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F/54782 Sapper
Royal Canadian Engineers

Ó Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 2001


Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were obtained from the soldier’s service papers and from Volume 2 of The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers by Colonel A.J. Kerry and Major W.A. Mc Dill.


Wilfred Mc Isaac was born in New Waterford, Nova Scotia, Canada on the 12th of October 1917. New Waterford is a coastal town on Cape Breton Island.

No specific information is available about Mc Isaac’s father or mother from either his military service record or from the Vital Index Records for North America (up to 1888) [1]. His service records do indicate that his religion was Roman Catholic.

Wilfred apparently had very little education as a young boy. He did not attend high school, college or university. When he was old enough to work he became a coal miner. His trade was actually listed as a Miner’s Helper, Grade C. He apparently had no technical qualifications; therefore, his trade was most likely equivalent to that of a labourer.

He was married, and he and his wife Thelma lived on Scotchtown Road in New Waterford. Mc Isaac’s service records do not indicate that he had any children.

Prior to his enlistment in the Army to serve in World War 2, Mc Isaac had not served in the naval or military forces of Canada, nor had he been a member of the Active Militia of Canada.


Aside from the fact that Wilfred Mc Isaac was 22 years and 2 days old at the time of his enlistment, no physical description of him is given in his military records.


Wilfred Mc Isaac enlisted as a Private in the Cape Breton Highlanders at New Waterford on the 14th of October 1939. The Oath of Attestation was administered to him on this date by Major E.H. Small, the Officer Commanding "C" Company of the Cape Breton Highlanders.

Some confusion appears to have occurred when Mc Isaac enlisted. This confusion is evident on his Attestation Paper in the following areas:

  1. His attestation was recorded on a Canadian Field Force Attestation Paper (M.F.M. 2), but the word "Field" was crossed out and the words "Active Service" typed in its place. Most likely this was just a case of expediency, as copies of the proper form were not available.
  2. On the line marked Unit, "C" Coy, Cape Breton Highlanders was typed in originally and then crossed out and replaced with W.N.S.R., which stands for the West Nova Scotia Regiment.
  3. The original Regimental Number typed on the form was 55841. This too was crossed out and replaced with a handwritten F54783. The "3" was subsequently crossed out and replaced with a "2" so that Mc Isaac’s Regimental Number ultimately became F/54782.
  4. The answer to question 14 on the Attestation Paper ("Do you now belong to or have you served in the Active Militia of Canada?") was originally typed in as "Yes – Cape Breton Highlanders, N.P.A.M"[2]. This typewritten answer was subsequently crossed out and replaced with a handwritten "No."

When the preliminaries of his enlistment were finally settled, Private Wilfred Mc Isaac was transferred to the 1st Tunnelling Company, Royal Canadian Engineers and would shortly become Sapper Mc Isaac. His assignment to a tunnelling company appears to have been an obvious move, given his experience in civil life. As a coal miner, Mc Isaac’s experience was with soft rock drilling. The tunnelling companies were to find that during the war hard rock drillers would be needed to a greater extent.

It can be assumed that Mc Isaac received some basic training after his enlistment, although his service records provide no evidence of this. The next most significant entry in his records is his embarkation to sail for England.


On the 21st of December 1939, just nine weeks after his enlistment in the Army, Private Mc Isaac embarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia bound for England. His service papers do not indicate what training he may have received during the nine-week period. It may be safe to assume that he received a minimum amount of basic training. The day after his departure from Halifax he was struck off the strength of the West Nova Scotia Regiment and taken on the strength of the Canadian Army (Overseas).

Service in the United Kingdom

Mc Isaac disembarked at Gourock, Scotland on the 31st of December 1939. From Gourock, he was posted to Aldershot in Hampshire. His service papers are not specific regarding his unit or his duties after arriving at Aldershot. It appears that because of his civilian trade as a miner, he was earmarked to serve in a unit where his skills could be best put to use. Such a unit was the 1st Tunnelling (Drilling) Company, Royal Canadian Engineers [3].

