This blog is based on the World War II journal of William Henry Smith, a Private in the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Willy’s journal relates a fascinating and compelling story that has all of the elements of a classic literary piece relating how the horrors of the war cause the rapid maturation of a boy from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – all told in simple, straightforward, evocative, first-person prose.
The postings are a word-for-word copy of his hand-written journal which covers the period from July 21, 1941 to July 7, 1944. During this period Willy (as you will see he comes to be known), wrote 80 entries into his journal. Also in the journal were some scraps of what must have been important items to Willy together with some pictures that were all loosely placed in the pages of the journal. I have added scans of these photos and other items and fit them into the journal narrative where I thought would be appropriate. In addition, at the bottom of the footnotes, you will find information about a video partially based on Willy’s journal which was prepared by some students in Vancouver for their Remembrance Day ceremonies.
I came into possession of the journal when my mother was moving out of the house she and my father lived in for many years. It was in amongst the war mementoes that my father had collected over the years. My father, who passed away in July of 2008, was also a “North Novie” and subsequently became involved in the North Novie Memory Club. He was President of the Ontario chapter of that club for many years and we believe it was in that capacity that he came into possession of the journal – from whom and under what circumstances I have not been able to find out at this point.
As part of my journey through the journal, I pursued information via the internet about various people, places and events mentioned by Willy. I have added some external references where I thought they revealed something interesting. Everything that I have added is in italics – everything else in the blog is verbatim from the journal (including a few grammatical and spelling errors).
I still continue to pursue some of Willy’s references and will add anything I find out about them from time to time to the blog. Frustratingly, in all of my on-line research, through both primary and secondary sources, I have not been able to find out anything more about Willy. I will continue to pursue that path as well and will keep you updated on my progress, if any. Many of his entries evoked very emotional reactions on my part.
In the end, the fascination for me in Willy’s journal is how he diarizes his feelings, thoughts and observations on such a very personal, human level but in the light of history his entries resonate today on a much grander scale. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel free to add your comments.
Pvte William Henry Smith
Click on images to enlarge
July 21st, 19411
The journey starts here. I don’t know if I’ll be able to record everything about it but I’ll try. My mother made me promise that I write in this journal as often as possible. She believes that writing your thoughts in journals keeps you sane. So I promised her, to comfort her. I’ve left home. We left today at noon from Halifax. It was difficult seeing the coast slowly shrink as we left. I hope this trip won’t be too long, I don’t want to get sea sick.
July 23rd, 1941
I’ve been playing cards with Rodney ever since we left. The boat is gigantic. There must be thousands of men on board. There’s a swimming pool (the water is freezing!), movies, bingo and really neat things. The ship is called the Orion2. There’s a battleship that’s escorting us across the Atlantic in case Germans attack us. I can’t wait to get there, it’s only been two days since we’ve left and it seems I’ve been on the ship a week!
July 26th, 1941
Last night, some kid, I’d say about nineteen, was crying in his bunk. Everyone was asleep and didn’t seem to hear him. I couldn’t help but hear him. I was wide awake, those bed are really uncomfortable. He must have missed home and his mother. He’s not the only one. We all miss home but we don’t cry about it. We’ll see home again, someday.
July 29th, 1941
Finally! After eight days we’ve arrived safely in the Bristol Channel! Absolutely no threats from the Germans on our way over! We’ll be docking soon enough at a place called Avonmouth. My first time on European soil!
July 31st, 1941
We took a train today which brought us to Aldershot3 where we’ll be staying for a while at the Albuhera barracks4. They gave us our leaves almost as soon as we got here. Lots of guys seem to be going to Scotland. Me and Rodney haven’t decided yet.
August 5th, 1941
Slowly getting used to England. It’s a little different from home but not too much. I’ve had the chance to see new places over the last few weeks. England is alright. I’ve met some new people. Oddly enough, I’ve gotten to know things about Rodney that I never knew before! Imagine, after being friends for 21 years, since I was born, I still don’t know everything about Rodney! Rodney can drink five beers and still act sober. We sneaked in after curfew last night and a major came to talk to us. I could hardly stand while Rodney chatted away as if he had never drunk five beers. If he hadn’t been there, I would have had my leave revoked for God knows how long. What could I do without old Rodney?
