observer who quite literally "watched his back".

Aerial photograph of Passchendaele battlefield, November 1917
By September 1917, 15 Squadron was located in Longavesnes, France, where it carried out nightly bombing raids on ammunition dumps behind the German front lines.  Later in the year, its planes participated in the battle of Cambrai (November 20 - December 7, 1917), conducting low-level reconnaissance missions and bombing raids on German positions.  These were the circumstances in which Sholto flew his first combat missions.

It was not long before Sholto and Ted experienced the dangers of reconnaissance flying.  On November 25, the crew suffered its first plane crash while participating in the attack on Cambrai.  Sholto was "rendered unconscious…, being hit on the head and back".  Later medical reports state that he was "unconscious for several hours".  He quickly recovered and was back in the air, only to endure a second "bad crash" on December 12.

Despite these incidents, Sholto continued to fly reconnaissance missions throughout the early months of 1918.  During the German "Spring Offensive" of March 1918, 15 Squadron was constantly in the air, primarily carrying out artillery observation.  Pilots recorded positions hit by Allied shells and reported their observations to artillery batteries by Morse code, all the while receiving anti-aircraft fire from the ground.  On one occasion in late March, the squadron was forced to relocate its airfield three times as German forces advanced through Allied positions.  By mid-April, the German offensive ground to a halt, allowing Sholto and other RFC pilots an opportunity for a much-needed rest.  On April 28, he was granted 7 days' leave to the UK, no doubt a much-appreciated break from the strains of combat.

The R. E. 8 ("Harry Tate")
After returning from leave, Sholto resumed his flying duties only to endure a third crash in which his aircraft "came down partially in flames" on May 14, 1918.  While he continued to fly after this incident, the pressures of aerial combat and three crashes began to affect his health.  He reportedly suffered from back pain connected to the November 1917 crash.  The strain of ten month's flying at the front also took its toll.  In total, Sholto logged over 320 flying hours in 200 missions, half of which were conducted over German trenches during combat.  On July 17, 1918, Sholto Morrison was relieved of his flying duties due to"flying fatigue" and sent to the United Kingdom for medical treatment.

The Royal Flying Corps continued its operations throughout the remaining months of the war.  On April 1, 1918, the Corps amalgamated with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force.  By war's end, it consisted of over 114 000 personnel operating 4000 combat aircraft.  Its pilots logged over 900 000 combat hours as part of the Allied war effort.  Its contribution came at the cost of  9375 men lost, 1563 of whom were Canadians.  An additional 7245 men were wounded as a result of aerial combat.
On July 22, 1918, Sholto Morrison was granted two months' sick leave, which was later extended to December 22.  After five weeks in medical facilities at Hampstead, England, he traveled to Canada in early September, where he received "out-patient" treatment.  Sholto returned to England by year's end for further observation.  A February 20, 1919 Royal Air Force assessment concluded that his flying fatigue was now "slight, not permanent", and recommended that he was fit for discharge from flying service.  On April 29, Sholto relinquished his commission with the RAF and remained in Hampstead, England with the CEF on leave for three months.  He boarded the transport Saxonia at Liverpool, England on August 13, arriving in Halifax ten days later.  On August 31, 1919, Sholto Morrison was formally discharged from military service and returned to the family home in Hazel Hill. 

Sholto returned to his pre-war occupation in civilian life, working with the Commercial Cable Company in Hazel Hill.  He married Meta Frances Morris of St. John's, Nfld. and they raised a family of two children, daughter Joan and son Douglas.  Sholto worked at the Cable Company's St. John's office during the Second World War and eventually retired to Carritt House, Pleasant St., Guysborough. 

In civilian life, Sholto was an active member of the Guysborough community, serving as master of Canso Lodge, president of the Guysborough Board of Trade, a warden of Christ Church, and a member of Guysborough Memorial Hospital's board.  From 1950 to 1965, he held the position of High Sheriff for Guysborough County.  In 1971, he attended a reunion of surviving RFC/RAF World War I pilots hosted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, London.

