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7072 Roy Thomas: Meeting great people is “My Take-Away” from military college

Article by 7072 FR “Roy” Thomas

My original motive for wanting to go to RMC was to become a navy pilot and to see the world with the RCN. Having to wear glasses barred that route. The Army did accept me. I drove, commanded and led tanks or armoured reconnaissance vehicles instead of planes. I was awarded wings, Canadian and German parachute wings. I did travel in my 36 years of service to tours in seven UN mission areas, postings to the UK, West Germany and Pakistan not to mention training and living in all the provinces except PEI and Newfoundland. I had Arctic exposure in Fort Churchill in February.  Going to Royal Roads rather than to RMC, my first choice, also took away a possible distraction, my high school girlfriend (later my wife) who was going to Queen’s.

Meeting great people is “My Take-Away” from military college. It started on the train across Canada to Vancouver, picking up new recruits at stops along the way.  Probably half the RRMC recruit draft were on this train. Stronger bonding quickly emerged on the ground as we joined flights, mine being “Thompson”. The inter-flight sports competitions which started almost on arrival with the Recruit Tabloid led me not only to appreciate teamwork but the members of my team. I really appreciated the Roads program which forced everyone to play a variety of sports such as rugger, and water polo based on flight teams that included rep team members. The courageous participation of some non-swimmers in water polo was an inspiration. I took up rep water polo myself in order to get on the Roads’ team going to RMC in Second Year. The friendships made in the Military Colleges system reached across divisions between branches and even services resulting from graduation from a Tri-Service institution. A great reward in retirement is the opportunity to see these friends from service college days. For Veritas I want to write about people I met who I don’t expect to ever see again, starting with a man in South Lebanon whose good deed I feel obligated to relate.

Hijacking- South Lebanon 1978 reveals a true “Good Samaritan”

A hijacker pistol-whipped me as I reached for a bag of personnel effects. Then my fellow unarmed military observers from France and Ireland stood beside me as we watched our UN vehicle driven away by “thugs”. Fortunately, we had managed to contact the military observer HQ that we were being hi-jacked. We knew that it would be hours before we expect to be retrieved from what was a hostile environment.

Suddenly life appeared in the house and walled compound opposite us. A man emerged and waved for us to join him. Once inside the house, we were signalled to come into a dining room with places set for five. Sitting down, the three of us were fed a hearty breakfast of eggs and bread. The family scanned us to determine if we were injured. Coffee, an expensive commodity even for foreigners paid Western wages, made the wait for the pickup, in these comfortable and secure surroundings pass quickly.

We never went back to thank them. We could not risk putting this family under suspicion that they were passing information or assisting outsiders in any way. As unarmed UN military observers (UNMOs) and before the creation of the armed UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) we could not offer any form of protection. There was a constant threat of intimidation, extortion or even physical abuse from the Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Israeli war parties roving this particular area. Sheltering and feeding us had put this family at enough risk! I met many people in the Middle East but this man, and his family were special.

Taken Hostage by Women, Sector Sarajevo 1994

Being taken hostage by a group of women is not quite what you might think. I never intended to be taken hostage as I was attempting to obtain the release of one of my UNMO teams from the blockade of women surrounding a French UN Engineer element. These women supposedly had husbands being held prisoner by the other side. The UNPROFOR engineers and any other UN vehicle that strayed onto that route were being held hostage by these females in hopes of receiving information about their spouses from either the UN or the Red Cross and forcing some action by some international organization. I thought that the commander that I had just talked to had agreed to help get my team free.

As I made my way to my UN vehicle, I was suddenly surrounded by women. I started elbowing my way through. My Interpreter quietly told me, “the men behind these ladies are picking up sticks to beat you to death under the justification that you are molesting their womenfolk.”  I was added to the wives’ catch of UN hostages.

That night in the darkness, I escaped through gaps between the women warming themselves by fires, the police observation posts scattered further back and a final outside circle of Army posts close to a tracks or roads. “Creepy crawly” was required on the part of this old armoured officer (aged then 50) as well as the young RN pilot UNMO accompanying me. The risk was that we could be shot as our method of escape gave those supposed to guard the hostages the excuse that we could not be identified as UN or unarmed and were acting as the enemy would. I had to come back the next day, much more carefully, and negotiate the rotation of my teams in and out, treating being a hostage of the women as another one of their duties like picketing the tank repair shop.

In my view the hostage taking of the French engineers was intended as a distraction while preparations were made for the assault on the Gorazde pocket, a Sector Sarajevo responsibility several hours away on the Drina. I had a team of UNMOs in Gorazde and that attack occurred within three weeks.

