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Legion Magazine – September/October 2001 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – September/October 2001

There have been men and women by the thousands who once served in the Canadian forces and afterwards contributed greatly to the well-being of their fellow veterans and to their communities, particularly through The Royal Canadian Legion. Each of us will have a list of such good citizens in our minds, and we know it is belittling what so many have done to rank them and trumpet that a few deserve honour and remembrance above others.
Nevertheless, ever since Denis Whitaker, 86, left us last spring, my memory has turned involuntarily to wondering admiration at his long career from Royal Military College before WW II through to the publishing last year, in concert with his wife Shelagh, of their fourth substantial book about Canadians in battle at Dieppe, the Scheldt, the Rhine, and at Falaise.

As I got to know Denis as an author to be interviewed on television, he reminded me more and more of the late Fred Tilston VC. Not that the smallish, athletic, brisk Denis resembled Fred’s blocky stature and calm geniality. After several encounters with these two, ex-soldiers and high-flyers in business, I came to the opinion that each was fulfilling a self-chosen mission of both explanation and remembrance of achievement and sacrifice by Canadians in war. It’s true their archetype (though not their obsession) was the infantryman. Denis was severely wounded when with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry in Normandy and so was Fred with the Essex Scottish in the Rhineland. Postwar, both men distinguished themselves as public-spirited businessmen.

Each was both a lightning rod and an advisor on official veterans affairs. Denis was very active in top-flight equestrian affairs and Fred in charitable causes. I think each had a specific “bee” in his bonnet. With Fred it was the imperative of a temperate approach to unity in a country with two languages and cultures. With Denis it was a determination to convince Canadians, including those who had fought, that the collective war effort of just 12 million people more than matched that of other Allied nations.

This theme of Denis Whitaker’s comes bluntly in his prologue to Victory At Falaise, where he banners the rebuttal which historian Terry Copp makes so well in the book’s epilogue: “to all the nay-sayers of the past half-century, the revisionist historians who have belittled the achievements of the Allied soldiers by failing to analyse the battle in the light of actual conditions and circumstances …and many historians have focused on the ‘battle of the generals’; few have tried to portray the battle from the point of view of the fighting men.”

Denis was so acute of mind. When we did breakfast together last February at a hotel he was operating a powered wheelchair. In the first few minutes he moved from noticing my cane and limp to the question, “How long?” I said, “My doctor says about two years” and he said, “Order one of these” as he tapped his chair’s instrument panel. “You’ll need a heavy-duty one—special order! There are two funds for helping pay for it and several makes of high quality. Call me when I’m home and I’ll give you the bumph. This chair has extended my activities.”

My last view of Denis was as he pivoted his chair in a flash, scooted into a hotel elevator, pivoted to face me, and waved as he bumped the up button. He was gone with a swirl of a closing door, leaving behind a sense he had so much more to do. I thought of a good tag word, the name of a Royal Navy battleship of yore, HMS Indefatigable. So he was through a long life, indefatigable, and a leader all the way.

There is not enough linage at hand for me to give notes on all the books which have come in for review. Much of the bulge has been in personal memoirs of wartime days. These vary much in the quality of their writing, editing, layout, and printing.
The Patricias or the PPCLI, for so long a permanent force regiment, have surely been more written about than any other army unit, even the Van Doos or the Royal Canadian Dragoons. Now we have a new, concise history of the regiment by David J. Bercuson, one of our busiest and most prolific historians.

The Patricias, The Proud History Of A Fighting Regiment, has been published by Stoddart (Toronto) under the aegis of the PPCLI Heritage Committee. The hard-bound edition of 347 pages is beautifully done in terms of paper, illustrations, and layout. The skill of the author is most apparent in the steady pace of the narrative and the smooth transitions.

The story begins with the launch of the regiment in the Great War by its founding officer, Andrew Hamilton Gault (1882-1958), through such battles as Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Mons, to the return home. Then came the crimped permanent force years before 1939, then several years in the UK before taking part in the invasion of Sicily and the hard battles up the Italian boot to the Po Valley, then the switch to the Northwestern Europe front and the final months of the war with the Germans. After a brief peacetime respite, the regiment served in the Korean War, and subsequently in so many North Atlantic Treaty Organization and United Nations assignments through five decades. Bercuson has the skill to weave a succinct but intelligible background of defence policy and programs for this lengthy diversity.

As I was enjoying this regimental history a letter arrived from another of the PPCLI historians, Sydney Frost, not only a durable company officer through the Italian and NW Europe campaigns but the author of a most competent account of the regiment in action in Once A Patricia (1988). A decade ago Mr. Frost played a part in the planning, erection and unveiling in 1991 of a monument to the First Canadian Division near the landing beaches of 1943 in Sicily. Last year he was also part of an initiative led by Italians in the Sicilian communities of Pachino and Ispica for a new monument memorializing both the Italian and the Canadian soldiers of 1943. It was unveiled on Dec. 8, 2000, before a large gathering, including many mayors, senators, and military representatives. A tribute in Italian, prepared by Sydney Frost, was read at the unveiling.

