The 25th Medium Regiment (Norfolk Regiment), RCA originated in Simcoe, Ontario on 28 September 1866 as the 39th “Norfolk Battalion of Rifles”. It was re-designated as the 39th Regiment “Norfolk Rifles” on 8 May 1900, The Norfolk Rifles on 1 May 1920 and The Norfolk Regiment of Canada on 15 November 1928. It was converted to artillery on 15 December 1936 and designated the 25th (Norfolk) Field Brigade, RCA. It was re-designated the 25th Reserve (Norfolk) Field Brigade, RCA on 7 November 1940, the 45th Reserve (Norfolk) Field Regiment, RCA on 5 September 1942, the 25th Field Regiment (Norfolk Regiment), RCA on 1 April 1946 and the 25th Medium Regiment (Norfolk Regiment), RCA on 28 November 1946. On 1 October 1954, it was amalgamated with the 56th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Dufferin and Haldimand Rifles), RCA.
6th Infantry Brigade: HQ Toronto
48th Highlanders of Canada: Toronto
The Queen’s 0wn Rifles of Canada: Toronto
The Royal Regiment of Canada: Toronto
The Irish Regiment of Canada M-G: Toronto
The Queen’s York Rangers (1st American Regiment)
Machine Gun: Toronto (Attached)
The Toronto Scottish Regiment M-G: Toronto (Attached)
7th (Toronto) Regiment, RCA: Toronto
3rd Field Brigade, RCA: Toronto
9th (Toronto)(How), 15th, 30th, 53rd
4th Medium Brigade, RCA: Toronto
21st, 23rd (How), 24th (How), 25th (How)
8th Field Brigade, RCA: Hamilton
10th (St. Catharines) Battery: St. Catharines
11th (Hamilton), 40th, 54th (How) Batteries: Hamilton
In 1939, the Great Depression still held a strangle hold on the Country. The gross National Product had dropped 40% since 1929 and unemployment was rampant. One would think that Norfolk with its orchards, fishing, tobacco and dairies would have escaped the meanest parts of the economic devastation. However, areas that depended on primary industries such as farming were hit the hardest as prices on goods fell. The farming community responded by attempting to harvest more of everything but this simply added more fuel to the engines that were driving the prices lower. The problem was exacerbated by the annual influx of transient works from across the Dominion seeking employment in the tobacco harvest. Towards the end of July an estimated 12,000 had descended on the County with the majority heading to Delhi. They came by train, car, bicycle or hitch-hiked from as far away as the orchards of southern British Columbia and the coast-lines of Nova Scotia. The Simcoe Reformer wrote:
The majority are victims of optimism. Hundreds have been led like blind sheep by truckers who have squeezed their last penny from them in payment for transportation while others are merely continuing their monotonous search for a chance to re-establish themselves as hard-working sons of either their native country or the land they have adopted. The true picture of the seriousness of the situation can be seen in Delhi, a village of slightly more than 2,000, now significantly closer to 10,000 inhabitants. Every nationality is represented, young and old, women and children. They sleep in the parks, under trees, in old sheds and barns; any place where they can obtain the least semblance of a roof as they await the harvesting of the tobacco-crop.
Jack MacDonald, his wife and four young children arrived in Delhi on July 24. The family had hitched-hiked from North Bay – a trip that took three weeks of bitter travel with only the ground as their bed. During the Great War, Jack had served in the 187th Battalion out of Red Deer, Alberta. He was twice wounded by shrapnel. On arriving in Delhi, he went in search of a veteran and found Chief of Police Ernest Pratt. Ernie put them in touch with members of the Royal Canadian Legion Benevolent Committee who found them accommodation in the Stoddard Hotel. The tragic part of the story was that only one in every 50 might succeed in getting a job that if luck held might see them paid for a month’s work. And on top of everything else that seemed to be going sideways in those days, the wages in the tobacco fields were much lower, workers receiving from $1.50 to $2.00 a day with board.
By the beginning of August, Delhi Council was forced to pass a resolution to remove the transients. Numerous complaints were funnelling into the police station complaining of petty thefts and locals found it near impossible to walk down streets crowded with the un-employed. There was the added problem of trying to feed them. It will become an annual event that will extend into the early 1960’s when the Delhi major is forced to read the Riot Act and to call out the Fire Department to disperse the crowds. That summer of 39, late rains slowed the harvest and a threat of an early frost hung over the whole industry.
