A BATTALION COMMANDER'S EXPERIENCE IN THE FIRST YEAR OF THE WAR
AN ADDRESS BY
BRIGADIER ERIC W. HALDENBY, M.C., V.D.
Chairman: The President, The Honourable G. Howard Ferguson.
Thursday, October 10, 1940
THE HONOURABLE G. HOWARD FERGUSON: Gentlemen: I expect I shall have the privilege of introducing many important people to this Club during my term of office, but I can assure you that on no occasion will I have greater pleasure than I feel today in presenting to you our good friend Brigadier Haldenby (applause), affectionately and familiarly known to all of us as Eric Haldenby. Gentlemen, I present Eric Haldenby. (Loud applause.)
BRIGADIER ERIC W. HALDENBY, M.C., V.D.: Mr. President, Sir William Mulock and Members of the Empire Club: I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the very kind reception you have given my name today. I cannot tell you how very thrilling it is to be back home in Toronto and to see so many of my old friends. This seems to be a wonderful opportunity to speak to so many of my friends that I could not otherwise get in touch with. As I look around the room today it does thrill me with a great deal of pride to think that so many of you are willing to come out and hear whatever inadequate address I can give. I would ask you to bear with me if I seem to stick to my notes very closely, because, as this has to deal with service in the war zone, I have to submit everything I am to say to the censors, and of necessity I must stick closely to my notes.
I am going to try and give you a very simple account of the first year of the war as experienced by a battalion commander in the First Canadian Division.
The story of the raising of the unit and its subsequent training and move overseas is the usual experience of any battalion going on active service, and there is no use dwelling on that further.
We arrived in port on New Year's Eve and had a long cold journey in the train riding through bleak snow-covered fields. Now, if you recall, Christmas last December in Canada was mild, with no snow, and for Canadians to leave Canada, without wearing great coats and to arrive in England to find the temperature very low and the weather extremely bad, was quite a surprise.
For the first time in its history the Regiment was stationed at Aldershot and were given the fine old Corrunna Barracks, the home of so many great regiments in the past and recently rehabilitated by the building of splendid messing quarters and baths. We were proud to be stationed in this, the greatest military settlement in the world, especially as two battalions of our allied Regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, were in adjoining barracks. The fact that the buildings were desperately cold and that most of the plumbing was frozen detracted only a little from our pride in all the excitement of the famous place. The men felt that they were at least in England and were getting closer to active service. We were told, much to our amusement, the old superstition that a soldier having once been stationed at Aldershot always comes back to the place. We remembered it later.
There was one thing that amazed us all. There were the most elaborate precautions for air-raids. Bomb-proof shelters were to be found everywhere, fire fighting apparatus was standing ready in our own lines, great tanks of water were built between the buildings and the most elaborate preparations were made for the decontamination of clothing and the body after gas attacks. We thought it all very elaborate and unnecessary but were to bless this forethought and carefulness later on.
Our first big experience was to be asked to take part in a review of the Gordon Highlanders in Aldershot by the Colonel of the Gordons, Sir James Burnett. The Canadians did extremely well and received profuse praise from the Gordons, which was very gratifying, as we were naturally a little nervous about this, being up against an old Imperial Regiment. That night the officers of the 48th gave a dinner for the officers of the Gordons and it was a most glorious celebration. Here we were at last working with our mother Regiment and receiving their commendation, which pleased us greatly.
Intensive individual training started immediately, despite the foul weather. We fired our practices on the ranges even when the fire trenches and butts had to be cleared of snow to do so. It was considered essential that we get right on with our training.
General McNaughton held a conference of all the Commanding Officers in his Division and he pointed out very clearly and very precisely that every man must be thoroughly trained to be an efficient soldier and that the desire of himself and of his staff was to help the officers as much as possible in this work, and not to find fault; the idea was to give all the assistance they could, but it was also quite clear that every Commanding Officer would be held strictly responsible for the results. The First Canadian Division must be ready for action to the last man.
