Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/11/2010 (3487 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Like so many veterans, my father, Henri, seldom spoke of the five years he spent in Europe during the Second World War with the Royal Canadian Engineers.
When he did, he chose to speak of happier things, not the horror. But there was one story he related to me on the last day we ever spent together.
Dad was 82 and had just spent two weeks visiting my family in Winnipeg. He was headed to Calgary where he lived with my sister, Ruth. As we sat in the coffee shop at the Winnipeg airport, he began to talk about the war.
"We were bridging on the Leopold Canal in Belgium," he recalled.
The Canadians had been given the task of pushing the German forces out of Holland and Belgium so they could open the inland seaport of Antwerp, and thereby allow Allied ships up the Scheldt River with supplies, such as gas and ammunition, to the front.
This was necessary because the Allies had advanced faster than they could bring supplies to the front, and were stalled, giving the Germans time to regroup and launch a counteroffensive.
Antwerp was the key, the Allies knew it and so did the Germans. Soon the Canadians were locked in some of the dirtiest and deadliest fighting of the war.
For several months they fought from flooded polders, advancing inch by inch, often crawling on hands and knees, almost constantly in wet, soggy conditions. The Germans had blown the dikes holding back the Zuiderzee and controlled the high roads that crisscrossed these lowlands.
Many times Dad was forced to fight, eat, sleep and survive in water-filled trenches for days on end. He paid for it the rest of his life with what he simply termed his "aches and pains."
Dad gradually zeroed in on one specific battle for the Leopold Canal.
"The Germans were on the other side, and we had to get the infantry across," he said, "so we had to build pontoon bridges so we could advance.
"Even though we (the engineers) were on the frontline, we could not defend ourselves while we were bridging. We had to depend on the infantry to cover us while we were up to our necks in the canal with men dying all around us. The Germans poured everything they had down on top of us. We just had to keep our minds on getting the job done."
His face was stone cold, but tears were welling in the corners of his eyes. I knew there was more to come. It was as though he knew this was his last chance to speak of the horror he experienced during the Battle of Britain and on the continent of Europe to reclaim the Scheldt.
My insides wrenched for this tired, old soldier, but at the same time I was bursting with pride. This was my father, the person I admired most in the entire world.
"When you are bridging under enemy fire," he went on, "you don't have time to look around at what is happening. You had a job to do, and you did it."
That was a refrain I heard him, and other veterans, repeat again and again.
"I remember the battle," Dad said. "We opened up with the flame throwers and in no time the canal ran red with the blood of the wounded, dying and dead, German and Canadians alike."
The Canadians suffered enormous casualties during the battle to get across the canal, but eventually they managed to cross.
"As we got to the other side we were pinned down and couldn't go anywhere," my father said. "I remember crawling on my hands and knees up the bank. I looked up and saw bullets coming out of the back of the soldier in front of me.
"There was another soldier several yards ahead of me who had been killed, and I had to get to him and grab his tags, you know, so we could identify him. When I reached him, he had no face left, so I grabbed his tags and made it back.
"Later, when I looked to see who he was, I found out he was a young captain who I had threshed with back during the Depression. I wouldn't have known had it not been for the tags."
On that day my father's eyes were flooded with tears.
Allan Besson is a sports writer for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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