This story spans several decades. It reaches across two continents. It doesn’t focus on a war hero but rather the impact that war had on one family and its ripple effect.
SEPTEMBER 1940 The darkness of war has descended in England. The German Luftwaffe attacks on this incalculably important port city are leaving significant collateral damage already.
This is the realities that the Wilde family faced. Jim Wilde was recently transferred from North London to Granthan and well aware that more perilous times were upcoming. An aunt in Canada has offered to take their sons, Douglas and Peter, (at this point 9 and 7) so an application was filled out through CORB (children overseas reception board). Their sister, Pauline, was too old to qualify.
British parliament first discussed evacuation of children from high risk areas in early May 1940. Following the Dunkirk withdrawal of troops CORB came into operation and from June to September there were a total of 2664 children evacuated. Private agencies and companies sent a further 14,000 away from danger but it was not without risks.
Imagine the scene, early September 1940, two schoolboys aged nine and seven. We were dressed in typical school uniform of white shirt, grey jumper and short trousers, topped with navy overcoat. Standing on a wind-swept L.N.E.R. railway station at Grantham Lincolnshire waiting for our train to Liverpool. We were carrying gas masks over our shoulders and had the obligatory name label attached. We were Douglas Wilde C.O.R.B. No. 5339 and Peter Wilde C.O.R.B. No. 5340. We each had a suitcase with the yellow C.O.R.B. label affixed.
We were going cross-country to Liverpool. I can`t remember the goodbyes or much of the journey except for two things,we had a long stop in a tunnel not far from our destination, and reaching Liverpool we had to go into an air raid shelter due to a raid. We eventually arrived at our destination near the dock and were housed in a reception centre to await the C.O.R.B. ship.
“The Evacuee” memoirs written by Douglas E. Wilde in 2003 makes no mention of how difficult it must have been as parents to make this move for their children. Imagine the distress that Jim and Elsie Wilde must have felt when the news reported that the “City of Benares” had been sunk as the part of the convoy O B 213 that left on September 13th. They had made a decision to send their children to safety but the stress of this must have been tremendous.
The sinking of the “City of Benares “was widely reported in the world press. The actual details of date of sailing and port of embarkation were not released due to wartime security. Our parents were in the dark as to whether we were on it or not. Remember we left Grantham in early September and the report of the sinking was reported in the press on the 23rd. September. Had it not been for our delay in the tunnel and the air raid in Liverpool we would have been on the “City of Benares”.
This point was proved conclusively during a visit to The Public Records Office at Kew. The initial search in limited time revealed an astonishing fact! On studying the passenger lists for ships that sailed from Liverpool in September 1940, the first one uncovered was that of the “City of Benares “. The C.O.R.B. had forwarded lists of the names of children which were to be included on passenger lists. On looking through this list it was noticed that a number of names had been deleted in red crayon. At first I thought that those deleted were those that were lost when it was torpedoed.It was soon apparent that there were far fewer deletions than the number of passengers that had been lost. On looking closer I found the names of Douglas Edward Wilde and Peter John Wilde, our names these had been deleted in red crayon.The conclusion drawn from this was that we should have been on that fateful ship but had literally missed the boat possibly due to a German air raid in Liverpool. The ship sailed on the 13th.of September!
The passenger lists were then found for the “Nova Scotia “. Our names were found to have been added at the end on a supplementary list. When the facts of this discovery began to sink in it was a weird and very emotional experience. To think that fate had decided we were literally to have “missed the boat” and made our journey some eight days later.
Life on board the ship, with just a few escorts, could have been like a strange vacation or an adventure. Without a lot of supervision and the company of plenty of other children the days could have flown by if you weren’t seasick or homesick. At 9 and 7 the danger probably didn’t seem real and the reality of the trip only beginning to sink in.
We had been out some four days by this time, we had a call to boat stations. We donned our life jackets and made our way to our allotted station in our case was on the port side. What we took for granted as another boat drill was in fact the real thing! A U boat 43 piloted by Captain Ambrosius had torpedoed a ship called the “Sularia”. This was at 12.30 B.S.T. while she was sailing astern of us and some way behind. At our boat station and facing out to sea we were looking at the Hospital ship. In a matter of moments it surged forward disappearing in the distance. Some time passed but what we saw next gave us a fright as, facing our boat station beyond and to the rear of where the Hospital ship had been sailing I can vividly remember seeing a ship sinking in the distance, this was probably the “Eurymedon”. It was hit by U29 with Captain Schuart at 13.05 B.S.T.. We being a faster ship than many freighters in the convoy we steamed off on our own.
