Memories of World War Two

The first half of the twentieth century will always be identified with the world wars of 1914–18 and 1939–45. When Britain declared war on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada, although largely self governing, was automatically involved. This was not to be the case in 1939.

Canada’s impressive contribution to the 1914–18 conflict was the reason for Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s calling for Canadian control over external relations. Thanks largely to Borden’s persistent lobbying and diplomacy, Canada gained separate membership in the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization; individual representation at the Paris Peace Conference and the privilege of signing the Treaty of Versailles on its own. More than this, Borden insisted that Canada’s Parliament must debate and ratify the treaty.

Thus Canada was, in early September 1939, officially neutral until Parliament was recalled to sanction a declaration of war. Following approval by the House of Commons and Senate, the Canada Gazette reported: a state of war with the German Reich exists and has existed on and from the 10th day of September 1939 Canada was once more, at war.

Over the past few weeks I’ve interviewed several World War Two veterans. A number responded to a questionnaire regarding their memories of the war years. What follows has been largely drawn from these sources. Special thanks must go to those whose stories made this Flashback possible.

Here’s a question for all readers old enough to remember: Where were you when Canada declared war in 1939? Certainly those interviewed had the occasion firmly etched in memory.

The majority heard the news by means of radio. Other responses ranged from reading newspaper headlines in the Victoria General Hospital, Halifax, to an announcement in morning assembly at Bishop’s College School, Lennoxville, Quebec. Others learned the not unexpected news upon arriving at work and yet another admitted to listening in on a telephone party line.

David MacAulay was travelling the Cabot Trail when he heard the news on the car radio. Bill Sawdon recalled: I had graduated from Mount Allison the previous spring and was still on my summer job at Jasper Park Lodge when the news came. Connie Hamm remembered being with a group of girl friends at a cottage near Tidnish Shore. It was very unnerving to hear that war had finally been declared and that Canada was part of it.

When asked to select the most memorable moments of their war service many cited specific instances. However, army veteran Ned Fisher spoke for all others as he stressed the terrible carnage of war: We were all very young, in good physical condition, with excellent training and equipment. There were lots of good times, but the sad times came when friends were killed or wounded. My room mate from school was killed, as was my best friend, also many people with whom I trained. Three of us took a large draft of men overseas; one was killed, one was wounded, I was lucky. Another army veteran, who wished to remain anonymous, will never forget the first time he inflicted a casualty on the other side.

Navy veteran Jim Weldon saw active service on the North Atlantic; the western approaches to Europe and the English Channel. For him the invasion of Normandy stood out. Our ship (HMCS Moose Jaw), convoyed American troops in to Omaha Beachhead. It was an amazing sight when dawn came, to see ships as far as the eye could reach. Allied planes were overhead, and all around ships and landing craft were being sunk, either by enemy mines or shelling.

RCAF veteran Douglas Hamm will never forget Christmas 1943. In his own words: We were on routine patrol in the Venlo area (over Holland) when we intercepted ‘bogie’ (an enemy aircraft). On closing, ’bogie’ took evasive action to approximately 1,000 feet altitude. When endeavoring to regain radar contact our aircraft was hit by ground flak; badly damaging the port wing and tail. Thanks to the skill of the pilot, we returned safely to base at 23:00 hours Dec. 23rd. We all had a Merry Christmas. In matter of fact style, he then recounted another incident. On the night of Apr. 23 1945 we were patrolling the Goldberg-Grabow area of Germany, when we encountered the enemy at approximately 22:00 hours. We intercepted and destroyed three aircraft.

An important characteristic of the Second World War was the role played by women in all three services. Some 21,000 served as members of the Canadian Women’s Army Corp (CWAC) alone.

Army Nursing Sister Jean MacAulay placed the contribution of service women in context: Nursing under canvas was a new and challenging experience… The casualties were quickly assessed and sent to hospitals behind the lines; while the less serious patients received immediate treatment. I especially remember the camaraderie in the army where we made lifelong friends. Everyone was under stress but no one ever complained as there was a war to be won.

Val Fisher was a member of the Womens Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) stationed in Gourock, Scotland. A member of the Motor Transport Division, it was her duty to meet ships coming into the River Clyde, and then transport intelligence personnel from dockside to the Flag Officer In Charge. One of her lasting impressions was a tremendous respect for the people of the United Kingdom. I saw parts of England, particularly in the south, where complete areas were flattened. She concluded: The whole war period was a time when you wanted to do what you could for your country… Many of my friends today, are those with whom I served during the war.

One invention which helped turn the tide in favor of the Allied cause was radar. RCAF veteran Connie Hamm had first hand experience with this new technology. During late 1944 we were at the operations table for the night shift. Plots were very few as the Allies forces were leading up to the invasion of the continent… Suddenly strange tracks began to appear on the radar screen. We would plot them in southern England and then they would disappear. At the end of the shift the controller warned us that we were not to discuss what was happening either among ourselves or with anyone else. This was the beginning of the buzz bombs or unmanned missiles.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to include all the interesting stories I encountered. In the interest of brevity, this column concludes with VE Day May 8, 1945. In a future Flashback I plan to return to some end of the war stories.

In just two days, on Sept. 10, 1999, we will be marking the 60th anniversary of Canada’s declaration of war. I have one suggestion for all x-service personnel reading this column. With this important anniversary as an incentive, please make a resolution to record, for generations yet to come, your experiences during World War Two. These reminiscences will be a fitting memorial for ALL who served in that conflict.