Veteran shares journey from Fairfax to front lines

·10 min read

KILLARNEY — The Second World War took veteran Laverne Tufts on a journey across three continents, where he bore witness to the devastating violence of war and the optimism of hard-won peace.

Tufts was born and raised on a farm in the Fairfax district on April, 14, 1922. He came from a big family with 10 siblings — six boys and four girls. He was kept busy as a child, he said, because there was always work to do on the homestead.

He joined the armed forces at the age of 20 in September 1942. Tufts said he knew he would get the call to action at some point during the war and wanted to do what he could to serve his country.

In January 1943, he departed the Halifax harbour on a journey to England. When he set out for England with his fellow soldiers, it marked the first time he had left Manitoba.

“It was a big change. I was brought up on the farm and never went too far from home,” Tufts said.

He travelled to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth, a traveller ship during peace time, carrying around 27,000 soldiers. The passenger rooms that typically housed around two to four people had been converted to house 18 men, he said, and they were given two meals a day.

Tufts served in the Fifth Armoured Division and had two older brothers who served in the Second and Fourth divisions. When he first arrived in England, he was convinced he would be able to meet up with his siblings, but they were kept far apart and constantly on the move.

He arrived in England in January 1943 and went through his basic training. There he, along with 20 others, was selected for the scout guard troops, which is where he served until the end of the war.

Serving as a scout guard was a difficult charge; his skills often put him at the front of the war, delivering critical radio frequencies to troops and driving officers planning their next steps in the battle. He would also drive ahead at night, scouting potential bridges that could be used to cross rivers or canals.

“When we were in convoy or moving, we still didn’t have lights, but on the back differential, my car regimental number was 51. On the back differential of the scout cars, we had a little wee light shining, showing 51,” Tufts said. “In the dark, you would be seeing that little 51 and you didn’t know whether you were going to bump into them — it was difficult to work.”

Tufts first saw action during his division’s journey to Italy via the northern coast of Africa. He was on one of approximately 32 ships travelling from England to the African coast, and the course was a slow one.

It took about 16 days of travel, he said. The trip was lengthened because the ship had to zig-zag every nine minutes to ensure the Germans could not line up a torpedo to hit the ship.

“That wasn’t a good ride because the boat was crowded, and we all slept in hammocks over the mess tables where we ate,” Tufts said. “After we had our sleep, we had to roll up our things and put them away so we could use the table to have our meals.”

At the time, the Mediterranean Sea was littered with mines designed to sink passing ships, he said. To finish the journey, tug boats were sent out from Gibraltar — a British overseas territory on Spain’s south coast — to open a kind of gate for the convoy that allowed them to pass safely.

The last two boats in the convoy, a hospital supply ship and hospital ship for the Fifth Division, were hit by a German plane as they went to pass through the gate. The attack succeeded in sinking the supply ship, but no casualties occurred and people were moved to the hospital ship safely.

Upon landing, the troops moved along the African coast until they were directly across from the boot of Italy. They made their way to Italy, where they ultimately settled in Naples.

Tufts said they stopped by a small town that was walking distance from the city of Pompeii. Troops could visit the site, he said, and it was especially exciting as Mount Vesuvius was starting to erupt at the time. The volcano offered a different show each night with brilliant displays of colour.

“There was quite a bit of smoke and light coming out of it, but not really flames,” Tufts said. “At night time, the whole sky would light up and you would think the sun was coming out. We used to enjoy watching that thing.”

They spent a long time in the area, he said, because they landed in the country with only the supplies on their backs and the clothes they were wearing. Troops were forced to wait for the supplies they needed before they could move forward.

Once they started to get their equipment at the end of February, the troops began the arduous walk up the leg of Italy along the Adriatic Coast.

He spent Christmas of 1943 in Ortona, Italy.

Tufts was in Italy for about 19 months, he said, and it was a frustrating time as it was difficult writing home and receiving letters from family. He estimates the mail was about a month behind because the troops were always on the move.

“We had no communications, no phone or emails like they have nowadays. When I wrote a letter home, it was all censored. I couldn’t say a word about where I was or about what I was doing,” Tufts said. “It was the hard part because I knew the folks were at home and wondering.”

Italy was also unique because it was a barter-based system for buying goods or services. Tufts explained the German army had decimated the local economic system in the country. He never drew money out of his account while in Italy, Tufts said, and instead bartered for any items he needed.

“As the German army moved, they took anybody that could work — women too — and all we saw were poor people, people who couldn’t work … The poor people were really poor because the Germans not only took people that worked, but they took their mules, their donkeys, chickens and pigs,” Tufts said. “It was awfully, awfully hard to see some of these people that were starving.”

