Reflections: Soldier days
Transcripts of interviews with Douglas
- 2012 honda pilot
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- Canadian pharmacy
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- Essays writing
- Thailand dating
- Tour de france betting
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- The Soldier
- Military Boy from the Bush
- Shipping Out
- Service, Overseas
- Services, D-Day
- Doogie Pierce
- End of War
Douglas, The Soldier
In 1938-39, high school grad Douglas Fisher was working as a miner in Pickle Lake, northern Ontario, when the start of WWII drew him, like tens of thousands of others, to the military.
Douglas joined the Canadian Army early in 1940 and served with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons – an armoured car regiment that trained in Canada and the UK before taking part in the allies’ Normandy offensive in 1944. His unit was heartily welcomed as a liberator in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Douglas Fisher – Soldier & Student
During the war, Doug’s experiences with people in those nations, as well as troops from UK and US greatly broadened his outlook on politics and life in all its complexities. Following the war, he qualified for a government-funded scholarship at the University of Toronto’s renowned Victoria College.
The program drew many of the nation’s top young minds to the school and gave birth to a simmering of historical and political thought. It was there that Fisher found independent-thinkers like himself, strengthening his growing self confidence. He was a leading figure as both a thinker – and a sports enthusiast.
The big, confident man from northern Ontario was an inspired sports organizer at the university – as he had been in the army. After graduating in 1949, Fisher sought further scholarly challenges at the UK’s highly respected University of London, before returning to Canada in 19TK. TK year(s) later he took a job as a high school teacher in Port Arthur, Ontario – much closer to his original hometown of Sioux Lookout.
Military Boy from the Bush
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Militia 1940-41, Gunner, 18th Artillery Battery
While living at the Wiggands, I was also a volunteer in the militia, based in Port Arthur’s federal armouries building, and was entered on the roster as a gunner in the 18th Artillery Battery. We drilled three nights a week and often gave Saturday or Sunday to training.
For practice, the battery only had 18 pounders of World War vintage and was impatiently waiting for the 25 pounders, the prime gun of the Canadian and British armies. I never got much beyond the parade square level with the 18th Field Battery, although I did have a month, in June, at Camp Shiloh, Manitoba.
The fall and winter of 1940-41, I got to know almost all the bootleggers in the Lakehead, in company with Mary and Monda Wiggands, who did the cooking and kept the rooming house going. They were 15 years older but I enjoyed their company and both were great talkers. After work, in the evenings, we would go to bootleggers, who had much nicer facilities than legal beer parlours.
Rejected by the army
By this year’s advent, almost every boy who was a friend or acquaintance of mine was either in the armed services or waiting to be called. The short term draft introduced by the federal government in the fall of 1940, after all the disasters in France that summer, was for the army only. The draft gave impetus to us to volunteer—those of us who wanted to get into the navy or the air force or the army unit of our own choosing.
Despite being in the 18th Field Battery, militia, I tried to join the Lake Superior Regiment, which was recruiting a full complement of men. I was rejected for poor eyesight so I put off any more scouting for a unit to join and waited to see if the 18th Battery was going to be called into active service.
It was urgent that I join, because I’d been told to by a Kenora judge, Magistrate Wolfe, when I appeared before him at a proceeding in Sioux Lookout. I was before him on charges of breaking and entering the property of a bush farmer in Sioux Lookout in company with six other guys who were all high on booze and searching for enough gasoline to get to Dryden (to see girls!).
Magistrate Wolfe was the most severe with me because I was the eldest of the group. His severity was ironical because I was the least involved in the theft (they broke the hasp of the lock on a barn and siphoned six or seven gallons into the tanks of two cars—stupid because my dad had a 30 gallon drum of gasoline on a cradle in our back yard); the farmer reported the theft to the police; the tire marks were unusual, leading to Ray Edye’s Ford truck; he owned up and named the rest.
Wolfe said he would suspend sentencing if I were to join the army before he returned to town in two months. Perhaps needless to say, I was glad to get out of Sioux Lookout.
Service, Medical Corps, Brandon
Anyway, that is how I got into the army. In August, I enlisted in the Medical Corps (H-2493), using Harry Brandon, a druggist friend from Sioux Lookout, as a connection; he had become sergeant major in the Royal Canadian Medical Corp’s new army hospital in Brandon’s Artillery Training Centre.
