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National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Joint Task Force Central & Land Force Central Area

31 Canadian Brigade Group

 

Colonel John Alexander Williamson

'Colonel John' epitomized the best of the military

Stewart Brown, The Hamilton Spectator

With piper, bugler and an honour guard from Hamilton military units, they'll pay last respects to Colonel John in Dundas today.

Man and boy -- he joined the 102nd Field Battery reserves in Dundas at the age of 15 -- John Alexander Williamson personified the best of the Canadian military man for more than 60 years.

Williamson, 78, died suddenly of a ruptured aorta on Monday at the Hamilton General Hospital. Today's funeral takes place at 11 a.m. at the J.B. Marlatt Chapel, 195 King St. W. in Dundas.

Even though he spent 42 years working for Ontario Hydro and McMaster University's School of Graduate Studies, Williamson was, at heart, a career soldier.

He went overseas as a private at 18 with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) in 1940, was wounded in the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942, then - after returning to Canada for officer training and marriage - was wounded twice again, fighting with the Rileys through France, Holland and Germany.

After the Second World War, Williamson served with militia groups, first with the 8th Field Artillery in Dundas, then with 11 Field Artillery when the 8th was disbanded. In 1970, he became the first commanding officer of the Hamilton Militia District. Later, he was named Honorary Colonel of the 11th Field Regiment.

Colonel David Chapman, who took over from Williamson as commander of the Hamilton Militia District in 1972, knew him throughout his 54-year militia association.

"He could get along with anybody," Chapman says.

"In fact, it got to the point that all of the people in the militia called him 'Colonel John.' He wasn't Colonel Williamson, he was Colonel John. I'm sure they'll call him that for years to come. He was one of those fellows you'd follow anywhere."

Williamson was born in Rutherglen, a suburb of Glasgow, on June 3, 1922. He came to Canada from Scotland at nine years with his family, settling in Hamilton, then Dundas. Binkley and Dundas High were his schools.

The military life beckoned early. He lied about his age and joined the Dundas reserves at 15 but - once discovered - had to wait until he was 18 to enlist and go overseas with the Rileys in 1940.

Spectator readers know Williamson as a man often interviewed about his wartime experiences, often for anniversary or Remembrance Day stories. Chief of those memories was the raid on the French town of Dieppe, Aug. 19, 1942. Of 5,000 Canadians who took part, 907 were killed and 1,946 were taken prisoner. Fewer than half returned to England, many of them wounded.

One of them was Williamson. Here's how he remembered the day, in an excerpt from the 1992 book, Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, by retired Brigadier General Denis Whitaker, who was a platoon commander on that fateful raid:

"Being so green, we had loaded ourselves down with so much ammunition we could hardly walk: besides tommy gun ammo, I had a couple of hand grenades and two mortar bombs," Williamson begins.
"When the craft hit the beach, I stepped off and fell flat on my face in the bloody water. I struggled to get up, but with all this ammunition, as well as my battledress and heavy, hobnailed boots, I was weighted down. If we had to cover any distance, I would have serious problems.
Tracers started coming at us even before we got to shore. We said, what the hell goes on? This wasn't supposed to happen. Then I was hit. Soon there was only one man left in our platoon who was not killed or wounded."

Here's the way Hamilton Spectator reporter James Elliott described Williamson's plight in a Remembrance Day story written in 1999

"Soaking wet, he'd cut through the barbed wire to squirm to the seawall, the only cover from the withering German fire. He'd been trying to find some morphine for a wounded mate when a shell exploded right behind him, fragments tearing up his right buttock, piercing his rectum and small intestine.
... Struggling back into the sea, he lost his bandage on the barbed wire, and managed to reach an infantry landing craft before passing out, and stayed that way until unloaded dockside back in England.
"Doctors reckoned the salt water saved his life, acting as a disinfectant to clean the wound. He lost about eight feet of small intestine, taken out because it was riddled with holes."

The striking photo that accompanies this story was taken for that Remembrance Day story in late October of 1999 by Scott Gardner. It captures the indomitable spirit of John Williamson, then 77.

"I wanted the beach because he was at Dieppe, and I wanted him in uniform," Gardner recalls. "All I said was: 'I want you to get out and stand in the water.'
He went: 'O.K. What time?'
"He showed up in his military boots. 'They're waterproof enough,' he said.
"I shot three rolls of film and asked him how he was feeling. He said: 'Well, my feet are getting cold and the water's pouring over the top, but no problem.'
"One thing I noticed," Gardner adds. "After he came out, he took his boots off and put on these nice old grandpa slippers.
"It was like he instantly switched from warrior to grandpa."

Well, Williamson did become a grandfather. After recuperating from Dieppe, he returned to Canada in 1943 for officer training and, before returning to the European front, married his childhood sweetheart, Wilma Delsey of Dundas, who by then had enlisted in the army herself, serving in Ottawa.

They had three sons: Terry, who died of heart disease, Bill and Michael, and, later, grandchildren.

The family will be at today's service, organized by the 11th Field Regiment who will provide honorary pallbearers, with a bugler from the Rileys, a piper from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and a military honour guard.

"I expect there will be a large turnout for Colonel John," says Captain Tim Fletcher, 31 Brigade public affairs officer.
"He was tough but a diplomat, a soldier's soldier and a gentleman, and there are damn few like him around today."

 

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