The initial notification reached my British grandparents in April 1940.
“Sir,” the notice began. “I regret to have to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office to the effect …” (here appeared my father’s name, rank, serial number and regiment) “… was posted as missing on the’date unknown.'”
It continued, “The report that he is missing does not necessarily mean that he has been killed, as he may be a prisoner of war or temporarily separated from his regiment.”
Notifications exactly like this one were being received daily by families of members of all allied militaries.
My father, as a member of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had been dispatched to France to fight alongside French military forces and against the Nazi invasion. He was 19.
A subsequent notification to my grandparents arrived on July 31, 1941. “Sir, I have to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office (here again appeared my father’s name, rank, serial number and regimental attachment) is a Prisoner of War interned in Switzerland. Instructions as to the method of communicating with Prisoners of War can be obtained at any post office.”
On this VE Day, I found myself reading and rereading these pieces of yellowing with age official correspondence and remembering, as best I could, the little my father had shared about his war experience.
As the BEF was being backed toward the French port of Dunkirk by the German Wehrmacht, my father and fellow soldiers were captured. They never made it to Dunkirk and the French beaches, from which over eight days during Operation Dynamo, 338,226 allied soldiers, including Canadians, were repatriated to Britain in the historic evacuation.
Four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers joined 39 Royal Navy and several French Navy counterparts in that mission. In turn, the warships were assisted by what would be named The Little Ships of Dunkirk. Hundreds of fishing boats, merchant marine vessels, pleasure cruisers, yachts and lifeboats all plucking allied troops from the beaches to save them from internment or death.
My father and a few of his fellow POWs escaped their German guards.
“We didn’t like it, so we left,” was his explanation to me. There followed a theft of civilian clothing and an adoption of the “hide in the plain sight” philosophy. Dad walked the roads of France, waving to passing German military convoys. Had he been stopped and questioned, he would have been executed as a spy, the fate for out-of-uniform combatants.
My father somehow hooked up in France with the resistance fighters, the Maquis, and fought with them for a year. It proved either impossible or too difficult for him to get back to England, and so he made his way to the French-Swiss border (I think on orders from London) where he turned himself over to Swiss authorities.
The Swiss held him in an internment camp with other allied military members who had by various means made their way to Switzerland. The Swiss also held German and Italian military in similar internment camps, maintaining their neutral position.
My understanding of my father’s war, including the time he spent with French underground partisan fighters, remains incomplete. He died weeks before my 13th birthday. Over the years, whenever I’d ask my mother for details of what dad had shared, she would invariably reply, “Let’s talk about it another time, Roy.”
I did overhear bits of occasional exchange between my parents and recall a quiet discussion about a life-and-death decision made concerning the fate of a German officer. That conversation ended as mom and dad became aware of my eavesdropping.
During his internment in Switzerland, my father met my mother and that began a forever love. His and long after his death, hers.
I have always wondered about my father’s full war experience and regretted never having the opportunity to speak with him as son to father about those times.
There are literally millions of individual experiences of war no doubt being shared and remembered on this VE Day, the experiences of the men and women of the Greatest Generation.
Today, as we face our own generational challenge with COVID-19, let us use their courage and determination as a template.
Roy Green is the host of the Roy Green Show on the Global News Radio network.