Major-General Herbert C Pitts, MC, CD ( 14 June 1929 -27 September 2018 )
MGen Pitts was born in 1929 and raised in Nelson, BC. For much of his youth (ages 10-15) Herb’s father was deployed during the Second World War. While Herb’s Father returned safely in 1945, the experience gave Herb perspective and helped him develop into a man who never shrunk from a challenge.
Growing up, Herb was a self-described “community leader kid”, actively involved in many groups in his home town who went on to excel in athletics and academics. As a result of his performance, he was one of the 180 of the 900 applicants selected to go to what was then called the Canadian Services College in 1948. Four years later he was one of the 72 who remained. As a young cadet, he was recognized as a leader and was awarded the Harris Bigelow Trophy (graduate with the best combination of athletic and academic ability) and the Victor Vander Smissen-Ridout Memorial Award (voted on by fellow cadets as the best all around).
Although he had originally gone to military college as an inexpensive way to get his degree, he soon found the life suited him and a month after graduation in June of 1952, he was on his way to Korea.
Herb Pitts was originally commissioned as an Armoured Officer in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). However, when he checked in to 25th Canadian Infantry Brigade HQ in Korea he was informed that there was a shortage of infantry officers and he would be going to the Patricia’s. While there was an opportunity to rotate back to an armoured squadron, in his words he “saw the light” and was happy to trade his black beret for a maroon one joining the Third Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI).
His arrival coincided with the 25th Brigade being in First Commonwealth Division reserve, which gave him an opportunity to acclimatize and learn his role. Commencing in early August 1952 and ending in July of 1953, his unit was deployed along a key feature of the Korean peninsula known as “The Hook”, the sight of 3 major battles each of which saw the Chinese attack and withdraw but only after taking casualties in the thousands. When 3 PPCLI was relieved by 1 PPCLI, MGen Pitts stayed on. While the job was to “Hold the line”, it was as Pitts later described it, very much a subaltern’s war:
“Young officers starting out on Army careers could hardly have been given a better introduction to the Service…there was, at times, a great deal of emphasis on officer-led patrols and patrolling generally, on the building, repair and maintenance of defence works, on Sapper jobs of all sorts, on gunner support, on communications to dispersed elements and, finally, on man management. All of us came away from the tour with the feeling that something unique had been done – by us for us.”
One such task was to lead night patrols to set up obstacles. A young Lieutenant Pitts volunteered to lead a ‘special wiring party’ that was tasked with setting up wire less than 100 yards from the enemy positions. Instructed by Combat Engineers, he and his group of volunteers practiced laying wire silently and quickly until they could lay 100m of concertina wire in 10 minutes in the dark. On three successive nights, his patrol went into no-man’s land to lay obstacles in the face of the enemy. On the first night, one of Pitt’s soldiers set off a bounding mine killing Cpl Mullin and Pte Batsch. While that could have been the end of the mission, Pitts calm leadership saw the successful completion of the task on that and two subsequent nights. His leadership would also earn him the Military Cross for gallantry. From the beginning, MGen Pitt’s philosophy was to lead from the front or as he describes it, “If I sent them somewhere, I told them I would be with them all the way.”
Upon return to Canada, he served with the First Battalion, QOR of C where he served for 3 years including Suez in 1956 before moving on to staff duties with the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group then deployed in West Germany.
After being promoted to Major in 1962, he served for 2 years as a Company Commander in 2nd Battalion QOR of C and after another posting as a staff officer with the 4th Brigade he returned to the regiment in 1967 to command the First Battalion, QOR of C then out of Victoria, B.C.
As a CO, the then LCol Pitts was not without a sense of humour and enjoyed a practical joke or two. On one occasion, Pitts led an international exercise in Suffield, Alberta which was attended by allies from Britain, Australia and the U.S. As MGen Holmes writes:
“I remember arriving in the field Officers’ Mess for a pre exercise reception with all the players. The foreign nationals had yet to meet the CO. As the evening progressed the steward behind the bar, (at that time serving soldiers worked the bars in all the Messes), became more aggressive towards the guests. Some guests were becoming quite uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do under the circumstances. Then came the time for the CO to provide his greetings and opening remarks to those assembled. To the surprise of all the guests, Herb stepped out from behind the bar to address the gathering. He spoke as if he hadn’t missed a beat, he did have a sense of humour, although it may not have been appreciated by some of the guests that evening.”
Apparently he didn’t offend too many people as he was clearly being groomed for more senior roles and was assigned from 1969 to 1971 as an Exchange Instructor with the United States Army Command and Staff College. Following that posting he attended the National Defence College in Kingston until his promotion to Colonel in 1971.
With that promotion came the command of the Airborne Regiment. At that time the CAR was organized into two infantry commandos, an artillery battery, an engineer field squadron, a signal squadron, and a service company, all manned entirely by volunteers who were active paratroopers. During his time as Regimental Commander, Pitts would play a critical role in developing the CAF’s airborne and deployable capabilities.
After his time commanding the CAR, a then Brigadier-General Pitts served as Director General of Land Operations from 1973 to 1975 at NDHQ. He was promoted to Major General in 1976, retiring 2 years later in 1978 after 30 years of active service.
Retirement is a tough word to use when describing MGen Pitts’ life after he left the regular force. It certainly did not affect his sense of dedication. He stayed close to each of ‘his regiments’ serving as the Colonel of the Regiment for the PPCLI, the CAR and later serving as the Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the QOR of C from 1994 to 2000. In addition, he served as Patron for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and continued to advocate for the airborne community for another 30 years.
Pitts would also volunteer with Scouts Canada becoming its President, International and National Commissioner. Luckily for the International Scouts, Pitts accompanied the Canadian contingent in 1991 to the World Scout Jamboree in South Korea. When he arrived he discovered the Scouts had failed to plan for sufficient bathroom facilities for all 20,000 Scouts from 135 countries. While the international scouting leadership contemplated the issue, a retired MGen Pitts called up one of his old friends from the US Army Staff College who headed up the US Korean Command. Sufficient portable toilets were airlifted in that day.
During a visit to a hospital to see a member of the contingent who had twisted an ankle, Pitts encountered a Korean toddler who had both legs amputated after a car accident. Pitts was so moved after seeing the little girl he set up a fund through Scouts Canada to pay for her surgeries and prosthetic’s in Canada as she grew. That girl entered university at the age of 15 and graduated summa cum laude, crediting Scouts Canada with giving her opportunity.
MGen Pitts passed away on the 27 Sept 2018 and is survived by his beloved wife Marianne of 63 years, his brother Bob as well as his daughter Susan, sons Gerry and David and two grandchildren Sara and Mike. In all, he spent more than 44 years in uniform serving in both regular and honorary roles.
During his memorial service, what became clear was that he always approached a problem from the angle of how to help his subordinates succeed. He was modest to a fault and for those who worked with MGen Pitts, it was never about him but always about how he could help others succeed.
Without leaders like MGen Pitts it is unlikely the opportunity for the para task would have come to the Regiment. From that grew numerous other opportunities and the ability to recruit the right kind of people. It’s now up to the rest of us to make the most of it.
MWO Johnston, J.L., CD