It was eerily silent that June predawn in 1944, as the minesweeper slipped through the water, clearing a path for Allied troops to land at Normandy on D-Day in France.
On board the HMCS Bayfield was Gordon Littlejohn, a stoker in the Royal Canadian Navy who helped keep the engines going as the mines, cut from their anchor lines, drifted out to sea.
“You’re out there and have very little defence,” says Mr. Littlejohn, recalling the day. “You’re always subject to attacks from the air. In the English Channel, there was always the possibility of either U-boats or German torpedo boats.”
In fact, Mr. Littlejohn had a close call.
"It was the day after D-Day, and we were anchored in the channel not too far from the French coast with a lot of ships. I came up on deck and the fellows were extremely excited. We didn’t know where the torpedo had come from.
“It came awfully close to us, almost within inches of hitting our ship. But it missed us and went on, and a quarter of a mile away was a hospital ship anchored there.” The torpedo hit the hospital ship and sank it.
“I wouldn’t be here if it had been any closer,” says Mr. Littlejohn, now 95.
As we celebrate Remembrance Day this year amid challenging times, it may be helpful to know that others have survived much worse.
Women on radar service
Joan Fuller, 102, is another veteran who not only helped the war effort but, as a British citizen living in London, also lived through the air raids and wartime rations of the Second World War. Her brother, who served in the army, was killed.
Mrs. Fuller’s role as a radar operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was to spot planes, plot their trajectory and transmit the information.
“If it was an enemy plane,” she says, “[the Air Force] would send someone to shoot it down.”
The radar technology used in Britain gave the Allies an advantage, according to Britain’s Imperial War Museum archives. Radar, which bounces radio waves off objects, allowed operators to estimate the distance, height and direction of incoming aircraft, giving the Air Force advance warning of approaching attacks. Radar operators had the demanding technical job of interpreting signals, which required specialized training.
Doing their duty
Mrs. Fuller had been doing administrative work in a bank in London. At first, she was reluctant to become involved in the war, but a friend urged her into signing up, she says. It was January of 1943 and she was 25.
“It was so different from sitting at a desk in London,” she notes.
After completing the six-week training course required to become a radar operator, she was stationed mainly in Northern Ireland.
Life during the war was not easy, according to Mrs. Fuller. “Food was strictly rationed in England.… We always knew we would be getting food but not exactly what.”
And there was always danger from overhead.
“As soon as the war started, there was an alarm that night that scared everyone to death.” It turned out years later that alarm was a mistake, she recalls, but there was “quite a lot of bomb damage” subsequently.
One night, Mrs. Fuller and her cousin, who was staying with her, heard a noise.
“We presumed it was a German plane coming down,” but as it lost height, the noise got louder and louder.
“We thought it would be coming through the bedroom windows. My cousin was down at the bottom of her bed with her rosary. I was stiff.”
The plane ended up falling on a nearby house, demolishing it and the family within.
Mr. Littlejohn joined up when he was 18. “I felt I should do my part.”
It was 1943 and he was in Halifax, drafted aboard a ship. When he was sent overseas, he did not get a chance to say goodbye to anyone. “In the Navy, you didn’t know that you were going to get sent anywhere until you actually went to do it.”
The minesweeping flotilla Mr. Littlejohn was part of was a critical part of the success of the massive Normandy beach invasion that laid the foundation for the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control.
After the war
Mr. Littlejohn continued minesweeping in the English Channel after D-day, then returned to Halifax in the fall of 1944. He continued working on a local minesweeper, helping protect supply ships and other vessels, such as those repairing the underground cables crucial for communication.
He was in Halifax when the war ended.
“I only joined up for active service for the war,” says Mr. Littlejohn, who left the Navy in December 1945. “Immediately after the war, I decided to go back to school.”
He got a degree in engineering and worked as a mining engineer in Northern Ontario, Gaspé in Quebec, and Saskatchewan. He married in 1955 and has a daughter and a son.
He then got a law degree, working in private practice as general counsel for the former mining company Rio Algom Ltd. He retired in 1990 and then cared for his wife, Patricia, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
After the war, when her mother fell ill, Mrs. Fuller was given a release on compassionate grounds to care for her. She returned to her bank job, and a couple of years later came to Canada, where, in 1947, she married a British army man she had known from home. They had two boys and a girl.
Being a veteran gives Mrs. Fuller a sense of pride, and her hope is that on Remembrance Day, we remember those who gave up their lives. “If it hadn’t been for them, we would possibly be having a different conversation [now],” she says.
Both she and Mr. Littlejohn agree that war is a terrible thing and that not all wars are justified.
“But sometimes, [war] is unavoidable,” Mr. Littlejohn points out. “What if another Hitler came along? You can’t say, ‘I’m going to avoid it.’ You [just] deal with it.”
Keep calm and carry on
Both veterans have a remarkably sanguine take on their approach to the war.
“We just took it as it came,” Mrs. Fuller says.
“You didn’t have time to be afraid,” recalls Mr. Littlejohn, who was awarded a Legion of Honour medal. There were German aircraft overhead, with gunners on the ship firing at them, he says, and “the shore guns and the battleship guns made a big roar.”
He adds, “I can’t help but think back during the war years…comparing it with what we are going through now.… This pandemic is much more severe on people at home.”
Today, as we remember those who served their country in the Second World War, as well as many others, we can also take to heart their attitude as we collectively cope with this pandemic.
As Mr. Littlejohn says, “Do the best you can, both for yourself and for others.”