Coming of Age: 1939–1946, by R. Brian How
In the spring of 1939, I graduated from Macdonald College, McGill University’s agricultural school. As valedictorian of my class of 25 students I had, in my graduation speech, pointed out the perilous times in which we lived and predicted that we would soon be involved in another world war.
So he loaned me $300, and I went over to visit my parents’ relatives and sightsee in Ireland and England, and I toured around Paris, Belgium, and Germany. Looking back I think it was kind of a crazy thing to do, to go into Germany. The day I arrived back in Canada was the day war was declared against Germany. A couple more weeks, and I wouldn’t have been able to get out.
It was not necessarily the custom among my contemporaries to make a grand tour following graduation, but my good friends Gordon Reid and Doug Armstrong had worked their way over on a cattle boat the previous summer in exchange for return passage. Mechanical refrigeration not being generally available, Canadian beef cattle were shipped live and someone had to feed and water them and clean them out en route. I missed going with them and when I went I went by myself, but I had a good deal of fun also.
My sister Anne had a good friend, Molly Brown, whose father was in the shipping business. He arranged for me to go as a supercargo, at a cost of $1 per day, on a Norwegian freighter carrying aluminum and paper over to Cardiff, Wales. Apparently the standard shipping contract contained such a provision although it was rarely used. At that time, freighters were allowed to take up to twelve passengers. If they had more than twelve, they were required to have more facilities on board. So many freighters took on a few passengers to help pay, and they didn’t charge them a great deal, because they didn’t have fancy quarters. But they were adequate.
The Voyage Over
June 10–29, 1939
I took the train on Saturday morning, June 10, to Three Rivers, a town about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, where I boarded the SS Olaf Bergh of Bergen, Norway, skippered by Captain Steimler.
The Olaf Bergh had come from Jamaica, where it picked up bauxite, the basic ore for making aluminum. Then it took the bauxite up the Saguenay River to St. John’s, where there was a huge hydroelectric generator that made enough electricity to convert the bauxite into aluminum. So the ship took the bauxite up there, unloaded the bauxite, loaded aluminum, and took the aluminum over to Cardiff.
The Olaf Bergh had been built by the Furness Shipbuilding Company at Hill-on-Tees in England in 1921, and was originally named the SS Rigi. In 1929 she was sold and her name changed. She was not adapted to carrying bulk cargo like grain or coal, as she was considered too slow. She was an oil burner, 415 feet long, 3,600 tonnes net and 9,300 tonnes gross weight, with a speed of 10.5 knots. She had two superstructures amidships. The forward one housed the bridge, the captain’s quarters, the saloon where we ate, and four passenger cabins. The aft one was built around the smoke stack and provided quarters for the officers. As readers of Joseph Conrad are well aware, the crew all bunked in the stern. She was a good size for a freighter and kept spotlessly clean, but definitely a workhorse.
We left Three Rivers about 45 minutes after I arrived on board, and headed down the St. Lawrence and up the Saguenay River to the small town of Port Alfred. There were four other passengers with me: an Englishwoman, Mrs. Smaill, and ñmdher 14-year-old son Jack, and a young couple named Harriet and Charles Bouslog. I never did find out anything more about the Smaills, but meeting the Bouslogs and the fact that they tolerated me was a godsend.
The Bouslogs were on their way to England for him to learn more about Wordsworth and Coleridge. Charles was writing his Ph.D. thesis at Harvard on Coleridge’s later poems, and must have had a grant. Harriet had a law degree, but I doubt she had ever practiced. She was very active, well-read, and energetic. Charles was studious, but had a marvelous sense of humour. He had a job at the University of Hawaii waiting for him on his return. What a contrast to English Ph.D. candidates today! I remember him telling me that the Five Families of Hawaii had things so well under control that anyone buying a one-way ticket to the Islands, as they were doing, was scrutinized pretty carefully to make sure they were not going to become a public nuisance. The Bouslogs made life a lot more interesting on the ship over, and I saw them in London and travelled with them in England afterwards.
About noon on Sunday we arrived in Port Alfred, the town dominated by the Aluminum Company of Canada and Consolidated Paper Mills. We already had picked up newsprint at Three Rivers and in Port Alfred were to load aluminum ingots for Cardiff, Wales. The loading was delayed because of heavy rain that might damage the newsprint if the holds were opened. Charles, Harriet, and I spent the time walking about the town, and eventually purchased rudimentary fishing gear and went fishing in a nearby stream and caught several fish. I thought my colloquial French was pretty good after working two summers on a farm just outside Quebec City, but I remember we clashed over the local translation of ice cream which I claimed was crème à la glacé and they said was crème glacée.
We finally cast loose from Port Alfred about 9:30 a.m. on June 15, and headed down the Saguenay, dropping the pilot at Father Point with the last mail until the other side.
Considerable space in my diary is devoted to the meals, hardly unexpected considering the author’s appetite and the lack of other activities. We played quoits, walked around the deck (53 turns to the mile), and eventually made a kite which we flew off the stern. At one time we even played hide and seek with Jack Smaill. I read a lot, although now I wish I knew what. I borrowed several of Charles’s volumes of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which made me want to visit the Lake District. At one point Charles and I read aloud The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, alternating verses.
The weather deteriorated as we approached the Irish coast, and we had some rough sailing. The captain said the ship tended to be a bit of a submarine, and I agreed.
We finally sighted the coast of Cornwall about 3:30 p.m. on June 28, thirteen days after leaving Port Alfred. The Captain said I owed him $19, so I gave him four English pounds, which was just about the current exchange rate. The other passengers paid $70. Recently I read of someone crossing the ocean on a Polish freighter who paid about $720, about comparable considering inflation.
Ireland and Scotland
June 30 — July 11, 1939
We docked early June 29 at Newport, a small town up the River Usk from Cardiff, Wales. I said goodbye to the Bouslogs and Smaills and took the train for Crewe and Holyhead and the ferry to Dublin, all for 4£/6. I stopped off in Chester to see the cathedral, and got a bunk (no extra charge) on the Irish Mail Steamer. I spent the day in Dublin and stayed overnight with the Stubingtons (family friends?), who showed me around. We had a long conversation about Irish people and Irish politics. I took the train early the following morning for Belfast.
I arrived in Belfast about noon and made my way to Ardkeen, the large house of my mother’s family, the Martins, at 86 Marlborough Park. I met Aunt Nina and Cousin Nina at lunch. That afternoon we were picked up by Doreen Totten and her father Uncle Willie in their new Morris 10 for a drive in the country and a picnic supper. Doreen and her father were just learning to drive, however, so on the way back that chore fell to me.
I stayed in Belfast for a week. I did a lot of sightseeing as well as seeing many relatives. I saw more of Doreen and Willie Totten and Herbert Totten and also Cousins Sophie and Bertie and Cousin Hamish. I went to tea with very elderly Cousin Johnena, someone named, I think, Mrs. Caroline Carr Carr, and Johnena’s elderly retainer Jane. I also had tea with Mrs. Moore and daughter Noreen, Uncle Jim Moore’s wife and daughter. “Noreen is what I’ve been told the mythical Irish girl is like,” I wrote, “black hair and brown or blue eyes.” Aunt Nina, Doreen, Herbert, and I took a drive to Killyleagh and saw the church and family graves there. We also drove out to Bangor, where my mother had lived as a child. I was not able to get hold of Uncle Harry McCullough, whomever he might have been.
They fed me extremely well. We ate lots of lamb, and strawberries. “I shall get awfully fat unless I can convince Aunt Nina that when I say ‘I don’t want a second helping,’ I don’t want one,” I wrote.
I tried to learn something of Irish agriculture. I visited the veterinary laboratories at Stormount, and “had quite an interesting chat with the director, Mr. Lamont. He knew Prof. Cameron of the Macdonald Institute of Parasitology, and told me some very interesting details of the work his branch was doing in connection with the health of farm animals.” I also visited the agriculture department at Queen’s University, and talked with several people there.
I left on Saturday, July 8. “Leaving such nice people in Belfast is rather hard,” I wrote. I took the ferry to Glasgow, meeting on the boat a young man from Memphis, Tennessee, George Jackson who, I reported, was “doing cathedrals.” I went to Sunday service in the Glasgow cathedral with him. I shipped my suitcase by train directly to Edinburgh and took a bus there via Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. On arrival I checked in at the Y.
I wrote in my diary: “Tuesday I really did the town. The Art Galleries — St. Giles’ Cathedral — Holyrood — the Castle — Calton Hill. The government buildings that the King is to open are my ideal of good modern architecture. Surprising was the way the National War Memorial fitted into the scheme of things at the Castle.”
I took the night train to London on July 11 and had a compartment to myself.
July 12 — July 27, 1939
When I got to London, I went straight to the Y and checked in, but was told I could only stay three days.
Charles Bouslog called the next morning. I had lunch with him and Harriet and then we went to the National Gallery. I especially enjoyed seeing Turner’s painting of the tug towing the Temeraire in to be broken up. “The colours are infinitely better than the photos in Time would lead one to believe,” I wrote. Then we went to the National Portrait Gallery, briefly, and I saw Joseph Epstein’s bronze bust of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. “It is to a usual bust as a watercolour is to an oil painting.” That evening we went to see Lupino Lane and Teddie St. Denis in a musical called Me and My Girl that introduced a popular dance called the Lambeth Walk and was coming up to its 1,000th performance. (It was revived on Broadway in 1987, 50 years after opening in London.)
