CANADIAN VETERANS REMEMBER THE LAST DAYS OF THE WAR

To mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe (VE Day), here are some Canadian veterans of World War Two recounting their varied, often sobering experiences as the war drew to a close. They are excerpted from interviews I did for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published my McClelland & Stewart in 2005. We owe them so much.

Estelle Tritt-Aspler, 1919-2007.

(Tritt-Aspler spent three years overseas as a Lt. Nursing Sister. She relates her emotional experience as a Jew in Holland, gradually discovering the terrible impact of the Holocaust and taking part in a Seder, the first for a handful survivors in four years.)

“When we went up to Holland, I started searching for other Jewish people. There just seemed to be no Jews around. I found some who had been hidden, some who had served in the underground. But the Jewish population was just destroyed. What do you say when you meet someone who was taken for forced labour and managed to escape and went back home to find his wife and child had been deported? What do you say to a woman who says her daughter was deported? There were things like that. We didn’t know the full extent. We knew people had been deported, but we didn’t quite know what had happened to them. Some survived because people took them in. It was amazing what some people did. A lot of them paid with their lives. One woman showed me a picture of a child holding someone’s hand. You couldn’t see whose hand she was holding. You couldn’t tell what street they were on. You couldn’t tell anything. But this was the only proof she had that her child was okay.

“I was posted to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, which was known for its chocolate. Another Jewish nursing sister and I attended a Seder together. We had met some people there and they invited us. There were about 10 or 12 of us, and for some of them, it was their first Seder in a long time. They were traumatized and in rough shape. There were a lot of tears and emotion. It was a very unusual evening. The family that gave the Seder had two teenaged children who refused to speak German. There was another lad there, and he was wondering what happened to his parents. Should he stay and look for them, or join the Dutch Army? There was also a rabbi from Germany who looked as if he’d had TB. He was underground during the war, in the Resistance. It was the only Seder I attended until I returned to Canada. I always had my Jewish faith. I didn’t always observe it, but I tried to observe it more after this. Wherever I went, I tried to find Jewish people.

“The day the war ended, there wasn’t a big celebration. There was only one feeling. Relief. We just sat around and said, ‘Thank God.’”

 

Michael Fedoruk , 1921-

(The only survivor of his downed bomber, Fedoruk managed to elude capture for 13 months, seven of them while being looked after by a rural Dutch family near Nijverdal.)

“In a few days, I was transported back to England. The family never talked about why they were risking their lives for us. I think they were just being friendly to people who were trying to free them. They got money and ration coupons from the underground. In return, they kept us hidden. I always said to myself, I could never repay those people for the good they did me. I wish I’d had the bucks to do it. But you just can’t repay kindness like that. I figured maybe the army and the air force would repay them a little bit. Because they suffered an awful lot. Food in Nijverdal was very, very scarce. They had a terrible time. I was just skin and bones. When I got back to England, I went to a warehouse where the parcels sent to me were stored. I had smokes. I had jam, jellies, fruits, canned goods, everything. My kid brother was in Holland and he came to England to visit me. We spent VE day together. For his return, I gave him kit bags full of grub. ‘Take them back to my family at Nijverdal.’ And he did just that, and they were happy.”

 

Grant McRae, 1922 –

(Shot down over Germany, McRae survived a year in the notorious POW camp, Stalag Luff III, and the deadly winter march, when weakened prisoners were forced out into the bitter cold to barely livable, new quarters to avoid the advancing Red Army.)

“The war was over in May, but we stayed in the camp because the Russians wouldn’t let us leave. Some American truck drivers came one day with orders from Eisenhower to liberate all British and American personnel. So we got back in the back of the trucks, but the Russians, who were supposed to be our Allies, fired over our heads. We had to get off. Some of the guys were practically crying because they’d been there three or our years and this was their first chance to get out. The Russians said the orders had to come from Moscow. They said they didn’t know anything about Eisenhower. The trucks went back empty. We had no way out. We wondered if the Russians were going to send us to the salt mines. At last, some Russian troops took us back to the Elbe. That’s where the dividing line was. We got out of the trucks and walked across a Bailey Bridge built by the American engineers. We were liberated.”

 

Peter Cottingham, 1921-2014.

(Cottingham served with the legendary Devils Brigade, a joint Special Services, Canadian-American commando force. He was bitter about how they were deployed, feeling they were used more as expendable, shock troops, than in any strategic way.)

