Brigadier-General (Ret’d) A.C. (Archie) Brown, 3565 (RRMC 1952-54, RMC 1954-56)
After attending Royal Roads and RMC, BGen (Ret’d) Brown joined the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers as a combat engineer and then as a general officer, serving for a total of 38 years. He retired from the military in 1990 and now lives in Victoria, BC.
This interview was conducted by Royal Roads University staff person, Karen Inkster, and is part of the Royal Roads Oral History Project, a university initiative to preserve the military history of Royal Roads. Please contact Karen at [email protected] if you would like to contribute photos or stories to the project.
Karen – How did you first hear about Royal Roads?
Archie – I first heard about Royal Roads probably through my father, who was a retired British Army officer and served in the First World War. And I was inclined toward the military as most of that generation were. I grew up in Vernon, BC in the Okanagan, and it was either UBC or Royal Roads or RMC. And I applied and went through the particular procedures they had in those days, which was written examinations in math, English, French and the sciences. Then interviews, we had to travel to Edmonton, where members of the armed forces plus college staff sat as a selection board. And you went through a medical exam to make sure that you could meet the medical standards, and then an interview, where the various panel members were in fact very hospitable and asked questions and saw how you responded.
And one got a momentous telegram from the Minister of National Defense which I still have in my files, saying that I had been accepted, do I still want to go. It took about a micro-second to say yes, and from there on, it was a matter of process to show up in Vancouver where we were met at the docks and when we arrived in Victoria, we were loaded into buses and moved out to Royal Roads, where the experience began.
Karen – And what experience was that?
Archie – It was a bit of a sea change for a gangly teenager from the Okanagan to arrive at the very proper military college, where the class ahead of us were in charge of us, and had the responsibility to do a large part of our day-to-day training – not academics but how we conducted ourselves, teaching us the rules of the game, all those things. And we got off the bus and started to be instructed immediately in a most forthright manner by our seniors. And if one really didn’t respond properly one had the privilege of getting a circle, which was running around the circle that joins the Grant and Hatley Castle. But I think in the first five minutes I garnered about nine circles.
And I can remember about after the second day of this having to make one’s own bed, be properly dressed, getting up at an ungodly hour in the morning and doing all sorts of things I wasn’t used to, I remember phoning home to my father and suggesting that perhaps he had made an error in judgement in sending me here. I can remember him asking me why. I told him, and he said, “Hmm that sounds about right, stick it out” and hung up on me. I did stick it out, and thanks to his rather good advice, most successfully.
Karen – So, which service did you join and what made you choose that service?
Archie – Oh, I joined the army, perhaps because my family had served in the army, and I was reasonably adept at mathematics, and chemistry and physics, so I thought engineering would be a good place to go. So I thought that the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers was the place for me, which turned out to be very fortunate that I made that choice, it was a wonderful corps, extremely challenging, very interesting, and took me virtually all over Canada, Europe, and the States during my career. It was a good choice.
Karen – So when you were at Royal Roads was there army training?
Archie – It was tri-service. It wasn’t army, navy, air force, it was Royal Roads. We didn’t do army drill, we didn’t do navy drill and of course the air force never ever had any drill. As far as service affiliations at that time they were very wise, I think. They didn’t emphasize one over the other. That was left for the summer training. While we were at Royal Roads we were tri-service. And while we were inwardly saying “I’m going to be army or I’m going to be a pilot or I’m going to be a naval officer”, while we were at Royal Roads we were part of Royal Roads, and we had that outlook. It was a Royal Roads parade that we would concentrate on, not an army parade or an air force. And the staff came from all elements of the service.
At that time, Colonel Ware, a distinguished infantry officer, was Commandant. Commander Bob Timbrell was the officer commanding the cadet wing, naval officer, distinguished as well during the war and post-war. Plus we had the air force, squadron commanders, naval administrators, army physical training, and it was represented in the sub-staff as well. One got an integrated flavour quite easily.
Karen – So was there somebody overlooking the senior cadets?
Archie – Yes, that would be the permanent staff, the cadet wing commander in theory reported to the officer commanding cadet wing who was, at that time, naval commander. And there were squadron commanders sort of shadowing each of the cadet squadrons. And it worked very well. And we were extremely fortunate to have a really tough, but I think fair, group of seniors, who were merciless in their endeavours to make sure that we didn’t forget anything or do things that we shouldn’t have, but at the same time instilled those essential values that I think served us well for the rest of our lives.