Vintage R. E. 8 (restored)
Sholto Douglas Morrison passed away at Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax, on Saturday, September 23, 1978 at age 84 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Guysborough.  He was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal in recognition of his military service.  His story is an excellent example of the unique contributions that Guysborough County natives made to the Allied cause in the "Great War".


15th Sqn Royal Flying Corps.  Great War Forum

Canadians in Service with the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy Air Service.  Canada at War

No. 15 Squadron RAF.  Wikipedia

RE.8 Reproduction.  The Vintage Aviator. 

R.E. 8.  Rise of Flight

Regimental Documents of Lt. Sholto Douglas Morrison.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6414 - 17 .

Royal Flying Corps.  Spartacus Educational

The Royal Flying Corps.  History Learning Site

XV Squadron Association History.  XV Squadron Association

Photographs and family information provided by daughter Joan Morrison, Halifax, NS.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Canadian Signal Corps

The First World War marked the birth of modern warfare.  While advances in weaponry were perhaps the most obvious - and deadly - development, armies consisting of millions of soldiers dramatically increased the need for effective communication.  As the war progressed, traditional methods proved increasingly ineffective, leading to dramatic changes in communications organization and technology.

The need for a focused approach to communication was apparent years before the war's outbreak, and governments were quick to respond.  By the end of the Boer War, commanders recognized that "signalling" was a critical component of military effectiveness.  As a result, in 1903 the Canadian government authorized the creation of the "Canadian Signalling Corps", the first independent signal corps in the British Empire.  Captain Bruce Carruthers, Assistant Adjutant-General for Signalling, was the first to advocate a separate signalling branch within the Canadian army and was assigned the task of creating the unit.  Eventually re-named the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, it shared communication responsibilities with the Royal Canadian Corps of Engineers until the two units were amalgamated in 1919.

Portrait photograph of World War I signallers
It is not surprising that several soldiers from Guysborough County played a role in battlefield communications.  A trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting Europe and continental North America made landfall at Canso on May 23, 1881.  The Commercial Cable Company's relay station at nearby Hazel Hill made the small community a hub in the communication network connecting the two sides of the Atlantic, as cables were extended by water to New York and by land across the entire continent.  By the turn of the century, the cable company employed approximately 75 men in its Hazel HIll facility.  Their communication expertise was in great demand during the war.

Commercial Cable Company office, Hazel Hill, Guysborough County
The occupations of numerous Guysborough veterans at the time of enlistment reflect the cable's presence in their native county.  Amongst the men who gave their occupation as "cable operator" were Cecil Otis Boyd, John Murray Brown, Thomas Herbert Chapman, Clarence Leslie Cousins and Sholto Douglas Morrison, all natives or residents of the Canso area.  Others - Arthur Elroy Cousins, Lawrence Hartley Earle, his brother Vernon, and Reginald John Feltmate of Canso, along with James Joseph Crittenden and Charles Redmond Keating of Mulgrave - listed their occupation as "telegraphist".  While not all put these civilian skills to use in combat, several became members of the various signal corps attached to Canadian battalions in the field.
In 1913, the Canadian Signal Corps was given full responsibility for communication within military brigades.   Its primary goal was to ensure that military headquarters at each level could communicate with commanders above  and below them in the chain of command.  At the beginning of the war, the military relied on a combination of traditional and emerging technologies.  While artillery units received messages from "spotters" on the front lines through telephone lines, infantry brigades still relied on traditional signal flags and lamps.

