Heroes: the Canadian Army
Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade
of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division
We Arrive Overseas
The English, so I'd been led to believe, were people blest with quiet reserve, never allowing their dignity to be lowered by some unseemly show of boisterousness or frivolous behaviour. Well, now I knew this wasn't so. They were no different than Canadians, at least not the humbler types that worked on the docks. Down below the great press of excited passengers crowd the rails on every deck, stevedores and other dock workers were going about their business, stopping from time to time to look up with what seemed like scant interest at the hootin' and hollerin' Canadians waving at them like a bunch of schoolkids at a Firemen's Field day Parade. Then, from out of the close-jammed mass of waving, khaki-clad troops, a handful of cigarettes rained down at their feet, followed immediately by literally thousands that fell around them. Whatever reserve these dock workers might have had, disappeared in an instant in their uninhibited frantic scurrying around to pick up the cigarettes, which, as I was soon to learn, they preferred far more than their English 'Woodbines', which were in short supply anyway. Dignity be damned! This was manna from heaven and they were going to make sure they'd get their fair share, even snaring them in mid-air like ballplayers. And when a military sedan appeared on the scene, the British Army officer, a Major, no less, and his driver joined the humble workers in scurrying about with great energy and agility in the cigarette retrieval. What a hilarious scene! Straight out of a Mack Sennett comedy. But then, come to think of it, after 10 days of peril at sea we were ready to laugh at damn near anything.
It took all that morning and the better part of the afternoon to disgorge all the sea-weary troops, with my particular draft being one of the last to disembark. As anxious as I was to get off and onto dry land, especially a land I'd never ever trod on before, a land whose history I was pretty well acquainted with, I was remarkably restrained. The dancing, the shouting, and the all 'round joy of having arrived safe and sound was on the inside. That's the way I was. I needed no outburst to vent my feelings. Our time would come to walk down that gangplank and if we were the last to leave, so it'd have to be.
It wasn't till about four in the afternoon that we finally hefted our gear and trundled down the gangplank to a train waiting nearby. A light drizzle began falling, exactly the kind of weather I expected to find in soggy old England. On a siding next to our coaches were a long string of freight cars, half-sized toy-like affairs compared to the much-larger North American variety. We couldn't help but laugh at them and make unkind remarks in reference to their dinkiness to any rail-yard worker who happened to be in earshot. Another thing about English trains that every one of the new arrivals couldn't help hear and scoff at was the irritating high-pitched squeal of the whistle, a far cry from the the throaty, mournful wail of the six-eight wheelers we were accustomed to hearing back home.
A heavy and unbroken mass of charcoal clouds moved in as we were about to board the coaches, bringing at first a light drizzle, but after we'd been rolling southwards for about a half hour, the skies really opened up and the rain came in buckets. For the next four hours the rain sluiced down like Niagara Falls, giving to the normally postcard pretty English countryside a much less pretty aspect, a drab, dripping, bleak look to the rolling patchwork farmland. The cities we passed through looked even more depressing. Little was out there outside the train windows that ignited my interest for long, and with the monotonous clicking of the wheels on the rails, I and almost everybody else nodded off to sleep.
Although coach seats are not comfortable for sleeping on, I found mine to some small degree agreeable with me. No doubt it had to be the ten days of sleeping on the steel floor of the Andes that gave to my new bed a feeling as though I was sleeping on a down-filled mattress. It was the first time in ten nights that I enjoyed an unbroken four hours of deep sleep. I probably would have slept right through to our destination, Aldershot had not some clumsy ox jostled me awake as he made his way down the aisle on his way to the cramped toilet cubicle at the end of the coach.
The train made several stops, first, at a place called Crewe where we sat for close to a half hour on a siding. The next stop was at Bradford, and later at Rugby. How could I have known when I was sitting in the library as a Grade six pupil at John Campbell School reading the book 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' that I would one day pass through Rugby where the fictional Tom went to school? The scene, however, from the coach window didn't impress me in any way, since all that was out there greeting my tired eyes were the drab and dirty backsides of old warehouses, factories and untidy backyards of row-houses&emdash;as depressing as any scene could be. The impression I got of England thus far was dis-appointing, certainly not too flattering. But it was a disappointment that before long would evaporate once I had some sleep. When I awoke, a thrill went through me as my rested eyes looked out on the picturesque countryside, the tree-shaded lanes, the rippling brooks and the lovely and quaint villages. Overall, though. I was glad when darkness came and down came the blackout blinds.
