Vancouver’s Stanley Park in wartime

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Article / October 26, 2015 / Project number: 15-0153

Vancouver, British Columbia — Stanley Park Battery was the first of Vancouver’s Second World War coastal defence batteries: defensive positions specially prepared for heavy guns armed and ready to repel a German or Japanese intrusion into Canada’s Pacific coast. It was located in Stanley Park, a 400 hectare coastal forest on a peninsula within the city boundaries of Vancouver. 

Although the peninsula had been reserved for the defence of the First Narrows and Burrard Inlet in the 19th century, this federally-owned land had been leased to the city for a nominal sum since 1887. Most people knew the peninsula only as a public park.

In 1914, at the start of the First World War, the point of land near Siwash Rock was occupied by a temporary gun battery when an attack by Germany’s East Asia naval squadron was considered likely. During the Second World War, the Japanese navy was regarded as the greatest threat. A concrete, two-gun battery emplacement with supporting structures on Ferguson Point was planned in February 1938, after Parliament approved construction of permanent coast defences for the harbour in early 1937. Vancouver’s role as Canada’s principal Pacific Coast port and as the transcontinental railway’s terminus justified extra protection from hostile warships.

Vancouver’s Town Planning Commission did not approve of the use of Ferguson Point for the battery, calling it “a favourite beauty spot in the park.” The Vancouver Sun joined the opposition, stating that the gun battery could become “a permanent blot on the scenic beauty of the area.” However, the Parks Board had consented to the new installation and the land was federal government property. Federal authorities deemed the battery “essential” for strategic reasons and construction began in mid-February 1938. The fort was completed in November 1939.

Vancouver’s fixed coastal defences were to be manned by the 15th Coast Brigade of Artillery, a local militia regiment. In anticipation of war, the brigade’s 31st Battery occupied the site on August 27, 1939. The Fire Commander’s Orders of October 1942 stated that the Stanley Park Battery was to guard “English Bay and the First Narrows entrance to Burrard Inlet,” and also to act as a detaining battery for ships awaiting inspection and clearance before entering the Port of Vancouver.

Like the smaller battery on the north side of the First Narrows, the Stanley Park Battery was authorized to fire on ships that refused to submit to inspection or that sailed into the port without stopping. An examination vessel (X-Vic) was stationed two kilometres west of Ferguson Point to inspect incoming ships. After Point Atkinson’s signal station had identified arriving vessels, they proceeded to the X-Vic to be cleared for entry into the port. Large ships flew recognition signals that identified them as friendly vessels.

The Stanley Park Battery was originally armed with two breech-loading, 6-inch-calibre guns on circular, concrete pedestal mounts. In 1942, they were replaced with 4.7-inch-calibre guns placed forty metres in from the cliff’s edge. Overhead protection and a back wall were added later.

Ammunition was stored in an underground magazine behind the guns and a concrete three-storey battery observation post (BOP) directed the guns’ fire. Personnel in the BOP also maintained communications with other batteries and co-ordinated three searchlights, two of which were placed close to the water, illuminating English Bay at night.

The searchlights and power generators were maintained and operated by the 1st Searchlight Regiment’s 3rd Battery and by military engineers, with a camp for 140 men sitting on the present Third Beach parking lot. All buildings and emplacements were camouflaged, including the BOP, which had an evergreen tree was painted on its front.

With the destruction of most of Japan’s major warships in 1942-43, the threat of an attack by surface vessels on Vancouver diminished. Although Japanese submarines still torpedoed ships and shelled sites along the West Coast, Vancouver’s defences were reduced to maintenance status in 1944.

Stanley Park’s guns and most of the wooden buildings were removed in September 1945; however, The Vancouver District’s army commander continued to occupy the former officers’ mess as his home. 

Following the war, the Vancouver Parks Board demanded Ferguson Point’s complete restoration to parkland. In April 1948, the board won this battle and the gun emplacements were levelled and buried. The BOP was demolished later.

Remnants of the battery still exist today in Stanley Park, but are not obvious to most. The one remaining searchlight position at Siwash Rock is now the base for a viewing platform. On Ferguson Point, only the old officers’ mess survives as a part of today’s Teahouse in Stanley Park Restaurant, a bustling venue with a breathtaking view of the coast.

By Major (Retired) Peter Moogk, PhD, retired Professor Emeritus of history at UBC, and Curator of the Museum and Archives of the 15th Field Regiment, RCA.

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