Members of the Canadian Signal Corps training in Toronto
The Signal Corps explored several alternative messages of communication during the war's early years.  A Pigeon Service was established as a special branch of the Signal Corps in 1915.  Canadian units used approximately one hundred messenger pigeons daily, eventually introducing mobile, vehicle-mounted pigeon lofts to accommodate the shifting front lines.  The birds also proved to be immune to the poison gases occasionally used at the front.  However, messenger pigeons could be used only in daylight, as they became disoriented after dark.  The Corps experimented with the use of "messenger dogs" to compensate for this limitation.  Unfortunately, animals were subject to the same dangers as humans in the midst of combat.  Neither innovation provided a permanent solution to the challenge of establishing rapid, dependable communication between front line positions and military headquarters.
Signallers in action on the front lines
Infantry signal corps adopted the Lucas lamp - a lighter, more portable unit - in 1916.  Its narrower, more focused beam improved the effectiveness of this means of communication.  Units also continued to use signal flags, although both of these methods were difficult to conceal from the enemy.  As the war progressed, these "traditional" methods were gradually enhanced or replaced by emerging technologies.

Typical signalling lamp and battery
By 1916, the telephone had become the main means of communication at the front.  The main challenge for the Signal Corps was establishing and maintaining the required lines.  Wires strung on the ground were vulnerable to artillery fire, and lines suspended in the air were not much safer.  The most reliable approach was to bury lines at a depth of six feet, a labor-intensive job that required units specifically assigned to the task.  Signallers eventually developed a technique called "laddering" to extend the life of their lines.  Parallel telephone cables were laid 60 yards apart and connected by lateral lines, a system that minimized - but did not eliminate - the impact of enemy shelling.  By war's end, Canadian Corps signallers had laid 7000 miles of buried cable in a line grid system and an additional 43,000 miles of overhead wire.

Sending a message from the front by telephone
In the later years of the war, Allied signal corps adopted "wireless" communication technology that was still in its infancy.  In 1916, the Canadian Corps Wireless Section was created to implement the technology at the front.  Improved radios replaced the earlier "spark gap" wireless sets.  Even the newest products, however, came with limitations.  One common brand, ironically named "Trench", required a fifty-foot antenna stretched along the ground in addition to a three-foot vertical aerial and had a broadcast range of less than 3000 yards.  A newer brand - Wilson - could communicate over a distance of 4000 yards but required a 60-foot ground antenna and 12-foot vertical aerial, making widespread use on the front lines impractical.

Radio transmitters were first installed in aircraft in 1917.  Pilots acted as artillery observers, sending "blind" (i.e., one-way) messages to ground stations.  Cloth panels laid out on the ground confirmed receipt of their messages!  After the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Canadian signallers used the elevated location known as Hill 70 as a "forward observation" post for artillery fire.  Wireless radio operators sent messages to a central communication station, which in turn relayed the information by telephone to each artillery position.  This system allowed for rapid adjustment of gun fire during an assault.

Signalling post at the front
While wireless units held great promise, their use during World War I was limited by range and availability.  Manufactured in small quantities, demand for radios greatly exceeded supply.  As a result, the military continued to rely on a variety of communication methods - old and new - throughout the war.  Messenger dogs, message rockets and motorcycle dispatch riders were used at various times, in addition to visual signalling (flags and lights), pigeons, human "runners", telephone and wireless.  Front line units still relied on visual signals and runners for communication during attacks.  Wireless emerged as a primary means of communication during the closing days of the war as the front lines and military headquarters became increasingly more "mobile".  However, both units on the battlefront and commanders in the rear remained heavily dependent on fixed telephone lines for basic communication at war's end.
Click here to view a National Film Board of Canada video (5 minutes, b/w, no sound) of Canadian signalers and engineers in action at the front lines during World War I.


A Signaller in World War I.  The Worcestershire Regiment.  Available online.

The Cable Story in Canso.  History of the  Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.  Available online.

The History of Canadian Military Communications and Electronics: Chapter 3 - World War One 1914-1918.  National Defence Canada.  Available online.
On the home front: Toronto in WWI.  The Toronto Star.  Available online.

Rawling, Bill (Historian, Department of National Defence). Battlefield Communications.  National Film Board of Canada: Images of A Forgotten War.  Available online.
Sutton, Col. P. H.. A Hundred Years of Canadian Military Communications and Electronics.  Available online.