In 1966, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General J.V Allard, began plans for an airborne capability in the form of a radically different, specialized unit.4 Out of this initiative, the Canadian Airborne Regiment (CAR) was established on April 8, 1968. Located at CFB Edmonton, the Regiment's principal roles were defence of Canada operations against small-scale enemy incursions in the north, provision of short-notice response to United Nations requests for peace operations, and operations in limited or general war within the context of a larger allied force, particularly a variety of 'special service' missions, including pathfinders, deep patrolling and winter operations, and domestic operations in response to civil authorities.5

The CAR was organized as a unit of the Canadian Forces within Mobile Command. Generally, membership in the Regiment was about 900 in all ranks, with a regimental headquarters and six units: the airborne headquarters and signal squadron, which provided the normal communications and headquarters function; two infantry commandos -- 1er Commando Aéroporté and 2nd Airborne Commando; 1st Airborne Battery, which provided field artillery; 1st Airborne Field Engineer Squadron, providing combat support; and 1st Airborne Service Company, providing service support. Second- and third-line support was provided by 1st Field Service Support Unit (1FSSU), a special unit that, although not part of the Regiment, was created to support the Regiment. Service support was brought entirely into the CAR in 1975 with the amalgamation of 1 FSSU and 1st Airborne Service Company to form 1st Airborne Service Support Unit.6 The regimental commander, having the rank of colonel, exercised the powers of a commander of a formation.7 One of the two airborne infantry units (ler Commando) was francophone. This unit was eventually manned entirely by volunteers from the Royal 22e Regiment and moved from Valcartier to Edmonton in 1970.

In 1976, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jacques Dextraze, concluded that the Canadian land forces, with a combat group and an airborne regiment in the west, a small combat group in central Canada, a combat group in Quebec, and an independent battalion in the Maritimes, were deployed in an unbalanced manner. His plan was to have a brigade group in the west, a brigade group in the east, and a quick-reaction regimental combat group in the centre. The result was the creation of a quick-reaction combat group in central Canada, an airborne/air transportable formation created by combining units of the CAR with those of 2 Combat Group at CFB Petawawa.8

Thus, in 1977, the CAR became part of the new Special Service Force (SSF), a brigade-sized command with a strength of 3,500, created to provide a small, highly mobile, general-purpose force that could be inserted quickly into any national or international theatre of operations.9 The Regiment moved from CFB Edmonton to CFB Petawawa and was downsized in the process, losing its gunners and engineers. It also lost its field support unit; logistic support would now come instead from the SSF's service battalion.

Within the CAR itself, the Airborne Service Company was resurrected to provide immediate first-line logistical support.

In 1979, 3 Commando was established as a new airborne unit. This resulted in a ceiling of about 750 members in all ranks, organized into three smaller company-sized commandos.10 The three infantry commandos now took shape around the three regimental affiliations: 1 Commando with the Royal 22e Régiment, 2 Commando with Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and 3 Commando with The Royal Canadian Regiment.

With the move to CFB Petawawa, the regiment's chain of command lengthened, because it was now a unit under the Special Service Force and one link further from the most senior army commander. On the other hand, the move to CFB Petawawa did allow for closer supervision of the CAR, because it was now under the direction of the commander of the Special Service Force. Moreover, the reorganization had the effect of diluting the CAR's former uniqueness in the army, since it was now shared with the rest of the new parent formation, the SSF. Later, the introduction of the army area command system placed Land Force Central Area between the SSF and Force Mobile Command headquarters. Thus, a unit intended in 1968 to be a resource answerable directly to the commander of the army and, through that commander, to the chief of the defence staff fell inside the 'normal' chain of command, without any apparent change in its operational mandate or concept of operations.

The Regiment was deployed operationally on three occasions in the 1970s, twice on internal security operations and once on a peacekeeping task, none of which called for a parachute capability. In 1970, in response to the October Crisis, the Regiment moved by air to Montreal, where it was divided into quick-reaction teams to assist the police in sweeps, raids, and cordon and search operations.

