Days of Victory

Summer 2005 CSANews Issue 55  |  Posted date : May 20, 2007.Back to list

On May 8, 1945, Col-Gen. Gustof Jodle, chief of staff of the German army, formally surrendered to the Allied nations at Rheims, France. The signing ceremony lasted for only five minutes. It was an almost anti-climactic end to six years of global war and personal turmoil for millions of people.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of this historic event, author and broadcaster Ted Barris presents a special, revised and updated 60th anniversary edition of Days of Victory: Canadians Remember 1939-1945.

Barris sensed the urgency of capturing the recollections of the remaining veterans as their ranks dwindle. This was an unassuming generation of men and women who did their duty, then quietly resumed their lives and really, "didn't want to talk about it."

It is ironic that Ted experienced this reticence personally. He spent 20 years researching and conducting interviews with his father Alex Barris, who was co-author of the original edition of Days of Victory.

It wasn't until Alex's death in 2003 that Ted and his mother discovered that the medal which Alex had received for duty as a medic in the U.S. army was the prestigious Bronze Star. Ted still regrets not asking more questions about Alex's service during the vicious Battle of the Bulge in Germany, and about the medal his father had so casually given to him as a teenager.

Days of Victory is a book to be savoured. "Every soldier, sailor, whatever has had his own war," and the stories are compelling. Barris has broadened the contents of the original volume to include stories of Canadian heroism and hardships in the Pacific War, and more heart-warming liberation tales, deeds of simple human compassion, especially in Holland.

Throughout the book, Barris also skilfully inserts M.A.S.H.-like anecdotes of Canadian correspondents and their unorthodox games of "fencing with officialdom." They often had to evade government censorship to get The Story.

J.D. MacFarlane was editor of the Maple Leaf, the Canadian Army's daily newspaper, when it scooped the rest of the journalistic world by publishing the historic peace-signing pictures before they were officially released. He also got himself fired after the war ended, by exposing the military's repatriation scam. NMRA (conscripted troops) who had just arrived in Europe were being sent home, while some troops who had served since 1940 were left cooling their heels. J.D. might have been terminated, but the scandal wasn't. It was finally addressed, but only after some protest, strikes and riots by the troops themselves.

Canadian accomplishments were sometimes overlooked by our own allies. One example – Lester Pearson, Canadian charge d'affaires, protested in Washington that the announcement of Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) made no mention of Canadian participation. This turned out to be a "bloody slugging match" with hundreds of Canadian casualties... trapped German soldiers simply killed the Canadian sergeant who offered them a chance to surrender. Barris evocatively describes the "mouse-holing" technique of fighting a vicious enemy in the narrow Ortona streets. Sometimes, the Canadians and Germans were just yards apart. After the campaign was successfully completed, the Times of London reported that: "The Canadians...proved themselves to be the finest, forged offensive weapon."

Holland is a country in which Canada will be especially revered during this, the 60th anniversary of VE Day. Not only did our troops suffer thousands of casualties in liberating Dutch cities and villages, but Canadian air crews participated in the little-known "Operation Manna."

During the "hungry winter" of 1944-45, the Germans imposed an embargo on food supplies to Holland. Urban families resorted to eating tulip bulbs and scrounging through garbage to survive. More than 10,000 citizens of Western Holland simply starved to death.

Barris shares the memories of Dutch citizens who survived that terrible winter, and were saved by Operation Manna. Allied bomber groups arranged for a temporary truce with the Germans, providing a limited unmolested air corridor over occupied territory. The food drop of 10 million tons in 10 days brought last-minute salvation for more than three million Dutch residents.

On the home front, all Canadians were involved in war work – Victory bonds, casualty lists and shortages. For those of us of a certain age, this book evokes vivid memories of the food rationing books, "the round blue meat tokens," and mothers constantly knitting socks and packing parcels for the boys overseas.

Throughout the book, Barris gives a very balanced account of the war by describing the military debacles as well as the victories. He maintains this balance in descriptions of the national festivities on VE Day. On the one hand: "Across the country Canadians celebrated, cheered, kissed passing girls, got a little drunk...paraded...and generally had a well-earned hell of a time." On the other hand, he also includes the unfortunate escalation of festivities in Halifax, where servicemen "liberated" liquor from the closed stores and generally trashed the downtown area. This was a sour note in our country's hour of victory, but this too, was reality.

Days of Victory, Canadians Remember 1939-1945, is a remarkable and moving narrative. Ted Barris set out to "record the voices of the generation that gave the world a second chance." In this compelling book, he truly tells the stories that our father and grandfather, uncles and aunts did not tell us.