Debert turned out to be a relatively new camp. As far as I know, the 3rd Division troops were stationed there before they went overseas. The huts were frame buildings covered with tar paper. They were built in the form of an “H”, with sleeping accommodation in the two wings on either side and bathroom facilities in the center. There were several toilets just sitting there en mass – not in cubicles – and a few shower heads – also with no cubicles – just sitting there in the open.
The area itself was rather desolate. The nearest town was Truro with a population of about 5-6,000 people, approximately ten miles away. We were about fifty or sixty miles west of Halifax. There were no paved roads or sidewalks, street lights or any other civilized sort of thing. Not the most welcome sight, but we were on our way!
It quickly became apparent that their was no need for my help with Q business in the new camp, as I had been led to believe. My services were not required in any part of it. That didn’t bother me. I found a nice shady spot beside one of the huts – pulled out my pipe and a pocket book – and prepared for some nice relaxing afternoons – but I learned a valuable lesson then and there. The spot for my siesta was not well enough hidden and the next thing I knew I was part of a six-man crew scrubbing floors on my hands and knees.
I spent the next three weeks with the scrubbing crew cleaning windows, washing and assembling a few hundred bunk beds, and cleaning bathrooms. By the time we got all this done – plus setting up the kitchen and mess hall – the main party arrived. When the RQ looked me up, I told him about the base personnel looking after the Q business, and that all I did was work on getting housemaids knees and dishpan hands! Jack soon had me taken off all regimental duties and fatigues and got me a spot in QM Stores. But one more mishap was to take place. I was called in to the Medical Office and informed that, according to my records, I had never had my series of inoculations. I explained that I got them in Stanley Barracks about a month before – but since no record could be found, I had to have another series of seven or eight shots in the arm. Maybe it was the double dose, but this time my arm was very sore.
The camp was very primitive and the roads were just dirt tracks. When it rained – which seemed to be fairly frequently – they became quagmires. The three-ton truck we sent to the railhead to draw rations every day was constantly stuck in the mud and delayed, until we found a solution. One of our vehicles was a breakdown lorry – a big, powerful truck with twin beams to raise up stranded vehicles. When it rained, we would send two vehicles to pick up the rations – first, the regular 3-ton truck and second, the breakdown lorry! Sure saved a lot of time!
In the winter months, with no insulation in the buildings, the water pipes would freeze up. I became quite adept at thawing out water pipes with a blow torch – a somewhat dangerous procedure in a frame and tarpaper building but what choice did we have?
Better equipment gradually arrived. When our summer drill uniforms were issued, they were a definite light tan shade – and we felt it made us look like brand new recruits. There was a great run on the sale of laundry bleach at the local General Store as the summer drill uniforms were washed, bleached for a long time and laid out in the direct sunlight to dry. They soon lost their tan shade and became almost white, making us appear to be well-seasoned soldiers.
Then a big change occurred – It was decided that we were no longer going to be an Infantry Division but an Armoured Division. As an armoured division, not only the training and the tactics and equipment was changed – there was even a change in nomenclature. As armoured, we reverted to cavalry terms. A squad became a section. A platoon became a troop. A company became a squadron. Thus the Company Sgt Majors became Squadron Sgt Majors – called SSMs instead of CSMs. No big problem, but it did take a bit of getting used to.
After becoming an Armoured Division, we had a change of command. Our new General was F.F. (standing for Fighting Freddie) Worthington. He loved tanks and armoured warfare. It was not unusual to find him in one of the big garage buildings – wearing a set of greasy overalls on top of his fancy uniform – crawling in and under a tank or an armoured car, discussing the different vehicles with the mechanics. At first we were issued with a new all-Canadian tank – the Ram. It was Fighting Freddie’s own brain child. Fortunately, it did not last very long with us. It was a bit slow – took far too wide a radius to make a turn – and had a faulty design in the method of assembling the turret. When not under direct fire, the tank commander stands up in the turret and is half in and half out of the machine. This gives him good visibility and much better control. Shortly after we got the Rams, one of our armoured regiments was on a training scheme. A tank was pulled over to the side of a dirt road close to a deep ditch, the ground gave way – the tank slid down, and the turret slipped out of its tracks. The Sgt Commander of the tank was killed instantly – cut into an upper and a lower half. Very shortly thereafter, out went the Rams and in came the Sherman tanks– which we used for the entire campaign.
