Sunday, June 13, 2021

Comox, BC: The Comox District Free Press (2)

 B.C. Papers Share Wee Details re HMCS Givenchy III, 1943-45

"Combined Operations on Vancouver Island? That's News to Me!" 

Canadian sailors would pitch Victory Bonds themselves in later ads


Some information about the Combined Operations School that was home to scores of Canadian sailors from 1943 - 1946 (including my father from Jan. 1944 - midsummer 1945) is already featured on this site. For example, click here for "Some History - HMCS Givenchy III (1)" if interested in learning more about the role of the base related to Combined Operations, including for sailors who had already served two years overseas, which included their involvement in the Dieppe Raid and the invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

The main source of information for this series of posts is The Comox District Free Press, and I found vintage copies of it on microfilm in Courtenay (near Comox) a few years ago.  Some articles have some link to Canadians in Combined Ops and with the help of additional information from sailors' memoirs, etc., I am hoping readers will gain a better understanding of the responsibilities and adventures of the 950 - 1000 members of RCNVR who also volunteered for Combined Operations beginning in late 1941.

How did members of RCNVR hear about Combined Operations, a British organization, in 1941? What enticed the first drafts from Canada to volunteer? Where and when did they start their training re landing crafts? Did they know early on that their first action would be the Dieppe Raid? These questions are answered on this website. Readers with their own questions and comments re the Canadians in Combined Ops can use the comment box below this entry or email editor at

The Navy base on The Spit at Comox went through name changes as its role changed over the course of time (it is currently known as HMCS Quadra and associated w the training of sea cadets). Below we hear it called Givenchy II in connection with a tale of a shipmate with a tail:

The above 'salty dip' or 'seadog of a tale' was published in the Free Press on November 18, 1943, almost exactly two months before the arrival of many sailors from across Canada, members of Combined Ops, finished with overseas duties. Their navy records would reveal transfers from one "land establishment" to another over their years of service, including their arrival (or at least the arrival of their records) at HMCS Givenchy III on January 15, 1944. 

From one part of my father's Navy records:

The following part of a lengthy article was found on the back of "Butch's" tribute story, and I initially crossed it off my list to share here, likely because I did not have the full story. But, there is enough to reveal  the dangers faced by those on convoy duty. As well, one paragraph features one very fortunate sailor who ended up - at least for awhile - at HMCS Givenvhy III. Details to follow the article below: 

In the third-to-last short paragraph we read about sinking of HMCS St. Croix and that there was "only one survivor." Many of the sailors who had survived two years overseas service and ended up volunteering for - or being placed at (?) - the Combined Operations School on The Spit at Comox, met the sailor who did not go down with the St. Croix

My father writes the following in memoirs: 

Wm. Fisher, a stoker (not of Combined Ops but of R.C.N.V.R.), was stationed there. He had, I believe, an unequalled experience. He was on an Atlantic convoy run, on H.M.C.S. St. Croix, and one night in rough seas the St. Croix was sunk and he was the lone survivor. His life jacket had lights on and later he was picked up by the English ship H.M.S. Itchen. It in turn was torpedoed and Fisher was one of three survivors.

They took him and his wife on saving bond tours, etc., but when he was asked to go to sea again, he said he would go to cells first. With an experience like that I would have too. He was lucky to be alive.

From "Dad, Well Done" page 41

More details, including photos re Comox and a link to a more authoritative source, about the above survivor (my father had most of the details correct but not all) can be found at the following link:

Passages: Heaven and Hell by G. Harrison, on this site.

Bill Fisher would pitch savings bonds (is that him in the above ad?) "but
when he was asked to go to sea again, he said he would go to cells first."

A few words re the Navy League and some its roles during WWII. FYI - when I first visited the current base at Comox in 2014 I was met by an officer, last name McLennan. Related to the officer below?

In the December 23, 1943 issue of The Comox District Free Press one can read an article related to "an informal talk on convoy work" delivered by "Commander G. S. Windeyer" (Commander of the Combined Operations School (C.O.S.)), to members of the Elks' Club (Comox or Courtenay). It appears in its entirety below:

The next paragraph says:

"It has expanded from only seven corvettes to more than thirty at the present time, the speaker said, adding his personal opinion that if it had not been for this force the Allies would have lost the war.

The article continues:

The next paragraph says:

One of their most exciting jobs had been to dash out and bring in the Battle Cruiser "Repulse" during the Bismarck show in the North Atlantic. The big battleship had only a pint of oil left. The corvette gave her (i.e. Repulse) some and later brought up a tanker to refuel her before she again took up the chase of the ill-fated battleship.

