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The Army Goes North: Operation Muskox


Operation Muskox was
the largest military exercise ever held in the Canadian Arctic and the fourth of
four military expeditions held in the region in the 1940s. The previous three,
Eskimo, Polar Bear and Lemming, had been on a far smaller scale in terms of
personnel, equipment, and the sheer distance traveled.

The origin of Muskox,
and of Arctic exercises generally, dates back to the beginning of the Second
World War. The fighting in Norway (1940) and in the Aleutian Islands (1943)
demonstrated to Canadian Army planners that combat in such environmental
conditions might be required in the future. The growing Western antagonism with
the Soviet Union, which lay directly across the Canadian Arctic, only increased
these concerns. In discussing the operation, one Canadian Cabinet Minister
explained: "We all know that invasion of North America, if and when, will come
from the north, not the south. . . . We have to be ready. . . . We have to be
able to live, travel and fight in the cold."

In 1939 there were no
Arctic vehicles in the Canadian Army, nor was there any Arctic clothing,
winterized radios or electronics. The military had largely avoided the region.
The Army left security to the RCMP, the Navy had few ice-strengthened ships and
the Air Force had avoided it for lack of suitable airfields. Muskox thus offered
the three services an opportunity to test their skills and equipment in a
totally unique environment.


The Expedition consisted of 48
officers and men driving 11 cabbed, high-powered, 4½-ton snowmobiles. These
Canadian designed vehicles called ‘Penguins'
were originally designed for the invasion of Norway and were capable of
withstanding temperatures of 50° Fahrenheit or more below zero. Accompanying
them were three American observers with one smaller American snowmobile called a
The Royal Canadian Navy was represented by an observer who traveled with the

The Royal Canadian
Air Force (RCAF) was deeply involved in Muskox. Lacking the logistical support
of road or rail networks, the expedition had to make due with what it could
carry and what the RCAF could provide through airdrops. Despite being able to
fly over the harsh terrain, the RCAF still had a difficult task. The Canadian
Arctic boasted relatively few airfields and the spaces to cover were vast with
many supply drops requiring a round flight of roughly 1,400 miles.

Advance detachment

To mediate some of
these problems Colonel G.W. Rowley, fluent in Inuktituk and an experienced
Arctic traveler, was selected to take an advance detachment from Churchill to
Baker Lake early in the season to establish an advanced air base, a signal
station and a meteorological station. Muskox was thus divided into four main
detachments: the main expedition, the base forces of 221 men, the RCAF
detachment, and Colonel Rowley's advanced team.

The main moving force
started its trek in Churchill Manitoba. Breaking into three sections and moving
20 miles apart to increase flexibility, the expedition headed north for Baker
Lake in the Northwest Territories. The trip north consisted largely of long days
traveling across barren terrain, maintaining the vehicles and an official beard
growing contest - eventually won by Lieutenant Croal
of the RCN.

 Weather creates difficulty
The temperatures for the trip were frigid, with a daily mean
of -25° F which occasionally dropping to -50°. These conditions made Muskox an
excellent testing ground for the Army's new winter clothing and its mechanical
innovations. Blizzards regularly delayed the vehicles, as did mechanical
breakdowns and other unexpected problems, yet the convoys continued onwards with
few serious interruptions.

Upon reaching Baker
Lake the expedition was forced to cut to ten vehicles because of fuel
consumption, learning a hard lesson about Arctic logistical limitations. Moving
north, they carried on to Victoria Island - crossing the frozen Northwest
Passage to do so. On Victoria, the convoy reached Denmark Bay, an area which had
only been visited by white men twice - once by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1905
and once by Henry Larsen, an RCMP officer, in 1940.

Locals provide shelter
Making the turn
south, the moving party crossed the ice-covered Coronation Gulf and continued
for 300 miles down to Coppermine (modern Kugluktuk). There, in four or five
homes, nearly fifty soldiers were put up by the locals overnight. From
Coppermine the convoy traveled to Port Radium and across Great Bear Lake to
Norman Wells. Moving south to Fort Simpson and on to Fort Nelson, the expedition
was slowed by a number of rivers. Advanced parties were flown in to bridge a
number of these yet snowmobiles often had to be floated across on rafts.

The longest leg
The longest leg of the trip was from
Fort Nelson to Grande Prairie and this was completed in four days. Here the
vehicles had the unpaved Alcan highway to speed their progress. The next leg was
certainly the easiest; accomplished by rail, traveling southeast to Edmonton
where the expedition was officially dismissed.

Operation Muskox had been a great
success. A number of important lessons were learned and some vital skills had
been developed. Air supply was determined to be the only reliable way of
supporting any Arctic mission and the RCAF developed a very efficient supply
service. Any material that was needed, whether a spare engine or an extra case
of food, could usually be flown in within 24 hours and delivered by parachute.
In all the RCAF moved 419 tons of cargo and flew 792,000 miles in support of the

Scientists gather data
Muskox was not a purely military
exercise. It had an important scientific element as well. A group of scientists
accompanied the expedition and most of the officers had had some scientific or
technical training. They kept careful records on methods of navigation,
meteorology, snow conditions, signals and the health of both the men and the
Northerners they met along the route. Maps were improved as was the force's
understanding of the region.

The operation had been the most
extensive foray into the Canadian Arctic ever undertaken. Covering 3,100 miles,
the route taken by the moving party was essentially equal to the distance from
Quebec City to Vancouver. In addition, it had been purposefully undertaken
during the coldest winter month and, for all but the last 700 miles, it ran
across some of the harshest Arctic terrain. Vehicles broke down frequently and
men often endured temperatures dropping to -50°, yet the mission
constantly pressed on toward its objectives. Perhaps ironically, in a manoeuvre
designed to enhance the military's ability to conduct operations in the Far
North, the fear of a Soviet Arctic invasion was slightly diminished as the real
difficulty of operating armed forces north of 60° was firmly