One afternoon I went to see Mr. Cooper, a friend of my father’s, who ran a firm that made picnic baskets. The firm, G.W. Scott and Sons, dates back to the 1600s. (My father was their Canadian distributor.) He took me to the factory, and I saw the baskets being woven and fitted. “We looked at picnic baskets worth hundreds of dollars,” I wrote — a lot of money then, and today. He also took me to the silverware people, Aspreys, to show me the baskets they had for sale there. Mr. Cooper was “very nice, very like Cousin Bertie,” I wrote. “At the British Industries Fair he had to cope with the King, Queen, and Queen Mary, all at the same time.”
Later, I spent a weekend with the Coopers in their cottage at West Burton, Sussex. I took the train on Saturday, July 22, to Pulborough where he met me, and returned on Monday, July 24, with him. I met Mrs. Cooper and daughter Mavis. I wrote a separate letter about this apparently, so consequently no information is in the diary. I spent many more weekends with them, of course, in late 1943 and early 1944, when I was stationed nearby with the Army.
When my three days in the Y were over the Bouslogs moved me, in the used 30hp Ford car they had just bought, to the bed and breakfast at 25 Bedford Street London WC1 where they were staying, the rate being 30 per week or about $1 per day. Then they took me on a tour to Canterbury and the cathedral, to the coast at Sandwich, then on to Dover and Folkestone, before returning to London. The next day we did Chelsea: Sloan Square, Battersea Park, etc., and later the Tate Gallery.
There was no mention in the diary of my 21st birthday, which occurred about this time.
I visited St. Paul’s cathedral, where in the crypt I saw a plaque in memory of a George How, M.A.
Other plays I saw at this time in addition to Me and My Girl were Design for Living with Diana Wynyard, Rex Harrison, and Anton Walbrook, The Dancing Years written and directed by and starring Ivor Novello, Of Mice and Men, Under Your Hat with Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert, The Corn is Green, a semi-autobiographical play written, produced, and acted in by Emlyn Williams, and starring Sybil Thorndike (“By far the best play I’ve seen in London”), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (outdoors in Regent’s Park). I also went to Covent Gardens to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform Swan Lake and Prokofiev’s The Prodigal Son, both accompanied by the London Philharmonic. I did not record how much these shows cost, presumably very little considering how many I saw.
One evening I met my cousin Gilbert How at Victoria Station, and we had dinner at the Regent Palace Hotel before he left for Brighton. “We had a marvelous meal and a very interesting conversation,” I wrote.
I went to the British Museum several times, and saw the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and a Micronesian navigation chart. “I should have seen the fruits of Rembrandt’s etchings,” I wrote, “which I didn’t know were there at the time.” I went to the Tower of London, and saw the Crown Jewels and armour. I went to Sir John Soane’s house, a small museum, and saw the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, an Egyptian pharaoh. I also went to the Kensington Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
I watched the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and saw the King drive out. “I want to see Queen Mary most of all, though,” I wrote.
I also got tickets to observe the House of Commons, although there was a delay, and so I missed seeing Question Period. Instead I heard the Home Secretary give the second reading of the Prevention of Violence Act 1939, a law in response to the Irish Republican Army’s recent violence. I recognized many notable politicians and officials — Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, John Simon, Leslie Hore-Belisha — but none of them spoke.
I went to Hyde Park, and spent three hours listening to people in the famous Speakers’ Corner. “The speakers were approximately 35% Irish (from Republicans to mild anti-conscriptionists), 35% Communist and Fascist, 20% religious, 5% for their own interests, and 5% exhorting aid for the present government.”
I mixed a little business with pleasure by getting in touch with the Canadian Embassy and securing the opportunity to observe English marketing practices at the Smithfield Market (I saw beef cattle from eastern Canada being sold) and the importation of Canadian farm products at the London docks. I went with the Canadian agricultural attaché, a Mr. Wood, and watched the unloading of bacon at Hays Wharf. Mr. Wood inspected the samples for “conformation, condition, and temperature (about 40º F),” as did a representative from the company. “The English eat very little of what we call bacon,” I observed, “but mostly back- or Windsor bacon, so quite a few backs are sent over.”
I arranged for passage home at this time on the SS Grey County leaving Antwerp on August 10 for $70. This was not my first choice, but after all, it was less than a month away.
The Lake District
July 27 — August 1, 1939
With the Bouslogs and a friend of theirs, Donald Thompson, I left London on Thursday, July 27 by car for a trip around the Lake District. We stopped first at a church in Highgate where Coleridge is buried, then went on to Oxford for lunch. There we toured Christ Church College and Cathedral, then drove on to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Anne Hathaway’s cottage. From there we went to Warwick and Kenilworth where we spent the night.
On Friday, we proceeded by back roads to Stoke-on-Trent and Etruria, home of the Wedgwood china factory. The Wedgwood family apparently had a large collection of Wordsworth and Coleridge papers. We were expected, and were given a grand tour of the plant and lunch in the workers’ cafeteria, served on Wedgwood. Queen Mary (later the Queen Mother) had been at the plant the previous day and we signed the guest book on the page following the one containing her signature with the same pen, we were told, that she had used.
From Etruria we headed west for the mountains of northern Wales, again taking the back roads through Oswestry. “The scenery was marvelous. We had selected the route from one published in a London paper, and the road led along valleys, up over moors, and down past rivers and lakes. One pass we crossed was 1,400 feet above sea level, with sheep roaming loose, and not a house for miles, only furze and heather and an occasional shepherd and his dog. It was raining and this accentuated the bleakness and grandeur of the landscape.” We spent the night in Bala.
Saturday morning, we awoke and drove along the River Dee to Llangollen, then to Ruthin, Birkenhead, and through the Mersey tunnel to Liverpool. We sped through Liverpool, and about fifteen miles north stopped at a nice sandy beach for lunch. After lunch we headed for Lancaster, then cut east toward Hawes. Driving through a moor we saw a house with a sign advertising “small cheeses,” and bought one. It was very good, and tasted similar to cottage cheese. At Hawes we turned west, and came to the small town of Sedbergh, which was known for good fishing in a nearby river. For four shillings we had a meal of soup, fish, roast duck, peas, potatoes, peach melba, and cheese and crackers. Finally we drove on to Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District, where we spent the night.
“This is rough, mountainous country, interspersed with pleasant drives through tall trees in the valleys,” I wrote. “It was surprising to us how the mountains of Wales could turn to the flats of Liverpool, then to the hills of Yorkshire in such a short time.”
Sunday morning, we awoke and drove southwest through country that gradually became more rugged past the southern tip of Lake Windermere, north to Hawkshead, then southwest past the northern tip of Coniston Water and ahead to Broughton and the sea. Then we turned northwest, and drove over the Bleck Moor to the Wast Water, up the southern shore to Wasdale Head Valley. “The scenery here is striking,” I wrote, “mountains of 3,000 feet rising from the valley which is only 250 feet above sea level.”
“We had vowed to climb Scafell,” the tallest mountain in England, “but found it only safe for experienced mountaineers so picked Lingmell nearby, about 600 feet lower. The ascent was marvelous, right into the mist which lifted and fell at intervals. The cool breeze on the stiff climb gives one the same exhilaration a climb on skis in light clothing does. Ascent and descent took about three hours.”
Afterwards we drove out to the sea and followed the coast to Whitehaven, where we cut back inland to Cockermouth, and stayed for the night in a very nice hotel next door to the house in which Wordsworth was born.
On Monday we again arose early, and drove southeast to Keswick. We saw Greta Hall, where Coleridge and Southey worked, and Dove Cottage, where Wordsworth and De Quincey lived, and then we went on to Allan Bank and Rydal Mount, other houses of Wordsworth. Then we headed down the west shore of Windermere, around the tip, and up to the village
On Tuesday, August 1, I bade goodbye to Charles, Harriet, and Donald, and took the train from Liverpool back to London. All in all, we had covered 675 miles. My share of the gas and oil came to £1.
Paris, Cologne, and Belgium
August 4 — August 12, 1939
Of course, war clouds had been blooming all this time. We had had all kinds of false alarms before, but I think everybody felt that war was coming, and that Hitler was going to have to be stopped, one way or another, and that war was probably the only way to stop him. But nobody knew just when it was coming. Now I think it was rather crazy of me, but to get to the ship in Antwerp I decided to go to Paris, then to Cologne, Germany, and then back to Antwerp.
So I went back to London, and on August 3 I took a night train via the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry to Paris. I checked in to a hostel my friends Doug Armstrong and Gordon Reid had stayed in the year before. I took a bus tour, and we saw the Church of the Madeleine, Napoleon’s tomb, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Duke of Windsor’s house, although he was in Cannes at the time. (The Duke of Windsor had abdicated the throne as King Edward VIII three years before and decamped to France. He was a controversial figure, and rumoured to sympathize with the Germans.) In the afternoon we went to Versailles. “They still show the table the Treaty of 1918 was signed on,” I wrote in my diary, “as if it were something to be proud of.” The next day I walked around through the Latin Quarter, visited the Sorbonne and Notre Dame Cathedral, and then spent the rest of the day in the Louvre.