I was immediately put to work in the office because I had some typing skills. The prairies that summer were smitten with a dangerous epidemic of sleeping sickness, particularly amongst soldiers. The army put the Brandon Military Hospital in quarantine and by late September there were some 30 patients ill, most of them seriously, several fatally.
The epidemic put such strain on a staff short of nurses and orderlies that I was lifted out of the office and made an orderly in charge of discipline in a particular ward whose soldiers were there for treatment of VD or mumps. I proved capable of keeping order but the rowdiness of the ward and my part in it outraged the new medical commander of the hospital.
Let me explain. When I left the ward to visit the nearby druggist’s room for the daily pills allotment, some of the patients filled a fire bucket with chipped ice that was kept on the ward to help cool the mumpers’ swollen testicles. They propped the bucket atop the door, thinking to have it fall on me when I returned. Before I did, however, the new hospital commander and new sergeant major walked in, led by the old commander. The new commander and sergeant major were splashed with ice and water; the bucket hit the old commander on the head. I was in for a real dressing down.
The next day, the new commander said he didn’t think I was cut out for hospital work. I agreed and said I wanted to join the Lake Superiors or the 18th Armoured Car Regiment. He said he would see what he could do, and he did.
18th Armoured Car Regiment, 12th Manitoba Dragoons
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Service, Pacific coastal guard duty
I was to be transferred to the 18th Armoured Car Regiment, who were at Camp Borden, north of Toronto (the moniker, 12th Manitoba Dragoons, was not added till April, 1943). But before I could leave Manitoba, the Japs hit Pearl Harbour (December 7, 1941). The 18th Armoured Car at Camp Borden were immediately sent by train to the west coast to guard against the “Yellow Peril”. I was re-routed west from Brandon and joined them at Esquimalt two days before Christmas (they had only been there about a week). We camped in tents on a golf course, overlooking the big naval dry dock.
Five future comrades joined the regiment in Esquimalt—Bill Hasell (pronounced Hazel) and Jack Devine from Fort William Collegiate, and two Jewish Americans—Dave Berman and Nathan Gittlewitch. Berman brought his beautiful actress wife up from Hollywood and had her ensconced at the Empress Hotel in Victoria.
This is also where I met and became friends with Doug (C.D.) Pierce, from Merlin, Ontario, near Windsor—an extraordinary fellow who was a big influence on me. I was acting as part time B Squadron company clerk for Captain Jack Hassard, who took a fancy to me. Part time, too, I was out on patrol. Two squadrons at a time would go out in Bren Gun Carriers around Vancouver Island while the other two trained at Esquimalt. When on patrol, we were based at an old Depression work camp at Otter Point, which is near the end of the road running down along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
From our camp, across the water we could see Mount Baker in Washington State and the lights of the American town of Port Angeles. The regiment maintained a number of machine gun pits on the beaches and points from Sooke Harbour to Jordan River.
Service, Regiment goes overseas; I go to Camp Borden
In June, we got notice we were being moved to Camp Debert (deh-BURT), Nova Scotia, where the 4th Armoured Division, commanded by Major General Worthington, was being assembled for training, preliminary to going overseas to Britain.
The shipping date from Halifax was early September, but at the last minute before our train pulled out from British Columbia for Halifax, I was pulled off, given a ticket to Camp Borden in Ontario, and told I would be there until I was fitted with a proper sized respirator—big head Fisher! I didn’t know whether to be tearful or joyful. Soon I was taking a motorcycle course at Borden and becoming familiar with the nearby small town of Elmvale—my mother’s home town.
While motorcycling, however, I badly bruised my left big toe and when infection spread, my toe was operated on and the whole toenail and its roots removed. I was put in a plaster cast and given a ticket home to Sioux Lookout for a three week convalescent leave. This was in early November.
Foolishly I went deer hunting on Lake Minnitaki, with Dick Meadwell, Don MacDonald, and Alf Maxwell. We were running islands with a couple of dogs and I was left parked in a boat at one end of the island awaiting the deer they were driving.
In my excitement, standing up to get a better shot at a deer that ventured from the bush, I slipped and fell out of the boat into very shallow water. Instead of going right into town and getting the cast removed, I stayed there at a nearby camp and by morning the next day, my foot was aching badly.
When we got to the hospital and the doctor removed the cast, he said the infection was very serious and I was put to bed. Sulfathiazole drugs were fairly new and they stopped the infection.
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I ship out
There was a big draft going out to Halifax, then to the UK on the Queen Elizabeth—and I was assigned even though I still needed the crutches to walk. We were headed for the Canadian Armoured Corp’s reinforcement Depot in England.
