Runaway Teen Became Tank Driver

This month's guest blogger is my friend Kelsey Verboom of Calgary, writer and photographer, who recently researched her grandfather's wartime past. Kelsey agreed to help me out because I've been working very hard to compile the best of Wartime Wednesdays into a self-published book.

The manuscript is now in the hands of a proofreader, and from there it will go to a graphic designer, and then to a printer. I’ll email my blog subscribers when the book is published. If you would like to be notified, please enter your email address in the yellow box on the right side of this page, under the words: Subscribe by Email.

I'll continue to post new content here, original real life stories of World War Two, once every month. Thanks for your support!

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                                            By Kelsey Verboom

My grandfather Stan passed away when I was just a toddler. As an adult, I’ve often longed for the chance to have a cup of tea with him and hear about his service in World War Two. He refused to speak about the war with anyone, so our family was left with very little knowledge of this time in his life.

Last year I set out to learn more about his service as a soldier. As a journalist who usually interviews live subjects, I found it difficult but interesting to try to understand his story by relying solely on a disjointed collection of snippets, written second-hand accounts, photographs and log book entries.

Eventually, though, through the many disconnected snippets, I started to feel more and more connected to a man I barely had the chance to know. Notes in his medical records from a doctor allude to a “big, husky, good-looking young man with a happy-go-lucky outlook on life.”

When I opened his aged copy of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regimental Manual, I found delicate dried purple pansy flowers pressed between its pages. On one page, alongside a beautiful pansy, I found a hand-drawn check-mark next to the description of a skirmish in which his squadron killed five German soldiers and took another prisoner.

I imagined his fingers carefully placing the pansies between the pages, and also pulling the trigger on a German soldier. Such juxtaposition between beauty and war was a humbling reminder to me as I carried out my research, and humanized the more technical points I pored over.

Here is a photo of my young grandfather, eager to serve his country.

My family treasures this cribbage board, made by his hands during the war. It's a modest-looking piece: a worn metal snap holds together two rectangular sides of dark chestnut leather, which are hinged and open like a book to reveal the full length of the board.

There’s a small space where the pegs – tips of melted knitting needles – nest, and the peg holes are imperfectly spaced and obviously hand done. There aren’t as many holes as a full game requires, so players have to traverse the lanes multiple times per match. 

But first, here is my grandfather's story.

                  Riding the rails

Born Tadeus Stanislaw Edward Stachera, but better known as Stan, my grandfather grew up on the Saskatchewan prairies, in a tiny house next to the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

His parents, Walter and Sophia, were Polish immigrants who in the 1930s brought him to Canada as a child and settled in the small village of Perdue, Saskatchewan, about sixty kilometres west of Saskatoon.

By the time he was sixteen, Stan was tired of watching the loaded train cars rumble past his family’s trackside home. At odds with his father and armed with only a backpack and a Grade 5 education, he snuck onto a railway car when a train was stopped in Perdue one afternoon. Hiding as the train chugged out of the station heading east, he rode the rails all the way to Ontario as a stowaway, leaving behind his family and life on the prairies.

Soon after arriving in Ontario, Stan was in need of a paycheque and regular meals. He spotted men joining the Canadian Army, and with no other job prospects or a place to call home, he lined up at the No. 2 District Depot in Toronto. A few fibs and a signature later, on August 6, 1941, he became one of thousands of underage Canadian men to lie about their age and enlist for battle overseas.

And so he began training as a sixteen-year-old trooper for a war unfolding a continent away, in lands his parents had fought to liberate him from just a decade earlier in the years following World War One.

                       Behind the wheel

Stan trained as a tank mechanic and driver for “C” Squadron in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment of the 1st Canadian Armoured Corps. Barely old enough to legally earn a regular driver’s license, he now began learning how to maneuver the big, treaded tanks across difficult terrain, and how to take apart their insides when they seized.

Pictured here, new recruits at Camp Borden, Ontario, examine the mechanics of a tank’s engine during cadet training. Stan is the third face visible from the far right.

“Our first tank training commenced when the regiment received a dozen of the old two-man Renaud tanks which had been made in the U.S. for the French during the Great War, and which had been lying idle ever since,” reads the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regimental manual.

"Although very antiquated, they did give everyone a rudimentary knowledge of the principles of tracked vehicles and their maintenance, which proved to be of considerable value when more up-to-date equipment was eventually received."

The World War One Renaud tanks, pictured below, were big enough for only two men. They were used for training purposes in Canada, but didn’t see the battlefield during World War Two.

After nearly two years of training in Canada, the regiment rode the train to Halifax and set sail for England. Stan sailed on May 20, 1942, and joined his fellow soldiers for another year-and-a-half of training in Aldershot, England.

“It must be stated that it was a depressing place for soldiers,” the Lord Strathcona’s Horse manual writes of Aldershot. “There was some war damage, but not a great deal; the worst feature was the drab, lack-lustre greyness of everything.”

It was an exciting development when, on November 12, 1943, the regiment was at last summoned to battle, and departed dreary Aldershot for good.

