Veteran Stories:
John W. “Jack” Jeffrey

Army

  • Major-General C.B. Price talking with Corporal T.J. Brennan during the disbandment parade of The Royal Montreal Regiment, Seaford, England, March 16, 1944.
    Credit: Lieut. W.J. Hynes / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-177306.

    Lieut. W.J. Hynes / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-177306
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"It was a tremendous relief because then we could see the end, we could see how we could win because the United States, even in those days, had this tremendous productive capacity and we knew we would get the equipment that we needed."

Transcript

And because our food in Italy was so absolutely dreadful - the British Army’s rations were terrible - we [6th Duke of Connaught's Royal Canadian Hussars (15th Armoured Regiment), Headquarters Squadron of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division] used to raid the Americans quite frequently. [laughs] And also, then anything in the line of vegetables were dehydrated, which was a new process in those days. And so we were not supposed to have any dealings at all with civilians, but ["Mad White"] Collins [his squadron commander] arranged for me to go out on fairly frequent occasions with the kind of army rations that the battalions were really short of, even their dehydrated leek, they were glad to get in bully beef and this sort of stuff, and salt, which they were desperately short of, and things like that. And we might have had to spend a day or two out in the small farms and bartering and stuff for fresh vegetables. So there was so many of these little things that went on and I was just lucky enough to sort of land into them at times.

In 1940, in the spring of 1941, the British suddenly realized that they were really desperate for aircrew. And those of us that had been left on these training units, it was very difficult to get transferred to get overseas. And an order came out that any people in the army wanting to transfer to the [Royal Canadian] Air Force could not be denied. And so there were four of us that thought, my goodness, we all know so much about machine guns, we’d make wonderful tail gunners, and we didn’t know the size really of a tail gunner’s turret and two of us were extremely tall. So we went. The two chaps that were good sized too, and these tail gunners went in, and they were both dead within six months.

The other chap, tall chap, couldn’t hold his breath long enough in the air force medical test and wound up as an observer and did two tours. I was carefully measured and told, well, I could fit into the cockpit of a fighter plane, where I probably wouldn’t have been very efficient. And just at the last minute before I signed, he was looking over my old army stuff, and of course when I joined in September [1939], right in ragweed season, I had hay fever. And he said, “You’ve got hay fever,” and in those days there were no pressurized cabins in aircraft. And he said, “You’re going to have to train here and you’ll soon take it up a few thousand feet and if your sinuses are plugged, you’re going to pass out.” So that kept me out of the air force and probably saved my life again in that area.

And on the way out to Italy, we were about the only Canadian convoy I guess that ever came under a major attack. And the only account I’ve really seen of it was in the history of the [Royal Canadian] Artillery [likely G.W.L. Nicholson, The Gunners of Canada] because the ship that the artillery guys were on was sunk. There was one ship sunk there and two others were so badly damaged they had to head for, I think Oran [Algeria], and I heard that one of the ships just sank outside of Oran harbour. But it was quite an interesting experience; very few Canadian troops actually got bombed at sea.

There were some Polish reinforcements going out and I was playing a game of chess with a Polish guy. And he was a pretty good player, and I was rather at an awkward spot and, all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose and the guns are going off and a bomb got dropped, I guess just beside the ship and went off. The ship was known as the [USAT] John Ericsson, that was originally built as the [MS] Kungsholm. It was being built as a cruise in the Baltics, it was quite a solid, pretty solid ship, I guess. Anyway, the whole ship just raised up like this. And that made quite a jar and that kind of shook the Polish guy up because he had been on a ship that had been sunk at one time and had spent about seven days out in a lifeboat.

One of the things that has never left my mind was the great sense of relief we felt on December the 7th I suppose of, it must have been by this time maybe it was the 8th, I’m not sure, in 1941. I had gone over on the advance party and the rest of the unit had come over and we were in these barracks in Aldershot [England] and to be perfectly frank, even though the Germans had made the horrible mistake of going into Russia, things didn’t even look very good then. We knew we had to get back into the continent and if you looked at it objectively, it really wasn’t a very healthy looking prospect because the Russians at that time were getting their rears pretty well beaten off as well.

And we’d gone to bed and I guess it was about 10:00 at night and the lights were out and the orderly officer had come around to make sure everything was closed. And he walked in and turned on the light and said, “Boys,” he said, “the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans will now be in the war.” And, quite frankly, it was a tremendous relief because then we could see the end, we could see how we could win because the United States, even in those days, had this tremendous productive capacity and we knew we would get the equipment that we needed. It was quite a relief.

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