Charles Owens on a Harley Davidson, England, 1941.Charles Owens
Charles Owens in Antwerp, Belgium, October 1944.Charles Owens
Letter to Charles Owens's parents informing them that their son was missing, August 6, 1944.Charles Owens
Telegram reporting Charles Owens missing, and another reporting that he had been found, August 1944.Charles Owens
Charles Owens's Miniature Medals (Left to Right): 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; Defence Medal; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal; War Medal (1939-45); Good Conduct and Effeciency Medal.Charles Owens
"You can get pretty scared when you know that your time is maybe up"
This is Charles T. Owens. I served from 1940 to 1945, started out with The Carleton [and] York Regiment and transferred to the 3rd Div [Divisional] Signals and then eventually to Number 11 Dispatch Rider Section. Served in England and in Europe, landed in D+5 [meaning five days after the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944] in Normandy and served, I stayed with the Signal Corps [or The Royal Canadian Corps of Signals] for the rest of the way. I went to 3rd Div Signals in 1941, just shortly before they went overseas. I took a DR, dispatch rider, course there and the instructor was named Patty Cahill, who had been a dirt track rider. And we rode around in a field there for about four weeks, five weeks, and then finally went out on the road. This was one of the things at the end of the five weeks, Patty took you out on the road and gave you a test.
And he had an Indian 74 with a sidecar on it. Well, we go down the road and so along this road that we were riding, it was all these stakes that stand about two feet, three feet high. And Patty would move that sidecar over as far as he could get, and then all of a sudden, when he’d get about three feet from the stake, he’d tip the sidecar and up and over you’d go. Well, this would just scare the hell out of you. And we’d get down the road, he’d stop and he’d talk with a lisp and he said, “Were you scared?” I says, “Scared, have you got any toilet paper?” Well, he said, “Well, I’m glad you told me you were scared because if you told me you weren’t scared, you’d have never passed this course because you’re never going to have anything more dangerous between your legs than one of them motorcycles.”
It turned out that I rode for the rest of the war, which Patty said, “If you keep in mind that this is a very dangerous piece of equipment, you will probably get through the war.” And which I did. Had a few narrow escapes, but other than that, I made it.
I was out riding on Nortons [16H] and I rode a Norton through the war. I rode just about them all, the Norton, the BSA, Triumph, mainly Harley Davidson because we were equipped with Harley Davidson shortly after we’d landed in England. And so we had them right up until before D-Day. I liked that the best.
When we landed, I was with No. 11 Dispatch Rider Section and we had what they called a Matchless. They were new bikes that had come out and they were right, they were Matchless because nothing could match them. By the time we got to Antwerp [Belgium], we never had one left, they were all gone.
Oh yeah, that was in Normandy. I was in a Jeep that day, we were sent to Caen [France] with a whole bunch of official mail and whatnot. And after we left Caen, we started back, and the direction that the MP [Military Police] sent us, there was a bridge that had been blown out. So we got kind of mixed up in our directions. I wasn’t driving the Jeep, Lou was driving the Jeep. And the next thing I know, I’m going flying through the air and I don’t know whether we hit a pothole or whether we hit a mine or whatever, when I come to, I was on a stretcher in No. 2 Evacuation Center, United States Army. And I don’t know how long I was out, probably I was out for six, seven, eight hours because I went through the admittance tent and everything else, I don’t remember even seeing them fellows. And then when I got out of there, they give me an American uniform, because they had cut mine off me, and the only thing I didn’t have was the cap. But I never did get a picture of that United States uniform. I often think of it, I’d like to have had a picture of it.
But then anyway, at the end, the only thing I remember getting rid of, I got rid of the boots, sold it to some farmer for a bottle of Calvados, another friend of mine and I. So it worked out pretty good that way.
Well, I was in Antwerp for quite some time. Antwerp was our first stop after we broke out of Falaise Gap [the battle of the Falaise Gap, August 12-21, 1944]. And that’s where pretty well the army stopped because that’s where the Germans were protecting the Scheldt Estuary on the other side. And so then that’s where we set up, that’s where we set our headquarters up.