“Paris is just as I expected it would be,” I wrote. “I think that has been the greatest joy of the trip — finding that each place I had read about was very much as I had pictured it, and perhaps even nicer.”
On Saturday, August 5, I took the train and went into Germany — Nazi Germany — and that was quite an experience. We went through customs at Saarbrucken, and the German soldiers came down the aisle, and were quite severe, but they let me in OK. I didn’t think that was anything special, but looking back on it now, I think it was kind of a crazy thing to do, going to Germany.
At college I had listened to Hitler’s speeches on the radio and knew from the crowds chanting “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil” that he had strong support. I didn’t realize how strong, however, until I went there. All the minor officials and many citizens greeted foreigners with upraised hand and “Heil Hitler.” Instead of saying “How are you?” or “Good morning,” they’d say “Heil Hitler.” This was of course something that was encouraged. You were supposed to say “Heil Hitler.” The only exception was one waiter in a town we stopped for lunch in on a boat. He said, “Grüss Gott,” because he knew, or thought, that I was an American, and he didn’t want to say “Heil Hitler” to me.
I took the train to Mainz, and then took a one-day tour boat down the Rhine to Cologne. The Rhine River is beautiful there, just beautiful, going between hills on either side where there are castles. This was a nice tour boat. I don’t know that there were any other English-speaking Canadians/Americans on the boat, but August is the time that many people in Europe take vacations, and Hitler had introduced a compulsory one-month vacation period. The boat was full of young people, maybe a little older than me, and so they were on vacation. They were singing German songs, not military songs, but German patriotic songs, so it was a strong feeling.
You couldn’t help but get the impression that the Germans were proud of what they were doing, and happy to have the economy recovering, and very proud of their way of life at that time. After the terrible depression that Germany went through in the 1920s following World War I, they were happy to have a job and to be part of a rising system. I have often wondered since whether, if there had been a Marshall Plan after World War I, the Germans might have been spared the payment of reparations and the devastating depression of the 1920s, and consequently not latched on to a lunatic, and thereby avoided the Holocaust. It’s hard to say.
I remember waking up in the morning, about six a.m., and hearing people singing outside, and I looked out the window, and there were kids about 18, all dressed in lederhosen (not in military uniforms, but in workers’ uniforms), marching in two lines — Hitler Youth. They had shovels over their shoulders, and were off to do some kind of construction project. They were singing patriotic German songs.
I took a quick tour around the area. We looked around Cologne and saw the churches and the old city walls, and then we sped down the Reichsautobahn to Bonn and then to Godesberg, and we had tea at the hotel where Neville Chamberlain had negotiated with Hitler the year before.
“The town is quite normal,” I wrote of Cologne. “It even has a Woolworth’s! And the only automat restaurant I’ve seen outside New York. There are lots of uniformed men around, yet there were in London too. These may be slightly sterner-looking, but they’re not as officious as I thought they might be.”
I didn’t see any anti-Semitism, but I wasn’t looking for it. I might have seen it if I looked for it. I wasn’t really aware at the time of the tremendous anti-Semitism that existed in the country. The feeling you got was that here was a people who were happy and proud and that was the way it was. “The people here are very nice, and the country is very pretty,” I wrote in my diary, “but my imagination is too good to let me enjoy it.”
I was back in Cologne in 1945, six years later. By then it had been just devastated. Just blown apart.
On August 9 I took the train via Aachen and Liège to Brussels. Brussels still had a few old gas streetlamps, and I got to see the lamplighters come around at dusk and light the lamps. Then I went to Antwerp and on August 12 got on a Manchester Line freighter, the SS Grey County, back to Canada.
We arrived back in Quebec City on September 3, 1939 — the day Canada, Great Britain, and the rest of the Commonwealth declared war on Germany. I didn’t realize that within four years I would be back in Europe again for a two-and-a-half-year visit.
Back in Canada
Back in Montreal and living with my family at 3593 Marlowe Avenue for an extended period of time was an experience I had not had for several years. Since 1935 I had worked on farms in the summers — one year on a dairy farm in Baie d’Urfe, the next on my Uncle Charlie’s farm in Ormstown, and the next two on a mink farm near Quebec City. The rest of those years I lived and went to school at Macdonald College in the village of Ste. Anne de Bellevue, about 25 miles from Montreal, coming home frequently but only for weekends or holidays.
I don’t remember much about home life. I think my brother had an apartment, so I had a bedroom to myself. He was working in investments at Imperial Trust Company for Howard Webster, who later became the richest man in Canada. My sister Lorraine, six years older, was teaching school, and my sister Anne, four years younger, was going to McGill. My Dad was doing his best to keep his business going. He was an importer of fine silverware, and the Canadian agent for C.S. Green & Co. of Birmingham. His business had suffered severely during the Depression, and he was forced to add other lines in order to survive. My Mother had had household help from French-Canadian girls from the country during the 1930s, but they were getting harder to find with the upturn in the economy.
This interlude gave me a great opportunity to renew acquaintance with the boys who lived nearby whom I had grown up with. For a long time we had been a very close group, known to each other as The Gang. There were about a half-dozen of us — Doug Armstrong, Gordon Reid, Leighton Smith, Leon Lepage, Dick Stevenson, and I. One member, Charlie Crombie, our acknowledged leader, had moved to Toronto with his family several years earlier but we still kept in touch. I was the oldest in the group by a few months and had also skipped a grade in school so I finished college a year or two before the others. In our younger years we used to get together after school to play ping-pong or street hockey, and sometimes in the spring we would even go jogging before breakfast. Later in winters we would often take the ski train north to the Laurentians on Saturdays, or on Fridays go to a movie together and for coffee afterwards. A toasted fruit loaf at Murray’s became a Gang custom, as did long Sunday walks on Mount Royal discussing the world’s shortcomings and our solutions to them. There were wonderful weekend visits to Charlie in Toronto, a memorable Easter bus trip to New York City, and several camping excursions to the Reids’ country place in the northern Laurentians.
Gradually the circle widened. Jay Coulter and his family moved into the neighbourhood. Doug Henderson, who lived a couple of blocks away, was recruited. Leon Lepage, through his job at the Canadian Pacific Railroad’s head office, introduced us to Ralph Blake, who had moved to Montreal from Ottawa to work there. Ralph would later play an important role in keeping us informed of each other’s activities during the War. By chance there were no girls our ages living in the neighbourhood, although my sister Anne had two friends — Dick Stevenson’s sister Audrey and Molly Brown who lived next door to the Stevensons.
The great uncertainty about what lay ahead did not, as I recall, put me under great pressure to either enlist or search for a job. I tried to look for a job, but didn’t have much idea who needed a B.Sc. (Agr) in Animal Nutrition even though I had achieved (just barely) First Class Honours. Finally, in early 1940, my Mother had an inspiration and contacted a Mr. Morris whom she had worked for many years before, and who had since risen to the Presidency of Ogilvie Flour Mills. Ogilvie was one of the long-established flour milling companies in Canada (there were two or three of them). It turned out that Ogilvie had just launched an animal feeds division with a brand called “Miracle Feeds,” and needed someone with an Animal Nutrition background to do chemical analyses. So I soon started work in a chemistry lab all by myself doing protein, fat, and fiber and other component analyses of ingredients and finished poultry and dairy feeds. (The fact that they called their brand “Miracle Feeds” bothered my mother, because she thought miracles were reserved for the Bible, and not for anybody to use as merchandising.)
Meanwhile, the War was continuing. The Canadian people were, as I recall, resigned to it. There was a considerable difference in attitude between the Anglophones and Francophones. The Anglophones were largely of British background with great loyalty to the Crown and support for the war effort, while the French had lost contact with France and were in general isolationist. This difference would generate very stressful relationships within the country over the next five years. Prime Minister Mackenzie King had to tread a careful path to keep the country together.
World War II broke out only a little over 20 years since the end of World War I and the memories of that terrible struggle were still fresh in the minds of many. No one in my immediate family had been lost in that War, but many Canadians had been. In spite of this, there was an immediate surge in enlistments. This was due to patriotic fervor in the part of some, but to a search for a warm bed, a healthy diet, and a small wage on the part of many others. The economy was only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, and Canada had not taken as many steps as had the US to help those in need. I remember being saddened at the sight of so many homeless men living under the bridges that led from Montreal across the St. Lawrence River.
The military establishment was hard-pressed to cope with the flood of enlistments, but managed one way or another to put Canadian soldiers in England before the end of the year. The first Canadians arrived there in December 1939, before there was any equipment available for them. Only a few, if any, saw action until the Dieppe raid in August of 1942.
So there was little pressure to enlist, and I was in no hurry to go. This was the time of the so-called phony war, when both sides were building up on the western front. My brother George and I signed up for Officer Training at McGill University and went several evenings a week to march around. After that course was completed later in the winter, a friend of my brother, who had served in the Victoria Rifles in World War I, secured a commission for me in that Reserve infantry regiment, as a second lieutenant.
