Skip navigation

Monday May 3, 2010

'The terror of recruits' made men into soldiers

Respected war veteran became the first regimental sergeant-major of the Depot of the Canadian Guards

Special to The Globe and Mail

OTTAWA -- With his heavy leather drill boots gleaming like black diamonds, his Sam Browne belt polished to a high gloss and his trousers pressed to a knife-like edge, James McManus was the perfect picture of a regimental sergeant-major.

Standing over six feet tall in his stocking feet, McManus took great pride in always being perfectly turned out.

As the regimental sergeant-major (RSM) of the Depot of the Canadian Guards, McManus knew he was on parade virtually every minute of the day. Everyone, from the senior officers to the lowest recruit, watched what he did and what he said. There was little or no margin for mistakes.

Fortunately for the regular army's Regiment of Canadian Guards, McManus, known as 'the Rock,' rarely made mistakes. That was important because he was the supreme example of what a guardsman should be. The troops tried to be like him and the officers looked upon him with admiration and respect.

McManus held the position for seven years. He was the first RSM of the Depot, which opened for business on Sept. 1, 1954.

Besides being the right-hand man of the commanding officer, he was responsible for the drill, dress and discipline of hundreds of recruits and instructors.

He had to know the drill manual inside out because he was the final arbiter in matters of drill, dress and tradition. He also kept an eye on the young officers to make sure they were progressing as they should be. Word quickly got around that you locked horns with McManus at your peril.

Training recruits is a serious business. You have to clothe, equip, administer, pay and feed them. In his 1997 history of the Canadian Guards, A Regiment Worthy of Its Hire, William Patterson described what they went through.

"[The recruit] drew a rifle and one hundred articles of clothing, had a haircut and was allotted a bed space; after three weeks of indoctrination and training, passed saluting drill, and was entitled to wear a guardsman's cap and get a pass out of camp."

Then the 12-week recruit phase began. The recruits might not see McManus everyday, but they knew he was nearby, watching their progress carefully.

Stalking his parade square with great authority, his brass-tipped pace stick tucked firmly under his left arm, McManus saw everything. And he wasn't shy in pointing out mistakes.

"McManus was 'the terror of recruits' and of senior and junior (non-commissioned officers) as well," wrote Patterson. He was expected to do his job with style, character and imagination. Addressed as 'Sir' by the troops - and you better be standing to attention when you spoke to him - and 'Mister McManus' by the officers, he didn't tolerate familiarity from anyone.

The troops knew just by looking at the array of medal ribbons on his chest - he wore 13 - that he wasn't just a parade square soldier: He had hit the beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, before fighting his way through France and the Netherlands to final victory. He also served in the Korean War.

Just about everyone who served at the Depot has a McManus story. Commanding officer's parade was a weekly event. On one occasion, Patterson related, it was hot and muggy and one of the recruits collapsed.

"[McManus], erect and with his pace stick under his arm as usual, shouted: 'That man, sixth file, second rank, third platoon - REVIVE!' After a short pause the recruit got to one knee, and using his rifle as a prop, struggled to his feet in a position of wobbly attention. [McManus], satisfied that he had performed a 'resurrection,' ordered a trained soldier to escort the man off the square."

After they were dismissed, the recruits had a good chuckle. It was one more story to add to the legend.

John James Thomas McManus always wanted to be a soldier, so he joined the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Machine Gun) in 1937 at the tender age of 15. The Non-Permanent Active Militia was still enlisting boy soldiers in those days and the young James quickly took to the life.

Funding for the militia during the depression was almost non-existent, but McManus kept the faith. He polished his brass buttons, shined his boots and cleaned his .303 Lee Enfield rifle. In May, 1939, he was on parade for the royal visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Ottawa.

Three short months later, McManus, Canada and Britain were at war with Nazi Germany. The 1st Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) was mobilized and McManus was promoted to the rank of sergeant at the incredibly young age of 17.

His superiors had seen his potential and he was on his way. He wasn't old enough to drink or vote but he was the second-in-command of a platoon of 35 men.

In 1941 he was promoted to warrant officer, class two and appointed company sergeant-major of 'C' Company. He was 19.

