By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
CALEDONIA—Hugh Patterson grew up as the fourth generation on the family’s Seneca Township (McClung Road) farm. In his late teens, a looming sense of war was heightened in 1939. He recalls listening to the King’s speech on the radio as war was declared and, like so many young men of his generation, he felt “a sense of duty and determination to end the war and restore peace.”
Hugh admits that his father wasn’t keen on him going to war and suggested he could support the war effort at home. At age 17, Hugh joined the Hamilton Signals to train once a week in Morse code while working in munitions factories. In June of 1942, he signed with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (RCCS), attending basic training that summer in Orillia. Advanced training followed in Kingston, where Hugh switched from being a wireless radio operator to training as a Dispatch Rider (DR) on Harley Davidson motorcycles. This seemed a natural fit for Hugh who had been riding motorcycles for several years.
In December of 1942, Hugh received his overseas posting and had two weeks to return home and say goodbye to family and friends. Passage to England took five days with 20,000 soldiers aboard the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, which Hugh notes was designed for pleasure cruises during peacetime.
Hugh’s unit was located in Cove Hampshire in the south of England for training. He was then posted to the 2nd Canadian Division Headquarters Signals in Billingshurst, Sussex. As a DR Hugh explains, “I rode motorcycles delivering messages to all the formations in the Canadian Division.” While facilitating this critical communication between headquarters and military units, DRs travelled the English countryside, seeing “many historical spots in the British Isles.”
While overseas, Hugh witnessed many battles and endured the challenges and hardships of war. In the spring of 1944, the Signals were stationed in Dover with a “bird’s eye view of the D-Day ships.” He recalls that it was “very quiet” when reinforcement units landed on Normandy Beach between Gold and Juno. Battles to follow included Caen, Falaise Gap, the capture of the port of Antwerp in Belgium, the Battle of the Scheldt, and victory in Europe in May 1945.
Hugh remained in Germany with the army of occupation, then assisted with the restoration of Holland. In many ways, the war was a contrast of experiences for Hugh. He felt the excitement of adventure as he rode through the British countryside. He witnessed the atrocities of war, helping liberate a slave labour camp where prisoners of all nationalities were forced into labour for the German war effort. He says there was very little food and a lot of starvation, but he also recalls the victories of war as, “The people were out on the streets celebrating as the Germans were leaving.”
In December of 1945, Hugh says he, “Finally got on the boat to come home.” He met his wife, Barbara, in 1947 and they married in 1948. The couple settled on the home farm and raised nine children. They both liked music and were active in the community. Hugh sang with the Haldimand Choralairs for 25 years and Barb served as President of the Haldimand Association for Community Living. They enjoyed 57 years of marriage and their home was always filled with a good attitude and sense of humour.
A good attitude has served Hugh well through his almost 98 years. His daughter, Tess, says her father taught them to “always look on the bright side.” He conveys this message as he shares his wartime experiences with younger generations. In 2014 Hugh was awarded Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest French military decoration. He has returned to Europe 12 times over the years, attending all the major anniversary commemorations. He has been invited to attend the 75th anniversary in May. While Hugh is not sure he will be able to attend the 2020 celebrations, he does plan to take part in Remembrance Day services with the Legion this month. As services of remembrance are held throughout the community, we can be grateful for all the men and women of Haldimand and Canada who felt that sense of duty and had the determination to end the war and restore peace.