In 1974, in a pivotal event in its history, the CAR was assigned its first peacekeeping mission. In March 1974, about half the Regiment was deployed to Cyprus to fulfil Canada's commitment to a 450-member battalion there. In July, however, a coup by the Greek Cypriot National Guard toppled the government of Archbishop Makarios and, in response to the coup, the Turkish army invaded the island. The CAR members assigned to Cyprus were present on the island at the time of the coup. The Regiment's soldiers thus found themselves in the middle of a shooting war. The remaining half of the Regiment was deployed after the Turkish invasion. The UN forces, principally the Canadians with British support, positioned themselves in the Nicosia International Airport to deny it to both sides and prevent escalation of the conflict. Their primary role was to patrol, report, and try to maintain order without taking sides. The CAR did so with significant help from the British forces in Cyprus.11 The Regiment performed well in peace-restoring operations. By the end of the operation, more than 30 men had been wounded and two had been killed.12

In 1976, the CAR supported successful security arrangements during the Montreal Olympics, designed to prevent a situation similar to the terrorist attack against Israeli athletes that occurred during the 1972 Olympics at Munich.

Thus, during this period the CAR performed well on operations as well as on exercise. Nonetheless, as one author concludes, "Non-airborne soldiers could state, quite correctly, that the Airborne Regiment did nothing in its three operations that could not have been done equally well by a regular Canadian infantry battalion."13 This was confirmed in testimony before the Inquiry by a former commanding officer of the CAR, LGen (ret) K. Foster.14

The Canadian Airborne Regiment had peacekeeping rotations in Cyprus in 1981 and 1986-7. It served as the 35th Canadian Contingent in Cyprus from March 19 to September 30, 1981, and as the 47th Canadian Contingent there from September 1, 1986 to March 9, 1987.

On July 18, 1991, the Secretary of State for External Affairs, the Honourable Barbara McDougall, and the Minister of National Defence, the Honourable Marcel Masse, announced that Canada was to participate in the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. The United Nations mandate was to establish the conditions for a referendum on the future of the Western Sahara by identifying and registering qualified voters and by supervising the repatriation of refugees and non-residents before the vote.

Canada's contribution of 740 troops was based on the Canadian Airborne Regiment. It was to be the largest contingent of the 1,700 military personnel, 900 civilian staff, and 300 civilian police provided by 36 nations. The name given to the Canadian operation was Operation Python. Their role was to monitor the cease-fire and ensure that troop reductions and POW exchanges were agreed to by Frente Polisario guerrillas and the Moroccan army.

Because of disagreements about who was qualified to vote, the referendum was postponed indefinitely. On February 19, 1992 the SSF was ordered to cancel the Operation Python task for the Canadian Airborne Regiment and have it revert back to its status as Canada's UN standby force, with the ability to move on 30 days' notice. On February 21, 1992, the Commander SSF gave the order to stand down.15

In 1991-92, the Regiment was downsized by some 150 personnel, and what had been a five-unit regiment (the three airborne commandos; the Airborne Service Commando, providing combat service support; and the Airborne Headquarters and Signal Squadron, exercising command and control) became a single unit. The three commandos continued to exist as sub-units, but the services and support formerly provided by Signal Squadron and the Service Commando were now provided by newly created platoons within the Regiment.

The effect of the changes was summarized by Col Holmes, Commanding Officer of the CAR at the time of the reorganization, in his testimony before us. Before the reorganization, the CAR was, in effect, a small brigade: its five unit commanders were commanding officers; it had a headquarters staff comparable to that of a brigade; and it was designed to be expandable, so that in times of tension, it could be enlarged to a brigade-size organization if needed. After the reorganization, the CAR no longer had this flexibility; the support and services that permitted expansion were no longer in place. In this respect, the Regiment was similar to the other line infantry battalions in the army; it could not operate independently and had to work under a brigade headquarters in terms of command and control; and it had to rely on other units of a brigade for combat support and combat service support.16

At the time it received the warning order for Operation Cordon (the proposed United Nations mission to Somalia), the Regiment had not yet completed the transition to the new organization: it was in the process of turning in excess vehicles and equipment; moves had been planned but not made (for example, to co-locate regimental headquarters with the commando headquarters); and buildings had not yet been renovated for their new uses. In addition, the Regiment's regulations, orders and instructions had yet to be rewritten, although a plan was in place to do so.

One significant change had already taken effect, however. With the downsizing of the CAR to a unit that was the equivalent of a battalion (instead of its former status as the equivalent of a brigade), the ranks required for the commanding officer of the CAR and its sub-units were also reduced. As a battalion-type organization without the capacity for independent operations, it could now be commanded by a lieutenant-colonel (instead of a full colonel as before). This in turn had a ripple effect on positions within the CAR below that of the commanding officer -- those heading the commandos became officers commanding with reduced authority.

During this period of reorganization, the CAR retained its role as a rapid deployment airborne/air transportable force, to be used mainly in operations to support national security and international peacekeeping. The Regiment had to be ready to respond to a variety of situations, some of them where virtually no warning would be given and others on notice of 48, 72, or 96 hours. At the same time, there was discussion within the army chain of command about what mission and tasks were appropriate for the CAR and its affiliated combat support and combat service support elements.

