A GOOD MAN’S WAR by Mike Davenport, Langley
This is the story of my Uncle Donald Davenport and his wartime experiences during the time from his enlistment in 1942 until war’s end in 1945. He was a son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather and an all-round family man. He was the second generation of the Knipe/Davenport family to serve in wars; two uncles, Willy and Henry served in the first war with Henry dying of his wounds at the 1917 battle for Passchendaele. Donald (Don) Davenport was born in Galt, in 1922 and lived during his youth at #8 Lowell Street in that central Ontario city.
I too spent some time in that house and so am familiar with what was his home for his early years. I write this from the vantage point of time and in the first person as though Don himself is writing in order to try and bring his character back to life. I take as little licence as possible but write from the point of view of one who also served though in peace time and thus have a knowledge of things military.
Virtually all of the information in this story is derived from his many letters home to his mother, Sarah Jane Davenport. During war time, as all soldiers were, Don was restricted by the army from writing military details about where he was and what he was doing at that time. Every letter home was vetted by censors to ensure this. The bottom of each letter sent home had the same printed message:
THINK – any reference to shipping or troop movements will result in the delay or mutilation of this letter
However, careful reading of these letters elicits a few interesting details and dates which when followed up by reference to subsequent histories, allowed me to provide some of that background. Other specifics are noted by asterisk.
How did all of this get started? Well, I responded to a call for volunteers to go and fight “jerry”, our name for the Germans. I was working in an office and school furniture factory in Preston when the war started and there was a call for volunteers. I’ve since learned never to volunteer for anything. I signed up at the recruiting depot in Toronto and after a medical exam, I was declared A1.
Following the swearing in ceremony we all got inoculations and were issued uniforms, itchy brown woolen things called battle dress, boots and long pieces of cloth called puttees. These were to be wrapped around our ankles and hold in the bottom of the pant legs. God only knows why.
Then we waited and waited, something I was to learn was pretty normal in the army. The only good thing about Toronto was that the beer was only five cents a glass. The food was OK but had a funny taste that everyone said was ‘salt peter’.
I got sent for basic training in Newmarket just north of Toronto. There I worked in the kitchen, learned how to ‘drill’, march with all of the other recruits and go on ‘route marches’ in all kinds of weather. It seemed like I always had a cold during those times. That probably was because we were wet most of the time. I remember one day in particular when it was pouring, we went to the rifle range for a live fire shoot. We were literally up to our ears in mud, laying on our bellies on the firing point but even so my scores were pretty good.
We also had many classes, one of which was map reading and I was pretty good at that. Others were about health and about military law so we’d know what not to do. I guess I didn’t pay attention in that class as I remember getting pack drill at least once but I can’t remember why. Probably didn’t make my bed right.
Later I got posted to Camp Borden for more advanced training in April of 42. Everything seemed to be OK but I did get into a spot of trouble. I was late getting back off a weekend pass as I had to close my apartment in Galt. I got charged with being AWOL (absent without leave) and got some 10 days CB (confined to barracks) for that. All I did was scrub and sweep for it seems like forever.
My younger sister, Phyllis joined up in London a few weeks ago. That sure was a surprise to learn she was also in the army.
My buddy Victor (Vic) Stares is in England already with the Governor General’s Horse Guards (Armour), and I expect we’ll be going soon. I’m in B Squadron, 11th Tank Corps of the Ontario regiment, also Armour. This is the third year of the war, and I’m still in Canada though it is rumoured that we would be going overseas in July.
Chapter 2 – England
Well, we did finally get on the way in July. We left Borden by train on the 18th and three days later arrived in Halifax. The food on the train was good, better than the camp stuff. Sleeping arrangements were poor. We just curled up anywhere we could find space.
The people on the platforms along the way wanted to shake hands and wish us well. One group even gave us oranges, something very special, and oranges would be a part of my life later in Italy.
We left Halifax on a troop ship in a convoy of many other boats. The less said about the boat ride the better. I was sea sick the entire time and trying to sleep in a swaying hammock with a couple of hundred of your buddies didn’t help.
We landed in England on July 30, 1942, and we immediately shipped out to a place called Aldershot, an old army camp in the south. The place was built in 1854 and looks like it. We were in wooden barracks called H huts. Each hut could hold as many as 140 men who shared toilets, showers and sinks that were located in the middle between the two sleeping areas.
Here, it was more training, route marches, classes and guard duty. Besides the joy of perpetually standing guard duty there, for added excitement I caught a dose of crabs. Difficult to get rid of the little buggers. We have very little time off, working pretty much 24-7 so rarely even get to go on Church Parade.
