We've been watching the PBS series on World War II. This was my husband's war. Although he grew up in Vancouver, BC, his parents were English--his mother, who came from Wimbledon arrived there after a stint as a nursemaid in India; his father, who was born in 1861 in Stevenage, after working for over 30 years in Burma (Myanmar). Courtenay was 16 when Hitler attacked Poland, and he was navy mad. He was a boy and he thought war was a great adventure that he wanted to join in. His mother told him he couldn't join until he finished an undergraduate degree at university, so he went to school round the clock and completed his BA in 1942, three months shy of his 19th birthday. His mother loved him dearly, but she put no obstacles in the way of his enlistment, and he joined the Canadian Navy. Canada had agreed to supply the Royal Navy with its radar officers, so Courtenay was seconded to the Royal fleet as a lieutenant, jg, a radar signal officer. After two months training in Halifax, he left for England. His mother gave him a wrist watch as a nineteenth birthday present.
His first exposure to the realities of war came as his troop ship sailed into Liverpool. The sight of masts poking out of the water at crazy angles, all from ships sunk by German bombs and U-boats, was sobering indeed as the Queen Elizabeth navigated her way into the harbour.
He was assigned to a fast light mine-layer, Ariadne class, called the HMS Apollo, and served in her off Scapa Flow for 18 months, making quick runs to Gibralter and the western Mediterranean. Some of his friends from Halifax were assigned to the Murmansk run, a high-casualty run to supply the beleaguered Russians through the Arctic Circle. Many never came home.
Courtenay's only experience of shelling in his first months came from "friendly fire." He was on the bridge, when one of the Royal Navy's warships began shelling the Apollo. The captain signalled in vain, so the Apollo took off at top speed--40 knots. The next day, when the warship steamed into Scapa Flow, all the men on the Apollo stood on deck in their dark glasses (worn to protect the eyes from the fire of shells).
The seas around Scapa Flow can easily boast 40-foot waves. One day when they were out in 20-foot waves, Courtenay decided to go on deck--he was there by himself. A wave tore his mother's watch from his wrist, and, young fool that he was, he ran across the heaving deck after it, grabbing it just before it--and he--went into the North Sea.
The Apollo was chosen as the headquarters ship for General Eisenhower on D-Day plus 1. They sailed from Portsmouth in the early morning of June 7. The seas off the Normandy beaches were very heavy that day and the Apollo went aground, damaging one of her screws. Courtenay again was on the bridge as it was his watch; he was about a foot from General Eisenhower, who appeared both angry and nervous--apparently a ship that's gone aground is a very unstable vessel and the general was a landsman. However, a landing craft quickly appeared and took the general and assorted other VIP's to safety, while the Apollo limped back to Newcastle, able to go only about 2 knots with her damaged screw. The air and sea fire around them was ferocious, but they managed to arrive in port unscathed. That was the night that the first V-1's came over to England. It was an eerie experience to watch them, not knowing what they were--unlike today's rockets, moving at supersonic speeds, the V-1's went slowly enough that you could see them. Later, on leave in London, Courtenay heard them right before they dropped: the motor would suddenly cut out and you would flatten yourself, not knowing where the bomb would fall.
With the Apollo out of commission, Courtenay volunteered for the Pacific theater. He was on a battleship going through Suez when a number of the crew died of food poisoning. They were buried at sea, and one of the grimmer wartime sights was watching the giant sharks circling the ship, waiting for the next dead sailor. Before Courtenay was transferred to his new post, the Japanese surrendered.
Courtenay was demobbed in San Francisco on a hot June day in 1946. As he was waiting in his uniform to catch a bus north to Vancouver, he fainted from heat, excitement and exhaustion. When he came to, a stern-looking woman was bending over him, demanding, "Young man, have you taken the pledge?" (to this day, he drinks rum, proving that the Royal Navy's roots go deep in him.)
Now, watching the PBS series, Courtenay feels anguish for all the young men who never came home,or came home severely injured, from this or any other war, including the one we're senselessly waging now in Iraq. He wonders why he was spared, and feels no zest for war. As Erasmus said, "War is sweet to those who never fought one."