On Genealogy: Story of Pte. Benjamin Richards

Hello and welcome to blog #3 on genealogy!   This story features my Grampa – Benjamin George Richards.

I was able to obtain a copy of Grampa’s war records from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (Canadian Armed Forces) a few years ago, when I wrote out for them.  WWII records are still not available online.

Military records are such a wealth of information!  You can see their enlistment details, their pay, when they took on strength (TOS) or were struck off strength (SOS), when they were AWOL/AWL, their discharge information and so much more!  Grampa’s records are in hard copy and some of the handwriting is a wee bit difficult to read and the acronyms are insane, I had to go online just to find a summary of WWII military acronyms to make sense of 1/2 of them!

When Benjamin George Richards was born on February 10, 1916, in Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, his father, Ambrose, was 28 and his mother, Bridget (née Mullen), was 29.

His military records indicated that he completed grade VIII, and was bilingual in English in French.  From 1933 to the date of his military enlistment he was employed at Canadian International Paper (CIP) Company as a Machine Tender in Témiscaming, Québec – working his way up from a General Labourer.

His records also noted that his hobbies and past times to be skiing, skating, playing 1st base in baseball/softball and playing the banjo, guitar & mandolin.

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Benny playing the guitar (left).  Date unknown – the photo was just labelled that it was in the 1940’s, assumedly it was after he was discharged from the military in 1945.

He enlisted in the military on September 11 1939 at North Bay, Ontario citing “patriotic reasons”, he wanted to be in the Carrier Platoon.  Capt. R. Robillard noted that he was of “average intellengience – should be ok for Carriers” .  He was appointed as a Private to The Royal Regiment of Canada.  Regimental Number B-66965.

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Now, as I mentioned the record of all appointments, transfers, postings, forfeitures of pay, accidents, hospital admissions etc are difficult to read and are FILLED with acronyms to the point where some entries are barely even understandable  – one website I was using had over 7500 unique abbreviations listed!  Grampa Benny has 5 years worth of military records here to detail, so I am just going to note the most salient points in chronological order.  Most of the records document when he was SOS or when he was TOS.  There are some notations albeit them difficult to make out when he was transferred to different platoons.


Chronological Record of Service

The Royal Regiment of Canada, C.A.S.F. was mobilized on September 1 1939, when the Second World War broke out.

Sept 11 1939:  Enlisted at North Bay, Ontario citing “patriotic reasons”.  Private, Infantry,  The Royal Regiment of Canada.

June 10 1940:  Embarked from Halifax for garrison duty in Iceland with “Z” Force.  Now this is actually an interesting story and part of history.   As I was going through Grampa’s personnel file, I noticed something beside ONE entry as he embarked for the United Kingdom,  all it said was “SOS Z Force”,  it had me wondering “what the heck was this Z Force?”.  So I did a Google search and found that it was a British-Canadian garrison force in Iceland.  I was pointed to a really interesting document which was declassified on March 17 1987 entitled “Z Force in Iceland:  An Account of the despatch of Canadian Troops to Iceland and their subsequent operations there”.  The document deals with the activities of Z force Canadian Army from the time it was dispatched to Iceland June 10 1940 to it’s departure on April 28 1941.

Canada was an occupying military power in one of the smallest and most isolated countries in the world.  How?  Why?  Turns out when war broke out in September 1939, Denmark and Iceland jointly declared their neutrality (Iceland was granted status as an autonomous state from Denmark after WWI).  The Nazis had shown an interest in Iceland throughout the 1930s, sending trade missions and flying instructors to the island. Several teams of German “anthropologists” also roamed Iceland in the late 1930s.   As quickly as possible Canada put together a military expedition mysteriously dubbed “Z Force.”  So Canada was in Iceland to defend it against a possible German attack!

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This snippet from the report indicates that as part of the Royal Regiment of Canada he was part of the initial Z Force commanded by Lt-Col G. Headley Basher.

The force boarded the Empress of Australia on June 9, and departed on June 10 at 1:00 pm.  It was the only infantry battalion, and was armed with 12 Lewis machine guns.

