It’s still puzzling why so many prairie boys went to sea in World War Two – including George Crewe of landlocked Lethbridge, Alberta, who had never even seen the ocean until he joined the Royal Canadian Navy at age seventeen to train as a Boy Telegraphist.
Written by Anne Gafiuk
(My guest and fellow writer Anne Gafiuk of Calgary shares her memories of George Crewe, a former Royal Canadian Navy telegraphist in World War Two.)
George Crewe passed away on March 6, 2014, in Fernie, British Columbia at the age of 91. He was a kind, gentle soul, with an impish side to him, too. He wasn’t a tall man and suffered from gout, making his hands gnarled, contributing even more to his elfin appearance.
The above photo shows him holding a bosun’s whistle, used to pass commands to the crew.
“I permanently borrowed it from the Admiral’s yacht, near the end of my time with the navy,” George explained with a grin. “But don’t tell anyone.”
George never lost his sense of humour, nor his way with words. He was a consummate storyteller and I was privileged to record his experiences. I began to refer to George as “my sailor.”
For several years, I have been researching aircrew of the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War Two, for a novel I’m planning about a young pilot from Southern Alberta. A mutual friend suggested I meet George, possibly taking me in a totally different direction, but I thought, “Why not?”
I brought him a lemon meringue pie, since one friend commented how my baking was a foot in the door. It worked with Gordon Jones, “my pilot,” the book I wrote about his life. (For more, click: Wings Over High River.)
I hoped it would work with an old tar, too.
Once we were settled in George’s apartment in Jaffray, British Columbia, he said, with a perplexed look on his round face: “You’ve got me buffaloed, Anne.” He paused. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why don’t you go to a museum – the one there in Calgary on Crowchild Trail? Why come to me?”
“No one has your stories, George.”
He pondered that statement. “I’ve never been interviewed before,” he told me. “No magazine or newspaper has ever contacted me.”
At first George was hesitant, but as we started chatting, I could sense him relaxing. The stories started to ebb, then flow, the tales surging until I had to depart. I visited with George a few more times, collecting his stories.
Here are only a few of them.
George proudly hailed from landlocked Lethbridge, Alberta. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Royal Canadian Navy. Nobody really knows why the sea life was appealing to prairie boys. Here’s a clipping from the Globe and Mail with the headline “Prairie Sons Make Naval History,” describing the proportionately high number of naval recruits from the prairie provinces.
George said his decision was due to a book he received as a child.
“When I was about ten years old, I was given the gift of a book called My Picture Book of Sailors. I always attributed that to me joining the navy. I guess the stories and the pictures fascinated me. I still have the book. I wouldn’t part with it for a million dollars!”
These photos show the cover of George’s beloved book, and one of the inside pages that had such an influence on the boy.
“After I joined the navy in 1940, that was the first time I saw the ocean in Esquimalt. I was permanent force. I had to sign on for seven years.”
(The Royal Canadian Navy, which George joined, was permanent. The Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve accepted recruits only for the duration of the war.)
He had his opinions about those who joined the air force. “I think back in the navy, they were very strict, more than in the air force. As far as I was concerned, the air force personnel were a bunch of wimps. They had a bed to sleep in every night, and sheets!” He laughed. “I wouldn’t admit it if I knew an air force guy!”
Here’s a photo of young George in his uniform.
“One of the things, and this will shake you to the roots: we got $15 per month when we were under 18. But you were not old enough to spend $15. They saved $10 for us. When you turned 18, you received your back pay. So you had $5 per month to spend.
“It worked out. We only got out of barracks once or twice a week, depending upon the watch you were on. When you turned 18, you got $37.50. I used to send some home to my mother and I would spend the rest.”
George described his training as well as the day-to-day routines, including how they had to sleep above the mess tables. “The first six weeks was basic training, then we went into our classes and that lasted about eight months.”
George was trained as a Radio Operator. “I found learning Morse Code very difficult. I remember going into town to Victoria from Esquimalt, taking the streetcar and you know they had the advertisements up there? I would sit there and read them for practice. I managed to pass. When you start receiving Morse Code, you don’t get a second chance. By the time you finished the class, you were very fluent in sending and receiving.”
Here is a photo of the cover of George’s training manual, and an inside page showing the technical aspects that he had to master.
“After I finished our course, I was the first guy drafted to a ship. The other guys were envious. I don’t know how I got drafted first. My marks were not the best, I know that!
“I was slated to go to Ottawa as a Wireless Operator: receiving and transmitting messages. But then somehow I found myself drafted to a minesweeper for about seventeen months, The Quinte.”
Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship The Quinte was a minesweeper built in Vancouver that served on the east coast. She escorted many convoys across the Atlantic. (For more information, read the book titled Warships of the Bay of Quinte, By Roger Litwiller.)
Here is a photo of George’s crew aboard The Quinte. George is in the bottom row, fourth from the left.
And here’s a better photo, showing George second from left in the front row, seated beside the life preserver, looking very happy and boyish.
But life aboard The Quinte wasn’t easy. George became sombre when he told me a few harrowing events. “These stories will curl your hair and then straighten it out again!”
