RCAF Station Holberg
The first influx of settlers to the Holberg area occurred around 1890s as immigrants began to pre-empt plots of land for agricultural purposes in Holberg and surrounding townships. The first pre-emptions in the Holberg district were staked by Danes in 1895. The site was named after Baron Ludwig Holberg, a figure from Danish literature. It was situated in section 5 of township 32. Four other townships to the Northwest were set aside for settlement as well. These sites would turn into the communities of Cape Scott, Sea Otter Cove and San Josef Bay.
The township of Holberg grew in population during the 1900s and peaked at roughly 1,000 by the time of the Great War. Many settlers left to enlist in 1914 and Holberg’s population plummeted. The town would not grow again until 1938, when large scale logging operations began in the Holberg area under the BC Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. out of Vancouver. Hemlock, spruce and balsam were harvested from company land surrounding Holberg Inlet and transported by boom to a large BC Pulp & Paper sulphite mill at Port Alice, on the southeast arm of Quatsino Sound. By 1948, over 250 men, women and children lived in the Holberg camp, which at the time was the largest floating town in the world. In 1950, BC Pulp & Paper Co merged with Alaska Pine to become Alaska Pine and Cellulose. It was changed to Rayonier Canada in 1962.
The northern portion of Vancouver Island has had an association with military radar for well over 75 years. The first radar unit was No. 10 Radio Detachment which was set up at Cape Scott in 1942 as part of the Radar Detection Finder units and operated until 1945. In the late 1940s, the cold war threat of air attack from the USSR prompted the federal government to invest in air defences. A vital part of this investment was the RCAF’s ‘Pinetree Line,’ and Holberg was to be the western end of this chain of 44 radar stations across Canada. These stations were a major part of Canada’s commitment to NORAD, the air defence of North America
RCAF Station Holberg: 1 January 1954 – 17 January 1991
The operations site at Holberg was perched atop the 2,000 foot Mount Brandes. An 8 km road had to be carved out of its side and then the top dynamited flat to situate the long range radar and height finder. The domestic area was located at the base of the 2,000 foot Mount Hansen; both located on the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, 53 kilometers from Port Hardy and six kilometers north of the head of Holberg Inlet.
In October 1950, construction began for the new radar site known as R-35. The site designation was later changed to C-18. The site was partially completed by 1 January 1954 and limited administrative duties began for the newly arrived RCAF personnel. When it first opened on 1 January 1954, RCAF Station Holberg was dubbed the western anchor of the Pinetree radar line. The station was declared operational on 25 April 1954 and was initially designated as No. 501 Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron, RCAF Station Holberg. No. 501 Squadron (call sign Consort) reported to 5 Air Division located in Vancouver. On 5 July 1954, the unit was designated simply as RCAF Station Holberg.
The name was again changed on 1 August 1956 when it became known as 53 Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron. The unit’s primary task was Early Warning (EW). Holberg was later assigned the duties of EW and Ground Control Intercept (GCI). On 30 September 1957, the squadron took over responsibility for RCAF Station Tofino interceptions which considerably increased their daily workload. The station’s role evolved to one of providing data to the SAGE system of the North American Air Defence Command. In 1958, 53 AC&W became 53 Radar Squadron. Holberg reported directly to the Seattle NORAD Sector of the 25th Air Division and in June 1963, Holberg was SAGE-capable. By 1968, the Seattle Sector covered all of British Columbia, Washington State, parts of Alberta, Idaho and Oregon.
As a result of unification in October 1967, RCAF Station Holberg became Canadian Forces Station Holberg. Holberg had been a BUIC site but terminated that phase of its operations on 31 December 1973. They did, however, remain as the back-up to 25 Division at McChord AFB in Washington State. McChord transferred the 25th Division to Malmstrom AFB, Montana on 21 August 1981 as part of the Regional Operations Control Centre (ROCC) concept. Holberg began to transmit radar data to the Canada West ROCC at North Bay on 18 June 1983.
