by Aloysius Power
Our village, which is nestled in an Irish green valley, has a sparkling salmon river that empties into St. Mary’s Bay. The pristine river and the community of Branch, Nfld., get their names from the design of a tree branch formed by the river as it meanders through its grassy flats on the Avalon Peninsula.
Settled many years ago by Irish farmers and fishermen, the area has an atmosphere of peacefulness that contributes to a way of life that has remained almost unchanged since the early days.
When I was a boy I knew it as a prosperous community that was sometimes tempered by the rugged occupations of fishing and farming. Back thenduring the late 1930s–approximately 500 persons inhabited this heavenly place of fertile land washed by an ocean teeming with fish.
I remember when news from distant lands began to interrupt the tranquility of Branch. Events in foreign countries, including Germany, Poland, Japan and Great Britain, were topics of conversation throughout the village. The daily talk of catches of fish, the price of cattle, etc., was replaced by the concern people had for the future and talk of an impending war.
Life in Branch continued as usual until September 1939 when there was a sudden announcement that Great Britain had declared war on Germany. The prime minister of Great Britain called for naval volunteers, and everybody here knew that Newfoundlanders were the best small boatmen in the world.
Soon the young men of Branch answered the call. By Christmas of that year, nine of our finest were wearing Royal Navy uniforms. These boys went to sea in January 1940, members of the first draft of naval recruits to answer Great Britain’s request for assistance. That first naval draft was soon followed by a steady stream of recruits, and by war’s end, 32 volunteers from Branch wore the King’s uniforms.
The disruption of life in our community was quite evident when the war news and casualty reports reached us. Our worst day was Nov. 3, 1940, when His Majesty’s Ship Laurentic was torpedoed by U-99. Five young men from our tiny community served on that British auxiliary cruiser, and one of them–Francis Roche–was killed in the attack. Another Newfoundlander–Roy McLeod of Bay Roberts–was also lost. The other four from Branch were picked up from rafts and later landed at Scotland.
The captain of U-99 was Lieutenant-Commander Otto Kretschmer who earned the nickname Silent Otto. In his book Memoirs: Ten Years And Twenty Days, German Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz describes Kretschmer and refers to the attacks that sank the Laurentic and two other ships. “Kretschmer was an outstanding U-boat captain and a man of rare imperturbability. He was quick in sizing up a situation and in realizing how best he could exploit it; and having made his plan, he delivered his attack with calm determination and great skill. On Nov. 3, 1940, in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland he came in contact with two British auxiliary cruisers returning from a patrol to base. The outcome of the encounter between the small U-boat and the two auxiliary warships which were far its superior in both size and strength was that in the course of a single night Kretschmer sank them both. The vessels concerned were the Laurentic–18,724 tons–and the Patroclus, 11,314 tons.” The third ship sunk that night by U-99 was the 6,000-ton British merchantman Casanare.
By the end of May 1945, seven men from Branch had paid the supreme sacrifice. Eight others were disabled to various degrees by war injuries. And so for its size, Branch paid a high price for its contribution to the defence of freedom.
Father James Miller, our parish priest, was always welcome in Branch. He was considered one of our own. A builder of schools and churches, he was always willing to lend a helping hand to a parishioner in trouble. But during wartime, Father Miller’s once welcomed visits became the dreaded omen of bad news. For he was the person who made the visits to the parents of a sailor who was reported to be missing in action and presumed dead.
Of Father Miller’s seven visits as the bearer of tragic news, he had to make return trips to two sets of parents who had lost two sons in the battle for freedom. Father Miller shared this extremely difficult task with our local telegraph operator, Agnes English. When Father Miller and Miss English paid a visit, the entire town stopped dead in its tracks because the dreadful news affected everybody.
But through these tragedies, life continued in Branch. People carried on even though there were constant reminders of the war and the young people who had gone to fight in it. The sight of men in uniform and military vehicles from nearby military bases changed life in our once peaceful place, but the most notable symbols of war continued to be the food ration book and the hated pale blue package with Victory Tea stamped in bold letters on each side.
For those not familiar with it, Victory Tea was a kind of tea dust that had neither taste nor aroma. Indeed, it was a poor substitute for the real thing, orange pekoe. And after such a long period of rationing, people were overdue for a good cup of tea.
My grandmother, Bridget Lucy Power, and my uncle, Neil Power, operated the general store in Branch. Covered in light green clapboard and measuring just one storey in height, the store still operates today. The front of the modest building features a large bay window and two doors, one leading to the warehouse and the other to the main store. Inside, about five feet in from the front door, is a wooden counter that runs the width of the store.
Back then people would place their order at the counter and then wait for my grandmother or Uncle Neil to go back and retrieve the item or items from the shelves. I remember there was a barrel of apples and a supply of sugar on the floor near the counter. Next to that was the dreaded Victory Tea.
Uncle Neil, who also worked as a part-time farmer, had a natural gift of cheerfulness. He loved people and always shared his kindness and great sense of humour with everyone he met. It was this atmosphere of friendliness that he tried to maintain in a village devastated by the loss of some of its sons. One of my fondest memories is of Uncle Neil and Grandmother Power playing cribbage on a small table that was set up at the back of the store next to the pot-bellied stove. When it came to crib, my grandmother was known all around as a top-notch player.
But despite Uncle Neil’s ongoing attempts to improve the atmosphere of the place, it seemed that the despair would not end. This sombre feeling hung over the town throughout the war years.
When the war veterans returned home after war’s end in 1945, they were greeted with flag-decorated roadsides. Everyone in the community turned out to welcome our returning heroes in a joyous celebration that included the traditional firing of shotguns. The visits to the parents of a fallen comrade was the first and undoubtedly the most painful duty for each war veteran.
The store continued to be a popular gathering place, thanks to Uncle Neil’s daily banter with his customers and friends. Still, there was something lacking in those early months after the war. Gone was the sparkle in the eye and the spring in the step. The people, I believe, needed additional proof that the war was over.
The spring supplies arrived–as usual–by truck in 1946, and everything needed for a small community was unloaded from the back of the vehicle from St. John’s. As the packages of freight were unloaded from beneath the tarpaulin, Uncle Neil stood by with a look of anticipation and joy radiating from his handsome, friendly face. For somewhere among the multitude of goods was his surprise package for the people of Branch. It was just a small gift, but it held the confirmation that the terrible era had ended.
When the hinged wooden tea chest with the stencilled letters Product of Ceylon was finally unloaded, Uncle Neil–with a few well-aimed hammer blows–removed the wooden cover revealing the bright orange and tinsel package with the words Orange Pekoe Tea.
Uncle Neil joyfully gave everyone present a free, prized package of real tea. Orange pekoe. The atmosphere seemed to change as the villagers walked towards their homes with the tinsel-covered treasure in their grasp. And yes their step seemed lighter and more determined and a glow radiated from their happy faces. To us, it was the symbol that the war was finally over.
As an 11-year-old boy, I watched the transformation of our community that day. The memory of it has remained with me ever since, and I like to think that maybe two extra “packages” were mixed in with the tea that day. I like to think that hope for a better future and closure to the terrible past also arrived in Branch that day in our chest of tea.