Faint Footsteps: Canadian sailors volunteer for the unknown, 1941

By Gord Harrison, Special to the Norwich Gazette

"Eighty of us march through Hamilton" 1941. Doug Harrison, front row, just right of centre.

"Eighty of us march through Hamilton" 1941. Doug Harrison, front row, just right of centre.

Editor’s note: The following is a new column feature special to the Gazette by Gord Harrison, a London writer who was born in Burgessville. Harrison chronicles the life of his father, Doug Harrison, a Norwich resident and former Gazette columnist, and his life during the Second World War.

In June 1941, my father started training with the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RCNVR) in Hamilton at age 20. According to him, it was no piece of cake.

In navy memoirs he says, “Rifle drill, route marches, frog-hopping up hills with 60-pound sacks on our back, and gunnery skills. Everything done on the double.... they really toughened us up.”

An American, “Alabama,” couldn’t handle it well, was discharged, but Dad and Buryl McIntyre (both from Norwich) and many of their new mates persevered and were shipped to Halifax in October.

“But not before the 80 of us, led by our mascot (a Great Dane) and headed by a band, did a march through Hamilton,” Dad writes. “We really were proud and put on a display of marching... shoulders square, arms swinging shoulder high, thousands watched and we were roundly cheered and applauded. This was a proud moment long-remembered.”

Training was “very severe” in Halifax, and he recalls “running outside in temperatures in the low 20s in T-shirts and shorts, morning after morning.” The reception from some Haligonians was just as chilly. “One restaurant had a sign in its window - Dogs and sailors not allowed.”

Lloyd Evans of Markham recalls the trainees enjoyed one significant bit of adventure, at least most did. In memoirs he says, “The highlight of the training was a one-day trip to sea on a Minesweeper for gunnery practice. The whole ship rattled and shook when the 4-inch gun went off. It wasn't all fun - one of our boys was so seasick he pleaded to be thrown over the side!”

Most of the sailors made life-long friends while there, and together they volunteered for an organization in December ’41 that was to direct their training activities and participation in significant events (operations, i.e, raids and invasions) during the Second World War.

These men were already ‘signed and sealed’ members of the RCNVR. Why volunteer for another organization? Higher pay? Not likely. More money is seldom mentioned in veterans’ tales.

My father writes, “One day we heard a mess deck buzz or rumour that the navy was looking for volunteers for special duties overseas, nine days leave thrown in.”

Because Christmas was near, nine days off would turn many heads, surely.

Al Kirby of Woodstock recalls something else enticing about overseas duties. In a story he says, “I was finishing my Torpedo Course in Halifax when I saw a notice asking for volunteers to go to England to train with the Royal Navy for hazardous duties on small craft. I immediately thought “Motor Torpedo Boats”. That sounded very exciting to a 17-year-old boy seaman, so I applied. The only qualification was that you be single and warm.”

Youthful enthusiasm and easy qualifications perhaps helped lure a few volunteers.

Dad also recalls the following:

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. Almost to a man, (we) volunteered for the unknown. (“Recalling A Wartime Christmas”, Norwich Gazette, December 1994)

It certainly helped that the sailors didn’t know what the future held.

The organization they joined was Combined Operations; the Director or Chief was Lord Louis Mountbatten; COHQ was in London, England; and, unbeknownst to the Canadians, their first training exercises - to begin overseas in February 1942 - pertained to Operation Rutter (cancelled and later renamed Operation Jubilee), the raid on Dieppe, France.