By the time we pulled into the outskirts of metropolitan London I was 'dead to the world' again, until someone shook my shoulder. It was my buddy, Jim Renaud, greeting me with the news that we were in London. We weren't allowed to pull back the blinds, so we went out to the platform at one end of the coach to have our first look at the big city that we'd seen so often in newsreels, burning under the bombing of the Luftwaffe. As it was, we didn't get to see all that much, only the gutted skeletons of house and buildings and the huge mounds of brick and mortar from blocks upon blocks of row-houses and buildings that had been completely destroyed during that demoralizing period between September and November of 1940 known as the Blitz. Here in the skies over London is where the momentous Battle of Britain had been fought, where the few had fought to a standstill the might of Goering's Luftwaffe and literally saved the British Empire and possibly the free world from defeat by Nazi Germany. In open spaces where once had been rows of houses before the bombing, there were now great pyramidal mounds of rubble. I couldn't help but ponder on all that had happened here during those bomb-wracked, flame-filled nights, when, to the citizens of London, it seemed that the end of the world was at hand. Imagination could not near bring to mind the horror of what had gone on here, where whole blocks of dwellings were obliterated by blast and fire, killing men, women and children in great numbers. Whole families were wiped out. Along the road, neatly swept of debris stood the lampposts (unlit of course) like ghostly sentinels guarding the road that led to nowhere but another desert of ruin and rubble and open spaces.
The train sat on the siding in London for what had to be at least an hour, and I began to wonder if somewhere in the night skies over Germany or occupied France that massed fleets of Luftwaffe bombers were assembling for another massive raid on the city. It made for an uneasy feeling, yet in a way it was an exhilarating feeling. much like what I used to experience, when as a kid I was being chased by an irate neighbour for some misdemeanour or other I had committed. It was scary, but exciting. Actually, we were not all that much in danger, because the Luftwaffe had 'shot its bolt' in the blitz of 40/41 after which came transferal of the major part of the bombing squadrons to the Eastern front. Except for isolated nuisance raids by single, sometimes two, three or even as much as a half dozen planes on coastal cities, and occasionally on London itself, nights in London were relatively quiet at this time. And this May 29th night was one of the quieter ones.
The huge, sprawling, cosmopolitan city was a ghost town at night. But, from sunup to twilight it was a veritable bee-hive of activity, especially in the West End entertainment, shopping and business centre. The streets and sidewalks were crowded with traffic, both wheeled and pedestrian. Its citizens would be hurrying off to work in the many government offices concentrated there, and to the shops in Piccadilly, the Strand, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Knightsbridge and a dozen other store-lined thoroughfares as they had always been doing in peacetime, and more so after war was declared. As the day progressed, the streets would fill with uniformed humanity seeking whatever pleasures the city core might offer. There were scads of men and women wearing the colours of the three services of every Allied nation, going hither and thither in their pursuit of enjoyment or whatever else was on their agenda for that day. London was a tremendously exciting and stimulating city to visit, as I would soon find out.
Once we got rolling again and cleared the city it didn't take me more than minutes to drop off to sleep again. But the intermittent squeal of that high-pitched train whistle and the clacking of the wheels kept dragging me back to that limbo between wakefulness and deep sleep. And then this loud, raucous voice impinged itself gratingly on my semi-consciousness.Be damned if I could make out what that irritating voice was hollering. I opened one eye and saw this guy with a funny, peaked cap going down the aisle shouting in gibberish. "Cha paxon! cha paxon! Mon, cha paxon!" At first I thought it was a red-cap (a porter}, but then I realized the man wore khaki, so I had to assume he was an M.P. Actually he was what was known as a R.T.O.(Route Transportation Officer) whose job it was to control bodies of troops in transit on the railway. Anyway, this loud character succeeded in waking everybody up with his raucous shouts of unintelligible orders. No one knew what the hell he was hollering about. After he'd passed through each coach and was on his way back, still shouting, it was only then that I suddenly caught on to the strange language issuing so loudly from his lips. He was letting us sleepy-eyed passenger know it was time to get our packs on. although it most certainly didn't sound like it. If he'd been speaking Canadian it would have been, "Get your packs on! Get your packs on! Come on, get your packs on!" I turned to Cec Vanderbeck, " If that's the way people over here talk, Cec, we're going to have one hell of a time understanding them. They talk like they've got a mouthful of marbles." "You can whistle that again," Cec replied. And that's when everybody in the car started loudly mimicking the RTO his raucous shouts even before he'd gone on to the next car. The place was a bedlam of hilarious shouts and laughter&emdash; a good waker-upper
It was darker than Toby's ass when we stepped down onto the platform in Aldershot Station. How the officers and NCOs managed to bring order out of chaos and form us up into column of route in the blacked-out rail yard remains a mystery to me. But they somehow did, and we marched off into the blacker than black streets like blind men. By the second block, night vision slowly came and now we could see enough so that we no longer walked up the backside or tread on the heels of the man ahead. Aldershot was like another ghost town. Not a soul walked the streets. I should have known, though, that with Aldershot being a barracks town, that its population would be abed with "Lights Out" at 10 p.m. Not a twinkle of light showed anywhere. It was almost midnight.