The lack of trained personnel worked to my advantage at this point. Within six months of coming to Debert, I was promoted to sergeant again, and then got the “three and a crown” becoming the Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant of No. 1 Squadron – and the RQ’s right-hand man. Jack Bridges and I worked very well together and became very good friends. Jack lived off the base with his wife, Kay, and rented a couple of rooms in a house in Truro. It was a real treat to be invited for a home-cooked meal at their home, occasionally.
Ben Boylan and his wife, Grace, also lived off base in Truro. We became great friends and I was invited to spend an evening with them frequently. Most enjoyable – a wonderful change from sitting in camp – or wandering around Truro and wondering what to do for excitement.
One evening we received notice that a draft would be arriving to help bring our unit up to strength. As I checked over the list of reinforcements, I noticed a familiar name from my days as an office boy. I went over to the Orderly Room where the draft was being processed and, sure enough, there was my fellow ex-office boy, Bill Conway. We needed someone with office training in our Q Staff Office and after a few phone calls our Quartermaster, Capt Thomson, arranged to have Bill posted to QM to work with us – much to the annoyance of the Adjutant and the Orderly Room staff who needed him for their office.
Bill did a very good job. In time he was promoted to SQMS (Staff Sergeant) and later was transferred to L of C Signals and promoted to WOII to become their RQ. Unfortunately, a few months after we moved to England, Bill was run over by an army truck in the blackout. Members of his old unit (4 Armd Div Signals) and his new unit (L of C Signals) acted as pall bearers – RSM Fin Dempsey, SQMS Ted Graham and I representing 4 Div.
I’ll never forget one two-day period in Debert when we had an overnight scheme in the middle of winter. It was really cold with a couple of feet of snow on the ground. This scheme was to be done on skis and pulling a toboggan. I could have found lots of reasons not to participate in the scheme but, as a high school student I had become interested in skiing. (I had all my own equipment until I played hooky from school one afternoon and spent five months in Toronto Western Hospital. When I got out, I found nothing at home that even faintly resembled skiing – no skis, poles, boots, nothing!) I organized a troop from the QM Staff and we set off at 8:00 next morning – using skis – pulling a toboggan with supplies – and outfitted with white snow capes over our battle dress.
We were given a map reference of a bridge located in a dense forest some six or seven miles from camp. We were to find the bridge and defend it for twelve hours against another troop who were the attackers. We found the bridge and set up defences and waited for the attack – and waited and waited. Finally night fell, so we set up a guard duty roster, built a windbreak out of boughs of trees, and spent the night with a fire in the mouth of the windbreak. The attacking troops had got lost and never did find us and next day we returned to camp. However, it was a good learning program.
There was another scheme that taught me a good lesson – this time it was in the fall. At the time, I was the SQMS (Staff Quartermaster Sergeant) of No. 1 Squadron and our squadron was on a wireless training exercise away out in the boon docks. I arranged with the cooks for a hot meal to be packed in containers and not having too much to do, I arranged to pick up the containers and take the food out to the scheme myself. I found that the cooks had also made two dozen apple pies for a special treat. Everything was loaded on the small truck and I took off with the food – some of the way on paved or gravel roads – and the last two or three miles across the fields. The hot food was very well received – and I was the hero of the day.
Then I told them about the special treat, and that was a mistake. Having nothing else to put them in, the cooks had packed the apple pies one on top of the other in a cardboard box that was just the size of a pie – about 20 pies high. The top pie was OK, the second one was a bit squashed – the rest were apple sauce! Needless to say, I lost my “hero rating” on the spot.
The Army has its own way of issuing drivers’ licenses. Mainly, they are descriptive of the “drive” of the vehicle. For example , a 4×2 stands for a four-wheeled vehicle with the drive train on two wheels only. A 4×4 is the same thing but with four-wheel drive. I enjoyed driving the different types of vehicles and qualified for a license for all classes of vehicles except tanks. (We had no tanks on the strength of our unit.) The most fun (and the most popular) was motorcycles. While in Canada, we had Indians and Harleys. Overseas, we had smaller machines such as Nortons and Enfields. We had two main instructors – Sgt Angus MacLeod and Cpl Cactus Luttrell. There were always eight or ten men in each motorcycle instruction class. About half of the class was composed of Sergeants, Warrant Officers and Officers – who had no need to know how to drive a motorcycle – but just enjoyed learning. (And I was certainly one of this group.)
