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In Belgium They Remember

Photo: Tom MacGregor

Photo: Tom MacGregor

David Clark (third from left) steps forward to place flowers on his brother’s grave in Adegem Canadian War Cemetery.

Belgian children sit nervously waiting for the end of the three-hour ceremony at Adegem Canadian War Cemetery. Their part in the placing of flowers has already been performed. But as the ceremony ends, a plane flies overhead and suddenly the air is filled with hundreds of poppies fluttering to the ground and the children are let go to run all over the cemetery trying to catch the little red emblems.

It is a joyous end to what has been a solemn few weeks as Canadian veterans returned to Belgium to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation in 1944 from the hands of German occupation. At every instance, children seemed to be involved.

Taking in the ceremonies were 12 Canadian veterans of the war who had joined a tour organized by the Belgo-Canada Association, a group based in both countries that fosters the friendship and the gratitude created as Canadian forces entered the Flanders area in western Belgium to free the country. “Many Canadians are aware of what Canadian forces accomplished in Holland and in Normandy but relatively few know about what they did in Belgium,” said tour co-ordinator Anita Cole-Brunger, an Orleans, Ont., artist whose work has been featured on the cover of Legion Magazine.

The group was together from Sept. 3-14. Early in the pilgrimage they were joined by Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri and representatives from the major veterans groups, Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Mary Ann Burdett, Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada Dominion Vice-President Kenneth Henderson and National Council of Veterans Association Chairman Cliff Chadderton.

Guarnieri attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres and the unveiling of a plaque for the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Belgium Secret Army in Antwerp. She met with the veterans for supper one evening and then returned to Canada Sept. 4.

For Cole-Brunger, attending remembrance ceremonies in Belgium has been a way of life. “I grew up attending these ceremonies. The feeling is really strong,” she said. Cole-Brunger’s father Sid Cole was with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war and was stationed in Brussels, where he met and later married Cole-Brunger’s mother Yvonne. They stayed in Belgium, where Cole-Brunger was born and grew up.

Sid Cole, who was also part of the group, reminisced about how the Belgo-Canadian Association got going. “When we got married, Yvonne’s parents had had a rough time in the war. They had lost a son. A daughter had married and moved to the United States. If we went to Canada, Yvonne’s family would have nobody, so I stayed.”

He got into the habit of attending services for Canadian troops when he could and often had to speak at the Adegem ceremony. “We went all over the place and never received a penny,” he said. “About 1956-57 we formed the association. The Canadian Women’s Club in Belgium would give us financial support.”

Cole-Brunger and her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Brunger, were attending the Adegem ceremony in 2003 when they were asked to find a group of Canadian veterans who served in Belgium to come over for the ceremonies.

In the end, a group of 11 veterans were recruited through various associations and a short article in Legion Magazine. Among them were Murray Barry from St. Catharines, Ont., Howard Breidon of Calgary, Kenneth Brown of Smiths Falls, Ont., John Conners of Ottawa, Mark Lockyer of Oshawa, Ont., and Sam Wormington from Sandpoint, Idaho.

Wormington cut a colourful figure throughout the visit. The tall, slim soldier from the 3rd Canadian Division, 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, still fits into his World War II uniform and wore it for all ceremonies.

After flying into Brussels the veterans and their companions were bused into the port city of Ostend where the 29th Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla was decimated on Feb. 14, 1945. On that date there had been trouble with the fuel tanks. While they were being pumped, gasoline spread over the surface of the water. A tremendous wall of flame shot up and blew boats over and knocked sailors into the water. Twenty-six Canadians and 36 British died in the fire.

In the days after D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, First Canadian Army was sent to clear the coastal towns in France and then break into Belgium, which was still held by the Germans. In early September 1944, Canadians entered Belgium and soon liberated Brussels. But what appeared to be a faltering German defence quickly became fierce.