Karen – How did you feel at the time?
Archie – (laughs) At the time it was a bit strange, but it was, looking back on it very interesting. I can remember the first day in the gunroom, when we were all looking at each other, because we were segregated; there was the junior gunroom and the senior gunroom. And we were in there during one of our breaks, and one of the cadet officers came in from the senior term and said “Alright juniors, listen up. The senior class arrives one week from today” because the first week was just to acclimatise the juniors,” and by that time, each one of you will know the names of every one of your classmates and where they came from, and if you don’t, you’ll start running circles.” Well, looking back on it, that was a stroke of genius, because it forced you to meet every member and know a little bit about him, where did he come from. And as a result, we bonded very quickly. We had an extremely effective bond amongst all of us, still lasts today.
One week later the same cadet officer appeared, and says “Juniors, you’re extremely fortunate. Your seniors arrive tomorrow. You will have one week to know their last names. Otherwise you’ll be running circles.” And that got us to know, to at least recognize and to know who the rest of the college was. So we had college homogeneity there that with the numbers is entirely possible. But they made sure it happened.
Karen – So let’s talk about the sports program. What did you get involved in?
Archie – The sports program was superb. And I look at it from the point of view of a teenager and who attended high school in Vernon, track and field, basketball, a little bit of lacrosse, and that was about it. And when we came to the college, there were the two aspects of sports, the representational teams, the football, the soccer that played in a league outside of the college. But more valuable to me was the intramural, where every cadet had to play almost every sport. And it was a wonderful introduction to sports that I’d heard about but I’d never participated in. It gave me a dimension to my life which I continued on through the service and afterwards, that started here at Royal Roads.
Karen – Are there any memorable moments in sports that you recall?
Archie – Yes, just one. On our second year I was on the football team, and we played against various teams in the city of Victoria. The Vampires, which was a civilian team, and the Naden team. And we were the youngest, lightest team – when you get a navy stoker about 250 pounds opposite you, you know what pain is. And that year, it went right down to the wire and we won the final game and got the city championship. That was a sweet moment.
An aspect of the sports program I’m sorry to see they’ve dropped was compulsory boxing. And it was a feature of each of our years. And you were told in the Fall that the boxing would start in the New Year. It was very scientifically done; they weighed you and you were matched against cadets of equal weight, roughly, weight class. And the sports officer did have a sense of humour because it was an elimination round robin, and one always hoped one got eliminated on the first round and wouldn’t have to go through all this. But with a touch of humour, the first round generally matched juniors of one weight against an equal weight senior. And for the juniors it was heaven – (chuckles) here was your chance to get even legally. And for the seniors, they knew there was a certain grudge factor in the whole thing, and I can remember feeling that way, hoping to heck I didn’t get matched to a junior that I gave too many circles to!
However, on a more serious side of that, the need for self-defence was a bit of a lesson that I got, and also it taught me what a tough thing it is to stand and purposely want to hurt somebody. You want a good reason to do it, which of course fits in very nicely to the service ethos. I think it built character. It was tightly controlled so that it was a fair fight. The bouts I think were only a minute or a minute and a half long, 3 of them, and it worked out well, it was a good life lesson I thought.
One day we were doing the high box off the springboard onto the box. And I pushed it extremely enthusiastically with a wonderful spring, and lost where I was, and sort of landed on my shoulders and neck, and I broke my back. A small break, fortunately. And spent the next ten days to two weeks in Naden Hospital, then came back to light duty in the college, while the rest of my term ran circles for the last month, while I was a junior, I stood at attention at the side of the parade square.
Karen – And how did that impact your academic side of things?
Archie – I think it showed a strength of the academic side of Royal Roads, which I don’t know whether exists now, in the military college system. When I got back, each of my professors got me aside for half a day, a day, as necessary, and got me all caught up in their particular subject on a one-to-one basis. I think that’s pretty unique, and I think it shows the extreme dedication that our academic staff, as well as our military, had towards their responsibilities to help educate the cadets in their charge.