In Canada the Reserves were somewhat similar to the National Guard in the United States, although the various units had names as well as numbers and in most cases a long history of valiant deeds. It was the practice of the Armed Forces to call up or mobilize Reserve units as needed. This was the route to take if one wanted to be an officer, as I did, and serve along with friends or men from the same city. By enlisting directly one never knew where one would end up.
The Allies had entered the War ill-prepared for conflict. During the first eight months both sides made every effort to develop an armed force and the weapons needed. Voluntary enlistments proved more than adequate. The German occupation of Norway took everyone by surprise as did the blitzkrieg in May when the Germans went through Belgium and around the Maginot Line and overran France in short order. The evacuation of the remnants of the British Army from Dunkirk that followed was an amazing feat only made possible either by error or design on the part of the Germans. Just a few Canadians had crossed the Channel to help, but they promptly returned to Britain without seeing action. Then again the War quietened down.
I spent the summer of 1940 living at the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club just outside of Montreal. An older friend drove me back and forth during the week. On weekends and some evenings I sailed as crew on an International 14-foot dinghy skippered by my brother or other Yacht Club members. I continued to do routine chemical analyses at Ogilvie Flour, occasionally looking into other job possibilities and wondering if I should enlist. I got along alright with my immediate boss Dr. Cliffe, but I came to cross-purposes with his boss Mr. Davies, largely, I think, through poor communication.
The Battle of Britain the fall of 1940 was a source of great concern. Although prospects for British survival looked very dark Winston Churchill was able to rally the people to resist, and the RAF succeeded in stemming the tide. Many young men in Canada and the other Dominions volunteered to become pilots, but the great need was for aircraft. Charlie Crombie had volunteered in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) early in the War but to his disappointment had been designated to become an air gunner probably, because he had never gone to college.
Throughout that time, with the fall of France, the evacuation at Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain, I expected our unit would be called up, but it wasn’t. As I learned later the powers that be were in no hurry to call up the Victoria Rifles. After the experiences of World War I, infantry regiments were not attracting (apart from me) the highest-quality volunteers. Most young men wanted to serve in the Air Force or Navy. I was unable to, or so I thought, because of poor eyesight. And many of the senior officers of the Victoria Rifles had served in World War I and were, to put it mildly, past their prime. They were not physically and mentally able to handle the combat. These two factors did not occur to me until much later. In contrast, the 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars (with whom I came home from the War) was mobilized fairly early in the war, and later became the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment equipped with scout cars. The Hussars, originally a cavalry unit, carried a lot of prestige in Montreal.
Around this time, the Marlowe Lowdown started. The ML was the brainchild of my friend Doug Armstrong, who had been a reporter for the McGill Daily student newspaper. It began in July 1941 after Charlie Crombie joined the RCAF as a weekly newsletter to help keep all of the Marlowe Gang in touch throughout the war. Doug, with the occasional help of others, put the ML out for the first few months. But then he joined the RCAF to become a Radar Mechanic. Ralph and Mary Blake took over and served as editors and publishers for the next four years. Ralph was medically unfit for service and held a clerical job at first with the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Montreal and then in the Civil Service in Ottawa.
In the beginning the news in the ML was gathered in several different ways. Doug and then Ralph and Mary learned of our activities through direct contact, phone calls, and reports from others, and this was mostly what was included in the newsletter at first. Later, as we scattered abroad, the text consisted mainly of excerpts from letters we wrote, as well as the editors’ comments on them and on the political, economic, and military situation. Within a year or so an issue of the ML often contained excerpts from three or four letters, and with comment from the editors ran to eight to ten single-spaced typewritten pages.
Initially the ML went to about half-a-dozen young men and required one typing with five carbon copies of three or four pages each. Several others joined our group as the War ground on — our sisters and brothers and a few other carefully chosen service people — which brought the number of recipients into the ‘teens. By the end of the War, Ralph and Mary were typing two copies each with six or seven carbon copies of eight or ten pages total. In addition, some copies were read more than once. For example my copy went to my parents first, who then sent it on to me. This wide readership, I see now, and also the need for military security, tended to tone down the content of our letters.
Active Duty in Canada
By the spring of 1941, the War had been going for almost two years. The Germans had penetrated Belgium, Holland, and France, and had taken off against the Russians, and although the British had successfully prevented the Germans from coming across the Channel and taking their country, we still seemed to be a long way from the finish. So, finally, that spring, I decided that I better do something. So I told the people at the reserve regiment, the Victoria Rifles, that I was going to go enlist, and not wait for them to be called up.
I volunteered for active duty in July and was sent to an officer training course. The first part was at the Officer Training Centre in Brockville, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence between Montreal and Toronto. The second part was at Camp Borden near Barrie, Ontario, north of Toronto. So I trained in Brockville that summer, and spent weekend leaves in Montreal and Toronto.
I heard about Pearl Harbor while taking the train returning to camp after a leave in Montreal. It was a relief to know that the US would now be in the War with us.
After completing my training in February 1942, I was assigned back to Brockville as an instructor. This was not my first choice, but I think they thought I would be good at it. This is something that hung over me all through the War and ever since: despite all the military training I had, I didn’t think very highly of the military. But I knew all the stuff, and I was considered sufficiently intelligent and well-trained to be an instructor, so I was sent back to Brockville as an instructor.
I became very proficient in several military skills. I could smoothly double-clutch an army truck at high speeds, I could send and receive Morse Code at a good clip, and I could take apart and put together automatic weapons in the dark. None of these skills were any use to me later. I could probably have used more military law and motivational psychology.
At Brockville I remember seeing my first Jeep. A US Colonel brought one over from Camp Drum near Watertown, and had his driver demonstrate its ability in a local gravel pit. Later, Jeeps became an important part of my life, and like many others I learned to demobilize one by removing the rotor from the distributor. I saw my first snowmobile, too, that winter.
After several months on the staff at Brockville I became desperate to move on. I didn’t want to spend the entire War as an instructor in Canada. I heard there were openings for officers in the Canadian Armoured Corps (the tank corps) and so I applied. A general came around and interviewed me, and I was accepted. In October I was sent to Camp Borden and joined the Grey and Simcoe Foresters (the 26th Army Tank Regiment), a unit named after two adjacent Ontario counties.
We were gradually issued Sherman tanks, made in Montreal. I was proud of their origin, since before World War II, no factory in Canada had even made car engines. Shermans weighed 30 to 35 tonnes, could go 30 to 35 miles per hour, had armour in front about three inches thick, had a 75mm gun in the turret that could shoot high explosive or armour piercing shells, and a .50 calibre machine gun in the hull. They had a crew of five: the driver and the machine-gunner in the hull, and the tank commander, gunner, and gun loader/radio operator in the turret. There was an intercom system as well as radio contact with other tanks in the unit. The gunner could rotate the turret and raise and depress the gun. Space in the turret was tight: the 75mm shells were about two feet long and 75mm (about three inches) in diameter. And the gun recoiled! There was a periscope for the tank commander to use in tight situations. I think the driver had to look through a slit when he couldn’t put his head out.
Shermans could come with different sources of power, all providing about 450 to 500 horsepower. Some were powered with two diesel truck engines, some had a Wright radial aircraft engine, and others had five Chrysler car engines mounted in a circle.
They were state of the art, but unfortunately they had a couple serious deficiencies. The worst problem was throwing a track, which was hard to replace. It was like putting chains on a car tire, only much harder. Another problem we didn’t discover until they went into action: they were unheated. On manoeuvres that winter we used to huddle under the exhaust to keep warm, and for many years afterwards whenever I smelled diesel fumes I thought of tanks.
That October, Charlie Crombie died. He was killed in action, dying of his injuries on October 19, five days after his B-24 Liberator crashed in the Middle East. He had been in the Middle East only a few days.
On January 21, 1943, I wrote in the ML: “And now, Canadian sentiment. I could blast you for hours on this subject. Sentiment grows from environment, and I mean a very broad definition of the latter word. To me the more one is influenced by his immediate environment, the poorer the character.
“In my happier moments, I consider my environment to consist of Time, The New Yorker, Van Loon, Tolstoy, Stravinsky, Beethoven, the copy of Ogden Nash’s poem ‘No Doctors Today, Thank You,’ that I have pinned on the wall above my bed. …
“In my bluer periods, I concede that my environment is army, army, more army, and I’m no different than any other man in khaki. And so, I’d go as far to say it is disparaging to speak of a typical Canadian sentiment. Forgetting language difficulties, I’d like to be able to converse intelligently with an educated Chinese, German, or Russian. A strong Canadian sentiment indicates our inability to see beyond our own border. If I met a man in El Alamein who used to spend his winter weekends in the pub in St. Saveur, I might team up with him immediately, but if our mutual interests stopped there, the association wouldn’t last very long.”
Finally, in July 1943, we were shipped off to England. The Grey and Simcoe Foresters, all 800 of us, loaded onto a train at Camp Borden and headed to Halifax, where we boarded a small passenger ship, the SS Athenia. It was relatively fast and went by itself rather than in a convoy. This was considered safer, as evidenced by Doug Armstrong’s experience a year earlier when the troop ship he was on collided with a US destroyer just outside the Halifax harbor, and he had to go back and start over.
