Three Annex veterans recall war service
By Annemarie Brissenden
Georgette Caldwell remembers the exact moment she decided to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service. It came after the first firebombing of London. Walking along the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, “you could smell the wood burning, and the cobblestones underneath my feet were still steaming.”
“That sealed the deal,” remembers Caldwell from her home on Tyrrel Avenue. “I joined the Navy, I was so enraged.”
At the beginning of her service, she was part of a group of women whose job was primarily to “release men who would normally be doing shore service to go do active shore service,” but after becoming an officer candidate, she was part of a large group who planned the invasion of Europe.
Despite the horror that surrounded her, it was still an exciting time for Caldwell, who admits it “was one of the best five year sequences of my life. I enjoyed it.”
Stanley G. Grizzle, however, was less enthusiastic about joining Canada’s forces in World War Two. As the Palmerston Square resident recalls, “I got this very kind invitation in the mail.”
And notes Grizzle, “none of us Black boys were happy about being conscripted.”
Once in the army, he went on a three-day strike after being forced to do latrine duty for four weeks because he refused to be an officer’s batman.
“Seeing so many bombs, and so many bodies,” Grizzle didn’t think he was coming home, so he “didn’t tolerate any justice.”
He was paraded to his Commanding Officer, whom he told he wanted a “discharge because the principles we are fighting for don’t apply to me,” and consequently was posted to the Quartermaster’s stores, a plum assignment.
“I should have raised more hell,” laughs Grizzle now.
“Unlike Grizzle, Dr. Don Harrison of Wychwood Park was afraid he’d miss the war. Only 14 when war broke out, he remembers thinking, “I’ll never get into the war; it will be over before I’m old enough.”
He was accepted to the Royal Roads naval college in B.C., and upon graduation joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, known as the “wavy navy” for the wavy stripes that adorned their uniform instead of the straight stripes for members of permanent navy.
By the time he sailed for England on the Aquitania in August of 1944, D-Day had already happened. There was still, however, much work to be done. Harrison was assigned to a Motor Torpedo Boat in the 65th Flottila, stationed in Ostend, Belgium. Their main task was to “try to open up the convey route to Antwerp.”
“It was an exciting time,” says Harrison of his war experience. “You would go for a walk in the park, buy candy, and that night you’d go out to sea, and all hell might break loose. You never knew.”
These days, he doesn’t think much about his time in the Navy, but, “I usually try to go to the ceremony at Hart House” on Remembrance Day every year.
Caldwell generally spends November 11 privately because “I find it a very upsetting day. I had so many friends back home who perished. I just have this overwhelming sorrow that out of the 12 young men I knew since childhood, only two came back.”
For his part, Grizzle says he used worry that Remembrance Day glamourized war, but “I don’t feel that way anymore. Not if it’s done right.”
He, like Harrison and Caldwell, are speakers with the Memory Project, a Dominion Institute initiative that sends veterans into schools to speak with students throughout the year. For Grizzle, it’s an opportunity to underscore the importance of continued participation in the political process, “because I want young kids to know not only about the war but why we have the kind of system we have today.”
He says his time in the army taught him, “to stand up for what is right.”
Caldwell feels she emerged from her experience as an entirely different person.
“You were away from home, and grew up so quickly,” notes Caldwell. “I started out as a girl in school and came out as a married woman.”
“A time of loss, horror and excitement” originally appeared in our November 2002 edition.