The story of one Canadian solder in Eastbourne during wartime

It was interesting to read about the inscription in the tree at Willingdon carved by the Canadian soldier in 1943, writes Michael Ockenden.

Monday, 26th March 2018, 1:58 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:19 am

Let us hope the name Miller triggers some memories.

Thousands of Canadians were stationed in Eastbourne and names and dates can still be found etched into walls in parts of the town.

It was the discovery of such names in the 1950s that sparked my research into the Canadian presence.

Gunner Lawrence Dempsey somewhere in Meads. He was 'adopted' by the Mackays, whose home at 28 Meads Street was destroyed in March 1943. Glendale Mackay died in the raid and Lawrence was killed one month later during a tussle with his best friend. SUS-180326-124517001

At that time memories were fresh and veterans would return to what they called “our home from home”.

Research in official war diaries at the Public Record Office was supplemented by recollections of ex-soldiers and locals. However, things moved slowly in those pre-Internet days and it was many years before I solved one particular puzzle – that of Gunner Lawrence.

In the autumn of 1942, my grandparents befriended a Canadian gunner, a member of the Canadian 2nd Field Regiment, based at Aldo in Darley Road. He was the age of their youngest son, also in the services, and they felt sorry for him so far from home. Lawrence became one of the family and when his unit was posted away they kept in touch.

However, his letters were lost when my grandfather was killed and their home destroyed in the air raid on Meads Street on March 7 1943. They would later hear via a roundabout route that Lawrence had died shortly after leaving Eastbourne.

The circumstances were unclear – had he also been killed in an air raid? Was there an accident during live firing? My grandmother would often talk about that boy: what on earth had happened to him?

In 2004 when I was writing my book, Canucks by the Sea – The Canadian Army in Eastbourne during the Second World War, for Eastbourne Local History Society, I discovered that the 2,405 Canadian soldiers who died in the UK were buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

With an approximate date and a first name, the superintendent confirmed that a Gunner Lawrence Dempsey had died on April 10 1943. Moreover he came up with an address in New Brunswick.

By now the Internet had arrived, and I was soon in touch with Lawrence’s brother, Patrick, who had also served in the UK but with the RCAF on Sunderland flying boats.

But there had been no air raid and no live bullets. Poor Lawrence, who had volunteered to help the “old country” was accidentally killed by his best friend while queuing for breakfast on Salisbury Plain.

His friend had jokingly knocking his cap off. The court of inquiry was told “We came to grips and Dempsey put me down and both of up got up. We went down together again. I got to my feet but Gunner Dempsey could not. His spine was broken.

Patrick was called to the bedside of his kid brother. Lawrence was sure he would pull through but died three days later.

We were pleased to learn that the Dempsey family had known of my grandparents’ kindness.

To show his appreciation, Patrick came to Eastbourne in April 2006 for the launch of my book, which tells of a time when thousands of soldiers descended on a genteel seaside town.

To read about their AA guns, tanks and the Dieppe raid, the brawls and the sing-songs in pubs, the impact on local women – both single and married – and the prissy reaction of our authorities to an epidemic of VD, contact [email protected] for Canucks by the Sea'.

The above was submitted by Michael Ockenden of Eastbourne Local History Society. For details of ELHS contact Diana Guthrie at [email protected] or telephone Eastbourne 419181.