Holberg was unique within all of Air Defence Command since it had its own Marine Section due to its remote location on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. Up until the time of road completion to Port Hardy in 1965, the station was only accessible by amphibious aircraft, helicopter or Navy ship. Various small navy vessels plied the waters up and down Holberg Inlet, transferring supplies and passengers to this military outpost. In spite of this transportation handicap, the base managed to support a population of 850 people at its peak. Vessels in its section over the years included M.975 Nimpkish I, YFP314 Nimpkish II, and the last vessel TYD11, the Cape Scott III. The Cape Scott III departed Holberg for the last time in November 1981. When first formed, the Marine Section was fully manned by RCAF personnel. With Integration, the RCAF Marine Sections throughout the Air Force were disbanded or turned over to Naval personnel. As a result, CFS Holberg became the only station within the Air Defence community to have Naval personnel assigned.
When you ask someone what they remember most about their tour at Holberg, the automatic answer is the rain and the wind. Holberg was surrounded by the thick and rugged Quatsino Rain Forest, where the average annual rainfall is around 14 feet per year, accompanied by 120 mile per hour winds in the winter. But life was not dull in this isolated station. People reveled in the isolation, pursued hiking, fishing, beach combing, hobbies, and enjoyed a wide variety of amenities from messes to numerous recreation facilities and the amenities kept increasing. A Hudson`s Bay store opened in 1962, a radio station, CFHG, in 1963, the road to Port Hardy was opened shortly afterwards, a shiny new Canex Store in 1972, and cable TV arrived in 1981 replacing the “Borrowed Signal” which gave a fuzzy CBC and CTV signal. For amusement, there was also the ever popular Holberg Zoo (garbage dump) where one could watch the bears frolic. There were a number of local residents who visited the Station, Eugen Schy, Jim Cordy and Earl Lincoln for the occasional meal or room but they still maintained their tidy homesteads carved out of the surrounding bush. There were also a number of local long term residents who worked for the base in a civilian capacity. These included people like the Tidbury’s, Anderson’s, Chambers, Ray Lowe, Charlie Tomkins and Potato Kelly. These people were crucial to the base support system
Schooling presented challenges for the Station. Grades 1- 4 school children went to the one room school in Holberg, grade 5 and above attended the school on the base in two PMQ’s. San Josef Elementary and Junior Secondary School, opened in 1960. The new school was able to accommodate 150 students from grades 1-9. Holberg students in grades 10-12 left the Station Monday morning, stayed at North Island Dormitory and attended North Island Secondary School in Port McNeill, then returned home Friday,
The base remained an integral part of air defence throughout the cold war. Airmen and their families served an average of two years at the base. The station wound down over the 1980s until authorization for the closure of CFS Holberg was given in 1988. In August 1989, word came that the Domestic Site would be closed by 15 August 1990. The Military offered the remaining domestic facilities first to the Federal Government, then provincial and municipal governments and finally to the private sector but there were no takers so the demolition crew came in and the domestic site was returned to nature and finally disbanded on 17 January 1991. Today, overgrown roads are all that remain of the domestic portion of this military station. The Ops side of CFS Holberg was selected as one of the 4 Canadian Coastal Radar (CCR) sites and changed its long range radar to the Minimally Attended Solid State Radar and continues in that capacity to this day as part of the North Warning System
Dedication of RCAF Station Holberg Memorial Plaque
On Saturday 24 September 2016 at 15:45, 101 Squadron, members from 19 Wing Comox, 888 Wing and local residents gathered to dedicate a memorial to RCAF Station Holberg’s role in the defence of Canada. The memorial is located at the Ops Site entrance and consists of a RCAF HOLBERG cedar arch made from cedar logs supplied by Western Forests Products, a marble memorial plaque donated by retired RCAF member Bob Tucker and a large stainless steel plaque produced by 101 Squadron that outlines the history of the station. It is mounted on a large rock from Mt Brandes that was placed by RanPro. MC Russ Hellberg, from 101 Squadron, explained how important RCAF Station Holberg was to the local economy and culture. Local residents Bob Tucker, who was the last military member on the station, and John Tidbury, who was a young school boy growing up on the Station, shared some of their memories of the time they spent there.
The new Wing Commander from 19 Wing Comox, Colonel Mike Atkins, covered the 66 year history of the Station during the Cold War from construction starting in 1950 to what its modern role as a Canadian Coastal Radar (CCR) site looks like now and into the foreseeable future. He also thanked 101 Squadron for preserving the military history of the North Island. Then it was time to get out of the rain and enjoy a delicious seafood dinner prepared by Pat Gwynne, the owner of the Scarlet Ibis Pub. Then a return to our clubhouse, the Lyon’s Den, for a postmortem and an introduction for new guests to the “Three Titted Moose”.