June 16 1940:  Disembarked Reykjavík, Iceland

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The Royals were ferried ashore and marched through silent streets to set up tents (followed 4 months later by Metal Nissen huts) near the local airfield that British engineers had begun expanding. Within days of the Canadians arrival, the British brigades packed up and sailed back to join the war.

I was able to find out that while in Iceland, Benny was a member of C Coy (Company)  – I almost missed it, it was mentioned on only 1 page – under Current Service “R.R.C. Rgmt C Coy”

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The Empress of Australia, meanwhile, sailed back to Hailfax where the rest of Z Force had been assembled.  That secondary force consisted of two more battalions — the Cameron Highlanders and les Fusiliers Mont-Royal who arrived in Iceland on July 9, 1940.

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The report indicates the supply and maintenance problems while they occupied Iceland.

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Another issue was transportation.  Apparently only the R. Regt C brought its own transportation.  The second flight Z Force which arrived on July 7 was not so fortunate, no vehicles were sent with them.  This happened movement of the troops because the only troop to have vehicles was on the other side of the island, so they had to hire civilian trucks.  This was an issue until the arrival of the S.S. Tregarthen on July 27 – which took 16 days to unload.

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Other issues included the fact that the British coats were better, as they Canadian sheepskin coats were almost in a state of constant wetness.  And, they needed to be sent steel tent pegs 3 ft long because the ground was always frozen and the winds were nearly gale force.

We know that he was in C Coy but not which platoon in that company he was in, but we do have an idea of what training looked like.

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So it turns out the biggest threats to the Canadians were the cold – it snowed in August 1940 — and the local moonshine, known as “Black Death.”

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In total, Z Force ended up amounting to 2,659 Canadian soldiers stationed in Iceland.

The order was given that the bulk of Z Force was to leave for Britain.  They settled down and awaited their British relief force. They were relived by the 70 British Infantry Brigade.

Oct 26 1940:  Embarked on the Empress of Australia and on Oct 31 1940 at 10:30 a.m. the ships weighed anchor and put out for the UK, leaving Iceland behind. A small force was left behind (Cameron Highlanders).

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The graves of 41 Canadian soldiers, seamen and airmen who died in Iceland during the war are still tended carefully in a cemetery near the airport they defended.

The Report ends saying that ” …. the morale of the Canadian Forces in Iceland remained satisfactory throughout their tour in that northern outpost”.

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Nov 3 1940:  Disembarked in the United Kingdom/Great Britain- no notation as to where.

Nov 7 1940: The unit was re-designated as the 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Canada, CASF, when a 2nd Battalion was formed to provide reinforcements to the Regiment in Europe.

Dec 9 1940: Admitted to CMC Bordon and was discharged Dec 16 1940.

Jan 17 1941:  Awarded 4 days CB (confined to barracks) for AA (Army Act) Sec. 19 – Drunkeness, 1st offence.

Feb 10 1941: SOS (struck off strength) – admitted to hospital.  Discharged on Feb 18 1941.

April 1 1941:  Forfeits 5 days pay for AWL (absent without leave) 1 hr 36 mins.

Feb 25 1942: Admitted to hospital, discharged March 4 1942.

From Feb 27 1942 to Aug 26 1942 – We know that he was part of the 2nd Canadian Divisional Infantry Reinforcement Unit (2 CDIRU) – On Carrier, the Carrier Instructor C –— Now during this time the 2 CDIRU were involved in The Dieppe Raid During on 19 August 1942 where the Allies launched a major raid on the small French coast port of Dieppe.  In the early morning hours, Major-General J.H. Roberts’ 2nd Canadian Infantry Division assaulted the Dieppe beach at four designated sections. 2nd Canadian Infantry Division assaulted the Dieppe beach at four designated sections. At Blue Beach, at the village of Puys (1.6 km east of Dieppe), troops of The Royal Regiment of Canada and The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada arrived late in their bid to take out enemy artillery and machine guns guarding the Dieppe beaches. From the start the enemy pinned down and shot them up until the raid was over.

I have to keep scouring the records to see if I can find out exactly where Grampa was during this time.  Again, his  Troops War Diaries will be helpful once I obtain them — UPDATE:  I found a notation that he attended a Carrier Course (Class A) with 2 CDIRU from March 18/42 to April 18/42 and a Motorcycle course with 2 CDIRU from Aug 8/42 to Aug 22/42.

