Thursday, November 20, 2014

In Conversation With...Chesley Atkinson

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 19, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Chesley Atkinson shows off the French medal.

Addressed to Chesley Atkinson of Pugwash, the letter begins, “Monsieur,” and continues in French. It is from the Ambassade de France au Canada, Phillipe Zeller.
In translation, it says, “You have been awarded the rank of Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour.”
The 95-year-old World War Two veteran is one of five local veterans who have received the French medal in recognition of their role in liberating France from the Germans.
Or “clearing their country of them,” as Chesley puts it. 
“They would never have got the Germans out of there by themselves. Never, never, never,” he says.
Chesley signed up for the war in July 1940 just before his 20th birthday. He and his friends knew they would be going overseas where the fight was taking place.
“We had to face that, knowing we were going,” he says.
It would be several years before Chesley set foot on European soil. In the years following basic training in the fall of 1940, Chesley trained as a mechanic, driver and fitter for tanks. Although he signed up with C Company of the Halifax Rifles, by the time they landed in England, they’d been switched to an armoured tank corps.
Chesley has a couple of books at hand: a reference book of war tanks with dog-eared pages marking the tanks on which he worked; and a book about the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade including a map of the route his regiment took through France and Belgium into Germany.
In that book, on the first page of the chapter on France, is a handwritten note: “This date is not right. I spent my birthday, 22nd July in France and we had been in battle for two weeks then.”
When he landed at Courseulles-sur-Mer, west of Dieppe, Corporal Atkinson was about to mark his 25th birthday. 
“We had no problem getting landed in France and when we got there, we were supposed to have five days of rest. But [after three days] at nine o’clock at night, they told us to pull out. I had to leave with the half-track and a driver.”
He opens his book of tanks to a photo of his vehicle. 
“The tanks weighed 32 tonnes. The half-track weighed 12 tonnes. The half-tracks were used for transporting infantry,” he says.
The half-track looks like a truck in front but instead of back wheels, there are tank tracks.
“The tanks used to run over land mines all the time and they would blow the track half off or the sides or the assemblies,” he says.
As a fitter, Chesley’s job was to fix the parts that broke down or were damaged most often: the tracks and the clutches. And his job meant that where the tanks were, that’s where he had to be.
“We were all night long, stop and start, stop and start,” he says of pulling out. “Our infantry was coming with us. They followed us on foot with a hundred pounds of weight on them. I used to load them into the half-track, as many as we could fit in.
“We went through cleared fields and bushes and woods. Tanks would shove down quite a tree but we had awful times trying to follow it.
“I was standing up in the half-track guiding. Billy Ball from Montreal was our driver, an older fellow. There was just the two of us in the half-track. The doctor had one [with a driver and an assistant]. He was behind us. We broke through the woods in the morning into a great big hayfield. We could see woods again way over farther. We could see stacks of hay all over the place. 
“Every single one of those hay stacks had a German machine gun underneath.
“They opened up on us. And not only that, there were two great big German 88s and they started firing and mortars started to come, one right after the other. Holy oh mackerel Moses.
“We were going pretty slow. There were shells landing and Billy was driving the old half-track and she would shake. I said, ‘Billy, we have to keep going, we have to follow the command tank’. We kept going and we got to the edge of the woods on the far side. We had three tanks of our own and three tanks of the Polish army and three tanks of the British army. Of course the infantry was there too. I said to Billy, ‘Every time somebody moves, they shoot them’. One thing about the Germans, they never fired at a Red Cross vehicle. The Red Cross were loading injured men. 
“I knew the Germans fired three mortars but they didn’t fire the second ones in the same place. When we got pretty near to the edge of the woods, they had fired three. One of them was within six feet of our vehicle. We slacked off a bit and the doctor’s half-track pulled out around us and pulled right in front of us and behind the tank that was trying to get to the woods. All of sudden, he’d just got in front of us and a mortar landed fair in the middle of the half-track. Holy oh mackerel Moses. There were bodies flying in all directions.
“Billy jammed on the brake and I said, ‘Back up, back up quick’ and we backed up about six feet and another mortar landed right where we had been about two seconds before. Off flew the right front wheel and part of the radiator and part of the engine and the hood. It drove us back. Nothing hit us hard but it gave us an awful shaking up.”
“We jumped out and I said ‘Get in these holes, get down in there, Billy.’ The hole [from the mortar] was about three feet deep and six feet across. We jumped in it and was it ever hot, almost as if you’d jumped on top of the stove. Billy said, ‘Oh, Ches, I can’t stand this, it’s terrible hot,’ and I said, ‘You’d better get your head down in case they do fire again.’ We stayed there for five or six minutes. I thought the pants were going to burn right off me. Talk about hot. But that calmed her down. Our infantry had made it to the edge of the woods and they found out where the two mortar outfits were. They killed seven and got nine prisoners.”
The day stretched through the night as Chesley and Billy, who barely had a scratch on him, waited with the injured for ambulances. 
“We got clear of them all, the injured, by 12 o’clock that night,” says Chesley. “Billy said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Everybody was gone, you see, it was just him and I. So I said, ‘We have nothing to eat, no water, we have no idea where we are, don’t know where the roads are.’ The next morning, we decided we could hear the guns going off way off in the distance so I said, ‘Billy, what do you say we just take our rifle and start walking. Surely to God, there must be a road somewhere we can sit down by and get some kind of vehicle coming or going.”
Carrying their kit bags and armed with their rifles, they walked away from the scene of their first battle and found a road. Two days later, they were able to flag down a supply truck.
They went three days without food or water before being reunited with their regiment.
“When you’re hungry and thirsty, especially when you’re thirsty, your tongue is as big as your fist and you can’t swallow,” Chesley remembers. 
Was he injured?
“I tell ya, I’m still finding pieces in me now,” he says. “When the exploding shells landed, and they landed damn close to us a lot of the time, they blew quite a hole and everything within forty or fifty yards was hit with sand and dirt, if nothing bigger hit you. I was lucky [because] I got hit damn close two or three times. Here awhile ago, I felt something coming through on the top of my nose. Right here, on the side of my head, there’s something coming through there now. I got digging at another spot one day and something came out about the size of the head of a match. That’s what it looked like. When I got the pinchers and squeezed, it broke up like a little wee rock.”
He touches the white scar on his head. 
“There was one up here on the top of my forehead, that was the worse one I ever got. It was probably an inch and a half long. It wasn’t really deep. I got Billy to fix it up for me.”
More than a year later, in September 1945, the war ended but Chesley didn’t make it home until November. 
“I had lots of time in, I could have come back as soon as the war was over, but we had to sign a paper saying we would wait until the married fellows got home first,” he explains.
It didn’t take him long to join the ranks of the married fellows, however, when he met a woman named Gladys shortly after returning to Pugwash. 
For the next 41 years, Chesley helped Gladys raise three children and worked as the Pugwash harbour master and wharf manager for 41 years.
“I’m soon at the end of my trail,” Chesley admits while sitting in the living room of his home on Freedom Lane, “but I’m damn lucky to be as good as I am.”
Monsieur, we’re all damn lucky you were as good as you once were.

A photo of Corporal Atkinson along with the certificate
of appreciation from the Village of Pugwash.

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