by Dan Black
Thomas Andrews is tired, but he’s not ready to shut it down for the night. The 72-year-old Legion zone commander is sitting behind the wheel of his parked Nissan station-wagon. It’s well past midnight, and you’d think he’d want to say good night and head up to his room in the small German hotel across the street. But no, he wants to talk some more about what The Royal Canadian Legion is doing in a country that was our enemy through two world wars.
Andrews says he met delegates at this year’s dominion convention in Toronto who were quite surprised when he told them the Legion had three branches in Germany. “They didn’t know of our existence, let alone what we do over here.”
Removing his glasses, Andrews continues to talk as he rubs the dark semicircles under his eyes. He is moving on to the subject of remembrance and the respect owed to fallen comrades. He mentions five young airmen from the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force who died when their Wellington bomber went down over Holland on June 12, 1943. One of the bodies was recovered soon after the crash, but the other four weren’t found until 1992. The bodies now rest in Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands, one of several sites visited on a regular basis by branch color parties from the Germany zone. “The men and women who participate in ceremonies at the various cemeteries do so on their own time,” says Andrews. “They feel it is their duty, and they take the job very seriously.”
The three Canadian branches Andrews speaks of are nestled along Germany’s western frontier, near what is now an unmanned, practically invisible border that separates the country from the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Geilenkirchen Branch is located in the tiny farming community of Teveren, approximately eight kilometres from the southern tip of the Netherlands. The other two branches are further south, in Black Forest country next to the Rhine River and French border. They are Baden-Soellingen Branch in Soellingen, and Benson and Harper Branch in Lahr. The Soellingen branch is almost within shouting distance of the huge Canadian Forces base that closed in 1993. Benson and Harper Branch is 60 kilometres to the south and has an even closer, physical link to remnants of the Cold War; it is located in an old green fire station that was part of Canadian Forces Base Lahr. The base, with its massive air movements unit, concrete hangars, vehicle repair depots, H-huts, emergency shelters and chapels, closed in August 1994. On the very day the Canadian flag came down, the Lahr branch moved out of its downtown location and into rented space in the former firehall.
The branches in Soellingen and Lahr manage or control a branch as well as a private social club known as a Verein. Andrews says the social club, which is registered to the branch in accordance with German law, is dedicated to the purposes and objects of the Legion. Membership in the club is open to anyone who wants to support these aims, including German citizens.
The zone commander puts his glasses back on and gets out of the car. He reaches into the back and pulls out a briefcase that doubles as a travel bag. Four TF-33 Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines roar overhead, powering the hulk of an E-3A aircraft that has just left the huge NATO base in Geilenkirchen. The jet is equipped with a large Frisbee-like device on top called a rotodome. This saucer, which rotates once every 10 seconds, is part of the Boeing jet’s airborne warning and control system–AWACS. One of these planes, flying at 30,000 feet, has a field of view exceeding 300,000 square kilometres. Three of these planes in overlapping orbits can cover all of Europe. Tonight the jet, along with its flight and mission crews, could be heading towards airspace over the former Yugoslavia or to a forward operating base in Turkey, Italy or Greece. Some of the people who serve on these planes or service them belong to Geilenkirchen Branch. One of them is branch President Dan Saulnier, 35, a flight line supervisor at the base.
When Saulnier is not checking engines and other sections of the E-3A, he is usually socializing at the branch or working on projects that might help recruit new members. In July he pegged paid-up membership at 165. That’s a drastic drop from the 287 members the branch had in 1995. The sudden decrease is due to the fact that Canadian servicemen and servicewomen receive new postings at least every four years and many of those who are Legion members return to Canada. As a result, membership rises and falls on a regular cycle and the branch has had to say goodbye to some hard-working people over the years including Past President Bob King, who recently returned to Nova Scotia. Still, there is a collective will here to survive–to keep the branch operating as one of three Legion outposts in Europe.
Second Vice Lance Kohlen says the branch “has a nucleus of experience.” He adds if it wasn’t for that, it would probably die. “But, hey, a lot of branches operate that way. They depend on a small group of people to get things done.”
Geilenkirchen is the youngest of the three branches, and its close proximity next to the NATO multinational airbase is an obvious plus. It was at the base where plans were made to create a third Legion branch in Germany. A charter was presented in 1987 and meetings were held once a week in one of the base’s clubs. Interest grew, and soon members began meeting twice a week at a riding school some 20 kilometres from the base. But the distance from the base was a drawback, so in 1989 a run-down bar was found in the village of Grotenrath, one kilometre from the base. “This became the home of Geilenkirchen Branch for almost six years,” notes branch historian Brian Barrett. “With an energetic committee and a good team of workers, a great deal of work was done to renovate the building and patio areas to make it a pleasant place for members to visit.”
However, Barrett says as the shut-down of CFB Lahr and CFB Baden-Soellingen began, the headquarters of Canada’s NATO support unit moved to Niederheid, a suburb of Geilenkirchen. “This move increased the number of Canadian servicemen and their families in the area, and it was soon realized that the Legion’s building was too small.” The branch moved into its present location in 1994; amenities include a dance-hall, kegel (bowling) alley, slot machines, pool table and a large bar.
