Canadian Army- Infantry
Canadian Parachute Battalion
My military career began in November 1942, at which time I formally enlisted in the Canadian Army as a private soldier. Actually, I had two years, while at Macdonald College, in the McGill Contingent of the Canadian Officers Training Corps (COTC). This experience served me well during the permanent Officers’ Training Courses what I took later that winter.
Getting into the army, as a private soldier, had a bit of an odd twist. After graduating from Macdonald, my ambition was to get into uniform, and “save the world” from Adolf Hitler. Of course, there was the old pull to continue with the Department of Agriculture and do one’s bit toward increasing the food supply within the country. I went to Jack Bird with this dilemma. He had been a mentor for me all through my college years and had provided excellent advice on several occasions. However this problem was different and he could not be at all definite with his suggestion. If he advised me to go into service and I got killed or wounded, he would never forgive himself. Conversely, he said he knew the experience in the army would be invaluable in my future life. He concluded with the remark that he could not advise me, but he finished by saying he had never regretted his own experience in W.W. I. Well, that convinced me. One further problem confronted me. Upon graduating, I owed Howard Roper some money for financing that last semester at Macdonald. Therefore, I took a job with the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture in order to pay Howard. Dr. W. V. Longley was always very generous with me and offered me a job as Poultry Promoter for Eastern Nova Scotia under the direction of Charlie Benoit. I enjoyed the work immensely, but as soon as all my debts were paid, I began to think seriously about “joining up.”
Coincidentally, early that fall I ran into Lyman T. Chapman. He was Principal while I was a student at N.S.A.C., and he had served in the Air Force during W.W. I. At this time, he was a recruiting officer for the R.C.A.F. He explained that they were short of Navigators and asked me to forward my name for acceptance. He explained that I would be given a commission automatically on being accepted; I would then be sent to a navigation school and shortly after completing the course I would be on my way overseas. It all sounded very exciting and I agreed to the proposition. Chapman said I would hear from Headquarters in less than a month and be given a time and place to report. This suited me perfectly since I would need to give a month’s notice on my job. I immediately gave this notice to Dr. Longley. He was disappointed, but he understood.
Over the next couple of weeks I waited anxiously to hear from the Air Force but nothing came through. Finally, the month was up, and my notice with the Department had expired; the Air Force had not replied to my application and I was out of a job. I went into Halifax at the end of the month, as it was time to turn in the keys of the Department car. Before doing this, I went to the army recruiting office. They had nothing to offer except a private’s rank. I accepted it. While there I took the Oath of Allegiance, thereby losing my American citizenship. I also passed a medical examination and received my kit and uniform. Having completed all these formalities, I was ready to forfeit the keys and the car. At that time, there was no Deputy Minister of Agriculture so I went directly to the Minister, the Honorable John A. MacDonald. When I explained what I had done, he said it was a big mistake and asked if I had taken the Oath of Allegiance. When I replied in the affirmative, he said not to worry; they had had no difficulty getting me clear of the Air Force and could get me released from the army, although it might be just a bit more difficult. When I refused to agree to this proposition, he grew very angry and said I would never work for the Department of Agriculture again. I was sorry to be placed under this cloud of animosity, but it was time to report back to the army base, so I left the office. I should state here, parenthetically, the Minister must have had a “change of heart” over the next several months or perhaps the reality of war came close to him. In any case, the following Christmas, I received a very nice card from him with all his Best Wishes. What a surprise!
Soon after enlisting in Halifax, I was sent to Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, for an Officer’s training course. That was one tough winter; it was terribly cold; army life was all new; the training was rigorous; and, at first, I felt rather out of place. We were told that only one in three would graduate. Most of the other candidates were non-commissioned officers who had been sent back from overseas. Many others had come up through the ranks and had lots of experience in the Army. What competition! Fortunately, I became close friends with two fellows; one named Cotton, who had been overseas with the First Division, and the other who had been a seasoned sergeant with the P.P.C.L.I. Both had lots of experience on the parade square and knew enough of army life to get along in almost any situation. This was where they really shone and these were areas in which I was horribly weak. Furthermore, my voice was not suited for the parade square and I did not appear to be aggressive enough for a potential officer. On the other hand, my previous experience in C.O.T.C. gave me an edge in studying “Appreciation of a Situation,” Military Law, Map Reading and other similar courses.
Each evening I would help my buddies in these subjects and they, in turn, devised a plan to help me. They suggested that whenever we were on parade and it was my turn to inspect the ranks under the watchful eye of our Instructor, I use each of them to really reprimand, in no uncertain terms, and do this in the most degrading language. Well, it appears that our strategy worked and at the end of three months, we all graduated as second Lieutenants (one pip wonders).