The training proceeded without interruption. Every man, no matter what his job might be, was instructed and tested. He learned the use of his rifle, the Bren gun, anti-aircraft mounting, the anti-tank rifle, the 2-inch and 3-inch mortar and the hand grenade. He was shown how to protect himself against gas, against an attack and by the use of camouflage. He was toughened by trench dig ging, physical training and long marches. He was taught to find his way to work at night. It was most essential that the troops should be thoroughly familiar with night work because, as is obvious of course, most of the movements are clone by night now, with aircraft so active. Every man was taught some special work so that he would be a reserve for special work, such as the mechanical transport, the signallers or carriers, and that sort of thing. This went on for some time. Then the day of reckoning arrived and the most painstaking and meticulous examination was made of every phase of our training. Our proficiency in drill, arms, personal protection, was investigated, and then our quarters, equipment, accounts, records, files, rations, messing, medical arrangements, recreation facilities, were all gone into, and toward the end of the day the Divisional Commander himself went out to the ranges and lay beside the men and watched them fire. By this time I felt like a wet rag-everything seemed to go wrong, as it always does. You really cannot imagine the very searching examination they make. Of course we were all very concerned, but to our great satisfaction, he said at the end of the day, "Haldenby, your battalion is all right", and walked off. We all heaved a sigh of relief.
From then we went on with collective training which is more interesting. 1 won't tire you with the stories of trench defence schemes, march schemes and attack schemes. It is sufficient to say that we made ourselves fit to do whatever was required of us in the struggle which we knew was coming in France and Belgium. At that time the training was obviously for a German invasion of Belgium, and of course we were to be prepared to jump in and take up position.
We were on our way to a big training scheme at Salisbury Plain when the Germans invaded Holland. We went on with our training at Salisbury and of course Salisbury, to a good many Canadians, was an old sore point, because we had had such terrible experiences and hardships there in the last war. It soon became apparent that it might be necessary to defend England and we came back to Aldershot and stood by in readiness. The enemy was making great inroads into the Low Countries and it was obvious that he was not going to slow up until he got a crack at Great Britain.
They decided that the best place to put us was up toward the east centre of England, and the whole Division moved up one night where we were put in a position of readiness to drive out the enemy if he made any attempt at invasion by sea or air. At this time the country suddenly seemed to spring into a warlike appearance and I have never seen such a change in all my life. Road signs completely disappeared, much to the chagrin of young officers still a bit hazy on their map reading. Road blocks appeared everywhere and steel rails, tree trunks and concrete pipe were all brought into use. The people went at it with great zeal and determination. Every large field, golf course or common was blocked with steel, concrete poles or old decrepit motor cars. We reconnoitred all possible places of landing from the sea and I spent a great deal of time going up and down the coast on the twenty-five mile front assigned to me.
Suddenly, to our great joy, we were warned that we were to go to France. Britain was going to back France to the limit in France's death struggle against the mechanized hordes sweeping across Europe. We returned to Aldershot and made final preparations. We were on our way at last. Their Majesties, the King and Queen, came down to Aldershot and saw the Brigade and had tea in the 48th Officers' Mess. They were both charming to everyone and we were proud to think that we were going over to defend Great Britain and to serve them. They walked through the cheering lines of men and shook hands with the old soldiers. It was most informal. It must have been a great task for them as they had to walk for three or four hours, but nothing seemed too much for them to do.
Next day we had our last church parade. It was Sunday and we went to St. Andrew's Church in Aldershot. We then had two days of waiting and we did some stiff marching with full equipment to keep us fit for the hard days to come.
The Germans had broken the Somme defences by this time and were even thrusting across the Seine. On the 13th of June we left Aldershot and moved to a southern port. We embarked at once to music from the Royal Marine Band, which played us off as we left this port and sailed for France. The men were in great spirits although the news was a bit disturbing. But we were going over and the situation would be cleaned up very rapidly--there was no doubt about that.
We landed at Brest in the morning and the Regiment once more marched on French pavement. It seemed like old times again and everybody felt fine. In good order we slowly made our way up the steep road to the ramparts where the troops could rest and take cover because Brest, being a port, was subject to air-raids. After some tea and food our Brigade Headquarters and the 48th moved down to the railway yards and were put into a very comfortable train. It was rather amazing, especially if you remember the old box cars and that sort of thing. These were two magnificent steel cars for the officers, just turned out of the shops and beautifully equipped. I can still see the lovely pearl grey upholstering and the antimacassars on the chairs.
