A Bunker on the Golan Heights & The Missing Plaque

A Bunker on the Golan Heights (1985) Israel

I wrote this little vignette, for fun, a few years ago with my tongue firmly in my cheek. It is quite true nonetheless as best that I can recall.

I caution the reader that this little yarn is not meant to place the writer in the ledger of history in any serious way. However, there should be some record of this single event, somewhere, in some published public record lest some unfortunate archaeologist, thousands of years in the future is driven mad with a frustrating puzzle.

Might I be the focus of such an enigma?

Scholars, tourists and others are well aware of the discoveries of archaeologists in ‘digs’ such as Pompeii, Knossos and other locations that have revealed and explained ancient facts that have helped fill in many blank pages of history. A great number of these physical discoveries have been solved by written records and needed only some verification.

Many discoveries, however, have presented unsolvable puzzles. But in general, the archaeologists know what they are hoping to find because of the written fame of some ancient king, philosopher or army general.

But what about the less distinguished people who may have left some tangible historical smudge, with no connection to any written record. Might some of these truly minor events offer huge challenges to students that may stumble on their works in the future? A potential event of this nature crossed my mind during a tour of ancient sites in the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea in May 2001. It occurred to me that I could be the cause of a historical hiccup some long time in the future. I had then been retired for 14 years.

Many, if not all, Canadians are aware of our peacekeeping achievements and we are, and should be, proud of our accomplishments. In the early 1980s Canada still had a company sized military unit in the Golan Heights, primarily for logistic duties. These troops were commanded by a Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel (I apologize that his name escapes me, he was a Patricia I believe) who was vitally concerned with, not only the efficiency of his unit, but also with the safety of his men. In effect these Canadians troops were under the command and control of the United Nations for all purposes.

The UN was particularly committed to ensuring that the Syrians did not charge over the Heights with an armoured attack into Israel or conversely the Israelis did not invade Syria over the same route but going the other way. It would not take much more than an armchair general to realize that the UN could never guarantee this plan. However there was one faint hope. And that was to have the Canadian “blue berets” stay in place in that rather wide-open little base in the face of an attack going either way. This would place our troops on the main axis of an armoured attack in serious peril, should either side make an assault. It might be a significant obstacle. But how could this be done without serious casualties to our Canadian peacekeeping troops?

As I recall the UN had provided a number of metal containers, sort of like very large oil drums, each for about seven personnel if memory serves. Now our Canadian CO on the ground was most unhappy with this arrangement and tried many times to get the UN to either change the plan or provide something a bit more substantial than those ridiculous tin containers. He was singularly unsuccessful.

When all of his appeals to the UN were exhausted, he took the only other course of action available to him. He sent a message to National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, asking for help. Now I was the Chief of Construction and Property (CCP) with the rank of Major-General at the time when all of this came to our attention, and I was still the Chief when the matter was brought to a close about a year later.

When my staff, in Ottawa, looked at the problem there were several obstacles to overcome. How do you protect about 100 soldiers (armed only with personal weapons) in the midst of a main armor tank battle? And if there is a solution where does the funding come from to create a substantial level of protection? The decision on the first question will provide the answer to the second problem.

1 Construction Engineer Unit (1CEU) located in Winnipeg Manitoba was tasked to dispatch an engineer officer to the Golan Heights to seek out a solution. About 15 years earlier I had been the Commanding Officer of this unit with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel so I was very familiar with their capabilities. There were no restrictions on the solution other than to keep it as cheap as possible. To make a long story short 1 CEU surveyed the site, did a literature search on what type of structure would be needed to take some main armour rounds (perhaps many of them) and protect the troops inside for several days. Sure enough the US Army Corps of Engineers had studied a problem of this nature and had published their results. Based on the US Army paper, a design was prepared, some plans and an estimate of the cost developed. A heavily reinforced concrete bunker covered with local boulders would be required.