Sgt MacLeod was a very good instructor – we became very good friends as the war went on. There are a couple of things about him that I will never forget. One was the matter of a motorcycle with a side car. We were out on a scheme and I had to run an errand of some kind. I was getting into an 8cwt truck when MacLeod saw me and offered me a lift in the side car of his motorcycle. It would save a lot of time so, away we went, taking a short-cut through a wooded area. We were going at a fair clip when I saw a tree stump about 12″ high on the side of the path. It seemed to be right in line with the side car. I called out to Mac but all he said was “Oh, you worry too much” and kept on going. I hung on tightly, closed my eyes, and loudly expressed my opinion of Mac’s ancestry. Then I felt a slight jar in the seat of the side car and we kept on going. Mac had somehow leaned away over, making the side car lift up in the air – and we went right over the stump. Mac told me afterwards that my face was white – but my vocabulary was quite healthy.
The idea of the side car on a motorcycle intrigued me – and shortly thereafter, I told Mac I wanted to learn to drive one. We got out on a deserted country road with the machine. Mac cautioned me to be sure to lock my right elbow since the side car made the machine pull strongly to the right. No problem – I started the motor – invited Mac to get in the side car (which he refused to do). I thought my right elbow was well locked – let in the clutch – and away we went. Apparently, my right elbow was not locked well enough – we made a sharp right-hand turn – went right into a three foot ditch – ruined the front end of the motor cycle and my uniform. When I came to, Mac swore he would never again try to teach anyone to drive a motorcycle with a side car.
Shortly afterwards, Mac had a ten-day pass and was going to see friends in Chicago. Somehow or other, he found out that I had a set of Mess Blues (the blue dress uniform of Signals, complete with a blue field service cap, gold-plated buttons, gold chevrons, red-striped trouser seams, etc.) and Mac had his heart set on making a big show of himself to his friends in Chicago. He bugged the blazes out of me until I agreed to let him borrow my dress uniform. He would be going through Toronto by train and I wrote my mother to let her know he would be calling. He could pick up my uniform and take it to Chicago – then have it dry cleaned and returned to my home on the way back. But things don’t always go the way they are planned!
It was a 24-hour train ride from Debert to Toronto – Mac met a bunch of people on the train – had too much to drink – and arrived at my home with a “grade A large” hangover. Poor mother wouldn’t recognize a hangover if she bumped into one! When she wrote me about Mac’s visit, she was so upset that he was so ill. She had made him come in – take off his boots and have a good sleep on the sofa. She woke him up in time to have a bath and a big dinner – gave him my mess blues – and hoped he would have a very good leave in Chicago. Mac must have made quite an impression with my blues – he got into a big crap game and, when it was over, he had no money left – and no mess blues. I guess that balanced things off for my ruining his Indian with sidecar.
One other thing I recall about Mac. We were fighting a sham battle against the lst Polish Armoured Division up in Norfolk (north of London). Mac was in his usual hurry delivering a dispatch of some sort – was driving his motorcycle through a small village – made a right hand turn at the main intersection – and came face-to-face with a Sherman tank. Mac did all he could under the circumstances – he applied the brakes and lay the machine down on its side right in front of the on-coming tank – which promptly drove right over him. The motorcycle’s handlebars were all bent up – the saddle and the gas tank were crushed – but Mac jumped up with nothing more than bruised shoulders and elbows, scuffed boots and a torn uniform. Everyone figured he was a gone goose but Mac was still going strong when the war ended.
Mac’s assistant in motorcycle training was Cpl Luttrell. His nickname was “Cactus” – from his Texas origin. He was an American citizen – had been a precision drill instructor in the Motorcycle Exhibition Team of the Texas Rangers. He could make a motorcycle sit up and beg for breakfast. Unfortunately, he could not refrain from teaching new recruits some of his precision drill maneuvers. In one of his classes, through his failure to follow the training plan, one of his recruits was killed. Next day, he was on his way back to Texas.
