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Fighting Frank – “The Father of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps”

Published in the Barrie Advance
15 February 2006
Published in Esprit de Corps Magazine
February 2006
Visitors to the Base Borden Museum will note that the museum actually operates out of four distinct areas. The main building, originally the Armoured Corps’ Officers’ Mess during WWII, features displays on the various schools that have occupied “the Army side” of Borden. The Air Force Annex profiles the RCAF history at Borden, while the Vehicle Annex features displays of various military vehicles used over the years. Finally, there is “Worthington Park”, an outdoor area that features various armoured vehicles and artillery guns, along with a memorial to the Canadian Armoued Corps members who have lost their lives on UN missions.

Worthington Park is named after Major-General Frederic Frank “Fighting Frank” Worthington, CB, MC and bar and MM and bar, CD. How is it that Major General Worthington, affectionately known to his troops as “Worthy”, deserves to have a park named after him? As the founder and first Commandant of what is now the Armour School, Worthington Park is a testament to a man who had a profound impact on Canada’s military.

Worthy was born in Scotland in 1889, but later moved with parents to California. His parents died when Worthy was only 11 years old, so the young lad was sent to live with his half-brother in Nocorzaro, Mexico, where he worked as a water-boy in a mine. Tragically his brother was killed a year later by notorious Mexican bandit Pancho Villa, leaving Worthy all alone.

By the age of 14, Worthy began his sea-going career as a cabin boy on various cargo ships. Around 1907, Worthy’s military career began, somewhat unofficially, as a mercenary. He served in the Nicaraguan Army in the war against San Salvador and Honduras, but when the Nicaraguan government fell, the army dissolved and Worthy left the country to avoid capture. He later found work sailing on cargo steamers.

The life of a mercenary was appealing to Worthy, and he soon found himself back in the thick of things, this time gunrunning to Cuba for which he was imprisoned in Cuba in 1908. In 1913, Worthy fought on the side of Francisco Madero in the Mexican Civil war against the Dias government. His war service was short lived however, as he was wounded in a battle. After he recovered from his injuries, Worthy decided he’d had enough of the war and left Mexico for good. Worthy returned to sailing cargo steamers and eventually earned his Board of Trade papers as a 2nd engineer.

In 1915, Worthy traveled to Montreal with the intention of travelling to Scotland to join the Black Watch Regiment of Scotland. Upon finding a Recruiting office in Montreal, Worthy figured he could save the cost of passage to Britain by joining in Canada. However without realizing it, Worthy enlisted in the Canadian Black Watch, automatically making him a Canadian.

Due to his previous experience, he quickly stood out in the eyes of his superiors, but it was not always for the good. During a training exercise, Lance-Corporal Worthington was disciplined for using the sneak attack techniques (crawling, using cover, etc.) that he had learned as a guerilla fighter to capture an “enemy” target. Worthy was told that “…no British Soldier crawls into battle on his belly …. Stand up and march briskly forward” (Quote from “Worthy” by Larry Worthington). It should be noted that Worthy’s section was the only section to achieve its objective.

In 1916, Worthy shipped to France with the Black Watch and into the trenches a Kemel Hill. Worthy saw tanks used for the first time on 15 Sept 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. The idea of a mechanized fighting force was born out of the cavalry regiments of the 1800’s. At that time, tanks were called His Majesty’s Land Ships and manned by personnel from all service branches, including Marines. Their use was a partial success, as numerous broke down before getting to the front lines, but their potential was quite evident.

Worthy, now with the Machine Gun Corps, was awarded the Military Medal for actions near Vimy Ridge, on 6 January 1917 for holding his position during a German advance, initially alone, but a soldier he knew only as “Quigley” from the 44th Battalion soon joined him. Worthy had gone forward to check on another section, but when he returned to his own section, he discovered that they had been ordered to withdraw. Ironically, “Quigley” would later receive 28 days field punishment for abandoning his post to come to Worthy’s aid. When Worthy heard this, he immediately protested to the soldier’s Commanding Officer that “Quigley” be cleared and awarded the Military Medal too. Army records have no mention of “Quigley” ever receiving the Military Medal.

In the spring of 1918, Worthy earned a bar for his Military Medal and a promotion to 2Lt. This unit was later to be absorbed into the 1st Canadian Motor Machine-Gun Brigade (CMMB), established by former French Army officer Raymond Brutinel, an engineer who lived in Canada prior to WWI. Brutinel first proposed a mobile force with armour protection and funded it with money raised privately. It was also under Brutinel that machine guns were first used like artillery.

Worthy further saw the potential of tank warfare during the battle of Amiens on 1 July 1918 when the Australian Tank Corps won a decisive victory using the “whippet” tank for the first time (a “whippet” tank can be found on display at Borden). Tanks has succeeded in creating fear in the Germans, but Worthy was one of a few British officers who realized this potential, and development of this new form of warfare never took off. Ironically, it was the Germans who would develop them into an effective fighting tool in the years leading up to WWII.

