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Why They Fought

This is about WWII. Trauma concerns should be considered.

By Roy StevensPublished 12 months ago 11 min read
16
Yoga Day on Parliament Hill- Ottawa

When he was seventy and I was thirty-one my dad finally told me about meeting the King. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he’d met Elvis; he encountered many celebrities in the latter stage of his first career, but that’s not the king I’m talking about. Way in the way back; even before Charles III’s mum Elizabeth II, her father George VI was King of Britain, Northern Ireland and all of the dominions. That’s the King to whom my dad was referring.

I’ll just back up a tad. When I was a young English teacher finally earning a decent salary and getting July and August off, my equally young wife and I (She worked in Public Health) spent most summers visiting the world. We learned to travel frugally, sometimes hard, and we were lucky to see a decent chunk of the planet.

In the summer of 1993 my wife simply couldn’t swing the time off from her short-staffed work team so I snuck off with my backpack, a Eurail Pass and a friend who wanted to learn how it’s done. Flying from central Canada, most travelers to Europe land in Amsterdam. Aside from cheap airfares there’s a ton of very good reasons for this choice. The Dutch are, generally speaking, very fond of Canadians and we’re big fans of them right back.

Much of this reciprocal affection stems from events of the Second World War. After the Nazis conquered the Netherlands in 1940 the Dutch Royal family found themselves fleeing their dear homeland. While Queen Wilhelmina stayed in London, her daughter Princess Juliana took her own two daughters to Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, and far away from the danger of the war. Though her husband Bernhard remained in Europe and contributed to the war effort, he did manage several trips across the Atlantic to visit his family. As a result of one of those trips Juliana became pregnant.

The problem arose when it was realized that under various international laws and treaties the baby would not be eligible for the Dutch throne if born in Canada. To circumvent the issue Canada’s parliament declared a room in the Ottawa Civic Hospital to be ‘extraterritorial’- not on Canadian soil- in order that the baby could follow familial rather than territorial birth right and remain exclusively a Dutch citizen. Princess Margriet of the Netherlands was born in that non-Canadian hospital room in Canada’s capital on January 19, 1943. The bells in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill played the Dutch National Anthem with the Dutch flag flying from the top of the tower to celebrate the arrival of the little princess.

Parlaiment Hill (Recent photo)

The following year, due to its position as the left flank of the three Allied armies liberating Western Europe, 1st Canadian Army performed the lion’s share of the actual liberation of the Netherlands. The operations were performed with great success and such an abiding concern for the welfare of the suffering Dutch people that they have never forgotten. In her personal gratitude Princess Juliana (Who soon became Queen Juliana) gave 100,000 tulips to the people of Ottawa. Every year the Dutch people still send thousands of tulips in thanks and Ottawa is a jewel of colours in May.

Ottawa in May

Incidentally, these are the real, original reasons why Canadian backpackers started wearing small Maple Leaf flags on their packs when going to Europe. It has absolutely nothing to do with trying to differentiate themselves from U.S. Americans and everything to do with all the honks, waves and party invites that result when young Dutch folk see young Canadian folk walking along carrying their gear. An uncle I never met is buried in Eindhoven and to this day his grave is immaculately maintained by young Dutch people showing their gratitude to him and his brethren. His name is on the Second World War Roll of Honour kept in that same Peace Tower on Parliament Hill which flew the Dutch flag and rang in the birth of Princess Margriet with her national anthem.

My dad was fifteen when the war started in Europe. The Great Depression was still lurking around for the working ‘lower’ class and he had few prospects. He made a little money modelling clothes for the Eaton’s department store chain but not nearly enough. His parents couldn’t really afford to feed him, he had little to do, so as soon as he turned seventeen he got my grandparents to sign off on him joining the Royal Canadian Navy. “Food and a bed under a roof,” was his sole motivation. I never got the chance to ask him what seventeen year old Rowland felt about throwing his lot in with the RCN in the spring of 1941, right in the middle of a vicious battle for the survival of democracy. The Battle of the Atlantic was going very badly then. The German U-Boats (submarines) were practically wiping out whole convoys of merchant ships trying to sustain Britain. The RCN’s job was to use its pitifully limited resources to try and stop the Nazis.