For a while we had a different Regimental Sgt Major – Louie Poirier – a permanent force soldier from Montreal. He was not one of the more popular members of the Sergeant’s Mess. It seemed that his service made him feel superior to those of us who were in the army “for the period of hostilities only.” Louie thought the WO’s and Sgts were not smart enough on parade, so he conducted a program of close order drill for all members of the Sgts Mess – from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm each evening.This was not popular with any of us – most especially, those with wives living in Truro. One evening Louie had us drilling on a hilly dirt road just outside the camp limits. He would march us up a hill until we were a couple of hundred yards away and then give the command to “About Turn!”. On a prearranged signal, nobody heard the command – and we kept on marching right over the hill and out of sight – then we broke off and hid in the woods alongside the road. We heard a great screaming of commands from Louie – but nobody made a sound. Finally he searched the whole area – and, muttering to himself, went back to camp. We waited another half hour or so and very smartly marched back to camp. Louie was furious – but we all maintained we did not hear his commands. That was the end of the extra evening drill.
With the training schedule we followed, it is not surprising that everyone was in good physical condition. Every Friday morning at 7:30 we had a special parade for the Commanding Officer’s Inspection. And heaven help anyone who went on parade needing a shave or hair cut, a crease in his trousers, or mirror-shine on his boots! I well remember one such parade in which the Colonel was particularly fussy. After inspection, he called the battalion to attention and announced that we were dismissed – but were to reappear in 15 minutes dressed in full Battle Order. This meant with weapons, ammunition, steel helmet, respirator, water bottle (filled), haversack (packed with the required list of items, etc. etc. In fifteen minutes, the parade was called. Without a word of explanation, the command was given to right turn and quick march and we set off on a route march that covered 25 miles of dirt roads – with a break for lunch (of hard tack and the water from our own water bottles). We arrived back at camp at 6:00 o’clock.
Then the Sergeants and Warrant Officers completed a foot inspection on all the men – paraded those with any blisters over to the medical officer – got washed – ate a very fast meal – showered and changed uniform – and returned to the Mess for a dance scheduled for that evening. And not one member of the mess missed the dance which went on until 1:00 am. (Gosh, wouldn’t it be something to be able to do that now!)
A different type of training was started – it was referred to as Gassy Tuesday. Every Tuesday morning we had to carry our respirators around and when the siren sounded, had to put them on and continue on with our jobs as usual, until the ‘All Clear’ an hour later. It was strange to see everyone doing his job with a respirator on – the cooks cooking, drivers driving, and linemen laying cable. I remember watching one squad drilling on the parade square – the siren sounded and the squad pulled out their respirators and put them on – all except one man – he loved playing cards and when he pulled out his respirator, 52 cards scattered all over the tarmac. He spent his evenings for the next week or two doing some extra work around the area under guard. It was too bad, too – he was a nice young chap and was killed a month later in a training exercise.
It was a “learning time” for all of us – not only learning the normal Q duties I was involved in – but also learning some of the “tricks of the trade” that the regular peace-time army troops could teach us. For example, our uniforms were very well suited for their daily use but, for inspections and for leaving camp in the evenings, they weren’t very dressy. We learned to make some improvements, such as:
Cap badges – the Signals cap badge was triangular in shape. When clipped to a field service cap (or later on, to a beret) – it didn’t show up worth a darn. The trick was to get a piece of rigid material – cut it about an inch larger than the badge – drill two holes in it for the clips – and put it on the inside of the cap underneath the badge – made the badge lie flat and show much better.
Gaiters – (proper name, ‘anklets, web’) – after they were used a while, the material gaped between the two straps and not only looked terrible but left a hole showing. To fix this, we cut a slit in the lining at each end of the gaiter and inserted a length of clothes hanger to fit vertically – this kept the join closed and flat and looking much neater.
Trousers – if we wanted the crease in our trousers to last a bit longer, we turned them inside out and ran a bar of soap along the inside of the crease – then turned them right side out and pressed them. Probably not the best thing for the material – but they did hold the press much better.
Boots – as issued – had a pebble finish and were quite oily – very good for the prime use of the boots – but not the best for taking a shine. To fix this, we heated a spoon in the flame of a blow torch and rubbed it over the boot. This not only drove out the oil but also flattened the pebble finish, making it possible to “have a shine you could shave in!”
We also had a chance to learn a bit about the countryside and the Nova Scotia people. One weekend, a group of us were invited to spend the weekend on the Bay of Fundy. The family who invited us had a small baby – just a year or so old. We were sitting around late in the evening, playing cards on the kitchen table, when the baby started to cry. Our hostess went to the baby and was back in about five minutes. The baby was quiet and apparently sound asleep. Seemed like quite an accomplishment , so I asked for her secret. It was a simple one – she gave it a spoonful of rum and it went right back to sleep!