 

                    Rolling into action

After leaving England, the tanks of C Squadron supported battles in Italy, France and the Netherlands. Stan fought mainly in two tanks from 1943 to 1945: first, the Cobra II; and later, when the Cobra II was hit, the Capri II. Both tanks followed the nomenclature tradition that all C Squadron tanks begin with the letter ‘C.’

In this 1944 photo, nineteen-year-old Stan leans against an armoured vehicle.

                Facing down the enemy

While fighting in Italy during an especially fierce enemy attack on September 23 or 24, 1944, Stan’s tank, Cobra II, was hit by mortar fire and two of his fellow soldiers were killed.

Stan and a few other survivors became separated from their troop, and sought refuge inside a house that looked unoccupied. When they opened the door, they found themselves staring down a machine gun manned by German soldiers.

In the Lord Strathcona’s Horse Newsletter (spring edition, 2002) Jock Burton of Victoria, B.C., recounts the tense run-in and its unlikely conclusion, as it was told to him by veterans of the encounter.

He cautions that he does not believe the account has been verified by historians, but that it was retold many times at the local Royal Canadian Legion branch by members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse.

1st Troop began the battle boldly but it was quickly put out of action by a very experienced enemy force that had well-coordinated firepower. Our losses in life and in tanks were swift and brutal.

After losing Lt. W.E. Ralston and Tpr. Barnett, the survivors of Cobra II started to look for shelter and they decided to check out a house nearby. When they reached the house, the entrance door opened to reveal German soldiers manning a machine gun.

Our comrades were invited to enter.

Germans, as we know, are generous hosts. Someone produced some vino and a party eventually happened. The two groups spoke “soldier-Italian” to each other. Sometime in the evening, a consensus developed among the Wehrmacht side that perhaps there was an opportunity to get out of the awfulness of the war by surrendering to the Canadians.

The German NCO was not persuaded. He was sure that his duty was to deliver his prisoners to his superiors. The German soldiers went to work on their leader, plying him with drink until he could no longer resist their intention.

In the morning the Germans and their prisoners formed up and marched towards the Canadian lines. Their German NCO insisted on escorting the Strathcona prisoners until they reached our lines. In due course a sentry challenged the group from the Plugs. They halted and exchanged weapons. I am told it was a very emotional moment. These guys were now firm buddies. After much hand-shaking and bear hugs, the Cobra II survivors led their German prisoners into the Plug defenses.

Stan likely needed the numbing powers of the wine he received from the Germans that night; the mortar fire that hit his tank caused deep shoulder flesh wounds severe enough to land him in hospital for several days after his return to friendly lines!

This photo (unrelated to the incident described above) shows Stan, top left, sharing a cask of wine with members of C Squadron during their time in Italy.

             Operation Dutch Cleanser

By April 1945, members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse were on Dutch soil, having travelled from Italy to France, and then through Belgium and into Holland. Here they received orders to participate in an operation known as Dutch Cleanser. 

The regiment was to support the British 49th Division overtake the German-held city of Arnhem, Netherlands, and push north to Otterloo and through to Nijkerk.

As the regiment moved towards Arnhem, their route took them across the Rhine and briefly into Germany. Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. McAvity of Lord Strathcona’s Horse describes the devastated, skeletal landscape through which they passed:

“Our tanks had laid track on German soil for the first and last time. Here indeed was devastation, here no punches had been pulled. We had heard generals say that once the fighting moved into Germany there would be no sparing of ammunition, that there would be no restraint – as there had been while fighting in the Allied countries – in the application of massed artillery.

“In our brief drive through German territory, evidence of the execution of this policy was seen everywhere: hundreds of huge pines in the Reichswald Forest had been frayed by shells . . . bull-dozers were struggling with rubble that once had been Gothic architecture; in the villages the old men, women and children – all that was left of the ‘herrenvold’ – wandered disconsolately through the ruins of their homes and fixed a glazed eye on each passing tank . . . Here was devastation, here was National Socialism, the dreams of a maniac.”

Here is the type of devastation Stan would have witnessed from the turret of his tank as his regiment passed through the town of Cleve, Germany, on the way to Arnhem.

Their progress to Arnhem and further north was painfully slow; the wet April weather softened the roads, and the weight of dozens of tanks rolling over the ground churned the earth into soft, muddy tracks that often had to be detoured. Several C Squadron tanks sunk into the boggy ground along the way and had to be abandoned, and later retrieved.

This photograph, although these are German rather than Allied tanks, do show some of the muddy, bog-like conditions all tank crews faced as they traversed the countryside.

                     A narrow escape

As dawn broke on April 17, 1945, Stan and his fellow soldiers were stowing their tanks and preparing to move north of Barneveld towards Nijkerk, when they came under heavy shelling from German tanks and troops shooting at them from nearby woods.

The Canadians made a chaotic exit from Barneveld and were ordered to continue to a crossroad nicknamed “Steamer,” where the Apeldoorn highway crossed the road from Barneveld to Nijkerk.  

As shown on Google Maps, crossroad Steamer, once a modest brush-lined highway, is now a modern mega-highway with nine lanes of traffic.

