History, Technology and Communication at the Military Communications & Electronics Museum

Written by: Dillon Chicoski

Communication is something that everyone does every day. In our own lives and in the lives of everyone we know we can see the importance of communicating effectively. It should not be surprising that effective communication is also important in war. A general’s orders must find their way down to the ears of the lowest of the soldiers under their command. There are many other reasons why a general and an army need to communicate effectively besides issuing commands. They also need to secure supplies, communicate with other generals and armies, and send messages home for personal and official reasons.

The Military Communications and Electronics Museum (MCEM) begins with Canada’s first experiences with communications in war. The Canadian Signal Corps was the first of its kind in the entire British Empire. The leading figure in the formation of the Canadian Signal Corps was Major Wallace B. M. Carruthers, and his experiences in the First Boer War and the South African War are what motivated him to create such a unique unit. Major Carruthers did not live to see the Canadian Signal Corps in action during the First World War. The complexity of communications technology would only increase from Major Carruthers’ time and the demands of war left militaries with no choice but to adopt the newest technologies in the world. One of the two surviving First World War cable wagons is on display at the museum. These wagons laid the telephone cables that connected the frontlines with the rest of the world.

The military struggled to find a purpose for itself after the First World War. This struggle ended with the start of the Second World War when Canada once again needed to fight in Europe. Communications played a vital role at every level of the war effort, outside of the military and within it. It was important to keep all these communications secure against the enemy and it was just as important to gain access to the enemy’s own communications. Breaking the code of the German Enigma machine was a major victory for the Allies, and the museum has a display showing an Enigma machine captured by the Royal Canadian Navy. A direct Canadian contribution to the war was the construction and running of Camp X, which served as a training center for spies and as a communications hub for the Allies in North America through the HYDRA system. Some of the ways that Camp X used communications technology are on display at the museum.

The museum is not all about war. The military does not disappear in peacetime and communications technology has plenty of civilian uses. There is an interesting display in the museum on the North West Territories and Yukon Radio System. Members of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals were responsible for the radio systems of Canada’s northern territories early on. Their responsibilities were mostly to serve as a valuable link to the outside world for the many communities and peoples living in the north, but their presence in the north was also symbolic. They connected the communities of Canada’s north to the rest of the country and helped to expand Canada’s control of the arctic.

None of the above would have been possible if not for the technology itself. The stories of the soldiers who used the technology and how they used it get quite a bit of space, but so does the technology. Telephone switchboards stand right beside the control stations of different kinds of RADAR. Telegraphs and signal lamps used for morse code are just as visible as the telephones that most of us will be familiar with. A diverse collection of command vehicles is also on display at the museum, and they show how the military puts all of the communications technology it has access to into the field.

There is a display at the heart of the museum that appears out of place among all of the technology. The display shows three of the twenty plaster statues that served as the basis for the much larger stone statues at the Vimy Memorial in France. They do not have much to do with military communications or electronics, but they are still important to the museum. The exhibit is here to remind us that everything shown in the museum revolves around the lives of people and that a museum is as much a memorial to their struggles and achievements as it is an educational experience. The memorial at Vimy and the three plaster statues here at the museum are evidence of Canada’s commitment to remembering the sacrifices of its veterans.

Although it is important symbolically, there is also a direct link between the exhibit and the museum. Communications played a role in the battle that took place at Vimy; artillery spotters had to stay in contact with the artillery to guide the creeping barrage forwards. There is a framed map of the creeping barrage of Vimy near this display, and a short distance from that and near the Afghanistan display is a large map on the ground of the whole area of Vimy that Canadian and German soldiers fought over.

The Military Communications and Electronics Museum has a lot to offer a visitor if they are willing to look. It can show you the contributions of Canadian soldiers at peace and at war, on the frontlines and behind the lines. It can show you the developments in technology like the telephone and RADAR over the twentieth century. It can offer a place to remember the sacrifices of the Canadian soldiers who died in service to their country. In short, it offers an experience that introduces a visitor to a variety of history and is well worth a visit.

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