The 1st Tunnelling Company, R.C.E. was formed at Aldershot on the 1st of May 1940. The company consisted of four drilling sections and was commanded by Major C.A. Campbell, R.C.E. Because the men assigned to the company were all trained miners, plans were made to send the men of the unit immediately to France to assist in cable-burying work. By the 12th of May they were equipped with transport, packed and standing by. Mc Isaac joined the company on the 14th of May. As a member of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers his rank was no longer that of Private. He was now a Sapper.

The move of the 1st Tunnelling Company to France was deferred on the 17th of May. The unit was sent to Shornmead Fort, near Gravesend, where it combined experimental work with some training for local defence. After Dunkirk, the company shared in the task of strengthening the old fortifications of Chatham in Kent – clearing fields of fire for the guns in the forts and making ancient type moats into tank traps. Although it was a specialty company, the 1st Tunnelling Company received training and took part in many field engineering operations having little or nothing to do with drilling.

On the 1st of July 1940, Sapper Mc Isaac and his company moved back to Aldershot to complete its organization and to draw equipment and much needed transport to company scale. Extended-order drill, fire control, range practice and guard mounting became the lot of the miners. The training period was brief, for in early July the first detachments of the company began to work on the preparation of airfields for emergency demolitions. By the 19th of the month, the company was under control of Corps Troops Engineers of the British VII Corps at Headley, Surrey. Lieutenant J.L. Melville was the Commander Royal Engineers of the Corps Troops.

On the 28th of August 1940, the unit moved to Mickleham, in Surrey, where it remained for many months. Here its work included the technical training of Royal Engineer units in diamond drilling, the preparation of surprise tank obstacles, experiments in the location of unexploded bombs by drilling using a galvanometer type of probe, and the disposal of bombs by underground detonation [4]. While the company was in Mickleham, Sapper Mc Isaac was granted 7 days of privilege leave.

A detachment of four officers and 99 other ranks (mostly diamond drillers), under the command of Captain D. Taylor, left Mickleham for Gibraltar on the 12th of November 1940. Sapper Mc Isaac’s service papers indicate that he was not among these men.

On the 31st of January 1941, No. 1 Tunnelling Company began to reorganize on a new war establishment as a drilling company. To distinguish it from its Royal Engineer counterparts, which were not composed primarily of diamond drillers, it was redesignated No. 1 Special Tunnelling Company, R.C.E. effective the 24th of February [5].

In April of 1941 a detachment of the company went to work on the Loch Laggan Tunnel, a tunnel to provide water for additional power to the British Aluminium Company’s plant at Fort William in Scotland.

While its Gibraltar detachment was away, the rest of the company continued its anti-invasion work on surprise defensive obstacles and the denial of airfields. Sapper Mc Isaac was granted 7 days of privilege leave from the 1st through the 8th of May 1941. From mid-May 1941, the preparation of airfields for emergency demolition became a large-scale project for the company, with 16 airfields being worked on simultaneously at one point [6].

In January 1942 the company moved to the Engineer Reinforcement Unit for a month of military training. When the training was completed on the 21st of February, detachments were sent to work far afield on projects at Matlock in Derbyshire, at Whitehaven and Carrock Mine in Cumberland, at Rhiw in Wales, at Teesdale in Durham, and at other locations in Cornwall, Somerset, Gloucester, Westmoreland and the Shetland Island [7].

Sapper Mc Isaac’s service records do not indicate which of these detachments he served with. The records do show that he was transferred to the 4th Battalion, R.C.E. on the 22nd of March 1942 and that he did not return to the 1st Tunnelling Company until the 4th of May 1942. His duties during this period are unknown.

Major H. Watson assumed command of the 1st Tunnelling Company on the 23rd of June 1942, and on the 31st of August the company headquarters was moved from Mickleham Hall to Betchworth. Routine work continued on all previously assigned company projects [8].