Tufts faced his greatest adversity right before the troops were set to leave Italy. On Sept. 24, 1944, he and three other soldiers were sipping tea at 4 a.m. when chaos erupted — an enemy shell hit, injuring Tufts, killing a fellow soldier and causing another soldier to lose his leg in the aftermath.

Tufts’ neck, shoulders and back were hit with shrapnel, sending him to the hospital for two weeks.

Before his departure from Italy, he received a brief leave to explore Rome with four other scout guards. It was a rare chance for the group because scouts had little time for rest as they were often at the front of the war transporting officers, equipment and radio frequencies.

They spent two days at a hotel taken over by the Salvation Army called the Canada Inn. Their main goal during the trip was to visit Vatican City.

Tufts said it was exhilarating exploring Vatican City. During their visit, they stopped to explore St. Peter’s Cathedral.

As they exited the cathedral, the pope’s office became visible.

“Well damned if he didn’t come out on the balcony at that time,” Tufts said with a laugh. “He spoke to the guide of ours and we all knew he was talking about us because he kept saying ‘Canadian’ every once in a while.”

Tufts said they were invited to meet Pope Pius XI. The scouts were unsure how to proceed and what the proper etiquette was when meeting the pope, he said with a chuckle.

They agreed to meet the pope, who offered them an official welcome to Italy. Pope Pius XI called them up one at a time to speak and gifted them tiny medallions to commemorate the occasion.

“He could talk pretty good English. He was so glad to see us,” Tufts said.

The memory of the trip is bittersweet, he added, as two of the men he travelled with were later killed in action.

In March 1945, his division was pulled out of Italy, loaded on barges with their equipment and sent to France. They drove through the country into Germany and Belgium before arriving in the Netherlands, where the fighting resumed.

“The first town we liberated was Pottum [in the Netherlands]. The people, they knew we were coming, and they just massed, blocked the streets,” Tufts said. “We couldn’t get through, the people were just so glad to see us. They mobbed us, climbing over everything.”

Shortly after their arrival in the Netherlands, the war ended. However, Tufts still had work to do.

Scout cars were sent to the northern part of the country and were tasked with patrolling the dikes of the Netherlands. Tufts said they spent about two weeks watching the area. During that time, the only cause for alarm was a group of civilians that landed in the area.

After the war officially ended, he had two final tasks to complete before he could return home — escorting prisoners of war to the German border and delivering equipment to Czechoslovakia.

There were 250,000 prisoners of war who needed to be removed from the Netherlands, he said. The country was on the brink of starvation.

The prisoners of war needed to be transported about 100 kilometres to the German border, Tufts said. It was a difficult task because all road markers had been removed during the war, and some of the prisoners were injured, rendering them unable to walk. The journey lasted roughly two weeks.

His final task was delivering a vehicle to a town in Czechoslovakia. The country had bought about 300 trucks from the Canadian army, and he was required to deliver one of the vehicles to its designated location.

“It was a fun thing because they gave us a piece of paper with the towns we should go through because a lot of the signs on the highways had been taken down and they hadn’t been put up yet. We headed across the country to Czechoslovakia,” Tufts said.

He travelled through Germany, Austria and Poland to reach his destination.

“I was lucky on that trip … They gave me a Dodge truck, like a civilian truck, it wasn’t an army vehicle. It was two-wheel drive. It was the perfect truck because it had a big wide seat,” Tufts said with a grin.

It was a bittersweet experience seeing the war come to an end, he said. All he could think when peace had been won was why he was going home while others had died serving their country.

He made the journey home in 1946, travelling back to North America on the same ship that took him to Europe, arriving first in New York before returning to Manitoba.

“I came home and didn’t know what I was going to do. Everything seemed changed and different,” Tufts said.

Upon his return to the Prairies, his first job was at a garage in Newdale for two years. Later, he worked as a farmer in Fairfax for 30 years, on a half-section of the family farm after his father’s death in 1949.

Tufts eventually semi-retired and moved to Boissevain to work at the machine shop and finally settled in Killarney with his wife, Celia.

Remembrance Day means a lot to Tufts. It’s a day that’s somewhat fading in popular culture as the stories and memories of the First and Second world wars are slowly lost. He would like to see its importance honoured and celebrated each year.

“As time goes on, it’s only natural people forget. But I would like to see it keep going,” Tufts said. “I had a good life in the army. I can say I enjoyed some of it, and some of it I didn’t.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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