“It’s a close, friendly place that has its priorities straight,” adds Andrews. “(Members) support one another and, like the other two branches over here, they are deeply involved in a variety of ceremonial functions, whether it’s a parade, a wreath-placing or helping someone to locate the grave of a lost relative or friend.”
In 1995, during the spectacular celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Holland, the branch’s color party was greeted by thousands of cheering spectators in the streets of Apeldoorn. Andrews, who led the color party, says it was a moment that will have a lasting impact on those who participated. “The proudest moment in my life was marching in Apeldoorn,” says President Saulnier. “Another very proud moment came last July 1 when I placed a wreath on behalf of (all three)…branches at a ceremony in Beaumont Hamel….The people back in Canada should know that we are an active group over here and that the…Legion and Canadian war veterans are well-represented by our presence in Europe.”
Barrett says every year the Legion displays its colors at a Remembrance Day service in Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, near Nijmegen. He says the branch also attends the annual liberation parade at Wageningen that is presided over by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Members from all three branches also visit some out-of-the-way burial sites. “More Canadian burial sites are being discovered on a regular basis, most of which are located in the heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium where many Allied aircraft crashed while returning from raids over Germany,” explains Barrett. “There are also numerous WW I cemeteries located within a three- to four-hour drive from Geilenkirchen.”
Dominion Command partially subsidizes the zone in attending approximately 20 different ceremonies a year, but this money doesn’t cover all of the expenses. Last May 1, Dominion Command wrote to Veterans Affairs Assistant Deputy Minister Dennis Wallace to explain that branches in the Germany zone would like to reinforce the Canadian identity and presence at major Remembrance ceremonies in Europe. On May 30, VAC informed Dominion Command that it would be able to underwrite the cost of sending a 10-person color party to any ceremony designated by VAC. “This kind of support really helps,” says Andrews. “The people who participate in these ceremonies feel they are representing Canada as well as the Legion.”
Former branch president Wayne Burdon says more Canadians, particularly younger ones, should visit Canadian war memorials and cemeteries. “I think if they saw these places they would develop a better understanding of why it is so important to remember. It’s not about glorifying war, it’s about thinking about what happened at such a terrible cost.”
The will to remember the sacrifices of those who died is without a doubt the strongest motivating force behind branch activities. However, the energy and commitment to do this work is also derived from the support and mutual respect these people give one another. Geilenkirchen Branch member and retired Royal Air Force sergeant Jimmy Carter knows what kind of assistance he can get from his branch. “It’s great being a member here,” he says. “This is like my family–my second home.”
Among other things, the branch donates toys to an orphanage near Wassenberg. It also sets up a Canada Day booth at the airfield. There’s Friday night euchre and other social gatherings.
In August 1995, Carter’s wife, Irene, died of a stroke. She was 44. At the time, Carter was deployed in Greece, but within five hours of getting the knock on his door he was back home with his two boys, ages 10 and 17. “When I got home there were 20 Legion members in my house. Some were busy making sandwiches and some were helping me with funeral arrangements. Others were comforting my boys. To me, that’s support–that’s family.”
Member Earl Hogan found it hard to say goodbye last July. The day before a flight home he was at the branch, and his love for the place and its people flowed out. “It’s not easy,” says Hogan, who worked as a finance clerk at the CF support unit in Niederheid. “When you go, you leave behind a lot of good people, people you may never see again. I did apply for an extension, but it’s hard to get one because there are so few positions over here now.”
With briefcase in hand, Andrews says good night and heads to his hotel room. Tomorrow he’ll drive to Soellingen and then on to Lahr, where serving CF personnel are now a rare breed.
Baden-Soellingen Branch is approximately 300 kilometres south of Geilenkirchen. The best way to get there is via the autobahn, a world-renowned German and Swiss road system that allows motorists to zip along at an average speed of 120-140 kilometres per hour. The lack of any speed limit can, indeed, shorten your travel time–not to mention your life. If there is an accident, the debris from a high-speed crash can cause injury, highway closures and lengthy delays–something you don’t want to face if you live in Geilenkirchen and have to get to a zone meeting in Soellingen or Lahr. On this day, the motorists seem well behaved, even though some of them seem to be driving 160 to 180 kilometres per hour. Andrews is experienced enough to know that you’ve got to give yourself plenty of time, and listen to the regular road reports on the radio.
Heading towards the home of Baden-Soellingen Branch President Gerry Lemay, Andrews passes what’s left of the Forces base. Some businesses, including a go-kart club, have set up shop here. But most of the low, green buildings are still empty three years after the pull-out, vacant except for the carpet of dust on the floors. Weeds have grown into a small occupational force, and vandals have smashed windows and even runway lights. The old control tower has also been targeted.