Against this backdrop, the world learned that Hitler had ordered the complete mobilization of Germany’s military forces. Britain advised Hitler that any threat to Poland’s independence would result in the British Empire lining up against him. It would be followed days later with the announcement that German observation balloons were floating over Polish territory and that buildings on the Polish-German border were under rifle and machine gun fire. As threats of war increased, local Norfolk firms were beginning to feel the first impacts war would have on the home-front. From tobacco to apples, Britain was Canada’s primary trading partner. In the earliest days, the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association was forced to cancel shipments of carloads of apples due to the unavailability of boats. But even more devastating was the increases in the marine insurance costs to cover the shipments. It soon became prohibitive to even consider shipments across the Atlantic. The Simcoe Mitt and Glove Company would receive word to hold all consignments destined for London, England. Over night the cost of leather had gone up 20 per cent. The headline for September 5th read:
Canada Stands at Britain’s Side – – Ruthless German Invasion of Poland Goes On – -British Steamer Athenia Torpedoed by German Submarine.
At the request of the Reformer, Eric Cross, Ontario minister of Municipal Affairs and Public Works made the following statement to the residents of Norfolk: “A great tragedy in human relationships has swept upon us. It is with heavy hearts that my message comes. We had hoped and prayed for peace – but events move inexorably to the conflict that has come. Canada will take its full part. This great county with its past history and traditions to guard it will stand united with Canada in enlisting its full energies and resources in the cause of human freedom.”
Before the first call went out for voluntary enlistment of soldiers, the Country was moving into a war footing. Sugar was the first commodity to draw the attention of the War-time Prices and Trade Board. As the annual rite of canning preserves was about to begin, they issued a warning that any attempts at restricting or accumulating supplies, or the enhancement of prices for sugar would be met with prompt action. At the same time, the Norfolk Chapter of the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire swung into action to collect new warm clothing and blankets for British children that were being evacuated from major industrialized cities. The Woman’s Institute then put out an appeal for jam to send to British children.
As for the sharp end of the stick, an announcement was made in September to the effect that an Artillery Course would take place on October 15th at the Simcoe Armouries for a select number of men in the 33rd, 41st, 42nd and 46th Batteries of the 25th Norfolk Field Brigade, Royal Canadian Artillery. These men would form the nucleus of the Batteries when the order came from Ottawa to proceed with the enlistment of volunteers in the 25th Brigade. E. W. Curly Smith is selected for training with the 42nd out of Delhi. Meanwhile, Norfolk men began enlisting with Batteries and Regiments across southern Ontario. Ray Neil joined the First Hussars out of London. George Dawes and Harold Bonnet of Simcoe enlisted with the First Divisional Signals in London. Hugh MacDonald of Port Dover enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and George Gerow of Normandale joined the Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps at Toronto.
Thieving and robbing were a common occurrence over this period probably driven by poverty and the lack of jobs. Armed bandits held up gas stations for a return of $85. It was an epidemic. Not even the offices of the Simcoe Reformer escaped young bandits who entered the premises and purloined a $28 Swiss movement watch from the desk of one William Bland. Tracked down and caught, they reported they had sold the watch for a dime. Small safes were simply stolen outright to be opened at another location. One Simcoe merchant posted a sign on his safe. It read – “Don’t break – this safe does not contain money – only records.” Earlier in the year, police raided a home a mile north of Delhi and charged five men with operating a common bawdy house and keeping intoxicating beverages for sale. On a darker side, there were ominous words for all the tobacco farmers in the area. A report covering an 11 year period, indicated that in 1928, tobacco acreage stood at 10, 898 acres with a production of 8,718,000 pounds which had an average sales price of 31 cents a pound. B
In 1936, changes had been made in the Canadian Militia resulting in the Norfolk Regiment of Canada converting from the 39th Norfolk Infantry Battalion to the 25th Norfolk Field Brigade of the Royal Canadian Artillery. The Brigade consisted of the 41st and 42nd Batteries out of Simcoe and Delhi respectively. Two others, the 33rd Field and the 46th Howitzer were to be localized later out of Port Rowan and Simcoe. The 42nd was ordered to mobilize in January 1939 as a light anti-aircraft unit under the command of Major W. D. Stalker who commenced active training of the Battery both in Delhi and in the Simcoe Armoury.