“Thirty one British children stepped ashore from a camouflaged liner at this port today after an uneventful voyage from England. All but two of the party are scheduled for Nova Scotia homes for the duration of the war; two of them are joining relatives in Winnipeg. Ranging in ages from five years to 15, the children, 19 of them boys, reported no untoward incidents during the voyage. They were called to boat stations a couple of times, but the reason for such action was not known to the children. They did not see enemy undersea craft or aeroplanes. Brigadier M.C. Ware of the Salvation Army was conductress of the group. “The children behaved wonderfully all the way over; even when called to stand by at boat the children showed no fear and displayed great calm and courage” she said. … Seven year old Peter “Perky” Wilde, who with his older brother Douglas is to reside with relatives in Winnipeg was not greatly impressed by Hitler’s attempts to terrorize the English people. Although young in years “Perky” was a shrewd observer “those Germans can`t frighten us because we know we`re going to beat them”.
The telegraph to speak of their safe arrival would have been met with much relief. The fact that the report would say it was an uneventful voyage from England was due to wartime security and perhaps to allay any anxiety for parents back home. Once they arrived in Canada the evacuees kept up with home news via the radio and by letters.
Doug’s recollections pick up the story again as they board a train for their final destination.
We travelled by train on C.N.R. line across Canada to Winnipeg, Manitoba one of the Prairie Provinces. This journey took some three days. We travelled in open carriages and went to the dining car for meals. We had individual sleepers (bunks) but used the general washroom. The curtained bunks were set length ways in the carriages and were made up each night by Negro porters; this was quite a novelty as we had never seen a Negro before. There were quite a few stops during our three-day trip, on such stops we were allowed on to the platform. We visited the refreshment kiosks to buy candy (sweets), there were also trolleys on some stations, and they were pushed along the platform where drinks, newspapers etc. were available.
We arrived at Winnipeg on 7th. October 1940 and the newspaper clipping states that Douglas Wilde, 10, and his brother Peter 7, two English boys, still had not sighted a Mountie. They were almost ready to doubt the existence of the redcoats. “Canada is just fine but I would like to see a Mountie and some of the woolly west, you know” Peter said eagerly.I have the original cutting from the Winnipeg Free Press which was sent to our parents back home. As mentioned previously, it was intended for us to stay with my Father’s Aunt, Hilda Barton Smyth and her husband who was a portrait photographer. Their home was at Eriksdale, just north of Winnipeg. However by the time we arrived she had been taken ill and as she was over 60 yrs. of age it was decided that the C.O.B.R. would have to find alternative accommodation for us. We stayed in a hostel awaiting a family.
Les and Blanche Kerr had read an ad in a newspaper which implored Canadians to take in evacuee children. Since they had no family of their own the Kerr’s applied for one child. At this point in time they are living in Morden, Manitoba where Les was the manager of the Morden Experimental Station. The site was one mile from town and gave the boys a taste of rural life as well as small town living in the tiny bungalow. Peter’s recollections recall that he fit in quite well and that it became a normal parent child relations in short order.
On the domestic front, we had chores to do, in the winter when wood was delivered it was dumped on the drive and we had to take it around the back to make a wood pile. Each morning the ashes had to be removed from the stove. One winter morning it was my turn, I took the ashes, still hot from the night before from the stove taking them to the usual place behind the garage and dumped them in the snow. Apparently I put them too close to the garage which was made of wood and some time later it caught fire. Fortunately the car was not in as Les Kerr had gone to work in it. The Fire Brigade came and put out the fire, it was then discovered that our pet rabbits were not so lucky, they were in a cage just inside the door and had perished.
..the windows had screens on them in the summer which were covered in muslin to prevent insects from coming into the house. Well, my brother and I were playing with matches, as boys do. We were in a bedroom near a window which was open. I put the match too close to the muslin and a great hole appeared! Inevitably punishment followed and that together with the garage incident led to my brother and I being split up. You can imagine the situation, a childless couple about 35 yrs.old taking on two complete strangers from a different background one seven and one nine. I am led to believe we were not rude but mischievous and quite a handful to say the least .