I know precious little about what my dad did during the first two years he served. He was at sea in the Atlantic, but he absolutely never discussed what he did during that period. He must have found it pretty boring though because as soon as he could he volunteered for something much more up close and personal with the Nazis. In the summer of 1943 he joined the 29th (Canadian) Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. The British Power Boat Company’s M.T.B.s were very, very similar to what the U.S. readers know as P.T. Boats, in fact the U.S. Elco Class P.T. Boats of John F. Kennedy/PT-109 fame were based on the design of the B.P.B. type hard-chine speedboats.

Photo taken from M.T.B. 459

It was a crazy job for anyone, let alone a nineteen-year-old kid. He qualified as a torpedoman (sounds macho enough) and was assigned to M.T.B. 459, the flotilla commanding officer’s boat. The C.O. was Charles Anthony Law and the main reason I know a fair bit about what my dad was up to in the later part of WWII is because Tony Law eventually wrote a book about those years. Law had serious writing chops and for added impact he was also a successful gallery exhibited painter, so the book White Plumes Astern is an outstanding work of its kind. That it gives me so much insight into my dad’s war service is an amazing personal bonus.

Law was an aggressive C.O. so they got themselves into many serious scrapes in the English Channel with Nazi E-Boats; bigger, faster and better armed versions of patrol torpedo boats. Assigned to Operation Neptune, the naval part of the Allied invasion of continental Europe, the 29th Canadian M.T.B. Flotilla was right in the thick of it on June 6, 1944. M.T.B. 459 and the other boats spent much of their time supporting the Canadian landings at Juno Beach near Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy and the adjacent British Gold Beach but they also got entangled in the near disaster at Omaha Beach. The 29th operated just fifty or so yards offshore, firing frantically in support of the U.S. Infantry charging into the cauldron ashore at Omaha. But none of that has much at all to do with my dad meeting King George VI.

My 1993 summer trip would normally have begun in delightful Amsterdam [I don’t do recreational drugs or even drink all that much for that matter; my thoughts are adequately kaleidoscopic without that stuff. Amsterdam is a terrific place despite its more sordid possibilities, not because of them.] But that summer the guy I was travelling with wanted to stop off in London first and pay a brief visit to an elderly grandmother. With a little extra time I wandered the area around Whitehall and Parliament. I eventually found myself in front of Buckingham Palace where I snapped a few photographs (Remember real photographs anyone?) of a Beefeater on guard beside a nondescript entranceway. Then I went about the rest of my journey.

'Me knees hurt, Govna!'

About a year and a half later my second oldest sister asked me to bring my photos from this adventure to a family gathering. I can’t recall why these particular pictures were of interest but I brought them to the party. The albums were circulating the living room (Remember photo albums anyone?) when my dad very uncharacteristically picked up one of the albums and started leafing through it. He paused on a page and looked at a particular photo for a long, long time. Surprised and intrigued, I went over to him, saw that he was looking at one of the Beefeater photos and said something like, “Oh, Buckingham Palace.”

I was expecting some sort of technical critique of the shot. After WWII dad stayed in the navy and eventually rose to be Chief of Photography and Film for the entire Atlantic fleet- Admirals asked him for advice on important reconnaissance matters among other critical things. He got the first ever picture of a Soviet Hotel Class nuclear ballistic missile submarine by hanging upside-down through a trapdoor underneath an RCAF Argus ocean patrol aircraft. Instead of critiquing my photo he pointed at the entrance behind the Beefeater and said, “I went through that door. It used to be painted green.”