We did get some time off and even had a few dates. One notable one was with a girl in the “Women’s Land Army”. She was from the southeast of England and had been conscripted to work on a farm freeing up men to join the military. It seems that I have a problem with my eyes so will likely be off the guns and will likely end up in the kitchen. I also put in for a three-month clerks course as it is good to learn a trade for after the war bit didn’t get that but did get approved for a gunnery and a truck driver’s course.
I keep getting in trouble with the army. The other night I refused to clean up some dishes in the mess hall. They weren’t mine and I didn’t think it was a “lawful” order and refused. That got me in front of the Colonel and threatened with a court marshall so I plead guilty and got seven days CB – again.
What with all that going on, I’m feeling lonesome at the moment and am thinking it would be great to marry Evelyn if she’s still single when I get home. I write to her often. I write a lot of letters to Mother, and sometimes ask her to send me some chocolate bars and sugar as they are impossible to get here. I’m broke most of the time. I thought my pay would be $24 per month but all I get is $16 as $8 is held until after the war. Some good news, I don’t need glasses.
I had a weekend in London and saw some of the sights, like St. Paul’s Cathedral and Trafalgar Square. There is a lot of bomb damage everywhere due to the many air raids during the Blitz last year and the year before. “Jerry” also did a very black deed just last week when he bombed a school in London and killed 30 kids.
I heard from Vic again, and he is OK and back in England after going on a raid against ‘Jerry’ on the coast of France at a place called Dieppe*. He was very lucky to be alive as 900 Canadians were killed on this raid and thousands injured or taken prisoner. Vic had just a minor foot injury. I requested a transfer to Vic’s outfit, but it’s not too likely.
Back in February I got in trouble again and lost my corporal’s stripe, but I’m doing well and my weight is up to 162 pounds, lots to eat.
In March we moved to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire and just six weeks later we’re on a train and heading to Scotland. When we arrived it has turned out to be a pretty nasty place; bleak, wet, and even snow in the middle of May. Lots and lots of training so I’m usually wet and have a constant chest cold.
Chapter 3 – Sicily
In late June 1943 we left England by ship for Sicily with some British troops and on July 9 went ashore near the southern tip of the island. I found out later that we were part of a much larger group of the British 13th Brigade group commanded by General Montgomery.
Our task was to chase the Germans out of here and just over a month later our first experience with combat was over. I spent that time driving truck and often heard Allied planes overhead. We had chased the German and Italian troops back to Italy. We had covered over 150 miles while fighting through the island’s mountains and though it was tough go, we only had one KIA and 13 WIA. The one killed was a pal of mine. How unlucky can you be? We then were moved to the rear and rested until it was time to go into Italy.
I spent some time in Catania with a view of Mount Etna. That was interesting as I had never seen a mountain before. We are resting in an orange grove while the other divisions chased the Germans back to Italy. The living conditions are a little rough around the edges though; for example I have to use a gas can for a writing desk.
Chapter 4 – Italy
We moved again. I sure get around for a guy from Galt. On September 3, we attacked across the Strait of Messina onto the toe of Italy. Now I’m in the city of Medina in southern Italy, and we are about halfway to Rome.
The Italians surrendered in early in the month after their leader Mussolini was overthrown, but the Germans haven’t. Following some months of fighting, we began to push them to the north, and now we’re just hanging around resting and catching up on our laundry and letter writing. Last night I slept in a haystack which worked out really well because there was no rain. There are rumours that we will be back in England soon preparing to go to France or Belgium or maybe Holland. No one really knows what’s going on. We could still be here next year. Lots of time to think as it is really quiet here now.
Italy is a bit of a shock. After warm and sunny Sicily, it is cold and rainy just like Scotland was this spring. There is mud everywhere and I seem to be always wet with a cold. It is October 1943, and I’ve been promoted to lance corporal again, not quite sure how that happened. I’ve been working in the kitchen for the past couple of months. My eyesight problems came back and don’t let me operate as a gunner any longer so this is my new job. On the plus side, I get lots to eat.
The war is going on all around us as I can hear our artillery fire almost daily. The push north has slowed down due to the heavy rains and heavier German resistance. We’re still south of Rome and haven’t moved much lately. We may still be here for Christmas. The Italians seem friendly enough. They are very poor and when you see them on the roads, they have no shoes and just wear rags tied around their feet. I have even seen some with pieces of car tire tied on their feet as soles.
