Editor’s note: As Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation, Second World War veteran Hugh Rayment shares his story; following is the first of two parts.
Hugh Rayment has always been a storyteller, from those told to his siblings back on the family farm, to the ones he tells today so that no one ever forgets the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made during the Second World War.
Rayment, 92, considers it his duty to share the stories of the sacrifices he and other young soldiers made more than 70 years ago on the other side of the world.
He sits back and recounts those years, recalling details, from the ordinary such as providing a basin of water for an officer’s morning shave, to the horrifying as he and other Canadian soldiers helped to liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The longtime Vernon resident often speaks to students at local schools.
“When I visit schools, I go in my uniform, with my medals on, and I talk about the war, and that the reason we Canadians went to war is that we were very patriotic towards Great Britain and part of the British empire at the time,” said Rayment. “When I talk to kids, I give them a reason, the true story of what Hitler was all about — he wanted to rule the world — and for my own part and being in the war in the first place.
“It wasn’t a time of glory that some people seem to think it was. I suffer from PTSD and it doesn’t go away but it seems to help all of us veterans to open up and tell and get it off our chest. It wasn’t even recognized, we ourselves didn’t truthfully know what was bothering us — it’s a strange, strange affliction. I used to run classes for veterans with PTSD and had one fellow who couldn’t even walk past the war mural downtown.”
Born in 1924 in the small Alberta town of Viking, Rayment grew up on a nearby farm, where he learned to operate the farm machinery and attended a one-room school house until Grade 9.
In his teens, he moved to Vancouver with his sister and father. Rayment was hired to work at the Vancouver Airport, doing whatever was necessary to keep it running for the war effort.
“We were doing important war work but here’s me, I’m 18 years old and I used to ride the streetcars and people would look at me, their eyes just boring into me as if to say, ‘there’s a young man, why isn’t he in the military?’ I had military exemption because I was working at the airport and we had to keep it operating, it was a military base, so that was a civilian job. I loved working at the airport because from the age of five I was bound and determined to be a pilot.”
When Rayment received word that his brother in the Royal Canadian Air Force had been shot down and was in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, he was determined to do his part by joining up.
“I tried to get into the Air Force at 18 but was told my night vision wasn’t good enough, then I tried the Navy but they had a waiting list to get into basic training so I said to a buddy, ‘let’s see what the Army has to say’ and they couldn’t get us into uniforms fast enough.”
Four of the seven kids in Rayment’s family served in the military: his brother in the Air Force, his older sister and younger brother in the Army.
In 1943, Rayment did his basic training in Wetaskiwin, Alta., and then went to Calgary for advanced infantry training, where he was a top marksman.
In 1944, Rayment and his comrades in the Algonquin Regiment were sent to France. He remembers the noise, the cold, the discomfort and the camaraderie, along with the sheer terror and horror of war.
Rayment’s regiment took part in the Battle of the Scheldt and the Leopold Canal in Belgium, part of the Allies’ efforts to ensure a safe supply route through Europe to be able to ship in the equipment, vehicles and manpower necessary.
“There was a convoy of troops, and I was in one of them and the dispatch rider came down and stopped the convoy and they urgently needed reinforcements for the fourth division,” said Rayment. “They took three truck loads and went up another road and we started seeing dead Canadians, dead Germans, because when we were in action and one of our buddies got killed we would literally drag them to the closest road so they were along the road side and it puts the fear of the devil into you when you start seeing that.
“And then we baled out of the truck and hit the ditch and there was a lineup of soldiers coming along, carrying canvas boats and we were into the crossing of the Leopold Canal — you had to cross one body of water and then drag the boats to the other side — it’s a nightmare because we lost over half the regiment during that battle. In fact, I hit the front lines on my 19th birthday in Belgium.
“You try to protect yourself, but we were pushed back and the canal was red with Canadian blood. I remember that and I remember throwing my rifle into the canal and I don’t even remember if I swam back or got a hold of a boat or what. It’s just a blur.”