When Stan’s tank, Capri II, entered the crossroads and began to turn the corner left, an enemy anti-tank gun opened up from the west and hit the rear of the tank. It “brewed,” exploding into flames and killing two of the tank’s crew.

Stan and two others, all badly injured, scrambled to escape the inferno. Other tanks were also hit.

“It sounded as if the casualties were heavy. One could always tell by the excitement in the voice which came on the wireless to call for the medical officer: ‘Hello three one – HELLO THREE ONE! – send mess tin!’ and the medical carrier would hurry up the column,” LCol. McAvity said of the incident.

The flames badly burned Stan’s hands, and shrapnel wounds left him with severe nerve damage to his right arm. He and other casualties were treated at a makeshift medical station inside a Dutch farmhouse as shells and gunfire continued to explode nearby.

Stan’s injuries were significant and prevented him from seeing any further action. Six months before the war ended, his fight was over.

He was transported to a field hospital and eventually shipped home to Canada, where he spent weeks recovering in hospital in Vancouver. The rest of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse continued north, helping liberate many Dutch towns and cornering the German troops in northern Holland.

As the Lord Strathcona’s Horse moved through the Netherlands, many appreciative local children and residents cheered when they passed and welcomed them when they stopped to rest. Here, Dutch villagers climb on a Canadian Sherman tank – the same design as the tanks Stan crewed.

                     Life after tank life

Back in Canada, Stan recovered at Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Hospital. To fill the long days and to strengthen his injured arm, he started doing leatherwork. It was here that he cut, shaped, bound and drilled the leather cribbage board that is now treasured by my family.

During his recovery, Stan met and fell in love with my grandmother, Vivian Stachera (nee McNair), who was volunteering at the hospital. She supported Canada during the war from the homefront as a Wren, a member of Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service, where her occupation was cashier-bookkeeper.

Stan and Vivian played many games of crib on the leather board in Stan’s hospital room, and throughout their long and happy marriage.

Once, however, the crib board nearly caused their divorce, when Vivian sat down to knit one afternoon and found that all of her knitting needles had been snapped at the tip! Bewilderment turned to fury when she discovered that Stan had taken the tips and melted them to replace his aging, original crib pegs.

The melted knitting needle pegs remain in the board today, and our family laughs about the story each time we play with them.

The crib board – and Stan and Viv’s marriage – survived, and they raised three daughters: Gwen (left), Carol (centre), and my mom, Donna (right).

After the war, Stan worked for a butcher and doing other odd jobs before becoming a park warden with Canada National Parks.

Stan loved his job in the mountains, where he worked for more than thirty years as a warden in Yoho and Glacier national parks.

Stan passed away nearly thirty years ago, but memories of him, and of his service to our country, live on every time someone pegs to victory on his leather crib board.

The board actually travelled to the recent war in Afghanistan with Cpl. Stephen W. Mulrain, where he and his fellow soldiers played on it during their downtime on dusty desert picnic tables.

It returned from that war, and continues to make my family feel connected to a much-loved man who fought bravely for Canada at such a very young age.

Rest in Peace, Stan Stachera.

                      About the Author

Journalist Kelsey Verboom grew up in the mountain town of Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. She earned an English degree at the University of Calgary, and studied journalism and photojournalism at the Western Academy of Photography in Victoria, B.C. She kicked off her career at her hometown weekly newspaper, where she began as a reporter and later worked as the editor.
 
She has since moved into public relations and communications, and has worked with Canada's national ski teams, the University of Calgary, and in provincial health care delivery. Kelsey remains a passionate photographer and has a fledgling business capturing images of families and children.
 
Note from Elinor: Kelsey is a gifted writer and photographer who took the photo of me that appears at the top of this page. Be sure to contact her for all your personal and professional photographic needs. Her email is kelseyverboom@gmail.com.

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               STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image dated January 17, 1942, showing British tanks advancing through Libya. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War and scroll to the bottom.

                      About My Novel

 

Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction about a young Canadian woman who serves as an aerial photo interpreter in World War Two. It's available at bookstores as a trade paperback. You can also order a paperback or an ebook online by clicking here: Bird's Eye View.

 

      My June Visit to Ottawa and Halifax

 

Do you have friends in Ottawa or Halifax?

I’ll sign books at Chapters Rideau in Ottawa from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 16th.

I'll also sign books at Chapters Bayers Lake in Halifax from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 25th. The next day, I will present my slide show and talk about the inspiration behind my novel at Halifax Central Library at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 26th.

Please share with your contacts in those two cities, and visit my Events page any time for regular updates.

 

Wartime Wednesdays Available for Reprint

 

Do you subscribe to a print or online military or historical publication? Please inform the editor that most of my blog posts are available for reprint at no charge, with my written permission. 

Previous posts have appeared in the RCAF Association newsletter, the Canadian Military Photographers Association newsletter, The Canadian Aerospace Artists' newsletter, the Canada Post Heritage Club newsletter, and various Royal Canadian Legion branch newsletters.

Ask the editor to contact me at elinor1@telus.net and I will send along whatever is required. My greatest satisfaction in writing the blog is to know that people are reading it. Thank you for your comments!

 

             

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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