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A Narrow Shave! 1940-1944

[1] This explosion took place on October 1, 1940. Read more here.

[2] The Lorne Scots are a Canadian infantry regiment.

One night I had just returned to camp, just before midnight; the alert was on of course and German planes were droning overhead. I crawled into bed and was just becoming drowsy when I heard a bomb whistling down. It felt as though it was coming straight for me: the whistling stopped and it seemed an eternity before the blast. Suddenly I found myself standing outside in the roadway in my shirt-tail; I had been blown right through the panic doors. The bomb had actually hit our kitchen, and as the debris settled it sounded like a lot of broken dishes falling.[1]  The two night cooks were gone and a Lorne Scot[2]  was found right at the perimeter of the crater with his lungs completely collapsed. He had apparently been returning to camp when the blast from the exploding bomb caught him. For three days all we had to eat was sandwiches and hot tea served from a Salvation Army mobile canteen.

Training continued, marching round England and engaging in maneuvers with Brigade and Division, often playing tag with the clouds on the South Downs, very often wet and miserable when we spent the night in slit trenches or on rolled-out wet blankets. Very often we would breakfast standing up, having a pannikin with a dollop of oatmeal, a piece of margarine and spoonful of jam all together; and another pannikin of hot tea or coffee; as we ate, the water would run off our steel helmets and into the food, but our appetites were good!

No. 18 Platoon, of which I was a member, took part in Aldershot Command's marching, shooting and endurance competition. We won the battalion elimination, then brigade and division, and in the finals we were to compete against a British regiment.

We never knew exactly when the various competitions were to take place. We were on duty on the southern beaches when a message came through at 4 am. that we were to be at starting point in Aldershot at 10 am. We were stringing barbed wire and our clothes were soiled and snagged like a bunch of rag-a-muffins. There was no time to change uniforms. A cup of hot cocoa, and we were bundled onto troop-carrying trucks; we made it to starting point with just fifteen minutes to spare.

[3] "Ash Ranges" refers to a large expanse of heathland outside Aldershot that is owned by the U.K. Ministry of Defense and used for live-fire training.

We had to do a ten-mile forced march which brought us to a simulated battle attack. There was a gas attack, and targets in the form of the enemy kept popping up in front of our advances. On Ash Ranges[3]  we were awarded points for performance and hits. Our adversaries were the Welsh Borders. We beat them on points but not in dress: we were a ragged bunch!

We were marched up to a bunch of officers who looked like all the brass in the British Army. We were ordered to open rank and ground arms, then a general came round the ranks, shook hands with each of us and presented each with a crossed rifles medal and then stepped back.

Our platoon commander, Lieutenant (later Brigadier) Ross Ellis, who later commanded the battalion through Holland at the Walchern Canal, was at the time so excited: it was the first time Canadian troops had beaten British troops in that command. Ross forgot the next command to pick up arms, close ranks and move off; instead he bellowed, "Pick up those ruddy rifles and let us get to hell out of here"— of course our drill was perfect.

Our Colonel Scott was very proud of our achievement, so that when our medals were returned engraved with name and number, he called a battalion parade in Hollow Square and returned the engraved medals—but the rest of the regiment booed us.

Yes! We were all Canadians!

As the overseas Canadian Army grew there was need for more military police. The R.C.M.P. had policed the First Division and as the need for more police developed many of the R.C.M.P. became officers when they called for volunteers for the Canadian Provost Corps.

I was told that in the Provost Corp I would ride a motorcycle, and with all the marching I had been doing I readily volunteered and was dispatched to a military police training school, where there was strict discipline, rigorous training, and study of military law; also training on motorcycles.

After a couple of lectures on the two-cycle motor and operation of the Norton bike, which was used for training purposes, we were each issued a motorcycle and instructed by Sergeant Stanyer, an R.C.M.P., to start up and follow him round the parade square in low gear. One man forgot all the instruction and took off down the square right through a squad doing foot drill. Another went off shouting whoa, dragging his feet, right over an airraid shelter and into the doorway of the next.