From Three Rivers, I was sent to Farnham, Quebec, for Advanced Officer Training. In this transfer I was separated from my former buddies but met up with two others: Rollie Curtin and Bill Hartman. Rollie had been a policeman in Toronto and subsequently, he and his wife, Lois, became close friends of ours. Bill had come up from Texas to join the Canadian Army. I did not know his marital status but he did drink too much for his own good. Life at Farnham was different from that of Trois-Rivieres. The training was tough, but I was in good physical condition. By this time, I had become better acquainted with army life and began to rather enjoy some aspects of it. We graduated from Farnham in early June, as First Lieutenants, were given a leave of absence and told to report at St. Jean’s, Quebec for a tour of instructional duty.
While the summer at St. Jean’s was pleasant, there was an under-current of discontent. As autumn approached and there seemed to be no progress towards getting overseas, most of the officers became uneasy. In the midst of this tension, a request came from the First Canadian Parachute Battalion for volunteer officers. Rollie Curtis, Bill Hartman and I were the only ones to apply, and we soon found out that we were accepted. In November, Curtin, Hartman and I reported for parachute-training at Camp Shilo, a few miles from Brandon, Manitoba. A week into training, Bill Hartman was sent back to infantry. Apparently he had been drinking too much, was out of shape and could not take the tough physical training that was served up to us. Rollie and I continued the program and after passing all the rigorous tests and making five satisfactory jumps, we were presented with our Paratroop Wings and accepted as qualified officers into the First Canadian Parachute Battalion. This was one big moment.
After we joined the Battalion we were given various staff duties while awaiting an overseas draft. One day, while on duty as the Orderly Officer, I went out in the morning to face sixty recruits of various ranks. Our program and equipment could only accommodate thirty-five, so I asked the Commanding Officer what we should do in this situation. He said to take all sixty men on a fairly fast run across the Prairies when when twenty-five dropped out, give the remainder a short rest, call for a truck and bring them back to camp. Obviously, there was only one single criterion in making the selection for joining the outfit; never mind about one’s intelligence or other personal assets. On the other hand, I suspect there was too little time for sophisticated tests or examinations, so endurance in running and determination were the quickest ways to do screening. This was also good preparation for the training when we were posted overseas.
In February 1944, we began to make preparations for going overseas. I left Shilo on a draft that arrived in Halifax a few days later, and we boarded the Isle de France. We were about 12,000 troops altogether from all branches of the service. The other ranks were pretty crowded but the officers were comfortable enough in their quarters. We were quite busy before the ship left port. Then I heard the engines starting and immediately became sea-sick. I looked out the port-hole and saw Dartmouth; we had not even reached the outside of the harbour and already I could not stand without being sick! I went back to my bunk and ate nothing except arrowroot biscuits for the next six days.
When we landed in Scotland, we immediately proceeded to our overseas camp in Bulford, Wiltshire County. Bulford is situated in the Salsbury Plains which was the locale of the Sixth Airborne Divison. Besides supporting troops, the Division comprised three Brigades; each Brigade had three Battalions. We were the only Canadian Battalion among them. Our Brigadier was James Hill and our Battalion C.O. was Lieut Col. Bradbrook. His Second in Command was Jeff Nicklin of Winnipeg BlueBomber’s fame.
We had some real high caliber men in our outfit. Cpl Topham won a Victoria Cross; Major Stan Waters later became a Lieut. Governor and the only elected Senator in the country; Russ Harrison became President and later Chairman of the Bank of Montreal; Bob Begg became Dean of Medicine and later President of the University of Saskatchewan, and the list goes on. It seemed to me that those qualities which were required to remain in the Battalion stood us in good stead later in life, no matter what the chosen field.
I was not terribly busy in the early days of Bulford. I was made a supernumery officer to a fellow by the name of Croxford who commanded the anti-tank platoon. Life around camp was not very exciting but there was a great bunch in the Mess and everyone seemed to get along well.
Training was rigorous and concentrated on preparations for D-Day – June 6th. We, in the reserve Battalion, watched the First Battalion leave Bulford, go into ‘concentration’ camp, and then jump into France on D-Day. It was tough to sit idly around the Mess, listening to the radio and not being able to offer any assistance to our buddies over there. Finally, the Battalion returned to Bulford, very much depleted after some very heavy fighting with a great loss of men. As soon as they returned, Croxford came to me and said he was finished; I could have the anti-tank platoon. He left and I never heard of him afterwards.
It was at this time that Jeff Nicklin showed his strict disciplinary action. In an effort to move the troops back to strict discipline, he ordered that the top button on their battle dress tunics be fastened at all times. He also had other strict measures for them. He argued that time spent on active duty in France had made the troops sloppy in their dress and conduct. He said he wanted them back to their customary smartness as soon as possible. I think he believed in the principal that smart looking, well-disciplined troops made the best soldiers. Well, the boys were not buying all this spit and polish. Having had a very tough time in battle, they were not about to be subjected to this kind of treatment, so they went on strike. Those were difficult times for the Junior Officers who had such close contact with their men and had built up a tremendous rapport with them. I have forgotten how this strike ended, but I recall the settlement was made by higher authority at the Brigade level. Anyway, we were glad when it was over and we could get on with more constructive activities.
