All of my grandparents served in the Second World War in some capacity, especially on the Home Front in England. But when I think about Remembrance Day, I think most about my paternal grandfather, perhaps because as an academic and the only Canadian in the bunch, his experience in an alien war on foreign soil feels the most relatable to me.
As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, my grandfather was studying the cutting-edge technology of radar. One day, he was disrupted in his lab by an agent of the Government of Canada, informing him that he was being loaned to the British Navy. And that was that.
The most bookish and introverted in a family of four siblings, my grandfather was not someone who sought out excitement. While his brothers would volunteer for service in the Air Force and Army — one brother became a spitfire pilot — my grandfather didn’t choose service. One day he was working diligently on this new technology and the next he was training for war. And that was that. He would end up as the radar officer on the King George V on the morning that it sank the Bismarck, assuring a place in military history for a man who didn’t go looking for it.
I learned almost none of this story from my grandfather himself. When I was a child, PBS aired a documentary about British Navy life in WWII, and in it you can see about five seconds of my grandfather — smiling, looking slightly nerdy even in his uniform — walking with his shipmates in the mess as the boat rolls under him. My grandfather ordered the VHS of that documentary and showed us the clip of himself a handful of times (more than anything, for a man of his age to have access to a video of himself in his youth was a remarkable thing, I suspect). Otherwise, I mostly had my dad’s memory of the story to go by, occasionally augmented by other family members. The details are pretty sketchy for me. When my spouse joined the Reserves, my grandfather shared some stories with him.
But Grandpa only ever told me one story about the war, about a year before he died. He told me that when the Bismarck sank, it was mid-morning, and for a moment of eerie calm he stood on the deck and watched the ship go under. Due to the U-Boats in the area, any attempt to rescue survivors was called off, and he watched the Bismarck crew drown. He told me he had nightmares of that image for the rest of his life.
As an adult, I now know that there were 2200 crew on the Bismarck and only 114 survived.
My grandfather lived with those images a very long time; he was in his 80s when he died. I can also tell you that he was a lifelong socialist and that he donated his money to peace and environmental causes. He did not continue research into radar; he moved into nuclear science and worked as a researcher for the Canadian government for the rest of his career. And he didn’t talk much about the war.
I know far more about the psychological toll of the war on my grandfather than I do about what he did day-to-day. And that has always coloured my understanding of what this day is for: every member of my family who served, on the Home Front or on the Front Lines, returned with trauma. There’s no version of this day that glorifies war for me. It’s always been about the critical importance of Never Again.
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