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Remembering D-Day, 80 years later

While visiting my parents this week we watched several news documentaries about the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the landing of the Canadian troops at Juno Beach in Normandy during WWII.

 

I reflected on the experiences of my grandfather, Peter Inkster, who was stationed in England at the time with the No. 16 Canadian General Hospital. In the months leading up to June 6, 1944, the army personnel knew that a large initiative was at hand and that they would soon be going to the continent. I imagine there were a lot of mixed emotions: anticipation, excitement, anxiety, fear. Certainly there would be many wounded soldiers to care for.

Peter Inkster at Vimy Ridge Memorial, France, 1944.

 

Pete had enlisted in the No. 16 at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island in January 1942. After the attack on Pearl Harbour the month before, it was clear that the war was escalating, so many more joined up to ‘do their part.’ Pete was 31 years old and had been married for just a few months when his unit left western Canada for England in June 1942.

 

After arriving in England, No. 16 operated two hospitals to treat soldiers who had been injured on the continent. The first was at Cuckfield, an hour south of London (August 1942 - June 1943), and the second at Marston Green, near Birmingham (June 1943 - May 1944). When writing home, Grandpa had to keep their locations secret, saying only “Somewhere in Britain.”


The Canadians were treated well in Birmingham, the previous hospital having supported the civilians during the city’s heavy bombing. The invasion of Europe was close at hand, and after a year there, in May 1944, the unit “moved north to Yorkshire to get in top physical condition to go to the continent. We spent the summer in tents and did a 17-mile route march every other day. None of us could ever figure out how come the route was uphill all the way!”[i]

 

D-Day, the invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy took place on June 6, 1944. The Allies slowly began to push the Germans back towards their borders. The Canadian army was directed northward, tasked with liberating the Netherlands. Where there was battle, there would also be casualties. In August 1944, No. 16 hospital headed south to the seaside town of Little Hampton where they waited until it was time to sail from Southampton to the newly freed beaches of France. While onboard, the padres held a special prayer service as the men neared the artificial harbour at Arromanches.[ii]

 

Art Mann, a pharmacist with the unit, wrote: “It was a thrill to walk along the floating dock and finally set foot on French soil. At last we were here. We marched up a long hill to a tent camp where other Canadian hospitals were waiting. On the way up the hill we saw a goat and one of our boys yelled ‘Come Chewey’ and to our complete amazement he came running over. It was indeed Chewey, the mascot of a unit next to ours and he loved to follow us on our 17-mile walks. He earned his name when he ate the first batch of mail that the nursing sisters in his unit received while we were in Yorkshire.”[iii]


Unidentified soldiers landing at Arromanches, France, 23 July 1944. | Library and Archives Canada, Item 3194294

After waiting two weeks, No. 16 got their orders to move out. It took 80 trucks and 16 hours to journey to St. Omer in the Pas de Calais area. From September through October 1944 the hospital acted as a casualty clearing station. Just beyond the rang of enemy artillery, they treated battlefield injuries “from the Czech brigade around Dunkirk and from the Calais and Boulogne battles.”

 

They used the community hospital that had been taken over by the German army, who had “retreated so quickly that they even left food and wine on the tables. At first we were hesitant to touch any switches in case they were booby-trapped but we soon found out they had no time for such tricks… We became extremely busy as soon as we opened. In the first two weeks we treated 2,600 patients and had 500 major surgeries… As the fighting moved eastward we were receiving fewer Canadian Army casualties but a mixture of Navy, Air Force and Allied soldiers, mostly the Free Polish forces. We had an air evacuation unit attached to our hospital. They flew the most seriously injured back to England in DC3 aircraft, which were called Dakotas.”[iv] Pete must have been a medical attendant on some of these flights; he later told my dad that he had flown on the Dakotas, an experience he didn’t enjoy. In fact, he disliked flying so much, they when Dad got his flying license as a young man, Grannie went up in the plane with him, Grandpa never would.[v]


Evacuation of wounded by Douglas Dakota aircraft, France, 16 June 1944. | Library and Archives Canada, Item 3397094

Like many others, Pete rarely spoke of his wartime experiences. Although he worked in the supply office with the quartermaster, he had received first aid training and was called on to help when needed and saw gruesome sights that no one would wish to remember. For example, he once commented to my dad that the injured tank crewmen would come into the hospital burnt from head to toe - completely blackened - and the medics would have to use tweezers to pick off the skin.[vi]

 

A small cardboard chocolate box filled with pins, badges, coins, and bills of various nationalities speaks of his surroundings and the varied people he met during this time. Although the Germans were in retreat, they had not yet surrendered, and medics were not immune from attack. Art Mann said that “on Boxing Day [1944] a German plane machine gunned our house but no casualties or damage.”[vii] And, when Pete returned home, he carried a 7-inch-long shell fragment in his knapsack. The shell had exploded near him, and he kept the large chunk of metal as a souvenir.[viii]


Select excerpts pulled from The War Years: Peter and Kathleen Inkster, 1942-45 by Karen Inkster Vance, 2022


Sources:

[i] Art Mann, “WWII with the #16 Canadian General Hospital,” handwritten, unpublished memoir. Document given to author August 20, 1997.

[ii] Art Mann, handwritten, unpublished memoir.

[iii] Art Mann, handwritten, unpublished memoir.

[iv] Art Mann, handwritten, unpublished memoir.

[v] Danny Inkster phone interview with Karen (Inkster) Vance, November 13, 2022.

[vi] Danny Inkster phone interview, November 13, 2022.

[vii] Art Mann, handwritten, unpublished memoir.

[viii] Danny Inkster phone interview, November 13, 2022.

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