The Canadian Provost Corps
1939 - 1946

The Provost Pointsman

PAC Photo by Lt.M.M.Dean
Frosty The Provost.... LCpl Bill Cooksey directing traffic near Nijmegen, Netherlands, 9 January 1945.

The most important tasking for Military Police in an operational theatre is traffic control. Commanders rely on the Provost to keep the traffic moving smoothly and of course, in the right direction.

Provost on traffic control or "point duty" as it was called, were known as "pointsmen". They were well briefed on their duties and responsibilities. Often, they were dropped off at strategic locations along a route and carried out their duty alone and under very difficult conditions. A primary location for Provost pointsmen was at a crossroads or intersection. There he could direct traffic, and give information to both convoys and individual vehicles. Unfortunately crossroads were almost always prime aiming points for enemy artillery, and it was not unusual for Provost pointsmen to have to carry out their duty under day and night artillery or mortar fire.

Major General Chris Vokes CB CBE DSO CD commanded 1st Canadian Infantry Division during the Italian Campaign. He had this to say about the Provost Traffic Control pointsmen in No. 1 Provost Company.

"Obviously it was essential to keep our traffic on the roads moving as rapidly as possible. That way we could advance as rapidly as possible. That way we could keep pressure on a retreating enemy so he could not regain his balance and fight. That way he would be forced to retreat even further. Our war had come down, for the moment, to getting maximum use of vehicles and roads. The roads were often in poor shape. They were holed from mines that had been exploded. They were sometimes washed out from sudden rain. They were diverted along new paths when bridges were blown.

Near Foggia, the Germans had blown all the road bridges, over the rivers so diversions were constantly built - bulldozed through the river beds. Most diversions were single-lane. This meant that traffic had to alternate: that vehicles had to take turns moving north and south. The alternation was accomplished by having barriers at both ends of the diversion and radio-equipped Provost corpsmen acting as traffic cops. My orders at this time were that traffic control would be absolutely tight, that my Provost corpsmen of however humble rank would demand absolute obedience from commanders of convoys of vehicles whatever their rank and, most important: that nobody and nothing would stop for any cause in a one-lane diversion. Lt. Col. Leonard Hanson Nicholson was my Provost commander. He would rise in peacetime to be commissioner and to command the whole of our Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This day a unit of the 8th British Air Force was on its way through the diversion. The unit was headed for the airfield near Foggia, which we had captured. The field was extensive and would be a useful addition to our side when occupied. Time came for morning tea. The dry war in the desert led to the adoption of what were called tea breaks. The war had to be fought rather seriously before a tea break would be missed. And so, mostly, extraneous ground action always came to a halt while the tea was being consumed. This unit of the 8th British Air Force halted in the diversion. I had to later piece together what followed.

The provost corpsman at the Foggia end eventually pressed his radio switch and called his cohort."Nothing's coming through!" "Has to be." "No. Nothing." "I sent some limey fliers along. You don.'t see 'em?" "Nope" "Well, hell! They're in there!" "I'll go find out what's wrong."

He found out. Every last man was halted for a tea break. Men, vehicles and equipment clogged the diversion, motionless. He sought out the senior officer. The senior officer proved to be a wing commander equivalent now to a lieutenant colonel. My provost was a lance-corporal, eleven ranks below. "Sir?" My provost corporal got the British officer's attention. "My good man?" "What are you doing stopped in this diversion, sir?" "Can't you see?" "I see you're having a tea break." "Clever of you." "Sir? You can't stop in this diversion. Orders." "Well, I'm stopped. Halted in fact." "My orders, sir, are that nobody and nothing halts in this diversion." "Can't be helped, my man. Nothing to be done until after the tea interval." "Sir, this is a Canadian-controlled road diversion. Our rule is no halting." "Lance-corporal, I am halted. My men and vehicles are halted. We are having a brew up. When over, we shall proceed. Now be a good chap. F**k off ... Now what are you doing that for?" My corporal was undoing his sidearm holster and drawing out his pistol. He proceeded to point it at the wing commander's belly. "Sir," he began politely enough, the British report admitted in due course, "kindly put down your f**king tea mug." My corpsman knew the lubricating word, too, and was skilled in its employment. "And get into your f**king truck, with your whole f**king lot and get a f**king move on, or I will see to it here and f**king now that you will be CARRIED out of this f**king diversion, feet-f**king first."

The Brit winco got pretty wrathy, I gathered later from reading between the lines. But he moved. And smartly. Shortly thereafter I got a nasty postcard from him complaining in great detail about his ill-treatment. I tore it up, MY corporal was in the right. I was pleased to see that he did not put up with such British bulls**t. And I do not recall that any of my RCMP Provost corpsmen ever did. What's more, they were all first-rate soldiers. Absolutely great."

Reprinted from Vokes - My Story Gallery Books, Ottawa 1985

A typical Provost pointsman in Italy, 1944. He is wearing the Khaki Drill uniform with standard white web equipment. Provost insignia is worn on armlets on both arms and the MP brassard is worn above the right elbow. The white "sleeves, traffic control" appear to be locally acquired.

A common scene amid the rubble of a town in North West Europe. A Provost pointsman directing traffic at the remains of an intersection. The visibility afforded by the white web and traffic control sleeves is very apparant in this picture.

Again, amid the devestation in North West Europe 1945. The Provost in the jeep on the left are a mobile information post, able to direct units to their areas.

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