It wasn’t until early 1918 that the Canadian Tank Corps was formed, equipped with British Mark V’s and French Renault tanks. The end of WWI in November 1918 meant the end Canada’s first foray into an armoured corps, as all armoured units were disbanded.

In early 1919, when most troops were being demobilized, Worthy accepted an offer to join the Permanent Force Army. His first posting was to Montreal to re-organize two militia machine-gun units. From there he was posted on 1 January 1920 to Ottawa in the rank of Captain and to Rosedale Barracks in Toronto in 1921, with summer training at the Canadian Small Arms School at Rockcliffe Ranges in Ottawa, the current site of the RCMP Barracks. In 1923, Worthy was posted to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg.

Worthy married Clara Dignum in 1924. Clara, known to all as “Larry”, bore Frederic a son Peter in 1927 and a daughter Robin in 1929. Peter would later go on to serve in both the Royal Canadian Navy during the last years of WWII and with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the Korean War, before embarking on a career in journalism. Readers of the Toronto Sun will know Peter Worthington as a columnist and founding editor.

Worthy had repeatedly stated a need for mechanization of the Army and by 1930, a mechanized Army force was finally established, resulting in the purchase of 12 Machine-gun carriers “Carden-Lloyds”, which were sent to Kingston for training courses.

Worthy was posted to Toronto in 1934 as Deputy assistant, Adjutant and QM General for Militia District #2 and in 1935, he was posted to Ottawa to administer PM Bennet’s Unemployment Relief Camps.

By 1936, with the threat of another European war looming, the idea of a Tank Corps for the Canadian Army was revived. Worthy was chosen to organize and command a training centre.

On 1 November 1936, the Canadian Tank School was established at Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario. Worthy became the first Commandant of the new school, overseeing a complement of seven officers, eighteen NCOs, 12 machine gun carriers but had no tanks. Engines were acquired form numerous sources for maintenance practice.

Worthy, now an Acting Major, was posted to Bovington Army Camp in England to learn more about tanks.

The Canadian Tank School’s stay in London was short lived due to a shortage of adequate training space. The school re-located to Camp Borden on 1 May 1938, where it was re-named the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle School. Worthy was posted to Camp Borden along with the school.

During the winter of 1938 – 39, now-Lieutenant Colonel Worthington arranged for training courses for members of the non-permanent active militia across the country, with practical training at Borden the following summer.

With the outbreak of World War II, the School became an important training centre for Canada’s emerging Armoured Corps. The school went through several name changes, including the Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicles Training Centre, before finally settling on A-33 Canadian Armoured Corps Training Establishment.

As the school had no tanks to use for training, Worthy went to the U.S. looking for assistance. With the help of General George Patton, Worthy unofficially bought 265 Renauld tanks, built in 1917 but still in new condition, from the storage facility at the Rock Island Arsenal. As the U.S. was still neutral at this time and could not officially sell arms to other countries, the tanks were sold as scrap metal and shipped to the Camp Borden foundry under the name of “Mr. F.F. Worthington”.

The armoured corps school got off to a rocky start, however. In early 1940, National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) ordered the Tank School to close and convert to infantry training. Worthy saw this as a big mistake, and did not disband the tactics, wireless and gunnery training sections of CAVFTC, something that NDHQ did not notice this for a long time.

The ill-advised decision to terminate armoured training was reversed on 13 August 1940, with the official formation of the Canadian Armoured Corps.  Hitler’s success with armoured units in France lead to the reinstatement of the Canadian armoured training program.  Former Calvery units were then converted to Armoured units.

Two additional schools were also established at Camp Borden:  “A-27 & A-28 Canadian Armoured Corps Training, although A-27 CACTC moved to Camp Dundurn in Saskatchewan in January 1942.

Range facilities were constructed at Borden for the Armoured School, but proved inadequate due to other training going on at the same time. As a result, the Meaford Armoured Fighting Vehicle Range, known locally as “The Meaford Tank Range” opened in 1942 on 17,500 acres of land on the shores of Georgian Bay.

Locally, the Grey & Simcoe Foresters of Barrie were placed on active service in 1940. The Grey & Simcoe Foresters were broken into Two Battalions, with the newly formed 2nd Battalion remaining a reserve force regiment, providing reinforcements for the active service 1st Battalion. At the time, the Grey & Simcoe Foresters were an infantry regiment, but on 15 May 1942, 1st Battalion was re-designated an armoured regiment. Re-named 26 Army Tank Regiment, Grey & Simcoe Foresters, a designation they would hold until 1943, when the unit dispersed and it’s members assimilated with other Active Force armoured regiments.

It’s also interesting to note that for the duration of the war, wives of married Permanent Force members were relocated to accommodations in Barrie.

From 1940 to 1942, Worthy, now a Brigadier-General, was posted to England to command the 1st Army Tank Brigade.