As the Battalion was settling down, Nicklin called me to his office and gave me the following orders: “take my staff station wagon, load it with chocolate bars, cigarettes and any other goodies you can acquire. Along with your driver/batman, visit as many military hospitals as possible, find our men and give them treats along with Nicklin’s best wishes.” Most of our boys were in Basingstoke Hospital, which specialized in head injouries. We started up the east coast of England , then across the northern part and ultimately down the west coast. We were gone about ten days or two weeks, sleeping out under the stars and cooking our own meals. On occasion, we would trade canned meat or other scarce commodities with local farmers for fresh eggs, milk or the odd meal. It was a good experience for Tom Jackson, my batman, and me.
After our hospital tour, we began to settle down in earnest for our next assignment. During late summer and early fall, we began training for a defensive role. This involved jumping across every river in England and setting up defensice positions. This was new for paratroops who were usually on the offensive. However, in this case, we were getting ready to jump across the Rhine and set up defences so that infantry units could come along behind and through us. This, however, was all changed. During the fall months, the German army under Von Runstead, was romping through Belgium, only to be opposed by some green American troops, which offered very weak resistance and suffered heavy losses. As the enemy approached Brussels, the situation became very serious and something had to be done. Apparently the High Command were very concerned about the situation and our General Blois volunteered his Sixth Airborne Division to turn back the enemy. He argued that his troops were now trained for defensive warfare and were fully prepared to take on this task. Thus, we were assigned to go to Belgium.
The time was just before Christmas so Jeff Nicklin decided to put on a big Christmas dinner for the men. The tradition was for the officers to be waiters and serve the troops. They always took great delight in this occasion by giving the officers a hard time, but a fun time was had by all, and everyone enjoyed an enormous meal.
Then we made our way to a small town on the south coast of England to make ready for the sea trip across the Channel. We arrived at this town on the day before Christmas and the local citizens, taking pity on us, decided to put on a big Christmas dinner in a church basement. Naturally the boys went for this in no small way and really appreciated it. The next day, we set off by sea craft across the Channel and landed in Ostende. This was Christmas Day and the good people of Ostende prepared another tremendous meal for us. What a tough time – three Christmas dinners in less than a week. We set out from Ostende in a long convoy and took up positions east of Brussels. We then began to advance toward the enemy and engaging them, found them extraordinarily tough and very resistant. After capturing some prisoners, we found under heavy questioning, that the troops had been told by their officers that if they were taken prisoners by the “Red Devils,” they would have their tongues cut out. The red berets were given a reputation of being heartless and cruel, with no mercy. This, of course, was not true. No wonder the enemy was so resistant.
Finally, the German forces were made to retreat and once we had them on the run, we were relieved by some infantry troops and we were sent back to England. Returning to Bulford, we began to regroup for our original role of crossing the Rhine, and we were ready for it. This was to be different than any other Airborne operation ever attempted. Firstly, it was to take place in broad daylight, which was something new. Secondly, we were not going to land directly on the east bank of the river as previously expected. So the whole operation was to be a first-time ever event and a complete surprise to the enemy.
Just before leaving camp at Bulford, all officers attended a huge briefing session in the local theatre. Naturally, we were not allowed to carry any notes or orders; everything had to be committed to memory. Our Commanding General was Sir Richard Gale and he used large charts and maps, about ten feet square, to outline the entire operation. In the event that some did not land exactly where they were supposed to be, they could then take up the role of the troops with whom they landed. The broad strategy was that we would land behind the enemy troops about six miles east of the river. Their reserve troops were about twelve miles behind their front lines. We would attack those on the bank of the river from behind and set up a defensive force to prevent the reserve troops from advancing up to support them.
Well, it all sounded pretty good, but I kept wondering about security and how much the enemy would learn beforehand. There was little time for worry as the theatre was completely surrounded and guarded by dozens of military police. In his final remarks, General Gale said, “Now gentlemen, I want you to go back to your quarters, get down on your knees, and thank God that Sir Richard Gale is leading this attack.” Talk about confidence.
Well, March 24th finally rolled around. It was a beautiful Spring morning with bright sun and about 20 degrees. We were taken to different air fields, remembering our plane numbers, our take-off times, etc. (No E.T.D.s!) I was assigned to a lead plane in a V of three. Behind each of the other two planes there was another V, so that we were nine planes flying in close formation. Arriving at the airport, I met my pilot who was an American major and began to compare my information with his orders. After hearing my instructions, he said, “Look, let us go on up to the Officers mess, have a couple of drinks and when we are ready, we will take off.” Scary!