“The Special Services unit was disbanded in December 1944. They felt the war had advanced beyond the point where they needed us. They could now spearhead with tanks and stuff like that. Some people like to say there wasn’t a dry eye when we held our last parade, but I wasn’t crying. I’m sure we spent about 200 days in contact with the enemy. It was awful. But in retrospect, you couldn’t pay to do what I did. It was just so fantastic to know the guys I knew. It was a lifetime experience that very people should have. Once you have it, you can’t take it away. I’m glad I experienced it.

“After VE Day, I was in an officers school in Burma, learning how to fight in the jungles of Burma. The army owned me. I was just a bloody volunteer, you know, but once you sign up, they own you. When they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, I thought, I’m going to live.”

 

Rex Fendick, 1924-2010.

(A Canadian volunteer with the British Army, Fendick served as a crack machine-gunner.)

“As we moved through Germany, we began to see all kinds of refugees on the road. There were a lot of concentration camp uniforms mixed in with them. The first camp to be liberated was in our sector. Belsen. I always remember when our CO came back and told us about it. He’d seen Belsen. Been in it. He was just livid. He was almost speechless. It was unbelievable. They wouldn’t let the troops go into those places, so I didn’t see it myself. But we did see a lot of concentration camp survivors wandering the roads in their black-and-white-striped uniforms with the little pillbox hat. It’s the saddest memory I have of the way the Germans treated people.”

 

Stanley Grizzle, 1918-2016.

(Grizzle served overseas with the Medical Corps, for a country that was capable of denying him a room in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel on his wedding night, because he was black.)

“The week after we got to Germany, the war ended. We had instructions before we got there. No talking to any German women or men. No conversation. The day the war ended, the quartermaster gave us each a bottle of Scotch. I didn’t drink, so I brought it home and gave it to my dad. I got back to Canada in 1946. I saw my daughter for the first time.

“When I look back at the war, I thank God for the experience. It matured me. Because of my army life experiences, I became a strong advocate of non-violent direct action in the settling of human differences. I was a chairman of the Toronto chapter of the Martin Luther King Fund, the only chapter in Canada raising funds for Dr. King’s American struggle. In 1983, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed me a judge of the Court of Canadian Citizenship – the first Afro-Canadian to serve in that position.”

 

William Newell, 1922-2011.

(A member of the Canadian Navy, Newell was in Halifax when the war ended. What followed wasn’t what anyone expected.)

“I went through the Halifax Riots at the end of the war. Halifax was anticipating a big celebration, because there were something like 40,000 sailors there. So everyone was afraid of a big rough party, I guess. About a week before, they began boarding up the restaurants and the liquor and beer stores. They boarded everything up. Barrington Street was vacant. This was the wrong thing to do. When the ships came in, the sailors were given leave and they just ganged up. First they broke into a beer store, then they took five liquor stores. Three fellows were killed in the riots. They found one of them outside my bedroom window, out in Dalhousie. They finally imposed martial law. It was quite an experience.”

 

(Gould, centre, greeted by his family on his return home.)

T. Garry Gould, 1922-2015.

(Gould drove tanks with the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. He was badly wounded by a direct mortar hit during an advance on the Siegfried Line.)

“They evacuated me by air for England. There was a fair amount of metal in me: in the backside, the back, the legs. One arm broken. One hand in pieces. I had been knocked unconscious and had back strain. I was in hospital there for five months. One time I woke up screaming because I saw this horde of German uniforms coming at me, and there was no way I could stop them. The fear and trauma finally caught up with me. I came home on a hospital ship in July, 1945. The war was something I wanted to do. I hope I did it well. I had my Bible all the way through and the regimental badge. That’s something you don’t dishonour.”

 

Yvonne Jukes, 1921-2011.

(Jukes served fearlessly in the Women’s Division of the RCAF, narrowly escaping bombing raids and a hail of bullets from a German plane late in the war.)

“The war ended when I was on leave in London, but I couldn’t celebrate. We had to rush back by train to our headquarters to help in the repatriation of prisoners of war. We didn’t waste any time. Our squadron flew out to Germany the day after VE Day to pick up the Canadian prisoners. It was a great feeling of relief that we were not going to lose any more of our young friends. We had high hopes that those still listed as missing might turn up. Some did, but we did get bad news about the others. After that, I spent five months in Torquay, repatriating aircrews. Finally, there were just a few of us left and it was my turn.

