George "Sparks" Shaker
George Shaker is the President of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Prisoner of War Association. During the Second World War he served in Canada's Merchant Marine with some 7,700 of his mates who ran the gauntlet of U-boats and other Nazi menaces. Close to 1,200 died, while some 220 were captured.
On February 22, 1941, he was a 21 year old chief radio operator on the steamship A.D. Huff on his first voyage. The Huff had a crew of 42. The Huff was 800 km off Cape Race, Newfoundland, returning from England after unloading iron ingots and newsprint. Convoys had yet to be perfected, so the Huff was on her own. A seaplane suddenly appeared and dropped a surrender demand from the German battleship "Gneisenau," a distant dot on the horizon.
The Huff's captain decided to try and outrun the German battleship, but to no avail. While the Huff's full speed was nine knots, the Gneisenau moved along at 32 knots. The chase did not last for very long. A signal was sent that the ship was under attack, as shells rained down from the guns of the German warship. The engine room was hit, killing two men, while another round slammed into the radio room. About the same time, George Shaker, who was known as "Sparks" to his friends, jumped overboard with the captain to join the rest of the crew in the icy Atlantic.
The Gneisenau picked them up, as the Huff was descending into the dark cold waters. ("We were lucky," Shaker says quietly in his warm den. "You weren't picked up if a submarine sank you.") A German tells Sparks: "For you, ze var iss over." Right out of a movie.
While George was trying to send off a distress signal about the attack on their ship, the German radio man had tapped happy birthday in Spanish in an attempt to camouflage George's message. It appeared to have worked.
When George and his mates arrived at a prison camp near Bremen, Germany, in June no one at home knew they were there. Sparks makes the front page of the hometown Toronto Telegram, as prisoners of war (POWs) are still a novelty.
He sees a camp commandant pull his revolver and gun down a POW for butting in front of him. The only information that George will provide to the German Gestapo is his name, rank and serial number. Camp loudspeakers proclaim the sinking of the HMS Hood and claim that German forces are nearing Winnipeg.
Morale slumps. George and his mates are POWs longer than anyone – arriving before there are even battle troops for the Germans to capture.
Surviving on a diet of turnip soup at Stalag 10-B and at Marlag und Milag Nord camps, Sparks drops from a trim 155 pounds to 113 in 1,528 days (four years) as a POW. "Ah, turnip soup and sauerkraut. Thank heaven for the Red Cross' 5-kilo bundles of joy. Spam. Hard-tack. Smokes." To pass the time the POWs scrounge radio parts, which Sparks breaks down and hides in cartons of Winchester cigarettes. They are able to hear the British Broadcasting Corporation tell of the Bismarck sinking, which raises morale among his comrades.
Sparks is two months past the four-year mark when British Second Army bagpipers swirl into camp with the most beautiful sound that George ever heard.
George eventually made his way back home to Canada and after the war, got married and raised three children, all while pursuing a career in clothing manufacturing. During his spare time he got involved with the Merchant Navy Veteran movement.
George "Sparks" Shaker still shivers every now and then, sometimes in his sleep, even in the summer. A leap into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in February will leave its mark on even the heartiest of souls.
- Date modified: