In the twilight a cluster of igloos along the Coronation Gulf twinkle with the glow of seal oil lamps while the Inuit inside enjoy a meal of fish and hot tea. It’s early April in 1946, outside of Coppermine (now Kugluktuk).
The quiet supper is interrupted by a low rumble. A man pops his head outside to see a column of 10 tank-like, tracked vehicles bumble over the horizon towards him, belching exhaust and scraping their bottoms on the hummocky ice below. In them are 48 officers and men of Operation Muskox, who, over the past two months, have driven more than 2,000 kilometres across tundra and sea ice, all the way from Churchill, Manitoba.
By early 1946 the Cold War, as we know it, hadn’t really begun. Even so, many were predicting the West’s next war would be with the Soviet Union. Regardless of the imagined Soviet threat, Canada’s military planners had already seen their Arctic weakness exposed by the United States during WWII. The U.S.’s massive efforts constructing the Alaska Highway through the Yukon and the CANOL pipeline—all with scant Canadian assistance—had proved that owning the vast North came less from lines on a map and more from putting men and vehicles in it.
During the war, most militaries discovered their ability to fight in the cold was limited. Canada was ahead of the game, developing the world’s first and only armoured snowmobile, which had been tested in the winter on the Italian Front during the war to great success. But they had no idea if a conventional force—tanks, ground troops and trucks—could fight on wind-swept, -50 C tundra as effectively as they did across Europe the previous years.
In the latter stages of WWII, Canada’s army looked at the North and realized two things: as the raven flies, it’s the quickest way to get to the USSR; and, more importantly, they had absolutely no idea how to operate there.
Operation Muskox—and the harsh Arctic elements—would teach them.
"These Eskimo zoot-suits have their drawbacks, too. The hair breaks off, gets into the gasoline and plugs up the carburetors. It also turns up in the food. The glamorous and fearsome red goggles issued to combat snow glare have been discarded by all as causing too many headaches."
The military had conducted limited exercises during the war in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but they had never ventured this far north. And those exercises were conducted mostly in secret. This one would be covered extensively in the international press. Newspaper editors in Canada wrung their hands over the possible message it was sending the Soviets.
“Those of us who were at Churchill at the time it was beginning will remember that for every two members of the moving force, there was at least one newspaper man, newsreel man, radio man or photographer, or something of the sort living with us, eating with us, travelling with us, very freely, and if there was much secrecy left about the exercise it was their fault, not ours,” said Colonel J.T. Wilson, planner of the exercise, during a speech in Ottawa
as the operation was winding down in April 1946.
“Where are the ramparts we watch today?” a writer for the Christian Science Monitor asked. “It is time to emphasize that advanced military planners in Washington believe that any future attack against the United States would come winging over the Arctic wastes, not across the oceans ... For good or ill, the watch along the Arctic Circle is beginning.”
Military planners had been careful to present Operation Muskox as a fact-finding mission—more concerned with science and testing of equipment than pretending to mow down hypothetical Russian hordes on the tundra. But Canadian newspapermen were not entirely convinced.
“Whatever the official explanation of Operation Muskox to the public, it is unlikely that military authorities in Moscow—responsible for the defence of the Soviet Union—could afford to regard it as other than the first steps in North American preparedness for war,” noted one Ottawa Citizen editorial after the exercise.
The public may have had doubts about the mission’s motives, but they were eating up every little detail that became available. The press covered everything from their route to what the soldiers wore; the men on the mission were idolized as Arctic explorers.
Their route would first take them north from Churchill to Baker Lake. There, a smaller team under the experienced leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Graham Rowley—who spoke Inuktitut and had lived and travelled extensively with Inuit on East Baffin Island—had constructed an air and signals base for the main force. From there they would drive 500 kilometres through unmapped terrain to the Arctic Ocean. And it was literally unmapped. The troops had nothing but white space to look at on their maps for days. They would travel in a horseshoe pattern, hitting Cambridge Bay, Coppermine, Port Radium on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake, Norman Wells, Fort Nelson, B.C., Grand Prairie, Alberta and end in Edmonton.
“There was everything to excite the imagination of even the most assiduous comic strip readers, drugged with the ultimate in fantastic pre-views of the future,” notes the Ottawa Citizen. “There were the snowmobiles themselves, dubbed Penguins”—Bombardier-style snowmobiles with heated cabins—“which would transport the men of tomorrow across the iron-hard, blizzard swept tundras of Canada’s vast northland. The vehicles would be equipped with every device known to science to surmount the obstacles of ice and show and penetrating cold.”
Another article followed up with news as the soldiers shed some of their space-age gear for the more traditional.
“Although much of the special winter clothing has proved excellent, many of the Muskox men have discarded the fancy things in favour of time-honoured Eskimo garb caribou hide with the fur outside,” the Ottawa Citizen wrote, in March as the mission was not even a month old.
“They find it less cumbersome. These Eskimo zoot-suits have their drawbacks, too. The hair breaks off, gets into the gasoline and plugs up the carburetors. It also turns up in the food. The glamorous and fearsome red goggles issued to combat snow glare have been discarded by all as causing too many headaches. Excellent dark polaroid glasses are now the rule.”
The mission was supplied by the Royal Canadian Air Force, which flew a total of 1.2 million kilometres and parachuted, glided or landed 372 tons of cargo to keep the chilled, hungry men and their gluttonous machines moving. Amazingly, troops were often resupplied with everything from a spare engine to replacement parkas within 24 hours of asking for it. In his diary, one member of the supply team figured the RCAF could have loaded up all the Penguins on planes and saved them the effort of all that driving.
Despite the technology on display, the troops still faced the severe conditions of the Arctic. Their base in Churchill was essentially a cluster of crude wooden shacks heated by faulty oil stoves that caught on fire regularly. Two weeks before the main group left, two men were killed in a blaze inside the all-ranks lounge.
The Penguins were sometimes lucky to cover a couple miles per hour—although they were able to make it nearly 100 miles in one day going from Coppermine to Port Radium. While the cabs of the Penguins were warm, wind blew the exhaust inside. Nearly half the force suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning at one point. (Near the end of the operation, soldiers rode on the roof if it wasn’t too cold out.)
The spring ice was also treacherous. On April 4, outside of Port Radium, on Great Bear Lake, a Penguin broke through the ice. A local man drove a caterpillar tractor out to help free the vehicle, but he ended up breaking through the ice as well and drowned in the process.
The force would eventually be defeated not by snow, ice, or cold, but by the dust and warm air along the gravel roads from Fort Nelson to Grand Prairie. Oil filters on the Penguins required changing hourly; the oil every 100 kilometres. Once the group reached Grand Prairie, the column’s commander put the vehicles on a train for the last leg to Edmonton. The men shaved their 81-day beards, cleaned up, got drunk, and attended a banquet to much fanfare.
The mission proved the Canadian Army could operate in the Arctic. But would it have to? The effort required to support the small, tracked force was so great that Operation Muskox, more than anything, proved how unlikely it was that columns of Soviet tanks would crawl over the Arctic Circle to invade North America. Indeed, shortly after Muskox, the real threat from the Arctic would appear from the air in the form of planes and missiles. The military would keep a presence in the Arctic with DEW line radar and air bases, instead of armoured snowmobiles and soldiers.
But the legacy of Muskox lives on. Every year the Canadian Armed Forces conduct “Operation Nanook” in various locations across the North, although with more modest equipment. Instead of tanks, soldiers ride snowmobiles, qamutiks and Twin Otters—and rely heavily on the local knowledge of the Canadian Rangers, instead of blank maps.