I think we landed in Liverpool, and went to barracks in the Midlands somewhere. But it was hard to tell, because all the road signs in England had been taken down. This had been done in case of German invasion, although that threat had passed by now.
Shortly after we arrived, the Grey and Simcoe Foresters were disbanded, and broken up to provide reinforcements for other divisions. I was sent to the 1st Hussars of London, Ontario, also then known as the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment. This was a crack regiment. They had been mobilized on September 1, 1939, right at the beginning of the war. I must have done well in the inspection that determined who from the Grey and Simcoe Foresters would go where. Three or four other junior officers came with me. One was a farm boy from Ontario, Harold Mills, and we became good friends. He was killed shortly after landing on D-Day, at Le-Mesnil Patry.
The 1st Hussars were stationed in Worthing, on the coast south of London, in houses across the road from the English Channel. (Their location on the south coast indicated that they had been among those chosen to land in France first on D-Day.) We trained on the South Downs, an area of rolling land covered by open fields with very little habitation. My billet was right on the north side of the road that ran along the shore, and there were no houses on the other side. There was a great view of the Channel, but we couldn’t go down to the beach because of the mines and the wire, put there in case of a German invasion. (The threat of invasion was not new for the south coast. William the Conqueror landed there in 1066 when King Harold was up north fighting off Vikings. He established a beachhead at Hastings and eventually took over the country.)
There were Americans camped or billeted along the coast west of us, but we saw very little of them. They trained on Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge. They had a serious training loss in April when German torpedo boats sank several landing ships on a practice landing.
We spent the late summer and fall of 1943 going through exercises on the South Downs, traveling to Scotland for gunnery practice, and just getting to know our equipment better. The South Downs was a good place for tank exercises, since it was treeless rolling countryside. But as it turned out, it was not a useful place for us to train, since it was not at all like the bocage country of Normandy we encountered later.
Here I suffered my second minor training accident. (The first had been a mild concussion after I fell off a motorcycle in Camp Borden, hit my head, and spent some time in the hospital.) One day, as we were speeding along the Downs, I had my head just poking out of the turret, and we came to a sunken road that crossed our path. The tank dipped sharply and my mouth hit against the side of the hatch, breaking my two front teeth. This was somewhat painful and marred my appearance for some time until the Brigade dentist fixed them up temporarily.
Late that summer, we were issued Sherman tanks. Previously, the Regiment had had English tanks — Valentines, Rams, and so forth.
I took a brief leave, and spent a weekend in London with Doug Armstrong. We didn’t see a lot of sights — we mostly found various places to eat and drink — but we did take in a play, Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, in which Robert Donat played Captain Shotover and Edith Evans played Mrs. Hushabye. Then I went to Nottingham, just on a hunch that it might be interesting, thinking about the legend of Robin Hood. There I spent an evening in a pub called “The Trip to Jerusalem,” which claimed to be so named because it was a recruiting centre for the Crusades. The customers were all young soldiers, rather than local regulars — Brits, Canadians, Americans, and two Australians.
I spent a lot of time that fall and spring with the Coopers, family friends whom I had met in 1939. They lived in a 500-year-old thatched roof cottage in Sussex facing the South Downs, known as Cokes Cottage. Mr. Cooper operated a plant in London that made handwoven cane and willow goods. He had previously made things like picnic baskets and other sorts of holders, but during the war, his became one of Britain’s “shadow factories” that produced great quantities of hampers to hold food and medical supplies to be dropped from the air.
At the end of November 1943, something happened which changed my whole wartime experience. I was told to join brigade headquarters as a liaison officer. Instead of being a troop officer looking after a troop of five or so tanks, each with five men in it, I was going to become a staff officer, and go to brigade headquarters and supposedly carry messages from brigade headquarters to the headquarters of the armoured regiment.
“The main duty in action is to act as a glorified messenger boy,” I wrote in my letter of November 29 (published in the December 30 ML). “Around here I chiefly play darts with the office pens and substitute ordinary-paper-facsimiles for all the blotters.
“The appointment has its advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take the disadvantages first. A headquarters has very little esprit de corps, partly due to changing personnel and partly due to the absence of similarity in work. … Another point is close contact with the men. They always provided me with the most interesting part of the job. To study character and form a first-rate team was a full-time effort. Another thing is the loss of personal achievement. It’s a big thrill to direct the movement of one tank, and directing three gives one quite the feeling of power. Yes, I guess a troop leader’s job is the finest and most important job in the Army.
“The CO said I could wiggle out of it if I wanted to but after some consideration I didn’t try. Perhaps because at an HQ one is more completely in the picture as to what is going on. Also the work is more varied and full of different situations. Consequently, it may provide scope for ingenuity, and Lord knows I need a chance to develop some. And though the rank is the same, the pay is upped half a buck per diem to deaden the sensation of having to hold the dirty end of the stick so frequently.”
The appointment resulted in a major change in the direction of my Army career. I don’t think I ever rode in a tank again. It bothers me today that if I’d have made an effort to do so, I probably could have gotten back in one. But I was willing to stay with the brigade headquarters in a supportive role, and that’s basically what I did for the rest of the War. There had to be people in supportive roles, and it meant I wasn’t shot at much. I often wonder whether they were getting me out of the way as far as the 1st Hussars was concerned, or whether they were giving me an opportunity to learn more about things so that I’d be in line for a promotion. I hope it was the latter. I guess I was more of an academic soldier — I had gotten good grades in the officer training course, and that’s why I had been selected as an instructor earlier at Brockville, and that might have been why I was selected as a liaison officer.
So I was transferred to the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade Headquarters, which was billeted in the village of Beaulieu in the New Forest. The New Forest, just west of the Solent, was a beautiful area, sparsely settled, with majestic trees and wild ponies. I was designated to liase with the 1st Hussars, and two other lieutenants were appointed to liase with the Fort Garry Horse and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, the two other regiments in the Brigade. But there wasn’t much for a liaison officer to do in training. Some work was made up. Several times I was sent to monitor exercises when units were moved from one area to another and timing was considered important.
At Christmas we held a special party for the local elementary school children. Troops all around the country were doing this. In the area we were in, we did this in part to compensate for the damage our tanks had done to local buildings and roads. The inhabitants were under considerable strain. The blackout rules applied there, and food and fuel were carefully rationed. One needed a doctor’s prescription to buy a banana, for example. Many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons had gone to war and some would not return. That Christmas would be the fifth since the War started. It occurred to me that the younger children probably could not remember a peacetime celebration.
We made presents for all the children, which required great ingenuity. I was the designated gift-wrapper, but even finding string and paper was challenging. We had a high proportion of skilled tradesmen in our unit, and that was lucky. I wrote in a letter on December 17 (published in the January 13 ML):
“What can be done with a discarded non-salvagable four gallon petrol tin? Cut it in half, cut out a bit on the back, cut in two wooden seats, cut four circles of wood for the wheels, get a bit of talc for a windscreen, paint it up pretty colours, tie a bit of string on the front, and you have the smartest looking toy jeep you ever saw.
“Or a bit of cloth from an old gas cape, cut out, stuffed with waste cotton, and sewed up, makes the perfect basis for a doll. Willow Run has nothing on our shops after hours when the fellows really settle down to it. There may not be much variety, but the numbers and quality of workmanship will be good.”
We picked up the children individually from their houses (no parents allowed!), and took them to the celebration in the Town Hall. I drove a seven-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl in my jeep, which they seemed to enjoy. We showed all the children movies of Mickey Mouse, and we brought them to a huge tree decorated with lights, tinsel, and parcels. Some of the men played musical instruments and sang. I wrote in a letter of January 1, 1944 (published in the February 3 ML):
“The program was continuously interrupted by a dispatch rider who kept bringing messages announcing Santa Claus’s approach. Finally the big moment came, and everyone was herded out of the Town Hall to stand on the side of the village street. Then around the corner came six dispatch riders, riding two abreast, their bikes decorated with flags and their mufflers removed so that the noise was deafening. Following them closely came Santa Claus, perched on the turret of our tank. The tank itself was almost completely covered with holly and white streamers, with two large pictures of Santa placed on either side of the turret. Santa (in fact our Captain) was dressed in a pair of overalls dyed red, a white belt, a pair of flying boots, and a crash helmet painted red. Most of his face was covered with absorbent cotton from the medical officer’s stores. Over his shoulder he carried one of our large white mail bags filled with parcels.
“Inside the hall, the presents were distributed (and there was one tagged properly for each child, thank goodness!). There were also extras for the twins, for the girl with the fairest hair, the boy with the reddest, and the family with the most representatives at the party.”
The toys were “simple but attractive things such as wooden Tommy guns, little cranes, and wooden steam engines, dolls, cradles, table-and-chair sets, and little wooden animals on four wheels that could be pulled by a bit of cord. Everyone also chipped in to donate wrapping papers, chocolate bars, and candy, cake, and sandwich spread.”