We had a very dramatic crossing because of the worst Atlantic storm in the course of WWII. From the port of Gourock in Scotland, we were moved south by train to Aldershot, Hampshire, just southwest of London, which we reached while Christmas celebrations were underway.
1943 — Aldershot-Godalming-Aldershot-Norfolk/The North-Brighton
This was the year that we really began to think that we could win the war.
None of us had till now realized the significance of the American naval victories over the Japanese at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The disaster at Dieppe in August, 1942, was forgotten late in the year after Montgomery’s victory over Irwin Rommel, at El ’Alamein, on the Egyptian coast.
By mid-1943, American bombers droned east every day to bomb the Continent and Germany; at night, hundreds of RAF bombers did the same. And by now, the Russians had proven they could not be mastered within their own territory by the Germans. It was quickly forgotten how despondent and gloomy we had been in 1942 about any prospect of victory.
At Aldershot, an old English garrison town, the push was on to direct most of the people in the newly-arrived draft to the Calgary Tanks, a regiment that had lost most of its tank crews in the disaster of Dieppe.
I was determined to get back to my own regiment, the 18th Armoured Car, which at this time was based in country homes between Guildford and Godalming in Surrey. The regiment had come over from Canada in September and, as I already said, I had been left behind to get a respirator that would fit me.
By accepting one stripe, becoming a lance corporal provost, I resisted the pressure at Depot to go into the field with the Calgaries. However, Depot liked me in the provost because I was so big, and because I had talked a drunken Canadian miner into calming down and handing me a rifle after he had threatened to shoot up a barracks.
So there I was, stuck, unable to get back to my own regiment. How to break this stalemate? Eventually I did it by making a deal with Ed Vanderlip, the sergeant major of HQ Sqn, 18th Armoured Car—an old buddy from the time I had joined the regiment late in 1941. Vanderlip suggested that the best way was to pretend that there wasn’t a long, detailed procedure to switch regiments. He set it up that he and a lieutenant would arrive shortly after morning drill at Depot in a jeep and just go in with a requisition to return me to the regiment. Somehow they managed to bull it through.
But, because procedures hadn’t been properly followed, there were bureaucratic consequences for about a year and a half. I even went without pay for five or six months.
Anyway, I was back with my buddies in the HQ Sqn, which was bunked at a beautiful estate owned by the Cunard (shipping) family—within three miles of four other estates, each home to one of our squadrons. (It was at about this time that the 18th Armoured Car Regiment added the title, 12th Manitoba Dragoons, in honour of the largest and oldest unit contributing men to the regiment.)
On the Cunard estate there was one of the most magnificent small gardens in England, designed by the famous garden architect, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), creator of more than 400 gardens, including several palace gardens.
The night before D-Day, June 6th, we knew it was going to happen simply because of the enormous traffic in the air, which began about 9 p.m. on the 5th and went on all night.
Within a week, we had the experience of being bombed when the V-1s began coming. We were on the direct path between most of the launching sites across the Channel, and London.
Anti aircraft guns tried to knock them down, until they got near us where there was a huge wall of tethered balloons in the sky. Within a week, they used the ack-ack less and let fighter planes take their chances.
These Spitfires and Tempests got to be very good and on a couple of moonlit nights gave us a vision of the future, downing the buzz bombs, flipping them over by coming up under them and tipping them off course (gently!) with their wings.
With our armies landed on five beachheads in France, we expected to be rolling towards the ports at Southampton and the Isle of Wight, but it wasn’t until the end of June that we packed up and moved down to near the loading places at Portsmouth.
The regiment went over in three or four landing craft, on two successive days. H.Q. Squadron (consisting of R.H.Q., A Echelon and B Echelon) and B Squadron went July 8th. A, C, and D Squadrons went July 9th.
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Our armoured cars, it turned out, didn’t need their “swimming” gear; we rolled directly ashore. First harbour was Ste. Croix-sur-Mer, where we removed the vehicles’ “swimming” gear. We then made it to about three miles from Caen, which was the city around which both defence and attack came together.
After two days of living in a field, we moved closer to the front and eventually most of the fighting troops of our regiment left their vehicles parked at a heavily treed farm and marched in to take hold of a quiet stretch of the front along a canal on the north side of Caen, where they stayed for three days.
I was left with my driver and what they called the LOB troops (left out of battle).These were my last days with my great comrade Dougie Pierce. We spent our spare time for several days doing the laundry for our troop. He did most of the washing; I read him from a funny book, “Low Man On The Totem Pole” by H. Allan Smith.