From the spring of 1941 till Doug left Canada he moved several more times and one can only imagine the sleepless night prior to each move. He started out by staying with Reverend and Mrs. Henstock in Carman but the arrival of their own newborn forced another move. He landed in the Knowles Boys School in Winnipeg for a few months but the nice part of that was he was able to visit with his father’s cousins and they had 3 sons. The next stop was with the Rowe family in Manitou; this family was composed of one girl and four boys and this seemed to be the best fit yet for an active young lad. Despite the proximity of the locations he lived in the boys were not allowed to see one another because it was felt that it would be too disruptive.
On a general note, Floyd and I used to get up to all sorts of enterprises. On one occasion during the summer I recall us using ingredients from the kitchen at home to make lemonade. We got a couple of orange boxes from a local store and set up our stall on Main Street. We had a couple of jugs and some glasses, it was particularly hot day, and we sold out in no time at all. I`m not sure who it was in aid of us or the war effort.
Les Kerr accepted a job at the Sutherland Forest Nursery Station in Saskatchewan but prior to the move they had to obtain special permission to move their evacuee “son”. There are a few photos of this time period. Peter spent time hunting with Les, riding ponies with friends and going to school in Sutherland. He had one unfortunate incident while out playing when he got seriously cut from a barbed wire fence. The bond between Blanche, Les and Peter seemed to grow very strong during this time and it must have been very difficult to imagine life without him there.
The war is winding down and the evacuees are starting to be sent home. It’s interesting to note that Doug leaves this early but Peter does not return until late summer. Peter’s arrival home coincides with the start of the school term and he has no time to catch up with his older siblings.
I was taken to the station, said my farewells, and boarded the train, carrying the same brown leather suitcase with the C.O.R.B. label affixed that I had used when coming to Canada in 1940.I waved out of the window to the Rowe family and was on my way.
The journey took three days and two nights on a Pullman to New York via Montreal where we changed trains. We had to walk from the Canadian line to the U.S. line this was through long passageways all tiled in black and white, eventually we arrived at the correct platform for New York. After some considerable time waiting we boarded the train, we were allocated compartments unlike our trip out where we were in long open carriages ….The ship we were to sail in was the New Zealand Shipping Line” M.S. Rangitata “- 16,000 tons. We set sail on Feb.2 and disembarked at Liverpool on Feb.14 1945. …On the approach to the dock at Liverpool, coming up the River Mersey one thing that is a very clear memory was that the water was a murky yellow. This was in complete contrast to the crystal clear waters in the rivers in Canada.
On disembarkation …I went to a hostel to await the arrival of my father who arrived in uniform to take me back to Grantham and Mum at 36, Cliffe Road. This then started me back on the process of readjustment to a still wartime Britain and the way of life that I had left behind four and a half years before…I had two weeks of what was like familiarization with English ways once more. Then the inevitable arrived, time to start school! My parents arranged an appointment at the Kings School – the local grammar school. The place was quite foreboding, going into a cobbled quadrangle which was enclosed by stone buildings with leaded windows. Inside the corridors were long and dark. I was taken to a room in which I sat alone and carried out some tests. The upshot of which was that my Canadian education was not compatible with that in England. For example, up to the point of leaving Canada I had not taken any English history, only Canadian….
MAY 1980 An air mail envelope brings the news to Blanche Kerr that Peter Wilde has some free time and would like to come for a reunion visit. An elated Blanche phoned England and the details were organized for the first visit in 35 years. A newspaper article chronicles both his visit and recollections of his original time in Canada. There was a great deal of reminiscing that went on during this visit. The length of time apart had not affected the bond as you can see by the photo.
1986 Blanche finally makes a trip to England to see Peter, something Les has been encouraging her to do for years. She stayed with Peter and his wife Pam and their son Mark. She met, for the first time Elsie Wilde in Lincoln plus visited with Doug and his family. Blanche revealed, at this time, that she had wanted to keep the brothers together but Les was a very hard man and his will prevailed.
This was emotional experience for everyone concerned. Blanche still called us her two sons despite me having left for pastures new after about eighteen months in 1941.