It was estimated that, if a local contactor was hired and supervised by one Canadian military engineer officer and an NCO clerk engineer (to keep the records), it could be done for about $400,000 or about two cents per Canadian taxpayer. Since CCPs (my responsibility) financial authority, at that time, was $500,000 per project and I certainly considered that one Canadian soldier’s life (let alone 100), at the very least, was worth a couple of cents per taxpayer. The UN clearly should have paid for this work, but in my varied experience I realized that, in a case like this, it would probably be easier to get forgiveness after the fact than it would be to get approval before the fact.

I therefore approved the project. The planning was finalized and the necessary orders were issued to execute construction.

I had almost forgotten about this project until about a year (1987) later when my aide showed me a message that was an invitation to attend the opening of this bunker on top of the Golan Heights. As it turned out I was able to accept this trek to the Middle East to see this original stone and concrete bunker, as a side trip to an important meeting that I was to attend in Germany.

What a thrill! Our completed project turned out to look like a pile of rubble, but it was strong, protective and sparse but contained reasonable living facilities. A parade of a few of our soldiers, not on duty at the time, took place, followed by the inevitable speeches and an all-ranks luncheon, put on by the contractor. Now comes the point of this story.

After the lunch, I was asked to unveil quite a large plaque inside the bunker, which had been prepared and donated by the contractor (no doubt in the hope of further employment). This plaque was made of sheet brass and named the “Canadian Operations and Signals Bunker” which was officially opened by Major-General D. M. Gray on June 23, 1986.

It is my expectation that this bunker and my plaque will, in time, be covered by detritus and will be lost for centuries, until some poor scholar digs it up, finds the plaque and wonders who this Canadian general was and what on earth was he doing in Israel? This little article will probably be the only record of the origin of this plaque.

In 2008 I discovered from #11363 Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who had recently visited the site, that the Turks had relieved our Canadian contingent and had taken over the base and there was no sign of the plaque. Perhaps it will still turn up somewhere someday!

This small fact of meeting General Gauthier, in Panama City Beach in Florida incidentally, was a huge reminder of the time that has flown by since I retired. I met Michel for the first time, in Chilliwack BC, at the School of Military Engineering, when I was a Colonel and held the position of Base Commander and he was a Lieutenant. If my arithmetic works that was 28 years previously, almost a “life time!” I’m still hopeful that I’ll be a smudge in someone’s history book or record at some time in the future if this plaque ever surfaces in Israel (or Turkey?). One can only hope.

Plaque referred to left was photographed some years later by an RMC classmate of mine, #3550 Colonel (L) Murray Johnston, while he was serving on UN duty in the middle east. He is shown, on the left, in his “Blue Beret” inside the bunker in front of the plaque. It is a pleasure show Murray in uniform beside this unusual object. This photo was taken sometime in 1988.

Murray and I were together all through our military college days at Royal Roads and RMC starting in September of 1952. He originally was an officer in RCEME, but with integration in 1979 that Corps was designated LORE, (Land Ordnance Engineering). He had a distinguished career.

Authors note:

The numbers that appear before a cited person’s rank is his RMC number that will follow him forever. For example my number is 3667 and I entered the college in 1952. General Gauthier, to whom I referred in this article, is number 11363 he entered in 1973. My son, Michael’s number is 14437 and he entered in 1980.

This numbering system started in 1876 when the first eighteen cadets, “The Old Eighteen” entered the college. The cadet that became #1 was Gentleman Cadet A.G.G. Wurtele. Who got the unlucky #13? It was Gentleman Cadet Perry who outlived his entire class and retired his service to Canada as The Commissioner of the RCMP. He died at the age of 96 in 1956. Not too unlucky I might suggest.