The room quieted. After a pause to entirely reprogram my synaptic pathways I blinked. “When did you go through that door, dad?” Inside is the British Royal family’s primary residence in London of course. Outside the door where the bearskin-hatted guard stood immobile, is a long, wide gravel courtyard where the Changing of the Guard and other ceremonies are performed. I had taken the photo through a tall, sturdy wrought-iron fence keeping the regular world back from the palace walls. No one approaches that door unbidden. Ever!

His response fell like a bombshell, “When I met the King.”

King George VI

Everyone else in the room was already seated. They remained that way in a stunned, shocked silence. I needed to sit right away. Fortunately, a spot on the chesterfield behind me was empty. All I could get out was an almost whispered, “When you met the King…” It wasn’t even a question. My dad started to appear uncomfortable in the extraordinary silence of the family gathering. My own training clicked on in a rare timely manner and as coolly and calmly as I could manage I asked him, “When did you meet the King dad?”

With either feigned aplomb or the practice of long preparation he quietly replied, “Oh, it was 1945. He gave me a medal.” I don’t know what he wanted or expected from his family, but naturally bedlam followed. My mom sat through all of this surprised that we younger kids didn’t know. My oldest brother knew but he wasn’t there. My oldest sister was present and also knew but had long ago decided that it was up to my dad to tell us, if he ever chose to. She sat grinning in a Cheshire Catish manner. The rest of us, including his grandkids who were alive at the time, were gob-smacked. There’s no other word for it.

When pressed for more detail all we could get out of him was:

One night in July '44 the boat was hit by a German shore battery in the Scheldt (An estuary in the Netherlands southwest of Amsterdam that leads into the vital Belgian port of Antwerp) and sank quickly by the stern, but the bow stayed full of air and 459 floated. The engine crew died, but the rest of us were taken off by Huron (A Canadian destroyer). I was the last one off and just before transferring I remembered the 700 quid in poker winnings in my locker. I went below to grab it and found one of my mates still alive but trapped in the wreckage. I freed my mate and got my money, but when I carried him out to the bow we were already under tow. I laid him out in a flat place and sat up on the bobbing forepeak like your groundhog on a post!

He pointed at me- maybe I’ll figure out a way to tell that story someday. “Someone on Huron’s stern eventually saw me propped up there and the destroyer circled back to fetch us off. They even fixed up old 459 and gave her back to us later!”

Tony Law's sketch.

And that’s all we could pry out of him. It was by far the most he’d ever spoken to us (to me at least) about the war. I filled in as many of the blanks as I could later by using Tony Law’s book. I did press him about the 700 quid. Even without a calculator and the necessary exchange and historical value tables I knew enough to be aware that it was an astronomical sum, especially for a nineteen year old able-bodied seaman, but he insisted that was the amount. He also repeatedly insisted it was the reason he returned below deck and that he didn’t know about the trapped sailor until he found him. Nevertheless, the navy was sufficiently moved to award Roland Marshall Stevens the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for bravery under fire.

By the way, you might have noticed that I’ve spelled his name two different ways in this piece. When he was in his sixties my dad finally got his birth certificate so he could get a passport. That’s when he discovered there was a ‘w’ after the ‘o’ in his first name. For almost his entire life the man had been spelling his own name wrong! He found that fact hilarious. All the same, King George VI placed the DSM on Roland Stevens’ chest at Buckingham Palace in 1945.

In White Plumes Astern Tony Law has a sketch of M.T.B. 459 under tow behind H.M.C.S. Huron. He omitted the figures of the injured sailor and “Steve” propped on the bobbing forepeak. Maybe he felt the incident looked bad on him, ‘Captain is last off the ship’ and all that. I know my dad and all the other sailors in the 29th M.T.B. Flotilla would have nothing to do with such insinuations, Tony Law was a dearly loved and respected ‘Old Man’ C.O. at his ripe twenty-eight years of age. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- What a generation!!