I took a brief leave in February. I spent five days with family friends on their farm in Warwickshire, about halfway between Coventry and Birmingham. “It turned out to be the best idea for a leave yet,” I wrote to the ML on January 28 (published on February 24). “They were so very hospitable — the kind of people who have the marvelous talent for making one feel immediately and completely welcome and ‘at home.’ Hospitality seems to be an attitude, as much as anything, which expresses itself in acts of thoughtfulness and kind remarks. I suppose every soldier on leave searches for it, and once found the question of where you are or what you are doing doesn’t matter in the slightest.” Then I spent a weekend with Doug Armstrong at the Coopers’ house, and then two days with Doug in Eastbourne.
Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner (ambassador) to the UK, visited our headquarters in February. He came to tea but only stayed about ten minutes, so didn’t have time to do much more than shake hands all around. (“He’s a very wee chappie indeed,” I wrote in the ML. Massey was known for being short.) Mackenzie King, the Prime Minister (of Canada), stopped by at the end of his visit to the UK in late May. “He only spent 15 minutes at the HQ but he shook hands with each of us and individually wished us all the best,” I wrote in the ML. “King is certainly not an impressive figure, but he acted like a very pleasant old gent during the time he spent with us.” King George even went to inspect the 1st Hussars, but he didn’t come to our headquarters, so I didn’t meet him.
In April I spent a week at Cambridge, taking a course on the German army.
Also in April, Dick Stevenson’s ship was torpedoed. He was an officer on the Canadian destroyer Athabaskan that along with another one was sent to reconnoitre the French coast as a diversionary operation. German torpedo boats came out and sank his destroyer and the other one hightailed it home, leaving him in the water. The next morning the torpedo boats returned and picked him up along with other survivors and he was taken to a POW camp, where he spent the rest of the War.
In theory, my appointment as a liaison officer in November 1943 was a temporary, three-month appointment. But when my three months were up, I was unable to return to the 1st Hussars because they had started training for a very secret mission. It was so secret that I was not allowed to know about it until after D-Day, and even then after some delay.
The 1st Hussars had been designated to lead in the landings of Normandy, on Juno Beach. And as it turned out, they’d been designated not only to lead in the landings, but to use a very new kind of device, a DD tank, a tank that would swim in the water. DD referred to “dual drive” — tracks or propellers. There was a wooden framework covered in canvas enabling the Sherman tank to stay afloat with about a two-foot freeboard, and a propeller to let it drive through the water. They were intended to take the enemy by surprise on landing, and also be less dangerous for the troops. Rather than having the boat have to go all the way up to the shore, the DD tank would go off the end of the boat into the water and then swim to shore. Sending the boat in to shore was a bigger target for the enemy to shoot at; individual tanks were not as big. The DD tank squads were teamed up with infantry who were carried in small boats. The tanks were supposed to support the infantry in the landing.
To preserve secrecy all training with the DD tanks was done at night, including practice in abandoning them when they sank. DD tanks were a new idea and very secret. I don’t know who thought them up, but the British were full of ideas for new weapons such as flail tanks to open paths through minefields, and flamethrowers to neutralize pill boxes.
Due to self-imposed censorship, my letters in the Marlowe Lowdown tell very little of what was going on at this time, and memory fails. But I did describe later the state of anticipation, in a letter I wrote on June 25 (published in the ML on July 13):
“At the beginning of December 1943, we knew exactly what our role was and how the job was to be done. And because our training only involved a short sea voyage we had a fair idea where it would be. In March, our Intelligence Staff knew the location where the landings were to be made, but nobody knew exactly when. But after a big dress rehearsal in the beginning of May we knew the next time was for real and from tides and the way equipment was being issued we guessed within a couple of days.”
The Canadian LCTs (tank landing crafts) with six tanks each from the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the LSIs (infantry landing ships) with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and accompanying ships left from the Solent. But, because I still was not allowed to know about the DD tanks, I and my armoured car and a group of support vehicles went up to Tilbury Docks outside of London and boarded an American LST (tank landing ship). It was there we waited out a one-day delay while the sea was too rough.
I wrote about this experience to the ML on June 25: “The Yanks lived up to their reputation of serving pineapples and steaks. The meals really were marvelous. Our cook was an ex-Howard Johnson man and introduced me to two new dishes — fruit fritters (a kind of pineapple-pancake concoction) and a salad made of cabbage, squares of cheese, and diced pineapple. …
“Just before we left, our money was changed into francs, and we received 5–50–100-etc. franc notes at the rate of 200 francs to the pound. Maps were issued on the ship as well as little booklets of general information on France.”
We finally sailed the night of June 5. The sea was awful. Everyone was seasick and anxious to get to shore. The advance parties of the 1st Hussars were scheduled to land on Juno Beach at H-hour on D-Day. My boat was scheduled to land at H+1.5 hours
Sometime during the night the captain announced that our rudder had broken, and we were not going to make our landing on schedule. Instead we circled aimlessly in the Channel most of June 6. I had an armoured car with a radio, and so was in contact with Brigade Headquarters. People kept calling asking “Where are you?” Mostly I was just listening on the radio, trying to decipher what was going on, and every so often telling them where I was and why.
By that evening we arrived offshore along with hundreds of other ships. We sat there that first night, amid lots of other vessels. German reconnaissance planes came over and dropped flares that lit up the whole sky. You could almost see to read. Very few bombs were dropped — good thing, because the whole shoreline was covered with ships waiting to land. We would have been sitting ducks for German shore batteries if any had been left.
We landed the next day, on June 7 around eight or nine in the morning. By that time, most of the initial beachhead had been secured, and the most serious conflicts were over. We saw no bodies on the beach, just lots of debris of tanks, landing craft, trucks, and other gear. We linked up that day with the infantry for the next few days. The Normandy hedgerows and farmland were good tank country in a way, since we could keep partially hidden.
The German defending troops varied greatly in ability and motivation, especially from crew to crew — the blockhouse crews, the 21st Panzer Division, the 12th Panzer Divison. Their equipment varied considerably, too, from horse-drawn wagons and Mark III tanks to excellent lugers, binoculars, 88mm guns, and the Tiger tank. Their tactics were sometimes good — such as enticing us into a village trap — or not so good — as when they enabled Lieutenant Henry to demolish five Mark IV tanks with five shots.
Ralph Blake, in the ML on June 8, two days after D-Day, wrote, “Our thoughts are with Dick, Brian, Doug, and Andy, our thoughts and our prayers. And with their families. Thinking and talking about the landing today at the office, it struck us most that the suicidal nature of the operation impressed itself on us mostly because of our ignorance of such operations. The boys who are over there know their stuff and probably went into action with the confidence only acquired through knowledge and skill. For which thought we were most grateful.”
The War in Europe
After we landed, we were stalled in Normandy for about six weeks. Initially, the first couple days, the Germans tried hard to push us back into the sea, but when they found they couldn’t do that they started to dig in. We dug in, too, and the weather was rough and we didn’t get supplies as soon as we should. So we spent about a month or six weeks stalled in front of Caen, waiting to build up to go through, to try to break out.
This made the Americans somewhat impatient with us. General Patton had been more successful at breaking out than we were. But General Bradley himself recognized the situation. He wrote in his wartime memoir:
“The containment mission that had been assigned Monty was not calculated to burnish British pride in the accomplishments of their troops. For in the minds of most people success in battle is measured in the rate and length of advance. They found it difficult to realize that the more successful Monty was in stirring up German resistance, the less likely he was to advance. By the end of June, Rommel had concentrated seven Panzer Divisions against Monty’s British sector. One was all he could spare for the US front.”
I was mentioned by name in a June 22 dispatch written by Ross Munro, The Canadian Press’s lead war correspondent. It was published in the Montreal Herald titled “Canadian Tank Units Fighting Like Veterans.” (“Of which war he doesn’t say,” quipped Ralph Blake in the ML.) Munro wrote:
“The Quebec tanks got revenge for the Authie blow later on when they sat huddled down in one position and allowed a German armoured force to come right up on them. The Canadians then opened up and knocked out eight tanks for no losses and swung around to get four more for the loss of one.
“On the staff of this formation are Maj. Robert Rothschild, Montreal, who always is called ‘Baron,’ Capt. W. Stafford Johnston, Woodstock, Ont., and Lieut R.B. How, Montreal. These three are liaison officials who have been going in to battles to get first-hand information despite the fact headquarters seldom has been more than a few miles from the fighting.”
Ross Munro’s story illustrates how correspondents could get misinformation. Munro was a good reporter, but he was never allowed close to the front, and was only able to pick up limited information. Why he called our unit Quebec tanks I do not know, and the proper term is not “huddled down” but “hull down.” Major Rothschild was the Brigade Major, and no one called him Baron to his face. Captain Stafford was Staff Captain, also an important position. I was the only one who was a liaison officer, a relatively humble job.
During this time, while we were stalled in Normandy, my worst experience in the War happened: I was bombed by mistake by the US Air Force. The Air Force was coming over and bombing the German position, and although they had radar, it wasn’t nearly as effective it is today. So what they would do was fly over in formation and the guy out in front was supposed to watch for the target, and when he saw it he’d fire up a flare, drop his bombs, and then everybody else would drop theirs. So it only took one person to make a mistake.