The academic staff, at that time, because we didn’t grant degrees, weren’t in competition with the UVICs, the UBCs, the McGills or the Queens. Their whole job was to impart their field of knowledge as thoroughly as possible to the cadets in their charge. And they were superb in the way they did it. The grounding I got in two years carried me through the rest of my career.
The unique thing was that the courses were by and large identical for engineering and arts students. As an engineer, I took English, French, economics, politics, you name it. As an arts man, my colleagues took calculus, physics, and chemistry. And that happened for the first two years, then in the third year you tended to stream into your arts or engineering. And I’m very thankful that I got that type of education, because as you rise in responsibility you become less of a specialist. Although I started as a combat engineer and built bridges and roads, ending up as a general officer I found that my arts subjects were equally if not more valuable towards the end.
Karen – It sounds like they wanted you to be quite well-rounded.
Archie – I think so. The comprehensiveness of the course I think was its strength. You were exposed to a lot, and you participated in a wide range of studies, sports and activities. On the social side, the first month or so, our squadron commander in his office had a table for six set up. And he would host five cadets at lunch meal, and go through and ensure one knew how to use a knife, fork, spoon, what an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert was, and what table manners were. Small item perhaps, but how useful. Because when you went to Victoria and were lucky enough to meet up with a young lady, and her parents invited you out for dinner, you felt fairly confident you were doing the right thing. A small aspect of the comprehensiveness, the well-roundedness that I think Royal Roads at that time tried to instill in all its cadets.
Karen – It sounds like the system worked well.
Archie – I think the system of having the College Militaire Royale in St. Jean, Royal Roads on this coast, and RMC as the fulcrum in the middle, was one of the few successful instances of nation-building that comes to mind. It took young men and later young women from all over Canada, of different social backgrounds, installed common values, taught life lessons, equipped them with a superb academic program, broadened them in the sports and the social aspects, and turned them loose to serve Canada. That’s not bad, either in the forces or as civilians. Marvellous.
Karen – Now as you get together I imagine some people sort of rose higher than others; is there still that same feeling?
Archie – Yes. I never looked at it as a competition particularly, I always thought I was lucky to rise above the rank of lieutenant, but yeah our class was a very successful class. The cadet wing commander in our final year here, Paul Manson (3528), was Chief of Defense Staff and chairman of several important companies when he retired. We had several generals, we also had several successful lawyers, businessmen, investment bankers, and we still meet and drink beer together as though we were in the junior gunroom, it was great.
Karen – Are there any habits that you picked up at Royal Roads that carried on throughout your whole life?
Archie – That’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure it was habits that I learned so much as attitudes, characteristics, but perhaps more than anything values. The values of good friends, the values of truth, duty and valour. It sounds corny, I know, but if you’re straightforward with people, things seem to work. And duty is really important, because you’ve got to do your duty fully and properly. And valour, you’ve got to do it with courage. So yeah, I would say rather than valuing any habits, I’m most appreciative of the values that were drummed into me while I was here.
Karen – So what were your favourite moments at Royal Roads?
Archie – Favourite moments at Royal Roads is a difficult subject, because after all these years, I’m not sure whether it’s the important ones that stand out, or the sentimental ones that stand out. I can remember the introduction, arriving at Royal Roads, but very fleetingly. I can remember our seniors impressing upon us the importance of doing things correctly. I can remember Sgt. Maj. Cobaine spending hours to get us to put our feet down all together at the same time on parade. I remember the sports, both the intramural and the representational, the football, the basketball, the volleyball – that was great.
I guess what I remember most was the feeling of hope we had because I was amongst friends, close friends. Friends you could talk to if you were feeling down, friends you could share a special achievement with, friends that you could take pride in because they had done something special, usually in sports, but winning an academic prize or doing something like that, or dating a good-looking girl. I guess you put all that together with the staff that we had, the military who were wonderful role models – indeed I met them all later on in my career and served under them – and the academic staff who I really attribute a great deal of gratitude to for the grounding, the wide grounding I had.
But I guess what I remember most is the feeling of belonging to a special group, our class, and looking back, that feeling of comradeship, fellowship, respect for each other, learning to work as a team, carried me right through my career. I don’t think I’m overstating the case when I say any modest success I may have had in my life and my career really blossomed while I was here at Royal Roads. It was a unique experience and I’m thankful I went through it.