Our destination was a secret, but knowing French trains in war time all the troops were allowed to send parties to buy bread and butter, and jam and eggs, and beer and wine. We were supposed to be on the train only a few hours but I knew that a few days would be more likely on a French train. We moved off about noon and as the Officer Commanding I opened the secret orders. Our destination was a little town about one hundred and forty miles up the line. That was quite unexpected and on consultation with my Brigadier, Armand Smith, decided that it was apparently a new development. We travelled all day through cheering French civilians and the men enjoyed every minute. They thought it was grand. All the French girls held their thumbs up, signifying we were going to win, and everything was fine.
Here at least we were getting near the scene of action. There were thousands of refugees and everywhere along the line, which went right through Paris, we saw great stacks of bicycles at each station. There would be a hundred and two hundred bicycles piled in a station. A great many trains passed us, going in the opposite direction, laden with tired and worn out civilian men, women and children. Their appearance was certainly not very bright but the troops felt that was part of the show and they cheered them, too.
At about eleven at night we reached a place called Laval and got further orders to move on to Sable. We moved along all through the night and I began to think we were going to go right through the Maginot Line. The engineer assured me every time he saw me, and eventually at three o'clock we came to our destination and pulled into a great train yard. There wasn't a sound. The yard was filled with cars, full of all sorts of war materials, and it looked to me as if this were some sort of a railway junction to be used as a place for supplies.
We were ready to detrain and in compliance with orders from Brigadier Armand Smith had prepared an all round defence scheme for the village. We didn't know where the enemy was exactly, but we would surround the town with a ring of defence. Fortunately our Brigade Intelligence Officer had had the foresight to bring an excellent set of French road maps which were a great help. Enlargements were made and we divided the whole frontage surrounding the town among the companies. When the train stopped there were faint glimmers of the dawn and we felt it was of vital importance to get the troops in their positions before the light became too bright, in case the enemy reconaissance parties were out.
Suddenly we saw a flash-light coming along the track. Soon an officer appeared and asked for the Officer Commanding on the train. He informed me that he had orders for us from the Quartermaster-General commanding Lines of Communication to move back to Brest at once. You cannot conceive of anything more unexpected and disheartening. These orders seemed so incredible that I saw the Brigadier at once and we questioned this Railway Transport Officer to ensure that he was not a fifth columnist. We decided that this couldn't be a person of any authority and we had better investigate. We questioned and questioned and the more we questioned the more we became convinced that he was all right. He could give no reason for the extraordinary order, other than that there were rumours of a French capitulation. He was certainly a British Railway Transport Officer, and stated that the other units in the Brigade had been turned back late the night before and that we unfortunately had missed getting the message, although motor cyclists had been sent out to intercept the train at railway crossings. If this were the case we were many miles beyond our nearest unit.
The men, of course, were anxious to stay and put up a fight but it was out of the question. They said, "Let us stay anyway." I said, "All right. You have fifty rounds of ammunition for each man, and two days rations, what do we do when that is over." They said that they would get through some way, that something would turn up. It was obvious nothing would turn up. Our transport was miles away, returning to Brest.
The Railway Transport Officer then left, stating he was going to make a dash for the coast in a motor which he had. He was very uncertain as to the whereabouts of the enemy but thought they were about forty miles north of us. Forty miles is no great distance for an armoured unit, so it was obvious that something very drastic had to be done in the way of action at once. Then a German reconnaissance plane appeared overhead, flying slowly
back and forth. We put the men back in the train to keep them out of sight and we began to feel that the situation was rather critical. Brigadier Smith and I decided to move back to Laval, the next station, and get some proper confirmation of the order from the British officers there. Obviously, there was something wrong.