August 15th, 1941
Nothing much going on yet. I’ve been meeting lots of new guys. Some are practically my neighbours, if you can believe that. I went to school with some of them. Some of them are jerks but I get along with most of them. There’s this one guy called Grant Howard. He has to be the funniest guy I have ever met. He just keeps telling us these great stories from back home and old girlfriends and we can laugh at them non stop for 15 minutes. My stomach and my face hurt so much because of that.
August 28th, 1941
Sorry I haven’t been writing that much. I keep forgetting about the journal. It’s hard to keep track of it when you’re not used to writing in it every day. Nothing new really.
Sept. 9th, 1941
The king and Queen came to visit Aldershot today. I only saw them walk by me but they actually talked to Rodney and asked him where he was from. He said they were really nice.
Oct. 10th, 1941
I know. I have to write more. Training should start soon. Some of the guys have been leaving a lot lately. They’ve met some girls that they liked. I don’t think it’s such a good idea. The girls are getting attached to them but half of these guys are using them like paper towels. This one guy said he’s been out with at least 25 girls in about 2 months, that’s almost impossible5.
Oct 21st, 1941
Col. Ralston6 came and reviewed us today. He’s the Minister of National Defence. One of the guys, Tom got to talk a while with him. He said he was a nice guy.
4 games of noughts and crosses on a page of the journal – all games were tied
Oct 27th, 1941
Training began today at Broxhead Common. We’ve got the guys from the 11th Canadian tank battalion7 training with us too. Nice guys. Nothing real tough at training. I’m not completely exhausted.
Oct 29th, 1941
We’ve moved to the Chichester area. It’s in the south of England, so I’m told. I wish I had a map! Don’t know exactly why we’re here. Rodney says it’s because they want us to stop any kind of Germans trying to land on the coast (we’re near the channel, by the way). We’ve replaced the London Irish and London Scottish Regiment.
Oct 31st, 1941
It’s Halloween. I’d promised my little sister, Maureen, I’d bring her trick or treating this year. Last year, I hadn’t gone with her. Instead I had gone to a dance that turned out to be terrible. I can’t believe I missed that, I felt so guilty afterwards. Now I don’t even know when will be the next time I go trick or treating with her let alone the next time I see her.
Nov 5th, 1941
Nothing new today. I’m not too happy, there’s been a lot of rumours circulating that there are a few German attacks coming our way soon. I can’t even sleep at night.
Dec 10th 1941
Good news! On Christmas day, some companies are going to organize a party for some young British orphans. Maybe one of the kids will remind me of my little sister Maureen. If something can cheer me up right now, its children.
Dec. 15th, 1941
The good news just keeps coming! I finally got a letter from home today. I actually got a whole package. There had been a mix up and my letters couldn’t be delivered to me. So now I have 10 letters from mom and the whole family all dating between August up to now.
Dec 16th, 1941
Lots of things have happened at home! First of all, Maureen has lost her 2 front teeth and the tooth fairy brought her 50 cents. Mom says she was jumping with joy for days after. Mom is doing great, so she says. I know its been difficult for her since my father died 5 years ago. He worked with trains and one day, by accident, he got hit by a train. My mother went into a very big depression. I guess she’s better now compared to 5 years ago. Mom says my younger brother David, who is 17, really wants to join the army also. I don’t want him to. He’s still in school and he’s actually smart. I don’t want him to waste his time. I have to write back to them.
Dec. 30th, 1941
Been real busy for the past few weeks. The holidays were great. Like I mentioned before, on Christmas day we threw a party for these British kids who didn’t have any parents. It just took a load off to see these kids. They were all so happy when Santa came out. Their faces reminded me of Maureen. As for presents, we didn’t have lots of things but we had lots of candy. Hope we do it again next year.
Jan 7th, 1942
Just came back from London with Rodney and Richard. We spent a few days up there. Richard met a girl up there a few weeks back and he wanted to introduce her. She’s pretty, very nice. I was able to have a home cooked meal instead of that disgusting sludge at the base. But still, it wasn’t like Mom’s food. One thing that really makes me sick is those potatoes. I hate the way the people over here cook them, they’re so dry and tasteless. I’m home sick.
