On Thursday, November 22, 2007 – U.S. Thanksgiving – I went out to my dad’s house to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions; a tradition we’d been observing since the Lombardi years. My dad, who was 90 at that time, was a big Lions fan but he loved the Packers too, so when the Lions traditionally disappointed their fans by failing to make the playoffs, we always had the Packers as our backup team to cheer for.
Cable boxes with built-in DVR’s were all the rage in those days and three days earlier, I had recorded a PBS special called, “The Battle of Hood and Bismarck.” My thinking was that football games have a lot of commercials so we would watch the movie while we recorded the game. That way the movie ended, we could start watching the football game. When the commercials came on, I could just fast forward through them. I now had it down to a science where we could catch up to the live game with about five minutes to go.
So, keep in mind that if you watch a whole football game, you will waste one whole movie’s worth of time just watching commercials.At this stage in my life, I am trying to spend as little time as possible watching commercials.
In those days my dad was falling further and further away from us each day with dementia. He was sort of half in and half out of it most of the time. While we were watching the PBS special on the Hood and the Bismarck, (easily available on YouTube along with old movie “Sink The Bismarck), my dad was half looking at the program and the rest of the time he was looking over at the family photo gallery we had mounted on the wall for him, trying to figure out, “Who the hell all those people are.”
Part of the program showed the dive to find the Bismarck where she sank and then they would switch over to original footage of the Bismarck which was billed as the greatest and most powerful battleship ever built. One of the reels showed the part where the Bismarck engaged the Hood with a long salvo, that hit the Hood causing a massive explosion that broke her in two. In three minutes the Hood was gone along with 1,412 brave souls.
I hear my dad mutter, “Jesus.”
I turned to see him glued to the TV as he watched the old black and white footage showing the explosion of the Hood and I asked him, “Do you remember that Dad?”
He replied in a totally with-it manner, “Our convoy was less than 800 miles away from her when that happened.” It had all come back to him like it was yesterday. Gone was the befuddled guy racked with dementia. Suddenly he was back there with his ship; a flower class Corvette doing escort duty in the North Atlantic.
“How did you feel when you heard about it?” I asked.
“We couldn’t believe it. The Hood was our side’s go-to battle ship. The pride of the north Atlantic fleet. The biggest one in the world. She was a real badass and then boom! In three minutes she and everybody aboard her were gone. Over 1,400 men.”
He snapped his fingers in front of him, “Just like that!” he said.
After the Bismarck dealt with the Hood, it turned its guns on the Prince of Wales (another British battleship) which had turned to avoid hitting The Hood. In doing so, she turned herself broadside to the Bismarck and took seven hits: four from the Bismarck and three from the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen that put nine of Prince of Wales ten big guns out of service. She was forced to turn away and run under cover of a smoke screen.
“So how did that make you feel?” I asked.
“It was a great day for the Nazis and a bad one for us. This was 1941, our navy, barely had enough ships to qualify as a yacht club back then.”
You would have had a hard time believing he was suffering from dementia if you could have seen him and heard him in those few moments.
He continued and told me that the Royal Canadian Navy was doing escort duty in the North Atlantic and it was May so the weather wasn’t too bad. At least they didn’t have any ice on the superstructure to deal with. But there were all kinds damned submarines trying to sink their ships and the ships they were trying to protect. The Nazi U-Boats sunk a lot of ships, even right in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well as all across the North Atlantic. And with England up to its ass in alligators dealing with Goering’s Luftwaffe, and Rommel’s tanks in Africa, the USA up to their necks in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, “And now to top it all off, we’ve got this monster battleship that just took our best ship out like it was child’s play”
“We were afraid she’d be running up and down the coast of the USA and Canada lobbing 15-inch shells at all the cities on the coast (Bismarck had a firing range of over 20 miles -22.69 to be precise) and now it looked like nobody could stop them, I gotta tell y’a, it didn’t look very good.”
Then a bit of a smile of relief, “But… what we didn’t know was that a little swordfish torpedo bi-plane which looked like it belonged in World War 1 had launched a torpedo that hit the Bismarck in the rudder and broke it, jamming it so that all she could do was sail around in a big circle.”
Three days later, the British navy had the Bismarck surrounded and shelled it to death. The Bismarck sank in 15,000 feet of water. Of the Bismarck’s crew of 2,200 men, only 114 survived. During what was called, “The Battle of the Denmark Straits,” the Bismarck and the Hood were both sunk and 3,599 men died.
Imagine what that must have been like.
My brother Mark once told me – as a joke, “Things are always darkest… just before they turn totally black.”
There have been times in my life when I have felt that was true: dark thoughts brought on by events like the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, 9/11, lots of economic uncertainty brought on by the frustration of all the bad news on this overpopulated, climate-challenged rock that is hurtling through space which for some reason that is almost impossible to explain to anybody from another planet let alone ourselves, is polarized by politics, religion and economic policies. Even so, I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when I have felt the way my dad and everybody who was involved in World War I and World War II must have felt when they were really up against it in those dark times.
Think about World War 1 for a moment.
In 1914 Canada had a population of just under 8 million people. We sent 330,000 of our men (mostly young men) over to Europe to fight a devastating, horrible, gruesome war. Sixty thousand of them died over there and another 150,000 were wounded.
In 1916 – between July and November, 24,700 Canadians were killed at the battle of the Somme. If the percentages were the same today, that would be 300,000 dead… in one battle.
Almost 1.5 million young men in the whole war if we fought that war today and had the same percentage losses as we had in World War 1.
I think the nuclear bombs would come into play long before that could ever happen, but then nothing would surprise me. There is a lot of money to be made fighting a long war with lots of bullets.
In 1917, at Vimy Ridge, my great uncle, Ray Keelan was killed. They never found his body. He was a 21-year-old baker from Mildmay, Ontario. Imagine that. 3,598 Canadian guys killed in a battle that lasted three days. Another 7,004 were wounded. My dad was born in August of that year and named after him.
So, what are we really trying to remember here and why do we put ourselves through this every year?
Think about the media reaction today when one Canadian soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice today and then imagine what it would be like to pick up the paper and read that 3,598 Canadians were killed in three days in Afghanistan or 24,700 Canadians killed in a five-month long battle - six of them from Sarnia. Sons and daughters of people you know. You’ve got a kid over there and this thing does not look like it’s even remotely over.
How would you feel then? Would their ultimate sacrifice be worth it?
Sure, we have problems today. Lots of them. But I think those remembrances helps us keep today’s problems in perspective. We need to remember, learn about and then appreciate the sacrifices made by the ones who came before us when they faced appalling situations that they could do nothing about and could only by resolved by the old saying, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Knowing what they went through makes them an inspiration to us all. It makes us appreciate the great fortune we have to live in this great country.
Remember that great line in the movie Casablanca when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) tells Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Truer words were never spoken.
To help you appreciate and understand the sacrifices made by our soldiers, the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery is featuring a travelling exhibition from the Canadian War Museum called:
‘Witness’ - Canadian Art of The First World War.
The show commemorates Canada’s contribution to World War 1 and it’s here until January 7, 2018.
Do yourself a favour… go and see it. It really helps you understand who we are… and maybe, who we could be. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong but if you think I am, go the gallery and see the presentation first. It might change your mind.
It changed mine.