The population of Norfolk stood at 35,634. Of these, 10,400 had been born outside of Canada. Most came from Britain followed by 2,655 Belgiums, 2,614 Dutch, 1,647 Germans and 1,308 Hungarians. Ukrainians made up 691, Poles 487 and Czechs 286. Assuming that George Onifrichuk would give his ethnicity as Romanian, there were 186 of them in the County. By late October of 1939, the foreign born Canadians of Norfolk will begin to come forward to enlist. Chief Pratt of Delhi appears to have been the person in charge of counselling would be volunteers in the area. He reported that the distinguishing feature of them all was a desire to serve their country of Canada. One had been a pilot in the Romanian Air force. Another was a Hungarian veteran of the First World War. Mike Vegso – a 38 year old Hungarian – tried to enlist in Delhi. He was confused. While he didn’t have his naturalization papers he had lived in Canada for the last 14 years and knew that Canada needed soldiers. He said that he didn’t want something for nothing. He simply wanted to serve.
Registration was mandatory for all men between the ages of 19 and 45. In 1940 there were 3,950 of them in the County. Windham Township was tops with 517 and Simcoe was third with 443. There were 338 in Delhi, 136 in Port Dover and Waterford had 90. Three hundred and ninety-six were 19 years of age. In scenes reminiscent of 1916, they began enlisting with Batteries and Regiments across southern Ontario. Ray Neil joined the First Hussars out of London. George Dawes and Harold Bonnet of Simcoe enlisted with the First Divisional Signals in London. Hugh MacDonald and Charles Mizner of Port Dover joined the Royal Canadian Navy. George Gerow of Normandale joined the Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps at Toronto. Vincent Lewis of Port Rowan enlisted with the Lincoln-Welland Regiment out of St. Catherines. H.B. Olds of Port Rowan enlisted with the Royal Canadian Regiment; and Stanley Whitehorn of Lynnville and Alexander Dickson joined the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
The serious business of recruiting for Norfolk Batteries began in earnest later in November when the 41st Field Battery out of Simcoe and the 33rd Battery out of Port Rowan were given the green light. The Imperial Tobacco Factory in Delhi finally opened on December 14th with expectations for the employment of 1,600 persons. The opening had been delayed approximately one month due to the holdups in opening the flue-cured market. Plant officials announced that of this number about 600 will be women, including graders and floorladies. When war broke out, the Allies understood that air superiority was essential. They had to immediately confront the scarcity of both war planes and pilots to fly them. In December of 1939, British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian officials agreed to centralize air crew training in Canada. The plan resulted in the establishment of 107 schools and other instructional units at 231 sites across Canada. By the end of the war, the Commonwealth Air Training Plan will turn out 200,000 pilots and airmen. The plan will have a profound impact on the daily lives of Norfolk’s citizens. Service Training schools will be established in Brantford, Aylmer, and Hagersville/Jarvis and over the next four years, young pilots will force land in Norfolk fields sometimes with fatal consequences. During the early years of the conflict, it was mostly in Canada that the war found its victims. From the beginning of 1942 to the end of 1944, 831 fatal air crashes took place in Canada – an average of 23 per month, or five every week. Flying in Canada ran higher risks than combat flights in Europe.
As the Nazis began their sweep into Holland and Belgium, locals began to reminisce about their experiences in the Great War. Albert Bogaert and his wife recalled the horrors they had suffered under the German occupation of their hometown in Belgium in 1914. They were mere children at the time and were used as forced labour by the Germans to build light railways. They had lived under the constant threat of gun fire for four years. Mrs. Bogaert said her mother and father owned an inn in their village and the Germans ordered her father onto his knees. They were going to shoot him. Her mother and the children began crying and they yielded to their tears. Now in 1940 the Nazis were once again bombing Belgium cities. The parents of Archie Cordier of Simcoe still lived in one of the Belgium cities. The War was coming home to Norfolk. In April, the Belgian Reservists in the Norfolk area were advised that they would shortly be called up.
James Miller of Woodhouse was among the first to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. He will be among the first to die. He was killed in action over Holland on March 28th 1940. At their next meeting, the Norfolk County Council paused in their business to observe a one minute silence in memory of Sgt. Pilot James E. Miller killed in action over Rotterdam. Close to 1,000 attended the memorial service in the Wesleyan Church in Jarvis. It is a ritual that will be repeated 147 more times before the end of hostilities in 1945. A haunting chorus rises from silent lips:
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”
In June 1940, six officers and 85 men from the four Norfolk Batteries left for training in Petawawa to the accompaniment of hundreds of cheering Simcoe and district residents and patriotic airs by the Simcoe Salvation Army Band. The contingent travelled by bus to district depot in Toronto before moving to Petawawa Camp as artillery reinforcements in the Canadian Active Service Force. The next reminder of war came with a plea for Norfolk residents to volunteer carrying for refugee British children. It was promptly met with the filing of fifty applications.