“I was relieved but I also apprehensive about going home. We lost so many friends. Three went down on the British battleship Hood. Our navy friend Johnny Stubbs’ destroyer went down off the coast of France. He came up on shore and was murdered by the Germans. Two of my air-force friends from Victoria went missing and have no known graves. Another was shot down and evaded the Germans for six months in a Belgian town where he organized an underground movement. He was betrayed and ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he later died.

“I had to start over, build a new life. But I could not have stayed home. Although many times were stressful and painful, I was proud to have served. Before the war, women could be housewives, nurses, and teachers, but little else. The war changed all that. It altered the whole structure of the workforce for women. After having been part of the war, women grew more independent and asserted their rights.

“I celebrate all veterans who have a right to be proud of the part they played in defeating the greatest evil the world has ever known.”

Lest We Forget.

 

 

LIBERATING THE NETHERLANDS, THROUGH THE EYES OF A HEROIC CANADIAN SOLDIER.

(Members of Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders celebrate the Liberation of the Netherlands.)

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands on May 5, 1945. The victory came only after nine months of hard, deadly slogging by our soldiers across the country’s treacherous flat landscape, against crack German troops. More than 7,600 Canadians lost their lives. The Dutch have never forgotten their sacrifice. Whenever our vets have returned to the Netherlands, they are showered with cheers and tears of gratitude. Every school child is taught about the brave young Canadians, who fought to free their country from the Nazis. Their graves are kept in meticulous order, and every year, they are remembered as part of the Netherland’s official Remembrance Day holiday on May 4.

With surviving veterans now well into their 90’s, this year was to have been their last official return. A host of commemorative ceremonies had been planned. But of course, COVID-19 cancelled everything. Those few who had been planning to make the trip are unlikely to have another chance.

As a reminder of the terrible fighting Canadian troops had to endure, I offer the personal reminiscence of Charles Forbes, who recounts in harrowing detail one particularly fierce battle in the fall of 1944. Forbes was among 20 veterans I interviewed for my oral history book, Rare Courage, Veterans of the Second World War Remember, published by McCelland & Stewart in 2005. He was with Montreal’s Maisonneuve Regiment, which took part in the bloody battle for Walcheren Island against dug-in, heavily armed German forces. It is a gripping account. Forbes tells it like it was, including the stress and mental breakdowns, with no attempt to gussy it up. War, he reminds us, is not for the faint of heart. What follows is taken from Rare Courage.

Forbes starts with an extraordinary tribute to “the guts of the Canadian soldier.”

“I was a platoon commander, and you are the one in closest contact with the enemy because you have to lead your men. You don’t tell them to ‘go there.’ You say, ‘Follow me.’ That’s the way we fought in the Canadian Army. We had no professionalism, but we were adventurers. We were go-getters. We were voyageurs. We were full of courage. I lift my hat to the guts of the Canadian soldier. A German officer said once, ‘I know why the Canadians fight so well. It is because their officers fight with them.’ By the end of October, we were tired. Really beat. We had been in battle in France, northern France, Belgium, and Holland. No rest since July.

“Walcheren Island was the final battle for the liberation of Antwerp….The harbour entrance was controlled by eight-inch, ten-inch, twelve-inch German guns buried in concrete casements on Walcheren Island. On Oct. 31, the weather was very bad. It was freezing. It was raining….The Black Watch was ordered to walk across the causeway and capture the dikes on the other banks of the island. The causeway was a thousand yards long, a sixty-foot wide target with water on each side. The Black Watch had a hell of a time. They went in with no preparation. The brigade major, George Hees, who became minister of Veterans Affairs, was a glorious man, but the operation was in daylight and utterly ridiculous. Once they were 500 yards across the causeway, the Germans put a terrific bombardment on and they had to be pulled back.

“Then the brigadier committed what I call a major mistake in tactics. Reinforced failure. If a one-inch cork doesn’t fit in a bottle, don’t try again with a one-inch cork. But he tried to cross the causeway again, this time with the Calgary Highlanders, a fantastic battalion. They made it across to the dikes, but the Germans threw in another murderous counterattack and the Calgarys suffered heavy casualties….