The sergeant halted us with, "Who said you couldn't ride motorcycles. Follow me." He took off, followed by the whole squad in convoy out of Aldershot to the "devil's punch bowl," the tank training ground, which was all churned up in loose sand with many slit trenches. 'Twas like riding a bucking bronco. Following third in line I saw the sergeant turn sharp left through some willow bushes on the bank of a small stream. As I burst through there was the rider in front of me, draped over a tree branch. Now being immediately behind the instructor, I had little warning when he careened down the side of a deep gully and made a sharp turn. I did not make the turn; my bike drove right into the opposite bank, and I had to be taken back to barracks in a truck.

John's Provost Corps unit

Davie Hannah, Slim Hamilton, Eby [?], Rudolf [?],
John Elliott, Cpl. Jimmy Whitehouse, George Gough.

On completing police training I was posted to #6 Company Provost Corp in London and billeted in St. Peter's Hospital on Henrietta St. not far from Trafalgar Square.

Duties with #6 Company included station patrols, prisoner escort, police duty at Canadian Military H.Q. in the Sun Life building next to Canada House, and special assignments to Vine Street Police Station working with civilian police (on raids to undesirable establishments), with assignments to occasions where the King and Queen visited with the troops.

On one occasion the King and Queen came to C.M.H.Q. to accept a mobile tea van donated to Britain by Canada; myself and my mate Paddy were detailed to keep part of the parking area clear. The King (George VI) and Queen made a little acceptance speech and they were served a mug of tea. We were standing back at the edge of the crowd when the King looked in our direction and beckoned us up. We were in a bit of a quandary: when your king requests, you obey! So we went forward and were served our mug of tea. I think if our commanding officer had known, we would probably have been court-martialed.

When troop convoys were on the move the military police directed traffic, one man at each intersection to direct each unit to its alloted area. When the last vehicle in a convoy passed, we would mount our motorcycles and thread our way through the convoy and take up duty at another intersection: it made for fast and tricky riding, especially at night, as the vehicles had very small spot headlights and a tiny tail light on the rear housing, and we had to ride practically in darkness.

After duty in London, for some time I was posted to the Glasgow detachment of my company, where I carried out police work with many trips to London escorting prisoners. Would be on duty all day, then have to pick up a prisoner and escort him to London during the night; then back to Glasgow to go on night duty.

I had a tour of duty back in London, and then was posted to our detachment in Inverness, back in my old home.

While at Inverness our duty was to police the Canadian Forestry Corp who were scattered throughout the surrounding country. Each company performed as timbermen, harvesting timber with a little soldiering thrown in. Each camp allowed a percentage out on pass each Saturday, and the town knew it when the boys were in. Our main duty was to keep them from overdoing it, and when anyone got too drunk and causing trouble we would run him down to his company truck, where a picquet was available to see he got back to camp and was dealt with accordingly.

[4] This is the same Mr. McLeod who gave John a day-long "thrashing" for the ghost prank we read about a few pages back.

While at Inverness I made a trip to Fortrose, an old home, and visited the old school and Mr. McLeod back from retirement. He dug out the register for 1922, when I had played ghost, then took me round to each classroom, ending with a class taught by Miss Noble. As we stood reminiscing she turned to the class with, "This young man will tell you all about Canada." Ouch! What a sea of faces![4] 

Back on duty with my company in London I suffered damage to my ears from exploding bombs. I ended up in Leavesden Hospital. I woke up one morning and got the fright of my life: as I sat up, I could see all sorts of activity with people moving about, but not a sound, I was completely deaf. My hearing returned in part but I never fully recovered.

I was considered fit for some duty but not field action. I continued police work, becoming a wet nurse for provost replacements arriving from Canada, teaching them the different tactics used with the troops overseas and in action. This sort of duty got me frustrated. I was a "category" man; no more action for me. It was in military law that a category man could get a transfer from the Provost Corp if another unit would take him. I contacted the R.T.O. and the Auxiliary Services, and both had openings.

I paraded before my O.C. requesting a transfer and he said he would look into the possibility. I would parade in again, same old story, always some excuse; one time he said he had talked to the Colonel, who said I could have another job, an extra stripe and a crown (staff sergeant) and have every third weekend off. No way! I told him, "You want to make a screw out of me." "Take this man out of here," he bellowed at the Sergeant Major. They wanted me to be a staff sergeant at the detention camp. No way!