One of its stories was about a young reporter from San Francisco who was sent meet a passenger ship arriving from the Orient to interview a Chinese film star, Anna May Wong. Nai?ve and innocent, he was told by more experienced reporters that the intriguing thing about Oriental women was that their private parts ran crossways rather than from front to back. The reporter got the interview with Wong, and emboldened because she was so friendly, asked her if this was true. She exploded with rage.
Later, the boys had come back from the canal; they’d driven the vehicles about three miles from the farm to this sugar beet patch, and on 18 July at dawn we were watching a huge, one-and-a-half hour RAF bombing raid on the northern part of Caen, just south of the River Orne.
Excerpt f rom: www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand:
18 July 1944
942 aircraft – 667 Lancasters, 260 Halifaxes, 15 Mosquitoes – to bomb 5 fortified villages in the area east of Caen through which British Second Army troops were about to make an armoured attack, Operation Goodwood. The raids took place at dawn in clear conditions. 4 of the targets were satisfactorily marked by Oboe and, at the target where Oboe failed, the Master Bomber, Squadron Leader EK Creswell, and other Pathfinder crews used visual methods.
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American bombers also attacked these targets and a total of 6,800 tons of bombs were dropped, of which Bomber Command dropped more than 5,000 tons. Elements of two German divisions, the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and the 21st Panzer Division, were badly affected by the bombing, the Luftwaffe Division particularly so.
Operation Goodwood made a good start. This raid was either the most useful or one of the most useful of the operations carried out by Bomber Command in direct support of the Allied armies. The aircraft bombed from medium heights, 5,000-9,000ft, but army artillery and naval gunfire subdued many of the flak batteries and only 6 aircraft – 5 Halifaxes and 1 Lancaster – were shot down. No German fighters appeared. Allied air superiority over the battlefield by day was complete.
As the raid was petering out, my great comrade, Doug Pierce, was killed—by our own fire—in this sugar beet field. I wasn’t aware of it till 15 or 20 minutes later. Here is part of a Toronto Sun column I wrote about Pierce on Remembrance Day, 1974, thirty years after he was killed in France.
His name was Pierce, his nickname “Doogie” (DOOgie). He was from the Windsor area. He had finished grade 13, had married and become a father after being one of the first batch conscripted. He’d given way to the internal recruiting pressures of the army, going “active service” in late ’42. I first met him shortly after he’d been transferred into our reconnaissance regiment, then defending the B.C. coast from the “Yellow Peril”.
Pierce was a magnet to other volunteers because of his appearance and personality. He was a friendly-looking redhead—blocky in build, usually smiling, rarely dour. His blue eyes darted and he was quick-tongued. Although most energetic and sociable, he had no army ambitions, not even to be a corporal. He liked a drink and sought women’s company but was neither a boozer nor unusually lecherous. He was well read for a private and loved kibitzing. His forte was flattery and he used it freely in dealing with those in the chain of command. A liberal spreading of it, as he said, gave him elbow-room from the martinets and fools among the NCOs and officers.
He was one of my few comrades who had thought out his postwar course. He wanted the good things. The way to get them would be as a salesman. He’d sell “intangibles”—that is, bonds or stocks or insurance. Salesmen, he divined, got the top rewards from our system, if they were good at it. He wanted to live on the “sun-porch of Ontario”, have a season’s ticket to the Detroit Tigers, have at least one ball-playing son, own a piece of land on the edge of Lake St. Clair, and take part in local politics.
In England in early ’44 one of our fellows had got with child the 17 year old daughter of a Sussex vicar. Our chaplain, also Church of England, insisted on matrimony to save the honour of his colleague’s daughter. The marriage began to move through channels, the groom-to-be unenthusiastic but resigned.
Pierce knew the fellow well. Then he met the girl’s mother and father at a village social. Afterwards, he told me that the marriage would be a gross mistake. There was a gulf of class and gentility between the girl, her family, and our fellow trooper from the Manitoba bush. Pierce went off on his own to see the parents and put the case for the disaster ahead for their child if the marriage went through and she went to Canada. The parents called it off.
On July 17, 1944, I (a water duties man) and Pierce (an armoured car driver) and 50 other men were sitting in a small valley not far from Caen, a mile or so from the front line. Most of our men were up, holding a quiet piece of a river and canal line while infantry of the 3rd Canadian Division rested before the big attack, named “Goodwood”, scheduled for July 18. British tanks from the east of the bridgehead were to slash southwest through a corridor marked by heavy air bombing while the Canadians ferreted out the Germans from the eastern suburbs of Caen.
