Scouting and Guiding on Overseas RCAF Bases During the Cold War
The Cold War brought about many changes to family life. For military personnel who were part of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the founding of NATO in 1949 meant opportunities for overseas tours in Europe for themselves and their families.
While on NATO bases overseas, family life went on for RCAF dependents. Two related activities common for kids in Canada were established for the children of RCAF servicemen in France and West Germany, namely the Boy Scout and Girl Guide programs. Although these overseas Scout troops and Guide units experienced unique opportunities for international camaraderie with European Cubs, Scouts, Brownies (now known as Embers), and Guides, troop and unit leaders wished to impart the distinct spirit of Canadian scouting and guiding for these young dependents to help build a sense of continuity with their lives back home.
Canada’s air defence contributions to NATO were formed in 1951 and initially headquartered in Metz, France. Metz would also be the home of the first official Canadian scouting troop in Europe. Although some Canadian children on European bases began participating in Scout troops and Cub packs registered with the British Boy Scout and Girl Guide association, Corporal Jim Worral of the RCAF, who himself had been a Cubmaster in Ottawa, was the first to propose the idea of starting a troop at the Metz RCAF headquarters. Worral initially approached the English Boy Scouts Association, but his request was forwarded to the Canadian Boy Scouts Headquarters instead. In 1953, the first troop of six Scouts was formally registered as the First Canadian Maple Leaf Scout Group (Europe).
The registration of other troops and Cub packs soon followed, and by 1960 there were 850 Scouts and Cubs forming what was referred to as the Maple Leaf Region. Many Canadian Girl Guide and Brownie units were also established on bases across France and Germany during this period. Deborah Wood, a Canadian child stationed at RCAF Station Zweibrücken (3 Wing) between 1962 and 1966, remembers participating in Brownies during her time overseas, while her older brother joined the Cub Scouts and later a Boy Scouts troop on the base.
At each site, establishing strong links to the Canadian Scouting and Guiding traditions was important. Canadian Scout leaders, for example, enthusiastically reported how the boys in Europe performed the same duties as other Packs and Troops throughout Canada, wore the same uniform, and may eventually return home to enroll as members of existing Canadian units. The hope for Scouting leaders was that Canadian kids could continue to experience Canadian Scouting overseas.
Not everything was the same for kids participating in Canadian Scouting and Guiding overseas, however. While Scouts back at home wore provincial emblems designating where their troops were registered, Scouts overseas in Europe used other symbols to reference their location on NATO military bases. For instance, a red and gold Maple Leaf Crest was worn as a District/Region badge on the back of all Air Division Scouting neckerchiefs between 1953 and 1970.
Image of the Maple Leaf Crest, courtesy of James Ernest Buckland, “Canadian Forces Scouting in Europe,” Scouts Canada National Museum, Ottawa.
Canadian dependents on RCAF bases also had the unique opportunity to participate in a number of international excursions with other European Scouting and Guiding organizations, including at Intercamp, an annual event born in 1966 when three Scout troops (Dutch, British, and German) held a combined camp at the Wegberg Airstriplin in West Germany. Since then Scouts living on NATO bases across Europe were invited to participate, with the Maple Leaf Region even sponsoring the event multiple times. In 1967 when Canada celebrated its 100th birthday, more than 600 Scouts and Cubs from five different nations marched through the West German city of Soest carrying lit torches and joining together to sing the patriotic anthems ‘O Canada’ and ‘God Save the Queen.’ Members involved in overseas Scouting and Guiding thus received remarkable lessons in international cooperation during their time abroad.
Cover of the 1993 June/July issue of The Leader, a magazine for Scout Leaders, commemorating the end of the Maple Leaf Region in Europe.
The end of the Cold War marked the end of the Maple Leaf Region and the presence of Canadian Boy Scout troops and Girl Guide units overseas. While Canadian Boy Scout troops overseas prided themselves on having kept the spirit of Canadian Scouting alive in Europe for decades, the experiences these children had were not entirely typical for Scouts back home in Canada. From spending summer camp in places like Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) or in the mountains near the picturesque town of Heidelberg on the edge of Neckar Valley, to hiking to Luxembourg and Belgium or motoring to the International Chalet at Kandersteg in Switzerland, these activities were far from a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing for the young boys, and a common occurrence during their time overseas.
Canadian Girl Guides and Brownies in Europe equally participated in exciting opportunities that their fellow units may not have experienced at home. For example, former Brownie and later Girl Guide Kimberly Reynolds, whose family was stationed at CFB Lahr between 1979 and 1983, recalls being asked to decorate wooden barrack boxes that had been repurposed to keep their unit’s materials in. Much like Canadian Girl Guides, however, Reynolds’ unit also took part in more familiar activities like camping, where the Girl Guides set up in the mountain behind the base and learned first aid and basic survival skills, like how to build a fire, use a compass, and make a stove from a can for cooking their meals.
While preserving the essence of Canadian Scouting and Guiding on RCAF bases in Europe was emphasized by leaders at the time, the international connections these children made and the exceptional settings where troops and units were established contributed to a unique Guiding and Scouting experience for children overseas.
Buckland, James Ernest. “Canadian Forces Scouting in Europe Boy Scout Region/District Badges 1951-1993.” Binder courtesy of the Scouts Canada National Museum, Ottawa, Canada.
“Canadian Scouting in Europe.” The Scout Leader (February 1955): 108-109.
Garth, Johnson. “Maple Leaf Region: The End of an Era,” The Leader 23, no. 10 (June/July 1993): 4-6.
Halstad, Erin-Lee. “Farewell to the Maple Leaf Region.” The Leader 23, no. 10 (June/July 1993): 6.
McKenzie, Christine. “Scouting in the Air Division.” Roundel (Jan./Feb. 1963): 24-25.
“New Overseas Troop Started.” The Province (Vancouver, BC) (1 March 1995): 34. Retrieved from Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/500447995, accessed 17 August 2023.
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