The No. 1 armoured train:

🕔Sep 23, 2009

I was raised in northern BC in the 1980’s. It was a peaceful time, and a positively serene place to grow up. Kitimat’s tall and silent air-raid sirens were just a meeting place for neighbourhood kids.

I never feared an invasion; never considered a war. But Dad did point to the bunkers hidden behind cow-parsnip thickets near the Terrace airport. Mom did tell me about our Japanese neighbours driven from their homes in a wave of suspicion. And schools did teach all the facts and dates of the World Wars. But it wasn’t until I saw photographs of an armoured train that operated along the Skeena River that I realized the extent of fear that must have blanketed northern BC during WWII.

As early as 1939, Prince Rupert was building up its coastal defences, with military forts built on Digby and Kaien Islands to defend the harbour against possible Japanese attack. Prince Rupert was at the end of the northern rail line and an important coastal staging area for troops and supplies going north to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. American and Canadian troops were stationed there and they manned the forts, patrolled the shipyards and guarded railway bridges along the Skeena River. The entrances to Prince Rupert harbour were blocked by boats and submarine nets.

Jobs related to the war effort were easy to find, and Prince Rupert experienced a population boom. Military vessels were being built at the Prince Rupert dry dock and shipyard. A seaplane base, hangars and barracks were constructed for the Air Force.

Threat of invasion
In December, 1941, the Japanese launched offensives against British, Dutch and American holdings in the Central Pacific and Southeast Asia, including the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. Prince Rupert, situated on Canada’s west coast and playing a role in the overall war effort, now felt especially vulnerable to attack. Barracks, mess halls, administration buildings and armouries were built and expanded. Airports were constructed at Terrace, Smithers, and halfway between these two communities at Woodcock.

So heightened was the threat of Japanese invasion that in March of 1942 the Department of National Defence and the CN Railway met to discuss the need for a specially constructed armoured train, built exclusively to patrol the Skeena River and protect the vital rail link.

In the spring of 1942, blueprints from Ottawa and materials from Halifax were shipped to the manufacturing shops at Transcona, Manitoba, and construction began on the No. 1 Armoured Train. Military men watched the labourers work three shifts a day, including Sundays and holidays, covering the rail cars in thick and heavy armour plate. In June, 1942, while the armoured train was experiencing construction challenges from a lack of supplies and sudden design changes, the Japanese were ashore in the Aleutian Islands and an attack on Prince Rupert was thought to be imminent.

On July 21 the new armoured train, drawn by a steam locomotive, arrived in Terrace. There was no welcoming fanfare or press release; most residents did not even know of its existence.

The massive train was made up of eight cars: two armed gondola cars followed by a coach for the soldiers, the locomotive in the centre, then a dining car and two more armed gondola cars bringing up the rear. With armour eight to 16 mm thick, and carrying troops armed with mortars, guns and anti-tank rifles, the train patrolled the area between Terrace and Prince Rupert looking for any suspicious activity that could signify threat of Japanese invasion.

Design flaws
On the first trial run to Prince Rupert on July 29, 1942, a number of problems became apparent. The armour plating made the train very heavy, forcing it to operate much slower than expected. The track was in poor shape and the many curves slowed the train even more, down to less than 10 miles per hour (16 km per hour). The severe vibrations of the train caused bolts to loosen on gun mounts. The bulbs and the reflectors for the headlights had not yet been installed and there were problems with the searchlights. The crew had not been trained in advance, and the Major General found them sullen and unenthusiastic. The troops disliked the close quarters and confined space; some went AWOL upon their arrival in Rupert. The radios went dead when the whistle sounded. The sighting scopes were hazardous to look through as the train was vibrating along the tracks. The weight of the train actually damaged the track and derailments occurred. But one major success was realized on that first run: despite much doubt, the gun mounts did clear the tunnels.

The trip, one way from Terrace to Prince Rupert (about 150 km), took the train 12 hours. The soldiers complained that the trip was too long, and their superiors agreed. In an effort to provide a rest on a long shift, and to train troops, the route was shortened some 40 km by changing the endpoint from Prince Rupert to Tyee, at the mouth of the Skeena, where an attack was thought to be most likely. The soldiers watched for ‘the enemy’ along the Skeena River—and saw not one sign.

Changes were recommended to improve the train: raising the gun mounts so they could fire towards the ground; providing safety chains to the men on top of the rail cars; fitting rubber eye cups on sighting scopes and providing better searchlights. In September, 1942 the armoured train was sent to Vancouver for upgrades and returned in November.

By the end of 1942, when the new and improved armoured train operated between Tyee and Prince Rupert, the Japanese threat to the west coast was lessening. By January of 1943 the No. 1 Armoured Train ran only once a week. During their days off, the crew carried out training exercises and target practice. In August, 1943, US and Canadian troops reclaimed the Aleutian Island of Kiska and the threat to the Pacific Coast and Prince Rupert disappeared.

Armoured train personnel were released and some went on to serve overseas. In September, 1943 the train was pulled to a siding at Terrace. The armament and equipment were removed and the armoured cars were decommissioned. August 1944 saw the No. 1 Armoured Train completely dismantled and components returned to the CN Railway. One year later, in August of 1945, Japan surrendered, ending the war.

Nowadays I ride the passenger train pretty often between Smithers and Prince Rupert. I always take notice of the Woodcock bunker with its massive cement walls and the leaning CN signpost ‘Tyee.’ I think about the armoured train lumbering down the tracks, and the soldiers who perched on top pointing guns with a fear we are so lucky to live without.