Okill Stuart welcomed us in his apartment in Montreal for a moving discussion. He is one of the many brave men who joined the Allied ranks during the Second World War. In honour of Normandy where the D-Day landings were located, a large bottle of Calvados sat on the table, surrounded by newspaper articles on the landings. At the age of 97, Okill’s memory has not faded. Vicki, his daughter in law, also sat with us. He brought us 70 years back in time, when he volunteered for active service in WWII.
“It all started in July 1940, during the first year of the war. I was barely 19 years old. I did not want to join the army just to end up sitting in a warehouse in Canada, so I volunteered for active service. I had already gone through cadet training. You could join the army at any age, but you needed to be at least 19 years old to serve on the other side of the ocean. A lot of young men lied and started their service too early. I was not a general, just a subordinate. Just a boy. We were lied to the situation, so we went in thinking that it would only last 6 months. We were not particularly optimistic, saying that we were used to the situation.
I was part of 14th artillery regiment in Canada’s 3rd division. There were 6 divisions in all, and only ours participated in the landings in Normandy. The others joined us later on. Our regiment, made up of 24 men, arrived in England in 1941 with the purpose of defending the south-east coast of England. We only had one 18-pounder gun for the entire regiment. We had a solid navy, the British Navy, but next to nothing to help us in ground combat. If Hitler knew that, he could have easily landed on and assaulted that bloody island!“
“One day in December of 1942, I was on leave in London with a few friends from the regiment. We heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Everyone in the room felt bad for the Americans. I replied by saying to them, Excuse me? How can you say, ‘Poor Americans’? That means that they are going to join us in the war! We will never win without them.” We mustn’t forget that they didn’t fight in World War One. Thank god, with Pearl Harbor, they didn’t have a choice. They had to join us. Two months before the 6th of June, we were told that our division had been chosen to participate in the Normandy landings. The division was made up of 10,000 people. We were cut off from the rest of England – much like Trumps wants nowadays – because it was absolutely necessary that this information didn’t spread across the U.K. We had set up fake tanks and weapons around Dover to make the Germans believe that we were going to depart from England soon. When you flew over the area, the illusion worked perfectly. We succeeded in making the Germans believe that the landings were going to take place at Pas-de-Calais, Cap Gris Nez and Boulogne. That worked just as planned. However, we were going to Bernières-sur-Mer, in Normandy. The Canadians only landed on Juno Beach. The English also landed there as well as on Sword Beach. The Americans landed on Omaha. We succeeded in establishing a solid front and gradually gained ground. The Germans were far away from us. We blew up a few bridges so they could not get to us.
The Canadian troops went deeper into the territory than all the other troops on those first days after the landings. We arrived on the outskirts of Caen. The Germans managed to push us back there, but still! No one knew that because we didn’t want to brag too much, but it was us who made it the furthest! There were a lot of dead on the beaches. I was not lucky by clever. I make a claim to fame by saying, I won the war… with help from some others. You have to joke a bit. I took part in all that without really knowing why.”
“If I’ve remained young, it’s because I’ve continued to be active. I’m not some who sits around and doesn’t do anything. I’m not particularly interested in politics, but I always played a small role behind certain public figures. I stay behind the scenes. I feel like I need to have something to do.“
“We bombed Caen for a long time. We thought that it was a major German stronghold. I remember being on one of the main streets, surrounded by debris. We had to wait for the bulldozer to come push away the rubble so we could move forward. No one was there. The people were either underground or they had fled… We did not know if we had bombed too much or not enough. Who knew how many Germans were still there? After Caen, we went to Falaise, famous as the site of the Falaise Pocket. It was a strategic operation that we engaged in to push the Germans back.
The Americans came from the south. We approached from the North, on the other side. We were helped by Polish troops. The Germans could only escape this pocket by a small a road. I remember that there was destroyed German artillery all along the road. Everything had been reduced to ashes, with our attacks having caused the lion’s share of the destruction. There was nothing there except dead Germans, horses and cattle. The odour was wretched. Believe me, it was the only time when I really smelled death during the war. Even those who flew above the area could smell that odour of dead flesh. It was a feeling that left a big impression on me. To get out of this road and seal up the pocket, you needed to go over all those dead bodies and debris. It was the first major defeat for the Germans. After that, the fighting went back and forth in the surrounding area. We would advance on one side by driving away the Germans, and in the time it took to come back, they were already making their counter attack.”