However, we reckoned without our friend, the locomotive engineer. He rebelled when we suggested turning around and going back. He shook his head, there was nothing doing. "La guerre est fim", he said. With that Bill Darling retorted, "Not for us, you miserable skunk", or words to that effect. The engineer had endless excuses. He had not eaten for eighteen hours. All right, we would let him have something to eat. He had no orders from the Chef de Gare. All right, we found the station master who confirmed our order to move out. Then he couldn't get up steam. So we got two firemen and fired his boiler for him. He still demurred so we decided to take action. We brought up Sergeant Major Lawrie, who is a locomotive engineer, and he looked over the boiler and said it was all right. We uncoupled the engine, and by the dint of Captain Darling's revolver poking the engineer's ribs and a little red wine, he helped to move the locomotive to the other end of the train. Then we started a long dreary haul up hill, thirty miles to Laval. It was difficult to keep steam up without blowing off the safety valve and yet unless there was a full head of steam the old tin pot wouldn't pull up the hill. The water was running low and the scratch crew were anxious not to blow the boiler to bits. The French engineer was so excited over this affront
to his beautiful engine that he acted like a crazy man. We managed to make a little headway but after about two hours I realized we hadn't moved more than a couple of miles over the worst part of the hill and I decided we had better make some protective arrangements in case the enemy had cut us off. We decided to put the train in a state of defence. Captain Ken. Whyte sat out on the cow catcher with a Tommy gun. Major Bill Hendrie, of Hamilton, and Captain Darling were in the cab to keep an eye on the crew and watch for trouble. The windows were broken to eliminate any danger from glass splinters. Holes were punched in the roof to give good anti-aircraft fire and two flat-cars were attached to the train to carry our anti-aircraft guns.
On Brigadier Smith's instructions I held a conference of officers and ordered them to stay with their companies and in case we were held up they were to get out of the train, take cover wherever it offered and open up protective fire. We examined our location and found that our nearest port was St. Nazaire, seventy miles away, and we thought we should be able to reach it in three night marches. We moved by night and kept out of sight in the daytime because if the enemy were overrunning the country we would be very vulnerable. Every man was to cut down his load to a minimum. He was to hang on to his ammunition at all costs and carry enough rations to keep him going. Spare clothing and equipment were to go by the boards. Every officer must hang on to his compass and his glasses, and, of course, his map. We worked out the route by which we would move out on land and made arrangements that we would meet at the end of the night, before dawn, at certain places on the way, and check up to see that we were all still on the way.
Well, we moved slowly along, still having trouble to keep up steam and still expecting to come under bursts of machine-gun fire at any moment. Nothing happened and eventually the whole train pulled into Laval station, and with a great deal of trepidation I saw the Railway Transport Officer at once and asked about all this. He at once confirmed our previous orders; we were to go back to Brest as fast as we could. He said the French had taken a terrific hammering in the last few days and the civilian population, of course, had been given a terrifically bad time by bombers. The fifth columnists were active and the whole country was in a rather chaotic condition. He said that they were asking for an armistice, and of course it is difficult to say now what the true story of the whole French disaster was. They put up a heroic resistance, but nobody knows exactly what happened and I suppose it will only be known after the war. However, this was not our business. We had to get clear or we would spend the rest of the war in a barbed wire cage.
We obtained a new locomotive and with the same engine crew we started down the line. We reached Rennes about one o'clock and found things very upset. This great railway junction for the whole of northwest France had been heavily bombed. The railway officials kept us sitting in the train in the yards for two hours. Eventually we got under way and to our amazement we found we were going north, and Brest was due west. We have never known why this was done. Either the road had been closed at Brest or a mistake was made. At the first stop we saw Bill Hendrie, who was commanding the cab, and ordered him to make for St. Malo, which we reached at approximately five o'clock. We found that there was apparently no boat available for three days. We saw the Embarkation Staff Officer and he promised to do what he could and a Brigade Staff Officer persuaded him to crowd us on to a channel steamer that was built to hold seven hundred and already had fifteen hundred troops from all branches of the British Army on it. We thought another seven hundred wouldn't make much difference. We tucked the men into little corners of the ship and got them all on. We left the harbour at high tide and despite the ominous warnings that we would be bombed, we got away without trouble. Providence was generous. We had a smooth crossing and returned to England at a different port from which we had sailed. We felt very much chagrined at the great reception which we were given by the English populace. We had been three days in France and never a shot was fired. To the veterans who had fought in the last war it was very embarrassing. However, we learned later that we had been much closer to the enemy than we imagined. It seemed that the enemy had crossed our line behind us, but never dreaming that any troops were ahead of him, had neglected to blow up the track or block it.
Once more we returned to Aldershot. It was a sad collection of men that moved back into our old Corrunna Barracks. We settled down to hard training. I held a parade of the Regiment and explained to them the reasons for our withdrawal and the necessity for us to be ready for the coming invasion. It was obvious that when the cleaned up on France they would turn toward England. The British Army was rearming after the Dunkerque miracle, and the First Canadian Division, with certain other British Divisions, was to be ready to drive the enemy into the sea should he attempt a landing. All the country-side in our area was reconnoitred and every conceivable situation which might arise was studied. We had practice moves by day and night. Everyone was keen for something to start.
