(Note: this article describes the planning and execution of Operation COTTAGE. As this operation did not involve combat, there is not a separate article for actions on Kiska Island listed in the Battle Honours articles.)
The Aleutian Islands, in the northern Pacific, were the only parts of North America to come under direct Axis occupation during the Second World War. While Canadian troops did not see active combat there, the deployment of Canadian Army soldiers to the region was significant for a number of reasons.
War with Japan began in December of 1941, and Allied power in the Pacific was severely damaged not just by the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December, but also the sinking of H.M.S. Prince of Wales and H.M.S. Repulse off of Malaya three days later.1
The enemy in the Pacific had shown an astonishing ability to conduct simultaneous offensives over widely separated areas, engulfing in short order Malaya, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island, North Borneo, Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Burma and the Solomon Islands. Despite having no immediate intention of invading either Australia or North America, the Japanese nonetheless carried out further operations aimed at widening their defensive perimeter to protect the sizeable gains of their early offensive actions, including occupation of New Guinea, the Solomons, Midway Island, and bases in the Aleutian Islands, as well as occupation of New Caledonia, Fiji and Samoa. The first objective, completion of their occupation of New Guinea and the Solomons, was checked at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.2 In June 1942, the Japanese set their sights on the next objectives of Midway and the Aleutians, with the desire that a decisive fleet action be precipitated in which the U.S. Navy could be brought to battle and soundly defeated. In the event, through strokes of sound intelligence work, determined fighting, and some good fortune, the Japanese were soundly beaten by an outnumbered force at Midway Island, though a foothold was gained in the Aleutians. The invasion of Kiska and Attu was intended as a decoy, to draw the U.S. fleet away from Midway while landing operations took place, and the troops were to be withdrawn before winter.3 The Americans weren't fooled; by reading Japanese codes they determined the real target - Midway - and managed to inflict crippling losses on the main fleet, including four first-line aircraft carriers. The battle has long been considered the turning point of the war in the Pacific; the third stage of the expansion of their defensive perimeter was not attempted as the Japanese from that point on had lost the strategic initiative.4
The Aleutian Islands do not form the strategic link between Asia and North America that they appear to on a globe or map. The islands are barren, mountainous, and offer no natural resources. Operation of aircraft and naval vessels are restricted by overcast, fog, and high and variable wind. Finally, the islands are remote. Attu, the westernmost, is 700 mils from the closest pre-war Japanese naval base at Paramushiro, but the distance from Attu to Dutch Harbor, the only pre-war American military base, is 800 miles and Dutch Harbor stands 1,650 miles from Vancouver. Paramushiro is separated from Tokyo by about 1,000 miles. The Japanese had no real fear of a U.S. strike against them via the Aleutians, according to their records, and their intentions for invasion were mainly defensive, to anchor the northern end of their own perimeter in the Pacific, as well as possibly laying claim to the prestige of standing on North American soil.5
The Japanese forces assigned to the Aleutians during the Battle of Midway were built around two aircraft carriers. Their mission was to strike Dutch Harbor and occupy Adak and Attu, the latter only long enough to destroy American military installations. The state of Japanese intelligence regarding the islands was low - Attu in fact contained no U.S. military presence of any kind. The first air strike on Dutch Harbor, on 3 June, caused little damage, but a second on 4 June was more successful. This was the same day that the main fleet, far to the south, was badly defeated at Midway. The occupation of the Aleutians was actually called off by Japanese admiral Yamamoto, but the order was reversed and he ordered it to proceed regardless. U.S. warplanes operating from Umnak had managed to do damage to the Japanese, dissuading them from occupying Adak, but on the afternoon of 6 June Kiska was occupied, followed by Attu the next morning. With no Allied forces in the islands to resist the invasion, it took four days before U.S. forces realized the occupation had occurred.
The Kiska garrison was reinforced with 1,200 men in July 1942, and the Japanese soldiers from Attu were mosly shipped to Kiska in the autumn. The decision was made by the Japanese to leave garrisons on both islands permanently, and Attu was reoccupied in October. Defence works and airfields were ordered, with February 1943 selected as a target date. A U.S. blockade interfered with the reinforcement of the garrisons, but by spring Attu boasted 2,500 men and Kiska 6,000, including civilians in some numbers, living what the Canadian official historian called a "precarious and uncomfortable existence."6
The first military actions against the Japanese in the Aleutians were air strikes; United States Army Air Force raids began as early as 11 June 1942, when bombers based at Umnak attacked Kiska. The island was attacked frequently thereafter. Attu was out of range until Adak was occupied on 30 August 1942, and Amchitka was occupied on 12 January 1943, putting Attu only 80 miles away. The first aerial bombardment of Attu happened in November 1942. RCAF aircraft moved to Anchorage from British Columbia in June 1942, and in the only air combat with the Japanese recorded a kill of a Japanese Zero. Weather turned out to be more dangerous than the Japanese, though anti-aircraft fire remained a hazard. U.S. Navy submarines and cruisers also plied their trade in the waters around the occupied islands.
Strategically, the Japanese posed little hazard to anyone, but worried civilians in Alaska and British Columbia prompted early calls for an expeditionary force to remove the Japanese garrisons. The early occupation of Adak was done in response to these early calls. In December 1942, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff authorized the occupation of Amchitka and ordered the commander of U.S. forces in the western U.S.A. (including Alaska) to prepare a force to attack Kiska. The Americans intended to promote such an operation at the Casablanca conference, but General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, feared the British would misunderstand it as a diversion of forces to a secondary theatre, in violation of the "Germany first" program previously agreed to. In January 1943, the American Joint Chiefs thus advocated that Allied policy be that the Allies "make the Aleutians as secure as may be", a vague statement that was adopted at Casablanca.7
The Kiska operation was postponed, but an attack on Attu, which had a weaker garrison, went ahead, as it would not require diversion of as many resources from other theatres. Approval from the Joint Chiefs of Staff came in March 1943, and the U.S. Army's 7th Division landed on 11 May 1943. The Japanese fought according to their unique code, refusing to surrender. The battle lasted until a final Banzai charge on 29 May, and some additional mopping up, after which the U.S. commander counted 2,350 Japanese soldiers killed and only 24 survivors of the garrison taken prisoner.
