Testaments of Honour

Winter 2002 CSANews Issue 45  |  Posted date : Apr 12, 2007.Back to list

Testaments of Honour is a remarkable tribute to the more than one million Canadian veterans who served this country during the Second World War. As author Blake Heathcote notes, that's an outstanding one in 10 of Canada's total population, in uniform.

Most of these young people came home and quietly resumed their lives after the war. They went back to school, married, raised families and literally never talked about those traumatic years.

Heathcote's veteran grandfather had been an artist and, while archiving his wartime scrapbooks 15 years after his death, Heathcote became interested in talking to survivors while they were still around to tell their stories. At first, he had no objective in mind other than to listen and to ask: "Why did you go?" Then he decided to videotape his conversations with those veterans who agreed to share their memories.

Heathcote has an evocative description of these interviews: "As they spoke of friends and events from half a century ago, I'd see these men and women have 30 or 40 years literally fall away from their faces." The 'Quiet Generation,' who had been gradually relegated to the fringes of their society and trotted out in ever-smaller numbers for Remembrance Day parades, was now being celebrated as 'The Greatest Generation.'

Grandkids wanted to hear the stories of storming beaches and chasing U-boats, bombing raids, espionage and even prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Japan. A whole generation turned to their grandparents, "not just with love, but now with admiration, respect, even awe and thanks."

Testaments of Honour definitely does not glorify war. These stories emphasize that the liberties we take for granted were maintained at a very, very tragic cost. All veterans have lived with the ghosts of fallen comrades, who live on in their memories. To quote pilot Don Cheney; "Three of my crew were killed in action, and that's with me every day. They're with me every day. They're still alive, and they're still 22 years old."

Testaments of Honour, through its firsthand accounts and photographs, not only makes history come alive, it unashamedly makes one proud to be a Canadian.

Then, as now, Canadians had a reputation as tough, competent professionals. Graduates of the mysterious Camp X (near Oshawa, Ontario) became part of the teams who broke top-secret German codes and wrought all kinds of damage behind enemy lines ­ always with cyanide capsules sewn into their jackets.

Tom Gilday, of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, was in charge of a battalion ­ the FSSF (First Special Service Force) ­ created to use snow mobility to reach vital installations in occupied Europe during the depths of winter. This special unit was supplied with stickers which read, "The Worst is Yet to Come," which they would stick on German helmets or heads after silently striking at night. The Germans were so spooked by "The Black Devils," that they offered a month's holiday if anyone could capture one of them.

The narrative styles differ throughout the book, because Heathcote has wisely chosen to
let the veterans tell their stories in the first person.

It is interesting how their observations independently come to the same conclusions. Several participants agree that Canadians found the Dutch civilian population to be generous and welcoming to a fault; a distinct contrast to their reception in France or Belgium. Several writers mention

that their German opponents were not all the same. Some soldiers, the first German Parachute Division for example, were "real gentlemen, real soldiers...seasoned veterans," not "dirty" like the SS, the Hitler youth and the Gestapo.

Acts of casual brutality, routinely committed by both the Japanese enemy forces and our Russian allies, are remembered and verified by different sources in the book. There are also seemingly insignificant, but telling little observations: "You seldom saw a Canadian or British combat soldier who was not clean-shaven." They took pride in not being grungy.

Of all our allies, Canadians seemed to have the most in common with our Aussie friends. Pilot Dick Carbett tells of an incident in Burma in which the Brits had challenged the Canadians to a game of cricket, but then refused to play because the Canucks turned up without their cricket whites. In retaliation, "the Aussies took the appropriate action, and burned down the Brits' sports shack."

Throughout the book, there are examples of this type of black humour, necessary to maintain sanity in the midst of horror; but all the stories are undeniably powerful.

Testament of Honour is not only a book and a fascinating read, but has become an ongoing project. The Testament of Honour Archive is a registered, non-profit organization whose mandate is to record the personal oral histories of Canadian military veterans on digital video. These recordings will be preserved in The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

To participate, contact Doubleday Canada, 1 Toronto St., Suite 300, Toronto ON M5C 2V6 (Attention, Testaments of Honour). Blake Heathcote can also be reached via their Web site at www.testaments.ca.

At last, 'The Quiet Generation' has found a voice!