As he notes: “None of this story has appeared anywhere in the Canadian Press, yet it seems to me this was an historic event and possibly unique. An Italian community, our enemies in WW II, honouring Canadian soldiers who invaded their country by erecting a monument in their memory. And now we have a monument to the Italian fallen erected on behalf of Canada. Sic transit gloria!”

There have been a modicum of books about women in the Canadian military or auxiliary services during wars and about war brides but nothing I have seen quite like Women Of The War Years, subtitled Stories of Determination and Courage, published last year by Orpha Galloway, Box 20, Gladstone, Man., R0J 0T0. This is a large format book with scores of pictures and some 313 short accounts on 318 pages, most done by the women in question: war brides, nurses, Wrens, CWACs, and RCAF (WD)s. The grand project was supported by donations from the public and by four ladies auxiliaries to Royal Canadian Legion Branches, and the Legion branches in both Gladstone and Neepawa. As Flora MacDonald, one of my favourite ex-politicians, writes in a foreword: “These are stories of women whose lives give a new meaning to the word ‘contribution’. What was it like for those women to have seen husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons go off to war knowing that those who were left behind would have to shoulder new and uncertain responsibilities on the home front.”

The lasting impression from these memories is of so much hard work, a lot of it repetitious drudgery, which so many women, supported by comradeship, did with so little glory and such poor pay.

Another unusual book, also in large format, came to me from a former British soldier, Thomas Bates, now to be found at Box 5023, Berkeley, Calif. 94705-0023, U.S.A. He is joint author with Jean Brisset of Coligny, Normandy, and Eric Lummis, an English D-Day veteran who died two years ago. The title of this book of 201 pages, well-endowed with photos, maps, and sketches, and presented in both French and English is Normandy: The Search For Sidney. Sidney refers to Corporal Sidney Bates VC, an infantryman in the Royal Norfolk Regiment, who landed in Normandy on D-Day and was killed early in August in a set-to which brought him the honour. The authors search for details on Sidney’s days in Normandy unfolds like a detective story, but there are other elements in the book, among them: (a) a vivid section on the reaction of the French citizens during the fighting and after the war, including a stirring reminiscence by a girl of the time on her experiences with the liberators and what she and her village have done to commemorate the freedom they brought; (b) a taut account of what the 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, encountered on D-Day, in taking a vital German strongpoint (the Hillman redoubt) at a high price.

Another rather strange book—at least for note here—came from publisher McClelland & Stewart in paperback form. There It Is: A Canadian In The Vietnam War, is by Les D. Brown. Brown’s recall of his infantry days in Vietnam is preceded by a long introduction from Peter Kent, the familiar TV news anchor, who covered part of the war as a reporter. This is not a wise-after-the-event tale. The author has few pretences. His plain, very American conversational style suits the slap-dash, almost impromptu, character of the war as fought, not so much along any front or a defined sharp edge as from “fire bases” in the bush from which patrols issued which might encounter nothing or unseen enemies who suddenly killed and wounded and faded away. The Canadianism of the author is not much in evidence and this is not surprising, given that most of his growing-up years were in the States.

At first blush the paperback of 1997 vintage, titled Cradle Crew: RCAF, World War II, by Kenneth K. Blyth of 2116 Imperial GC Blvd, Naples, FL 34110, USA, seemed similar to a dozen or so published accounts by former Bomber Command crewmen who became PoWs. But I was pulled into this yarn. It has been very well-edited and splendidly presented in clear prose with strong illustrations, photos, and quotations of the times. But the best of the book is in the author’s joy in describing and explaining flying manoeuvres and the performance abilities and particular traits of aircraft, radar, guns, and bombs.

After the war Ken Blyth, originally an Ottawa boy, had a splendid career as a railway executive in the U.S., and early on he and his crew continued their comradeship through letters and visits. Blyth also went out of his way to reconnect with others with whom he’d served after enlisting late in 1942. So racy remembrance of characters, bases, squadrons, aircraft, and training enlivens the book and tells you that this author has a strong personality and a very analytical mind.

One quirky coincidence for me came from a description by Blyth of the person and traits of a fellow-in-training, one Howard Riopelle, well-known postwar as a Montreal Canadien and roommate of Hall of Fame member Doug Harvey. Just two days before I got the book I met Mr. Riopelle for the first time at a sports banquet. I was captivated by his personality and opinions. Bang! I meet him next in Cradle Crew, and the Riopelle of ‘44 fits well with the Riopelle of ‘01. A most satisfying book!