“Look. This is a funny story! There’s always one. We needed an airport. It was vital in the efforts to establish ourselves and land our Spitfires and Typhoons. Oh, the Germans hated the Spitfires! And I hated the Germans. The infantry had to clear the path to make the Carpiquet Airport in Caen operational again. Except that the Germans arrived behind us! We did not know that they had tunnels that allowed them to go back and forth undetected. I remember that I was with my friend, Bobby, and we went there on our motorcycle. Don’t ask me why. It was really stupid. We could have gotten ourselves killed! We caught a pig with a lasso. They were moving very slowly. When the Germans started to attack us with mortars. We asked ourselves whether we had to drop our dinner or if we were going to get killed! I don’t know how we got out of it, but we managed to escape with our bike and the pig at the end of a rope. It ended up being one hell of a meal!“
“Everything that I’m saying is complete true. If there is one thing that I’ve learned over time, it’s that you should never lie. In 60 or 70 years, you will start to mix everything up and you will forget what you once said. It’s better to either be quiet or only tell the truth. And if you don’t care about what you plan to say… Don’t say it.
“At the end of the war, there wasn’t enough room to bring all the troops home at the same time. So I spent some time in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I found a yacht club there with small sail boats and the best head chef, but not food or alcohol. A few friends and I talked about our idea with the colonel: We wanted to open a leisure spot for the regiment. He gave his approval and wrote a letter to the quartermaster so we could supply the place with all the food necessary. The tinned food was still the same: dried vegetables and that infamous jellied beef that we hated. At least, this time we had a cook! The secret to it eating was to cook it with mushrooms.
We always had a lot of cigarettes. Ours were wrapped in sealed plastic. That made them fresher than what the British had. Since the army didn’t send us alcohol, we went into the city to trade them for bottles. They were worth as much as gold! And you know what the other currency was? Silk stockings. We give them as gifts to women to impress them.
The last civilian bus to go back to the large towns and cities would leave at 11 at night. The one going towards the regiment’s lodgings left at midnight. Young girls often missed it. They would panic and wonder how they were going to be able to get home. We always responded with the same thing: “Let’s go for boat ride and talk about it.” They had no place to sleep when we brought them on the boat. What an awful time it was, taking care of these girls! No, I’m just kidding. Of course I’m exaggerating. We didn’t live with the regiment anymore. We only spent time in the yacht club. It was paradise over there! And guess who was in charge?“
“We had five carvel-planked boats to take us back to Canada. They were really small, unstable and could only hold five people. As soon as one of us was not seasick, we would say to him, ‘Here we go. It’s your turn! Three months after the war, it was my turn to go back. The government offered to pay for our university studies. I had already spent 5 years studying away from home, then 5 years in the war, there was no way that I would spend 5 years at the university! My uncle and my father were very disappointed. I told them that I wanted to work in sales, and that’s what I did.“
“I remember an enormous commemorative parade in the Netherlands that was held many, many years later. Everyone was cheering for me and kissing me! I was one of the few who could still walk. The other veterans were in wheelchairs. I decided to enjoy the moment and have some fun, so I went up to a female police officer and I kissed her on the cheek. There were photos of me kissing that police officer in all the local newspapers! We sometimes forget that the Dutch weren’t so lucky either during the war. They suffered a lot. They were constantly being bombed by the Germans and they had less to eat than the French or the Belgians.
During my last visit, the Queen of the Netherlands told me: “The next time we are at war, don’t send soldiers! Just send missiles! You have already left behind enough children!” When the war was over, the soldiers all fell in love with Dutch women, but they didn’t stay in the country long enough to get married…”
After two hours, Okill continued to go through his memories and told them to us with the same liveliness as he did at the beginning. During the Awards ceremony for the Legion of Honour in 2009, there is a photo with Obama where he is giving him a thumbs-up, congratulating him for one of his speeches. And there are photos where he is talking with the British royal family. He has carefully held onto all the newspaper articles that talk about him as well as those that he has written. Our meeting was coming to an end and he offered to show us his blazer where he has pinned the eleven medals awarded to him by several nations: Canada, England, Holland, France… All of them were displayed as a reminder of the bravery and determination that he showed on the battlefield.