The article continues:

In Windeyer's concluding statements he mentions the Combined Operations School and the background of some of the Canadian sailors who served there:

In conclusion he declared that his duties in connection with the Combined Operations School had been made ever so much more pleasant by the splendid manner in which the people of Courtenay and Comox had put themselves out to make the officers and men happy and comfortable.

The article continues:

Please note - some of the members of RCNVR on the Navy base prior to this article being written may also have trained for and participated in the Dieppe Raid (August 19, 1942) prior to the subsequent invasion of North Africa less than 3 months later (beginning November 8, 1942). Many of the members of RCNVR and Combined Ops who arrived at HMCS Givenchy III beginning in Jan. 1944 (just a few weeks after the article's publication) had trained for the Dieppe Raid in Scotland and S. England a few months prior to the raid. Any omission by Comm. Windeyer may be related to lack of detail in the navy records of the time. The word 'sparse' could be used to describe some files.

The article concludes (please excuse my penmanship):  

Cmdr. Windeyer is recalled in my father's memoirs. Link to "Some History - HMCS Givenchy III, 1940s (1) for details.

While scanning the newspaper on microfilm during one visit to Vancouver Island I was happy to spot mention of the National Film Board because I had earlier found a small photo re Combined Ops training in a WWII text (attributed to the NFB). See 'note to self' below:

Below is a photo I found in "Six Years of War" attributed to NFB, Jan. 1944, and it looks like attack landing practice on Dyke Road between Courtenay and Comox:

Photo Credit: "Six Years of War" page 114

The NFB may have a valuable cache of films related to Canadians in Combined Ops. New 'note to self.' Check it out!

The Bickle Theatre, mentioned above re NFB films, had its own cache as well, 25 cents cash per viewing!

More details re the NFB films from Dec. 16, 1943. Reproducing a clear photo was impossible from old microfilm:

A colourful movie poster and 2-minute long trailer for the above movie can be found here.

Help Wanted! Readers might be able to find a clean photograph to go with the informative caption below, from the February 3, 1944 issue of The Comox District Free Press:

The history of The Spit's navy base closely overlaps with the recruiting and training of Sea Cadets over the years. The current base, HMCS Quadra, is directly related to the Cadet training program:

Cmdr. G. S. Windeyer (mentioned in the last paragraph above) is awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, as reported in the March 9, 1944 issue of The Comox District Free Press

Many of the Canadians in Combined Ops who served at HMCS Givenchy III  would have vivid memories not only of the landings in Italy (e.g., Operation Baytown, beginning Sept. 3, 1943) but of their subsequent adventures related to meeting the people on the toe of the boot and exploring their surroundings. "Johnny Canuck" paints his own picture below:

From Comox District Free Press, Mar. 9, 1943

Lloyd Evans (RCNVR and Combined Operations) recalls the following (in part) about his time ferrying troops and supplies in Italy, early September. 1943:

We spent a couple of days in the harbours of Augusta and Catania and then to Messina for the attack on Italy itself. We went in at Reggio with our load of Canadian troops under a very heavy allied artillery barrage from the hills of Messina (Sept. 3). There appeared to be little or no opposition. We later found out that Italy had already agreed to surrender but hadn’t announced it to wrong foot the Germans. The deception worked, since the Germans did not reinforce the positions vacated by the Italians. I can still see the Sicilians running around cheering, 'Benito et finito' (Benito (Mussolini) is finished.) To celebrate, one of the locals dug up a bottle of great wine he had buried to keep it safe from the Germans.

Allied forces advanced quite rapidly, so another unplanned landing further up the coast was set in motion. The object, this time, was to land supplies for the advancing Allied forces and our flotilla was one of several selected for the job. While we waited on a safe beach for the signal to leave, a few large warships, including a battleship, went past at high speed. Their mission was to shell the new landing beach before we moved in during the night (Sept. 9; Operation Avalanche at Salerno).

The waves they created started to wash the landing craft off the beach, so I winched the door up a little, prior to ramming the craft back onto the beach. Unfortunately I left the safety catch off the winch handle and the next wave lifted the boat and I took the full force of the spinning winch handle on my left leg before I could remove it. One of the other boys made a similar mistake but this time with the kedge anchor winch. It hit him on the head to his severe injury. An Italian surgeon inserted a steel plate in his skull to repair the damage. Since this landing was not part of the original plan, there was little reliable intelligence as to enemy defences. An LCI was sent in to investigate but luck was against them, as the beach was defended by some top German artillery units and the craft was destroyed. The landing was called off.

