Maple Ridge Seniors Village will have its own Remembrance Day ceremonies this year, and there will be some old soldiers whose thoughts go back to the 1940s and the Second World War.
COVID-19 will again keep away the crowds of thousands who had been regularly visiting the cenotaph in Maple Ridge on Nov. 11. And at that seniors home on 119th avenue, Lionel Browne, 90, will remember his childhood in Brighton when the Blitz was on.
The German bombing campaign against the UK in 1940 and 1941 terrorized civilians, and turned residential neighbourhoods to rubble.
“We got a hammering,” said Browne of his hometown, which is 80 kilometers south of London. “It was almost every night at one time, and sometimes twice in a night.”
When they heard the air raid sirens, he, his parents and four sisters would get dressed and go to the safety of a bomb shelter. They were terrified, he remembers, because the Luftwaffe bombs had hit close to home.
“The other side of the street was completely demolished,” he said. “We were scared stiff.”
His mother witnessed a German plane shooting civilians in the streets, but she ran home safely.
They were evacuated to northern cities. He and his sisters were moved to Yorkshire and then Lancashire, staying with hosts they had never met. They moved to Manchester, but the bombing followed.
They could watch dogfights between the planes in the distance. The air war known as the Battle of Britain left Browne with a desire to be a fighter pilot, and the nine-year-old who ran for bomb shelters soon became a young man in the Royal Air Force. He joined in 1949, at the age of 18, when the war had ended.
“After seeing the Spitfires, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
But the RAF had him first working on ground crew, with new Meteor jets. The cold war was just heating up, and the RAF was still flying missions. Browne enjoyed his time in the service, working on the jets and strapping in the pilots, but he would need to be in the RAF three more years before he could train as a pilot. After two years, he left the air force, and took an apprenticeship in structural steel.
Albert Swash, 99, dubs himself the “So close, but so far soldier.”
He joined the Royal Marines in 1940, and was deployed to North Africa – which meant some six weeks in a troop ship. There were thousands of troops on his ship, in a convoy of 32 ships that left Glasgow, Scotland for Port Suez in Egypt. He said they were always on the lookout for enemy ships or U-boats.
“It was a touchy time.”
The forces were to take part in defence of Tobruk against the Axis forces, and join the British 8th Army for the Battle of El Alamein. But he would not take part in that campaign, that was the turning point for the Allies in North Africa. They trained for four or five months in the desert, but the big push for El Alamein was underway, and they were simply re-deployed.
Then Swash missed the D-Day invasion.
He was to be the coxswain steering a landing craft full of 30 British commandos to the beaches of Normandy.
Two weeks before the invasion of occupied Europe, he contracted diphtheria. Vaccinations have wiped out the bacterial infection in developed countries today, but at the time it could cause paralysis or even death.
He was forced to quarantine, along with 29 other men in the barracks.
“They all missed D-Day, and they were pretty made at me,” Swash recalled.
Swash admits how disappointed at missing both of these battles at the time.
“I was gung ho. I was 18,” he remembers. “It’s a funny thing to say, but yes, at that time I was disappointed. But now I realize how lucky I was.”
He continued the life of a soldier long after the war, working as an instructor for a year, and from 1947-1972 was in communications with the Royal Canadian Signal Corps. By the time he was finished he was a cryptographer, reached the rank of warrant officer, and took his coding skills into private life.
Browne smiles recalling Victory in Europe Day, on May 8, 1945. It was a party in the streets that went all night.
“Everyone celebrated in the streets and sang the old war songs, and had stored-up food brought into the street and shared. What a wonderful day that was.”
Browne’s childhood was bombarded by the Battle of Britain. Swash missed his appointments to be part two of history’s biggest battles.
Nov. 11 is a poignant day for these men, as they will remember people they’ve lost.
Said Swash: “I think about all those who weren’t as fortunate as me, who stayed behind with little white crosses.”
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