[5] December, 1943.

After several weeks of the run-around, I went AWOL. It was Christmas week[5]  and all leave was cancelled for the troops. I simply donned my M.P. armband and headed for Paisley, Scotland, where three of my brothers were already on leave. After a week I decided to return to face the music, and in the afternoon of the day I intended leaving at night, walked downtown and a vehicle pulled alongside with the command, "Get in, we're looking for you." It was the sergeant from the Glasgow provost detachment. I was escorted back to London in handcuffs. In the orderly room at headquarters I was told to put on a tunic with no rank and no flashes denoting my unit. I refused, and demanded to see the duty officer, who couldn't be contacted. Eventually in late afternoon the duty officer arrived, gave me quite a lecture, and "Now put that tunic on!" (They wanted to put me in the bullpen with all the other prisoners.) "No sir," I said, "I refuse. Only two things will take my rank and flashes off, a court martial or a transfer. I have tried to get a transfer." They had to put me in a room by myself with one of my buddies to guard me for ten days, waiting for a hearing. As all prisoners had to have daily exercise, whoever was guarding would take me out in the afternoon and we would go to a picture show or other entertainment. Next I was hauled up before the Colonel who took a dim view of me, a corporal in the Provost Corps to do such a thing! "I feel there must be some reason for this," he said. "Are you going to tell me?" "There's no use talking about it; I've been AWOL, nothing will change that."

"Come," he said, "there must be some reason. Is it family trouble?" "No sir." The Colonel said, "I'd like to get to the bottom of this. What is the reason?" Knowing he was really interested I explained that, being a category man, I had requested a transfer from my O.C., who told me he would take it up with him, the Colonel. The Colonel turned and looked up at my O.C. It was obvious the Colonel had never been approached. The Colonel turned to me, saying, "Will you take my punishment, or have a court martial?" I agreed to take his punishment. I was reduced to the ranks, freed and returned to provost depot immediately. In two days I was transferred to my new unit and posted back to London to live out of barracks.

I did miss the police work and some of the memorable episodes in which I'd been involved; one instance when I was virtually a prisoner for ten days comes readily to mind. On that occasion I was on duty with a partner on Tottenham Road, afternoon to midnight. It was our custom while on patrol to call in on Lyons Corner House Restaurants occasionally in case of trouble and they would give us coffee. Just before going off this one time I called into the Corner House on Tottenham Road, and as we entered the main hallway I saw a known prostitute being hustled out by two doormen. I heard her say something about a damned Canadian deserter so I intervened and got the doormen to release her so she could point out the soldier in person. This she did from the doorway of a restaurant seating about four hundred. I instructed the girl to go along with her escort. I could not enter without permission however, and the doorman, seeing my interest, told me to go ahead. We approached the table where the soldier was in the company of two others and three women. When requested he produced a pass, saying, "That dirty so-and-so squealed." The pass didn't look right to me; the signature on it seemed a bit fuzzy. I asked him to walk in to headquarters where I could verify the leave pass. He agreed and I told the waiter to give him his bill, then I noticed him take his cap out of his shoulder epaullette and place it inside his jacket. I realized he would make a break for it if he got a chance, and I signalled my partner as prearranged to go phone for a paddy wagon. As he started away my suspect wanted to know why, and I told him I thought he was up to tricks and we were going to take him in. He protested and promised to go quietly. I called my partner back and we proceeded out of the building. As we left the main door we had to pass round a blackout device, a wall to keep light from shining out. I was leading and the prisoner followed, but my partner went round the other end of the wall, whereupon the prisoner made a break for it. We managed to get him again outside where we met the girl who had pointed him out to us. She wanted to talk to him, which we permitted in a deep shop doorway, while we, together with two civil policemen attracted by the ruckus and one or two curious passers-by, formed a semi-circle around the doorway. The girl stepped back saying, "It's all right, you can let him go." I told her, "No dice, we will take him in." She reviled me, and the prisoner made a break and got away with me hard on his heels across the roadway. I was hampered by a greatcoat, revolver and other accoutrements, and I was afraid he might get away. Fortunately a civilian policeman was in the corner call box making point; hearing the running he flashed his light in the prisoner's face as he crossed the kerb, causing him to fall and I on top. I got the prisoner inside the call box and instructed the police to call for our paddy wagon; meantime the prisoner was violent. He tried to pull the phone cord off the and kicked me in the groin. About to pass out I pulled my revolver, a thirty-eight calibre on a forty-five frame with a very high foresight, and pistol-whipped him diagonally across the back of his head. That calmed him down. The requested truck arrived with two of my buddies in the back. The first, Slim Hamilton, took the prisoner, putting a full nelson on him. He was still violent, fighting and kicking. As Joe Cormack jumped down one of the prisoner's flailing feet just missed his face, so Joe pulled back his fist, you S.O.B., and let fly but the prisoner ducked and Slim got it right on the point and went out like a light. I had to deliver the prisoner to C.L.R.D. Scotland Yard where they had padded cells for violent prisoners. The police surgeon had to put eleven stitches in the back of his head. When searched, the prisoner had a number of rings and watches and other items of jewelry and a number of food ration cards; he was wanted by civilian authorities for assault and robbery, and had been slugging women and taking their handbags. He was also wanted by the Army, being absent without leave.