Aug 27 1942 to Oct 9 1942: He was with the RRC Regt HQ Company “as a Carrier Driver – H (20 days)”. 

Oct 10 1942 to —- He was back again with the 2 CDIRU in general fatigues

March 17 1943: Granted daily rate of $1.50.

Dec 28 1943: Awarded 8 days CB and 8 days pay under Sec 40 of AA – I had to do some research here.  The Gov’t of Canada, Library and Archives Canada website has S.40 under Miscellaneous Military Offences – “Acting to the Prejudice of Good Order and Military Discipline”.  Unfortunately the records don’t actually mention for what specifically.

Jan 15 1944:  Awarded The Canadian Volunteer Service Medal (CVSM), The CVSM is 757d98c3-5c61-4304-846a-86aac299c914-1granted to persons of any rank in the Naval, Military or Air Forces of Canada who voluntarily served on Active Service and honourably completed eighteen months total voluntary service from 3 September 1939 to 1 March 1947.  A silver clasp, a maple leaf at its centre, was awarded for 60 days service outside Canada.

May 30 1945:  Granted permission to marry Miss Sally Anne Lee on or after (but not before) June 14 1945.

June 20 1945:  Married with permission to Miss Sarah Ann Lee in Agbrigg, Yorkshire, England.  Changed next of kin to Mrs. Sarah Ann Richards (wife) of 14 Pick Hiss Rd, Meltham Yorkshire, England.

Aug 18 1945:  Granted 30 days disembarkment leave from Aug 18 to Sept 16 1945 and was authorized to draw $0.50 per diem

Sept 2 1945:  WWII ends

Sept 21 1945:  SOS on discharge.  Clothing allowance and Rehab paid.

On December 31 1945, after the Second World War had come to an end, the Royal Regiment of Canada was disbanded and reverted back to Reserve status.

Now , we know with certainty that Grampa was a Driver Mechanic and Instructor in a Carrier Platoon.  There is some discussion online about what these roles actually entail.

It was my impression that Driver/Mechanics typically did field maintenance on the Bren/Universal carriers mostly in Support Company.  But, now I’m confused, because I’ve also read that each Universal Carrier (tank) had a crew of four, an NCO (Non-Commisionaed Officer), driver-mechanic and two riflemen  (see below)

The unique concept of the Universal Carrier Platoon was to provide every Infantry Battalion with the ability to move a small portion of its establishment under armoured protection.

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Typical Carrier Platoon

A Carrier Platoon existed in each battalion as part of Support Company. The platoon provided the battalion commander with a relatively mobile force, armed with automatic weapons, and relatively safe from small arms’ fire. The platoon carried out a variety of missions, such as the re-supply of food, ammunition, water and other necessities; casualty evacuation, reconnaissance and even in rare cases assaults on enemy position.

The hard thing with writing about war is that those who have served don’t generally come home and talk about their experiences.  The fact is that many veterans did indeed take their stories to the grave, for a variety of reasons. Some came home from up to six years of continuous overseas service and simply wished to forget the whole thing, to pick up their lives as best they could. Others saw no point in reliving the horrors safely buried away under iron-hard layers of protective silence. Still others learned very quickly upon their return to Canada that the civilian populace had no understanding of, and little interest in, the hardships they endured. For thousands of their children, this meant growing up with little other than a vague notion that ‘dad was in the war’.

Through the internet, a legion of veterans’ descendants (myself included) have taken it upon themselves to research their ancestors pasts, if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding of ‘what he went through’ and to ensure their legacy lives on for generations – so that their sacrifices don’t ever get forgotten.

To that very point, I asked my uncle Kenny if he knew what Grampa did in the war – “I’m not 100% sure he never spoke much about what he did”.  But keeping things to themselves also detracts from their personal history as well (but I totally get why they don’t talk about it).  Uncle Kenny said he was pretty sure that Grampa  ” … was a driver but not in tanks, more truck/troop carriers.  Seems I remember hearing somewhere that he may of driven ambulances too”.  

