Veteran Stories:
Burton Edwin “Burt” Harper

Army

  • First annual reunion of CANLOAN officers, Royal Empire Society, London, England, 14 April 1945. Lieutenant Burt Harper served as a CANLOAN officer with The East Lancashire Regiment.
    Faces of War: Lt. Arthur L. Cole / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-183895

    Lieut. Arthur L. Cole / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-183895
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"I couldn’t see, he couldn’t walk, they got me to the door of the house and with arms around the shoulders and waist,"

Transcript

My name is Burton Harper. I served during the Second World War, as a, from private to lieutenant. I was considered a Can-Loan officer. That is, my active service against the enemy was as a Canadian Officer On Loan to the British army. It’s officially known as a Can-Loan, Can-Loan group.

My experience in facing the enemy was from June until January in 1944/45. I joined the army back in 1940 as a private soldier with the North Shore Regiment and served with them until I went Can-Loan, and Can-Loan I served with the East Lancashire Regiment, 53rd Welsh Division in the British Army in every way but pay, thankfully. I got Canadian pay on that. I was wounded in January 1945, returned to the unit just as the war ended. And finally, in 1946, I was released.

Joined with the North Shore Regiment, the North Shore part of 3rd Canadian Division. We were located in Woodstock, New Brunswick temporarily. The next year, sorry, went to Sussex, we went to England. And served there for a year and then I was, I had been promoted to a corporal, then I was sent back to Canada as an instructor and, while back in Canada, I was recommended for a commission. And I was commissioned in Canada some many months later.

In the meantime, the war was going on and those of us in Canada that were newly commissioned, I think we were afraid that the war would be over before we got back there, so we were quite anxious to get back over and join the unit. And the opportunity came in 1944. The British were [sufferring a] terrific loss of platoon commanders because the infantry platoon is the element that faces the enemy. And the leader of that, the platoon commander, is, of course, the worst insurance risk you could get. They lost a lot but Canadians weren’t, we weren’t in the battle very much except for the 1st Division in Italy.

And so we were anxious to get back to our units and the opportunity came in early 1944 when the arrangement was made that Canadian officers would be accepted on a voluntary basis in the British Army. That fit because most of our training was based on British. Our uniforms were almost the same except for material. The one thing that was different was the pay, pay at about half pay that we had, rate of pay. So we went with Canadian pay, we joined, 620 Canadians volunteered for the British in England. We were allowed to select our unit. I don’t know why I selected the East Lancs [East Lancashire Regiment], but I selected an excellent unit. Several of the East Lancs and we landed in June, after D-Day. We didn’t land on D-Day, but a short follow-up, and served with them until January [1945], I was wounded in January, after six and a half months and I had I think the longest service of platoon commander in the division.

So the Battle of the Bulge [December 16, 1944-January 25, 1945], as you probably know, was referred to as the bulge in the line; the Germans had pushed through those woody hills, the Ardennes mountains they called them, but they’re not, they’re hills, wooded hills. We went down there at the end of December, lots of snow, just about like we’re having now, about that much, and cold and very uncomfortable in a slit trench which was like being inside of your freezer in most cases. I shouldn’t be emphasizing too much the discomfort, but that’s the situation that there was.

We had on the seventh of January, we were to attack a little village of Grimbiémont [Belgium], which was the other side of the, we were facing a hill, Grimbiémont was just on the other side, and the road ran through Grimbiémont toward the enemy. It was important that the enemy considered that road quite important. So in any event, the battalions had to attack it. Now, the road from the top of the hill, looking out at the enemy, they were housed on both sides of the road, some of them occupied by civilians, the road itself led directly to the enemy. So it was a killing zone for him. Anyone on the road was out of it.

So we attacked two of the houses. I had half my platoon on the houses on one side, half on the other and we went down house by house, being very careful not to throw grenades first because there were civilians in there. But we rousted them out right to the bottom. Near the bottom of the hill, there was an explosion on the road and an explosion inside my head at the same time. I found myself on my hands and knees, looking down at the snow and had blood and teeth and things like that. I’d been hit in the face. You can’t stop for anyone in an attack when there’s artillery coming down because you’d lose everything. So my chaps pulled me to the door of a house and kept on going.

In the house, there were some Belgian people. And they grabbed me, took me down the cellar where they were and then they wrapped up my face and they must have been scarves, the rest of them, I know they wrapped and wrapped and I couldn’t see them, obviously there was swelling anyway. And another one of my chaps was hit in the leg and they got him down too. And so therefore, and I have a lot of, well, some humourous stories about the prayers of the Belgians there, that they repeated, as the bombs come down outside and the bombs had died down, the shells, the tempo would die down a little bit and then their prayers would drop a little bit, maybe there might be a little bit of conversation. Then the bombs would start again and away they’d go again on repeating their prayers.

In any event, after a couple hours went by, I was still conscious, not too uncomfortable, but the other chap, he was in pain. I was afraid that the attack would have failed and there might be a counterattack and I didn’t want to be taken prisoner and I couldn’t leave him there either. And so I made one of the worst decisions, well, one of the worst decisions I guess one could make. I couldn’t see, he couldn’t walk, they got me to the door of the house and with arms around the shoulders and waist, and with Nelson’s eyes and my legs, I made a decision, we’re going to get out on the road and go up to the top where the stretcher bearers were or where the medical people were. And so we got out on the road with our backs to the enemy, not very far away, they could hit us with a pistol I think and the rest, and the war continued on on both sides of the road and there wasn’t a shot fired at us all the way up to the top of the hill. And I considered that an honourable enemy at that time. So from there, it was back to the hospital.

The only other thing that I might add to that, that while I was in the hospital, I met a nurse who took good care of me, that was back in 1945. We just celebrated our 63rd wedding anniversary in September [2009] and we’ll be coming up to our 64th.

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