Canada 150: Seaforths commander Bert Hoffmeister rode in tank named Vancouver
STEPHEN HUME, VANCOUVER SUN 03.15.2017
To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.
This former Seaforth Highlanders cadet was perhaps the best combat commander Canada ever produced. Bert Hoffmeister’s men told an apocryphal story that Hoffmeister’s batman was recommended for a Victoria Cross just for following him around the battlefield.
He commanded from the front in a Sherman tank named “Vancouver” and drove the elite Nazi paratroop regiments from the Italian city of Ortona. It was brutal show-no-quarter street fighting at close quarters. He broke the Adolf Hitler Line. Then broke the Gothic Line, forcing large-scale German retreats. Later, his 5th Canadian Armoured Division led a breakout from the besieged Arnhem bridgehead to cut off a whole German army. When his advance headquarters came under attack, his staff calmly killed 48 of the advancing enemy and took more than 100 prisoners despite heavy small arms and mortar fire.
Born in Vancouver on May 15, 1907, to Louis and Flora Hoffmeister, he joined the Seaforth Highlanders as a cadet at 12, later joined the militia, and worked at a forestry company between the wars. In 1939, he was assigned a company of the Seaforths with a reputation for sloppiness. He made it a crack unit.
Some analysts say he developed a new approach to battle — exploiting the fluidity of modern warfare by avoiding fixed positions. Former Vancouver city councillor Harry Rankin, who fought up the Italian peninsula, once told the CBC that when German tanks were deployed, Canadians rapidly retreated, then flooded back in to occupy territory when the tanks moved on.
“Hoffmeister had a real talent for war,” historian J.L. Granatstein wrote. “He would always make sure he knew thoroughly in what conditions his men were to live and fight. Intelligent and a good listener, a trusted leader, he was attuned to his officer’s ideas and led through consensus rather than sheer authority. His men were proud to be part of ‘Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine,’ as his elite division was known on account of the colour of its arm patches.”
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Order of the British Empire and Order of Canada. On his return to civilian life, he became president of MacMillan-Bloedel. Later, he chaired the iconic forest company’s board. He was B.C.’s agent general in London, chaired the Council of Forest Industries, and late in life turned from cutting trees to saving them as founding chair of the Nature Trust of B.C.