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LOCAL VETERAN FONDLY RECALLS TIME SPENT IN COMBINED OPERATIONS IN SECOND WORLD WAR
When Roy Burt looks back on his remarkable and rewarding life, his six years as a proud member of the Royal Canadian Navy will always provide many of his fondest memories.
“I wanted to be a soldier since I was a young child so I joined the military when I was 17 years old … next to marrying my wife (Jean) and having kids, it was the best thing I ever did,” said Burt, who, at age 89, looks terrific and possesses a rare ability to remember minute details from his life dating back decades.
Burt is known to many Osoyoosites as the longtime post master with the local Canada Post office. He transferred from Williams Lake in 1972 and worked in Osoyoos until his retirement in 1983.
He came out west to join the navy from his hometown near Hamilton, Ont. and has never left B.C. except for his six years in the armed forces.
With Remembrance Day ceremonies set for this Sunday here in Osoyoos, across Canada and around the world, Burt said November 11 always bring back a flood of memories – some tragic, but most of them good as he met “some of the best people I have ever met in my life was during my time in the navy.”
Burt was a proud member of the Combined Operations – a special team of 900 Canadian and mainly British soldiers who volunteered for “especially hazardous duty” and travelled around the world during the Second World War transporting men and equipment on huge naval landing craft.
“We went everywhere … I got to travel the world and loved every second of it,” said Burt.
After training for months in Scotland and England, Burt’s first active duty was being part of Operation Torch in the north African country of Algiers. He left on Oct. 26, 1942 on a convoy of 50 ships, with half of them headed to Algiers.
A big part of their job was transferring American soldiers to various destinations using small landing craft, he said.
After an extended leave and further training, Burt participated in Operation Husky, which took him and the Combined Operations unit to Sicily in July of 1942.
This time, his job was to help transport and transfer British soldiers to shore.
Admitting he saw many of his fellow soldiers killed, Burt said he doesn’t like to talk about the losses, but is more than willing to talk about the good work performed by his unit.
Burt and his fellow soldiers from Combined Operations were then called back to Europe in the spring of 1944 and participated in D-Day, one of the most important military operations in history.
Military planners had given Canada a major role on D-Day to take one of five designated beaches where Allied forces were to land to begin the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. The Americans were designated to take Utah and Omaha Beaches in the west, British soldiers landed at Gold Beach and at Sword in the east, while Canadians landed at Juno Beach.
The greatest seaborne invasion in history was aimed at 80 kilometres of mostly flat, sandy beach along the Normandy coast, west of the Seine River. There were 155,000 soldiers, 5,000 ships and landing craft, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes set for the battle. For Canada, 14,000 soldiers were to land on the beaches, while another 450 were to drop behind enemy lines by parachute or glider.The Royal Canadian Navy supplied ships and 10,000 sailors.
“We did six trips across the channel every day, transporting 300 soldiers at a time … we did that for just over a month,” said Burt.
Being part of that historic event was something he will never forget, said Burt.
“That opened up that part of Europe to the Allied Forces and helped change the course of the war, so it was very important,” he said.
Being able to fight for his country to help defeat the Nazis remains something he’s very proud of, said Burt.
“When I joined I was too young to go to sea … I remember how happy I was to turn 18 because I joined the navy because I wanted to fight in the war. That’s why I signed up. I remember telling my band master that I was almost 18 and could finally get on a boat and he finally agreed it was time to leave the band.”
After his time in Normandy, Burt returned to Canada and Halifax when a commander asked who was willing to travel to Japan on the HMCS Algonquin – a destroyer.
“Some people can’t keep their hands down or shut their mouth and I couldn’t do either so I was on the move again,” he said smiling. “I loved being in the navy and this was my career and I wanted to keep fighting.”
The ship was halfway across the Pacific Ocean when the crew received word that the war had ended, he said.
“I remember it was a very strange sight to see all these other ships with their lights on,” he said. “We had run for months under the cover of darkness and trying to hide from the enemy.”
On the trip home, he and his crew managed some leisure time in Egypt, Jamaica and eventually San Diego, California.
“We came back through the Suez Canal … I still remember when we ended up in Jamaica. That was alright,” he said laughing. “We ended up having more than a few cups of rum.”
Considering he had only seen his wife – they got married in the summer of 1944 while he was on leave – a couple of times since tying the knot, Burt decided to retire from the navy on March 15, 1946.
“I looked my wife in the eye and told her I had had enough of this navy and I was going to quit,” he said. “I had achieved my dream of fighting in the war and thought it was time to do something else with my life. I loved my life in the navy, I really did, but it was time to move on.”
He and a brother started a successful boat building business near Hamilton following the war, but they shut that down after three years.
Burt was then hired at Canada’s largest steel mill (Stelco) in Hamilton and worked there for eight years before deciding the coke dust he was inhaling every day would kill him.
“I loved the job and made some really good money, but I knew my health would never last sucking in those horrible gases every day,” he said. “Me and the wife had a talk and decided we would like to head back out west.”
They intended to go to Victoria, however, they visited a friend of a friend in Penticton and ended up loving that town and called it home for several years.
Burt worked at a car dealership for one year before applying for a job with Canada Post in 1956. He worked for the post office in Penticton and Williams Lake before coming to Osoyoos in 1972.
“I took a pay cut to come back to the Okanagan,” he said. “But I had visited Osoyoos many times when I lived in Penticton and remember telling my wife the first time we came here that this is where we would retire.”
Because he has bad knees and can’t sit for extended periods of time, Burt hasn’t attended the local Remembrance Day ceremony the past two years,
However, his mind always flashes back to his days in the navy every November 11.
“You don’t ever forget,” he said. “It’s an important day for all of us (veterans). It really is.”
The citizens of Osoyoos have traditionally shown up in droves for the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in town and Bob Ritchie expects more of the same on Sunday at the Sonora Community Centre
“We usually get a crowd of about 500 people and I’m expecting another good turnout this year,” said Ritchie, a longtime member of the Osoyoos Branch 173 of the Royal Canadian Legion and the Master of Ceremonies for the 2012 Remembrance Day ceremony.
The ceremony, which will begin at 10:45 a.m., should take about an hour and will be followed by another 15-minute ceremony at the town’s cenotaph in front of town hall, said Ritchie.
The Remembrance Day ceremony will commence with a colour party and parade march.
Those planning on attending the service are asked to get there early so the ceremony can start on time with everyone properly seated, said Ritchie. After the ceremony at the cenotaph, there will be a social gathering for Legion members and guests in the legion lounge.