Christmas on the Frontlines
It was Christmas 1944 in Bournemouth, England, during the last years of the Second World War—a time when turkey dinner wasn’t exactly easy to come by. But squadron leader Cameron Taylor, a Canadian pilot who received two Distinguished Flying Cross awards, vowed that his men would eat well that Christmas.
So after making some arrangements by telephone, Taylor personally flew to Northern Ireland where he had once been based. Although a party with his old friends couldn’t be avoided, Taylor successfully completed his mission and returned to the base in Bournemouth with 100 live turkeys.
“He decided that Christmas that his guys, all Canadians, were not going to go without a turkey dinner,” said Ross Hamilton, a WWII veteran who participated in that 1944 Christmas dinner.
Hamilton, from Kelowna, British Columbia, recounted this story in Holidays at War, an initiative of the Historica-Dominion Institute, a national charitable organization based in Toronto.
The initiative is part of the institute’s The Memory Project: Stories of the Second World War, which aims to create a record of Canada's participation in WWII as seen through the eyes of the men and women who were there.
The nationwide bilingual project provides living WWII veterans with the opportunity to preserve their memories through recorded interviews and digitized memorabilia.
“We're collecting all these amazing stories,” says project manager Jenna Misener. “I think they're really special stories and they are things that we as Canadians need to remember today and over the holiday season.”
Another veteran, James Ritchie from Ontario, described how he was based in Italy when Christmas rolled around. A turkey dinner was provided, but the soldiers had to eat it out of their mess tins as there were no plates.
“It was as close as we could be to home,” said Ritchie. The sergeant major also managed to obtain some kegs of wine for the men. He had planned to have it bottled, but the entire lot was consumed before he had the chance.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, Lester Clarke from New Brunswick was aboard the HMCS Eyebright whose function was to protect a convoy of ships as they crossed the North Atlantic. After an enemy submarine was detected in their midst, the Eyebright gave chase. The aim was to get the submarine free of the convoy so that charges could be dropped without fear of hitting one of the other ships.
By the time the submarine was dispensed with it was past midnight, and Clarke’s thoughts turned to home.
“I was thinking of Christmas back home, what the kids would all be doing, and here I was strapped to the Orlican (an anti-aircraft gun)…. A lot of thoughts were going through my mind at that time—should I be here or should I be home with the family on Christmas Eve.”
The next day Clarke was made “captain for a day,” a Navy tradition in which the youngest on board ship gets to be captain for Christmas Day.
It was while stationed in London one Christmas during WWII that Geraldine Muter, who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, cooked her first turkey. However, after buying the turkey and getting it home she discovered it still had its innards.
Having no idea how to go about cleaning out the turkey, Muter approached a doctor for help. The horrified doctor wanted nothing to do with it, so she spread newspapers on the floor of her room and got the job done herself. That was probably the first and only time such a chore was ever undertaken at Harrods famous store, which was where Muter’s division had its offices during the war.
Although Muter enjoyed her war service and “made the most of it,” she missed being home at Christmas.
“That’s what really got you, that you couldn’t be home for Christmas—that you couldn’t be home, and no matter how much you wanted or how much you tried, you were stuck there.”
Each year, the Historica-Dominion Institute facilitates over 700 veteran visits to classrooms across Canada, where veterans share their stories with youth. The institute is also in the process of creating learning tools so that teachers can use the archives in their classrooms.
The Memory Project involves travelling across the country and interviewing veterans at 25 locations. Veterans can also call in with their stories.
“We're looking to do thousands of interviews, because there aren't many Second World War veterans left and that's why we're doing it, to make sure we have their stories recorded first-hand,” Misener says.
“I think it's important that we remember what these men and women went through and the fact that they did it so that we can live our lives in freedom.”