By Alethea Wiesner, PRBN Staff Writer
“Do you want me to tell you about the dusty roads, and the fields, and the totally destroyed villages lying like a pile of broken stone and rubble? With the wheat fields with bodies of German and Canadian soldiers lying motionless, like cordwood logs, and the stench of battle that goes with it?”
Harold Preston Roberts reads the notation from his diary quietly. He pauses a moment, then continues.
“This was the first sight of the real war, this was just outside of Baron, a village completely destroyed by the shelling of the Germans and the Canadians, bombing and artillery. The infantry had a close quarter battle with the German division, and the German Tiger tanks that were dug in so they could mow down any troops advancing through the fields.
“And by sheer guts and determination, some made it through that hell and won the day. For even after then, we knew there was still a long way to go…”
Harold puts down his notes, taken from a pocket-sized diary he carried through Europe during the war, its brown cover battered and worn. This is only part of it — the first half stolen from a hotel room in Holland when he went back to visit on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Holland.
The pencil marks have faded with time and are only faintly legible, but the few brief notes jotted in ink are clear. Soldiers weren’t supposed to carry diaries because that’s information given to the enemy if you’re captured, Harold said, so his notes are sketchy.
“That was just to remind me what day it happened and where it was. I knew the rest” he said, pointing to the few lines scribbled each day.
“That was the start of the real war,” he adds softly. “It’s very… difficult… to tell you about it.”
But for the next hour and a half he does. He has countless tales or near-misses during his five years spent as a lineman in the fourth field regiment, second division of the Canadian Armed Forces. Joining at the age of 19 on July 20, 1940 in Calgary, he asked to be a lineman after seeing posters and had his request granted: one week later he was on a train to Barry, Ontario for signal training.
It was there Harold saw his first dead bodies. In his first week of training, two men were electrocuted when a fellow shooting wire up a pole miscalculated and struck the hydro power.
“And that was my start off as a lineman,” he said. “I learned the hard way that there’s lots of danger in it. I didn’t realize what I’d volunteered into.”
The second division was headed for England in a few days, so Harold, along with about 14 others, volunteered for the 15 day trip across the Atlantic on the Scythia. The trip was calm until a day before the coast of Ireland when reports of submarines in the area came in. Two destroyers flanking the Scythia dropped about 10 ash cans, he said — huge depth charges fused to explode underwater and split the seams of any submarines lurking nearby.
“I could imagine what a jolt it would be to a submarine,” he said. Even though the ships were some distance from the explosions “you would think the side of the ship had been struck by a huge sledgehammer when the charges went off.”
From then it was clear sailing up the English Channel to Greenock, Scotland, where they docked Sept. 4, 1940. “It was like we were still on ship,” he laughed. Growing accustomed to the ceaseless swaying of the ship, the soldiers still rocked back and forth when they were on land.
Traveling by train to London, the battle for the skies began, he said. For 68 consecutive nights London was bombed, from Sept. 7, 1940 to May 6, 1941. Corporal Harold Roberts and his line crew didn’t have much line laying to do because the communications network was already in place, but dispatch riders still careened on motorcycles across the broken, torn-up roads.
“When we got the jeep it was like a godsend,” he said. “It had four wheels underneath you instead of two, and I think the jeep saved a lot of lives.”
Not a single member of Harold’s seven-man line crew was lost in the war. In fact, aside from a few pieces of shrapnel shredding the back of his jacket, Harold only landed one real war injury — a broken nose that likely ended up saving his life.
During practice one rainy night, the line crew came to a crossroads just outside a tiny, nameless village. Grabbing one end of the extension ladder to move it across the road, Harold slipped in the mud, the top rung of the ladder smashing into his nose and driving it across his face.
Trekking to a nearby pub, the team pushed two tables for Harold to lie down on, he remembered, re-setting his broken nose with a pair of sticks.
“‘Hang onto the table,’ the medical officer said, and he just reefed it back into place,” described Harold with a wry grin. But there was a bend in his nose, and Harold wasn’t having any of it. “I said, ‘I came into this war with a straight nose and I’m going to go out with it straight.'”
Having his nose operated on at a nearby hospital, Harold said the first thing he saw when he woke up after surgery was the morning paper. The Dieppe raid was on.
“A few of the linemen I had trained with — three of them — had gone to Dieppe,” he said. “That was one of the horrendous slaughters of the war, actually. Not a lot of them came back.” But Harold, undergoing surgery, missed it — all thanks to that broken nose.
Call it luck or karma — Harold had it in spades. Laying communication lines between command posts in artillery and infantry headquarters, he was often in full view of the German outposts. One intersection, dubbed Shellfire Corner by his seven-man crew, had to be fixed seven or eight times a day from the constant barrage.
“Every time we went down there we knew we were going to get fired at,” said Harold, describing how their jeep would fly down the dusty roads, dodging shells and mortars.
“We went ripping down there and this big shell — it was larger than an 88 (caliber), I don’t know how large it was — plowed the ground right along side the jeep, threw dirt and showered it right over top of us,” he said. He pauses dramatically. “And the shell didn’t go off.”
That shell would have wiped out the jeep and his entire crew had it detonated. Another time, shrapnel peppered the jeep, blowing massive holes in its side as his crew slept in trenches only a couple of metres away.
It wasn’t his last close call. Twice in France shells landed within two metres of Harold, and didn’t go off.
“You couldn’t imagine that you could be that close to so many duds,” he laughed.
The lessons he learned sound just as applicable to peace as to war. You learn caution, he said, and develop intuition. Keep your wits about you, at least as much as you can, or you’ll break.
“You’re determined in that situation, and you’re going to do what you do best,” he said simply. “You’re going to do something to survive.”
He said he gets nostalgic around Remembrance Day, remembering the acres of graveyards filled with Canadian soldiers. Over 7,000 were lost in Holland alone.
“I think about the guys we left behind, that’s for sure,” he said. “Sometimes you’d hear on the radio, ‘There’s been a local skirmish.'” He shook his head. “It may be 50 or 100 men were killed. A local skirmish. If that happened in peace time it would be a horrendous deal.”
At the end of Harold’s diary, the small, battered brown book he carried all those years, is a small notation; something he wrote about the destruction and misery of war.
“It is that moment in time, on land, on sea or in the air, where man made destruction and carnage is being inflicted upon man, or women and children, both civilian and military, and I may also add, animals.”
“May we never forget.”
This article is taken from the Peace River Block Daily News, Dawson Creek, with the permission of the publisher. The Daily News retains all rights relating to this material. The information in this article is intended solely for research or general interest purposes.