Pierce and I had dug a deep slit trench near our cars. Occasionally a shell or large mortar round would drop into the valley. All the sounds and lights of war were a distant but constant background. Pierce and I enjoyed ourselves.
We’d had word that one of our men at the front had been badly wounded when jumping from one trench to another. His Sten gun had bounced from his hand, gone off, and put four slugs into his gut. Another lad, one of the best-looking in his squadron, had been terribly burned on the face and neck when another chap, fiddling with a smoke grenade, had inadvertently set it burning.
The day was idyllic for musing, the air warm. Pierce thought aloud, “Wouldn’t it be a bastard to get it like Ellison and Grotke, ruined by goofs.” I remember this line as though it were yesterday.
“Whatever comes,” he said, “I pray that I haven’t spent all this time out of my life to get killed or crippled by stupidity and not by the Germans.”
Just at dusk we had a fright. A German patrol came through a copse on the lip of our valley and began to machine-gun our positions. We scrambled, Pierce and I diving into our fine trench. It was chaos all round with all of us firing wildly. After a quarter hour of zipping tracer and racket the firing petered out. We found only one man had a minor wound. No one had really seen a Jerry. Most of us had gone to ground. A few had ducked into their cars and closed hatches. We were much on edge. The rest of the regiment was marching back after midnight and we were to clear the valley by dawn. We were too close to where a big RAF raid was due early in the morning.
The night was much confused. The men from the front got back, gear was stowed, and we pulled out about 3 a.m.; blacked out, seemingly, we wandered for miles until just before first light when we harboured in a broad field of sugar beets. There, after a magnificent sunrise, we were well placed to watch the big bomb-run as waves of Lancs dropped 7,700 tons (actually 6,800 tons) on the German defences. All of us exulted at this display of explosive power.
Pierce and I were now in separate cars. Not long before the end of the bombing (the noise was fantastic), I heard a nearby crack—but it was lost in the big tumult. Shortly after, a fellow came trotting down the line past our vehicle. “Say Fisher,” he said, “Your pal has had it. Pierce. Down there.” He pointed along the line.
I galloped the 100 yards or so to find a body on the ground, covered with a rain-cape. The M.O., standing in the group around it, said to me: “Your friend never knew what hit him. An instant death.”
It had been a freakish, one-in-a-million way to die. It seemed that in the scare at dusk the day before, one of our men, a notable rattle-brain, had got into his car. For no good reason, he had popped a 37 mm shell into the breech of the cannon. Then, the excitement past, he’d forgotten about it. At the beet field he’d decided to shave and had been dragging out his kit from behind the radio in the turret. The safety catch was off the cannon. He dropped the kit. It fell to the floor, hitting the foot trigger. The gun went off.
Fifty yards away, Pierce, standing on the top of his turret, was watching the raid and giving a running commentary on the planes and the flak to his crew on the ground who were readying breakfast. The shell hit him centre of the chest, blowing a hole through him. The fool who’d loaded the gun had put in an armour-piercing shell, not an explosive one. Pierce’s family were informed he was killed in action. It’s long ago now but I always go back that happening this time of year. What a sad waste to remember.
Here is another account of Pierce’s death. I find parts of it questionable—that Rogers was looking for grenades, that Hoffman was the one who had loaded the cannon.
Excerpt from The Staghound, vol. 22, no. 3, November 2003, by George Hoffman (H-17372)
It was while re-stowing some hand grenades inside the turret, that my gunner, F.G. (Frank) “Buck” Rogers (D-76684) accidentally discharged the 37 mm gun. The projectile struck the rear corner of the turret of the armoured car which was parked in front of us. It glanced off and struck trooper Doug Pierce in the chest, killing him instantly. It was a stupid accident; one that I was charged with.
After the encounter with the German patrol the previous night, there wasn’t an armoured car in that field that did not have their guns loaded that morning. When I had loaded the guns the night before, I loaded with “ball” rather than with high explosive. Had it been H.E. the entire troop might have been wiped out . . .
. . . About a half an hour after this occurrence, the officer investigating the death of Trooper Pierce made the rounds, searching for Trooper Rogers and myself. After questioning us for a few minutes he left. He returned after about a half an hour to inform me that I was under “open” arrest. I was free to move about the area, but was forbidden to leave it. Under the circumstances, this warning was a formality. Where does one go in the middle of a war?
