Gunner John R. Watson Remembers

Trent Ernst
 

John R. Watson now, wearing his medals, including a Thank You Canada Medal he received in 2002 from the Netherlands

 

John R. Watson signed up for the Army the day after his birthday. 
 
But unlike most people who signed up when they turned 18, Watson signed up the day after he turned 17, signing up with the Canadian Forces in Red Deer, a year younger than what was allowed.
 
Watson was a farmer’s son who grew up in Red Deer. “We finished harvest that fall, and I signed up. It was the day after I turned 17. They gave me a form that my mother was supposed to fill out, but I took it down to the café where my sister worked and one of her friends filled it out and I took it back.”
 
The deception was paper thin in a small community like Red Deer, and Watson knew it. “The old fellow who was signing us up was our neighbor, and he knew. He said ‘you know you’re too young, right?’ I said to him, ‘well, if you won’t sign me up, I’ll go to Calgary.’ So he signed me up.”
 
Watson said he signed up because a bunch of his friends did. “At that time, there wasn’t too much going on for work. It was the fall of 1941. There wasn’t a lot of jobs, so I thought what the heck? I might as well join the army.”
 
His life of adventure got off to a slow start. The new recruits stayed in Red Deer for a month before getting shipped down to Calgary, where they stayed for another month before finally getting sworn in. 

They trained for three weeks in Calgary, then Edmonton for a month, and finally down to Camrose. “While I was there, a whole bunch of us got the scarlet fever, which went to rheumatic fever, and I was in the hospital there for a long time. I was under quarantine, and they kept us locked up for quite a while.  
 

John R Watson, at 17. He lied to the recruiter about his age and was in England by 1942 to train as a gunner.
 
It wasn’t until spring of 1942 before Watson had recovered and was able to make the trip overseas. “It was a rough trip,” he recalls. “The ship’s fastest speed was 12 knots, which is only about nine miles an hour. Every two or three minutes it would change course to throw off any German U-Boats. It was a rough trip, and cold. We went way up north and back around. The crew was very skeleton, so we had to do the guard duty and the cleaning.”
 
Watson made it safely to England and began training in earnest as a gunner. He started out driving truck, then moved on to training on armored personnel carriers and American–built Sherman Tanks mounted with British Anti-tank guns, but spent most of his time training on six-pound and 17-pound artillery guns.
 
He spent more than two years training and working home defense. “We were down at a place called Lydd on the south coast. There were two of us on guard duty. We’d walk out about two hundred yards, then walk back. And we heard this engine, and we couldn’t figure out what it was. We kept listening and listening, and it would keep revving up and down. Then we saw this plane coming in. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet off the water. It was out about a hundred yards out, and he dropped it onto the water, and the plane just skipped up onto the sand. It was one of the new Spitfires. The pilot got out and walked away like he did that every day.”
 
Watson was destined for D-Day, but he wasn’t there on the sixth of June of 1944 when Allied forces began the greatest seaborn invasion of history, with over 160,000 seaborn troops landing in Normandy. “They held three of us back. There was a fellow from Nova Scotia who worked in the orderly room, a fellow from Drayton Valley, and me. I was only 19 at the time. I asked my captain later why we were held back. He told me that he didn’t think anyone should go to war until they were 21. They figured we were too young.”
 
Watson didn’t have to wait until he was 21. In fact, he only had to wait three days. On June 9, he was sent over to France. “I took a truck load of a new type of ammunition for the 17-pound guns over, but it would have been just as well to have left it in England, because it got blown up two hours after landing.”
 
Watson was about half a kilometre from the truck when it was hit by an enemy shell. But that was still too close for comfort. “I really felt the backlash of that when it got hit.”
 
The experience was not what Watson was expecting, and he gets very quiet before talking about what it was like to walk into France after spending so long training for this moment. “I tell you one thing, it was pretty damn scary. It was all new and different. You had to take it as it came, and that’s about all I have to say.”
 
Watson spent most of his time in the war driving truck, troop carriers and pulling guns as part of the so–called second line of defense. “A lot of time the infantry was dug in right beside us. We were right up there on the front line.”
 