Meanwhile, the 41st Battery had swollen its ranks to 130 men and a similar number had joined the 42nd. They would become a common sight as parade drill intensified on the Market Square or the Armouries in Simcoe and route marches passed through the business districts. The 41st was seen studying artillery manoeuvres with an 18-pound gun near Windham Centre. Over the next two years, Simcoe residents would periodically wake to the realization that their town had been captured overnight in a mock commando raid by their own soldiers. By August 8th the 25th Norfolk Field Brigade consisted of 424 officers and men and the 46th and 42nd Batteries were off to a training session at Niagara-on-the-Lake.
For the farmers of Norfolk, an early frost would wipe out half of their tobacco crop. Close to 4 million pounds were destroyed. But farmers of Belgium birth faced another serious challenge. The Belgium minister in Canada announced that all males born in Belgium and between the ages of 19 and 25 years of age living in Canada would be conscripted for military service in England.
On August 19th 1940 the RCAF Bombing and Gunnery School opened in Jarvis. The paper reported – with mild exaggeration – that in short order, the clatter of machine gun fire and the shrill sound of falling bombs would become as familiar as an old song to the people along the north shore of Lake Erie. The station would accommodate 100 planes and 800 personnel. All aircrew had successfully completed their basic and advanced flight training prior to being stationed in Jarvis. They would now be taught how to drop bombs – in this case smoke markers – on a designated bombing range off the shore line of Turkey Point. The population of Norfolk would congregate on the cliffs over looking the Point and provide their own passing grades on each bombing run. It was great for recruitment. Many of Norfolk’s young men will flock to the Royal Canadian Air Force. By war’s end they will account for one-third of all the Norfolk deaths.
As the summer of 1941 approached, Norfolk Council had to again prepare for the worst of the transient influx. The problem, however, did not materialize. Possibly as a result of the war and the enlistment of many young men – or possibly because of the harsh response Delhi had taken in the previous year – the transients failed to appear. At some point during 1941 – probably because of shortages in newsprint and paper – the four county newspapers amalgamated to publish one newspaper every three to four days under the banner of the Simcoe Reformer. Pages were now dedicated to the names of local men that were enlisting.
The war was coming on the far end of the great depression and good paying jobs still eluded many of the young. As with every generation that had ever gone off to war, this one saw the promise of excitement and adventure and a relief from the monotony of farm or factory work. Replacing it was the guarantee of three square meals a day, a uniform that the young girls couldn’t resist, an opportunity to see the world and a monthly pay cheque. But hanging over it all like a shroud of Royal Blue, was that thing they called patriotism beckoning all those young men who had known since public school that they would serve the Empire if duty called. Was it really only 24 years earlier that the same call had gone out? So many will answer and so many will die.
For Curly, the journey began in September of 1939 with the announcement of an Artillery Course on October 15th at the Simcoe Armouries for a select number of men in the 33rd, 41st, 42nd and 46th Batteries. These men would form the nucleus of the Batteries when the order came from Ottawa to proceed with the enlistment of volunteers. Curly is one of the selected. He recalled:
“On the day I joined the Army with John Birdsall, I was working at the tobacco warehouse in Delhi moving hog heads (barrels of tobacco) when Ken Wheaton told me Maj. Stalker was forming the 42nd Battery. I went into Simcoe to take in 3 lectures, took the exam – and failed. I was devastated. Capt. Tom Gingell came down to Delhi to see me and I told him I couldn’t understand how I had failed. He told me to get my note book out, put me straight on what I had done wrong and arranged for me to try the exam again. I passed with flying colours.”
Major Stalker, Curly and John Birdsall were now tasked with the recruitment and administration of the 42nd. On June 5, 1941, Military District No. 2 issued authorization to mobilize the 42nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery as a unit of the Active Force. The first recruit was Gunner Lloyd A. Whitehead who was taken on strength effective 10 June 1941 and given regimental number B22400. Each recruit will make a signed declaration that they “- do solemnly declare that I hereby engage to serve in any Active Formation or Unit of the Canadian Army so long as an emergency, i.e war, invasion, riot, insurrection, real or apprehended, exists, and for the period of demobilization after said emergency ceases to exist and in any event for a period not less than one year, provided His Majesty should so require my services.” They then took an oath that they “- do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty the King.”