The following morning I was paraded in front of Col. Roberts. Corporal Dunc. Murchison was my escort. I was relieved of my side arm (pistol) and my head-dress, and paraded into the tent which was serving as Regimental Headquarters. Colonel Roberts gave me a fatherly lecture. He remarked that I had always been a model soldier. In view of this, he said, his punishment was a severe reprimand.
My greatest punishment was to be the remorse I have felt over the years. I have partly responsible for Pierce’s death. I did not notify my crew that the guns were loaded. I suppose one can play the game of “I should have…” or “Why didn’t I…?” indefinitely. Today I can rationalize by knowing that what happens in wartime, or indeed during a lifetime, doesn’t conform to a given set of rules. The unexpected can does often happen.
Cpl. Dunc. Murchison and I had always been friends—he was as relieved as I was at the outcome of my session with Col. Roberts. After he marched me out of the orderly room tent, he turned and handed me my pistol and beret and wrung my hand for a full minute, telling me that he was glad that it was over and that my punishment hadn’t been worse.
War is over
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Our war ended on a German dairy farm. Word it was over reached us around noon on May 4th—a raw day of high winds, sunshine and rain squalls. The regiment was in action at the front in northwest Germany—west of Oldenburg, moving towards Emden on the North Sea.
As radio operator for the A squadron commander, I was the first to get the order from brigade headquarters. The message was brief: “Shut down forward operations. Find a safe harbour. Cease fire begins at 0800 hours tomorrow.”
I passed the message to Major Ken Farmer, A Squadron’s commanding officer, who was with me in the turret of our Staghound armoured car. We were parked at a crossroads a mile or so back from the front, directing three of our troops pushing north along three country roads, in concert with 4th Canadian Division infantry and engineers.
My CO said, “Call in the troops.” I sent the message to those forward, “Come on back, the war is over.”
No one believed me. “This isn’t April Fool’s Day,” came one cynic’s voice on the radio. Others were sceptical too—even though the BBC had already told us that Hitler was dead and that the Russians had taken Berlin.
When I insisted, “This is not a joke!” I sensed their relief. Within an hour or so, the squadron—about 120 men—was parked encircling the courtyard of a big German dairy farm. There were a dozen or so women slave workers at the farm, mostly Ukrainian or Polish. We let them know that they were free, which stunned them. Then, while the farm family hid somewhere on the property, our celebration began. I can’t recall where the slave workers were at this time.
Our feeling was joyous, our relief enormous. Not only were we freed from the threat of death and injury, but I also had it in my head that the war’s ending this day would probably save Major Farmer from a court martial. Not long before the cease fire message, over the radio he had threatened to beat up our regiment’s commanding officer.
Our squadron often operated apart from the regiment. On this day, as our forward groups pressed north, the Germans were retreating slowly, doggedly, ahead of them, leaving behind barricades of felled trees and nests of mines.
Suddenly—wham! A hidden German antitank gun had knocked out one of our cars. Incredibly, although the car was wrecked, just one of its crew was wounded. The radio call from the scene to Major Farmer mentioned that “Chief Sunray” was present. (This was the code name of our regiment’s commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Black.) When the major heard this, he told me to get the colonel on “the blower”. He was angry because that day our squadron was not under the colonel’s command and we had not been told he was coming.
Our squadron had spent more fighting time away from the regiment than with it, largely because Major Farmer’s high profile in Canadian hockey had made him a favourite of some brigadiers and major-generals when they needed reconnaissance work done. For weeks, Farmer had been hammering home one message to us: “Be careful! This war’s almost over. We must do our best to see that we all get the chance to go home.” This message found ready listeners after one of the most loveable guys in our squadron was killed by a sniper on April 17th, and five comrades from a sister squadron were blown to bits a few days later by a huge tank mine. Ken Farmer was not preaching passivity; he just wanted us to take no risks.
After I raised the colonel on “the net”, I was shocked by what happened next. Farmer demanded to know that the hell the colonel was doing at the front with his squadron without letting him know that he was there. Black’s explanation seemed lame to me, and Farmer “blew a gasket”. He told Black that if any of his men had been badly hurt in what had just happened, he would take it out physically on the colonel.
The handful of us who heard Farmer immediately assumed he would be fired, probably court-martialled. I wondered whether I would be called as a witness. Then, suddenly, the war was over. Our major’s rage was forgotten as we assembled in that farm courtyard, eating, cheering and singing around a big fire until half the night was gone.