Jan 10th, 1942
Feeling a bit better. Rodney met a girl near London. He’s pretty much always there now. I’m stuck here alone.
Jan 17th, 1942
Two commanders have come to check out our regiment in just two days.
Jan 25th, 1942
Rodney’s not with his girl anymore. She left him for an American. I hear he’s much taller than ‘Rodney the shorty’. Me and the guys can’t stop laughing at him.
Feb 7th, 1942
It’s been hectic around here lately. First off, on Tuesday news came that the enemy was going to bomb us. People were running around getting to their stations. It turned out that it never happened, they bombed another area. Now we’ve just finished 2 days of extensive training. I guess for some guys the party’s over. Time to get to work.
Feb 15th, 1942
We had our first march in a long time a few days ago. It was nice seeing the whole unit marching to Chichester Cathedral. There’s also been a change in commanders. I think all the companies will have new commanders. I better not get a jerk.
Feb 27th, 1942
General Montgomery came today. Seemed like a nice guy. We’re getting all these new commanders now. My new commander is Major Rhodenizer8. All the guys in the company hope he’s better than the other guy we had before.
March 5th, 1942
It’s total chaos. They’ve set an age limit and lots of our guys have had to leave because they were too young or something along those lines. I’m not exactly sure. Some of the guys are heartbroken. Me and Rodney were lucky though. They didn’t split us up. I don’t know what would have happened to me if they would have. That would have been terrible.
March 10th, 1942
Got a letter from my mom again. She’s doing well, so is my sister and my brother. She says that David’s getting great results at school, passing with flying colours. I’m so happy for him. At least someone in the family has a bright future. I better never see his face over here.
March 13th 1942
Friday the 13th. They always scare me, I’m a very superstitious person. A lot of things happened on that day. I broke my foot when I was 12. I broke my hand when I was 14 and I almost got run over by a horse when I was 17. Funny enough, its raining outside now.
March 14th, 1942
Another point to prove how evil Friday the 13th is. Last night, a guy in my company Pte. Mitchell Holmes was coming back to the base and got run over accidentally by a Jeep. He didn’t die but he’s in pretty bad shape.
April 1st, 1942
Learnt something new about England today, spring comes much faster than out in old Canada. We’ve been moved to a beach at Selsey Bill. We’re staying at West and East Wittering, Branscombe and Itchenor (really weird names!) close by the beach. We got another warning last night for an air raid but they never came. I hear there’s going to be quite a few exercises soon. Won’t be writing often.
June 3rd, 1942
Wow, when I said I wouldn’t write often, I sure meant it almost 2 months all we’ve been doing is marching. Even in my dreams, I feel like I’m marching places. To catch up on things, we’ve moved to a camp near Seven Oaks which is west of a place called Horsham. We’re living in tents. For the next few days, I think I’m going to relax. Me and Rodney will try going to London or something. Training is starting to take up a big place in daily life. We’re moving a lot too. At least there’s more action now, it’ll be a little less boring.
June 23rd, 1942
Me and Rodney just got back from London we had a great time. We went dancing and met lots of girls. There was this really nice girl that I met. Her name was Daphne*. We chatted together for a while and I bought her a few drinks. She’s a little shorter than I am and her hair is beautiful. She wants me to come and see her again.
*There’s a ripped scrap of paper inserted in the journal here. On one side it reads “Daphne” and on the other it reads “200 The Strand 20 73533511”. It appears to be all in William’s handwriting.
June 30th, 1942
I went to see her again today. We went walking in Hyde Park. That place is beautiful. The sun was shining and the flowers smelled great. She showed me around a bit, at least I know a lot more about London now (she’s really smart). She’s going to school here and she lives in a big apartment with a few friends. But she really lives 2 hours from the city. She grew up there and her family still lives there. On weekends she goes out to see them.
July 3rd, 1942
Got a letter from mom today. Everything’s fine. Maureen and David are fine also. I’m trying to get a pass to have the whole weekend off so I can spend it with Daphne in London.