One afternoon we’d just moved up a little ways and were preparing to stay the night, and there was a French chateau with fields around it. In view of my rank and position, I was able to be in the chateau. I stayed in the basement. Many other soldiers were out in the fields around the chateau, trying to dig holes that they could be in to escape any German bombing that might come. And the US Air Force came and dropped anti-personnel bombs on us. Anti-personnel bombs are just small bombs; they can’t go through very much, but they can do a lot of damage to the ground. So they came out and dropped a whole bunch around us, and caused a lot of casualties. There was a fairly high-ranking officer in the next field over who was wounded. A number of people were killed.
One of the things I didn’t know much about at that time was first aid. The medical people usually did the first aid stuff. I remember we tried to patch up the people who’d been injured and send them back to the mobile hospitals, and sometimes we weren’t quite sure whether the person could be patched up or not, and we learned later that the hospital was very upset with us, because we had sent back people who were dead already, and you weren’t supposed to do that.
My first impressions of Normandy were that it was a very picturesque country, a good farming district, and that the people resembled the Eastern Townships and Laurentian French very closely. They were, on average, very cooperative and very grateful.
I wrote on July 6 (published in the July 20 ML): “A few weeks ago we stayed for a few days on the grounds of a middle-income family just outside a small village. The house was quite a large one, but was filled with friends and relations of the owners who had gathered there from less healthy sections of the country. The first few days we didn’t have much dealings with the household beyond the initial search of the dwelling and check on identification. Then the tempo relaxed a bit and the Brigadier General remembered that we had a Canadian flag along, and decided we should fly it.
“The officer allotted the task of getting the job done had a diplomatic streak, and went and asked the family’s permission to erect a flagstaff on their front lawn. It was duly granted, and a couple of men set to work. We are inclined to be nonchalant about such matters. Imagine our surprise when, a few minutes later, we saw two very embarrassed soldiers slowly raising the flag while around them stood all the civilians, the women with armfuls of red and white roses. Then a flower was distributed to each soldier in sight and beaming smiles indicated the sentiment that language difficulties prevented them saying.”
On August 2 (published in the August 17 ML), I wrote: “One thing I have been amazed about is that a good percentage of the stories one has heard for the past few years about the resistance movement are true. One has to see that sort of thing to believe it. I can illustrate with an example:
“In perfect Hollywood style, all members of the underground in one area may not all know with whom they are cooperating. So on this account, and because of the relief at finally being able to say what they please in public, French villages usually have a small celebration to bring everything out in the open and say what they feel. I was fortunate to drop in at one of these ceremonies in a town we recently went through. …
“The mayor was holding the floor when I arrived and being very long-winded in introducing the more prominent members of the resistance movement and giving a short history of what they had done. As far as I could figure out, the soldiers were young men who had escaped the German draft (which had been very thorough) and who were now prepared to join the Allies. There might have been quite a story in it if I’d had a little more time and Liebling’s ability.
“The mayor wound up by throwing us a few bouquets and welcoming the regime of De Gaulle (which rather surprised me!). Then in unison, the audience repeated after him, ‘Vive les Allies, Vive De Gaulle, Vive La France!’ The assorted muskets clattered to the present arms, the weary old Frenchmen doffed their caps, Allied officers saluted, and the assembled citizens sang ‘La Marseillaise.’”
My letters in the ML may give the impression that the Canadian Army in Europe fought a rather civilized war, and this is perhaps true compared to conflicts at other times and places. There was great destruction of civilian as well as military targets, considerable loss of the lives of both soldiers and civilians, and atrocities on both sides. But the War was waged in great part where the natives were friendly, the countryside attractive, and the climate favourable. Soldiers on leave could enjoy the amenities of London or the beauty of the English rural landscape. And that is what I mostly wrote about.
Even so, these were days of death and destruction, and our lives were greatly disrupted. One member of the Marlowe Gang was killed, two were taken prisoner, and several others were shot at or bombed. The greatest stress, however, was probably felt by our families and friends on the home front, which was not reflected in the ML.
In August, General Patton broke out and came around. If we’d been able to meet up with Patton and circle the German army there, the War probably would have been over at that time. But we were not able to close that gap, and the German soldiers escaped through there and headed home. And then they regrouped.
The area in which we nearly encircled the German army, the Trun-Falaise pocket, saw heavy fighting and some of the worst destruction of the Western Front. “The pocket was something I suppose I won’t ever forget,” I wrote on September 9 (published in the ML on September 28). “The concentration and amount of destruction was greater than I had previously seen or could imagine. I remember wishing as I picked my way through it that it could be preserved with the same atmosphere so that members of a future League of Nations or their equivalent could visit the spot and have some idea of War as a reality rather than just a noun.”
After we broke out from Normandy we went up through rural areas of France, Belgium, and Holland. That was much better for us, rather than going into Germany right away.
In October, Bill Tacon was shot down over Holland. Bill was a New Zealander who had joined the RAF early on, and become a pilot in the Coastal Command. He was initially based at an airfield in Scotland near where Gordon Reid’s grandparents lived, had struck up a friendship with them, and then came to Montreal to stay with the Reids in early 1941 for some rest and recuperation. He was a modest and unassuming person, and readily accepted by Gang members. “I hardly know what to say,” I wrote to the ML on October 18. “I have lost so many good friends since D-Day that I feel as though I have produced an anti-toxin to dull emotion. But this case is different. Bill we have known for a long, long time, and I have always considered myself fortunate to have met someone of such outstanding character, and so perfectly natural. Although I understand the chances are slim, perhaps we may be fortunate and later learn that he is OK.” As it turned out, Bill had survived, and was a POW.
That fall, there was an attempt to try to get across the Rhine River at Nijmegen and Arnhem, but that had failed, so we spent the winter in that area, on the south bank of the Maas River, just holding the line. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out in December, the American infantry division next to us (I think the 103rd) was withdrawn to go help relieve Bastogne, and we had to take over their sector, too. We had no trouble with the Germans on the opposite bank of the river, although they tried to make us think we were going to by playing records at night of troops arriving by train and so forth. But we knew from intelligence that these were just recordings.
In January, I went back to England to take a tactics course, “or, as one lad put it, ‘a month of weekends interspersed with listening to a lot of dull people lecture.’” The other students were a mix of nationalities: two Norwegians, six Poles, two Belgians, ten Canadians, and 30 Englishmen. A third were from the Italian front and the rest had been fighting in Northwest Europe, like me. I enjoyed the course. “The average English soldier has had more experience in this War than any Canadian could have in the next two years, so the talks were very interesting,” I wrote to the ML on February 10 (published on March 8).
Afterwards I took a brief leave, but first I stopped at the reinforcement unit to straighten out some incidentals. “Strange the people one meets at a depot like that,” I wrote to the ML on February 10, “since both transients and staff come from a variety of places. I ran into fellows I hadn’t seen since Brockville in ’41, Borden in ’42, Worthing in ’43, and Caen in ’44. One chap I worked with in Borden would have amused you. Right off the bat he asked me how the ML was doing — and this after not seeing him for two and a half years. This, he told me, was one of the two things he remembered about me. The other was the time the Colonel walked into the office when I was reading the funny papers with my feet on the table.”
I went to London for a day, and then visited the Coopers in Sussex. I went on a traditional English foxhunt with Mr. Cooper and his friends, although just as a spectator. Then I went back to the farm in Warwickshire that I went to on my leave in January 1944, and spent a few days there. “No particular incident during the week stands out from another, but my various activities ranged from cleaning out the cow stable to hearing the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra play their Sunday afternoon concert,” I wrote to the ML on March 12 (published on March 29).
Back in Europe, my unit crossed the Rhine and went up north and into Germany. Then we swung back to the west, into Holland, and proceeded up the eastern part of Holland, and then headed back into Germany, going generally in the direction of Hamburg.
And then the War ended. It was anticlimactic, as I wrote on May 14 (published in the ML on May 31):
“To use the old expression which can be interpreted several ways, we’ve had the war, thank goodness. Either we weren’t paying attention to what was developing, or the end crept up from behind because, though our own little effort fizzled out the night of May 4–5, we’ve only just begun to realize that the whole business is kaput. We did not even approach the Halifax demonstration as far as casualties and damage was concerned. In fact, the change-over has been effected very quietly.
“I consider it significant that the sequence with which the news was received which affected us the most followed the customary order: first, washroom rumour; then, BBC; finally, the official source. About 8:30 on the evening of May 4 the buzz went ‘round; everyone gathered close to the radios at 9:00; half an hour later, a stay-put order came down. The full meaning didn’t dawn on anyone that night, although we stayed up an hour later and slept in in the morning.
“V-E day was received in much the same spirit. Churchill at 3 p.m. and the King at 9 p.m. were intently heard, and at midnight that night the infantry johnnies up front put up a cascade of mortar flares and the ack-ack launched a feeble 20mm barrage. I don’t know why the lack of enthusiasm. Perhaps it was because the War has been gradually petering out, and it is difficult to realize a clear-cut cease-fire. Perhaps it was because most of us are nursing a hefty celebration until we arrive home. Perhaps it was because a few realize that there is still a long close-hauled beat to take before the War in Europe is really won.”
