John Honsberger on leave, 1945John Honsberger
John Honsberger painted this scene while in Holland when the war ended.John Honsberger
John Honsberger, Painting of tentJohn Honsberger
John Honsberger, 2009Historica Canada
"I’ve never seen so many boats in all my life, big ones and little ones, as far out as I could see and as far left and right, it was just unimaginable the number of boats."
I was in high school, UTS [University of Toronto Schools], and the father of one of the students involved in the Cadet Corps at UTS was involved with the 7th Toronto Artillery Regiment. A lot of us got involved in that militia and going out Wednesday or Thursday nights to the 7th Toronto Regiment down here in the armouries on University Avenue. And then in due course, the regiment was asked to recommend people to go to the Officer’s Training Course in Brockville, Ontario. And I was recommended from the 7th Toronto Regiment.
I went to Brockville for, well I think the course was three months and that was a general course. And then after three months in Brockville, I went out to Brandon, Manitoba and Shilo for two months. From there, in August I guess, we went overseas. A train left in Brandon and went right down to Pier 19 in Halifax. We went across on the [RMS] Queen Mary, it was kind of interesting. The Queen Mary had taken [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill over to go to that meeting at Quebec City [in August, 1943] I think it was and he went back somewhere else. So we took the Queen Mary over to England and then more training and then getting ready for D-Day.
I got posted to the 5th Anti-tank Regiment [Royal Canadian Artillery] which was in the 4th Canadian [Armoured] Division. We continued to train and when we had, when the Anti-tank firing was down at Seaford [England], a range for anti-tank [guns] and they had these, these kind of fake tanks made out of pipe and tar paper, going along the edge of the white cliffs and we’d fire at them. But it was kind of interesting. We were due to have days on the ranges down there at Beachy Head on D-Day. Nobody could tell us to stay home, it was D-Day, we were down there, Beachy Head Seaford I guess at seven [o’clock] in the morning and then as I was saying, I never saw a sight like it in all my life because it was D-Day. The armada had been going I think about midnight the night before and we saw that at seven [o’clock] in the morning, we were on the white cliffs, which must be the equivalent about 80 feet up in the air. And we had a grandstand view of it. I’ve never so many boats in all my life, big ones and little ones, as far out as I could see and as far left and right, it was just unimaginable the number of boats; I don’t know whether I, what I saw at one time, whether I saw 500 or 1,500, they were all seemed to be about 200 or 300 yards of each other there.
We were in this wonderful position. You know, we saw all of D-Day, we trained for all of D-Day but then of course, at the last minute we didn’t participate on D-Day and it would be a month later that the 4th Division went across. Its position was always on the extreme right hand flank of the Canadian Army and as it went along, when we started moving a little faster, we might be in Holland for a week or two and then we’d be in Germany and then Holland because the border zigzagged along there.
And then on VE-Day [Victory in Europe], we had reached the, Wilhelmshaven [Germany] on the North Sea. And then it was kind of interesting, is that I had been sent forward to reconnoitre a position, we were moving fairly fast at that time, maybe a couple of times a day and I was asked to move ahead and find out a place that we could take the battery to. I got into the outskirts of Wilhelmshaven in my Jeep and I’d say like the the Steeles and Yonge [major intersection] for Wilhelmshaven and all of a sudden, I see there’s a German sentry on a lane going down to a German camp. And I took an about-turn, we went back and that night, which was the last night of the war, we spent in this farmhouse, just on the outskirts of Wilhelmshaven. And the farmer was very reluctant to give us his name and we understood afterwards because he thought that we might think he was mocking us because interestingly enough, his name was Eisenhower. So there we landed, the end of the war on Farmer Eisenhower’s house.
Four days before the end of the war, the orders came that we were to move forward again. So again, I was sent out to reconnoitre where we could take the battery and I went out, maybe two or three miles out one night, and I went down the farmer’s lane where the battery headquarters was. I went out and reconnoitered this place two, three, four miles along, I don’t think it was too far, we wouldn’t go that fast. Then I came back up the lane and told the battery commander what we were to do, we were moving up and I can always remember him, he had kind of a bushy moustache with hairs were always getting in his lips. He tended sometimes to kind of lisp, with the hairs in this great big moustache. And when I came back and pointed at the map where we moving and he looks at that and he said, “Jesus Tiste, Jesus Tiste, I feel like a June bride. I know I’m going to get it but I don’t know when”. That was about the last thing I heard from him because he then said, Okay, you go down to the main road and I will lead the battery down and then we’ll meet you where this lane ends next to the road and then you lead us into this new place you’ve found.
And what happened when he was leading, I guess it was, the battery headquarters, he was in a half-track [armoured vehicle] and he was going down the lane where, certainly in myJeep I had gone down and up - I’d gone over it about three times with my Jeep - he got to a certain space and he got a huge explosion. And what the Germans had been doing is they retreated. Among other things, they were getting these great big floating sea mines, you know, these great big iron balls, huge things, two or three feet across. And they had planted it in this farm lane. The battery commander went up on that - why wasn’t I? I’d gone across it at least three times. You know, I’ve often thought, my goodness, I was saved for something, have I done what I was saved for?