Three of us decided to do a little sightseeing when the other crew were on duty on our craft. We visited Reggio di Calabria and called in on a police station with a letter requisitioning any guns we wanted. Under the occupation rules and regulations, locals had to turn in any weapons they held. To make the letter look authentic, we stamped it with an official looking mark...the stamp having been made out of a potato. As we suspected, the local police couldn’t read English and they fell for it. Most of the weapons looked like antiques from the Boer war but I managed to get a lovely little Baretta ladies gun, that I later sold to an American sailor in Gibraltar.

Lloyd's memoirs can be found at Combined Operations Command by Geoff Slee, Scotland.

My father and Lloyd do not mention one another in their lengthy WWII memoirs but they obviously crossed paths. About his time in Italy my father writes (in part):

We had some days off and we travelled, did some sight seeing, e.g., visiting German graves. We met Sicilian prisoners walking home disconsolately, stopped them, and took sidearms from any officer. We saw oxen still being used as draft animals when we were there. Sometimes we went to Italy and to Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory depot (AMGOT). (They later changed that name because in Italian it meant shi-!) While a couple of ratings kept the man in charge of all the revolvers busy, we picked out a lot of dandies. If he caught us we were ready. We had chits made out, i.e., “Please supply this rating with sidearms,” signed Captain P.T. Gear or Captain B.M. Lever, after the Breech Mechanism Lever on a large gun.

From Dad, Well Done" page 36

Lloyd Evans and Doug Harrison are seen together in the following photo, (possibly) taken at a port in S. England, e.g., Southampton, 1942, or (possibly) in the Med, 1943:

Seven Canadians in RCNVR and Combined Ops, 1942 or 1943
Back L - R: unknown, C. Dale, Lloyd Evans, Don Westbrook
Front L - R: Don Linder, unknown, Doug Harrison
From the collection of Lloyd Evans, formerly Markham ONT

Canadian artwork, not a good reproduction in March 16, 1944 issue of The Comox District Free Press, but I have found a better copy:

I share a better copy from The Winnipeg Tribune along with more information related to the artist at The Arts of War: Cartoons, Illustrations... (Winnipeg Tribune (2):

An editorial from March 23rd provides a few details re the progress and outlook of the war in Europe, with a quote from England's PM W. Churchill:

The Canadian Army was hard at work in Italy in late 1943 - early 1945. More can be read in a series of posts finished here just a few weeks ago (cf date of this post), using news clippings from The Winnipeg Tribune, issues re all of January and February, 1944. The first entry in that series can be found here - also related to the Canadians in Combined Ops who landed on Vancouver Island early in Jan. 1944.

As cries of encouragement to "Buy Victory Bonds" could be heard across the land - and pleas to produce a Victory Garden - Canadian families faced a rationing system as well. A few details are provided below:

Many other items were rationed as well, from butter to gasoline to rubber tires. But the price of 20-oz cans of peas and rolled roast beef looked pretty good!

Photo Gallery - from a trip to the Comox District, including Courtenay:

On the train ride west, we stop beside an old, abandoned railway station

At one end of the station in Hornepayne ONT, I see a familiar corner,
but a long covered porch is missing.

In January 1944, my father took this picture from about the 
same spot as the earlier photo. Don, Chuck, Buryl, Joe, Don.

Iconic structure in Winnipeg is on the rise, 2012

Heading west through lovely territory

The view is worth the price of the train ride

I'm heading from city of Vancouver to the island by BC Ferry

One stop in Esquimalt to see a hammock with my father's name
upon it. At CFB Esquimalt Military Museum, by appt. only

Name of HMCS Givenchy III has a link to a 'protection vessel'

Well-known dance hall filled w WWII memories, in Courtenay

Riverside Hotel, filled w WWII memories, burned down in the 1960s

Lewis Park, home to Navy No. 1 baseball team, 1944, is still a ball park

Early photo of Riverside Hotel (top of hill, right of trees)
A navy ship would deposit sailors on leave at this wharf in Comox.
Their barracks on the Spit is less than a kilometre away

The wharf was a busy spot back in the day of horse, buggy and shipping

I was greeted on The Spit with a lovely sign

It's a healthy walk to the entrance to the Navy base. HMCS Quadra

I'm almost there, i.e., entrance building flying the Canadian flag

Some buildings could still be there from World War II era.! But I was told
I couldn't enter... so I walked around the perimeter via the beach

"Well, we'll just see about that!" I say, and look around to see
if anyone is watching. Nope, narry an armed guard in sight.

More photographs will follow in future entries.

And more news clips from the Comox newspaper(s) will soon follow as well.

Please link to Comox BC: The Comox District Free Press 1943 (1)

Unattributed Photos GH

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