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Memoirs of Gordie Bannerman

The War is Over

The 5th of May rolled around and we were told the war was over in Holland this was indeed their day of Liberation. In Winschoten the Dutch people had their flags out along with the Orange ribbons, and armbands. It was their DAY. For us it was sort of a let down. Stunned, no job, those that we had lost were not here to share. Our folks would not know if we survived. If we had been killed they would have known in two or three days, but they would not be told we had survived. It was a sober quiet group that went early to bed this day of Liberation for the Dutch.

About eleven o’clock, into our room came Sgt. Jack Parr accompanied by a Dutch girl. The two of them woke all of us up with, "What are you sleeping for? Get up and celebrate this great day Have a drink. Get happy,” and on they went. Well we were not too happy with this and stayed in bed. The Dutch girl thought she would get us out of bed and get on helping them celebrate so with this she started kicking off her shoes aiming at us. When the shoe bit failed to get us up she noted a dart board with a good supply of darts. Getting a hand full of darts, this boisterous girl, she started flinging them around. None of us wanted to lose an eye. As one, we said Jack gather up your girlfriend and get the Hell out of here. Tranquillity reigned and we went back to sleep. The next morning a massive bouquet of flowers plus a card of apology was delivered to our house from our visitor of the night before.

In a few days we had the formal word that the war was over! This was May 8, 1945. Finally it was all over so our next thoughts were when do we go home. The regiment was going to fire a twenty one gun salute to the victory. Our troop was picked for this event. Blank cartridges were readied with most of the charge being removed and the cardboard cup shellacked in place. The day the event was to take place the towns' folk and the regiment were all on hand for the Victory Europe Salute.

The order to fire was given and the guns blasted away to the sound of the windows in the civilians houses shattering. Why did the guns keep firing destroying all the windows? We will never know, except that it was the thing to do. The Dutch were so pleased that the war was over they did not scream stop. The guns that fired the salute had to be cleaned and polished and who ever glued the cardboard caps in should have cleaned the gun barrels. What a job.

The warrant officers and sergeants of 76th Fld Battery RCA of the 17th Fld Regiment RCA. This photo was taken a few days after VE Day in Winschoten, Holland.

Most of us were in sort of a dream and soon we would wake up and go back into action. We were able to get a night's sleep without being out in the rain and flooded gun pits, or having an ear cocked for incoming shells. Just being around civilians as wonderful as the Dutch was, I suppose, a start on our future lives. The transformation from combat to a normal life was going to take some time.

In Holland, and the war over, I had leave to Scotland. I visited my relatives in Aberdeenshire. Auntie Jean lived in New Pitsligo, the birth place of my Dad. I was staying with my auntie Mary, my Mum's sister. My aunt Jean had been at my aunt Mary's for lunch as I was leaving to go back into Aberdeen the next day. I walked my Aunt Jean to her little house on Low Street. As I turned to go Auntie Jean said, “I have something for you” and with that went to looking into a chest of drawers. Soon she came up with a pair of blue hand knit stockings and presented them to me. She said, “Gordon when you left here in June of 1943, I had a feeling it would be a long while before I saw you again and hoped for your safe return. I did not send the stockings to you because you would come safely back and I would give them to you.” Now that dear soul felt that if she had sent the stockings I would not get back. A great feeling comes over me when I think of this shy lady that had the faith and wish for my safe return.

The war over and the complete regiment is billeted in the town of Winschoten. After the complete surrender of the German forces in Western Holland these troops had to be sent back to Germany. This great movement to be carried out by Canadian units guarding the Germans as they marched from Western Holland to Germany. Some of our officers and other ranks spent some time escorting the long lines of marching men.

Gordie and his Auntie Jean.

The route of this column went right along the road where our guns were parked in Winschoten. Thousands of German troops passed by and we stood beside our guns watching. Some had horse drawn kitchens others were pulling carts made up from bicycle wheels. All carried packs and most of the groups had their officers marching in front. Some of these fellows still looked pretty arrogant. One group that came along were all Turcomen, their origin was close to China. The Turcomen were all small in stature, very Oriental in skin color and in overall appearance. We had come up against Turcomen while in Italy so it was not new to see them except in such a large numbers.