The following day, when Lemay, 63, takes a visitor on a tour, his dissatisfaction registers firmly on his face. He first moved to Germany in 1953 when the base, originally built for French forces, was handed over to Canada. Lemay met a German girl named Theresia that year, and the two were married in 1954. “I was an aero-engine mechanic with 422 Squadron,” he says, pointing out the hangar area where he used to work. “I serviced T-33s and F-86 Sabres. It was awful when the base closed, and it is sad to see it this way because I think more of the buildings could be put to good use.”
After his posting, Lemay returned to Canada with Theresia, but the two were back again by 1974. He was retired from the military, but got a job building transmissions at a nearby Mercedes-Benz plant. The couple raised nine children, and all of them can speak at least three languages. “Some people back in Canada would wonder why we’d want to live here,” he says. “Well, what can I say? It’s just a good place to live.”
Baden-Soellingen Branch opened in 1980, thanks to some early initiative by a small group of ex-servicemen including Syd Phillips. “It all got started because locally engaged employees–civilian workers–were upset about the hours and working conditions at the bases in Baden and Lahr,” explains Phillips, 72, who also worked as an aero-engine mechanic at Baden in the early ‘50s. “A meeting was organized in Lahr and there was quite a discussion. I ended up going to Ottawa to see if the Union of National Defence Employees could help us.”
Phillips returned to Germany with union application cards that were distributed to all 1,100 civilian employees. However, only 14 of the cards were filled out and returned. “That’s when we decided to try The Royal Canadian Legion. I wrote to Dominion Command and discovered that people in Lahr had also written to see if they could establish a branch. Ottawa told us we needed at least 14 names to start a branch, and I got 21 for Baden.”
Both branches received a charter later that year, and since then have survived some tough times. “We’ve had our share of difficulties, but we’ve survived. If there was a period of uncertainty it occurred when the base closed….Today, I am very optimistic about the branch’s future. I feel we are doing a good job for the Legion. We are keeping the flags flying, and some times the Legion flags and the Maple Leaf are the only Canadian flags flying at ceremonies honouring Canada’s war dead.”
Phillips says the branch works hard to make Canada’s name known and respected in the community. He says it organizes and assists with several projects, including youth and adult soccer an various festivals. “The Germans who are members of our Verein have really helped us organize sports and other activities,” he adds. “They are a constant source of energy, and we depend on their support.”
Andrews says the same support exists at Benson and Harper Branch. He should know; although he’s a member at the Soellingen branch, he puts in considerable time and effort at Lahr. “There are a lot of dedicated members here,” he says, surveying the inside of the building. “I’ve been helping them fix the place up, make it look more like a branch than a fire station.”
The branch’s rental agreement was made with the help of Lahr Mayor Werner Dietz, who was a big supporter of the Canadian Forces presence here. He put the branch in touch with the federal agency in Freiburg, but the only building available for Legion use was the firehall. “We tried to get another place, but we weren’t successful,” says Andrews. “The previous location in downtown Lahr got too expensive to rent. The landlord said he would drop the rent, but in the end it was still too high.”
More than $50,000 Cdn was spent renovating the hall that has an office area dating back to 1914. “We enlarged the washroom facilities, dug up the sewers and put insulation around the garage doors. We also hung an assortment of flags from the rafters to make the ceiling appear lower.”
Membership chairman Evelyne Gagné says the branch had in July 166 paid-up members, including fraternal affiliates. Before the base closed, membership stood at approximately 300. “A lot of people left in 1994 and we had to start from scratch to build things up again.” Gagné says recruiting is done mostly by word of mouth. “I work at a car rental agency and whenever a Canadian comes in I tell him or her about the Legion.”
The branch is named after Lieutenant N.S. Harper of Kamloops, B.C., and 2nd Lieut. D.G. Benson of Alymer West, Ont. Both airmen died when their de Havilland DH-9 fighter bomber was shot down over Germany in 1918. Their remains were buried in the Lahr cemetery, but later moved to a cemetery in Kassel. However, it is still possible to pay respects to these men at two tombstones inscribed with the words “Feindl. Flieger,” Enemy. Flyers.
In addition to perpetuating remembrance and participating in parades and ceremonies, members organize Canada Day celebrations and other social events. There is even a computer club and a room full of pocket-books and videos to borrow. “Ten people took the first basic DOS course,” explains Jack Forest, who initiated the computer club. “Canadian news has always been in short supply here and so we’re using the Internet to get more info from Canada. We plan to use the same technology to tell people in Canada about us.”
George MacMullen, who has served with the Canadian Forces in Canada, Europe and the Middle East, agrees with that plan. “This is a good branch and we should be telling more people…about us,” says the 75-year-old, who retired from the military in 1989.
It’s getting late when Andrews decides to return to his home south of Lahr. As you listen to him talk, you’re convinced he’ll keep on working for as long as his health permits. “When you deal with all the young people I do, you have to keep going,” he says, deflecting praise. “My old man, Teddy Andrews, was a member at Frontier Branch in Fort Erie, Ont. He was a real Legion man. He started a boys band in 1933 and it’s still running.”