The civilian charge took precedence and he was convicted and incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

I promptly forgot about the fact he had promised to shoot me and my partner Thomas. Thomas applied for and got a transfer to the Army Service Corps as a dispatch rider and on one of his first trips into London at night time, he collided with the back of a thirty hundredweight truck, going right underneath and smashing his face on the tailgate. This necessitated many plastic operations, so Clark (our prisoner) would never have recognised him. Time went past and Clark was released and turned over to the military where he was sentenced to a hundred and twelve days detention at Hedley Detention Camp. I did not know this had transpired, till one night, I had just gone on duty at Waterloo Station when a relief was sent with instructions for me to report to the orderly room. There I was informed that Clark had escaped, stolen a gun and was out to get me and that I was therefore confined to barracks. I was virtually a prisoner until Clark was again apprehended and back in detention camp ten days later.

[6] Probably fall or winter, 1943.

About this time the big push was on in Italy[6]  and Canadian casualties were very high with few replacements coming from Canada. An amnesty was offered to all prisoners in detention if they volunteered for duty with the fighting forces; Clark went over with them and I never heard of him again.

[7] Approximately January to July, 1944.

I served with the Auxiliary Service Corps for a time[7] , sometimes at the Beaver Club as cloakroom attendant and on fire watch during the airraids, meantime living in a flat at Chelsea. I was mostly on afternoon or night duty and often had my evening meal about eleven p.m. after finishing for the night.

[8] This was probably the night of February 23, 1944, when two bombs fell on the The Guinness Trust buildings on the corner of Edith Grove and King's Road. 76 people lost their lives in that explosion.

[9] This is our first mention of V. Kathleen Giles (1912-2010) who worked as a hostess at The Beaver Club and who would go on to marry John after his divorce from his first wife Mary (whom we briefly met earlier in this memoir) was finalized. Read more about Kathleen's life here.

Beaver Club pass

Here is Kathleen's hostess card at The Beaver Club, with her duties stated on the reverse.

Beaver Club photo

Group photo taken at The Beaver Club, probably spring 1944. John and Kathleen can be found on the lower left side, kneeling, just behind the front row. Kathleen's arm is around John's neck.

One night[8]  after late duty I had just sat down to eat with food on the table. There was the nightly airraid of course, and I was sitting facing the window which was covered with a blanket and blackout cloth, when suddenly a stick of bombs dropped close by. The window bulged inwards like a balloon, the table came over on top of me, and I was lying on the floor. The table, food and dishes were scattered around me and Kathleen[9]  lying on the floor alongside. The window went back in place and never broke. The four bombs had dropped along Chelsea Road with the last one hitting a place called World's End. That night it looked like world's end. The streets under foot were littered with broken glass and at the intersection gas and water mains were burst with flames and water both shooting up thirty feet. The bomb had come right down in the middle of the six-floor Guinness block of flats, cutting the center portion right out of the building, so right down one side were six toilet bowls and on the other side were six stoves. On the very top one there was a tea kettle balanced with part of its bottom hanging over space. A lot of the adjoining houses were destroyed. In one of them lived two ladies, one of whom worked in the same office as an acquaintance of mine, one of the hostesses at the Beaver Club. Rhona was her name and she contacted me next morning, and I went along to see if we could find the two ladies. There was absolutely nothing we could salvage from their home, nor could we find any trace of the ladies in the lists of the rescued, evacuated or casualties. We searched all the temporary shelters all that day to no avail. It was heart-rending to see the state of shock some of those people were in. While going through a convent that was nearby I saw children sitting round the room in such a state of shock they were like zombies. They just sat staring; you could pass your hand in front of their faces and they wouldn't even blink, and when you tried speaking they just stared. The two ladies, whom we had pretty well given up on, turned up all right—the younger one phoned her office on the second day. They had been rescued by some bystanders and, in a state of shock, were taken to their (the bystanders') home, so the authorities had no record of them.