Watson and his regiment fought their way north, taking part in the battle of the when the bulk of the German forces west of the River Seine were destroyed, then moving on into Belgium and Holland. 
 

John R Watson, on a frigid day in Holland at the end of the second world war.
 
“We went into a little place called Sluis. That was a pretty rough go, that. We got out of that, and into mainland Holland then across the Rheine and were south of Dusseldorf when the war ended. Then we came back to Holland, where we stayed until we went back home in 1946.”
 
After the war ended, the once and future rancher and cowboy spent about two months looking after a whole bunch of captured horses that were then auctioned off. After that he spent most of his time as a dispatch rider. “It was a rest period; there wasn’t much going on.”
 
There were 200 or 300 people in the camp with Watson waiting to go back home. Watson says it was inevitable that they would get into trouble. “I got caught with eight guys riding on a motorbike. We were trying to see if we could set a world record. Man, I tell you it was pretty hard to balance. The major caught us, and I was assigned 30 days of extra duty, but it was just what I was doing anyway so it didn’t matter.”
 
In February of 1946, Watson boarded the Ile de France for another stormy crossing of the Atlantic ocean. “It couldn’t have been worse. Storms all the way from South Hampton. 12 hours out, they dropped the anchor and dragged it all the way to Halifax. The funny thing is, as a prairie boy, I never got seasick.”
 
Having returned back to Canada, Watson found it difficult to adjust back to civilian life. “A lot of friends just went to the bars. I stayed away from those. I went back out on the farms as much as I could. It was rough, though.”
 
But the quiet, simple life of ranching recaptured Watson, who spent most of the rest of his life chasing cows. Watson finally retired from ranching when he was 75. “I spent the last 17 years riding, that’s all I did.” Watson turned 88 this month. 
 
When asked what is important about Remembrance Day, Watson gets quiet again. “Kids in school should learn about it and know about it and know what Canada did, but I just hope there’s never another war. I don’t like what Hollywood has done to war. They glamourize it, they really do, and it’s not very glamourous.” Falaise Gap, the decisive battle of the Battle of Normandy, when the bulk of the German forces west of the River Seine were destroyed, then moving on into Belgium and Holland. 
 
“We went into a little place called Sluis. That was a pretty rough go, that. We got out of that, and into mainland Holland then across the Rheine and were south of Dusseldorf when the war ended. Then we came back to Holland, where we stayed until we went back home in 1946.”
 
After the war ended, the once and future rancher and cowboy spent about two months looking after a whole bunch of captured horses that were then auctioned off. After that he spent most of his time as a dispatch rider. “It was a rest period; there wasn’t much going on.”
 
There were 200 or 300 people in the camp with Watson waiting to go back home. Watson says it was inevitable that they would get into trouble. “I got caught with eight guys riding on a motorbike. We were trying to see if we could set a world record. Man, I tell you it was pretty hard to balance. The major caught us, and I was assigned 30 days of extra duty, but it was just what I was doing anyway so it didn’t matter.”
 
In February of 1946, Watson boarded the Ile de France for another stormy crossing of the Atlantic ocean. “It couldn’t have been worse. Storms all the way from South Hampton. 12 hours out, they dropped the anchor and dragged it all the way to Halifax. The funny thing is, as a prairie boy, I never got seasick.”
 
Having returned back to Canada, Watson found it difficult to adjust back to civilian life. “A lot of friends just went to the bars. I stayed away from those. I went back out on the farms as much as I could. It was rough, though.”
 
But the quiet, simple life of ranching recaptured Watson, who spent most of the rest of his life chasing cows. Watson finally retired from ranching when he was 75. “I spent the last 17 years riding, that’s all I did.” Watson turned 88 this month. 
 
When asked what is important about Remembrance Day, Watson gets quiet again. “Kids in school should learn about it and know about it and know what Canada did, but I just hope there’s never another war. I don’t like what Hollywood has done to war. They glamourize it, they really do, and it’s not very glamourous.”