This Remembrance Day, the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, makes me proud of two Great Uncles who fought for freedom and peace, and angry that we’re no closer now to winning the battle against evil and tyranny. The military and civilian casualty statistics for World War I and II are staggering—thirty-seven and fifty-nine million respectively. Each of these sacrificed lives (ninety-six million in total) warrants a story, and as Reverend Jim Campbell said so aptly in his sermon at Oakville’s Maple Grove United Church on November ninth, these people were heroes whose “names, faces, dreams and hopes should not be forgotten.” Campbell, whose grandfather died in World War I, went on to say that “Remembrance Day is about each life served.” While I can’t even fathom the idea of researching and writing about all of these war heroes, I can tell the stories of two men who served in and survived both World Wars, with the hope that their experiences inspire and remind us all of the steep and unremitting price paid in combat.
George Grant Geary, my grandfather’s older brother, was born March 7, 1895 in Vancouver, British Columbia. At nineteen years of age, Grant, who went by his middle name, enlisted in the Canadian army and ended up fighting for Britain in the trenches of Europe. Sadly, I never had the chance to ask my uncle about his time at war, but his daughter, Barbara, recalls him as being quiet and wanting periods of solitude, where he retreated and wouldn’t talk to anybody. Though he had his only child years after the war, Barbara knew his time in the trenches was not a topic that could be discussed with him. War scarred him for life, not surprising given the conditions for soldiers in the trenches.
In a section about the trenches on Canada’s War Museum site (www.warmuseum.ca), trench life is characterized as “long periods of boredom mixed with brief periods of terror.” Oversized rats spread disease, lice caused trench fever, and unsanitary conditions—cold, persistent dampness—resulted in trench foot that sometimes meant gangrene or amputation.
Random shelling and sniping from the enemy, often hidden, led to extreme stress and fatigue. “Dozens, sometimes hundreds of Canadian soldiers were killed and wounded each day along the western front.” Knowing that my Uncle Grant witnessed friends and comrades being killed or brutally wounded daily, I can’t help but think he must have experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when he came back to Canada. But without this diagnosis on the radar of health experts at the time, he was forced to cope with his demons on his own.
My grandmother’s brother, Emmanuel Talan, who went by the name Monia, was born May 28, 1913 in Novonikolaevsk, Siberia. When he was five, his family fled to Shanghai, China and years later, Captain Monia Talan took part in one of the greatest escapes of the Second World War, and was involved in a dangerous underwater explosives operation in Goa that led to a movie, The Sea Wolves, starring David Niven.
In 1940, Monia was chosen to join Force 136, Z Force, the Far East branch of the Special Operations Executive, a commando unit that carried out intelligence work and sabotage behind enemy lines. This unit was led by Mike Kendall, a Canadian mining engineer, and, along with Scottish-born Colin McEwan, these three men became known as “the cloak and dagger boys.” They rounded up spies and helped with the last-ditch efforts to defend Hong Kong Island once the Japanese had invaded.
On December 14, 1941, the first day of the Japanese invasion, the Captain Talan and the other two cloak and dagger boys embarked on a covert operation described in the book, Escape from Hong Kong: Admiral Chan Chak’s Christmas Day Dash, 1941, by former BBC journalist, Tim Luard. The plan was to blow up a Japanese observation ship by acquiring a small boat and preparing delayed action charges. Under the dark night sky, Kendall and McEwan rowed up tide from the vessel and drifted down on it. When they were alongside the ship, about forty-five minutes after starting, Monia Talan fired bursts from a Vikers machine gun from the roof of the Taikoo Sugar refinery to keep heads down on the Japanese ship. (Talan had been selected to fire because he had been a machine gunner in the Shanghai Defence Force.) McEwan, a physical education teacher, slipped into the water, fixed the delayed charges onto the ship and two hours later, when they’d gone ashore and were having a drink with Monia, the charges exploded.
The great escape in which my Uncle Monia played an important part, involved more than 60 British Servicemen and the one-legged Chinese Admiral Chan Chak, the most senior Chinese official on the island. They got out of Hong Kong by swimming under heavy fire across Hong Kong harbour, dodging bullets while travelling on a flotilla of high-speed motor torpedo boats, and by surviving a dangerous four-day march through Japanese territory where capture would have meant death.
They arrived in Waichow, held by the Chinese army, and were given a hero’s welcome. Their escape route became an underground railway for escapees from Japanese prison camps. In July, 1942, Monia Talan became stationed in India, and was eventually reunited with McEwan for an underwater explosives operation with the Calcutta Light Horse on March 9, 1943.
German submarines were sinking thousands of tons of British merchant shipping. British Intelligence, based in India, discovered why German subs had been so successful: a German merchant ship, the Enrenfels, had been transmitting information to U-Boats in neutral Portugal’s territory of Goa. Because of this neutrality, ships couldn’t be attacked using conventional means. That’s why the head of the Indian Section of the Special Operations Executive approached the territorial unit of British expatriates, the Calcutta Light Horse, to carry out the mission instead.
Monia Talan and Colin McEwan, along with eighteen members of the Calcutta Light Horse, began commando training for Operation Creek, with the goal of sinking or capturing the Ehrenfels. At approximately two-thirty in the morning, members of the Calcutta Light Horse boarded the German ship armed with sten guns and explosive charges. Meanwhile, Talan and McEwan ventured underwater where they placed delayed charge explosives on the bottom of the ship. Not only was this operation successful, but other captains of nearby German ships had pre-emptively scuttled their vessels, fearing attacks.
What makes this operation even more intriguing, is the fact that it was kept secret for thirty years, until 1978, to avoid political ramifications of contravening Portuguese neutrality in Goa. The closing credits of the 1980 movie, The Sea Wolves, based on Operation Creek, state that during the first eleven days of March, 1943, U-boats sank twelve Allied ships on the Indian Ocean. After the Light Horse Raid on Goa, only one ship was lost in the remainder of March.
Ironically, Talan tried several times after the war to gain British citizenship, but was unsuccessful and not allowed to immigrate to the country for which he fought. He ended up in Australia, so far from the rest of his family that he lost touch with everyone except one of his sisters. I never met him.
These two vastly different stories in two vastly different wars, reflect the scope of combat, the horrific conditions, the quickness of death, and the importance of intelligence. Today, the methods of combat are completely different from the great wars, and new stories about heroes are being written every day. But one thing remains the same—the elusiveness of peace.