My Father, My Hero
A proud daughter’s account of her father’s service to his country
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).