“That night, my Maisonneuve Regiment had been ordered on leave to the city of Liere. This would be our first rest since Normandy, so we were all anxious to go. We were shaving, cleaning up. We knew the Calgarys would make it. But soon I could hear the guns and I knew something was wrong. When the CO wanted to see me, my hat turned green. He told me, ‘Charley, we’re attacking over the causeway, through the Calgarys position, to capture the right- and left-hand dikes. You’re going to be leading the attack with your platoon. You go at four o’clock tomorrow morning.’

“At four o’clock, we were standing by, and the artillery bombardment began. A huge bombardment. And away we went. I had my machine-gun guys on each side. The Arsenault brothers from New Brunswick. I told them, ‘If you see anything, just fire and keep firing until we reach the other side.’ I saw some troops moving towards us. We couldn’t identify them clearly, so the Arsenault brothers started to fire. Suddenly, in the flash of an explosion, I saw the steel helmets of the Calgarys. We were shooting our own troops down! I had to jump on their backs to stop them. It was a very, very bad start. It more or less broke our spirit and our momentum. We had to regroup. But we did make it to the island.

(Detail from an oil painting by Charles Forbes, portraying the battle of Walcheren in Holland, Nov. 2, 1944)

“When we got there, an anti-tank gun was firing. So the boys jumped on the two gunners. They surrendered. Guy Demarie was following me with the No. 17 Platoon. I told him, ‘Lets go.’ But we couldn’t see. The artillery had stopped firing. There was no longer any light. We were on the island and all we could see was water. I figured we still had to get to the two dikes. So we kept on running. His platoon on the left side, mine on the right. There was no opposition. We didn’t see a single German soldier. We ran and ran until we came to an overpass. We suddenly realized in the excitement, we had bypassed our objectives and gone 500 yards inside the island. Jesus. We decided to hold it there, and wait for the British to come.

“Six o’clock passed. Seven o’clock. We didn’t see any Brits. We waited and waited, hanging on, ladderlike, to the bank of the dike. Then I saw movement in the fog and the rain. A column of troops was coming towards us along the bank. I yelled to m boys, ‘Be careful now. I think it’s the Brits. Don’t fire. Let’s go and meet them.’ I’m about to pull myself out of the water, and I recognized the German helmet. Lord and God! So I got back into my hole, holding my pistol in one hand, and I waited for the Germans to come. I yelled, ‘When I open fire, fire!’ We fired on them at close range. I hit the first one in the shoulder with my pistol. He fell in the water. Then we emptied a couple of mags of Bren guns and rifle fire. There was a moment of quiet, and 50 to 60 Germans troops were then withdrawing along the bank. But we were right in the middle of a bees’ nest. What could we do? We were all lying in water, as close to the banks as we could, to protect ourselves. We tried to pull the man I had shot out of the water, as the tide was going up. But I pulled on the arm that had been dislocated, where he was bleeding badly. He yelled, so I had to leave him there. I was exposed. The Germans started to creep toward our position. Sniping at us. By then, it was four o’clock in the afternoon. At last we were given orders to withdraw and we made it back to the start of the causeway.

“I asked for a smokescreen and started to run back across the causeway toward the mainland. We had a thousand yards to go. As we were running, one of the German heavy guns was firing at the causeway. A shell hit one of my soldiers, Talbot. Shrapnel in the spine, I said. ‘Don’t move. I’ll drag you into a hole.’ We took cover and I looked at his wound. There seemed to be a bit of steel caught between two vertebrae. I decided to pull it out right there, and he felt better.

“I stayed with Talbot until 11 o’clock at night. When we finally made it back to our lines, they put Talbot in an ambulance and I looked around for the soldiers of our battalion. There wasn’t a goddamned soul to be seen. The ambulance driver told me, ‘Your battalion has gone to Belgium for a rest. Enjoy yourself, buster.’ I got so sour and sad inside. I started to shake. I was wet. I was frozen. I was hungry. And particularly, I was hurt inside. I thought at least someone could have been left behind when they went on leave. There were some Dutch resistance there, and I said, ‘I’m completely finished. I’m out. I’m going nuts. I could hear the sound of machine guns flying through my head. They took me to a Dutch house and the girls made some hot-water bottles and they laid me on a bed and I stayed there for a couple of days. They looked after me as if I was a 20-carat diamond. I regained some of my energy. In the meantime, my mother received a telegram that I’d been reported missing. Eventually, she got another wire saying they had found me. Or that I had found myself.

