Months of planning were finally coming to fruition as the 32 soldiers from the British Columbia Regiment (BCR) gathered in the international departure hall at the Vancouver Airport, eagerly anticipating the upcoming two weeks touring the regiment’s storied battlefields from two world wars. The British Columbia Regiment, one of the oldest in western Canada, had only once before conducted a tour of this magnitude. In the summer of 2012 another 30 soldiers, many recently returned from Afghanistan, had taken a similar trip, and the stories of visiting the sites of famous Canadian battles such as Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Normandy had become the stuff of legends within the regiment.
This time around promised even more excitement – the main focus was to be on location for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Saint Julien, where the 1st Canadian Division had fought Canada’s first major battle of the Great War. A late addition to the tour, former Sergeant-Major Vern Salisbury, MM from Penticton BC, added to the excitement. Vern is a veteran of the Northwest Europe campaign in 1944-1945, and had fought as a Tank Troop Sergeant every step of the way. He had even been decorated for bravery, receiving the Military Medal for “Bravery in the Field” for his actions at the Kusten Canal in April 1945. Having a veteran along who had fought on so many of the battlefields to be visited was a thrill to everyone.
Fundraising, transportation bookings, hotels, and planning for ceremonial events had finally come together. The regiment, along with a Bugle Major, a Pipe Major, and an Old Guard of 20 of the Regiment’s veterans and supporters, were off on the trip of a lifetime. Without the generous support of a dozen generous donors, including very significant support from the Royal Canadian Legion BC/Yukon Command Foundation, and the British Columbia Regiment Association the trip would never have gotten off the ground.
With the normal drill of ticketing, security, check in, and aircraft loading, the tour-group was off on their non-stop flight to Amsterdam. In appreciation of his status as a returning Second World War veteran who had taken part in the Liberation of the Netherlands, KLM airlines generously upgraded Vern Salisbury to Business Class. By a stretch, Vern had the most comfortable flight and was fresh and eager to get going when we arrived. A combination of urban train and city tram rides soon brought the group to their hotel in downtown Amsterdam. And what a city! Canals, speeding trams, narrow Dutch canal houses, narrower streets, and well used bicycle lanes with Dutch men and women racing through the crowds made the city seem exotic and welcoming. An afternoon and evening in Amsterdam is an experience of earthly delights, and tour members eagerly took advantage of the sights, sidewalk cafes, and the wonderful Dutch food and drink.
Wakeup call for the full day of touring came early and the many components came together rapidly. Drivers set off to gather two rental vans, and the 50 passenger bus arrived early outside the hotel. By 9 AM the regiment was underway with a very interesting first destination—the harbour at Zijpe, Netherlands where the 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (BCR) had sunk three German minesweepers that were being used for coastal patrol duties. These minesweepers were found tied up alongside a dock on an island in the Maas estuary. A four troop tank patrol, accompanied by a company from the Lake Superior Regiment, had been assigned to sweep the Phillipsland peninsula to ensure no German forces remained on the mainland following the vicious fighting to clear the approaches to Amsterdam harbour—an engagement that came to be known as the Battle of the Scheldt. The next day a sizeable contingent crossed the intervening 400 metre water channel using a large Dutch fishing boat, eager to inspect the damage and confirm the area was free of Germans. With the bridge of two of the ships still above water after sinking in the narrow harbour waters, Canadian soldiers made the last entry in one ship’s log and removed the ship’s bell from the bridge of another. That bell now sits comfortably in the Officers’ Mess in the British Columbia Regiment’s Drill Hall on Beatty Street in Vancouver.
The bus arrived at the quiet harbor, and we had the privilege of inspecting a plaque commemorating this famous engagement, which remains in good condition in the same place it was installed by the BCR Association in 2008. The troops were interested to note the tactical lay of the land, and see where the BCR tanks took up firing positions behind the dikes and directed accurate and devastating rounds at the ships in the harbour. It was a thrill to finally see where a regimental legend was born.
Our next stop was the Canada Museum near Adegen, Belgium, built by local businessman Gilbert Van Landschoot and opened in 2004 to honour the Canadians who had liberated his country when he was a small boy. His father was an Allied spy who provided a good deal of intelligence on the German occupation, and the museum is dedicated in part to his father’s memory. Gilbert’s enthusiastic introduction and stories of war time occupation were absolutely fascinating. His museum houses one of the best collections of World War II equipment, uniforms, vehicles, weapons, and paraphernalia in the world—all set in realistically posed display cases with running taped narratives and a video show. It was an education and a privilege to visit this famous museum dedicated to Belgium’s Canadian liberators.
Submitted by: Captain Majeet Vinning, Colonel (retired) Keith Maxwell and Bob Hall
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