So what did Grampa actually do in the war?  At this point, I don’t really know and it’s hard for me to even make a logical deduction because I can hardly make sense of where he was in the UK – again due to the cryptic records and not yet having access to his Troops War Diaries.

Of the 20+ pages of material I have in my possession, I can only pinpoint 3 military camps he was at, all of the other entries all just say  “UK” – He was noted as being in camps at Witley, Aldershot and Bordon.

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Witley Camp Canteen

a) Witley Military Camp was a temporary army camp set up on Witley Common, Surrey, England during both the First and Second World Wars.  Camp Witley was one of three facilities in the Aldershot Command area established by the Canadian Army; the others being Bordon and Bramshott.

b) Camp Bordon has a long association with the Canadian Army, providing a base for them in both world wars.

c) Camp Aldershot –  some 330,000 Canadians passed through Aldershot, doing there training before taking up the defence of the UK while most of the British soldiers were away.

I’ve mapped out the 3 places I was able to place him.  Witley and Aldershot have stars and Bordon has a pin.

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Benjamin Richards was oversees (Iceland and UK)  for a total of 62 months and was discharged from the military on September 21, 1945, in Toronto, Ontario, when he was 29 years old.

According to his Discharge Certificate and his Record of Service, he is “to return to civil life – on demobilization”.  His physical description at the time of discharge from service was “brown eyes and brown hair. Fair complexion. Burn scar on right axillae; scar 1.5″ x 1″ on inside of lip”.

His CONFIDENTIAL Discharge Papers note his future plans “I am returning to my former job as a machine tender”.  

The military’s recommendation on discharge were as follows:

“A recently married man, 29 years of age, medium build, average appearance.  Seems pleasant, steady, reliable labour type”.

” … Richards states that his mother and sister are living in Temiskaming; father has been confined to hospital for about four years.  Richards married in England and expects his wife to join him in a few months.  They can live with his mother until they secure a house through the paper company, who are building homes for returning service personnel.

In view of physical fitness and experience, Richards seems well advised to return to his former employment”.  

If he was unable to return as a Machine Tender, he planned to seek employment as a Truck Driver.

He and Sally had seven children during their marriage.  In connecting with my uncle Kenny and my aunt Gwen (I wish my dad was still alive so I could ask him some if this) –  they moved in to 102 Anvik Avenue in or about 1955.

At that time Témiscaming was a company (CIP) town and the company owned everything including the homes. The Company sold the houses in or about 1972, Sally and Benny bought theirs. The row house was tiny.  4 rooms total (living room, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, 1 washroom). It was only 2 stories, no basement. Aunty Gwen remembers them digging out the basement until they hit a big rock … but, they were able to move the furnace down there.  Only the front bedroom had closet space … Grampa built one in the back room for the 3 girls … that and a double bed.  The bathroom had a toilet and bathtub … no sink.  They were 9 living there – 7 kids,  2 adults.  There was also an enclosed, unheated back porch.  The whole space was about 600 sq ft.  The address was originally 502 Elm Ave, but the Dutch Elm disease killed all the Elm trees ands the town renamed it Anvik Ave and renumbered the houses….. the number became 102 instead of 502.

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102 Anvik Ave is the row house with the brown door on the right side (circa 2014)
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Pte Benjamin Richards is buried in Témiscaming, QC

Benjamin Richards died on June 17, 1977, in Montréal, Quebec, at the age of 61. He suffered a coronary thrombosis while visiting his daughter Gwen and son-in-law Serge and grandson Marc.

I was only 3 years old at the time grampa passed away, so unfortunately I really don’t have any memories of him. I have a few a pictures of us but that’s it – again I wish you were here dad, to share this stuff with me 😭.

Gramma Sally ending up selling the house to Lucien Bernard for $6,000 in 1978 and moved to Verdun, Quebec to live with her daughter Gwen, son-in-law Serge and her grandkids Marc and Caroline.

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One of the most rewarding challenges I have accomplished in my genealogy journey is writing about these family stories and legacies so they don’t get lost.

I plan on making these blogs into a family history book. I am extremely passionate about recording family stories and encourage you to at every opportunity.

As I continue to investigate Benny’s time in WWII, I will update the blog.

Namaste

T xo

 

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