Langley’s Herb Schuppert didn’t have any doubts about signing up for the Canadian armed forces during the Second World War.
“Something you had to do,” Schuppert said. “I suppose you’d call it a duty to country.”
The 94-year-old spoke to the Langley Advance about his service a week before Remembrance Day.
Schuppert, then a teenager from Gretna, Man., thought he would serve his country by becoming a pilot during the Second World War.
“I was in the air force for a day and a half,” Schuppert said.
He was then asked for his birth certificate by a sergeant. He was only 17, and was told to come back when he was old enough.
Schuppert wanted to fly, but he didn’t want to wait to get into uniform.
“I went across the street and joined the Armoured Corps the very same day,” Schuppert said. “I found myself in England at 18.”
Schuppert joined the 12th Manitoba Dragoons, and became an armoured car driver.
He would spend his wartime service looking through the narrow windows and periscopes of a Staghound armoured car.
“It had two engines, it weighed 17 tons, and top speed was 60 miles an hour,” said Schuppert. The squat, green painted vehicle with a gun turret also had power steering and an automatic transmission, which made it easy to drive.
“You had to watch the width of course,” said Schuppert.
After training in England, Schuppert and his Staghound went ashore in France on Juno Beach, 30 days after D-Day.
The 12th Manitoba Dragoons was a reconnaissance regiment.
“Our job was to go out and find trouble every day,” said Schuppert.
Officially, they were to locate the enemy and bring back intelligence on what troops they were facing and what equipment the Germans had.
“The only way to find out what equipment it was, was usually by getting shot at,” Schuppert said.
Schuppert doesn’t share too many details of battles, though he notes that his unit was at the Fallaise Gap, one of the early battles that followed the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead.
“As the gap closed, it got a bit exciting,” Schuppert said.
He described the Battle of the Scheldt by saying “we got surrounded a bit.” The battle was one of the most costly for Canadian troops, and involved destroying a strong German presence near the port city of Antwerp.
One incident in Belgium gave Schuppert and his crew a lesson that would serve them well for the rest of the war.
He was driving behind another Staghound armoured car, with the unit’s commanding officer in the leading vehicle.
“The officer’s Staghound got shot out right in front of me,” Schuppert said.
They successfully got the crew of the officer’s destroyed car out safely, but then had to get away from the German anti-tank guns.
“The road we were on, there was no room to turn that big vehicle around,” he said.
Unfortunately, switching to reverse was difficult. One of the Staghound’s quirks was that it couldn’t go into reverse immediately – it took a minute until the engine had idled all the way down.
The crew escaped that incident, but Schuppert said it changed how they drove. When faced with narrow roads, they drove for miles in reverse, because if they needed to run, they could switch into forward gear much faster.
“Easy to back down,” Schuppert said. “We had periscopes, and we turned the turret backwards.”
Schuppert’s war was one of constant movement, following the front forward over and over again.
“If you can imagine, almost every day was a different scene for us,” Schuppert said.
As a young man in the water, Schuppert said he was both excited and scared.
“Those people that say they weren’t afraid, I don’t know,” Schuppert said.
He lost a friend from back home during the conflict. John William Pieper was killed on Sept. 5, 1944, not long after their unit arrived in France.
“His armoured car got shot up,” Schuppert remembered.
Schuppert’s armoured car crew finally heard the war had ended about a year after they had arrived in France, “in a farmer’s field in Germany, outside of Oldenburg.”
“We wondered, what the hell were we going to do now?”
What he did was head home to his high school sweetheart, Florence. She had spent the war working in a factory in Toronto that made lenses for binoculars and other optics used in the war.
“The first thing I did was marry my good lady, who had waited for me,” Schuppert said. “The second thing I did was learn to fly.”
Schuppert worked on pipelines and oil refineries in Manitobia, Ontario, and eventually B.C. when he got tired of long, cold winters.
He worked for B.C. Airlines and taught flying for 20 years, logging thousands of hours of flying time.
He and Florence raised a son and a daughter, and still live together in a South Brookswood manufactured home park.
He keeps up with technology – he has a sizable computer setup, along with an iPhone 6 and a iPad, and he takes digital pictures. He uses his devices to keep in touch with some other members of the 12th Manitoba, talking to them through Facetime.
Schuppert, who will turn 95 on Nov. 16, has also gone to a Remembrance Day service one way or another every year since his return to Canada.
“I remember all the heroes we left behind,” he said.