Recruiting meetings were arranged throughout the county resulting in the immediate enlistment of 62 men. By the time they leave for Niagara-on-the-Lake on August 13, they had recruited 175 men. Battery Sergeant Major Curly Smith and Battery Quartermaster John Birdsall now have there hands full outfitting and training the new recruits. John’s life will be consumed with reports in triplicate for medicals, attestations, oath taking, pay vouchers, wills, next of kin and an every ending search for uniforms and the bits of equipment that will at least make the 42nd look like soldiers.
From time immemorial boys have become men on the parade square. It is here that they learn their left from their right, to absorb the shocking insults of the Sgt Major who questions their parentage and often wonders if their parents had any children that lived. None can be trusted with a rifle yet and the notion of giving them a bayonet would be tantamount to stupidity. But slowly, so very slowly, they learn to fall in, dress their ranks, size and reform, to march in step, turn left, change direction right and halt with that ground pounding stomp of a true soldier. They learn to salute, press uniforms, polish boots and brass buckles and appear on parade in immaculate, pristine form. They learn that to do otherwise is to earn the wrath of the Sgt. Major, to be put on Major’s report and to be handed extra duty as punishment. But first the novice Sgt Major had to learn humility and the meaning of the section from “King’s Rules and Regulations” regarding un-becoming conduct contrary to the good order and discipline of the Service. It was a “catch all” charge used to punish the most insignificant of transgressions.
In 1940, Maj. Stalker sent Ken Wheaton (right), Pat Bourgeois (left) and me to Gunnery School at Niagara-on-the-Lake for training on the “45” howitzer and the “18” pounder. The three of us must have attained the rank of Lance-Gunner with pay, rations and quarters – but no uniforms. We purchased two pairs of kakhi pants and shirts of the same colour and signed out for a pith helmet. We slept on the floor of the tent and every morning there was a kit inspection followed by cook parade and then parade square drill. After a few weeks of this routine we applied and received a pass to see Niagara Falls after Sunday morning parade. The Battery Sergeant Major (BSM), however, had other thoughts. As the hour of departure arrived, “Us three” were singled out by BSM Rouse who then directed the Camp Orderly Sgt to record our names, cancel our passes and after lunch provide “Us Three” with a separate tent row with lots of grass growing up among the ropes and “See how much they can do to make the place look better”. The Orderly Sgt seemed to enjoy the program so much that he hesitated in letting us leave his presence for supper. Then he had us back out again until dark. You should have seen the whisker growth which “Us Three” had on display the next morning.
Welcome to the army son! It was said that Curly Smith would become one of the smartest looking soldier that ever walked a parade square. As a testament to him and his men, the citizens of the county used to gather around the Armouries in Simcoe on Sunday afternoons to watch the budding soldiers on parade.
In August 1941, the four reserve units of Norfolk Brigade were sent to Niagara-on-the-Lake for stepped up training. Curly, meanwhile, had just enough time for another activity. In mid-September they entrained for Petawawa with a strength of over 260 men. At Petawawa their numbers increased to 325 with the addition of gunners from Western Ontario and Nova Scotia. Three troops had been formed with Sgt. H. C. Judd in charge or “A” Troop, Sgt. H. F. Barry in charge of “B” Troop and Sgt. W. R. Butler in charge of “C” Troop. Basic training continued at Petawawa where the Battery joined with the 57th Battery from Quebec, and the 67th from Saskatchewan to make up the 7th L.A.A. Regiment under the command of Lieut. Colonel Harold Inns. The 41st, under the command of Major W. B. Durward had grown to 140 members when they were united with the 102nd Battery from Dundas.
Orders were now received to proceed overseas and a review by a medical board resulted in the loss of several for medical reasons, including the commanding officer, Major Stalker, as well as a number who were underage. On November 12th 1941 they boarded the “Durban Castle” in Halifax and sailed for Britain.
The 41st Battery had made their way to England in September 1940 as part of the 5th L.A.A Regiment. They will undergo the same regimen of training as the 42nd but their destiny will be with the 1st Canadian Division that will be sent to the war in Italy landing at Naples on November 8th 1943. In March 1945 the Regiment was transported to Marseilles, France and preceded to Arnhem, Holland. The 33rd Battery will become part of the 6th Canadian Anti-Tank Regiment landing in Normandy on July 7th 1944. The Regiment would move through Caen to Rouen, Abbeville, Ypres, Ghent, Antwerp and Nijmegen. The 46th will form part of the 9th L.A.A Regiment and will be sent to the West Coast for defensive positions against Japanese invasion. The unit will later provide reinforcements for regiments in Europe.