Repatriation

A few weeks later, my compassionate leave was approved and I received my orders to report to the Repatriation Depot in England on my way back to Canada. Bulletins had been received that everybody’s kit would be carefully checked and anything other than personal items or regular issue would be confiscated and the owner possibly court martialed. I gave away my loot – my German Alpine rifle, a half-dozen assorted hand guns, etc. and said my goodbyes. Once more over to England and then a train ride to the Repatriation Depot around Reading.

RMS Queen Elizabeth

RMS Queen Elizabeth

The next morning, on parade, my name was called: I was on draft to leave at six o’clock the following morning on the Queen Elizabeth. In the Orderly Room, all the documentation was done and my pay book was turned in. We were allowed one pound of English money to spend on board ship. At Stores I was given a big wooden barrack box with a padlock and two keys. I was told to keep out whatever I wanted to carry on board ship and pack everything else in the box and I would be able to claim it when we got to Toronto. So much for “Everybody’s kit will be inspected “- and the talk of a possible Court Martial. I packed most of my kit – the QE makes the trip a lot quicker than did the poor old Letitia on the way over, so I just kept out some underwear and socks, a spare shirt and my cleaning gear and put everything else in the box and locked it up.

About 9:30, I was called on the intercom system to report to the Orderly Room right away. I thought there was likely one more signature they needed. But no – the Army just wanted to take one more pass at me before I got home! I was ushered into the Adjutant’s office and informed that I had been taken off the draft! I was ordered to report first thing next morning to the Reinforcement Depot to be returned to Germany. And nobody could tell me why! Fortunately, I knew some of the people in the Admin Department at CMHQ (Canadian Military Headquarters in London) – so I got on the phone and called to London – managed to locate the right chap and asked him just what the heck was going on. In a half hour or so he called me back and gave me the story. Apparently, some clerk in London had goofed. There was a private from Winnipeg who had been conscripted – received his basic training in Canada and had been sent to England two days before. His regimental number and his rank were quite different from mine – but his name was C. G. Collett and our records had been interchanged on the lists. I gave him all the necessary and correct data and he assured me he would straighten it out. However, it was too late to make any changes. The lists had already been posted and had been sent down to the ship. He had arranged that I did not have to report to the Reinforcement Depot but could stay where I was and would go on the next available ship. That was fine – but my barrack box with the rest of my clothing, and my pay book, etc., was already loaded on the ship. I would have to make do with whatever kit I had kept out and I couldn’t draw any more pay until I got back to Toronto and recovered my pay book. This left me with one spare shirt, some underwear, one pair of socks, the uniform I was wearing, my razor and tooth brush and whatever I had left of my one pound sterling. I tried everything I could think of – but everything had gone to Canada and I was stuck.

Not many ships were being used to return troops at this time – all the active units had already been returned – the troops in the Occupational Force were not going home yet. I even found out that the trip I missed out on in the QE was her last trip before being reconverted to civilian use. With next to no money – and no clean clothes – there was little I could do but go for walks or sit around in the Mess and read the newspapers.

Every morning, right after breakfast, I went to the Orderly Room and enquired about ships leaving for Canada – and repeated the enquiry every evening. I did this every day for four weeks – nothing was returning troops to Canada – that four weeks seemed like an eternity.

Finally, one morning, the Adjutant called me in and said that there would be a draft leaving in two days – it wouldn’t be quite like going on the QE, but if I wanted to go, he would have me added to the draft. The draft consisted of about 150 Provost (Military Police) who were guarding Canadian troops who had been serving time in Military Prisons in England and were being returned to finish their sentences in Canada. It sure didn’t sound like a trip on the QE – but at that point I think I would have taken a chance with a row boat and a pair of oars. So, naturally, I said I wanted to go. Provost are not the most popular people with the troops – but that seemed infinitely better than more time in that camp.

We took the train up to Glasgow – it was a two-day trip. We made five stops along the way and gathered up prisoners – we eventually had about 250 to 300 of them. They were a crew of tough-looking men – all sentenced for serious crimes such as murder, rape, arson, armed robbery, or desertion. We finally got to Glasgow and the prisoners were transferred (under very heavy guard) to the hold of the ship and securely locked up, and guards were posted.

HMS Arbiter

HMS Arbiter

The ship itself was a bit of a surprise – it was the HMS Arbiter – a so-called Woolworth Aircraft Carrier that had come to the Royal Navy from the US Navy as part of the Lend-Lease program. The Arbiter was much smaller than a regular carrier. It was interesting, looking around the ship – I found a nice bunk for myself in the Naval Petty Officers Quarters and ate my meals with the Petty Officers. I was getting myself all organized for a nice quiet trip – but the Provost didn’t take kindly to that. Could it have been because I wouldn’t wear their insignia – or maybe because I occasionally made a slip of the tongue and called them Meat Heads (the commonly used term when referring to the Military Police). Anyway, whatever the reason, when I vehemently denied any knowledge or experience in organizing police patrols or guard schedules, they gave me the only other available job, putting me in charge of the cigarette issue and the supply of books, magazines and games that they had on hand. Which is the closest thing to having nothing to do that you can imagine.