“We were in a storm and I happened to go out on deck. A depth charge had got loose and there were a couple of guys wrestling with it and I went to help them. I slipped and broke my collarbone and the depth charged rolled over my toes. They were crushed. And I broke a tooth and hurt my back. We were at sea and we didn’t get in for another two or three weeks. We didn’t have an attendant or medic on board.”
Here are photos of George’s kit bag, looking very much like it has been through the wars. The side view shows an image of an imaginary warship, drawn in Indian ink by another sailor. The bottom is stamped with his name.
“Another time, I was aboard The Quinte. We just finished a refit and we were going from Lunenburg to Picton, to get some equipment on board. This was in the end of 1942 and when we left Lunenburg, I was on the radio.
The captain said, ‘I’ve got to send a message.’ The message read: ‘The forecast is for a big storm. We have not got enough oil if we run into trouble. Request permission to come into Halifax and oil up.’
“They sent the message back. ‘Sorry. You’ve got to keep going.’ We kept going. We got off Cape Breton Island . . . and we ran out of oil. We got pushed up against the rocks.”
George paused for a minute or so, taking some deep breaths, and apologized, tearfully, before composing himself. “Anyway, we ran out of oil and luckily, there was another tug and two barges in the same area. The tug couldn’t control the barges and they got pushed up on the shore, and the tug, too.
“When I sent the signal, I tried to raise Halifax. There is something called the ‘skip distance.’ It has something to do with the atmospherics. And the only station I contacted – and it might be hard to believe – but it was Simonstown, South Africa!
“They picked up my signal and gave me a receipt, and they transferred it to Gibraltar, to London to Halifax. And I had a reply back within half an hour.” The crew including George and the captain were taken off the ship.
“We were the last two to get off! We stayed with the ship for two or three days and we went back to Halifax by train. When we got back to Halifax, the ship’s company was sent this way and that way and every way. I never saw anyone afterwards.” This was the end of his days on The Quinte.
George went on to serve on other ships. This photograph of a memorial plate shows their names, and his years of service.
Like many sailors, George was superstitious.
“Friday the 13th, black cats, don’t go under a ladder? I’ve always believed that,” said George, this time without humour. “There was a superstition: you do not place your navy hat upside down and on the bed. Definitely not on the bed! Our captain: if we came in on a Friday, he would talk his way out of it. We would never sail on a Friday.
“You know the canned milk? If you opened a can upside down, someone would take it and throw it overboard. It was bad luck.”
George kept a talisman, a small bag on a leather thong, the contents of which are unknown. “I call it my good luck charm. I got it from an Indian in Lethbridge when I was a kid. I think that is what saved my life! I’ve kept it all these years.”
George was very much a people person. He met numerous people during his wartime years: his crew aboard The Quinte, a U.S. Navy cook from the southern States while in Boston, a Scottish woman who made him shortbread while George was at Scapa Flow, trading his rum rations for butter, sugar and flour, smuggling them off the ship.
In exchange, George was made to swear he would not tell the recipe to anyone. He kept that promise until he shared the recipe with his wife, Evelyn, then daughter Catherine, and granddaughter Elleda.
Then there was the man in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, who, after the war, built George a model of the Bluenose, shown in the photo below, one of George’s prized possessions.
“I was very foolish in those days. There were a lot of people I should have kept in contact with, and I didn’t. I’ve been sorry ever since.”
George was discharged from the navy on his birthday in November 1947, and returned to Lethbridge where he started working for Baalim Wholesale, eventually working his way up to manager. George met his wife Evelyn in Toronto at an automotive show in 1956. Evelyn moved to Lethbridge in 1957 with her sons Danny and Georgie. In 1959, their daughter Catherine was born.
The Crewe family continued to live in Lethbridge until moving to Fernie and then to Jaffray, British Columbia in the 1980s. He remained interested in radio communication all his life.
Here’s a photo of him seated at his desk, where he would talk to friends, new and old, near and far, until his move into a seniors’ lodge prevented the antenna from being connected.
George Crewe has now crossed the bar. Smooth sailing ahead, George.
* * * * *
About the Author
Anne Gafiuk has loved to write for as long as she can remember, starting with handwritten letters to family and friends as a child and continuing today, staying connected with email, as well as with the traditional pen and paper.
She was an elementary school teacher for almost fifteen years, promoting the joy and beauty of the written word with her students; she contributed to newsletters and created teaching units for her colleagues.
Later, while taking on the role of full-time mom with her active family, she started freelancing part-time, writing about houses, condos, their owners, and communities for Resorts, Okotoks Living, Condo Living and New Home Living.
She is the author of Wings Over High River, the story of A. Gordon Jones, a World War Two Pilot Instructor. She has also published a wartime scrapbook, and you can see photos by clicking here: She Made Them Family. Read more about Anne’s writing on her website: Anne Gafiuk.
(Photo Credit: Don Molyneaux)
* * * * *
STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. Here’s is an image showing a Salute to the Navy’s Heroes, dated December 7, 1940. To see my complete collection of covers, click Star Weekly at War.