My Fa­ther, My Hero

A proud daugh­ter’s ac­count of her fa­ther’s ser­vice to his coun­try

More of Our Canada - - Con­tents - By Car­man Scher­lie, Wem­b­ley, Alta.

The Way It Was

My fa­ther, Wil­fred Blezard, was born in White­haven, Cum­ber­land, Eng­land in 1921. His par­ents im­mi­grated to Canada in 1923, set­tling in the Cum­ber­land area on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

In Jan­uary 1940, while still in Grade 11, at the ten­der age of 18, he en­listed in the Cana­dian Army with the First In­fantry Bat­tal­ion of the Seaforth High­landers of Canada, as a trooper.

He ar­rived in Eng­land in April 1940, where he spent three years in train­ing for a po­ten­tial in­va­sion of Eng­land by Nazi Ger­many. A large part of his train­ing in­volved gru­elling 250-mile-long marches across much of south­ern Eng­land. He and his fel­low soldiers were given lit­tle to eat, ex­cept for hard­tack and “bully” (corned beef) to keep up their en­ergy lev­els.

After that fol­lowed three months of com­mando train­ing in the rugged moun­tains and lochs of Scot­land. From Scot­land, Dad was trans­ferred back to Lon­don, where he was put to work dig­ging slit trenches dur­ing the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, where Spit­fire and Hur­ri­cane fighter planes fought Ger­man Junkers and Messer­schmitts, against over­whelm­ing odds.

Near the end of the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, my fa­ther was trans­ferred to a heavy tank reg­i­ment called the Bri­tish Columbia Dra­goons. It was while he was serv­ing time in this unit that he ex­pe­ri­enced all of his fight­ing.

Leav­ing Liver­pool, Eng­land, bound for North Africa, Dad’s reg­i­ment even­tu­ally landed at a sea­port called Phillipville, not far from Al­giers. They spent two weeks in a desert camp, fix­ing equip­ment that had been left to them by Mont­gomery’s “Desert Rats.” After beat­ing off scor­pi­ons in the night and suf­fer­ing through hot, arid tem­per­a­tures dur­ing the day, Dad was nat­u­rally de­lighted when news came they were sail­ing for Italy.

After dis­em­bark­ing in Naples at night, they were as­signed tanks, trucks and Bren gun car­ri­ers, be­fore set­ting off cross-coun­try. The only source of light to guide them on their way was pro­vided by Mt. Ve­su­vius, which was very ac­tive in 1943! Dad says he thought it was surely go­ing to “blow its top” be­fore they had a chance to see some of the coun­try!

Three days of driv­ing for 18 hours a day brought them to an Ital­ian vil­lage called Ma­te­ria, near the large air­base of Fog­gia, lo­cated on the Adri­atic Sea. While sta­tioned there for ten days, the soldiers took the rare op­por­tu­nity to go swim­ming in the crys­tal-clear wa­ters.

Their next des­ti­na­tion was the Hitler Line. Act­ing as re­in­force­ments for the New Zealand troops and the In­dian Gurkas, they went into ac­tion in sight of Monte Cassino. Tak­ing Cassino was one of the most costly ac­tions of the war for both sides. Within two weeks, half of the men my fa­ther knew well were ei­ther dead or wounded.

The last pro­longed ac­tion they en­coun­tered be­fore leav­ing Italy took place along the for­mi­da­ble and im­preg­nable Gothic Line, which stretched across the coun­try. It was in Au­gust, with tem­per­a­tures reach­ing 90°F, that the Nazis cut down hun­dreds of sup­port troops, us­ing flame throw­ers at close range. The dark mem­ory of the re­sult­ing stench of bod­ies re­mained with my fa­ther for years af­ter­wards. The dust was thick, mak­ing it nearly im­pos­si­ble to know who they were shoot­ing at! I was told that Al­lied dive bombers mis­tak­enly blew four tank squadrons off the road in a hor­ri­ble and re­gret­table “friendly fire” in­ci­dent.

After this long and vi­cious bat­tle, Dad only saw a bit more ac­tion in Ri­mini, Italy be­fore re­lo­cat­ing once again. His reg­i­ment’s tanks were moved quickly to Flo­rence and loaded onto tank-land­ing ships bound for Mar­seille, France. After be­ing trans­ferred onto rail­way flat cars, with the crews rid­ing in and un­der the tanks, they were quickly trans­ported to Bel­gium via Paris in the dead of night. The only clear mem­ory my fa­ther had of the “City of Lights” was the in­ces­sant noise of the rail­way cars on the tracks.

After rest­ing up in Bel­gium for a few days, it was back into ac­tion in Arn­hem, Hol­land, where a glider and para­chute at­tack on the Ger­mans had failed cat­a­stroph­i­cally, re­sult­ing in the deaths of thou­sands of soldiers. After nu­mer­ous smaller ac­tions, his squadron was given or­ders to take a small town called Apel­doorn on April 17, 1945. While ap­proach­ing the town, they came un­der heavy mor­tar fire, 500 yards from the out­skirts. It was one of these mor­tars, land­ing just six inches from the tank tracks, that killed a crew mem­ber and se­ri­ously wounded my fa­ther in his head, arm and back. The large shrap­nel wound on the left side of his head left him per­ma­nently deaf in that ear. My fa­ther was sub­se­quently taken by jeep to a first aid post, then by train to a clear­ing cen­tre, and even­tu­ally flown to a base hos­pi­tal in Eng­land. Two weeks later, V-E Day was de­clared and cel­e­brated on May 8, 1945.

Ar­riv­ing back in Canada aboard the hos­pi­tal ship SS Leti­tia, Dad was dis­charged from the Cana­dian Army on July 31, 1945.

Dur­ing his ser­vice, my fa­ther earned six medals, in­clud­ing the 1939-45 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Ger­many Star, the De­fense Medal, the 1939-45 Vic­tory Medal and the Cana­dian Vol­un­teer Ser­vice 1939-45 Medal.

In his civil­ian life, Dad was em­ployed with the Depart­ment of Trans­port as a weather tech­ni­cian and of­fi­cerin-charge in weather of­fices lo­cated in the Yukon, North West Ter­ri­to­ries and Al­berta for 35 years be­fore re­tir­ing in 1982.

Dad passed away on No­vem­ber 8, 2003 at the age of 82, and is buried in the “Field of Hon­our” sec­tion of the Grande Prairie Ceme­tery in Al­berta. ■

Just two weeks be­fore the war ended, Wil­fred was shot in the head— and sur­vived. The shrap­nel, sur­gi­cally re­moved, was saved and is now in­cluded on the dis­play panel of his medals and re­lated mementos (see photo top right).

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