Along the way, unknown to us, the column was broken up into several segments as the various drafts from all across Canada veered off to their respective draft Reinforcement Depots in town. After a short march of several blocks our part of the column trooped into Salamanca Barracks just off the main intersection of town. On both sides of the road where we'd been brought to a halt loomed the silhouettes of the three-storied, wrought-iron balconied barracks blocks. Without further ado, we were broken off and told to find a bed anywhere on the two upper floors. in the one to our left. The ground floor contained the kitchen and mess-hall and other staff offices. We needed no urging, and with a noisy clatter of boots on steel grating we hurried up the stairs to lay claim to a bed. As for the bunk-beds, they were a sight to behold. Built of two by fours and thin steel slats to support the mattress, they stood only about three feet high, with the bottom bunk a mere six inches off the floor. The mattresses came in three pieces called 'biscuits'. The guys who got the top bunk had it easy. Those of us who were a little slower on the draw had to settle for a bottom bunk. I was one of that number, and much to my dismay found that getting into the bottom bunk was easier said than done, In fact it took a certain acrobatic ability to do so, along with some considerable practice to master without slipping a disk or straining the shoulder or back muscles.
There were two ways to overcome the problem of getting into the bottom bunk. The first was as follows: Facing the head of the bed you set the knee closest to the frame onto the mattress, and then with a quick flip, you rolled over onto your back. "Voila!" You were in! The second was a little more complicated and took some upper arm strength and a touch of acrobatics to succeed. You took a firm grip of the upper frame with both hands, more or less chin yourself as you swung yourself inwardly and then let go. if your timing was right, you landed squarely onto the bed. If it was off a split second too soon, your back landed on the hardwood frame, giving you a jolt you'd feel from shoulder blade to the crack of your ass. It took several of these minor accidents before we got the 'hang' of it.
Having skipped breakfast aboard the Andes I was undeniably famished by the time we arrived at our destination, and would have eaten just about anything to quieten the growling in the stomach. Since it was midnight, no one expected to be fed until morning, but then a Corporal came around with the good news that pancakes and tea was being served downstairs in the mess. Hardly had he gotten the last words out of his mouth when I was out the door with my mess-tins and enamelled cup. Never had pancakes tasted so delicious as they had on the early minutes of a Sunday morning. The first two went down in a matter of several gulps. I was still hungry and thought that that was my ration for the night, but to my welcome surprise I found out I could go up for seconds and even thirds. And I did just that. Satisfaction supreme!
That first night in England, as I was dropping off to sleep about one in the morning, came the distant wail of the air-raid sirens in London. I sat up with a start. In my shorts I dashed out to the balcony along with about thirty other guys likewise in their shorts, to witness for the first time what we all thought would be another bombing raid on the great city that had taken so much punishment from the Luftwaffe in the blitz. Off to the northeast about 35 miles away, long pencils of searchlight beams flicked back and forth across the sky, seeking out the raiders. Meanwhile, the mournful and eerie moan of the sirens rose and fell in the cooling damp of the night. We waited with the excitement of children at a circus parade, but this was a different kind of waiting. We waited almost breathless for the drone of engines and bombs exploding. But after more than a quarter of an hour of waiting and fixing our gaze on the sky in the direction of London we were disappointed when the sirens shut down and the searchlights flicked off. A false alarm.
Sunday morning, May 21st was the beginning of our first full day in Merrie England, and England not so merrie any more. And what a lovely day it was, so unlike the blowzy rain-saturated day of our disembarkation. The bugler hadn't even finished blowing reveille when I was dressed and ready to go exploring right after breakfast. With no parades on tap on Sunday, not even a church parade, we newcomers had all day to scout the town and environs to see what was what and what it had to offer.
Original Story from messages received on 21 February 2002.
Story originally submitted on: 23 February 2002.
The story above, We Arrive Overseas, was written and contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski, who served with the Perth Regiment of Canada, 11th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division. The moving story is a part of his published work entitled: Not All of Us Were Brave which was published by Dundurn Press.
Would you care to read more tales of World War II written by Mr. Stan Scislowski? His work is featured on a website devoted to the Perth Regiment of Canada. Check out this very interesting website and while you are there look at Stan's Corner .
We at World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words wish to offer our profound "Thanks" for the excellent material contributed by Mr. Stan Scislowski.
September 5, 2002.
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