In March 1942, Major-General Worthington was posted to Camp Debert in Nova Scotia, to command the 4th Armoured Division. By August 1942, Worthy and the 4th Armoured Division were sent to England, where he soon became a constant annoyance to his superiors and Canadian Military Headquarters due to his unconventional, but often successful methods of doing his job. Worthy was not a man to go by the book.

In early 1944, Worthy was forced to relinquish command of the 4th Armoured Division, “officially” due to poor health, but in actual fact it was due to changes in Canada’s Army commanders. Worthy supported Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton, but it was Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds who got command of II Canadian Corps. Worthy was simply edged out in favour of others. It was the biggest regret of his career that he never commanded a Division in war.

Ironically, around 1955 Worthy and Guy Simonds met up at a Christmas dinner. Simonds admitted that he had made a mistake taking Worthy’s command away from him.

Worthy returned to Camp Borden in April 1944, this time as Camp Commandant. By now, Borden was a major training centre for Armoured, Infantry, Medical, RCASC & Provost Corps, with a population of approximately 25,000.

Worthy soon discovered that other things had changed since he left in 1942. Black market selling was out of control by this time, with fuel, food and building materials being the hot items. Worthy as usual had an unconventional method of stopping the stolen items from leaving the camp. He posted Provost Marshals at the gates to search vehicles leaving, forcing the thieves to take the back roads and trails to get out of camp. Worthy had the engineers dig trenches to make it impossible for vehicles to get through.

The most unconventional method however, was having the engineers lay landmines on the back trails, with the trigger points set back about 50 yards, thus ensuring that no one would actually get hurt. The troops got the message got though, as no one wanted to take any chances with a commander who mined roadways.

Being a professional soldier, Worthy took the Army, the war and soldiering very seriously. The National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) of 1940 made military service compulsory for in-country service, but overseas service remained voluntary. Some of those drafted under the NRMA, nick-named “zombies”, volunteered for active service overseas, but most refused. It was especially demoralizing to the “zombies” that they were treated as 2nd class soldiers. Worthy fixed that problem by forcing their commanders to treat them no differently than regular soldiers. Once their treatment changed, so did their attitudes about the war and many more volunteered.

Those who still refused to go active service met with Worthy ‘s unconventional methods of training and persuasion, including being virtual targets of live-fire exercises and being forced to work so hard around the camp that they “volunteered” because it was the lesser of the evils.

By the end of World War II, over 20,000 personnel had trained in the art of tank warfare at Camp Borden. Post-war, the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School (RCACS) carried on with the training of Canada’s Armoured Corps.

Except for Hong Kong, armoured units had fought in every major campaign of WWII.  In  recognition of their gallantry and devotion to duty, King George VI authorized the prefix “Royal” for the Canadian Armoured Corps.

Worthy’s military career came to an end with his retirement in 1948, but not his association with the Armoured Corps. In 1949, Worthy was named Colonel Commandant of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School at Borden, a position he would hold until his death.

Worthy’s military career may have ended, but not his service to the public. In October 1948, Worthy was appointed as a Special Advisor to the Minister of National Defence in the capacity of Civil Defence Co-ordinator, a position he would hold until 1958.

In 1952, Worthy established the Worthington Trophy, given to the candidate who after the full 2-year course graduated with the highest stand and of marks & leadership. Worthy gave his own sword to serve as the trophy.

In 1962, the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School established The Worthington Military Museum. The museum featured displays and equipment relating Worthy’s military career and the establishment of the Armoured Corps. A main feature of the museum was Worthington Park, an outdoor display area for armoured vehicles and weapons. When the Base Borden Military Museum was established in 1973, the Worthington Museum was absorbed into this new museum.

By 1966, the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School was absorbed into the Combat Arms School, which relocated to CFB Gagetown in 1970.

Worthy died on 8 December 1967 at Ottawa’s Military Hospital. After his funeral in Ottawa, Worthy’s body was flown by a RCAF Caribou aircraft to Camp Borden and in accordance with his wishes, was interred in Worthington Park. Four Centurian tanks fired a 13 gun salute and three RCAF Chipmunk aircraft did a low-lever “fly-past”, in tribute to a great soldier and Canadian.

One of the things that Peter Worthington always remembers about his father is that he used to say, “Until Vimy Ridge he really never felt Canadian, but after Vimy Ridge never felt he was anything but a Canadian.”

Today, Worthington Park remains as a strong reminder of the birthplace of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps and a tribute to its father, Frederic Franklin “Fighting Frank” “Worthy” Worthington.

Special thanks to Peter Worthington and the Borden Citizen for their help with this article.

Sources:  “Worthy:  A biography of Major-General F.F. Worthington”, by Larry Worthington, The Borden Citizen and information supplied by Peter Worthington.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/fighting-frank-the-father-of-the-royal-canadian-armoured-corps/

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