In January of 1943 the men of the 1st Tunnelling Company, R.C.E. were involved primarily in training and continued to work on minor projects. Sapper Mc Isaac was granted 7 days of privilege leave from the 15th through the 22nd of January. Soon after his return, on the 31st of January, the company moved to the bridging camp at Pangbourne, remaining there until the 26th of February when it returned to Betchworth [9].

On the 6th of March 1943, the company ceased to be designated "No. 1 Special" and became the No. 1 Tunnelling Company again. The company continued to concentrate on training for the remainder of March and April. On the 1st of May, the company received orders to form a detachment for overseas service, and on the 11th of May Major D. Taylor assumed command of the company. With the unit in the middle of a training period, this order posed no particular problems. Commanded by Captain A.O. Ames, the detachment left 12 days later to join the 1st Canadian Infantry Division in Scotland. It sailed for Sicily with the 2nd Field Park Company at the end of June. A second detachment led by Lieutenant W.J. Burgess departed on the 26th of July to join the first. Together these detachments comprised about half of the working strength of the company [10]. Sapper Mc Isaac left the U.K. as a part of Lieutenant Burgess’s detachment.

Service in Sicily and Italy

Mc Isaac and his detachment disembarked in Sicily on the 27th of August 1943. His detachment caught up with Captain Ames’s detachment in time to move to Scordia, Sicily. Together the two detachments formed an ad hoc half company consisting of a headquarters and two sections.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the company reorganized as company headquarters and two sections in the U.K. and spent the summer of 1943 on quarrying work at Stepper Point, in Cornwall, for the St. Eval airfield extensions. A great deal of deep well drilling was also undertaken during this period. At the end of the summer the unit received orders to move to Fleet in the Aldershot district in preparation for orders overseas. The half company in Sicily crossed to Italy on the 17th of September and reached Catanzaro on the 21st. From that point they were employed on roadwork and improvised bridging in support of the British 78th Infantry Division. By the 30th of September Mc Isaac and his mates had moved forward to Bari to provide fill for the docks there. On the 3rd of October one section was drilling and grouting pipe-pile pier foundations for a bridge over the Fortore River for the C.R.E., XIII British Corps Troops. On the 10th of October the detachment’s headquarters was located at Foggia under the Chief Engineer, V Corps, with one section at Termoli working for V Corps and the other section at Vinchiaturo working for XIII Corps, both on pile-pier jobs. The detachment worked for the 1st Canadian Division in the second half of November 1943 on the lateral road from Castropignano to Castiglione. With the road work completed, the detachment then returned to V Corps and built more pier foundations, including four at the 18-pier high-level main road bridge at the Sangro River.

On the 12th of December 1943, the long-expected movement order arrived. Two days before Christmas the company moved to No. 1 Canadian Base Staging Camp at Cobham. It sailed for Italy on the 15th of January 1944. By the 27th of January the entire company was united in the San Vito area.

With the uniting of the two detachments, the officers and men assigned to each detachment were struck off the strength of the 1st and 2nd Detachments, 1st Tunnelling Company on the 14th of February 1944. The following day they were all taken on the strength of the 1st Tunnelling Company, Canadian Mediterranean Force, and the company was placed under the control of General Headquarters and assigned to the Line of Communications [11].

The company designed its first bridge on the 29th of February 1944, a two-way timber structure on a lateral road south of the Sangro River. On the same day a section was despatched to Sessa to work for X British Corps with the Fifth U.S. Army. On the 22nd of March the remainder of the company moved through Termoli and Campobasso to the Volturno Valley about eight miles below Venafro, coming under the command of the C.R.E., 16th G.H.Q. Troops. The men were employed on quarry work, water points, latrines and wells. The 4th Drilling Section went to the Fifth U.S. Army on the 24th of March for employment in the Anzio beachhead [12].