We were a small unit. We were like an independent unit of 25 people. We had our own cook, our own mechanic and whatnot. And we could be attached to anybody, so we weren’t like being in a battalion or anything like that. But it was a real good way to be really.
In Antwerp of course, there was buzz bomb V-1s [rockets] and V-2s was very, very prominent in Antwerp. I think there was somewhere between five and ten thousand people killed, just killed, never mind how many people were wounded from these things. And in one day, I’d done a dispatch down to this thing, I don’t know what they called it, the Meir, that’s with the main street in Antwerp, I’d got a dispatch to them. But before I’d gone down, about an hour before that, a V-2 had landed right just down the street from there. So when I come out of there, I turned around and I came back up to what they call the [Leopold] Boulevard and the Meir [the main shopping district of the city]. And there was three MPs there directing traffic.
So I had the bike, so I come right up to the front of it, so the traffic wasn’t going my way so I was stopped. So then the MP looked at me, he sees I’ve got a blue and white armband on, which gives you priority because the dispatch rider and the signal corps. So he stopped the traffic and waved us on. So away we went. I went up there, it maybe took me less than 30 seconds to get up to the end of that and then turn right and I just stopped and just as I stopped, this ungodly explosion went, and then this piece of metal about four feet landed about five or six feet from me. And I could see the windows shaking in the building there. And I thought, where the hell did that land. I mean, this wasn’t new to me, these V-1s or V-2s and we had been there for about two or three months and there was an awful lot of these things had come down in that time.
So I turned and I rode back to the Leopold Boulevard and all I could see out of three MPs was one armband with the MP on it. The other three were all blown to pieces and there was, I don’t know, probably 300, 400 casualties there. It was in the little building, café there and whatnot, I could look, I looked, and I looked at them and I could see these people looking out, but they’re just looking straight ahead, they’re killed by concussion.
And on the same street, and the same afternoon, a V-1 hit the theatre there, and I know that may have killed 300 or 400 in there. So that was just one example of one day. And I’ve had them, I could see them up above. I mean, this was really the war experience for me was these V-1s and V-2s. I mean, we seen a lot of them and we had one of our units blown in the house in the quarters that we first had when we went to Antwerp, we moved to another building because we didn’t have any place to keep our bikes and our Jeep. And a V-2 hit that and blew them all to hell. There was only one survivor there, that was the cook. He was upstairs. They blew him out and he landed on the street on his mattress with a piece of tin on top of him and all these bricks. And all he got was one little scar on him, on his forehead.
I remember when in one instance we could hear, you could hear these V-1s coming, they had a motor on them, you know. You could hear them coming for quite a way. And this one kept coming. We were in this room, sitting, talking and we had one of our fellows always saying he wasn’t scared of buzz bombs or artillery or … so anyway, this thing kept coming, coming, coming, and it got right over us and then it quit. Well, once it quit, you know it’s coming down and you don’t know where it’s going to want to take a dive or it’s going to go a little ways or what it’s going to do. And there was a little table in the room, so we all took a dive and some of the plaster comes off the walls because the thing took a dive in the trash right on the next block.
And so we picked ourselves up, we look at this guy and he’s under the table. And he was about six foot. So I said to him, I said, “You know, you tell you’re not being scared and you’re not, you know. And now I want to tell you what I’ll do. I’ll bet you 100 francs that you can get back underneath that table without that table being lifted off of its four legs.” He said, “What do you mean?” “Because,” I said, “you were so scared, you shrunk.” I said, “My nose was shaking,” so I said, “that’s how scared I was, I’ll admit it.” You can get pretty scared when you know that your time is maybe up. Because you could hear them, it’s the same as some nights, when you were sleeping and you’d wake up and you’d hear it. Well, you didn’t know whether it was still coming or whether it had gone by, and then you’d have to pull up the blankets over your head and don’t know what the hell that was going to do, but it sort of changed the scenery or something. So… I don’t know.
And I don’t think too much of those things or whatever. I think more of the guys that we lost and whatnot and they were the cream of the crop and I mean, a lot of them died very young after they came back. Not only just during the war, but they died in their 40s and 50s and for one thing and another.