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Farley Mowat, seen here at age 89, in his Port Hope, Ontario home on October 13, 2010. (The Globe and Mail/Peter Power)
Farley Mowat, seen here at age 89, in his Port Hope, Ontario home on October 13, 2010. (The Globe and Mail/Peter Power)

Acclaimed Canadian author Farley Mowat dead at 92 Add to ...

Globe and Mail Update May. 07 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

Video: In his own words: The life and times of Farley Mowat

The family settled into a house at 90 Lonsdale Rd. and Farley, who enrolled in North Toronto Collegiate, spent as much time as possible in the winters exploring the ornithology collections at the Royal Ontario Museum and fled back west to collect specimens in the summers. Two years later the Mowats moved north of the city to Richmond Hill and Farley attended yet another high school. That summer he and two friends trekked west to begin an ornithological survey of Saskatchewan, having first secured a contract with the ROM to buy any specimens they collected.

When Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 2, 1939, Farley – 18 years of age and barely 5 feet 7 inches – longed to join the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot. Rejected twice for being underweight, he finally passed the Army medical at his father’s old regiment after he took the examining doctor’s advice and drank a lot of water before he stepped on the scales.

He joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, or the Hasty Pees as they were known, in February, 1941, as a second lieutenant. More than a year later he was shipped overseas for training in England, and finally sailed from Greenock, Scotland, in June, 1943, to join Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army in Sicily on Operation Husky. Their goal – to drive the Germans out of Italy – was met with ferocious resistance as the Allies fought their way up the boot in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war.

As an ignorant boy, he had longed for glory and adventure on the battlefield. The reality of combat sickened him. He hated his own fear, the stupid waste of human lives on both sides, and war’s devastation of the built and natural landscape. During one particularly brutal operation, he crawled into a stone hut and found three dead German soldiers and thought the fourth was going to kill him until he saw that the “weapon” he was holding in one hand was the shattered stump of his other arm. As the mortally wounded German gasped "Wasser," Lt. Mowat realized, in the first intimations of a profound and relentless despair, that humans were the only species that killed its own kind, not for food or in self-defence, but out of arrogance, rage and revenge.

Although he continued to serve his country, he became increasingly alienated from what he was seeing, doing and suffering at horrific battles such as Monte Cassino. In April, 1944, he wrote to his parents: “Any guy who goes home with any expectation of returning to the past is in for a hell of a shock. The ground we used to stand on was in fact a sandbar….” Suffering from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he finished the war with the rank of captain, as a technical intelligence officer at Canadian Army Headquarters in Holland.

An inveterate collector, he began amassing war spoils after the Germans surrendered in May, 1945. With some pals, he formed what they jokingly called “Mowat’s Private Army” and acquired more than 900 tons of equipment, including tanks, two V-1 flying bombs – one of which was designed to carry a pilot for suicide missions – and a V-2 rocket which they painted blue and camouflaged as a one-man submarine. Captain Mowat managed to get all of this material – and himself – aboard the Dutch ship Blommersdyk bound for Montreal in November, 1945.

For the next five months he tried to persuade Ottawa bureaucrats to take his collection, either as weaponry, or as artifacts for a war museum. No dice. With the exception of the manned V-1, which is now in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, everything else was lost, damaged in storage or sold for scrap. Even further disheartened, he arranged to be discharged in April, 1946, determined to write his way out of his despair, but no words came.

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