By April of 1944 one section of the company was at Taranto and another in the Cassino area. Mc Isaac got into some serious trouble near the end of the month of April and was sent to the 7th Canadian Field Punishment Camp for 28 days. Upon his return to his unit it appears that his company commander had finally had enough of his disciplinary problems. From the X-4 List Mc Isaac was taken on the strength of the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Canadian Engineers on the 6th of June 1944. This squadron was assigned to the 5th Armoured Division and was commanded by Major R.B. Cameron, R.C.E. At the time that Mc Isaac joined the squadron, the unit was located near Frosinone having just come out of a nasty engagement involving numerous mine clearing and road construction tasks [13].

The 5th Armoured Division moved to Iesi on the 18th of August 1944 and on the 23rd of August Mc Isaac was back to his old ways and was awarded 90 days of Field Punishment. Major Cameron was not as patient a man as Mc Isaac’s previous O.C. in the 1st Tunnelling Company, so on the 13th of November Mc Isaac was transferred to the 10th Field Squadron, 5th Armoured Division. Although Mc Isaac may not have realized it at the time, his misconduct was bringing him closer and closer to the front lines and closer to the fighting against stubborn German resistance as the 5th Armoured Division moved up the east coast of Italy.

In November of 1944 Mc Isaac’s squadron was placed in support of the 12th Brigade, 5th Armoured Division. By the 1st of December the squadron was working along the Montone River in preparation for bridging operations at San Pancrazio. The crossing operations took place successfully on the night of 3-4 December 1944 and the tanks and other vehicles of the 5th Armoured Division pressed on to support the infantry in taking Piangipane by early afternoon.

Beyond Piangipane the 5th Armoured Division made good progress clearing the enemy pocket in the angle between the Lamone River and Highway 16. The division then closed on the river on a five-mile front on the 5th of December.

The Lamone River was the next obstacle to be crossed by the advancing Canadian forces. Assault crossings by infantry were begun on the 10th of December and early on the 11th the 10th Field Squadron began bridging operations. Class 2 crossings were operating by dawn and despite soft approaches to the river the Sappers were able to get jeeps and anti-tank guns across to the infantry in good time. Class 9 float bridge crossings proved to be difficult. Mc Isaac’s squadron began work early in the day but the height of the dikes meant that a lot of bulldozing had to be done. The work came under enemy observation long before it was finished. Once the enemy observed their work, the Sappers came under heavy artillery and mortar fire that interrupted their work, sometimes for as long as three hours at a time. The 10th Field Squadron completed its crossing at 1845 hours on the 11th.

Early on the 12th of December the 5th Armoured Division engineers combined to construct a Class 40 medium-level Bailey bridge across the river at Villanova. The bridge consisted of 100 feet of double-single bridge with the centre four bays of double-double construction. The bridge was 8 feet above the water level. During the construction of this bridge the Germans shelled and mortared the construction site with regularity. The bridge was completed by 0600 hours on the 12th. During its construction, Sapper Mc Isaac was mortally wounded. He died of his wounds the same day [14].

Sapper Mc Isaac was buried temporarily in the 5th Canadian Armoured Division cemetery No. 10, Grave 10, Row 13. Some time later he was reburied in the Ravenna British Empire Cemetery, 5 miles west of Ravenna, Italy, in Grave 20, Row E, Plot 6.

For his service during the war, Sapper Mc Isaac was awarded the 1939-45 Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal, War Medal and Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with clasp. His next of kin received these medals along with the Memorial Cross.


a. Promotions: Sapper Mc Isaac received no promotions during his time in service:

b. Conduct: Sapper Mc Isaac’s conduct during his time in service could only have been rated as very poor, although, since he died of wounds in 1944 no entry was ever made in his records regarding his overall conduct. The following table summarizes punishments he received while in the Army:

Date of Award

Offence and Punishment

2 July 1940

Offence: unknown. Confined to barracks for 7 days and forfeiture of 2 day’s pay.

25 November 1940

Offence: unknown. Forfeiture of 7 day’s pay.

31 January 1941

Offence: unknown. Awarded 5 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 5 day’s pay.

3 February 1941

Offence: unknown. Awarded 15 days Field Punishment to run concurrently with previous 5 days punishment and forfeiture of 13 day’s pay.

17 May 1941

Offence: unknown. Awarded 21 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 21 day’s pay.