I talked with my men about whether any of them wanted to continue in the army, either joining the war effort in Asia, or remaining with the occupying forces in Europe. Not many did. I wrote in the ML on May 31:
“The proportion wishing a trip to the Far East runs about 10%, so if this average is duplicated in the rest of the Army, there shouldn’t be any difficulty in finding the small number that are desired. There has been no campaign to sell Japan to anyone, and I’d say that those who are going are fellows who like army life and have no strong ties in Canada, and those who want to continue in the permanent force. The occupation division is an even less attractive proposition.”
Our old headquarters dissolved in late June, and I was sent to the 17th Duke of York Royal Canadian Hussars headquarters in Utrecht in northern Holland. I stayed there until December. A couple other officers and I were in charge of a few hundred men. We didn’t do very much with them. I look back now and think I should have held classes and taught them French or mathematics or something.
We did go sailing quite a bit. There was a small lake nearby, the Loosdrechtse Plassen, with a dozen yacht clubs on it, and the Army had secured interests in three of them — one for senior officers, one for junior officers, and one for enlisted men. The boats we sailed on had been used by German collaborators and had been seized by the Dutch government, which loaned them to us.
In July I took a week’s leave, and flew to England. I spent most of the time quietly with the Coopers in Sussex and on the farm in Birmingham, but I also spent three days in London, and was there when Churchill was voted out. I was quite shocked. I walked to 10 Downing Street, and there was a small gathering of people outside, hoping to see Churchill leave on his way to give his resignation to the King. (I didn’t stay long enough to see him.)
The one thing I did do that was interesting was to drive a convoy of trucks to Czechoslovakia in September. After the end of the War, we had all this equipment over there, army trucks and stuff like that, and what were we going to do with it? The United Nations had decided and made arrangements to turn over some of our equipment to European people, and restore some of the things that they had lost during the battles. They did this through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA).
So I was given the responsibility to take 105 Canadian trucks from Deelen Airfield by Arnhem to the town of Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, near Prague. They were three-ton trucks, each towing a trailer, and carrying enough fuel for the entire journey. I had a couple other officers with me, and the guys driving the trucks. It took four days to get to Pilsen. We stopped for the nights at Cologne, Frankfurt, and Nuremburg. It was quite a challenge and a difficult experience. The roads were all damaged. Many bridges had been destroyed, and so we had to take lots of detours, and couldn’t rely on our maps.
We went through Cologne, and that’s when I saw it, six years after I had seen it first. It was absolutely devastated. We bombed very badly the beautiful cathedral. The towers were still standing. The cathedral itself was pockmarked with bullet holes and shrapnel. The water system had been destroyed, but there were several central taps from which people could get water. I remember seeing the tap in the centre of the city, with people lined up with buckets full of water. That was their only source of water. I wrote on September 20 (published in the October 4 ML):
“Military government estimates that there are over 300,000 civilians living in the city and that they are returning at the rate of 3,000 a day. Where they all live is a mystery. It’s amazing to see a piece of stove pipe, apparently stuck in the ground at random, emitting smoke, and realize that people are living underground there. It’s even more sobering to see, at this stage, people queuing in the streets for water. …
“The damage is impressive alright, but I think it is more staggering to see a small town that has been completely destroyed, like Emmerich, say, than a larger one which is 90% obliterated.”
Being a ground person, I had a lot of criticism for the Air Force for coming over and dropping bombs on people. I don’t think it convinced the people of anything; it just made them more unhappy and more angry. The bombing of Dresden was a terrible thing to do. And a lot of the bombing we saw around Caen when we went to Normandy ruined many old houses; it didn’t kill any Germans at all, because the Germans were staying up in the surroundings.
Then we went through Frankfurt, and we went through Nuremberg, just before the trials of high-ranking German officers took place. We camped next to the Party Stadium, where Hitler had held his big rallies. It had been undamaged in the war, but after the Americans captured it, they blew up the big wreathed swastika that had served as a backdrop for all of Hitler’s speeches. In huge, conspicuous letters on the white stone they had written “Soldiers’ Field” and drawn the US Army crest.
After we dropped off the trucks in Pilsen, we tried to go to Prague, to see the damage and reconstruction. But it was in the Russian zone, and we were told we’d need a pass from the American corps commander.
Once we got the trucks over there, we kept a few to send the guys back in. The drivers of maybe fifteen trucks would all get in one truck (twelve or thirteen of them in the back), and we sent them off home.
One of the other officers and I came back in a jeep, and we were able to take our time, and visit the scenery. We drove along the Rhine. “The scenery is wonderful,” I wrote in the ML. “The vineyards, the bluffs, the old castles appear untouched by war. The only reminder is the number of sunken ships and barges in the river.” I noticed boats like the one I had taken on my day cruise down the Rhine six years before. One was sunk, and another was flying the Stars and Stripes — presumably a cruise ship for tired GIs.
Finally, in late December, more than six months after the War ended, we returned home. We travelled to England and boarded the Queen Elizabeth in Southampton, along with several thousand other soldiers, mostly Americans. We were packed in about as tightly as we had been on the way over. We had Christmas at sea, but I don’t remember any festivities. I do remember looking at the other guys and wondering what their experiences had been. Nobody talked about that.
We docked in New York on December 28. Attractive USO volunteers served us milk and donuts — the first we had had in a long time. We travelled by train to Montreal, boarded busses at the train station that took us to the 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars Armoury on Cote de Nieges, lined up outside, and marched in to the applause of family and friends who had come to greet us. There was a very brief ceremony, and then we were dismissed.
I went back home to 3593 Marlowe Avenue with my parents and sisters Lorraine and Anne. My mother had made a big sign saying Céad Míle Fáilte (Gaelic for “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes”) and hung it over the fireplace. It was a wonderful reunion.
The Marlowe Lowdown Gang had a reunion dinner on January 6 at the Queen’s Hotel in Montreal. There were sixteen of us in all at the dinner. Ralph and Mary Blake were there, Bill Tacon had flown in from England, and a small delegation had come from Toronto by train. Some could not be there. Andy Spreull was in Glasgow, George How was in Victoria, British Columbia, Jay Coulter was in England, and Gordon Reid and his wife Doreen were in Vancouver.
After dinner there was a brief program. We remembered with sorrow all that Charlie Crombie had meant to us, and grieved that he had passed on. We read telegrams from the absentees. We praised Ralph and Mary for all their good work and presented them with a silver cigarette box duly inscribed. (Doug Armstrong had ordered it special from my father, for $47.65.) We took turns reminiscing and telling jokes until the hotel asked us to leave, and we adjourned to 3593 Marlowe Avenue where we carried on until about two a.m.
Ralph and Mary sent out one final issue of the ML, describing the festivities, and providing post-war addresses for all of the then-sixteen correspondents. In 1991, Doug Armstrong and I copied and printed the entire run of the ML into eight bound volumes, and distributed sets to all the remaining correspondents. We gave a set to the McGill University library, too, since so many of us had been McGill graduates. In the fall of 1991, we held a 50th reunion dinner at an auberge in the Laurentians. The Montreal Gazette did a feature on the ML, taking up an entire page of their Saturday paper on January 25, 1992. In 2018, Arnaud Chaniac, a graduate student at École normale supérieure de Paris who spent a year visiting McGill, wrote a 450-page Master’s thesis on the ML.
In February 1946 I took the train out to visit my brother George in British Columbia, and then took the bus down the coast to Portland, San Francisco, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. Then I returned to Montreal and went back to work for Ogilvie Flour Mills. They sent me to Moncton, New Brunswick, to help the salesmen with their feed service. I worked there for a while, but started thinking about doing something else, and I decided I wanted to do graduate work. So I wrote to Dean Brittain at Macdonald College, and asked him about graduate work. He said, “Apply to Cornell,” so I applied to Cornell. I was accepted, and started in February 1947.
Not for citation. Edited together by Andrew Alexander, May 2018, from RBH’s overlapping descriptions of his life between college and graduate school:
- RBH’s diary from his 1939 summer trip, as photocopied and bound by Katie Conschafter
- RBH’s introduction to the Marlowe Lowdown bound volumes, 7/1991
- The Montreal Gazette’s feature on the Marlowe Lowdown (1/25/1992)
- a talk about D-Day RBH gave to the Ithaca-Cayuga Rotary Club (6/7/1994)
- two Ithaca Journal articles about RBH’s World War II service (6/1994 and 5/8/1995)
- “My Trip Abroad, Summer 1939,” an unfinished document on RBH’s hard drive with commentary on and a partial transcription of his diary from that summer (c. 1998)
- Andrew’s two oral histories with RBH (10/30/2000 and 11/11/2003)
- “My War,” another unfinished document on RBH’s hard drive (c. 2003)
- RBH’s 2006 transcription of and commentary on his wartime letters home as syndicated in the Marlowe Lowdown, all 112 pages self-published to family members in a three-ring binder
- an autobiographical letter from RBH to the dean of Macdonald College (10/6/2009)