The history made in Europe more than 70 years ago has led to special recognition for the veterans who helped make it.
Nelson “Whattie’” Whatmore is one of several local veterans who has received the Legion of Honour from the French government for service to France during the Second World War. The award dates back to 1802, when it was established by Napoleon, and is rarely given to anyone who is not a French citizen.
Everyone knew something was going to happen in the weeks leading up to D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Allied landing in Northern France which was the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
“We thought maybe we were going to be sent to Italy or the Dardanelles. When we asked, we were told, ‘You’re not supposed to be asking anything,’” recalled Whatmore.
He was pleased to be given leave to spend with his English war bride and their new son before he went to the unknown.
What was happening was on the beaches of Normandy.
“It was like hell. We were so young we had no idea what was going on. We just did as we were ordered. We off-loaded the big guns near Bayeux,” said Whatmore, who was a signaler and gun position officer.
“Then we went right up front, about 20 men in a Bren carrier, a small tank with no guns. We were looking for Germans, checking out their positions and the terrain. We were under fire all the time. We just did the job and didn’t think about it. We kept going ahead, then we were called back to help liberate Calais, which was still held by Germans. I stayed in reconnaissance until the end.”
Whatmore thought back to the beginning of the war. He was born in Harrison, Ont. to English parents who had come to Canada after the First World War. In September, 1939, when Canada declared war on Germany, he was 16, working on the green chain for 10 cents an hour, 60 a week, since he was 13.
“Dad was sick and couldn’t work so I had to help Mom out with the three boys. I joined up with some other guys on September 12. It was $50 a month so I could help Mom more, and room and board and clothes. Some of the guys got their first new shoes when they went in the army. Joining up was the thing to do. It was exciting.”
He joined the Third Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and served on the front lines through France, Belgium and Holland, where he was helped by local people and hidden in an attic at one time. Years later, he went back to visit them and thank them.
“They remembered. The Dutch people are always very grateful to the liberators,” he said.
He was in Germany at the end of the war and was among the first soldiers to be sent home and happily reunited with his wife, Connie, and oldest son.
Whatmore didn’t find a civilian job he liked so he re-enlisted and went on to spend 30 years in the army, serving in Special Forces in Canada and Europe. He brought his family to the Okanagan in 1962, where he served at Camp Vernon.
The military life was a good one for Whatmore.
“If I was 60 years younger, I’d be back at it today. There’s a sense of camaraderie and purpose,” he said.
Whatmore keeps a lively interest in the community, especially in hockey as a Vernon Vipers fan who never misses a game.