“I finally hooked up with my battalion in Liere, but five days later, on the way back to cross the Maas River, a German artillery shell killed my driver and wounded my right eye quite deeply. The medics picked me up and put me in a barber’s chair. They put a piece of wood in my teeth and a corporal sewed my eye up cold. No injections whatsoever. He did a rough job. He told me it would have to be redone. ‘but I’m going to do it so you don’t get infected.’ They fixed it up with plastic surgery back in England.

“In 1945, the corps commander approved that I be the recipient of the highest Dutch decoration, which is their equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Then the war ended, and that was that.

“I have asked myself many times how I did it. Six months under terrible stress, enduring war with all its ugliness. I have killed three times. It is terrible to kill to save your skin. It’s shoot or get shot. Like what happened on Walcheren Island with the man I shot in the shoulder. And when Fortie, one of my men, was killed and left behind. All these things. You get to be a zombie. One day after the other. One step at a time. The left foot goes down. The right foot replaces it. That’s the way an operation goes. You do your best, but you wear down. One of my corporals broke down in Brussels. He had come all the way with me from Caen. He was dressed like a funeral director: top hat and a black coattail. He was arrested by a British MP. My case was the same after I was hit in the eye. I was shaking all over. I had lost my place. You have no idea what it’s like, when you’re lying on the frozen ground, scratches on your hand that are full of puss, and you are trying to grab a bit of sleep, and you start to urinate. You’re like a spring on a clock that goes and goes, and as long as there’s some energy left, it keeps marking the time.”

Lt. Col. Jean Charles Forbes (1921-2010). Lest We Forget.

(Lt. Col. Forbes stayed with the Canadian Armed Forces for his entire career, also fighting with the Royal 22nd Regiment, 2nd Battalion in the Korean War.)

CANADIAN POWS, HIROSHIMA AND V-J DAY, SEVENTY YEARS LATER

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(Ottawa Citizen)

Amid all the wonderful crazy sports stuff going on, there was a very sombre anniversary. Seventy years ago this past weekend, the last, bloody gasp of World War Two came to end, with the surrender of Japan, after years of unimaginable killing. Canada was involved in the war at the very outset, when this country dispatched about 2,000 raw recruits in a hopeless move to buttress British forces in Hong Kong shortly before Pearl Harbour. A month later, the Japanese invaded. After a relatively-brief, murderous skirmish that lasted perhaps a week, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese. More than 550 Canadians were killed in the fighting or died later as starved, over-worked prisoners of war, their bodies reduced to little more than flesh and bone.

Those who survived had spent nearly four years in a hell that can scarcely be imagined today, and yet, when they returned home, they were basically ignored by the Canadian government and most Canadians. There were no glory parades or medals for them. Nor did they receive compensation for their years of forced labour until 1998, when survivors received a paltry cheque of $24,000. Today, few remain to bear witness.

If you’re in the mood to look back and reflect, I offer some stuff I wrote earlier on, plus two interesting, and conflicting, pieces on the decision to drop the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the horrendous loss of civilian life and agony that tens of thousands of “survivors” endured, I’m not sure anyone involved in the War against Japan, let alone those near death in POW camps in the jungle and Japan, questioned it. To a man, they believed that, without Hiroshima, they might well have never seen home again.

Ten years ago, on the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, I wrote this for the Globe and Mail.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/the-dirty-war/article984536/

UnknownThe Globe also included this vivid remembrance by Hong Kong vet Bob “Flash” Clayton, as told to me, on the vicious Battle for Hong Kong and his harrowing experience afterwards as a prisoner of war. His account is one of 20 oral histories by World War Two veterans in my book, Rare Courage. Such a time.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/incoming/they-did-terrible-things/article4119840/

Flash Clayton, one of my heroes, managed to survive until Feb. 2015. Ed Shayler whose experience is detailed in my Globe article, died in 2011. Their obits are here:

http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/thestar/obituary.aspx? pid=174091362

http://obits.dignitymemorial.com/dignity-memorial/obituary.aspx?n=Ed-Shayler&lc=3600&pid=154035109&mid=4845471

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Robert “Flash” Clayton (1921-2015), forever Rest in Peace.

And here are those opposing articles on whether the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki could, in any sense, be justified.

First, from The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/why-the-us-really-bombed-hiroshima/

And then, these judicious thoughts by well-knonw war historian, Max Hastings.

http://ww2history.com/experts/Max_Hastings/The_Nuclear_Bomb

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