Each year at Remembrance Day I think of the stories my father used to tell me about him and his buddy Freddie as rapscallion kids, and what happened to each of them during the Second World War. I’ve told many people at least parts of this and I may have written about it in this space before. Part of the story I’m going to tell is well documented. Other parts may be subject to my father’s storytelling, in which he never let facts cloud a perfectly good story.
They grew up in The Junction are of Toronto in the 20s (my father and Fred were born in 1917), where my grandfather operated the Queen’s City Leatherworks, making gloves for the railwaymen. As my father told it, he and Freddie were always getting in trouble of one kind or another. There was the time, for instance, when they helped out Freddie’s dad with his sad-sack apple tree which never bore fruit. They went down to an old orchard by the Humber and picked a couple baskets of small green apples, and one night they snuck out with some fishing line and tied those apples on the tree so Freddie’s dad could see his tree filled with fruit. There was the day they camped down by the river, and their hatchet was struck by lightning. And there was the time they decided to make root beer. They sent away for a root beer making kit, and mixed up a batch in a demijohn in Freddie’s basement. Somehow it all went wrong, and the concoction filled the basement with root beer foam.
Years later, with the advent of the second war, both my father and Freddie enlisted but from this point on their stories could not be more different. My father was in the army for a while where he somehow or another got involved with doing accounting or payroll-related work at the camp. If you knew my father, you would know this was an unlikely scenerio, but he mentioned this to me several times over the years. When he talked about this time, he mostly talked about the poker games he organized (it would be several years before my mom tamed the gambler in him). For some reason I really don’t know, he moved from the army to the air force, where he was to train as a pilot. This was not to be.
There was a large forest fire up in Muskoka in an area around Sugar Lake. My father was sent up there to work with a fire-fighting crew. While up there, he discovered the lake was full of large bass. One thing my father was very very good at was fishing. He had a knack for it, and I can say without hesitation that one of the best gifts my dad gave me was a love for fishing and the outdoors. He scrounged up some fishing line and hooks but had no rod, so he cut a maple sapling to use as a fishing pole and caught crayfish to use as bait. Before long, one of my father’s jobs was to catch enough bass to feed the camp (as he told me the food up there wasn’t up to much). Only my father could manage to finish out the war bass fishing.
Meanwhile, his old buddy Fred became a medical orderly in the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, which at the time was part of the British Army’s 6th Airborne Division. By the way, Freddie’s full name was Frederick George Topham.
On the morning of 24 March 1945, parachute and glider-borne troops of the 6th Airborne Division landed on the east bank of the Rhine River, not far from the city of Wesel in Germany. These landings were carried out in support of assault operations begun the night before by the 1st Canadian and 2nd British Armies to cross to the East bank of the river. After the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion landed just north of Diersfordt Wood, Corporal Topham heard a cry for help from a wounded man who was in the open. Two medical orderlies who went out in succession to treat the wounded man were killed. Immediately afterward and on his own initiative, Topham went forward through intense German fire to assist the casualty. As he treated the wounded man, Topham was himself shot through the nose, but continued to give first aid despite the severe bleeding and pain of his own injury. He was then able to carry the wounded man to shelter through continuous fire. Refusing treatment for his wound, Corporal Topham continued to assist the wounded for two more hours, by which time all casualties had been evacuated to safety. Although he finally consented to have his nose dressed, he refused to be evacuated with the other wounded. Later, alone and again under enemy fire, Topham rescued three soldiers from a burning machine gun carrier that threatened to explode, brought them to safety, and arranged for the evacuation of the two men who survived.
For his courageous and selfless effort, Fred Topham was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Fred Topham died in Toronto in 1974. I would have been 13 when he passed. I don’t remember if I ever met him, and I don’t know if he and my father remained in touch at that point.
There is a bit of an epilogue to this story. Years later, my dad became reaquainted with Freddie’s big brother Norm and during my dad’s later years, he and Norm were very good friends (I remember Norm well). I recall after my father’s vision had deteriorated to the point at which he could no longer drive, Norm would come over to my dad’s house from time to time with a bottle of brandy. The two of them would sit in the living room, blast jazz on my dad’s old console hi-fi record player, drink themselves a bit silly, and tell their stories.