The Current

How author Farley Mowat smuggled a V2 rocket into Canada

Retired major Harold Skaarup explains how author Farley Mowat smuggled a V2 rocket into Canada after the Second World War.

Mowat served as a Canadian intelligence officer following WWII

An Allied test of a German V2 rocket after World War II. (Imperial War Museum)

Read story transcript

A former Canadian intelligence officer believes author Farley Mowat carried out one of the most brazen acts by Canadian intelligence shortly following the Second World War.

Mowat, who's novels include Owls in the Family and Never Cry Wolf — was an officer with the Canadian military during WWII, then served with military intelligence after the war.

Major Harold Skaarup is a 40-year veteran of the Canadian Forces where he served as an intelligence officer. Since retiring in 2011, he has written numerous books on military history.

Skaarup tells The Current's Matt Galloway of Mowat's post-war escapades after being tasked with retrieving items of intelligence value from Europe.

Here is part of their conversation: 

Tell me about Captain Farley Moat's work with Canadian intelligence. When the Second World War ended … what was he doing?

He'd been serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment as an infantry officer and was seconded to the Department of the Director of History and Heritage in Ottawa — technically, the intelligence people. He was given a very straightforward task with the war over in Germany: go over and find anything and everything of intelligence value that you think would be useful to the Canadian government and the forces and get it back to us. 

He set out … with a vengeance and he managed to get back seven hundred tons of captured material, tanks, guns, artillery, and most interestingly of all, the V2.

Farley Mowat was one of Canada's best-known authors and a noted environmentalist, but he also had a notable career in intelligence. (Fred Phipps/CBC Still Photo Collection)

How did Farley Mowat find a V2 rocket?

It's complicated, but to squeeze it down into bits and pieces — he'd been working with the Dutch resistance; they got word to him that there are a bunch of V2s located in central Germany. 

The British Army — 21st Army group in particular — came out and said no one else is to get these, a specific order. They did not want Canada to have this technology. [The order] hadn't actually gone to print yet, and Farley's CO got wind of this and he said, 'See if you can get us one.' 

He grabbed a young lieutenant, Mike Donovan, and Lieutenant Jim Hood, and he set out with a plan. They knew that there was a railway siding with about ten of these rockets on it, most of them being pretty shot up, but at least one was intact. 

He knew that the British probably wouldn't let him have it, but he came up with this plan. Mike Donovan, he takes a 30 litre demijohn of Coopers Gin, goes down with the Jeep and he intercepts the British soldiers guarding this trainload. And he manages to get them all singing and drinking, saying, "We know we're not going to get a rocket from you, but let's enjoy being comrades together." 

While he's doing that, Farley's lieutenant, Jim Hood, sneaks around in the dark to the tail end of the railway tracks finds an intact V2. They've got a tractor trailer with them that was used for towing a submarine. They break the chains and they roll this V2 rocket off the doggone railway siding car onto the trailer and then barrel it on back to Holland.

Harold Skaarup is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian military. (Submitted by Harold Skaarup)

Sounds like something out of a Steve McQueen film or something. 

Along the way, they're calling all the guard postings saying, "We've got unexploded ordnance, we want to get this to the ocean, get out of the way." And guards open the gates for them. 

So … now, there's a problem. It doesn't take long for the Brits to realize that of all these shot up V2s, the only one that's intact is suddenly missing. So the hunt is on. 

Farley sees the thing being wheeled into a hangar where he's based in Holland and he immediately gets down and he orders a bunch of crew to build a wooden conning tower and attach a gigantic propeller to this V2 rocket. And then they begin painting their brains out, slapping blue paint up and down and on the side of this thing there to make it look like a mini submarine.

 And then they drag it out in the woods and hide it while the Brits are looking for it. Eventually … they get it to Montreal and take a Valcartier, where they begin to take the thing apart. 

But in the process of all this, everything being done rather quickly, the most interesting, he tells me or told me, was when they're taking the V2 apart at Valcartier, they started drilling into the nose cone and this white powder fell out and everybody started screaming and jumping around in a circle saying, "Holy smokes, it's still alive!" They managed to get a hole, cut into it and use a hose to hose out the explosive.

What was the benefit of this V2 rocket coming back for the Canadian military?

Well, I do not know for certain, but I had spoken to people in Valcartier who said … it gave us a leg up in terms of rocket research and how to get these things going. 

There are other things that he brought back, like two Enigma machines that still exist in the Canadian War Museum. It took years of going through all of the material that they had brought back, not just the rockets, but all the documentation. 

The big thing lacking is we had to reverse-engineer [the rockets]; the Americans managed to get most of the engineers, the Brits [got] a handful, and the Russians grabbed a few.

But most of them … went on Operation Paperclip down to Alamogordo, New Mexico, and worked for the Americans. That gave them a leg up.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written by Lito Howse. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.