The troops were moved away from Aldershot down to a position of readiness, under cover of a great forest. Slit trenches were dug so that the men could take shelter at a moment's notice. Our position was hidden away in woods, in a great park on a large estate. We explained to the troops that the owner of the estate took a poor view of the shooting of any deer in the park and that the ducks on the ornamental lake were not intended for the edification of the Canadian soldiers. They were very good about this, but I noticed that the ducks slowly but surely disappeared. The deer seemed to have a better time.
I would like to say at this time that the attitude of the English civilian population was always of the most kindly and appreciative nature. They seemed to feel that we were there to defend them and that nothing they could do to help us was too much trouble. I shall never forget the very sincere evidence of gratitude shown by so many landowners and their very obvious desire not to make any complaints at any petty damage done by the troops. One day I was out on a scheme and was pleased to find we were defending Plaw Hatch, the home of Sir Robert Kindersley. After the exercise was over we called on Sir Robert who was amused to find that Canadians were defending his house and was most hospitable.
When the bombing started in July the troops were ready for it. I think it was rather a relief for everyone. Here at last was something active. The civilian population behaved magnificently and all the elaborate air-raid precautions which had been standing idle for months swung into action. The air-raid wardens, both men and women, were splendid. They would don their steel hats and respirators and set forth in the midst of the bombing with all the courage of old veterans. I have the greatest respect for thetas. And that amazing organization, the Local Defence Volunteers, who perform their civilian work by day and stay up night after night, also deserve unstinted praise. They stop everything on the roads at night, and even in the fields and commons. Woe betide the person who cannot produce his identity card. Also, never trifle with them when they shove their rifle at you and call "Halt!" They don't fool and their finger is on the trigger.
The battalion carried on its training of marching, weapon training and tactical exercises steadily, through August and September. The presence of enemy planes bombing during an attack scheme adds considerable interest to the proceedings. I remember receiving a message that a certain crossroads had been blown up and the message neglected to state that it was only a training message. We took action immediately and despatched engineers only to find that it was a practice.
Another interesting thing happened when the 48th were firing machine-gun practices at a well known rifle range. An enemy plane came over at about five hundred feet. The anti-aircraft machine-gun which is always mounted near troops while training, opened fire and to our amazement, brought it down. The German was a very young boy of about seventeen. He was hit on the arm and the leg and decided he could never make the channel crossing. General McNaughton was very pleased as it was the first plane brought down by Canadians, and he issued a special order of the day.
The danger of parachutists and troop-carrying planes is constant, and elaborate arrangements are made for cleaning them up. I cannot give you the details of this scheme but it is sufficient to say that troops can be on the ground anywhere in a remarkably short time. One clay in August we received the signal at our Headquarters and rushed troops to the spot indicated at once. The troops combed the area and swept up a heterogeneous collection of individuals inhabiting rural England. There was a postman, a market gardener, some farm labourers and various odds and ends, all herded together and very much alarmed. It is impossible to take anyone for granted because we know that the Hun uses all manner of disguises.
However, they were all examined and all seemed to have their cards and to be fairly respectable people. A Staff Officer appeared and ordered their release. Apparently some person had seen a number of anti-aircraft shells burst and mistaking them for parachutes reported a largescale landing. You have to be continually on the alert for parachute landers.
Nothing can be said too greatly in praise of our Navy and Air Force. They are magnificent and they are doing a great job now. There is no question that the Army had their show in France and are just on guard now, but these two services are simply magnificent. I have watched many of the great raids, and the spectacle of our fighter command squadrons mounting to battle long before the enemy arrives is inspiring. We know the enemy raid is coming, the sirens start going, and soon we see the little silver dots ' in the sky, anywhere from fifty to a hundred, at great height, and the fighter squadrons come up and charge through them. Our planes dive into them and break up their formations and soon you see planes come shrieking down, followed by the parachutes slowly swinging to earth. The German pilots are taken prisoners and seem to be quite contented with it all. They apparently know they will be decently treated and they no longer expect to be attacked, as they did at first. Some friends of mine saw a German land on the ridge of a roof. He sat on the ridge and pulled out a comb to comb his hair. I suppose he thought he was going to get a public reception.
