Thursday, February 11, 2016

Story re WW2, "Recalling a Wartime Christmas"


By Doug and Edith Harrison, RCNVR and Combined Operations 1941 - 1945

“The buzz was confirmed to us one day on the (HMCS Stadacona) parade square”
Photo credit - Halifax Citadel Defence Complex

Editor's introduction: The article below was first published in the Norwich Gazette in the 1990s and tells how and when the first draft of Canadians (already volunteers in RCNVR) volunteered once again - this second time for Combined Operations and hazardous duties overseas (or HO, 'Hostilities Only'). Both of my parents contributed to this rare piece:

Christmas, 1941

March the first, 1941, I left my employment at the Norwich Co-op and joined the navy as a probationary rating, at Hamilton, taking instructions each evening. I stayed at the home of my sister Gertie, and worked during the day at the James Street cotton mills until June, at which time I went on active strength and took ten weeks of training with many young men from the general area.

After a short leave at home we entrained for Halifax where we underwent similar navy training, but now we marched to a far more serious drummer. Any naval rating who ever went through the gunnery school will never forget the madhouse, and the heartless black-gaitered officers we endured.

Upon completion of our course we tried desperately to keep warm in the unheated barracks as rumours - some mess deck buzzes* - came to our ears of overseas duty. The buzz was confirmed to us one day on the parade square. Our commanding officer informed us that a request had been made by the Royal Navy for Canadian Navy volunteers for hazardous duty overseas. We were given a few days to arrive at our decision and report to our Petty Officer.

Almost to a man, those who had enlisted at Hamilton volunteered for the unknown. We had, over a period of six months, got to know each other very well, and were swayed greatly in our decision by the fact that it seemed an excellent way to stay together. So, come what may, we informed our Petty Officer, and we were given nine days leave.

I wrote my mother that I would be home for Christmas, and we all boarded what became known as the milk train because of its many stops between Halifax and Toronto. Each of us carried an attache case and our gas mask slung over our shoulder. It was like American Express: “Don’t leave home without it.” At Woodstock station someone from Norwich was picking up a passenger, and I came home with them, for three and a half days, which included Christmas.

Now I will let Edith tell of my arrival.

“How about a cup of tea?”

Before we knew that Doug would be getting leave, his mother and I purchased a wristwatch for his Christmas present. We then packed a box with the watch, socks and cigarettes, and a few other small items, and sent it off to Halifax. When he came home we asked if he had got his parcel, and he said yes, and the watch was lovely, but he had cracked the crystal and it was being repaired. After the war, Doug confessed that in the barracks in Halifax, he had taken off the watch before shaving, and gone out without it, and when he remembered it he went back but it was gone.

I remember the day he came home on short leave, though I can’t recall that we knew what day he would arrive. In the morning I had washed my hair and put in a few curlers at the top.

In those days most of us wore our hair long, to our shoulders, and with the side hair rolled up in a pompadour. I hadn’t got around to putting any make-up on, and I was just poking about waiting for my hair to dry, which took a long time for we didn’t have hand-held blow dryers then. My brothers were out and Mother was doing some Christmas baking at the kitchen table.

I walked into the dining room and looked out the door window and saw an odd-looking person coming down through the parking lot which used to be just in front of our house. I remember that I called out to Mother: “There’s a strange looking person coming down the road, come and see,” but before she could wipe the flour off her hands, I recognized Doug and called out; “It’s Doug Harrison!”

“How about a cup of tea?”: Photo of Doug and Edith, circa 1953

There he was, navy hat on one side, gas-mask over one shoulder, walking down through the snow. I ran out the door, wet hair, curlers and all, and down the snowy sidewalk with Mother calling after me, “Edith! Come and put your coat on!” but I kept right on going. I got to the end of the sidewalk and as we met I got a bump on the forehead and Doug got a bang on his nose. His nose used to bleed easily, and there he was, nose bleeding, trying to find a handkerchief, trying to hang on to his gas-mask, one arm around me, and then he said, laughing, “This is a great way to welcome me home!”

We managed to get into the house, where he sat down at one end of the table, and we found more handkerchiefs and mopped him up. Then, as I sat on his lap he asked, “How about a cup of tea?”

I made him the tea and then, after I had put on my make-up and combed my hair, we went up to Spring Street and spent the rest of the day with his mother.

I don’t remember Christmas Day that year; whenever I think of that Christmas time, I just recall that strange outfit, the recognition, the rush through the snow, and the words, “This is a great way to welcome me home!”

*the buzzes may have originated by a sailor or sailors who noticed bulletins pinned on boards outside classrooms. Another story about the Early Days of Combined Ops suggests as much.

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