The Allies needed a safe port to supply their advance. The liberated ports were small and many of them had been severely damaged by the fighting. While Antwerp was liberated, the access was not cleared. It was crucial to the Germans to hold their positions north of the port where First Canadian Army, along with some Polish and British forces, were advancing. This became the Battle of the Scheldt. Fierce fighting was experienced at the Leopold Canal, the Breskens Pocket, North and South Beveland Island and Walcheren Island.

The land was flat and flooded dikes had to be crossed and bridgeheads established. By the time fighting ended late in the year there were more than 6,000 Canadian casualties.

While none of the veterans knew each other when the Sept. 3-13 tour began, they were all good friends by the time they attended their final few ceremonies.

At a small crossroad at Ooskamp, near Damme, a stone monument pays tribute to the fighting during Operation Switchback in September and October of 1944. In the flatland around the crossroad, 148 Canadian soldiers, mostly Calgary Highlanders, were killed in fierce fighting Sept. 13-14.

Every year the locals march with colours to the memorial for a brief remembrance ceremony that includes speeches by local dignitaries. The march includes the Legion’s Europe Zone colour party.

Joseph Strub, 83, from the Thunder Bay, Ont., area was moved to tears as he spoke for the veterans. He said he did not want to speak of the fighting. “After all these years, it’s surprising to see we are still so well remembered.”

Strub was with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals who were in Brussels for five weeks—and in Antwerp for 5 1/2 months. His task was to co-ordinate dispatch drivers and keep the vehicles going. He remembers the V-2 rockets falling around his operations in Brussels. “It was obvious they were aiming at us. So I moved to a place further out and a few days later a V-1 hit the Rex Theatre.”

That was the night of Dec. 16, 1944, which was a traumatic moment for Jack Barker, 79, of Gravenhurst, Ont. A member of the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he was in Antwerp when the theatre was hit and 492 were killed in the worst missile attack of the war. He was commandeered to be a stretcher-bearer. When he returned to his unit, he was about to be charged with being absent without leave unless he could prove he had been helping get people out of the theatre. Fortunately, a medical officer confirmed his story.

Following the ceremony, the group went to see one of the few Bailey bridges still in use across the Leopold Canal. It was here that 85-year-old Tony Jones of Whitby, Ont., told of his harrowing experiences. He was building a bridge across the canal. “We were almost done when the Messerschmitts came and hit us. I was buried under all this. I couldn’t get out. My buddies finally dug me out and I was taken to first a dressing station and then to a hospital in Brussels for a long time.”

When he was released from hospital, he was attached to a British-American unit before getting back to his own sapper company to serve in Ghent and Antwerp, and then into Holland and Germany. He returned to Canada, worked as a coal miner in Cape Breton and then spent 32 years with Dunlop Tire. When he retired in 1980, he competed in the World Masters Pentathlon.

Putting his hand on the bridge, he said, “I never did get to see the bridge finished. Now my mission is over.”

After lunching in a former town hall, the veterans joined the marchers for the final few yards of their afternoon march. The veterans were marched on stage and applauded by several hundred people gathered in a tent for a reception.

The host for the show was Marian De Clocete. In an interview afterwards she said, “I was asked to be a guide at the Canadian Museum. Of course that meant that I would have to study my Canadian history. So I bought books. I drive past the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery every day but I never went there. One day I stopped and I read the names. I just started to cry.”

To close the formalities, Rose Strub, Joseph’s wife, sang We’ll Meet Again from her wheelchair with the veterans and guests singing along. Teenager Floir Fore, who had just made her television debut as a rock singer, added a youth element to the song, which the audience just did not want to end. Afterwards, Fore entertained with her own material.

The veterans returned to the hotel where Cole-Brunger told them to be sure to have their medals for the next day’s ceremony at the Adegem cemetery.

The next morning the veterans were ready long before their bus arrived. “This is the one we came for,” said Dennis Falconer, 81, from Lethbridge, Alta. He was a member of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who had landed on D-Day and would go on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. In December 1944, his 600-man battalion landed at Ostend and moved to the front lines along the Maas River. He was wounded and released from a hospital in Brussels on V-E Day.