The next day, they loaded two aircraft on the flight deck (still in crates and lashed down with big steel cables) and we cast off. It was the month of March, which has the reputation of being a rough time to cross the North Atlantic. I had heard that the Irish Sea could get pretty rough but the next few hours showed me just how rough it could get. It seems that the Royal Navy had taken everything out of the ship that they thought they might need – and, as a result, the ship rode very high in the water and the waves really caused it to roll. The water got so rough the first night out (still in the Irish Sea) that most of the Provost were seasick – heaven only knows how the prisoners fared down in the hold – and the waves crashed over the flight deck snapping the steel cables anchoring the two aircraft and both planes were swept overboard. I don’t know why, but I was not bothered by seasickness – I never missed a meal. We swung around into the English Channel and docked at Southampton about a half-hour’s drive from the Depot we had pulled out of three days before. We started West across the Atlantic and all went well for a couple of days – and then one of the two engines broke down and we were relegated to a very slow speed for the rest of the trip. We spent thirty-two days from the time we left Glasgow until we landed at Halifax.

I had one high point in the trip, however – I got to know one of the Royal Navy sailors and it turned out that he was one of the helmsmen. One evening, when he was leaving to take his watch at the wheel, he asked me if I would like to come along and see what it was like. I surely would! The room where the wheel was located was right below the bridge. It was a real surprise – about 6′ wide and 10-12′ long – all armour plated on all sides – no openings of any kind. It was as if we were in a sealed box. I tried to imagine what this would be like during an air raid – guns firing – bombs exploding – machine guns blasting away- the ship swerving from side to side – and the helmsman in a sealed steel box, having no knowledge of what the heck was going on.

In the room itself, there were no furnishings of any kind. There was a horizontal compass (about 4′ long) with a lamp with a blue bulb illuminating it. There was the wheel and a speaker from the intercom on the bridge – and that was it. There was not even a chair or stool for the helmsman to rest on during his watch. He let me steer for a bit – but there was a wind and high waves coming at us at an angle. It was very hard to keep it right on the exact compass bearing.

The meals were nothing to brag about – although the cooks did the best they could. The only rations they were given were boxes of Compo Packs – the boxes of combat rations we had during actual combat. It was strange, though – in the American style, the meals were served on stainless steel trays and put on a stainless steel table. When the ship rolled (as it did all the time) we had to hold onto our trays or they would go swishing off to the end of the table.

Eventually, we reached Halifax and the prisoners were unloaded – shackled and under heavy guard. They were loaded on a train that was at the dock and took off to finish their sentences. When they were all off the ship, I picked up my kit and headed for the train. We stopped for a few minutes at a station in Quebec and I sent a wire to my family to let them know I would be home the next evening. We changed trains in Montreal and proceeded to Toronto, where we were loaded on trucks and taken to the CNE grounds. We paraded into a building – somebody made a short speech, and we were dismissed. I spotted my Dad, my brother Bob and his wife Shiela waiting to greet me.

We drove home to a very nice dinner. Mother was obviously unwell. She greeted me with, “Where have you been all afternoon? You’re late and have kept every one waiting for their dinner.”

A thirty day leave – an overnight trip to Hamilton for discharge – and I was a civilian again.

I checked in with the Insurance Company where I had been employed before I joined up. They gave me a royal welcome – wanted me to come back to work right away instead of waiting until my 30-day demobilization leave had expired. After over five years’ worth of pay increases, I would be getting the grand total of $65.00 a month – instead of the $45.00 I had been getting before the war. That worked out to a pay increase of about $1.00 per week, per year.

The army (who weren’t noted for over-paying the troops) had been paying me $3.10 a day or $93.00 a month, plus my clothing, food, quarters, medical and dental expenses. To go from that to $65.00 a month and pay for my own clothing, etc. was ridiculous. I wished them the best of luck and bid them a fond adieu. I had no idea how I would make my living – my army training was not a marketable product – but I figured I could certainly do better than that!

Next month, with my Dad, and Fin Dempsey as my best man, I went up to Pembroke and married my Stella, facing an uncertain civilian life together – both of us with all the confidence in the world!

Army life was a real experience – but it was time to leave it behind and begin a life of our own – and we did!

Web by Greg Collett with pride.


Thanks Dad.