PORT AUX BASQUES, NL – It’s a thin, green covered, entirely unremarkable spiral notebook, one a child might use to take notes in class.
For Jack Elms it is the treasured keeper of his memories, some dating back as far as 1942.
He reads one aloud: “So Much For Enemies.”
Bad Germans, some people would say. Well think again. The war was winding down. It was probably the last two weeks of April, 1945. Our regiment was dug in on the River Elbe, a few miles downstream from Hamburg, preparing for a shoot across the river where a German coastal defense battery was operational approximately 7 or 8 miles away. Our commanding officer called in a Lieutenant – told him to gather up 4 or 5 men, cross the river, carry no weapons of any kind, carry a white flag to indicate to the German battery they were coming in peace and to ask the German commander to surrender his position. Well little more than halfway across the river the boat our boys were in broke down. No gas. They started to drift slowly downstream – didn’t even have any paddles. Of course the Germans was watching what was happening and lanced the boat from their side of the river, came out, threw our guys a rope and proceeded to tow them in. Instead of towing them to their side of the river, they brought them back to our side, got out of the boat, helped our guys pull up the boat, shook hands, said “guten morgen” which is “good morning” in English, got in their boat, stood up and saluted our guys, and went on their way. So much for enemies.
There’s a wealth of stories in that notebook, and as Remembrance Day approaches Elms is happy to share them.
To hear them requires a visit to his little cottage. Jack doesn’t get around much these days, and can no longer attend Legion events or even the wreath laying at the Cenotaph.
“I can’t get around like I used to. I’m 92,” he says, motioning at his walker. “I got to take my time doing everything.”
Elms was 17 when he left St. John’s and travelled to Halifax, where he boarded the Andes and sailed for England along with 6,000 other men, all crowded together and sleeping in hammocks. In April of 1942 he had moved from his native Stone’s Cove in Fortune Bay to Port aux Basques to begin working on the railway. In October, shortly after the sinking of the SS Caribou, he decided to enlist in the British army. Unlike many in the region, he did not have family aboard the Caribou when she went down.
“I just thought I should do it, I suppose,” Elms says of his reason for joining. He had never been outside of Newfoundland before signing up to fight.
“That was the first trip I ever made.”
The journey took seven days and The Andes reached Liverpool in the middle of an air raid, which Jack believes was targeting the troop ship. From there he went by train to Watford, northwest of London, and was sent to train as a signaler (wireless operator).
For the next three years Elms was as a signaler in the 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment attached to the British Second Army. Elms landed in France near Beny-sur-Mer and later caught up with his regiment near Ghent, Belgium. He remained with them for the duration, walking across much of Europe for the next 10 months until the regiment reached Hamburg, Germany.
“That’s where the war ended. That’s where we were at the time,” recalls Elms. “The regiment pulled up at the city hall for a meeting and this is what we were told.”
Elms admits he saw a lot of things during his three years in the British army, some of which he still won’t talk about.
Other memories are more forthcoming. He vividly remembers the spectacle of the Allied Forces daily thousand-bomber raids.
“The British would do it during the day and the Americans would do it during the night and they were bombing Hamburg and Dresden,” said Elms.
If his regiment was under fire they would be told to stand down, brace and wait.
“The first 250 came in at 500 feet above the ground. A few minutes afterwards the next 250 came in at 1,000 feet. The third lot came in after that,” recalls Elms, his eyes fixed on nothing as his mind returns him briefly to the battlefield.
He refocuses and is suddenly back in the present.
“That was something to watch. Let me tell you.”
He hasn’t been back to Belgium, but he does have a medal from there. He did return to England with his wife, and together they toured the UK for five weeks, visiting friends who still keep in touch regularly. One of his former lieutenants still sends him a Christmas letter every year, and he still keeps in touch with former army mates.
“I should have went back and I wonders now why I didn’t.”
After the war Elms came home and enlisted in the Canadian army, where he spent the next five years, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant. He got married two years after the war to Alma, who hailed from New Harbour in Trinity Bay and built their home in Topsail, a house that still stands.
After his army days were done he worked the next 40 years as a machinist, and he has stories about those times too.
“They’re all true stories,” says Elms of his notebook’s contents. Some others haven’t been written down yet but are still fresh in his memory.
A day off
Elms tells a story about Jack Ford, who was in the Air Force and once spent three years in a Japanese prison camp. Ford was his supervisor and wouldn’t give him a Friday off to go moose hunting. Elms began pressuring him for the day off for a couple of weeks, eventually pointing out the unfairness given that Ford granted another colleague time off to go to a club.
Ford put his hand on Elms’ shoulder and said, “Jack I know who you’re referring to, but that same fellow owes Law Pike for a fridge and a stove, and if I fires him Law Pike will never get paid for the fridge and the stove, and Law Pike is my brother-in-law. You still can’t have the day off!”
Elms flips through his notebook, searching for another story to share. “I’ve got a lot of junk there, you know?”
He finally chooses another story, one he calls the “The D-day Dodger” and chuckles while he tells it.
Just like all of the tales in his notebook it’s a great story, not junk at all.