Accompanying Falconer were his son and daughter-in-law, Gordon and Mary Falconer, and their children, James, 24, Ken, 21 and Sarah, 13, who were to represent the youth of Canada at the day’s ceremony. Another daughter, Tanya, had arrived the night before and would also participate.

The cemetery is on the old main road between Ghent and Brugge. It is now part of the town of Maldegem. What was once mud and the site of miserable fighting is now beautifully groomed. There are 1,121 headstones, 844 of them Canadian soldiers, airmen and sailors.

More than 4,000 attended the ceremony, including Belgium’s Prince Filip, the heir to the Belgian throne. Filip arrived in army combat dress and was met with full military honours. What had threatened to be a miserable wet day started to change into a beautiful fall day with a blue sky slowly appearing.

The HMCS Naden band was there, along with both Dutch and Canadian military guards. Speeches and prayers were said in Flemish, French, German, Dutch and English.

For the veterans, the most touching moment came when Sarah Falconer approached the microphone with Tanya and Ken standing behind her. She spoke of what it was like to have never known war and then to come to this place and see its dreadful consequences.

Belgo-Canada Group President Jean Rotsart de Hertaing declared: “This little bit of Adegem will be forever Canada.”

This was followed by a lengthy wreath-placing ceremony at the Cross of Sacrifice.

It ended when the children all marched out in single file carrying flowers. Once there was one circle around the cross, the children formed a second, outer circle. When all the children were in place, the inner circle placed their flowers, then stepped back behind the outer circle so it could go forward.

As the ceremony ended, Filip went over to the Canadian veterans, shook hands and talked to each one. While he was leaving, the veterans followed him out of the cemetery. That’s when the poppies began to fall from the sky.

Everyone present was invited by the mayor to a reception at the Maldegem city hall. Guests went to a lavish seafood buffet in a tent outside the hall afterwards.

With the afternoon fading, the Canadian delegation returned to the cemetery for some quiet reflection. Charlie Brunger had been asked to place wreaths on certain graves by people before he left Canada. For David Clark, 81, of Thunder Bay, Ont., it was a far more personal visit. Not too far from the Cross of Sacrifice was the grave of his brother, Sergeant Alexander Clark, who was killed at the Leopold Canal.

David Clark was with the Royal Canadian Artillery, operating self-propelled guns. He, too, fought at the Leopold Canal and in the Scheldt Pocket. “I met my brother two or three times in France. I always knew where he was. I’d borrow a motorcycle and visit. I was 19 at the time. He was 28 when he was killed.”

Tony Jones had another emotional moment. While looking at names, he found that of A. Lachance of the Chaudiere Regt., who died Oct. 25, 1944, at age 22. They had been best friends. “I recall the bridge with all that wire and lumber coming down on my head. I would never see my friend again.”

The next day included the final ceremonies for the group. There would be some later ceremonies in Belgium, but they would not be as large. The rain, which had held off most of their trip, caught up to them as they went to Brugge for a simple ceremony at what is now called Canada Bridge. Four stone sculptures of a buffalo are mounted on its four corners to commemorate the members of 12th Manitoba Dragoons who were killed there. The names of those killed liberating the city were read out.

The final ceremony took place in the large St. Benedict Abbey. After speeches, wreaths were placed on a wall in the courtyard where six Canadians had been buried by their German captors. As the daylight failed, a second ceremony was held in a small cemetery where the graves of 26 Belgian soldiers killed in 1940 and nine Canadian soldiers killed liberating Brugge are buried. Once again children came out with flowers. One child stood by each grave. As the master of ceremonies read out the name of one of the soldiers, the child in front of the grave would place the flowers. Afterward the veterans handed Maple Leaf flags to the children.

Remembrance is strong in Belgium. It is part of growing up.


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