I continued on duty for a time but my condition was worsening, and I landed back in hospital. While in hospital I saw the first V-bomb. These were devastating, no sound. They came across from Holland and suddenly just exploded. One went off just in front of the hospital while I was looking out of the window: no sign of anything, just suddenly boom!

At one time I was slated to return to Canada on board the Lady Nelson hospital ship. I was being shipped out at four o'clock in the morning, and at eleven o'clock the night before a message came in freezing me on command as a witness in a pending court martial case. There I was stuck for six weeks. I couldn't get a pass, I was not allowed out of the grounds, and they could not use my bed for the seriously wounded.

[10] This would be mid-June, 1944, shortly after D-Day.

The wounded were coming in thick and fast from the Continent.[10]  Buses converted to ambulances transferring wounded from the coast arrived in front of hospital operating rooms, large canvas tents. The stretchers were unloaded alongside and the buses were off for another load. Many of the stretchers went straight into surgery. I was taken into the six-table operating room one day and, although doped up, when I looked around I promptly passed out.

I sat waiting for the court martial not knowing when it would be, till one day at lunch time the nurse answered the phone, stuck her head round the door: "You are supposed to be in London at three o'clock. Get down to the orderly room, there is a car waiting for you!" I dragged on my boots and the nurse ran alongside me tying my red tie as we went. I was bundled into a car and rushed to the station to catch the train for London.

As I was bundled into the car I had some papers thrust into my hand. By the time I reached the station I found they had given me a railway warrant and a pass to 23:59 p.m. Wrong! I should not have had a pass, as I was frozen on command.

After giving my evidence I was free but, as I knew I would be returning to Canada as soon as I was discharged from hospital, I wanted to spend the night in London. To this end I phoned the hospital and explained the situation to a major I knew who agreed it would be OK for me to stay in town and return on the ambulance next day which ran every day from C.M.H.Q. to the hospital at Leavesden.

Next day when the ambulance arrived at the hospital gate, I was placed under arrest for being AWOL and told to return to my ward.

Next morning I was marched under escort to the orderly room to be confronted by a green officer. A formal charge of being AWOL was read, and the officer asked me what I had to say for myself. I simply explained that I could not have been AWOL. I should not have been given a pass, as I was frozen on command under King's Regulations Canada, therefore I couldn't have had a pass. He did a bit of blustering and remanded me to my ward while the matter was looked into. I heard no more of the charge.

With the court martial out of the way, I was sent down to the repat camp and then onto the ship Ile de France which carried some wounded, some repats and a lot of German prisoners. Although these fellows were prisoners they were very arrogant, and many of them were young teenage boys in great jackboots. We had to clear most of the decks every day while the prisoners were brought up and run round the deck for exercise.

Arriving in Halifax, we were loaded onto a hospital train for the West; many were still stretcher cases. It was warm August weather and the stench on the train was terrific. At every stop they used to hose down the train to cool things off a bit. One of the stretcher cases was a chap, an old comrade who was in the Calgary Highlanders with me. I used to go up to visit him in the stretcher coach. There he lay on his back, quite cheerful, covered with a sort of frame over which was a sheet. His stomach was on the outside lying on top of him and the nurse would brush and spray it every few minutes. I could only stand a visit for a short time as the sight and the stench were almost too much for me. Lyle got all right and last time I saw him he was as good as new!