I have mentioned the calmness and determination of the civilian population. The people are simply wonderful. They do not complain. They realize that they are in the front line of the British defences and it is amazing the way they sprang into action when the air attack on England started. There is no panic or alarm. If damage is done it is cleared away without any fuss. Business goes on as usual, and it is the worst possible form to show any concern over the enemy's attempt to break the spirit of the man in the street. It is just ignored, and if the enemy thinks he is breaking the spirit of the British people he is making a terrible mistake. They tell me there is enough glass in England to replace every window twice. I can easily believe it. You may see a long row of houses with the windows blown in during the night, the next day they are replaced, and that is all there is to it. They seem to have everything ready and they are not going to have London destroyed. I have no hesitation in saying that Germany will never succeed in breaking the spirit of the British people, no matter what happens.
Lastly, I would like to speak of the splendid esprit de corps in our own troops. They are anxious to fight, they are ready, they are fit, and they are looking forward very keenly to something happening. When it does, they are certainly going to make their mark.
I would like also to mention our great auxiliary services, the Salvation Army and the Young Men's Christian Association, and the work they have clone for the recreation of the men. I don't know that it is any greater than in the last war but it seems better organized, it seems more complete, and they all seem to be on the job. They are always there to give the men tea on cold nights and to have cigarettes ready.
The Red Cross is doing a splendid job in supplying comforts for the men and I cannot say too much in appreciation of these organizations. Another splendid thing the troops now have is the old County Council Hall that has been taken over and is the Beaver Club in London. It is really a beautiful place, a most comfortable and liveable place. The High Commissioner in London organized the place and the people supplied the funds. It has been a splendid thing in every way.
One more word as to the Canadian Corps. The leadership and organization is as nearly perfect as anything can ever be. The Corps Commander, General McNaughton, has worked endlessly to build up a great fighting force and as one of his junior officers it ill behooves me to say any word of praise of this great Commander. I just cannot help saying that every officer and everyone in the ranks of the Corps worship him and trust him implicitly. He is the grandest man. Also I would like to pay a final tribute to the men in my own Regiment who gave me magnificent support and who were most loyal and most efficient all through the period of my Command. (Loud cheers.)
THE HONOURABLE G. HOWARD FERGUSON: Bishop Renison has been good enough to agree to say a word of appreciation on behalf of all of us.
BISHOP RENISON: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: I am quite sure that we have listened today to a story that thrills every Canadian to the marrow of his bones. (Aplause.) When Brigadier Haldenby carne home there were thousands of people in the city of Toronto, to say nothing of the rest of the country, who wanted just to look at him and to have the opportunity of shaking his hand, not only for his own personal qualities, of which I would presume to say nothing, but because he is the incarnation, in the minds of the people of Toronto, of the Canadian citizen soldier at his very best. (Applause.) It is a long time since St. Julian and the second Battle of Ypres, and we remember very well that the great meaning of that story, tragic at it was, was the fact that it revealed that no professional soldiers in the world, however efficient they might be, with the limitations of their culture and their idealism, in the long run could stand up before the concentrated and inspired resolution of free peoples. (Applause.) And that little story-of which I am sure Brigadier Haldenby has heard too much, from his own point of view-that saga, that little epic of the lost soldiers who went into the dark like men on a camping trip, who knew exactly what to do and how to do it, may be, as the Brigadier says himself, a comparatively small thing but it isn't a small thing to the people of Toronto. It isn't a small thing to the people of Canada. It isn't a small thing to the civilized world, because it shows us a picture of what is going to happen on the larger scale when the decision of the future of the world has to be made. (Applause.)
THE HONOURABLE G. HOWARD FERGUSON: Thank you so much, Bishop Renison. There are just one or two things I would like to mention before we break up. We have with us today one who has seen the war at very close range and who, I hope, will be able to come and talk to us some day-Mr. Matthew Halton, of the Toronto Star. I regret very much that Mr. Piper who travelled far and abroad and made a study of conditions in many countries during war time is too ill to be present. I hope that the time will come when we will have the privilege of hearing from these gentlemen a close-up view of exactly what the conditions are.