3667MGen DMG

2 Comments

  • 13659 Marian Miszkiel

    December 9, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    MGen Gray,
    I thought I would add to your vignette. I had the pleasure of hosting you for the opening of the bunker and had had the plaque made in May 1986 as I was the UNDOF Canadian Contingent Engineer of record. The plaque was made by Nasser Al Din, a very proud and capable Druze Arab contractor who built our/your bunker. He was embarrassed when the first plaque said “Grey” and not “Gray” but we remedied that before you arrived.
    I arrived in Jan 86 and within 2 days, this CME Officer, Mech Eng RMC 82, had to have a theodolite out, figure out that I had never surveyed anything before except some road centre line in Chilcotin in 1980 and lay out the stakes for the “Sigs Bunker” batter boards. It was built in less than 6 months and you arrived for the official opening and our “lunch” inside the bunker.
    The “Patricia” that commanded me was His Honour Colonel (Retired) the Honourable Donald Stewart Ethell OC, OMM, AOE, MSC, CD, LLD(Hon) , currently the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta. I remember you asked if I had ensured that the concrete was well-graded and not uniformly graded. LCol Ethell still thinks to this day that I gave you the right answer!
    Fond memories came to me in reading your article as it was my first Army field tour after “thundering in” when I was with 4 CER in Germany in 82 and being told I could do Admin for the army due to my partial paralysis – everyone in the CME family supported my full return to active duty. In the Golan in UNDOF in 86, I built something, commanded soldiers in the field, learned what it was like under-fire, fortunately for just a short skirmish, and I also worked with UNTSO on inspecting Syrian and Israeli positions. My body and my mind held up. Thank-you for that experience in the development of a young CME Officer!
    I retired in 99 out of CFCSC and served some schools, universities and colleges at the Director level and with my UN experience, I have also served in a civilian engineering/leadership capacity in Kosovo (UNMIK), Western Sahara (MINURSO) and Sudan (UNAMIS). I just concluded 3 years as the Senior Engineer on the $2 Billion UNHQ renovation project in New York and am currently the Chief of Facilities Management for the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
    The plaque will live long, the bunker probably longer but the memories and training/preparation/skills that the CME imparts to its Officers and Men/Women over time and through generations to contribute to our global causes lives forever. Chimo/TDV!
    9 Dec 2013
    Major (ret’d) Marian Miszkiel, RMC 82 Mech Eng 13659, CD, MBA, PEng, PMP

    Note: LCol Hal Singleton, our former Canadian Forces Fire Marshall, was the then current Force Construction Officer for the Canadian, Finnish, Polish and Austrian Battalions of UNDOF in 1986.

  • H3550 Murray Johnston

    December 9, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    Bill:
    The photograph of me and the plaque was taken in 1999 when I visited the Golan Heights Maintenance Platoon as RCEME Colonel Commandant. (The LORE Branch / EME Branch was renamed The Corps of RCEME in 2013.) I am not sure where the date 1988 in Don’s article comes from.
    Most importantly however, Don’s article serves as an example of a key element of leadership – you can always look after your troops no matter where you are (including NDHQ), if you are willing to step up and think and act “out-of-the-box”. Its called initiative and innovation. I saw a lot of it in the RCEME Corps during my 13 years as their Colonel Commandant. Several of the young officers I encounered then are now Colonels and Generals because of that. Many are RMC Ex-Cadets and reflect well on the Four Pillars of Excellence.
    The size of the plaque, the fact that it was made and the invitation to Don for the official opening, reflects the appreciation of the soldiers in faraway, isolated pllaces in getting something they really needed to do their job and thereby maintain Canada’s and the DF’s reputation.
    The main battles in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 were fought in the area just west of Camp Ziouani. About a mile west of the camp there is a memorial marking the Syrian Army’s farthest advance in thje Golan during the War in 1973. It is on a slight rise at the end of the last Irseali defence line in the Golan. The memorial comprises the graves of the thirteen Isreali soldiers who died defending that point and who destroyed the Syrian tank that had made the farthest sdvance towards Isreal. I visited that site in 1999. My tour guide was Major Larry Blum of the Isreali Defence Force, who had been a member of a Tank Destroyer unit who fought in the Golan during that war. Another of the battlefied memorials in the area is the burned our hull of one of his unit’s armoured vehicles. All of its crew, who were his friends, were killed in it. Its a sobering thought as to how close run that war was and how deeply ingrained in the Isrealis is the defence of their country.
    So, underneath the self-deprecating, humourous tone of Don’s article, is an example of senior leadership looking after the troops. We see a lot of that these days and, we should. It is one of the best and most appreiated ways to improve and maintain frontline morale of troops working in dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs. Well done, Don. The plaque physically may be missing but the memory of it and how it helped lives on.
    H3550 Murray Johnston