When the German started the march out of Western Holland our military authorities gave the German officers permission to carry their small arms, but this order was rescinded. Our chaps on this detail had a field day of confiscating revolvers and anything else not of German origin from these thousands of troops. I asked Boby Cochrane to get me a revolver. The next day he was back with a brand new automatic that he had dug out of hiding in a store's truck or wagon. It was a beautiful gun and still had the shipping grease in the barrel.

Our Light Aid Detachment Sgt. Hans Lunan confiscated a terrific Italian piano accordion from a German wagon. Boy could Hans ever play that accordion and even better after a couple of Belgium cognacs. Stan Scislowski would have been in seventh heaven with all this great loot ready for the taking. There were at least a couple of hundred thousand Germans that were on the march. The Canadian Army supplied the Germans with rations and their cooks did the preparation of the meals.

Our routine consisted of morning parades, clean and polish our guns and equipment, and hope for news of when we were going home. Mind you the parties and meeting the Dutch girls was in full swing. Surprisingly most of the girls could speak some English and our fellows were ready to further their education.

We had a visit from General Crerar who had commanded the First Canadian Army throughout the European Campaign. We were quite pleased with his visit as I believe he was a gunner early in his career. We polished our old desert guns until they shone, also all our vehicles and our personnel were up to a fine state of excellence. Our regiment had great pride in both appearance and field performance.

We had orders that the whole division would assemble at the airport in Eelde, Holland to participate in the great exercise. The one we had waited for all these long years, called FINALE. At Eelde, the whole division was lined up in a hollow square. General Crerar, Commander First Canadian Army, inspected all units. Then General Crerar took to the saluting stand and the whole division drove past. Our regiment was judged the best in every way and this was later confirmed by Gen Hoffmeister. Oh well, probably all received the same accolades, but it is always nice to get a pat on the back instead of a boot in the rear. This Grand FINALE was on May 23, 1945.

General Crerar inspects the regiment in Winschoten... Lt. Col. Rankin, Major Crown and Brigadier Ross are with him. In the background are personnel from E Troop 76th Bty 17 RCA. The gun is a 25 pounder field gun.

After this great exercise, equipment was turned in and we were down to a bare amount of transport. Some of our drivers joined with other divisional units and drove hundreds of vehicles into Czechoslovakia and turned them over to the government there. Some of our drivers did have a chance to see a couple of the large extermination camps and were horrified at what they saw. Yes there was the gas ovens and extermination camps.

Fox Troop guns in readiness for Divisional march past Eelde, Holland. Exercise FINALE.

Winschoten, Holland, June 1945. We were gunners without guns and time on our hands and the next turn of events was whether any of us would volunteer for the Pacific, or go to the Army of Occupation in Germany, or wait it all out until we were sent home. Orme Payne, myself and few others that had all joined up over five years ago had a meeting and each one put forward what would seem in our best interest. I came on strong saying we already had volunteered for the duration of hostilities and for a year after or whenever His Majesty saw fit. I was ready to go as unit anywhere, but not a few of us here and a few elsewhere. The group of us did not volunteer any further.

Paul Shwarek, troop Sgt. major of E troop, decided to go to the Army of Occupation. He was then promoted to RSM of the 13th Fld RCA. Not long after this Battery Sgt. major Bill Lloyd volunteered for the Pacific Force. This left me as the now Battery Sgt. Major and the only WO in 76th Battery.

This was all that remained of Fox Troop as all long term personnel and older married men were repatriated.

Trade schools were set up in the school that our Battery were billeted in. Also Lt Alex Ross was looking after a school for the troops in Groningen. A motor mechanic school was established in Groningen. Jack Parr and some of the other transport people gave instruction. Somewhere in this state of upheaval I, along with twenty or thirty other ranks, went to a town called Deventer to have a vehicle park guard for a 2nd Corps unit, the 12th Manitoba Dragoons. How we were picked to do this duty I will never know. I think that most of their personnel except for a few Sergeants had been sent to the Army of Occupation in Germany. More of our long service married men were sent to England on drafts hopefully for a quick trip home. But transport home did not come soon as most of the large troop ships were transporting the American forces home so they could be sent to the far east.