The second mail call of the day will be later this afternoon and hopefully there will be some for me this time, to break up the monotony. Letters often arrive in big batches long after you begin to think no one is writing any more.
Not all of the news is good news though; the Galt papers reported that several of my school chums have been killed in action.
Sometimes there is a package as well with socks and cigarettes, both are welcome. Uncle Willy often sends 300 cigarettes and I also get 300 from the guys at the shop where I worked. Mother writes often and I hear from my girlfriend Evelyn less than I’d like. My sister Phyllis rarely writes though she was in the army too, and you’d think she’d know how important letters are. The last one I got from her told me that she had just gotten married. I was and still am upset about the way she told me as it was totally unexpected. Then I got another that said she was out of the army and working in a bakery.
Christmas dinner in 1943 Italy was just like home with turkey and all the trimmings. We ate at proper tables with place settings and everything served to us by the officers and NCOs; it was wonderful, the best meal we’ve had since we got to Italy.
I wrote to mother and told her that Evelyn and I were going to get married when the war is over. I’m sending her money so she can make a hope chest. Once I get home and things are sorted out, we are going to buy a house.
In the early spring we got a tour of the ancient city of Pompeii near the west coast of Italy. Very interesting to see, and we had an Italian guide to explain it all to us. We also saw Mount Vesuvius, a 4,200 ft. volcano just a few miles to the north and smoking like crazy. It had erupted just last month for the first time since 1872. Apparently a very dangerous volcano. Sort of like this war that just keeps on keeping on.
In May, the army made a push towards Rome so we moved often, one night in a hut, the next in a tent but at least we are going north and having some success against the Germans.
In June I quit writing to Evelyn and as she hasn’t written me in quite a while, I think we are done. By October, I had sent Phyllis $50 to buy me an engagement ring that I could give to my new girl in England. We will get married when this war is over.
Back in late July I got an infection in my hand that involved a month long stay in a British army hospital. I no sooner got out and I burned my hand and arm while setting fire to a garbage pit when it exploded so was back in the hospital again; then I hurt my knee – I guess I must be getting to be accident prone. Due to all of this I’m not with the Hussars any more but in a holding unit with way too much time on my hands. I am getting a lot of letters written.
Months later in December I finally got posted to the British Columbia Dragoons, a different armoured regiment, and I don’t know anyone here. However, we are pushing the Germans back in a place called the Lombardi Plain in the very north of Italy.
In February 1945, we were taken off the line for resting and then transferred to Europe with the first Canadian Corps. After a 10 day leave in England in, we shipped out to Belgium but before I left I got engaged to Betty Thornton. She’s the one that I got Phyllis to buy the ring for.
While I’m here in Belgium, I’d like to go to Passchendaele to visit Uncle Henry’s grave. He died there in 1917 during the first war.
Well, it’s late April and we’re back on the line again and this time near Arnhem heading for northern Holland pushing the Germans back over the Rhine River and into Germany. My outfit is headed for a small city called Groningen located quite near the German border, and it seems like the Nazis have really dug in there.
I hope it all goes well as it would be too bad to get wounded or worse this close to the end of the war. In my letters to mother, I have to tell her I don’t get to church much, not because I don’t want to but there is very little opportunity. I do pray often and I know that God is watching me as I have had many narrow escapes during both dive bombings and shelling. A friend of mine was just awarded the Military Medal for Bravery. He rode into a German gun position on his motor bike and took them out. He admitted to me that he never would have done it if he had been sober. I guess God looks after fools as well as those who pray.
The war is over! The Germans have surrendered!
The streets of this city are full of people celebrating the end of the war. The Dutch prisoners in the city jail have all been released and replaced by those who had collaborated with the Germans. I can tell you that most of the Dutch are pretty unhappy with those people.
Now I can start thinking about going home. According to the army’s point system, I’m close to having enough points to ship home. You need 84 points for that, and I have 81. We earn 3 points for each month that we are overseas.
Even though the fighting has stopped, bad new still shows up. I just got a letter returned that I had sent to a friend. It was stamped – Deceased.
We are living in private billets (homes) now instead of tents but go back to camp for our meals as food is still pretty scarce in the city. The people are very friendly and seem to appreciate us a lot. I guess life was pretty tough during the Occupation.
