Major General Bertram (Bert) Meryl Hoffmeister, OC, CB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars, ED, Canadian Army officer, businessman (born 15 May 1907 in Vancouver, BC; died 4 December 1999 in Vancouver, BC). During the Second World War, Hoffmeister commanded the Seaforth Highlanders in Sicily, the 2nd Infantry Brigade at Ortona (1943) and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, which distinguished itself under his courageous leadership in Italy and later in North-West Europe. Military historian Jack Granatstein has referred to Major General Hoffmeister as one of “the best Canadian fighting generals of the [Second world] war.”When the war ended, Hoffmeister resumed his career in the BC forest industry and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982.
Early Military Career
In 1919, at the age of 12, Hoffmeister joined the Vancouver-based Seaforth Highlanders Cadet Corps, which was affiliated with the infantry regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. (See 39 Canadian Brigade Group.) Throughout his later illustrious military and civilian career, the Seaforths would become Hoffmeister’s military home.
By 1927, Hoffmeister had enlisted in the Non-Permanent Active Militia. When the Second World War began in September 1939, and by the time he had arrived in England in December, he had risen to the rank of major and commanding officer of a company in the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, Canadian Active Service Force, 1st Canadian Infantry Division.
The Italian Campaign
The Seaforth’s “baptism of fire” began in the Operation HUSKY landings on the Pachino beaches of Sicily in July 1943, fighting with other Allied forces that began the Italian Campaign. Sicily was fought from 10 July to 6 August 1943, and then, after crossing the Strait of Messina, continued up the Italian peninsula, from 3 September 1943 to 2 May 1945. For his leadership as an officer in combat, Hoffmeister received his first medal, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
By October 1943, he was appointed acting brigadier in command of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, consisting of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, as well as “C” Squadron Calgary Tank Regiment; the 90th Anti-Tank Battery, “B” Squadron Princess Louise’s Dragoon Guards; and the 165th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. (See Infantry and Regiment.) Soon after, they were assigned to capture a small medieval town on the Adriatic called Ortona.
The Battle of Ortona entailed merciless street fighting that would last over eight days, turning the town into rubble. It was finally taken on 28 December with a cost of more than 2,605 Canadian casualties, including 502 killed. Over 1,314 civilians had also lost their lives.
By 23 May 1944, Hoffmeister and his men were victorious in breaking through the Hitler Line in the Lili Valley and by late August were able to defeat the German Army at the Gothic Line which up until then had blocked the Allies’ access to northern Italy.
By the end of the Italian Campaign, 92,757 Canadians had served in Italy. There had been 26,254 Canadian casualties in the fighting, including more than 5,300 all ranks who were killed.
Promotion and Leadership
During the Italian Campaign, in March 1944, Hoffmeister was promoted to acting Major General and commander of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, consisting of the 11th Infantry Brigade. By the following July, the 12th Infantry Brigade was also formed as an additional unit to the Division.
In preparing for various battles, Hoffmeister’s style of leadership was to spend a great deal of time getting to know his men, visiting units, and speaking with officers, NCOs and soldiers. As one commanding officer remembered, “He knew what was going on, he didn’t sit back somewhere and wait for news to come.” He was soon nicknamed “Hoffy” by his men.
During one training exercise, Hoffmeister undertook to personally lead his men behind a live-fire creeping barrage on exercise while other commanders watched. This had further stirred the men’s confidence in his leadership, and especially his reputation for valuing the perspective of the front line soldiers, to the point of relieving commanders the men did not have confidence in. This provided the soldiers of all ranks and arms with a strong identity in their division, such that during another 5th Canadian Armoured Division all-arms exercise called TALLYHO, in April 1944, the soldiers coined the term “Mighty Maroon Machine.” Mighty reflected their confidence in their division’s leadership,maroon was the colour of the division’s square shoulder patch, andmachine was a metaphor related to the power of armed men on the move with their division’s Sherman tanks. The term is still applied today with the square shoulder patch worn by the men and women of the 5th Canadian Division based in Atlantic Canada, headquartered at CFB Halifax. (See Canadian Forces Bases.)
Liberation of the Netherlands
By February 1945, Hoffmeister’s division of 20,000 troops, 450 tanks, 5,600 wheeled vehicles and 320 carriers had sailed from the port of Leghorn, Italy to Marseilles, France and made their way north to join the First Canadian Army in the liberation of the western Netherlands, including the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterham and The Hague, as well as the liberation of Arnhem and Apeldoorn.
By early September 1944, Canadian and Allied forces had already defeated the Germans allowing for the liberation of southern parts of the Netherlands and providing Allied ships access to the vital port of Antwerp, Belgium. By the close of the war in May 1945, the First Canadian Army had liberated all of the Netherlands and provided food and medical aid to the starving population. (See Liberation of the Netherlands.)
Did You Know?
In addition to the various medals and honours bestowed on Hoffmeister by the Canadian and British governments, he also received the Legion of Merit (US), the Order of Orange Nassau (Netherlands) and the Military Order of Italy.
Return to Canada
With the war over in early May, Hoffmeister returned to Vancouver with the victorious Seaforths. Over 100,000 peopled had turned out to welcome them home. They had collected a total of 25 battle honours during the war. At that time, Hoffmeister had been appointed general officer to command the 6th Division, the Canadian Army’s Pacific Forces, and he prepared to leave for service in the invasion of Japan. However, with Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the war came to an end. Hoffmeister later retired from active service in September 1945 and became a reserve officer.
In civilian life, Hoffmeister entered the corporate world in British Columbia’s forest industry. He eventually was president of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. In 1951 and its chairman in 1956. He later was then BC’s agent general in London, from 1958–61. For 20 years (1971–91) he was also the founding chairman of the Nature Trust of British Columbia, and had been made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1982. He died in Vancouver on 4 December 1999.