Three years later, he hit Juno beach with 'D' Company, the heavy mortar company, on D-Day. He survived that historic day and fought his way across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany as the Camerons supported the nine infantry battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division with their .303 Vickers machine guns and mortars.

McManus was present at most of the battles in North-west Europe, including Caen, the Orne, Falaise, Quesnay Wood, the Scheldt and the Rhine. After Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, he didn't go home right away.

Instead, he transferred to the Camerons' Third Battalion as its new regimental sergeant-major, with the rank of warrant officer, class one (WO1). The Third Battalion was to form part of the Canadian Army Occupation Force and McManus was now the youngest RSM in the army at the age of 24.

After returning to Canada, he decided to make the army his career and transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment. He had to go down a rank, to warrant officer, class two, but that didn't last long. After he qualified as a parachutist in September, 1949, he was promoted back to WO1 and appointed RSM of the newly-formed Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment.

The regular army was about to commence its postwar golden era and McManus was there for all of it. With the Cold War heating up, the federal government decided to increase the regular army to 50,000 men to help support its new NATO allies. 27 Brigade was sent to Europe to help keep a tense peace with the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites and McManus and his battalion were off to Korea.

Back in Canada by the summer of 1952, McManus was appointed the sergeant-major of the Canadian army contingent that participated in the coronation of the Queen. Marching behind the Canadian Red Ensign on June 2, 1953, the national flag of that era, he felt great pride being on parade for Canada and her new sovereign.

A year later, McManus took on a huge challenge when he was posted to the brand-new Regiment of Canadian Guards. Authorized on Oct. 16, 1953, the Canadian Guards was to be a national regiment recruited across the country.

The chief of the general staff, Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds, created the new regiment to add glamour to the regular army. "He really believed that a Guards regiment would do much to glorify the infantry soldier, who bore the brunt of war," wrote Patterson.

Canada's new guardsmen would eventually wear the scarlet tunic and bearskin caps of the Brigade of Guards of the British army and would also model themselves on the British guards.

But the new regiment was born in a storm, as the press, parliamentarians and the Royal Canadian Legion voiced intense criticism of Lt.-Gen. Simonds.

Most of it centred around that fact that the Canadian Guards would automatically go to the top of the infantry's order of precedence, ahead of the RCR, R22eR and PPCLI who had fought in two wars. As personal household troops to the Queen, their colonel-in-chief, that was the Guards' right. "Colour and smartness - the hell with battle honours," blared the Toronto Telegram.

McManus and his colleagues ignored the carping and got on with the job of building their new regiment.

Steve Brodsky of Sidney, B.C., first met McManus when he was posted to the Depot as a young sergeant. He soon grew to admire McManus's high standards. "Any soldier who wouldn't or couldn't measure up to his unyielding standard of leadership was broken. He demanded the impossible and got it. Jim had no patience with weakness of will and he brooked no excuse. He lived - and demanded that others live - by an ethic of total command responsibility - for himself and for the soldiers in one's care."

Hard yet scrupulously fair, McManus wouldn't tolerate the slightest neglect or abuse of subordinates or even foul language, Brodsky said. But he "had a great sense of humour. He appreciated a humorous situation and his laugher was as huge as his stamping steel shod boots. Everything about Jim was huge. He was a huge presence among us."

Howie Pierce arrived at the Depot in 1955 as an apprehensive recruit. "Like it was yesterday, I can still hear him standing in front of a bunch of raw recruits trying his best to make [us] soldiers. ... He was our top soldier and we all wanted to be just like him."

In 1961, McManus was posted to the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston as the college RSM. Just like at the Canadian Guards Depot, he guided several thousand officer cadets as they trained to become the future leaders of Canada's regular forces.

After retiring from the forces in 1971 as a chief warrant officer, he worked for Black and Decker from 1974-89, responsible for plant protection and maintenance.

McManus, who died in Brockville on March 20, spent his golden years with his family, doting on grandchildren and working in his garden.

"He was never anything but positive and happy and he lived every day to the fullest - I never heard him complain about anything or, more importantly, about anyone," his son Antony said.

He leaves his wife Sylvia and children Antony, Mark, Wesley, Tighe, Ingrid Bernice.

Back to top