Quite late, the demand reached a roar for a “speech, speech, speech”, by our much-admired Major Farmer. He spoke for about five minutes and told us that as he understood it, the priority for getting back to Canada was that the first to have gone overseas would be first to go home.
He ended by telling us that in about 48 hours, the provosts would be around and there would be make-work marches and parades—the usual nonsense to keep soldiers busy when they are not fighting. We had, he said, about two days to get out and find souvenirs and mementos to take home. But do it carefully, he warned, and let your troop sergeant know where you’re going and what you’re doing.
As it turned out, we had about 72 hours before “spit and polish” was enforced, after which we began as individuals the game of getting ourselves home as soon as possible. And if not home, at least to England, where most of us had friends.
As the party cooled off, it struck me I faced a vexing question. The war over, what was I—a boy from the northern Ontario bush—going to do in civilian life? Go back to mining? Work in forestry? Get a job on the railroad? Or should I do as Major Farmer and two of my crew mates had urged: go to university. (As it turned out, I took the major’s advice and have never once regretted it.)
We in A Squadron, 12th Manitoba Dragoons, were a brotherhood, bonded by Kenny Farmer’s cheerful, optimism and charm. He was a good judge of men and a man we implicitly trusted. Before the war, as a hockey player, he had captained Canada’s Olympic team at the 1936 winter games in Berchtesgaden, Adolf Hitler’s mountain lair. After the war, he became head of the Canadian Olympic Committee and the first chairman of the Canadian Sport and Fitness Council. Ken Farmer died on January 12th, 2005, in his home town of Montreal. He had a fine mind, he was generous and modest, he loved his fellow man. He was 92.
A week after VE Day (May 8th), we moved back to Holland, to a Friesland yachting community, Grouw (grAOW), home of the Royal Dutch Yacht Club. Then located on the north side of the Zuider Zee (now called Ijsselmeer), Grouw is now about 20 miles inland owing to the famous and long-standing Dutch practice of reclaiming land (polders) from the sea.
We had wonderful private billets. I stayed with a family, the Mulders. They owned a lumber business—a plywood mill and saw mill. They got most of their logs from Finland. They were moderately wealthy. They had a beautiful home. The officers of A Squadron had a fit when they saw how well we had done for accommodation.
The Mulders also had a paying guest, named Johanneka Wessen, the beauty of the whole town. She was the only child of a widower father who had been the senior medical officer of health in the government. She was a competitive sailor. She later married the eldest Mulder son, Claas.
I fell in love with Johanneka (it came to nothing more than a couple of kisses; she was engaged to Claas, whom I thought to be a bit of a dolt), who daily took me and Cec Pedrick, a lance corporal from Transcona, Manitoba, sailing on the Zuider Zee (he later became a civil engineer officer with Canadian National Railways). Kenny Farmer gave me hell; “You should take that girl back to Canada; she wants to go.”
Her marriage to Claas was not a great success. They had, I think, five kids. The Mulder parents died in the 1950s and the family ended up feuding over money (lawsuits). Johanneka got fed up with Claas over his obsession with this fight. She had beauty, brains, and character. He did not. In the end, they were not living together.
I re-encountered them again in 1958, when I was an MP on business in Holland, and kept up contact after that. Johanneka died in 2002 of cancer; Claas may still be alive. They lived in Zeebrugge, near Ostend, a small NATO naval base.
From that base at the Mulders’ we helped escort the defeated German army into Germany, following a route that ran northward from Amsterdam along the face of the North Sea, curving through Friesland into Germany.
About the first of June, we were moved from Grouw to Leeuwarden, the capital city of Friesland, and were billeted by troop in big, roomy family homes which had been stripped of their civilian furnishings and fitted with army-type bunks, tables and chairs.
The game of how to get home to Canada as soon as possible really began. About a quarter of the guys were in no hurry to get home. Another quarter were desperate to get home. I was in the larger group, moderately anxious to get home but not overly concerned. The quickest way home if you weren’t someone who enlisted in 1939 was to volunteer for the war in the Pacific. Mackenzie King had decreed that Canada’s army contribution to the war there would run to two divisions, and all personnel would be volunteers—that is, no “zombies”. At first I didn’t think much about this offer because of the terrible tales we’d heard about the Japanese and American casualties. The squadron CO, Farmer, was due to go home early because he was a ’39 man, and sometime early in July, while he was waiting for his moving order, he told me that if I wanted to get home early, I should take the risk of volunteering, because as he read the intelligence reports, that Canadian army destined for the Pacific was never going to get a chance to fight. In short, the Japs would be defeated by the fall. I didn’t dislike Leeuwarden, where I had an interesting girlfriend who had been on the 1936 Dutch Olympic team as a freestyle swimmer (I think her name was Ilke; she wanted to come to Canada; I liked her but I was still dazed by Johanneka).