I was out on the town one night here in Groningen with a friend, and we met two pretty girls. We asked them what they were doing but as they only spoke Dutch and we didn’t, they couldn’t understand what we were saying. We decided to follow them back to their home and walked straight in and shook hands with their parents, sisters and brothers saying we were Canadians and introduced ourselves. Then we thought it would be a good idea to go back to camp and get some chocolate bars, cigarettes, tea and coffee, all items in short supply in the city. This helped with the introductions and by the time we left, the parents had even offered to do our laundry. Little did I know at the time, but it was the soap she was after as there was none available in the city.
Dances are a popular event locally, and soldiers are not allowed in without a date but that was not a problem for me as I had my date, Annegien Lohr as my escort. We went to a lot of dances as you don’t have to speak while dancing so the lack of a common language was not a problem. All was going pretty well, and it wasn’t long before I asked her if she would marry me. I have done this before, but this time I really mean it. I want Ann to be my wife and come to Canada, but there may be a few problems.
To marry a Dutch girl is very difficult. The army wants to make sure that she passes all their checks, and is not a former Nazi or a prostitute looking for a free ride to Canada.
She comes from very middle class stock. Her dad has been a postman for over 30 years and her grandfather was a brakeman on the railroad. Her family also had a visit from our padre to make sure they were agreed about us getting married. They even had the military police check where she worked and talked to her friends. This is going to take months, and I will likely still be here at Christmas – again. I’ve asked mother to send me some white cloth so that Ann can make her own wedding dress and also a pair of white shoes. There is very little cloth available here. In fact there are no new clothes or shoes anywhere in the country. Many people, both men and women are wearing army boots; either German or Canadian, whatever they can find.
While waiting for the paperwork to get sorted out, we would spend a lot of time just walking around the city. One great spot to visit is the city center market and the ancient Martini Tower, part of a church dating from 800 AD.
It did take a long time and it wasn’t until Oct. 18 that we were able to get married. We were originally told we could marry in November, but my return to Canada got moved up and after a lot more paperwork, we were able to go with the October date. According to Dutch law, we got married twice, first in the city hall and then in the church in the afternoon. I had two weeks leave and so we went to Amsterdam and The Hague on our honeymoon.
Well, now is Dec. 4 and after just six weeks of marriage and I’m on a train to Nijmegen and from there, an overnight train and boat to England.
I am back in Aldershot, England; back where I started so long ago. Most of those that I came over with are dead. I’ve been here since the 8th of December, and I do miss Ann so much. The rumours are that we will leave for Canada in January but like always, I will just have to wait and see what really happens.
Well, for once the rumours were correct. I returned to Canada on Jan. 9 and on the luxury liner The Queen Elizabeth; not bad for a kid from Galt, eh?
In July of 1946, six months later my bride Ann, the former Annegien Lohr, finally arrived in Canada and that was the beginning of yet another story.
*Author’s historical notes:
Passchendaele 1917: Two of Donald’s uncles served in World War 1. Uncle Henry died of his wounds received at Passchendaele while Uncle Willy returned home to a long and prosperous life in West Moncton, Ontario.
Dieppe: The raid at Dieppe on the coast of France was an unmitigated disaster according to all historical accounts. This raid was to determine German strengths which were quickly found to be extensive. 6,086 British and Canadian troops landed and over 50 per cent were either killed, wounded or captured. The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircraft and the Navy lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer. Altogether an expensive six hours spent on the beach.
Italy: The battle for Italy was long and hard lasting through the winter of 1943, all of 1944 and finally ended with the German surrender in May of 1945. Allied troops included British, Canadian, Brazilian and American. The Italians capitulated almost immediately but German resistance continued strong with many casualties on both sides. For complete details of the struggle, see the following web site https://www.canadiansoldiers.com/organization/1stcanadianarmouredbrigade.htm
Northern Holland was liberated by British and Canadian forces in the spring of 1945. The city of Groningen was liberated during April 14th to 18th. Tanks were used during the attacks rather than artillery as that would reduce both the number of civilian casualties and damage to the historic city. The tank could be more accurate in an urban battle such as this was. In the event, 100 civilians, 130 German soldiers and 43 Canadians lost their lives. In total 5200 German prisoners were taken. These soldiers included a mix of Dutch and Belgians who had joined the Nazis and were a part of the SS. Donald arrived in Holland in the spring of 1945.
Don and Ann were together in marriage for 63 years until his passing in 2008. She lived to 94, rejoining her husband in the fall of 2019.
He was awarded five medals for his war time service; The Voluntary Service Medal with Clasp, The War Medal 1939-1945, The Italy Star, The France-Germany Star and The 1939-1945 Star.
Have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.