Volume 93, Issue 41

Thursday, November 11, 1999


A Canadian soldier's story

Death So Noble searches for the real WW1

Merchants still left out in the cold

A Canadian soldier's story

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

In 1943, just shy of his 19th birthday, Frank Robb went overseas to England in support of the Canadian war effort. He took the clothes he was wearing and only what he could fit in his back pack. This would be his way of life until the Second World War ended in 1945.

During his time in Europe, Robb travelled along the coast of England, up to Normandy, France and was in Germany when the war ended. But even before he got to Europe, the conditions were unbearable.

"It took us 12 days to get from Halifax to Liverpool on a British ship," he said. "It wasn't very big and there was one big room for all of us. Some slept on the floor, or on the tables or even in hammocks.

"We went over in the fall of 1943, so the weather was bad. By about the second day, most of us were pretty sick because we weren't allowed to go out into the air. There was a fear we would get tossed into the water.

"Just imagine the smell of fried kippers and three or four guys being sick over some barrels right behind you. That, without any air – well, you can just imagine."

Robb was a dispatch rider during the war and by age 20 he made sergeant. His job was to ride a motorcycle delivering messages – the phone systems could not be relied on, for fear of the lines being tapped. Most of the messages were minimal, he said, such as requests for supplies. However, even though the requests were simple, the means were treacherous. One of the problems the riders encountered was not knowing where the front line was, as it was constantly moving.

"One of my buddies was taken prisoner because he went in behind the lines. You were always going by a guess and then hoping you had enough gas to get back.

"We did lose some of our buddies. Some were fired at by Germans and others were killed by Belgian sympathizers," he explained. "But then, there were some who were the reckless motorcyclists like you have today."

Robb also recalled the guns they would have to carry over their shoulders as they were not very well made. One of his friends was killed when he took the gun off his shoulder and a pin fell out, firing the gun at him. Another friend was killed running over a land mine.

"Sometimes the mines weren't properly cleared. You wouldn't think a motorcycle would set it off, it was usually trucks that would. We figured the wire must have been knicked a number of times and then when he went over it, the wire had taken all it could. He was 20 years old."

But Robb said fear wasn't an emotion he felt. "At that age you just don't think anything can happen to you," he said. "I don't remember fear, except at night." With that thought, another memory was sparked of riding through Arramanches, Normandy, for an order. "I had 24 hours and I was travelling all night. We had to block out the lights and with that, you were always afraid of seeing shadows."

Along with the negative memories however, Robb said there are positive thoughts which remain in his mind. "I remember we were the first group of Canadians to get leave to go into Paris and everyone wanted to shake our hands." This image stayed in his mind when he returned to Europe, many years later with his wife, Aileen. He recalls, especially, his trip to Holland.

"The people there were magnificent. We returned two years ago for the Victory Day celebration and the Dutch people treated us with such a high regard." Holland was freed by Canadians and their dedication has never fallen. In comparison, he felt Canadians did not hold as high a tribute for the veterans. In northern Holland, school children are given a grave site to look after and it is kept immaculately, he said.

Robb said he considers himself to be one of the lucky ones, as he reflects on his lost friends and the other men who did not get the chance to go home.

Frank Robb now resides in Toronto, Ontario with his wife Aileen. They have three children and six grandchildren and he still rides his motorcycle.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999