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.