In the interim fellows like Lloyd Fraser and Eugene Agrette were enjoying the good life at a racing stable and getting some jockey training. Lloyd marvelled at the beautiful horses this stable had and the racing fever the Dutch enjoyed. Now that I have mentioned Lloyd, I will tell you how he and Roy Childs returned to Canada. Lloyd and Roy arrived in England either just at the time of the Aldershot riot or after it and troops were being sent out of England as quickly as possible. Lloyd and Roy had a speedy trip home along with twenty more soldiers on a Canadian destroyer, fast and rough, but HOME.

The rest of us were still in Holland and would be for quite some time. The parties, the dances, movies, the Dutch girls and the hospitality of the Dutch community made time go by. Yes there was a lot of escapades that happened in this town. Roy Childs told me that here in Winschoten one of the quartermasters that was not liked by any of the gunners was knocked on the head with a pick handle, sent to hospital and never returned to the unit. This resulted in Sgt. Jim Jessup being promoted to quartermaster Sgt.. He did a good job in his new role. Accidents happened here and Jack Beckwith was shot in the knee by Bill Strickland doing the fast draw act with his revolver. It fired hitting Jack in the knee. This knee bothered Jack all his life.

Holland June/July, 1945. Our regimental numbers were rapidly being reduced as the days went by. Drafts sent out with those that had volunteered for the Pacific, and to the Army of Occupation, plus the married long term soldiers. Every day it seemed someone all of a sudden was no longer here. It was the breaking up of the family that we had known to have loved, clothed, fed, and sheltered us. You hoped that all the rest of you could go as a group. This was not the case. Try as everyone did, it was pretty hard to keep a group involved in any one thing.

The question was when are we going home? I think the Dutch people played a great role in our getting ready to enter a new role as civilians. We were treated like family in their homes and in their everyday life. Where there were children and Canadian soldiers, the soldiers won the hearts of kids and it was not unusual to see a Canadian soldier walking along the street with a couple of kids tagging long. A chocolate bar handed out and even helped fix a tire of a bicycle. It helped to know the kids and often you met their older sisters by doing the younger ones a good turn. This was so much different than Italy. The Dutch people were more than kind to all of us. The mothers treated us like sons and felt how much we must miss home after being so far away for so long.

Most of us had no voice contact with our parents for almost five years. Some of the fellows had lost loved ones at home, some their wives divorced them. One sad case that comes to mind was Capt Taylor whose wife passed away within days of his return home. On the home front, Mum and Dads would never really know what happened to their boy other than the telegram saying “We regret to inform you that your son was killed in action,” followed by the date. This was sent from Ottawa. The sad part of waiting and trying to put in time there were some motor cycle accidents, jeep accidents, poisoned booze, and Canadians thrown in the canals with arms wired [in Belgium]. All these things took Canadian soldiers lives and the waiting went on. I did not get depressed with the waiting and knew that we would eventually get home.

Orme Payne and Elmer Applegren shared a room in the WO's and Sgt.'s house. With this pair there was a challenge who was the best dressed each morning. To be the best turned out you had to be up early. Elmer had seen Orme press some battle dress trousers the night before so he, being a monster, awakened first and on with Orme's pressed trousers. Now Orme being a good sport about this was going to get even, so the next morning he awoke first and half asleep leaped up and went to pull on fresh washed socks that he had seen Elmer wash the day before. Getting the first sock pulled on a terrible smell assailed Orme’s nostrils then the realization these socks were soaking wet and oozing the most indescribable liquid. Elmer had fallen in the canal on the way home. The canals were used as sewers for centuries, so you can imagine the condition of the rest of Elmer's clothes. I, sleeping in the next room, did not know until the door opened and Orme gave the still sleeping Elmer heck for the condition of the room, clothes, and stench. Oh yes, some of it was fun and interesting.