Major W.S. Murdoch accompanied Foster, but rather than be made Brigade Major, the typical Canadian staff appointment, he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and made Chief of Staff to fit into the U.S. staff system, as the brigade headquarters was also being organized along American lines.
Two battalion combat teams trained at Nanaimo and the third at Courtenay, the major units concentrating by 14 June. The syllabus included hardening, weapon and tactical training, amphibious training with assault craft, organization of beaches and the loading and unloading of vehicles. Canadian weapons were used but much American equipment, unfamiliar to the troops, was also to be used, including the replacement of 3-inch mortars by 81mm mortars, and some 25-pounder field guns with 75mm pack howitzers, which were more portable, a necessity in the rough terrain of the Aleutians. The .30 calibre carbine was also issued as a personal weapon to officers, and U.S. clothing and web equipment was issued for wear over top of Canadian battledress. U.S. sleeping bags were also issued and there remained the administrative task of weeding out soldiers without four months training, or meeting physical fitness standards, made more difficult when the date of the operation was moved up.
The invasion of Kiska got off to an inauspicious start:
The 13th Infantry Brigade Group sailed on 12 July from Nanaimo and Chemainus in four U.S. transports, with a strength of 4,831 all ranks. There were 165 men absent without leave at the time of sailing, a fact that Pacific Command attributed to the high turnover rate of personnel, about 33% in the space of a month. The Army's official historian noted that Le Régiment de Hull, which had less turnover than the other units, also had only 6 absences while other battalions had larger AWL numbers.12
Brigadier Foster's legal status within the Canadian and American chain of command was clarified by an official letter of appointment, and he was granted powers of command (but not discipline and/or punishment) over American troops in his brigade, and the same powers extended to American commanders with Canadian troops under them.
Another Canadian force was also on its way to the northern Pacific by the time the 13th Brigade sailed. The First Special Service Force had been briefly discussed at the Trident conference as being in need of combat experience, and a remark was made that it had been a pity it was not available for employment at Attu, but perhaps might be used in another operation in the area. The prospect of deployment to Kiska proved amenable to both Americans and Canadians, and both the U.S. War Committee and Canadian Cabinet so approved the move.13
On 26 June the Force departed Fort Ethan Allan in Vermont, expecting to head to Europe via Boston to fight the Germans, and instead were surprised to find themselves heading west via Albany. They disembarked in San Francisco and were briefed that although just over 30 Japanese surrendered out of a force of 2,300 on Attu, the goal of their next mission would be to take as many prisoners as possible. They embarked at San Francisco with 169 officers, 8 warrant officers and 2,283 enlisted men, including 42 Canadian officers and 552 Canadian other ranks, a U.S.-Canadian ration of about 60:40. The Force arrived at Adak, but disembarked instead at Amchitka, as the main body of "Amphibian Training Force 9", including the 13th Canadian Brigade Group, was using Adak for training.14
The 13th Brigade had disembarked on 21 July, and its training was done, with the rest of the Training Force, under the direction of Major-General Holland M. "Howling Mad" Smith of the U.S. Marine Corps. The climax of the training was a landing exercise on Great Sitkin Island during the first week of August 1943.15
General Pearkes, commanded of Pacific Command, established an Advanced Headquarters on 8 Auguest at Adak in order to observe the invasion. D-Day was scheduled for 15 August. A conference on 30 July was held and though Brigadier Foster was not present, he recommended a delay until 24 August to allow for further training. Admiral Nimitz, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, refused the request. On 13 August, 5,300 Canadians (including the Canadian component of the 1st Special Service Force, known administratively as the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion), sailed from Adak for Kiska, part of a force of 34, 426 soldiers.17
The plan for the assault included heavy fire support, and air and sea forces began their work on 22 July, with another heavy bombardment on 2 August and lesser fire missions on other dates. For the invasion itself, three battleships, two cruisers and 19 destroyers had been assembled. The plan called for a bombardment and feint landing on the south and east side of the island, where the bulk of the Japanese installations were, while the actual landings occurred on the north and west side of the island. The first troops ashore were to be the First Special Service Force in both areas. On D-Day, 15 August, they would precede the American troops landing in the south. On D+1, the 13th Canadian Brigade was scheduled to follow troops of the FSSF, landing on the right hand sector, with U.S. troops on the left.
In the event, the Japanese had already vacated the island by 15 August, unbeknownst to the Allies. Friendly fire was exchanged in a few cases, through the fog, and a Canadian was wounded by machine-gun fire on 16 August. A Canadian officer was killed by a mine on 17 August, and three further deaths would occur due to Japanese booby-traps or ammunition accidents.
The naval blockade, previously effective, had failed not only to prevent the evacuation of the island, but to alert the Allies that a major operation was unnecessary. While aerial sorties over the islands in the days preceding the attack had reported an absence of anti-aircraft fire, it was interpreted as a sign of enemy deceit, and soldiers in the invasion force were warned that the Japanese had likely taken to the hinterland of the island, and to expect a long and hard fight for the island.19 Casualties were estimated as high as 30 percent of the attacking force.20