July 9th, 1942
They granted my pass. I’m going for the whole weekend to London.
July 14th, 1942
I love Daphne. She’s the perfect girl. This was the best weekend I have had for a while. I just enjoyed myself so much. We ate in restaurants, she introduced me to some of her friends, everything was perfect. I hope I’ll get to see her soon.
July 17th, 1942
I got a letter from Daphne saying that she wants me to come back the next weekend I have off so I can meet her family. I’m terrified, what if her parents don’t like me? I probably won’t be able to see her again. I have to get ready for this.
July 23rd, 1942
I can go this weekend. I’ve worked on a few stories I can tell her parents if they don’t like me. Wish me luck.
July 28th, 1942
It went okay. Daphne says her parents like me but I’m not so sure her father approved of me. Her mother on the other hand was fantastic, a very nice lady who reminded me of mom. She just kept filling my plate and kept offering me food. Her father was a very serious fellow who smoked his pipe quietly. He stared at me and asked me questions about Canadian politics from time to time.
August 20th, 1942
We’ve moved again to a camp near Horsham so I’m closer to London and Daphne. Daphne is doing fine. But things between us are dying down. She’s really busy with school and we hardly see each other anymore. The good thing is me and Rodney have been spending time together and went to London a few days ago for a night out. He brought me to the best pub in town. I can’t believe I hadn’t been there yet. We had loads of fun.
Sept. 5th, 1942
I got a letter back from mom today. I wrote to her about Daphne and she doesn’t seem very pleased. She doesn’t want me to see her anymore because she wants me to marry a Canadian girl. I didn’t know she felt that way. She’s a thousand miles away so she won’t know if I’m seeing Daphne or not. Thank the Lord for England.
Sept 15th, 1942
It’s over between me and Daphne.
Oct 11th, 1942
They’ve organized this competition between battalions and everyone is going bananas because they want to win. I hear it’s sort of like an old tradition. I think it’s kind of dumb.
Oct 16th, 1942
We’ve moved to a new camp again at Monks Common.
Oct 24th, 1942
Training, training and more training.
Nov 12th, 1942
We practiced landing on the Cowes beaches on the Isle of Wight this morning. It was our first time. They told us never to tell anyone about what we did, they want it to be a secret. I’ll have no problem keeping it.
Nov 30th, 1942
Still training. Tonight at the mess dinner they made us haggis. They had bagpipe players, it was a traditional Scottish evening. They did this for St. Andrew’s (it’s a special Scottish holiday). The food was interesting. I’m not used to eating this type of food but it was good.
Dec 18th, 1942
We’re constantly training on beaches on the Isle of Wight or near Norway. I’m guessing that we’re going to be landing on enemy beaches. This isn’t too comforting. They checked our feet two days ago after marching over forty-five miles and climbing cliffs and later enemy planes tried to bomb our camp as you can see we are a busy bunch.
Dec 25th, 1942
Today was similar to last year’s Christmas. We were able to meet a few orphans and evacuated kids from cities close by. It was fun, but boy did the kids remind me of Maureen. I feel even worse than I did last year. I hate holidays, they make me so home sick. Hopefully they’ll get us to start training again, at least that way I think less about the family.
Feb 28th, 1943
It has been too long since my last entry. I can’t sit down and spend time writing anymore, I hardly have time. We’ve been training constantly and marching. It’s really hard, but I’m starting to enjoy all the marching. I become very strong and I feel much more confident about myself. I’ll try to write more often.
April 9th, 1943
We spent the month of March training. It was a practice, we had fake wounded soldiers and fake enemies. We’re still training a lot. 2 days ago they made us put up barb wire while they threw smoke bombs at us.
April 20th, 1943
Training, lectures about what to do if you get captured it’s the same old thing. The family is doing fine.
May 4th, 1943
4 days ago, they brought us to Stratford-on-Avon to visit Shakespeare theatre, Warwick castle and I forget the other one. It was really great and interesting. Too bad David couldn’t see this, he just loves all that literature stuff. I bought him a little bookmark and a Shakespeare biography at the gift shop. I couldn’t find anything that mom or Maureen would enjoy. Next time I’m in London I’ll get them something, I’ve got all the time in the world. War seems far from over.
