A Personal Experience of the UNTD (the University Naval Training Division)

by John M. MacFarlane 2002

Officer Cadet John MacFarlane with sextant

I joined the University Naval Training Division (UNTD) in 1966 by applying in September and sitting a Selection Board at H.M.C.S. Scotian in Halifax Nova Scotia. I had first encountered UNTD officer Cadets in 1957 when I watched them racing sailing whalers in Esquimalt Harbour. I liked the look of the uniform and the positive impression lasted and I determined to join them when I reached university at the age of 18.

The UNTD program was designed to train reserve naval officers and there was no obligation for continued service from its members – after the completion of service. We attended a drill night one a week and one Saturday each month. There was four months of active service each summer break from University. We were paid in cash for the time served – but the cost of our room and board, such that it was, was deducted from the amount. Most of us felt fortunate for the income as summer and part-time jobs were difficult to find at that time and the money was needed for tuition and books.

On drill nights there were a number of second year cadets as well as some ROTP cadets (destined for the regular force through civilian universities) in attendance. The first year cadets came from the University of King’s College, Dalhousie University and St. Mary’s University – all in Halifax NS. We were all keen and enthusiastic in spite of a generally hostile public attitude toward the military – this was at the height of the Viet Nam War period.

Scotian UNTD 1966

HMCS Scotian UNTD & ROTP Officer Cadets 1966

We were issued an extensive kit – that included a wide range of uniforms, personal gear and books. The uniforms had numbers which were identified in the daily orders to tell us which ones to wear each day. In the winter we mostly wore battledress – heavy navy blue ‘Eisenhower jacket’ and button fly trousers, with a white shirt and tie. On formal occasins we wore a ‘bum freezer’ – a jacket with gold buttons and trousers with a real zipper fly. In summer we wore a khaki-coloured uniform, sometimes without the jacket. At work we wore blue work clothes that could withstand the abuse from the physical labour involved.

On the lapels of all of our uniforms we wore the “white twist” – a simulated white embroidered lapel with a small gold officer’s button in the top. This became a great symbol of pride that embodied who we were – Officer Cadets of the UNTD.

The navy was a very stratified and class-conscious organization – and generally speaking we were considered as “second-rate” by the regular force cadets as well as by many of the other officers and men we encountered. As a result we reacted against these perceived snubs and adopted a fierce reverse snobbery that welded us together as a group and probably caused us to be rebellious and difficult to manage.

In the first summer we traveled to H.M.C.S. Cornwallis for our basic training. We lived in an old wooden H-hut left over from the Second World War. We had to march everywhere in groups – informality was greatly discouraged – and the discipline was unnecessarily strict with punishment meted out for the most trivial of offences. Upon arrival we were formed into divisions of about 30 members – I was included in a group from Quebec, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. My messmates were a cheerful group who got along well together in spite of having little in common except our ages. We were not very competitive in spirit though and seldom excelled relative to the other divisions in sports or other activities.

We cooperated to get each other through the bewildering schedule of courses. I was an expert in radio and communications work and I pushed many of my messmates through Morse code. Our instructor would flash a lamp from the second story of one of the wooden H-huts and in pairs we would alternate reading the light and recording the message. The recorders always stood with a clipboard with their backs to the light. I discovered that I could interpret the light by deciphering its reflection in a nearby window and would interpret the message for hapless cadets who could not learn the code. I was never discovered but fell under suspicion when untrainable cadets suddenly ‘learned’ the code well enough to qualify when they worked with me. Eventually I was banned from recording and made to stand on the sidelines.

One punishment that involved group cooperation was a ‘kit muster’. This involved producing every item in the original issue of equipment – all for display in immaculate condition to the office-of-the-day. Each of us had at least one item that we kept polished, cleaned, pressed or unused that could be borrowed for such an inspection. On  some occasions whole kit bags were transferred from hand-to-hand outside the inspection area so that the same kit could be inspected in close succession – with only a few key personal items with names on them being substituted. Other punishments were more onerous. Doubling around the parade square with an FN rifle was one – as was extra PT (physical training), extra cleaning and turning up five times a day for roll call and inspection. For falling asleep in class we had to carry rocks in a waste basket back and forth to the beach. I don’t believe that anyone escaped punishment – and it was held as a badge of honour by some of the ‘characters’ that they seemed to be perpetually on the punishment list.

