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London’s 1st Hussars launch fundraising campaign to preserve historic Holy Roller tank

Holy Roller in Victoria Park, London, Ont., on Oct. 18, 2019.
Holy Roller in Victoria Park, London, Ont., on Oct. 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Mark Spowart

London’s Holy Roller tank has stood guard at the north end of Victoria Park for more than six decades, serving as a reminder of the local sacrifices made and the lives lost during the Second World War.

But members of the city’s 1st Hussars, the regiment who landed the tank on Juno Beach during D-Day and drove it across northwestern Europe through to the end of the war — one of only two Canadian tanks to have survived D-Day to VE-Day — say its days may be numbered unless Londoners help fund a badly-needed preservation project.

Although the 33-ton Sherman tank may appear to be holding up well despite withstanding decades of harsh weather, looks can be deceiving — something the 1st Hussars and the city, which owns the Holy Roller, learned in 2017 when the tank was opened for the first time since it was moved to Victoria Park in 1956.

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Photos taken inside of the Holy Roller during a 2017 technical inspection. It was the first time the tank had been opened since it was placed in Victoria Park in 1956.
Photos taken inside of the Holy Roller during a 2017 technical inspection. It was the first time the tank had been opened since it was placed in Victoria Park in 1956. Courtesy: The Holy Roller Memorial Preservation Project

“She’s rusting from the inside out. When they looked at it, the hull parts that hold the track and the wheels on is getting very, very thin,” said 1st Hussars commanding officer Lt.-Col. Allan Finney in an interview Tuesday with 980 CFPL’s Devon Peacock.

Probably within the next five to 10 years or so, it’s expected that the hull will actually collapse and fall apart.”

To try and save the local military landmark, the 1st Hussars have launched the Holy Roller Memorial Preservation Project through its 1st Hussars Cavalry Fund with the goal of raising $250,000 from the community.

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The plan is to have the tank removed from its pad in June, thoroughly restored offsite, and returned in 2022 in time for the regiment’s 150th anniversary in the spring.

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“We thought it was just right to preserve the memory of those soldiers that have served in the regiment, that fought and died in Europe, and those that have come back. There’s only a couple left in Canada, just one in the U.S.,” he said.

“Unfortunately, there’s no surviving veterans in London. The only survivor that we have right now… is the Holy Roller.”

The Holy Roller and members of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) in Germany’s Reichswald Forest.
The Holy Roller and members of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) in Germany’s Reichswald Forest. Courtesy: The Holy Roller Memorial Preservation Project

After landing on Juno Beach, Holly Roller, built by General Motors in Flint, Michigan in 1942, would eventually rumble its way through France, The Netherlands, and Germany, surviving more than a dozen battles, including some which nearly put it out of commission.

The tank had its turret destroyed in France and had its track suspensions heavily damaged in The Netherlands, according to a London Free Press report published earlier this year. In both cases, the tank managed to get repaired and keep rolling.

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The tank was set to be scrapped following the war, but the 1st Hussars chose to bring it back home as a war trophy, according to the report.

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After arriving in Canada in early 1946, Finney says Holy Roller spent the next two years outside of the London Armouries at Dundas and Waterloo streets before being moved to Queen’s Park near the Western Fair.

Eight years later, the tank was gifted to the city and was moved to Victoria Park where it’s remained since.

In June, councillors allowed the 1st Hussars to go ahead with the preservation project, and asked city staff to report back with a recommendation regarding partnership measures that could be undertaken by city hall toward the effort.

In an email Tuesday, Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis, who put forward the motion to council, said there had been no developments yet on the city side of things.

Holy Roller being moved to Victoria Park in London, Ont. in May 1956 as photographed by the London Free Press’ Bill Smith.
Holy Roller being moved to Victoria Park in London, Ont. in May 1956 as photographed by the London Free Press’ Bill Smith. Archives and Special Collections, Western University (LFP Collection) via HistoryPin (CC-BY)

The planned year-long restoration project will see the tank overhauled from top to bottom at a still-to-be-determined location — a job that will be done by volunteers from around the community, Finney said. It’s hoped the work will add another 50 years to the tank’s lifespan before more would be needed.

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“We’ll be replacing track if we need to, replacing part of the hull to make it stronger. They’ll be stripping it down completely, taking every nut and bolt off, sandblasting it, putting it back together, and then repainting it,” he said.

The 1st Hussars had considered the possibility of restoring Holy Roller to working condition at a cost of $500,000, but ultimately decided against it citing several factors.

“Where do we keep it? Who maintains it? How much money is going need each year to keep it running?… And once we get into a running condition, what do we do with it? From the 1st Hussars perspective, we really would only use it maybe twice a year,” Finney said.

“Nowadays, especially in a COVID environment, it’s difficult to convince people that we should spend that much money on something like this when there’s much more important things going on that we need to worry about.”

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Finney stresses that funding for the project will come entirely from community donations and not from city coffers.

“We’re excited about this. We were hoping it’d be obviously better times… but even if people could take their time and send a $1 donation — I was looking at the population of London (and it’s) 384,000 people — if everyone sent in $1, we’d more than cover what we’re looking for,” he said.

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We hope they do take part, and they do donate, and in about a year and a half time we should have a brand new looking Holy Roller on the pad.”

Donations can be made online at www.holyrollermemorial.ca, or by cheque to Holy Roller Memorial Preservation Project, 1st Hussars, Wolseley Barracks, 701 Oxford. St. E, London, ON, N5Y4T7.

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