June 9th, 1943
We’ve moved again to a camp at Cissbury Park.
June 17th, 1943
Me and Rodney are going up to London for a few days.
June 24th, 1943
London was nice, it was good to see it with the flowers out again. It brought back memories of Daphne though. It was the first time I had thought of her for a really long time. After what she did to me, I wouldn’t bother thinking of her again. I picked up a nice new floral dress for Mom. I hope she likes it, it was for the new summer collection. Still didn’t find anything for little Maureen.
July 16th, 1943
Our softball team won. We beat the Highland Light Infantry 2 days ago and we’re the champions. Rodney pitched a great game. He should have made it to the Major League! He saved our team.
July 31st, 1943
Yesterday we put on a demonstration of an assault for Col. Ralston along with B Company. He’s the Minister of National Defence. He looked impressed. Still training, weather is pretty good. Haven’t heard from Mom and the family for a while. I’ll write to them soon.
August 4th, 1943
I’ve met a girl named Rachelle. There was a beauty contest organized at the base and she was one of the girls there. She didn’t win but I thought she was the prettiest there. She’s French actually but she spoke a little English. Her family is still living in France in German occupied territory. She hasn’t seen them since the Germans moved in. She worked in London when war broke out so she hasn’t had the chance to go back to France. She doesn’t know how her family is. I felt bad for her, she wants to see me again. I’ll try going to see her soon.
August 17th, 1943
I got to see Rachelle again but there was a misunderstanding because she seems to be married to a man who lives in Paris. It didn’t seem to be a problem for her. I still bought her dinner but then politely left. I hope she understood.
Sept 9th, 1943
I won’t be seeing London again for a while because we’re in Scotland now in a place right by the ocean called Rothesay. Here, I think I’ve done my most difficult training to date. First of all, they brought us in boats 50 yards from the shore and we had to swim back to the shore with our complete kit and Mae West (a sort of life vest). The problem is that the water is freezing. I have never been in water as cold as that. I’m thankful I can swim because lots of the guys can’t swim. You should see, those guys are being showed how to swim in these small swimming pools.
* There’s a page ripped out here that has some writing on it but not enough is left to even guess what might have been written only the first letter or two for about four lines.
Oct 4th, 1943
Finally back in England. We arrived in Boscome yesterday. The minute we got here I went to sleep. I was so tired. I don’t think I would like to go training in Scotland again for a while, they worked us much more in Scotland than they ever did in England. Now they want to check our uniforms because most of us wrecked them training in Scotland. Lots of boots must be in bad shape too. I find myself thanking the Lord for England a second time.
Nov. 30th, 1943
Training, training. will it ever end? Why won’t they bring us on the front already? We’re as ready as we’ll ever be, I just want to get this over with!
Dec 29th, 1943
I’ve been a little agitated recently. Christmas calmed me down a bit. We entertained a bunch of kids from a town called Gosport. It was great, there was a turkey dinner and a Christmas tree. One of the kids had these socks with holes in them so I gave him the ones mom had sent me. He’d make better use of them than I would. They have to make us start fighting soon right?!
Jan 11th, 1944
I guess I’m not the only one wondering when we’re going. There are posters everywhere now telling us to keep our mouths shut. There’s one poster which I find particularly funny ‘Loose lips, sink ships’. Who comes up with that? I should have gone into that business, I could have come up with some much more original ones than that!
Jan 29th, 1944
They’ve started to make us run before breakfast.
Feb 5th, 1944
Lt. Ross is dead, a grenade exploded into his hands. This is pathetic, how, can guys be dying on training? What is going to be written in the telegram they send home? What a waste of life! (9) Guys have started dying by accident and it feels really horrible. I can’t imagine how it’ll like when we’re fighting for real.
March 15th, 1944
Exercises seem to be dying down. There have been lots of important guys coming to inspect us and give us these good speeches. I don’t want to assume but I think we’re going soon…
April 14th, 1944
We’ve moved to camp about 5 miles away from Southampton.
