Lest We Forget - WWII Veterans From Blueberry

Lest we forget D-Day

By Wilma Bird

(The Central Peace Signal kindly re-typed the original article from the paper's November 10, 1992 edition and published it on their Facebook page).

Local ID 20 veterans of World War II, Ben Haggart and Bob Hampton were in the same part of Normandy for the long-awaited invasion of Europe on June 4, 1944, the fateful day called D-day.

Although they were with different divisions of the Canadian Armed Forces, it is a coincidence that they have both farmed land at Blueberry Mountain since the war, about 13 kilometers apart and recently got together to compare recollections of that traumatic time.

Ben Haggart grew up at Abbey, Saskatchewan during the depression days in a family of 12. He left home at the age of 18 to find work as a farm laborer as well as working in the bush with horses. “Uphill both ways,” he says. He joined the RCAF at Manning Depot Edmonton and notes that if he had not joined, “they would come and get me.” He had 14 weeks guard duty at Claresholm, from whence he went to Calgary Technical School for seven months for the strictest wireless training in Canada. Ben trained in ‘bomb and gunnery’ for a month in Lethbridge and became a Wireless Air Gunner (WAG) and instead of “Halt, who goes there,” it was “Halt, look who’s here.”

After the three weeks in Halifax, he shipped overseas on the Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Bournemouth, England, December 18, 1942. For the next 18 months he trained with paratroopers, towing the gliders which contained them. These gliders flew out from Oxford and other places in England and dropped the paratroopers in ‘drop zones’, as well as being utilized to drop supplies to resistance forces all over Europe, France, Belgium and Holland. On one trip to Norway and back, completed in 9 hours and 20 minutes, they had fuel for 9 hours and 30 minutes.

Bob Hampton grew up near Gavan, Saskatchewan during the same great depression days, in a family with a military history. His mother had 3 brothers in World War I, one of whom was killed, and his father had uncles who were in the Boer War. Eventually, three of his immediate family would volunteer for World War II and one brother died for his country, as an air crewman with the RCAF.

Bob was with a threshing crew when World War II broke out. He was working with a Polish immigrant who told him the war would be over in a few days, with the Germans vanquished. This individual was considering the size of the Polish Army, but had no idea how quickly it would all be over for Poland.

Bob enlisted in Regina, Room #42 in the Armories, then went to Prince Albert with 1,200 other men for their basic training. He then enrolled in a non-commissioned officer’s course in Nanaimo and returned to instruct the course in Prince Albert until October of 1943. Four of these instructors, including Bob, volunteered for the recently formed Paratroopers. They went to Winnipeg and then 35 men were to Shilo for jump training with only 17 receiving their qualifications. They took very rigorous commando training as well, plus learning to pack their chutes, etc. The qualified Paratroopers were joined by other volunteers from all over Canada and were finally sent to England by boat on the first of April, 1944. The training continued at Ringway, near Manchester, which included three jumps out of a hanging basket – “all just part of the torture”.

D-Day was coming, but no one knew when. Bob’s place was with Vicker’s Machine Gun Patrol of the First Canadian Paratroopers. The Douglas Dakota planes could take 27 men and their equipment at a time, and in practise, with the plane speeding ahead at 95 miles per hour, all 27 men with equipment could evacuate a plane in 12 seconds.

At 1AM, the night before D-Day, Ben Haggart was with # 925 squadron, in plane #24 going over the coast of France with a glider full of paratroopers, volunteers who were to silence a big gun – ‘Merville Battery’ on the Normandy coast. The mission was accomplished, as the cannon could have otherwise sunk half the advancing navy when the sun came up on D-Day. On D-Day, Ben was returning again with 400 planes and gliders to the beach head. These men had orders to hold all the high ground at any cost.

First Canadian Parachute Battalion, with Bob Hampton, was dropped with this flotilla of gliders, so both Ben and Bob were in the air at that point.

Bob, with selected paratroopers, was dropped in Normandy to blow up power communication lines and certain bridges, in order to keep the German Panzer troops from advancing to the oncoming flotilla of gliders and ships. This, also, was accomplished. The paratroopers had rations for four days, but since they were positioned there for over a week, they were left very hungry many times. From his vantage point one day, Bob watched many more gliders come in and land in a large field with very few casualties. Twenty-two hundred men were dropped in six minutes in an area of 800 by 1,000 yards. All the anti-tank artillery was unloaded at night, leaving the Germans with the impression that nothing but artillery troops were opposing them.

The next day, the Germans sent their tanks in but these were soon disposed of, as were their artillery that followed.

From there it was just bump and grind for Bob’s paratroopers, working their way to the Seine River. They were able to return to England on September 6 to get ready for more. On Christmas Day, 1944, they went by ferry to Ostend, Belgium and took part in the drive into Belgium at Rochefort.

The weather was the worst ever in 60 years in the area. In February they went to Holland for patrol work on the Naas River, then back to England again to prepare to cross the Rhine into Germany, which they did on the bright spring day of March 24. It was a different picture in Germany. Everything was smoke and fire as the Allies’ artillery had shelled the area with 1,200 guns for three hours before they landed. They marched through Germany and reached the Baltic coast and the Russians on the second of May. The war ended on May 8.

Ben, meanwhile, after D-Day had been dropping supplies to the resistance forces. On September 19, 1944, they were sent to Arnhem where the British were soundly defeated. Only 1,300 of the 3,600 men of the English Airborne Division returned to tell the tale and the Germans got most of the supplies. Ben made four trips into Arnhem, in spite of finding the locals weren’t very friendly to tourists! On one of those trips, the plane had two oil lines shot out, but fortunately there were four engines so they were able to land in Ghent, Belgium which had been liberated the day before. They were flown back to England the next day and continued the same work until December 1944.

Ben was posted back to Canada and later arrived in Edmonton on February 14, 1945. He was discharged as Flying Officer in May of that year.

Ben worked at various jobs after the war and started with UGG elevators in 1948. He stayed with UGG for 34 years, of which 24 of them were spent in Spirit River. He also bought and improved farm land in this area. Ben and his wife Margaret, raised one son and two daughters.

Ben notes his war experiences are something he would not wish to repeat, but would not sell them for a million dollars.

Bob and fellow paratroopers, was back in Canada by the end of May, 1945. They were kept at Niagara-on-the-Lake awaiting the result of the struggle with Japan, but it too was over shortly. He was discharged at the end of February, 1946.

Bob and his wife Arletta, moved to a farm in Blueberry to raise seven children and fight the battle of farming, but he says everything else pales in comparison to the war experience.

From the Archives of the Central Peace Signal


Thank You To The Central Peace Signal

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The Central Peace Signal has been publishing since 1977, covering northern Alberta’s Central Peace region. They have kindly agreed to share stories about the areas of the County from their archives.