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" I can't believe I was even there at the end "
Mr. Reginald "Reg" Harrison enlisted in the Canadian armed forces in December of 1943, was called to active duty on February 1 of 1944 and landed in Normandy in late July of that year, as part of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel (later the army's youngest Brigadier-General) Denis Whitaker. The RHLI distinguished itself at Dieppe, Falaise, Woensdrecht, Goch-Calcar Road and the Hochwald. The regiment was part of the 2 nd Canadian Division, which on April 12, 1945 liberated the Westerbork transit camp in the Dutch province of Drenthe. As the Allies fought their way out of Normandy, Reg Harrison came through France, Belgium, Holland and, finally, Germany. When the war ended, he stayed in Aurich as part of the occupational forces and was honourably discharged in the rank of corporal in 1946. Dutchtreat.ca interviewed the 80-year-old veteran in his Newmarket, Ontario home on July 10, 2005.
Dutchtreat.ca: "What made you volunteer for the Armed Forces?"
Reg Harrison: "I had a job I didn't like - I worked at a tannery at the time. I signed up in Toronto and went to Camp Borden for training. At the time, they were asking for volunteers for a special project and since they didn't tell us what it was about, I decided not to volunteer. We were shipped to Britain for 4 or 5 days of additional training and while we were there, they took our gas respirators away. I still don't know why they did that. We landed in Normandy a about one month after D-Day, after the Germans had been cleaned out of there."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Did you encounter any German POWs?"
RH: "Sure. We had a guy of German descent in the regiment, Fritz, who was fluent in German and served as an interpreter for Major Piggott. He would disappear for two or three nights and then return with German POWs. I don't know how he did it, but he did this often. I once took six of them back to camp, after another guy refused to do it. He was smaller than me and was probably too scared. So I did it and took a beautiful camera from one of them. I later used it to snap a picture of Kurt Meyer, Commander of the 12 th S.S. Panzer Division, who was accused of having had prisoners of war shot by his men. I heard there were 125 Canadians among them. Meyer was tried by a Canadian Military Court in Aurich in December 1945 and spent some three years in prison here in Canada. He died quite young - of a heart attack - after being returned to Germany."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Where did you enter Holland? "
RH: "The first Dutch city we liberated was Woensdrecht. Our regiment went in first and we got quite a beating. You see, the Germans were on high ground and we had 21 killed, 140 wounded. Whitaker decided to continue to attack at nighttime, so we'd suffer fewer casualties. Later, in Germany, something similar happened at the town of Xanten. German soldiers hid in a cheese factory there and when we went in, we suffered 131 casualties total. For some reason, we couldn't get our tanks in position, so we lacked firepower. My platoon got wiped out and I was one of six guys that survived . I lost all my friends, 38 in one night of fighting. One guy had his leg blown off at the hip. We put him on a Bren carrier and got him to a hospital. I thought I'd never see him again, but he made it. He walked with a cane and raised a family."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Where did you go after Woensdrecht?"
RH: "We came through many towns and villages, whose names I don't recall. We came past Arnhem, where the Americans had dropped paratroopers. We gathered a number of dog tags from the bodies of paratroopers that had been shot down by the Germans. We weren't supposed to do that, since these were needed for identification. Most of those men were burnt. We gave the tags to our officers, who turned them over to American forces, so at least they could tell the families.
In terms of casualties, taking Groningen was tough too. When we approached the city, we didn't see any evidence of Germans, so our unit stopped for a bit. The officers figured maybe the Germans had fled, so we rolled on and as soon as we reached the edge of the city, they really let us have it. 14- to 15-year-old German boys, probably Hitler Jugend. They were really great shots and it was very tough for us. It seems if they got six or seven Canadians in a day, they got some sort of medal. Hitler trained them really well. Not too many Germans surrendered, but these young guys in Groningen where the dirtiest ones I ever met. When we caught one of them, we tried to interrogate him and he spat the interpreter in the face. At one point during the fighting, four of us ran into a building, for cover - a sergeant, a Canadian Native, a Red Cross guy and me. One of those young snipers had hit the sergeant's hand, so he had dropped his gun. While the Red Cross guy treated the sergeant's hand, I recovered the gun. The Indian survived the war too; we met a few years ago."
Dutchtreat.ca: "How did the Dutch respond to your arrival?"
RH: "The people were great. We handed out a lot of cigarettes. One family had 11 girls visiting and none of them smoked, but of course they all had a relative that would greatly appreciate it, so each of them got a pack for their father or brother."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Where were you when the war ended?"
RH: "We'd captured Oldenburg on May 3 rd and we were still in that area when the fighting stopped. One morning, things were quiet and we were wondering what was going on. Then our officers told us it was over. We saw two German soldiers come down the road, walking, without guns. We just let them go on their way. They were probably headed home, if that were still standing. We then stayed close by Aurich for 13 to 14 months, as occupation. I didn't mind staying, since I didn't have much to come home to. My parents had separated before the war and I wasn't married. Empty-handed over, empty-handed back. I met my future wife, Phyllis, after returning to Canada in 1946. We're married 58 years."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Did you keep in touch with your comrades after the war?"
RH: "Not really. There were very few left. One of my friends that did survive was shell-shocked, so they took him to a Dutch hospital. I found him in Toronto 38 years later. I looked for another friend for almost 40 years, and then the strangest thing happened. One New Year's Eve, one of our neighbours was visiting and we talked about the war and I mentioned that I'd been looking for this friend for all these years. When I showed my neighbour a picture, he said, "I'm pretty sure I worked with this man in Toronto". So he made some phone calls and that's how we found each other. The story of this amazing coincidence made it to the newspapers."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Do you have examples of other strange experiences?"
RH: "Well, we used to dig ourselves trenches so we could spend the night fairly safely, and one morning when we woke up, we checked the surroundings and saw two German tanks, sitting just 50 yards from us. German soldiers had moved them in silently overnight. They had a way of doing that. We took 'em out with 88s that we'd positioned in a nearby barn."
Dutchtreat.ca: "How did you adjust to civilian life, back in Canada?"
RH: "I didn't miss the service. You just go with the stream. When I returned, I discovered that I didn't have any civilian clothes. My first job was in a cold storage in Brantford, where I worked for a pair of pants and shoes. Next, I worked in lumber mill here in Newmarket. In '48, I told my boss that we needed a house. You had to have 10 percent down, while I didn't even have 10 cents. So he helped us out with the down payment."
Dutchtreat.ca: "Did you ever return to Holland?"
RH: "Yes, I was in the parade through Apeldoorn, in 1995. It was wonderful. People handed us beer and water and we had a big dinner afterwards. We were staying with a Dutch couple and they asked us whether we wanted to go see some other places. We asked if they could take us to Xanten, which they did. Some of the older people in Xanten weren't too friendly when they realized we were Canadians. We flattened the place back then."
Dutchtreat.ca: "The war ended 60 years ago. If the circumstances were similar and you were young again, would you enlist again?"
RH: "Sure. I liked the army. I liked the service. As long as you don't get hit, you're doing okay. I can't believe I was even there at the end."