SPRING 1990 Douglas Wilde writes a letter to the town clerk of Manitou and she forwards the letter to The Western Producer. This elicits responses from the Rowe family and a Tasker girl who had lived across the street from the Kerr’s in Morden. His search letter was prompted by receiving a Christmas card that had been floating around the mail system for some 20 years and 5 addresses prior. While it was a mystery that this card from his Winnipeg cousin arrived so randomly Doug took it as a sign that he should revisit that chapter of his life. He proceeded to plan a trip to reconnect with family and places familiar from his original trip of 50 years ago.
Hospitality seems to be a thread running through our trip to Canada. This was no more evident than during our stay at Morden. We were taken out, looked after and spoiled by Jeanette and Scorch – Jeanette one of those Tasker girls that I played with all those years before. .
FALL 2004 The power of the internet and the right search words touches home as Doug Wilde reaches out to me in my role as the President of the Forestry Farm House (FFFH). His query wondered if this was the previous home of Les and Blanche Kerr that he and his brother had lived with in Morden, Manitoba. He proceeded to share his story with us. Our volunteer hours had never stretched to finding the war evacuee child who lived with the Kerr’s in Sutherland so we felt incredibly fortunate that his brother found us.
MAY 2005 The FFFH reached out to Peter Wilde but sadly we never received any answer. Our supposition was that he didn’t wish to speak about this period in his life. Not every war evacuee child returned home happy; some had no wish to leave Canada, a few had been badly treated while away and some just wanted to put that period behind them. We did not pursue this any further in respect for his silence but felt from what his brother had written that perhaps he had enjoyed his stay in Canada.
MARCH 2013 A yellowed scrapbook that holds a piece of the family history is thumbed through by Mark Wilde as he goes through his father’s possessions. It details Les Kerr’s horticultural career and has a few photos of Peter and Doug as young lads in Canada. It sparks an interest in Mark as he remembers meeting Blanche Kerr on her visit to England. Once again an email reaches me that sparks interest between the two countries. He generously offers our group the scrapbook for our interpretive displays as he feels that Blanche and Les would have appreciated that.
AUGUST 2013 I, along with my husband and son visit England for a family reunion. While there we went to Liverpool with my cousins for a Liverpool Stoke City football game. We arrange to meet Mark, Claire, Eve and Martha Wilde at the Maritime Museum. For complete strangers our small shared history is a great starting point for a friendship. The museum details info on the crossing that Doug and Peter Wilde were lucky to have missed. It really is a chilling story.
AUGUST 2016 Mark had missed out on the first trip to Canada because of school exams but he felt an overwhelming urge to see where his father had spent 4 1/2 years of his life. Coupled with an invitation from our family as a local tour guide the Wilde family plan a trip and arrive during the splendor of a Saskatchewan summer. While the mosquitos weren’t very welcome the trip to the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park was well recieved. The FFFH put on a pot luck supper and many stories were shared. We found out about Peter’s life after he returned to England and how he became a navigator and spent 24 years in the RAF. He then become a pilot and logged over 8700 hours in over 40 aircrafts. He spoke fondly of his life in Canada and Mark was never sure why he didn’t respond to our email inquiry. There was a comarderie that spanned two generations and perhaps will spark off into another Canadian or English visit someday.
It’s a long read. I will probably have lost a few readers who come for the short funnies or the photos but I felt that it was really important to document the journey that World War Two sent the Wilde family on. Two sons leave for Canada while a daughter remains in England. A family divided for 4 1/2 years that never quite regains it’s sibling equilibrium yet somehow the threads of the time in Canada are passed along as oral history. Time goes by but the story remains in the family hall waiting to be revisited and shared. A war journey that spans 76 years.
It may seem odd that I have chronicled another families journey through the years and know their story at all. As a volunteer at the Forestry Farm Park that story always fascinated me. I wondered who the young boy was that had trekked across Canada and ended up with a childless couple during the war. We had no concept it was two brothers nor that our lives would cross with their descendants.
This concludes my
11 days — 11 stories
Acts of Remembrance
Editors note: if you are ever in London an afternoon spent at the Imperial War Museum is very worthwhile. They have recreated a blitz experience that leaves little to the imagination about how terrible it must have been to face this repeatedly and why one would consider sending their children away.
Editors note: Canadian writer Kit Pearson wrote a trilogy called The Sky is Falling, Looking at the Moon and The Lights Go on Again. It’s a fascinating fictional story but there are parallels to the Wilde boys time in Canada as well.