Next day after lunch, we borrowed some tackle and went fishing. Not being a particularly ardent fisherman, I wandered down to the bay and sat and enjoyed the sun and the scenery. Ben Boylan and his wife, Grace, were along with us – Ben loved fishing but Grace wandered down by the water’s edge and sat with me. After a while, we heard some shouting and whistling and saw people waving frantically at us. The famous Bay of Fundy tide was rolling in! Grace and I had been sitting on a large rock and we were surrounded by water! It didn’t look very deep so I picked Grace up and splashed to shore. By the time I got my boots off and the water poured out of them, the rock we had been sitting on was completely under water!
The army had arranged to have a new School of Army Administration at Domaine d’Estrelle – which is about 100 miles north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. The RQ asked me if I would like to go – and, never having seen the Laurentians, I was sure interested. Besides, it would give me a break from Debert Camp. It turned out to be a terrific month. The school itself was originally a summer estate belonging to a Belgian Count and had been given to the Cdn Army to use during the war. It was about a thousand acres – hills, streams, lakes, etc. along with a big hunting lodge and a main building. There were about 25 of us taking the course – we all had our own private bedrooms in the hunting lodge and ate our meals at the main lodge. It was a four week course – but, by the end of the first week, it became obvious to me that this was a good course for someone who know nothing at all about office routine and army procedures. So – I began going to class in the morning and playing hooky after lunch. The main lodge was on a lake and there were several small dinghies in the boat house. One afternoon when I was skipping class, I met the 18-year-old daughter of the groundskeeper. She knew a lot about sailing and, first thing I knew, I was getting lessons. It gave me a busy final three weeks – going to class in the morning – taking sailing lessons in the afternoon – and tutoring classes in the evening for men who were having trouble with the course.
When the course was over , there was a simple examination and I passed easily. Since I was closer to Toronto than to Debert, I wired the RQ and suggested I take a couple of days to visit my folks. I got a confirming telegram with a note that a pass was in the mail to my home address. I thought I’d been very smart wangling an extra leave, but when the pass arrived, it was marked “48-hour Embarkation Leave”. – which I would have had anyway!
During my leave, my brother, Bob, told me he was getting married in two or three weeks and asked me if I would be able to come back to be best man at the wedding. Foolishly, I said that would be no problem but later, I had to wire Bob and tell him I wouldn’t be able to accept the honor – I was confined to barracks pending embarkation.
After I got back to Camp, I checked up on any late instructions that had come through and discovered that in my job as SQMS, I was entitled to Group C trades pay. I applied – took the required exam and qualified. Group C trades meant almost a 30% increase in my pay. Then Capt. Martin, the Paymaster, dropped in to see me and gave me the latest news – I was on draft for overseas – trades pay was only payable to troops in Canada and was not paid to troops overseas – so I might as well forget about it. (A strange system for sure – if you go overseas to help fight a war, they don’t give you as much pay as if you stayed in Canada. I never was able to find a logical explanation for that.)
About that time on a Sunday, the army managed to do something that was somewhat stupider than usual. There was a Church Parade called for the whole Division – some 16-18,000 men. All the wives and relatives of the troops were invited. After the service, a Colonel from National Defence Headquarters gave a brief talk – all the usual nonsense about patriotism and stuff like that. And then, he told us to look to our right and then to our left and take a good look at the men standing there because, by the law of averages, the chances were that one in three would not be coming back in one piece. One in three would either be very badly wounded or killed. What a thing for the wives and families of the troops to be told! I think he was a real “desk walloper ” himself – from the look of his waistline – I would feel fairly safe in assuming that he had been commanding a desk in Ottawa for the past several years!
We finally received orders that the Advance Party was to leave the next day for Halifax to board ship. At that time, the German U Boats were doing a pretty good job of sinking ships crossing the Atlantic. Rather than have Mom and Dad worry about me, I wrote three letters saying I was fine but very busy, etc. dated one currently and the next two a week apart – and left them with Jack to mail for me.
And then it came time for the Advance Party to leave. There were almost a hundred of us and we had about 200 crates of equipment to take with us – (including one crate full of extra food supplies – things like sugar, coffee, candy, canned fruit, liquor, etc.)
We got on the train at Debert Station – pulled into Truro fifteen minutes later and stopped there for half an hour. This was our big secret move – slogans all around saying things like “loose lips sink ships” – and there at the station were all the wives and kids of the lads on the draft – plus all the girls any one of us had ever met, throwing kisses and waving goodbye.