19 May 1941

Offence: unknown. Awarded 26 days Field Punishment to run concurrently with the previous sentence. Attached to the Canadian Corps Field Punishment Camp until 13 June 1941.

19 August 1941

Offence: drunkenness, 2nd offence. Awarded 14 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 14 days pay. Attached to Canadian Corps Field Punishment Camp from 20 August to 5 September 1941.

13 September 1941

Offence No. 1: absent without leave from 8 September to 11 September 1941. Awarded 14 days Field Punishment and fined $10.00.
Offence No. 2: drunkenness, 3rd offence. Awarded forfeiture of 18 day’s pay.

22 November 1941

Offence: absent without leave from 21 November 1941. Awarded forfeiture of 3 day’s pay.

20 April 1942

Offence: absent without leave from 10 April to 20 April 1942. Awarded 10 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 10 day’s pay.

5 March 1943

Offence: unknown. Awarded forfeiture of 7 day’s pay.

2 April 1943

Offence: unknown. Awarded forfeiture of 4 day’s pay.

17 May 1943

Offence: unknown. Award 14 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 14 day’s pay. Attached to 1st Field Punishment Camp under sentence from 18 May to 29 May 1943.

29 September 1943

Offence: unknown. Awarded 7 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 4 day’s pay.

24 April 1944

Offence: unknown. Awarded 28 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 28 day’s pay. Attached to 7th Canadian Field Punishment Camp from 24 April to 17 May 1944.

29 June 1944

Offence: unknown. Awarded forfeiture of 1 day’s pay.

23 August 1944

Offence: unknown. Awarded 90 days Field Punishment and forfeiture of 32 day’s pay. Attached to the 5th Armoured Division Field Punishment Camp. Struck off the strength of the 1st Field Squadron, R.C.E. and posted to the X2 list.

9 November 1944

11 days of previous sentence was remitted. Released from the 5th Armoured Division Field Punishment Camp and posted from the X2 list to the X4 list on release.
In summary, Sapper Mc Isaac was sentenced to confinement or field punishment for a total of 251 days, of which he served 240 days. He was also sentenced to forfeit a total of 183 day’s pay and received one fine of $10.00. These punishments were all adjudged between July of 1940 and November of 1944.


a. Education: Sapper Mc Isaac’s records indicate that he progressed no further than grade school in civil life. The records show no military education or specialized training.

b. Qualifications: Sapper Mc Isaac earned the following qualifications while in the Army:

Date of Award


16 May 1940

Awarded Trades Pay as a Miner’s Helper, Category "C"

9 July 1942

Ceases to receive Trades Pay, Category "C"

10 July 1942

Awarded Trades Pay as a Tradesmen’s Helper, Category "C"

5 March 1943

Ceases to draw Trades Pay as a Miner, Category "C"

6 March 1943

Granted Trades Pay as a Miner’s Helper, Category "C"

2 April 1943

Reverted to regimental rates of pay as a Miner’s Helper, Category "C"

15 March 1944

Qualified and remustered as a Driller Miner (Diamond and Rotary)


No medical information is contained in Sapper Mc Isaac’s service papers. From the number times he was charged with drunkenness and the number of offences he committed while on active service, it may be safe to assume that he was an alcoholic.


The only information found in Sapper Mc Isaac’s records was the given name of his wife, Thelma, and the fact that they lived on Scotchtown Road in New Waterford, Nova Scotia.


Since Sapper Mc Isaac died of wounds received in Italy, he was simply "Struck off the Strength" of the Canadian Army after his death. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:


Period of Service


14 October 1939 to 21 December 1939


22 December 1939 to 6 August 1943


7 August 1943 to 17 September 1943


18 September 1943 to 12 December 1944


Period of Service

Home Service

68 days

Service Abroad

4 years and 355 days

Total Service

5 years and 58 days


The information contained in this addendum was provided by email by Marina Mc Isaac, the great niece of Sapper Wilfred Mc Isaac, on 22 March 2009.