Well, we finally did take off, a beautiful day for flying and jumping. I landed on a dropping zone (DZ) that was bordered on one side by thick woods from which was coming heavy machine gun fire. We returned fire, threw grenades and began to put the enemy on the run. Shortly into the wooded area, I came across a sight that has remained in my memory ever since. There was Jeff Nicklin, hanging in a tree about fifteen feet off the ground, arms out stretched, his middle riddled with machine gun bullets. After the initial skirmishes, we began to make our way through Germany in a north-easterly direction.
In the beginning, fighting was fairly stiff and we did what was know as infantry-tank cooperation. Our men rode on the outside of tanks until they came across small arms fire. Then they jumped off the tanks and dispersed. The big tank guns blasted away at whatever fortification was protecting the machine guns. Then this was completed, the men returned to the tanks and we continued on our way. Whenever we came upon a heavy artillery gun, the men jumped off their tank, did a pincer movement behind the enemy, destroyed the position and cleared the area for the tanks. This type of infantry-tank cooperation served us well as we proceeded across the country.
Each day the resistance grew weaker until we were merely taking prisoners, literally by the thousands. The big satisfaction was coming across many prisoner-of-war camps and setting free allied prisoners of all description. The tough parts were discovering mass graves – who were these people and what did they do to deserve such treatment. Our trek across Germany is well documented in the book Out of the Clouds. We finally arrived at the city of Wismar on the south shore of the North Sea. This was our rendezvous with the Russians. We were scheduled to meet them on May 6th, but we arrived four days early on May 2nd, and for us the war was over.
From then on, the gap between the Russians and the Allies closed in a southward direction until it was finally completed. From May 2nd we had a real picnic in Wismar. The Russian Officers were great party people; vodka flowed freely and we had a tremendous time. The Russian soldiers, however, were a bit of a nuisance to our men. As their equipment was generally old and shoddy, they were always wanting to trade it with our boys – watches, revolvers, etc. One time I made mention of this problem to one of their officers, and he said if his men bothered our people, we should feel free to shoot them on the spot. I though he was half kidding, until I saw how the Russian officers treated their troops.
After a few weeks in Wismar, it was time to return to Bulford and then back to Canada to get ready for the Pacific Theatre. Col. Fraser Eadie called me to pick another officer, take Tom Jackson and head across Europe to set up camp in northern France and make ready to cross the Channel. I asked Jimmy Gregor of Winnipeg to accompany me, and we had a real ball traveling by a stripped down airborne jeep sans windshield, for one thousand miles to our predetermined campsite. Some days later the battalion arrived; we crossed the English Channel and returned to Bulford.
It was now time to make preparations to return to Canada. We went up to Scotland, boarded the Isle de France once again, and headed for Halifax. This time the sea was very quiet and I really enjoyed the trip. After all, who could be sick at a time like this. We landed in Halifax on June 22nd and what a celebration that was! We were the first unit back from overseas and it seemed the whole city was there for us. For me, there was only one person for whom I had any interest in all that crowd. We disembarked at Pier 21, assembled the entire battalion and had a big parade up Barrington Street. The parade terminated at the Grand Parade Square where Col. Eadie received the keys of the city from the Mayor. We were then dismissed after being granted a thirty day leave and told to report at Niagra-on-the-Lake.
Eventually it was time to return to the unit at Niagra-on-the-Lake. Here we were to re-group and get ready to join an American paratroop unit in preparation for the Pacific campaign. While at Niagra, the boys were not terribly busy; the farmers in the area were short of labour to pick their peaches, so a lot of our guys did some extra-curricular work.
At last VJ Day came along, and for us, the war was finally over. That night some of our boys went across the International Bridge to celebrate in Niagra Falls, New York. As they were returning home around midnight, they were walking (staggering) down the middle of the road. When they came to the border crossing, some customs officers came out of their little huts and said, “Pedestrians must walk on the sidewalk.” One of our guys replied, “Don’t you call me a Presbyterian, I am a good Roman Catholic.” With that he hit the customs man. Then some other customs men rushed to the scene. By then, more of our guys appeared and there was a real riot in the middle of the bridge. Traffic was backed up for miles on each side. Police forces arrived from both directions. Finally, the Fire Departments came from each side, sprayed the whole crowd, and that did the trick. Everyone dispersed, soaking wet, and traffic resumed. The next day I was Orderly Officer. About mid-morning, the police department from the New York side called and said, “Please keep your troops on your own side of the border.
Well, V.J. Day was something to be celebrated and immediately we began to make preparations to wind down the Battalion. A soon as I agreed to come back to the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, there was no time lost in getting me out of the army, and I was one of the first in the Battalion to get my honourable discharge in either August or September.
Thus ended my army career and thereby brings this chapter to a close.