When he regained a sense of where he was, Rayment found himself in bare feet, running down a cobblestone street. The sound of shells exploding filled the air. He and an officer ducked into an empty store when the building was hit.
“We were all covered with white powder from the masonry and drywall and I looked up and there was a shelf with bottles of liquor and I grabbed one, stuck it in my tunic and carried on down the road. I saw one of my buddies who came in there with me and he was in a Bren gun carrier and a mortar crew and I jumped onto the carrier and we went back I suppose maybe a mile and they were regrouping and trying to determine how many of us were still alive — they called out for 13 Platoon to form up and there were only three of us, supposed to be 30 to 32 men in a platoon. They were always running short of men, but we were probably full strength at about 25 men. A number were taken prisoner, and all I know is that there were three of us who survived.
“But you have to understand that there was a huge amount of comradeship and you would do anything to help save the skin of another soldier. It’s an odd feeling, but I literally cried when I had to leave the front lines, because I felt I was leaving my brothers behind.
“It’s so vivid, you know we rode on tanks or in trucks so we didn’t have to march a whole great deal, but we’d go in the trucks til they came under fire and we’d have to bale out. We had to take cover because the shells can come over, but with the rifle fire and machine gun fire you’re safe as long as you’re below the surface, so we learned to dig a whole faster than a gopher.
“But as we moved up further into Holland, the land got flooded, the dikes were blown and the sea water came in and if you dug a hole, you’d get into it and sit there and water would gradually seep up. I actually slept in cold water up to chest level, because you get so exhausted that you can sleep standing up, but to sleep in cold water is a pretty miserable way to sleep; you have to heat the water with your body heat. The winter of 1944 was pretty darn horrible, particularly in Holland because of this seepage of water or if you were going to attack, the only place was the top of a dyke and you’re a sitting duck up there, they’d turn the machine guns on you, but nonetheless we did it.”
Rayment was with one of several Canadian military units assisting in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst,” he said. “The most horrible part of my army career was emptying a concentration camp. There were probably 200 or 300 of them in the process of dying and we were hit by the moaning and the stench. People from the camps, they were absolutely in tatters — they were just skin and bones.
“How could any human being do this sort of thing to people? We were only put on that duty for two days max. That was, for me, worse than seeing fellow soldiers getting killed in action.”
Rayment was given the opportunity to return home for a little while and then to join the war in the Pacific. He turned down the chance.
“I didn’t want anymore war and I was willing to bide my time over there. It was a trip home you see and I think that was utmost in everybody’s mind.”
Instead, Rayment worked as a duty driver for officers in Nijmegen, Holland.
One morning, he was beckoned over by a colonel who needed a basin of hot water for shaving. The two struck up a conversation and Rayment learned something of the officer’s life and offered to bring him a basin of water every morning.
Col. Dixon and the soldier he called “Ray” struck up a friendship and Rayment was invited to travel to Paris.
“I said I have got a pretty good go here and I’m not fussy about moving. I didn’t really see the significance of it at the time. And he said, ‘well if you come with me to be my driver, I’ll guarantee you’ll be on the boat home in six months.’ Well that was the best news I’d heard — you’re in a place where there’s no indication of when you’ll go home and then to get six months. That was all I needed to hear.”
Rayment and Dixon loaded up a Packard staff car and made the trip to Paris and to the Hotel Westminster.
“His sergeant met us on the outskirts of Paris to lead us in, and we went to Rue de la Paix, past all the expensive shops.”
The colonel arranged for Rayment to stay in the same hotel.
“It had a fireplace, a private bathroom and ladies to make my bed; it wasn’t army life at all, it was big-shot life.”
Rayment’s duties included driving Canada’s first ambassador to France Georges Vanier and his wife, Pauline, whom he took shopping.
“So I didn’t have much to do. I would shine up the colonel’s boots. He had this pair of brown boots and I’d run the brush over them and anything else he wanted — I took his laundry out to the laundry and did his black market for him: cigarettes, chocolate bars, as everyone did.
“Paris was coming back to life.”