NOSTALGIA: Anniversary of Canadian troops arriving in Eastbourne
Eighty years ago, and the threat of a German invasion had receded. But although Eastbournians had not realised it, another – friendly – invasion was about to be launched.
Advance parties had scouted out potential HQs, medical facilities, workshops, accommodation for officers and billets for other ranks. There was plenty of choice. In Meads, boarding schools had been evacuated; most of the hotels stood empty; detached properties in and around Prideaux Road had been vacated. And at Willingdon roundabout, newly-built houses were yet to find buyers.
The grapevine went into overdrive – ”soldiers are coming”. Not Tommies, Aussies or Kiwis but Canucks. Suddenly they were everywhere, building assault courses, setting up firing ranges, hanging telephone cables from trees, digging AA gun pits, crowding the pubs and chatting up women on the seafront and at Winter Garden dances.
But who on earth were Canucks? The shoulder flashes on their uniforms – similar to British battledress but smoother – gave the answer, Canada.
These were not conscripts, but volunteers who had come to help “the old country”. After months in barracks and under canvas, they could hardly believe their luck when they found themselves in spacious houses.
An explosive cocktail of testosterone and beer brings out the worst, and in this respect the Canadian army was no different. There were brawls – one of the worst outside the Pier Hotel on October 15 1943 when a pitched battle was fought in Seaside Road between Irish Canadians and Norwegian Commandos. On another occasion, a local girl who later married a Canadian recalled one hulking Canuck taking a vicious beating from a commando outside the Winter Garden.
However, relations with townsfolk were good. They organised parties for children and pensioners, helped with the harvest, put out incendiaries and cleared debris after air raids. Their pay-packets, more generous than those of British servicemen, helped the economy. The licensee of the Tally Ho said, “The profits from those years funded my boys through private education.”
With their menfolk away, local women were deprived of male company. They had heard of lumberjacks and knew the Royal Canadian Mounted Police always “got their man”. And the latter was what many set out to do. Then, low and behold, the town experienced an explosion of VD. An official order did not mince words: “During the past month there has been an increase in those evacuated for VD, a serious matter entailing the loss of a man to the army and the possibility of long and painful treatment and the chance of permanent disability”.
Eastbourne’s Medical Officer pressed for warning notices in the buses but was overruled by the council. Yet it was not all a matter of one-night stands and true love blossomed. By the end of the war, 150 Eastbourne brides would leave for a new life in Canada. The mayor said he was glad so many local girls had married the men who had come to Britain in our darkest hour. The last of the Canadians left in 1944. One battalion recorded in its war diary, “This battalion feels they belong to Eastbourne and Eastbourne belongs to them.”
The full story of the Canadian Army in Eastbourne is told in Canucks by the Sea.
See www.eastbournehistory.org.uk or collect by arrangement from Lynne Kealy, 10 Fraser Avenue, Eastbourne, BN23 6BD, call 641604 or email [email protected]