A few of the cadets were considered as ‘keeners’ by the rest. Most of us rather prefered to remain inconspicuous in the ranks. The keeners sought promotion as Cadet Captains and a small number aspired to regular force commissions or active duty in the reserves after commissioning. These cadets were generally held to be ambitiously irritating but were tolerated – but were sometime sabotaged by the rest when a good opportunity presented. As a result Cadet Captains were regularly demoted back into the ranks and new ones appointed in their place – a phenomenon dubbed ‘musical chevrons’ for the gold stripes quickly awarded and removed for those selected.

My most prized experiences were from my sea time in H.M.C.S. Porte St. Jean on a long transit through the St. Lawrence Seaway. I was appointed as the senior radio operator and visual communicator because of my prior experience and skills in those areas. Others chose deck work or stood watches in the engine room. We all cleaned ship and stood watches in port. We slept in hammocks, one of the very last ships in the navy to use them, although some were lucky enough to be allocated bunks. I slept in a hammock slung over the mess deck table, shoulder to shoulder with about a dozen shipmates.

We stood a one-in-three watch system, 24 hours a day, seven days a week unless we were in port. When we weren’t on watch we worked at cleaning, maintenance or evolutions and training. The result was that we only slept about 5 hours a day – and were perpetually exhausted.

In my second year we were told that our program would end with our graduation as the 25th and last class of the UNTD. I was in a division with cadets from naval divisions in Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia. This was a superb group, high in morale and spirit. We took courses in weapons, navigation, engineering and seamanship. We lived in a barracks off-base but marched to classrooms and training in HMCS Naden. As part of our training we were introduced to the air force and army through orientation tours to other bases. This did not, as a result, encourage us to support the unification program.

Ojibway Division UNTD

Ojibway Division, UNTD 1968

I went to sea twice in my second summer – both times in HMCS Port Quebec, another Gate Vessel. In this vessel we all had bunks – although mine was under the escape hatch, that leaked from water on deck and dripped on me while I slept. At last I had a bunk to lay on when I wasn’t on watch. Our skipper liked to anchor at night so we got more sleep than we had the previous summer. It was a very happy ship and were given experiences in navigation, engineering and seamanship that could not be had elsewhere.

MacFarlane Hillborn Celhoffer

Officer Cadets John MacFarlane, Bill Hillborn & Bill Cellhoffer at sea 1968

The unification initiative found organizations such as the UNTD as contrary to the new doctrine so it was disbanded and replaced by a single ROUTP program that was supposed to produce naval, air force and army officers. It was at this time that we saw our first green uniforms, that were intended to displace the navy blue uniforms we had worn for two years. We were not enthusiastic about this innovation.

At the end of the summer we were commissioned as Acting Sub-Lieutenants and transferred to the inactive Supplementary Reserve. The Royal Canadian Naval Reserve had already disappeared. With the exception of a very few of our members we all reverted to fulltime civilians. We had had enough discipline and formality in an increasingly informal world.

The UNTD program had been initiated during the Second World War as a source of badly needed officers and was carried on into peacetime. In the beginning they wore sailor’s uniforms and caps – but after the Second World War they adopted officers uniforms. We were never told how many officers had passed through the program but it must have been three or four thousand over the years. A couple of them became flag officers in the regular forces, and others obtained regular commissions. Most went on to solid civilian careers, no doubt molded in part by their training and naval experiences.

The experience was a very powerful one for me. It shaped some of the core values in my life, and there is seldom a week when my memories won’t be triggered to recall some episode in that experience. I cannot say it was an enjoyable experience – but it was valuable, useful and a highlight of an otherwise fascinating life. Afterwards I never resumed my naval links, but my interest in naval affairs and history never waned. I continue to this day to be filled with pride that I was one of the few who wore the White Twist as a member of the UNTD.


To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) A Personal Experience of the UNTD (the University Naval Training Division). Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/Navy_UNTD_personal.php

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