The proposed new mission -- referred to as its "concept of employment" -- went through several drafts between April and November 1992.17 In particular, those commenting on the drafts identified a considerable gap between the tasks anticipated for the CAR and the Regiment's actual capabilities following the reorganization, noting that equipment and personnel would have to be augmented considerably if the CAR was to be capable of fulfilling the mission set out in the concept of employment. The final document, approved in November 1992, acknowledged concerns about limitations resulting from the Regiment's downsizing but nevertheless argued that the CAR should be organized, staffed, trained, and equipped to undertake tasks across a broad continuum of conflict. Thus, before the Regiment was sent to Somalia, senior officers in Land Force Command had recognized that the CAR was not structured or equipped with the personnel and materiel it needed to fulfil the concept of employment that had been approved for it.


  1. John A. Willes, Out of the Clouds: The History of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition (Port Perry, Ontario: Port Perry Printing Ltd., 1995), p. 9; Ducimus: The Regiments of the Canadian Infantry, compiled by Maj Michael Mitchell, CD (Director of Infantry, Mobile Command Headquarters), pp. 34-35; and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 50th Anniversary, National Reunion, Toronto, Canada, June 3-7, 1992.
  2. Ducimus: The Regiments of the Canadian Infantry, p. 35.
  3. Testimony of MGen (ret) Pitts, Policy hearings transcripts vol. 4P, p. 615P.
  4. LCol P.G. Kenward, "The Way We Were: Canadian Airborne Regiment, 1968-95" (Petawawa, Ontario: 1995).
  5. Maj Louis E. Grimshaw, CD, PPCLI, "Ex Coelis": The Badges and Insignia of the Canadian Airborne Forces (1981), p. 33.
  6. "Ex Coelis", p. 33.
  7. Canadian Forces Organizational Order (CFOO) 3.11, April 25, 1968, p. 3.
  8. See text of a statement to the press by the Chief of the Defence Staff, December 7, 1976, on file at Directorate of History, Department of National Defence.
  9. Canadian Airborne Insignia: 1942-Present, first edition (Arlington, Virginia: C&D Enterprises, 1994), pp. 42-43.
  10. Testimony of MGen (ret) Pitts, Policy hearings transcripts volume 4P, p. 618P.
  11. One ex-Airborne officer described the Cyprus operation as follows:
    Cyprus is an operation that has gone well despite massive problems. The Canadian Airborne Regiment, basically unsuited to the task, cobbled together a force for routine duty on Cyprus, and when war broke out on the island it was reinforced by the remainder of the regiment from Canada. The result was a cohesive, highly trained force that was accustomed to working together. Both before and after the reinforcement they performed well. I would like to think that it was the presence of tough soldiers from my old regiment that saved the day when the Turks were about to take over Nicosia airport, for example. Unfortunately, the truth is that without the support of modern British tanks, artillery, antitank weapons, antiaircraft weapons and modern jet fighters their task would have been impossible... The spirit was definitely there but the big guns had to be borrowed. (Nicholas Stethem, "My War with the Army", Maclean's Magazine 88/3 (March 1975), p. 60.)
    For other descriptions of the Airborne's operations during the 1970s while it was stationed in Edmonton, see David A. Charters, Armed Forces and Political Purpose: Airborne Forces and the Canadian Army in the 1980s (Fredericton, N.B.: Centre for Conflict Studies, University of New Brunswick, 1984), p. 73; and Ducimus: The Regiments of the Canadian Infantry, p. 36.
  12. David Bercuson, Significant Incident: Canada's Army, the Airborne, and the Murder in Somalia (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1996), p. 195.
  13. Charters, Armed Forces and Political Purpose, pp. 73-74.
  14. Testimony of LGen (ret) Foster, Transcripts volume 3, pp. 440-441. When asked whether, given the operations the Airborne had been involved in over the years, other regular regiments could have done as well, LGen (ret) Foster responded that, generally speaking, he did not disagree with that observation.
  15. "OP PYTHON Synopsis", Document book 120, tab 3, DND 039091.
  16. Testimony of Col Holmes, Transcripts vol. 4, pp. 643-644.
  17. "First Draft, Concept of Employment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment", May 7, 1992, Document book 7, tab 18; "Second Draft: Concept of Employment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment", May 12, 1992, Document book 7, tab 15; "Concept of Employment of the Canadian Airborne Regiment", November 4, 1992, Document book 29, tab 19.