My 89 year old widowed father was studying organ at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto when the war broke out. He enlisted as soon as he could. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds, scarcely the stuff of either bomber crew or front line infantry. Nonetheless, all were welcome, and off he went.
The train trip to the Prairies to train, and Halifax to board the transport overseas were the first times he had seen Canada. He wrote long eloquent letters home to his mother describing the people and scenery. He spent a year recently transcribing and printing those letters and I have a bound copy.
In England, he was seconded to the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), as the assistant to their Canadian liaison, Capt. Bob MacKenzie. In this role, he lectured servicemen and war brides on current affairs, life in Canada and the progress of the war. He organized and led meetings of Colonels and Majors on communications and publications. And he did all this as a staff sergeant.
He worked hard to avoid being promoted. He was well-educated, eloquent and clearly not Other Ranks material, but smart officers got sent to the front and died, and he was enjoying his war.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was a friend. He played the organ at Westminster Abbey. He hung out with artists, musicians and reporters. He sampled the bohemian underground of wartime London. He went to country houses for weekend house parties. He got gastritis in Ireland on furlough from eating too many fresh eggs, which were strictly rationed in England. This was his only wartime injury.
Not that the work he was doing at ABCA wasn’t important. Winston Churchill hated the group, though it was a nest of communists and a waste of money. Bob MacKenzie was a staunch socialist, as were all the instructors. They taught impressionable young servicemen about collectives, and nationalization, and owning the means of production. Political scientists agree ABCA was instrumental in defeating Churchill and electing Labour’s Clement Atlee in the election immediately after the war.
I recently asked my dad if he would talk to a rapporteur for The Memory Project, a group that is recording the memories of WWII veterans. “Oh, hell, no. I don’t want to talk about it. I had a cushy war”.
I’m glad he wasn’t promoted to Lieutenant and killed at Ortona. Enough were.