As Europeans and Canadians mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day this week, including the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian forces, World War II veteran Jim Wilkinson shares his recollections of the conflict. “I never thought we would lose so many men.”
By Frank Kuin in Montreal / Portrait photography by Roger Aziz
Jim Wilkinson talks vividly about his experiences during the Second World War. As a young man, the 92-year-old veteran served for five years in England and the northern European mainland with Canada’s Armed Forces.
Not a day goes by when he doesn’t think of that period, he says at the kitchen table in his Montreal home – the triumphs, the adventure, but also the casualties and the traumas. Over 40,000 Canadians lost their lives in the conflict.
“It’s part of my life,” says Wilkinson, who became the first Allied soldier to enter the southern Dutch town of Goes. He walks slowly, but speaks animatedly about the war – although he excuses himself for having to think about a name sometimes.
“I think of the fellows who died right beside me. I have friends in all three Canadian War cemeteries in the Netherlands. Whenever I go to Holland, I always visit them.”
At 17, Wilkinson crossed the Atlantic in the summer of 1940 to go to England with his regiment, Montreal’s Royal Highlanders, better known as the Black Watch.
Wilkinson’s father had served in the same regiment during the First World War, and Jim volunteered his service, like other young men on the street in Montreal where he grew up, Rue Rielle in Verdun.
“I was thinking about it when I was 16,” he recalls. “You’re not allowed to be in the army until you’re 18. I told them I was 18 when I was 17. I was still 17 when I got to England. I thought it was my duty.”
“I thought it was my duty”
The price turned out to be high for many. During a tour of France, Belgium and the Netherlands as part of the Fifth Brigade of the Second Canadian Division, the Black Watch suffered heavy losses. More than once, Wilkinson narrowly escaped death.
Wilkinson, a corporal with the rifle company, received most of his training in England, he says. “I went into the Scout Platoon, we took special training in map reading and shooting. I was one of the best shots in the regiment.”
On July 19, 1944, about six weeks after D-Day, his unit made the crossing to Normandy in France. “And our first casualties were suffered on July 19,” he says. “We had three of our men killed right away when a mortar hit.”
Six days later, after heavy fighting and bombardments, the regiment had lost 400 men – dead, wounded or taken prisoner. “We knew there were going to be casualties, but I never imagined we would lose so many men. It was the price we had to pay.”
Wilkinson remembers the scene near Caen in northern France. “I sat down on the road and who do I meet: my platoon commander, Sergeant Barney Benson,” he says. “And Barney Benson said: we had a bad experience today. I said: you can believe it. The place is just full of dead and wounded men. He had a bottle of Scotch and gave me a drink of his Scotch.”
Through Belgium, Wilkinson’s unit crossed into the Netherlands in the fall of 1944. “We had a very difficult time,” he says: on October 13, 1944, ‘Black Friday’, the Black Watch suffered heavy losses near Hoogerheide, during the protracted battle of the Scheldt.
“The Germans plastered us left, right and centre.”
Wilkinson put his shooting skills to good use. He had a Lee-Enfield Mark 6 rifle with a telescopic sight, he says – and did not hesitate to use it. “The only good German was a dead one,” he says with passion, recalling a line from the war. “You don’t believe it, do you? You just hated them.”
“Look, there is a bullet hole in my leg”
Shortly after, Wilkinson saw one of his biggest triumphs, when he was the first Allied soldier to enter Goes, in the province of Zeeland.
“I was leading the battalion, and I saw a man behind a building, he came forward and put his hands up. He said: ‘don’t shoot, I am a Dutch underground man. The Germans just left’.”
In late 1944, the mission of the Black Watch led eastward, towards Nijmegen. Near the town of Groesbeek, Wilkinson and his partner Dale Sharpe went on patrol at the end of December. They spotted a couple of Germans in a farmyard, but there were also German snipers behind them.
“They shot me in the hip and in my right leg,” Wilkinson says. He pulls up his pants. “Look, there is a bullet hole in my leg,” he says with a laugh. “And also on my patella.”
Wilkinson couldn’t walk. His partner Sharpe, “a mule of a guy”, dragged him away, and that’s how Wilkinson’s tour ended. He was evacuated to England, to be treated in a hospital in Birmingham.
“Dale Sharpe saved my life. He later died, in April 1945 near Putten. He was a wonderful guy.”
In the summer of 1945, Wilkinson returned to Montreal, where he continued his revalidation. “I was glad to be coming home,” he recalls. “I was over there from August of 1940 to July of 1945, that was a long time.” He met his first wife, had two sons and worked for more than 30 years for Canadian Pacific Railways in Montreal.
The phone rings. It’s Russell Sanderson, an old partner from the war. “I saved his life,” Wilkinson explains. “I could see a German pick up a rifle and he was aiming at Sandy. I said: ‘Sandy, keep quiet because I’m going to get him’. And I got him.”
Wilkinson still keeps in touch with 3 or 4 other veterans from that time – but 70 years on, their numbers are dwindling. “There’s always one dying, every week there’s one.” He leafs through a book with names of soldiers from his regiment who died during the war, page after page.
Wilkinson has returned to the Netherlands many times, to take part in the annual ceremonies to mark anniversaries of the liberation by Canadian forces. He has received medals and honours from Holland and France.
“I love it, I love the people,” he says. Will he ever make the trip to Holland again? He is not sure. “My wife won’t let me go anymore. I would go tomorrow if they let me.”
This post is also available in: Dutch
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