The second-most important thing my father did in his life is the one thing he never wanted to talk about. Or hear about. Or think about.
On June 5, 1944, he and 59 other men boarded a landing craft at the Cunard dock in Southampton, England. They comprised the fighting portion of Troop A of the 55th Battery of the 19th Army Field Regiment of the Second Army Group of the First Canadian Army. They brought on board four large artillery pieces mounted on Sherman tank chassis and vehicles carrying supplies.
When they embarked, they were not told where they were going. The sea was very rough. The boat’s open deck was covered in seawater, so my father spent the night on a pile of chains.
Towards dawn, sealed orders were opened telling them that their regiment and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment were to capture the village of St-Aubin-sur-Mer in Normandy, France.
Their boat got them to within yards of the shore and grounded. The gate opened. A ramp was lowered. The men drove off. In less than 30 minutes, half of them would be dead or wounded and three of their four guns destroyed. The regimental history describes what happened:
“55th battery ran into trouble right from the start. ‘A’ troop got ashore and was trapped in a traffic jam caused by a blocked beach exit. Unable to move backwards or forwards, they were a ‘sitting duck’ for mortar crews. One bomb scored a direct hit on an SP (self-propelled artillery piece), setting fire to the load of mines, grenades and ammunition.”
There was nothing for my father to do but help the wounded. Their infantry partners had secured a villa 100 yards away on an escarpment and my father got one person to its safety. He returned to the beach and saw the regiment’s meteorologist, Charlie Barron, staggering around. My father pulled him under cover and yelled for a medic. Charlie had sustained a minor flesh wound to his buttock. Shrapnel had entered his body and, if not soon removed, blood poisoning would set in. The medic bandaged him, my father got him to the basement of the villa, made him comfortable and said goodbye.
Charlie was known as a fun-loving optimist. On April 26, 1944, he received permission to marry Pte. Jeannette Lillian Stanbrooke, the daughter of a Golders Green tailor. On May 14, they married.
For two days and two nights, 27-year-old Charlie lay in the basement. On June 8, he was finally evacuated. On June 9, he was admitted to the Royal Southampton Hospital. On June 10, he died. On June 14, Jeannette buried her husband of 27 days in Grave 16 of Block U of London’s East Ham (Marlow Road) Jewish Cemetery.
That is where the saga of Charlie and Jeannette would likely have ended except for the fact that, of course, it didn’t.
Jeannette corresponded with Charlie’s family after the war. In 1955, she came to Toronto to celebrate the bar mitzvah of her and Charlie’s nephew Jeffrey Joseph, and began a succession of life-affirming acts. There followed more bar mitzvahs, followed by weddings, followed by bar and bat mitzvahs of the next generation and a wedding of at least one of those children. If she ever heard of Men ken nisht tantsen af alle khasenes (You can’t dance at every wedding), she obviously never managed to internalize its literal meaning. Jeannette died a few years ago, but her 31-year-old granddaughter, Alice Wawrik, is like a great-niece to Jeffrey and his wife, Irene. Charlie’s parents never got over his death. In an infinitesimally smaller way, I sense, neither did my father.
Every Canadian who landed on D-Day had volunteered for overseas service. The 19th Field Regiment was created during the war. When the war ended, it ended. All its members must by now be dead. Nothing remains except the tiny part it played in world history and the sacrifice of those who died doing so. Under the heading “Other Ranks Killed,” Charlie occupies the seventh line of his regiment’s lengthy roll of honour: B-127804 Gnr. Barron C.L. Died of Wounds (D-Day).
Murray Teitel’s father, Julius Teitel, fought in the Canadian army in the Second World War.