This article was written by Allan Denne, Royal Canadian Legion Seniors Chair. Branch 302/Zone E5. – Gravenhurst
Walter (Bud) Herd told me he joined The Canadian Armed forces just days short of his 19th birthday.
He joined in Cooksville, Ont.; joined The Black Watch Regiment, First Battalion, Canadian Army, 2nd division. The regiment embarked on basic training in Orillia. Soldier Walter (Bud) Herd trained and resided at the armoury in Orillia where, upon completion of training, the unit was transported to Newfoundland to await deployment overseas.
In July of 1944 The Black Watch Regiment landed on the beaches of Normandy several weeks after the D-Day landing. Along with the rest of The Canadian 2nd division, the Black Watch Regiment was quickly deployed into the northern interior of France. The objective was to clear the enemy from many of the small towns, hamlets and villages around an area from Normandy up to Dunkirk and to keep that area free and clear of Germans.
Sixteen kilometres south of Dunkirk in northern France lies the hamlet of Spycker. Bud Herd’s platoon of soldiers advanced there and liberated the hamlet in September 1944. The next objective was to maintain that liberty and security. The Germans however, were relentless. Allied forces had already landed on the beaches of Normandy and the German defence of the French countryside was being tested to the limit. They were not willing to give up any more ground and they still had superior manpower, advantageous battle ground and the mighty 7th Panzer division to assist them. Clearing and securing those inland villages and towns was an horrendous undertaking involving some of the fiercest battles of the whole war and some of the bloodiest losses. And during the campaign, The Black Watch Regiment suffered more casualties than any other Canadian infantry battalion.
In a quiet moment before yet another skirmish in Spycker, Bud took time to write a birthday message to his girlfriend Edith back home in Mimico, Ont. On the back of a Canadian Legion cigarette box he wrote and sent this message; “It’s just a cigarette box but it brings thoughts and memories of the days past and the days to come. Happy Birthday. Bud.”
Edith’s 20th birthday was Oct. 5, 1944. The card reached her in March of 1945.
After several gains and losses around Spycker, Bud told me that around suppertime on the evening of Sept. 13 it appeared the Germans had abandoned the village. Budand the rest of the platoon then settled in for the night, but on awakening in the early September morning, Buddiscovered everyone from the Black Watch platoon had also abandon the village! Everyone except him. He was alone! But on a lonely, frightening walk around the village Bud’ quickly discovered he was not alone; the Germans had returned. Bud, along with one more of his comrades, was quickly captured and taken as a prisoner of war.
In Bud’s mind today that was Friday the 13th of September 1944. History might show there was no Friday 13th in September of 1944, but to young Bud and his comrade, fighting for their lives, captured by the German enemy, fearful that every minute might be their last, it was indeed the most unlucky day of their lives.
At 21 years of age Bud became a German prisoner of war. Bud and his companion were repeatedly told “Das kreig ist uber!”(The war is over — for you.) They were immediately transported to a German prisoner of war camp in Dunkirk. In the scramble of battles for control of the French towns and villages, little information was passed along through any networks or channels, allied or otherwise, regarding prisoners of war. Although Bud was allowed to write one letter, he was never sure it was ever mailed back home to his father.
Bud became a missing person. He was listed on reports as “missing in action. presumed dead.”
But they were not dead. They were prisoners, held with a group of about 200 other prisoners in Dunkirk, France; with men from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Canada, France (the resistance) and United States. “Das kreig ist uber!”
Prisoners! Alone; forgotten. Missing, presumed dead. For them, the war was over.
They too would soon be getting ready for Christmas; Christmas as a prisoner of war. Without even any contact with family, friends or the outside world.
At many points in collecting the bits and pieces of this soldier’s Christmas story, I could see the tears slowly welling in that old soldier’s eyes and I knew I had pressed the story to the limit on that day. Through time I hoped the blanks would fill in; they had to. These are stories that must be told. These are the sufferings, the heartbreaks and sacrifices that make possible all the Christmas we are able to celebrate.
The German guards had taken some of the prisoners from the prison camp, Bud told me.
“We were marched out of the compound across the field to an old bombed out building. We figured they were just taking us out to shoot us!
“There was an old piano on the second floor, an old upright piano. It looked to be in good shape. They made us lug that damned old thing down two flights of stairs, cursing, swearing and sweating, fearing those German guards would shoot us at any time.
“We lugged that damn thing across the field into the old jail again.
“The Germans said we could lug it into our bombed-out prison area; use it for Christmas music, play some Christmas carols on it.We did!”
“Oh!” I questioned Bud, “You were there over Christmas?”
“Seven months I was there. Missing; Missing, presumed dead.”
I remember our own family Christmas celebrations usually being a solemn gathering highlighted by a family Christmas dinner, much laughter and wine, fellowship with family and friends followed by a gift exchange then some Christmas carols. How fortunate we were, how fortunate we are! Fortunate that those who serve us so bravely and risk their lives in doing so, do it so well.
I asked Bud what his Christmas meal consisted of in that horrible prison, in that forgettable year and he told me this part of his story.
The prisoners in Dunkirk were forced to forage for food in the bombed fields, dig for vegetables, fruit and any other food roots they could find. There was nothing left of Dunkirk, nothing but a bombed-out pile of rubble. There would be no Christmas feast for Budthis year. The only Christmas rations Bud and his fellow prisoners could manage to find was one old bag of mostly soggy Brussels sprouts and those they had to hide from their German captors. “We cut off the loose, wilting soggy brown leaves, cleaned them up as best we could for a salad and boiled the inner hearts for our Christmas feast,” Bud told me with a quivering voice.
“It was Christmas 1944, Seven months I spent there!Seven months. Missing, presumed dead.”
In the spring of 1945 the allied invasion of France had all but overwhelmed the German occupiers. The German army generals, sensing the futility of their resistance and wanting to free as many of their countrymen as possible, made a deal to exchange 200 prisoners of war from around the Dunkirk prison. Among those prisoners exchanged was Walter (Bud) Herd. He was released, all 97 pounds of him, and was returned to England to recover. He was freed at last, freed about the same time as the letter he had written on being captured reached his father and his girlfriend Edith in Mimico.