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Greg MacKenzie, of the Naval Museum of Alberta Society that made the donation, said the ‘pink lists’ have major significance. (CHRIS BOLIN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Greg MacKenzie, of the Naval Museum of Alberta Society that made the donation, said the ‘pink lists’ have major significance. (CHRIS BOLIN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

ARCHIVES

Naval records a maritime treasure trove on the Prairies Add to ...

A naval buff’s paradise is emerging thousands of kilometres from the sea.

The University of Calgary is now home to a vast collection of formerly top-secret records that track the movements of every Commonwealth cruiser, destroyer, fleet carrier, minesweeper, mine layer, submarine and tug boat in the Atlantic during the Second World War.

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It’s part of a donation, announced Thursday, that also includes 65,000 photographs of Allied and enemy ships and 5,000 books and records that catalogue maritime history from the 1800s to the early 21st century. The university says it now boasts a military archive that rivals even the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

“We have built what is really comparable as far as a research collection to any in Canada and any in the world,” said Tom Hickerson, a former archivist who is the university’s vice-provost of libraries and cultural resources.

While the donation comes from the the Naval Museum of Alberta Society, the real credit for the material goes to a pair of nautical enthusiasts: John Burgess, a now deceased Calgary oilman who never served in the navy but had a fascination with warships, and Ken Macpherson, a former seaman who is 87 and retired in Port Hope, Ont.

Mr. Burgess, who travelled to Britain to secure a boatload of top-secret records, or “pink lists,” and Mr. Macpherson, who was based in Newfoundland and Labrador with the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War as a telegraphist covertly tracking and listening in on wireless transmissions of U-boats, collaborated on a book – The Ships of Canada’s Naval Forces, 1910-1981: A complete Pictorial History of Canadian Warships – which is also part of the collection.

For decades, Mr. Macpherson badgered people who had served in the navy for their photos and negatives; he had taken few of his own.

“We weren’t supposed to use cameras,” he said, adding that before making the massive donation he kept everything in a shed that he built next to his house.

Scholars and the public can now view the entire collection at the Military Museum in Calgary, where the university has a wing, but for military folks on hand for the announcement, the convoy pink lists are the jewel in the collection.

“This has national and international significance,” said retired commander Greg McKenzie, who made the donation on behalf of the Naval Museum of Alberta Society. “Those top-secret papers, other than in admiralty in England, we don’t think they exist anywhere else. Those are remarkable documents.”

The existence of an extensive maritime archive on the Prairies can be traced back to Ottawa’s 1923 decree that naval reserves be established outside port cities, but also because a 1981 fire that wiped out the collection housed at HMCS Tecumseh, a unit of the Canadian Naval Reserve based in Calgary, prompted a flood of new donations.

Commodore David Craig, Commander Naval Reserve, said some of this country’s most legendary sailors come from Prairie bases, and pointed to HMCS Tecumseh’s Robert Hampton Gray, who earned a coveted Victoria Cross.

“I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the rolling wheat fields, but it reminds them of the sea,” he said. “We’ve got some pretty famous Prairie sailors. It is kind of appropriate to have this collection here.”

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