Wilfred Mc Isaac’s parents were Angus and Margaret Mc Isaac (née Mc Quarrie). Angus and Margaret were married in Newfoundland on the 16th of January 1912. In addition to Wilfred, Angus and Margaret had a sister who died as an infant, a brother named Murdoch Alphonse (known as Phonse to his friends) and three sisters named Rose Ann, Cecilia and Mary. Angus and Margaret lived and raised their family in New Waterford, Cape Breton. Murdoch Alphonse Mc Isaac is the grandfather of Marina Mc Isaac, the lady who graciously supplied the information for this addendum. The following information is known about the members of the Mc Isaac family, as provided by Marina:

"GILLIS, Rose Ann – 89, New Waterford, died November 30, 2001, in New Hartford Hospital. Born in New Waterford, she was a daughter of the late Angus and Margaret (MacQuarrie) MacIsaac. Surviving are daughters, Marilyn (Garfield), Rose (Winston); son, Robert; sisters, Mary, Cecilia (Stewart); grandchildren, Parker, Karen, Greta, Steve, Lisa, William; great-grandchildren, Matthew, Devon; nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by husband, William; son Douglas; brothers, Phonse, Wilfred; an infant sister. Visiting and C.W.L. prayer service was held in V.J. McGillivray Funeral Home, New Waterford. Funeral 11 a.m. today in Mount Carmel Church, Father Donald McGillivray officiating. Burial in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Port Hood."

A notice was carried in a New Waterford newspaper announcing that Sapper Wilfred Mc Isaac had been wounded during the war. A copy of the news clipping was provided to Marina Mc Isaac courtesy of Mr. Douglas E. MacLean of Sydney, Nova Scotia. The article reads as follows:

Wilfred MacIsaac
Wounded In Action


NEW WATERFORD, Dec. (?). Spr. Wilfred MacIsaac has been officially reported wounded in action according to word received yesterday by his wife Mrs. Thelma MacIsaac. The message from the Director of Records, Ottawa said the nature and extent of wounds were not available, and further information would be forwarded as soon as received. Spr. MacIsaac is twenty six years of age, and a son of Mrs. Margaret MacIsaac, Wood Avenue. He had been serving overseas since December 1939.


1. Soldier’s Service Papers consisting of the following documents:

  1. Canadian Active Service Force Attestation Paper (M.F.M.2.).
  2. Record of Service (M.F.M.1 & 2A).
  3. Graves Registration Slip.
  4. Awards-Canadian Army (Active).
  5. Service and Casualty Form (M.F.M.4 a).

2. KERRY, A.J. and McDILL, W.A. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers. Volume 2. The Military
Engineers Association of Canada, Ottawa, 1966.

3. Veterans Affairs Canada Web Site. Villanova War Cemetery-Italian Campaign, 2000.

4. Veterans Affairs Canada Web Site. Book of Remembrance – Second World War. The Campaign in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1945.

5. Veterans Affairs Canada Web Site. Canadian Armed Forces Associated with the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945.

6. House of Commons, Canada. Letter of transmittal of page 387 from the Book of Remembrance, Ottawa, 25 September 2000.

7. Commonwealth War Graves Commission Web Site.

8. Veterans Affairs Canada Web Site. Memorial Cross


[1] Family History Resource File, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] N.P.A.M. is the abbreviation for Non-Permanent Active Militia.

[3] The 1st Tunnelling Company was not a conventional tunnelling company such as those used in the Great War and afterwards. It was mainly a drilling company.

[4] KERRY and Mc DILL, p. 442.

[5] Ibid., p. 448.

[6] Ibid., p. 449.

[7] Ibid., p. 451.

[8] Ibid., p. 452.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 455.

[11] This type of reassignment for detachments was common for the Canadian Army and appears to have been meant to account for every change of organization, temporary or otherwise, that took place during a soldier’s time in service.

[12] KERRY and Mc DILL, p. 459.

[13] Ibid., p. 211 and 214.

[14] Ibid., p. 253.