A 1994 World Cup Peace Pause

A passion for football (soccer) prompted a June 1994 ceasefire in Sarajevo. The Total Exclusion Zone created in February 1994 seemed to have stopped the artillery shelling, but sniper fire was killing more and more people on both sides by the time the first game of the World Cup was underway in Los Angeles. We had discovered that the presence of an unarmed UNMO in the frontline trenches reduced the casualties as no side wanted to be the first to fire. The duty of creeping forward nightly to put a damper on belligerent fire fights in a trench while Brazil or the Netherlands played seemed particularly onerous. It appeared more so as on the way to the frontlines when the UNMOs (I was one of three Canadians of the 150 officers in UNMO Sarajevo) checked in through the appropriate battalion HQs it was noted that belligerent battalion staff were glued to their TV sets. (We didn’t have I-phones then) Both sides as well as our observers broke radio silence to pass on scores. Low level negotiations were undertaken. No politicians were involved. What followed was that during the games there was minimal manning in the trenches and a maximum monitoring of World Cup Football on all available screens. Politicians, I believe, and a passion for football ended this cease-fire after two weeks. The 19 year- old star of a battalion football team was killed by a sniper. Retaliatory fire not only killed more people but ended the ceasefire.

Testimony at the ICTY, den Hague 2001-2012, War Criminals

About five years after retirement and about a decade after completing my tour as Senior Military Observer of Sector Sarajevo, I was requested to appear as a witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the trial of General Galic. A fellow grad of the class of 66, 6907 Bill Fenrick, was instrumental in the creation of this court. Appearances at the ICTY to testify in the trials of President Milosevic, Karadzic and General Mladic followed over the next ten years. One of the military defendants gave me a little wave as I came in although he knew full well what my testimony would be. Amazingly he had also read the chapter on Sarajevo that I had written for a Canadian Defence Academy book. His lawyer tried to make use of a quote. In one case I was asked to testify for both the Prosecution and the Defence. I refused. I needed some political and legal help to avoid what I thought was an untenable witness position. The Defence, after all, had up to two days to question me!

Hope from a Forgotten War Zone

1989 Kabul was a battleground between warring Mujahedin factions and the Najibullah regime. True, the Soviets had withdrawn. However Russian transports flying in SCUD missiles dispersed flares as decoys to mislead American supplied STINGER missiles. Mujahedin 120 mm rockets of Soviet design, supplied by Egypt but paid for by Saudi and American funds randomly hit the city, resulting on some days as many as 90 impacts on houses or in one horrible incident, a bus crammed with people. (UNMOs investigated and counted). In Kabul I met some Afghan youth. They followed me from the bazar to my accommodation walking about 3-5m behind. They could not be seen with me but wanted to practice their English. They followed me often. Then one day they asked to meet to read poetry. I knew then that they would be going. We met in my accommodation knowing that the housekeeper was a Najibullah informant. I had a book of Shakespearian sonnets to give them. They gave me a poetry book in Dari which I still have. I did not see them again in Kabul.

Then one day in Islamabad, outside the house where I left my civilian clothes when patrolling in the Tribal Areas, I met one of these Afghan youths again. He refused the meal I offered. He didn’t want any money. He wanted English books! I took him to a market with an English bookstore and filled the equivalent of a duffel bag with all the books he picked out. He shouldered the bag and walked out of my life. I never tried to track him down. It was dangerous for us both.

There are many more great people that I have met in the course of my assignments. Most I will never see again, A few I am able to maintain contact with. On the other hand, some of my military college classmates I will see next week, others next month, more at our next class dinner and many at our Reunion in 2021.

7 Comments

  • #3611 Ian M. Galbraith

    April 7, 2020 at 11:26 am

    Roy, I was absolutely delighted to read your reminiscences an congratulate you on your successful military career.
    Ian G.

  • Chris Chance

    April 7, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Roy, I think you captured the really significant part of what RRMC/RMC means for me which was that extraordinary opportunity to meet great Canadians and to then serve with them, leading great soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen. Thanks for also including snapshots of your fascinating career. Bravo Zulu

  • Dave Campbell #6897

    April 7, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    Great memories Roy, I didn’t realize “Fair Jane” was your childhood sweetheart. Hope to see you at the mess after Covid-19 has departed.

  • John Watson #6949

    April 8, 2020 at 11:22 am

    Hi Roy,
    Great to read your piece. Congratulations on your amazing career.
    I still remember you as the most tenacious classmate. I recall that none of us, no matter how much bigger than you we were, wanted you as an opponent in any one-on-one physical training activity such as wrestling, unarmed combat class or whatever… you would just never quit. I think I still have bruises from one of those sessions. :)
    Hope to see you next year.
    John

  • Bill Fulton

    April 8, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    Roy, excellent article. You may recall that Lt Fulton, as a recently commissioned Armour Officer, was with you in the Arctic in February (1972) commanding a mixed Company of about 70 soldiers. You were doing cold weather clothing trials. Of note, we got stranded in Churchill when the International Commision for Control and Supervision, led by Maj Gen Duncan McAlpine, took every available military aircraft to deploy to Vietnam. We eventually got home about five weeks after initial deployment, and we found trig point 88 for Maj Patterson. I also recall the outstanding work you did in operations in Haiti. Bill

  • 6873 Clive Addy

    April 16, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Great read Roy and much to learn throughout. Thanks for your service, be safe
    and keep well. See you both at next class 66 lunch!