Holland August/September, 1945. Capt Weir and his lady Pat were married on Doug's first leave from Belgium. Pat was an officer in the ATS. Doug Weir was now a major at the young age of 24 and being billeted in a private house in Winschoten. Here he says he was treated like a king and had an egg for breakfast with the trimmings, a far cry from dehydrated mutton from a mess tin that we were all used to.

The changing face of the regiment was ongoing with the old timers leaving and new faces coming in to be repatriated with us. Of this group Sgt. MO Nelson and Sgt. Sparky Ament came from other regiments and they fitted right in with our group. Their experiences after the D- Day landings and the fierce fighting in Normandy were certainly quite different than a lot of the Italian campaign.

We all drank a fair amount during this time and put in the time as best we could. Super scrounger Joe Telfer and a lorry driver travelled from Holland to Belgium on buying trips. Joe would go to the Belgium breweries and purchase kegs of beer for the officers, WO's, and Sgt.'s and gunner canteens. Joe was an entrepreneur class #1. Joe would pick up anything that was saleable, either on a short run into Germany for a diesel motor, sewing machines, you name it. Joe picked up and sold this stuff into the black-market in Belgium and in exchange received British pound notes.

Belgium was flooded by the Germans with bogus pound notes. The British knew this, but made good on all these bogus bills. Joe made a small fortune, but at the same time brought back to anyone that wanted shoes or hand bags, or whatever, for Dutch or English girl friends. Joe was a shopper that rated right up there with the best. I asked Joe what had happened to the beer barrels that belonged to the Dutch that he had used on all the trips to Belgium. Joe admitted he sold them on his last trip.

Holland, late fall of 1945. We are still in Holland and of course heard all the stories of units going home with very little points compared to what we had accumulated in Italy and being overseas so much longer. The revelation hit some of us that it was likely the Government way of doing things. If all of us that had joined together went home together, we would have been a voice that maybe the Government did not want to hear, or maybe it was nothing sinister at all. Who knows? None of us had any political stripe. Home was where we wanted to be!

Orme and I had quite a beer session one night. My brother George, who was soon to go home with the first Div SLI, came for a visit. George was not a drinking man so he may of had a beer, but soon went to bed. Orme and I had settled into drinking a small keg of Belgium beer. Orme said, “Gordie what would you really like?” I replied, “at the moment two or three fresh eggs to dump in my beer.” Orme had the pantry keys and he presented me with at least three eggs. I cracked the first one into my glass, downed the beer and egg. The next egg and beer same thing. On the third egg, I cracked it on the edge of my glass and to the bottom of the glass went an unborn chicken. I raised this glass to my eye and said, “Orme I have looked at many a glass of beer, but this is the first one that has looked back at me.” The chicken resting on the bottom of the glass winked back at me. Dumping the chicken out, Orme and I proceeded to finish the small keg of beer. About six in the morning my brother George arose to find Orme and I still telling stories at the same spot. We were probably in better shape than at midnight as the Belgium beer was not too powerful.

When we came to Winschoten a couple of our fellows saw a Dutch girl riding by on her bicycle. One of the fellows hollered out say lady your hind wheel is turning. This lady well and truly understood English. Her reply was, “Canada if you get the shit out of your eyes you will see the front wheel turning too.” Yes the Dutch girls understood soldiers and their so called humour.

As fall was with us, the idea of hockey was brought up. Turk Broda of the Leafs and a few more NHL chaps were just overseas and had the help of Conn Smythe, Leaf owner, who commanded an artillery battery. Orme Payne, Sparky Ament, Darcy Spencer, Bob Bradley, and a couple more of our chaps, plus 5th LAA personnel were off to Amsterdam to play hockey. The fellows had a pretty good few weeks in the city of canals.

Many young soldiers had dreams of the NHL, so Bing Coughlin made a cartoon of Herbie in hockey gear. It was probably every Canadian's dream of that era to play in the NHL and Herbie was that dream. Herbie was part and parcel of every Canadian in Italy. He did all the things that could and did happen to us over there, each of us saw some bit of Herbie in ourselves.

