A Lesson From History in East Timor

Camp Maple Leaf

In 1999, East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia. However, after a month of violence and destruction following the referendum, the United Nations authorized an interim Australian-led coalition to help stabilize the new nation. The UN intervened some six months later and Canada contributed some 600 Canadian servicemen over the 6-month duration of Operation TOUCAN.

Tasks for the Canadian ground forces included patrolling rural and urban areas, providing armed security, convoy escorts and supporting humanitarian aid organizations. The contingent included a 31-strong engineer troop comprising primarily combat engineers and heavy equipment operators from 5e Régiment du génie de combat. They cleared roads, provided potable water and conducted humanitarian operations.

East Timor is a tropical island subject to heavy monsoon rains, high humidity and high temperatures. Accommodation was required that would keep the soldiers dry, supplied with potable water and sanitary ablution facilities, and protected from insects. 1 Construction Engineering Unit (now 1 Engineer Support Regiment) had to quickly provide the accommodation with assistance from the 24-person Pacific Naval Construction Troop.

The site selected for the 28-building village, “Camp Maple Leaf” was an area that had contained an elementary school as well as barracks for the Indonesian army troops. All that remained of the school and the barracks, however, were charred, roofless ruins.

For the design solution the unit turned to history. During World War II the US Navy “Seabees” had developed a “Stilwell Hut” that had proven suitable for jungle conditions. It featured elevated floors, screening that allowed ventilation as well as insect protection, and a sheet metal roof. This concept was used as a model for a solution based on a steel framework with a minimum of wooden parts. Maximum use was made of materials available in Australia and this decision resulted in the camp being completed more quickly than originally estimated and at less than half the cost.

The camp had quarters, a food preparation area, a dining hall, offices, a medical examination room, and a vehicle maintenance bay. Electricity was provided by a 200-kilowatt diesel generator. Freshwater was produced by the Canadian water purification unit that drew water from a nearby river and it was stored in three 25,000-litre water storage tanks. Four separate septic fields were built for sanitation.

The Engineer contingent that accomplished this construction included a wide variety of skilled servicemen such as combat engineers, heavy equipment operators, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, surveyors and draftsmen. Technicians also dealt with the water, fuel, refrigeration and electrical generation systems to make the camp self-sufficient. The completed camp was the envy of the other elements of the multi-national force and was considered to be a “force multiplier” by the mission commander.