Skip navigation

Death everywhere

An estimated 23,000 telegrams related to the war arrived in the three months after D-Day invasion

From Monday's Globe and Mail

It was a measure of those exceedingly sad times that George Neal, whose life was otherwise anonymous, got his moment of fame. In the winter of 1945, the retired automotive engineer spent his days driving around Toronto to deliver telegrams that, invariably, told someone that their loved one wouldn't be coming home from the war. He was a very busy man. Inevitably, newspapers looking for a human-interest story that didn't directly focus on the carnage of the Second World War found him.

Those who carried sad messages for the telegraph companies during the war were an elite crew. "No whistling lads scooting through traffic on bicycles, they are mature men of quiet and dignified mien," a Globe and Mail article said.

The rules were firm. The messengers did not simply ring the doorbell, hand over the telegram and flee. They stayed there to watch the recipient read -- and digest -- the message, and were ready to call a minister or a doctor. Sometimes, Mr. Neal said, "I open the telegram and read it quietly and as sympathetically as possible."

Death was everywhere in those last months of the war. Canadian National Telegraphs estimated it had delivered 23,000 war-related messages in the three months after the June of 1944 D-Day invasion of Europe. Mr. Neal reckoned he personally conveyed 8,000 messages for Canadian Pacific Telegraphs.

As well, The Globe ran on its front page every day the latest numbers for those Canadian troops killed, wounded, captured or missing in action. The total for the third week of February, 1945, was fairly typical of the time: 775. And the newspaper also ran on Page 7, daily, the names and next of kin of Ontario soldiers killed or "dangerously" wounded. After six years of war, the feature had become as commonplace as the hockey scores or the full-page Eaton's advertisements.

The war came home in other ways, too. Hospital ships were arriving in Halifax, filled to the brim with the sick and wounded. In one nine-day stretch in February of 1945, more than 3,000 casualties came home. If they weren't too badly maimed, they got their pictures in the paper. On Feb. 21, the smiling face of army Lieutenant Don Shaw was on The Globe's front page. He had just returned to Toronto to recuperate from a skirmish in the Netherlands in which three Canadian soldiers had been killed. He was leaning on a crutch because he had lost a leg.

The action in the closing days of the war ensured that there would be more hospital ships crossing the Atlantic, more people like Don Shaw thanked for the service that maimed them.

The 1st Canadian Army, fighting along a 40-kilometre front in February of 1945, was encountering fierce enemy resistance as it drove eastward into Germany toward the industrial Ruhr Basin. Four Allied armies were involved in the push along a 322-kilometre front. The Canadian troops were helping to pin down 10 Nazi divisions on the northern flank of the front to prevent them from rushing south to fight U.S. soldiers making their way toward Cologne.

Dispatches from Canadian Press reporters at the front described a seesaw battle near the German town of Calcar with repeated enemy counterattacks. "It was a give-and-take slugging match," a Feb. 20 story said. But with the help of hundreds of British fighter planes, the Canadians soon regained the momentum and there were signs that the enemy's resistance was beginning to crack. In the first two weeks of the offensive, the 1st Canadian had advanced 29 kilometres.

The U.S. 3rd Army, meanwhile, was scooping up German towns in its path in the Moselle-Saar triangle, about 105 kilometres west of the Rhine.

The 1st and 9th U.S. Armies crossed the Roer River and were pushing along a 35-kilometre front toward Cologne, a symbol of German war might along the Rhine. Their attack was helped by what The Associated Press called "one of the greatest barrages ever seen on the Western Front" with big artillery guns crowded "nearly 100 to the mile."

By the week's end, the U.S. steamroller was on Cologne's doorstep and the city was being pounded by heavy artillery. German Field Marshal Karl von Rundstedt sought to rally his disorganized troops, saying the industrial region had to be defended to the last man or else all would be lost. But U.S. forces were reporting that German positions were deteriorating. "There is no organized line in front of us and it appears we have a breakthrough," said a 9th Army officer in a Feb. 26 CP dispatch.

On the eastern front, Soviet troops were pushing toward the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to isolate thousands of enemy troops to the east in the Danzig (now Gdansk) area. After a month's siege, the Polish city of Poznan finally fell to the Soviets with 23,000 German soldiers captured and another 25,000 killed. Dispatches from Moscow also said that Red Army troops were facing heavy fighting on a 160-kilometre front facing Dresden and Berlin.

At the same time, Allied planes operating with little interference dropped a vast tonnage of bombs over Germany. Berlin, which was choked with refugees and dealing with a typhus epidemic, suffered the greatest daylight bombing raid of the war on Feb. 26. Nearly 2,000 U.S. heavy bombers and fighter planes dropped 3,000 tonnes of explosives on three of Berlin's railway stations. "Berlin now has won our most-bombed championship," a U.S. Air Force officer exulted.

Berchtesgaden, Hitler's retreat in the mountains of Bavaria, was hit by U.S. planes for the first time in the war. The town's railway station was hit and incendiary wing tanks were dropped on the Nazi leader's palace by a U.S. major as he left the zone. The pilot was unaware of the significance of his action until he landed and a British briefing officer told him: "That's a good show. You may have clobbered Hitler."

In Canada, tension over the Mackenzie King government's decision in late 1944 to introduce conscription for overseas service bubbled over in Quebec where the move was intensely unpopular. A "mob" (as English newspapers described it) of up to 1,500 men in Drummondville overran RCMP forces and army police in a battle over deserters and military call-up delinquents.

The trouble began when the security officers began raiding bars, restaurants, bowling alleys and other public places late on a Saturday night. About 80 people were apprehended before the fighting started. Police cars were overturned, officers had heavy chunks of ice thrown at them from rooftops and eyewitnesses were beaten up.

A Globe report said government officials were aware that the decision to introduce conscription was seen by Quebeckers as a betrayal of earlier promises by King not to do so. But the report said officials in Ottawa believed that attitudes in Quebec had changed and there would be no repeat of the widespread conscription riots of 1918.

The Globe, a fervent supporter of conscription and the war, was showing no mercy, however. "No state can progress on the basis of mob rule," it thundered in a Feb. 27 editorial that cast equal blame on King's "dishonest policy" and the Drummondville rioters. "No group of individuals can be allowed to take the law into their own hands without inviting contempt for all orderly procedure."

Please e-mail the Dominion Institute at staff@dominion.ca

if you have any letters or photos from Canadian soldiers who died in the final months of the Second World War.

Recommend this article? 39 votes

Back to top