The CWAC pipe band came to Winschoten and put on a most impressive exhibition of marching and playing. It was great to see these Canadian girls doing their stuff. It was our first chance to talk to any Canadian girls since the summer of 1944 in Italy when #1 Canadian Entertainment company put on shows for us after the Hitler Line. Our sergeants mess fed and visited with the band members for lunch and the afternoon. We noted when the girls were slow marching around this large playing field that they were giving their feet a shake about every second step. When we were visiting with the girls someone asked what was the foot shaking all about? Their answer was the field was covered with soft cow manure and they were shaking this off their shoes.

Cartoon of Herbie in hockey gear

The house that we the WO"s and Sgt.'s were in had been in operation as a house for mothers for the state. This was a house where unwed mothers stayed and had their babies. These babies were fathered by German soldiers. This was the first time any of us farm boys or any of us saw another fixture in the bathroom, an item called a Bidet. This caused some question what is this for? Well someone knew and that solved the mystery. I picked up a large book called MEIN KAMP by Hitler in German. Some 50 years later I sold it to the Command Post in Victoria.

Orme Payne and I awakened the locals one morning, probably about 4 a.m. by rolling a keg of beer down the street to our house. The cobble stone street had good acoustics and the sound woke all the people in houses that we passed. Most antics were pretty tame. This keg was a type with the middle of the keg larger then the ends. This caused the keg to veer from one side of the street to the other, also memory fails who chased the keg when it went left or to the right.

We are still in Holland, but every day seems a day closer to the great day of finally going home. We have been in Winschoten for almost eight months since the end of hostilities. We have been lulled into a state of mind that we really would not know what we would do if we all of a sudden went home. Reality had started to set in. What would we do on return? Go home and work on the family farm? Go to normal school and become a teacher? Stay in the army? What jobs would be open for a chap with a grade 12 education?

The army had circulated some literature on what may be open on our return in the way of education. But I do not know how much time was spent on getting a school boy who had just finished a war into preparing for civilian life. The Dutch people were great in their helping us get used to being around family. They took us into their homes and we were treated as if we were family. I think we owe them a debt of gratitude. The months spent with these good people helped take the rough edge off nerves that were rather raw.

While waiting to go home General Crerar had a letter written to him by the good people in Wervik, Belgium. The letter requested if the General would see fit to grant a leave to the 17th Fld Regt. RCA to revisit Wervik before we went back to Canada. This request was granted and I think a couple hundred of the regiment, including myself, went back to Wervik for a two day leave. I did not stay on this two day leave with the Belgium family with whom I had been billeted in February as they were out of town. Fifty years later I had a phone call from the son of this household. He was on a trip and phoned from Vancouver. It was nice to be remembered, but on follow up I wrote the family and never heard back.

Wervik welcomed us all with great fanfare. Old friends were looked up, especially the girls. One sad note on this visit was to remember that Bill Bancescu was not with us. He had lost his life at Otterloo. Bill had been engaged to a Wervik girl and planned on marrying and taking her to Canada. I looked up Denise, who was the French maid at the house I had been billeted at, and had a meal with her family. Denise was on a day off from her work across the border in France. I had given Denise an American blanket when we had left Belgium and she had turned this blanket into a very stylish coat. When we went out for a walk in the evening we were accompanied by her young sister. So no great love affair just meeting a friend once more and would never see again.

After making the rounds of all our friends and of course having a beer or so at the cafes, it was back to Holland. Vic Wilson a sergeant married a Wervik girl, also there were a couple more marriages. Jumping ahead in time some two bus loads of ex 17th RCA and their wives journeyed to Wervik in 1984. We were the toast of the town and treated like royals. The greatest thrill, other than meeting old Wervik friends from 39 years ago, was the sunset ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. This ceremony was moved ahead an hour to accommodate our tour. The Ypres firemen do the sunset memorial of lowering the flags with six buglers playing the Last Post and Reveille. They have been doing this every sunset for the past 85 years.

Going Home
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