May 10th, 1944
I finally found Maureen something and I didn’t have to go to London to find a little doll at a store close by. It’s exactly the type she likes. I’ll send them the presents soon since Mom’s birthday is coming up. Less than a month, June 6th to be exact.
May 25th, 1944
Military police everywhere. No one is allowed out. We’re going and it’ll be soon…
May 29th, 1944
They’re telling us to bring as little of our kit as possible. But there are so many things I know I will need. Rodney had no problem. I sent mom the package with all the presents, she should get it on the day of her birthday. I can’t wait to hear how she liked it.
June 1st, 1944
Right now, all I’m doing is playing cards with Rodney and another guy called Norman. There are so many military vehicles. I have never seen so many in all of my life!
June 5th, 1944
They’ve brought us at the ports and boarded us in these massive ships. This is it, we’re leaving tonight(10)
June 7th, 1944****
As we approached the beaches yesterday, all I could think of was one specific line in the speech General Eisenhower wrote us before we left England, “The free men of the world are marching to victory!” I felt reassured as we left in the L.C.I.’s (Landing Craft Infantry) (11) even though I could not hear myself think because everything was exploding around me. I knew that I would fight with all my heart for my country. I would fight with pride. But now, words are jumping out at me. I still can’t describe the horror I saw yesterday as I got out of the L.C.I. and got in the water, some guys were really scared, I could see it in their eyes.(12) Hell, we were all scared. The water was freezing. As I approached the beach, I saw my own friends a few feet away from me, have their arms shot off or even worse die instantly in front of me. Everything has a different meaning once you live through it. Right now a third of my company, a third of us are hiding out in a pit until darkness sets in so we can start looking for the others. I don’t even know where the hell we are!
June 10th, 1944
Rodney saved my life today. We were in a pit and a potato masher grenade flew in. I was frozen with fear but he took it and threw it back just before it exploded. How will I ever be able to thank him?
June 12th, 1944
He’s dead. Rodney is dead. He’s dead. He just lived the most painful 2 hours of his life trying to hold his stomach from bleeding and I wasn’t even there for him. I wasn’t there. Why the hell couldn’t it have been me? Why? Why did I even volunteer to join this war, why did I force Rodney to join with me? It’s all my fault.
June 20th, 1944
I keep thinking what if I had been there with Rodney, maybe I could have saved his life. I could have comforted him in his darkest hour.
* Previously I had a picture of and numerous references to Roderick Norman MacRae of Upper Middle River, Nova Scotia in this section. From the research I had done, it appeared to me that Roderick was the only possible candidate as Willy’s friend, Rodney. However thanks to a great deal of research by a few avid geneologists who have taken an interest in Willy’s journal and its mysteries, (Shirley Stone, Avalon Lawlor and Peggy MacLeod) Roderick and Rodney are definitely two different people. This has set me back in my search for Willy since most of my basic premises were based on the apparently mistaken notion that Willy was from Upper Middle River as was Roderick. The search for the real Willy and, now, Rodney continues. I will publish some of the fascinating research these very kind ladies undertook to assist in solving these puzzles in the near future. My very sincere thanks go out to Shirley, Avalon and Peggy for their expert help.
July 7th, 1944
I’m going back home. I lost my right foot on those new German mines. We were under fire and I was running to hide in the fields and next thing I knew I was laying in my pool of blood in great pain. But it’s over, the nightmare is over.
****In the spring of 2012 my wife and I traveled to Normandy and visited the various sites associated with the D-Day landings of the Canadian troops. The videos can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=willy%27s+wwii+journal&oq=willy%27s+wwii+journal&gs_l=youtube.3…34937.44048.0.44318.104.22.168.0.0.0.261.3963.1j20j4.25.0…0.0…1ac.1.11.youtube.5VuryuezYuM or by searching YouTube for “Willy’s WWII Journal”.
11. North Nova Scotia Higlanders aboard L.C.I. en route to France http://wwii.ca/photos/dday/dday_lci.jpg
12. North Nova Scotia Highlanders going ashore from L.C.I. http://wwii.ca/photos/dday/dday_nnsh.jpg