Years later when I asked one of his former post-war shipmates why he thought my dad hadn’t mentioned these things to his History/English major son until so late in his life, the old salt explained to me that, unlike the ‘bragging loudmouths’ (his words, not mine) the real fighters didn’t want to pass on the trauma of the actual horror and gore they witnessed to their kids. When asked directly my dad had simply said, “Nah, I just wanted you guys to have peace.” For the most part you succeeded dad. Thank you for your service, Chief!

***It’s important to me that I make it clear that this story will not ever be entered into any challenges, here or anywhere else. I feel it would be inappropriate for me to attain monetary gain or any sort of personal aggrandizement on the suffering of my father or any of his comrades. There are things I value far more than money. Thank you so much for sharing a few moments with me on this Father’s Day! If you still have your dad and he’ll let you, try to give him a hug. If that fails, I’ll understand; I doubt if I could have managed it. ***

Tony Law is top row third from left. Dad is front row also third from left looking a bit shifty on those Vickers machine guns.

Dad, 1944. This picture is (At least it was last time I was there) framed and on display at The Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy

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About the Creator

Roy Stevens

Just one bad apple can spoil a beautiful basket. The toxins seep throughout and...

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Comments (12)

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran7 months ago

    Hey Roy, it's been 5 months. Hope you're doing well. Just wanted to check in on you.

  • Judey Kalchik 10 months ago

    Hi Roy- we haven’t heard from you for a while! Are you working on a giant post? Or Novel?

  • Wonderful insight and Great storytelling,Roy❤️😉📝💯😁❗

  • Donna Fox (HKB)12 months ago

    Roy, I liked your narrative voice in this story. It felt almost comforting, like a fatherly figure telling this story to his children, just like you described in your opening paragraph. This was a very interesting piece of history that you chose to relay to us as the readers and I really enjoyed the read. The explanation of why/ how the Netherlands and Canada became such good buddies was enlightening for me. I appreciated the perspective of why your father and I’m sure others joined the RCN, the motivation of food and a roof over head. It’s one of those things that never occurred to me but is a welcome insight form a time I don’t know much about. I loved that you gave us a recounting of your father’s career a the way his life was shaped by the simple choice to pursuit survival and all the opportunities that followed. I had to laugh at the cavalier way that your father just tells the story and makes commentary, as though it was no big deal or like this was common knowledge. I also appreciate the sentiment behind real photographs and photo albums, a luxury I didn’t know I missed until you touched on it! Overall this was an eye opening and very insightful read, I appreciate you sharing something so close to your heart with us! Great work my friend!

  • Dana Crandell12 months ago

    What an amazing story! Thank you for sharing this, Roy!

  • I love how your Dad nonchalantly said, "Oh it was 1945. He gave me a medal" and the fact that he'd been spelling his name was hilarious to me too! I'm so happy you shared this story with us!

  • Lamar Wiggins12 months ago

    I Love history stories that leave you feeling good. War to me is never a topic to take lightly. You've done everyone proud by sharing these memories and facts. I loved the part about the tulip tradition. You always share things that not only engage us but educate us. Truly amazing my friend and happy belated Father's Day! 🥇🤝🏼

  • Jay Kantor12 months ago

    'Sup Roy ~ I can hardly keep up with you ~ Although I never need to 'Crack-a-Book' with you around! I was in the Navy for (11) years and never aboard ship - 'Picture' That - - Miss U'z - Jay

  • Amazing story all the way around -- from what he did to how you found out about it. Thank you for sharing your dad & his story with us on this blessed Father's Day.

  • Veronica Coldiron12 months ago

    Always a treat to read your work. I love having a little history too! Your dad was amazing. He had a great story, and I'm glad that you were able to share it. Just awesome!

  • Donna Renee12 months ago

    Hey Roy, just want to say that I loved this so much. I feel like I got a small taste of his huge personality through this…. The photos were a great addition as well!! Thanks for sharing these stories with us!! ☺️

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