One night in early July I came late from seeing Ilke and found the house literally filled with German girls—who had been hangers-on to the German army. A big party was underway. Mine was the best bedroom of the house. The door had been locked. Someone had kicked the door in and I found one of our guys and a German girl on my bed, and another on a mattress on the floor. It was only my size and anger that intimidated them into leaving; things got nasty.
I went to sleep and woke up almost at dawn not only smelling smoke, but with my eyes smarting from it. I burst out of my room and found a small fire starting to burn in one of the downstairs rooms. I yelled, and for a half hour or so we had a terrible time getting people out and running a bucket brigade to put out the fire. It was a madhouse.
You never saw a sorrier crew when the bright light of the sun blazed in. I was so fed up I said I’ve got to get out of here. I biked a couple of blocks to our squadron’s headquarters, went in, and told the guy on duty to give me a form for duty in the war against Japan—which I filled out and submitted.
After returning to the house and getting breakfast, I spent the rest of the day wondering about my application. In the evening I asked the orderly if my application had gone in. Oh yes, it had been sent to division headquarters.
About ten days later I was back in England in the holding unit. In the first week in August I found myself on a train from Woking, Surrey, to Liverpool, where I caught a 4,000 ton steamer with 800 other returning troops—among them my CO, Kenny Farmer. In mid-Atlantic, he looked me up one morning and showed me a telex slip from the ship’s printer. It was a brief dispatch saying that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. And so, when our ship docked at Quebec City, it was VJ-Day. World War Two was over. We had had a slow passage in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the river, in large part because of an abundance of small icebergs jamming the Straits of Labrador.
We got off the ship at noon and by 1 o’clock were on a troop train. Although Ken Farmer was on the train until Montreal, I last saw him as we boarded, when we said goodbye. It was strange. The city was celebrating VJ Day, more muted than VE Day had been, and here we were on a train.
By dusk we were in the rail yards at Montreal, where we changed cars and pulled out before midnight for Winnipeg by way of Ottawa on the CNR.
About 20 hours after leaving Montreal, I bumped into my brother George at the station in Hornepayne, Ontario—pure accident, I hadn’t seen him since 1941. He was at that time a CNR brakeman out of Hornepayne, for the summer.
Thirty-six hours after Montreal I was home in Sioux Lookout with my mother and dad. The second day home I was offered a mining job. My father objected strongly, arguing that I would be foolish to pass up the chance for a university education that was being offered to every service person upon discharge.
It was strange being home. Sioux Lookout not only seemed empty, it was. I was in the first wave of dischargees of those who had gone overseas. None of the boys I’d grown up with were there. Ten of them, whom I’d been close to and chummed with, never came back. Of the kids I used to fish and hunt with, Freddy Cole, Alf Maxwell, Art Anderson, Eddy Cole, and Eddy Smith, never returned. (The town lost 27 of its sons killed and some 350 of the population of 2,000 were in uniform during the war.) The girl I’d had my first crush on was gone, to Winnipeg. My sister, Irene, was away—training as a nurse in Kenora. I was at loose ends. The big disappointment—fishing, which I had been obsessed with before leaving, was just dead. What was the point of fishing by oneself? And my favourite uncle, Wilfred, was busy working, so didn’t have much free time for me. As for returning to mining, I learned I was on the “black list”, not to be hired because of the rabble-rousing I had done at Central Patricia.
I found the same sense of emptiness, perhaps not quite as bad, at The Lakehead. Again, so many of the guys I knew just weren’t back yet from overseas. Of my old gang at the Wiggands rooming house, there were only two boarders I’d known before joining up.
I was discharged from the Canadian Army on October 5th at Fort Osborne Barracks in Winnipeg, after six weeks of leave mostly in Sioux Lookout, but also in The Lakehead (where I saw my aunt Phoebe and uncle Jim, with whom I stayed) and Winnipeg, where I stayed with Mr and Mrs Clarence Cox, former neighbours from Sioux Lookout (she had lent me books throughout my teenage years).
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