General Erich von Straube, after signing the surrender of his forces in Holland to First Canadian Army, was being escorted back to the German lines by Brigadier James Roberts. After driving some twenty minutes in silence, von Straube’s aide tapped Roberts on the shoulder and said that his commander wished to know what the brigadier had done before the war: “Were you a professional soldier?” Roberts was momentarily bemused by the question. He had indeed been a soldier for so long that his other life seemed impossibly remote. Then he realized that the German was seeking some crumb of solace for his defeat. He answered von Straube: “No, I wasn’t a regular soldier. Very few Canadians were. In civilian life I made ice cream.”
A few days after my review of Hastings’ book was posted here, I received a letter from the daughter of Brigadier Roberts. She wanted me to know that her father had gone on to a long and important career of public service after the war,culminating in appointments as Deputy Secretary General of NATO and Canadian ambassador to Switzerland. He had led the founding of the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded. He had written a memoir of his life, published in 1981 by the University of Toronto Press.
Would I be interested in reading it? If so, she would send me a copy.
I enthusiastically answered yes.
The book arrived soon thereafter, and I read it this summer sitting on the dock beside a Canadian lake about 100 miles north of the lake where Roberts had vacationed as a boy.
Roberts’ book carries the title The Canadian Summer – a reference to the name the liberated Dutch gave to the summer of 1945, the summer after a winter they remember as “the hunger winter.” That was the summer that Roberts met and married his second wife, the widowed wife of a Dutch officer – and the mother of my correspondent.
To Canadians, the word “summer” is always evocative. But for a Canadian of the generation of James Alan Roberts, the title may have carried still other meanings.
The years from 1939 to 1945 marked the high zenith of Canada’s influence in the world. From the fall of France to Pearl Harbor, Canada was Britain’s most important ally, providing not only men, food, and weapons, but the merchantmen and warships to ferry those supplies across the Atlantic. One Canadian army fought its way up Italy; a second landed at Normandy on June 6 and fought its way through to the Netherlands on the Allied left flank. At war’s end, the Canadian navy would rank third on earth, inferior only to those of Britain and America – and postwar, Canada provided reconstruction aid on a scale comparable to the Marshall Plan.
James Roberts led a life that was at unusually impressive and yet representatively characteristic of the Canadians of his generation. Aged over 30 when he joined the Canadian army, with no military background beyond casual military training, he rapidly proved himself a natural soldier and leader. He rose rapidly to command of a brigade, was decorated – with the mission to escort Staube the ultimate recognition of his skill and bravery in combat.
His book is written in a clear, clipped style that leaves behind a feeling that what was omitted may well have been even more interesting than what was included.
The Canadian Summer carries a single blurb, from the famous Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman.
That name may not mean much to American readers. Suffice it to say that Newman was a legendary practitioner of the Robert Novak school of protection-racket journalism. (Click here for my review of Newman’s own distinctly untrustworthy memoirs.)
Why is this suggestive?
Roberts was an important civil servant in the six years that John Diefenbaker was prime minister of Canada. Those were the same years that Newman was covering Ottawa for the Toronto Star, savaging the turbulent Diefenbaker with a series of stories that demonstrated that Newman knew more about what was happening inside Diefenbaker’s government than Diefenbaker himself.
Roberts, a lifelong Conservative, allows in his memoirs that he despised Diefenbaker as an unstable and treacherous bully. But if Roberts ever acted on those feelings, he did not choose to share that information with posterity.
What he does share however is more than interesting enough.
He tells a marvelous story about his journey across the Atlantic to join the Canadian army training in England. The voyage was terrifying enough, with German U-boats on the hunt for troopships. As Roberts’ huge convoy pulled away from Canada, he was astonished to see rising up around them a protective escort of American warships – this at a time when the United States was still officially neutral. The escort protected them all the way to harbor in the United Kingdom.
On the trip, Roberts noticed a detachment that bore the strange name, “Mobile Bath Unit.” Roberts had pulled every connection he had from his days in the interwar militia to gain deployment in a front-line combat unit. (Armored reconaissance as it happened – about as dangerous a duty as the army offered.) So he smiled condescendingly at the men who had drawn this unheroic sanitary duty.
Roberts crossed from Britain into France shortly after D-Day. He bedded down beneath a pipe – and woke up to discover that grease had dripped onto his woolen uniform. Roberts fought his way across northern France in the heat of summer in that same grease-soaked heavy suit, without a change of shirt or underwear. After a month of sweaty fighting, his unit paused to meet … yes a Mobile Bath Unit. Never in his life had he ever been more glad or grateful to see anyone or anything, he says, as he was to see these men set up a little gas boiler to heat the water to warm a makeshift shower before distributing new uniforms and underwear.
Roberts was a native of Toronto. For me, also a native of that city, some of the most amusing passages in the book are those that remark the changes in the town over the past three-quarters of a century.
Toronto’s Bloor Street has since evolved into one of the most extravagant shopping corridors in North America. Yet as recently as the 1970s, the eye could still detect the rattletrap old Edwardian houses behind the shopfronts. Roberts grew up in Bloor Street houses just east and west of Yonge. His family was an affluent one, and he had some rough encounters with the toughs who lived south of Bloor on Charles Street. (Now a street lined with costly condominiums.) He attended the same elementary school as one of my brothers-in-law, and (briefly) the same high school that I attended.
The most treacherous part of the journey: driving up and out of the big ravine at Hogg’s Hollow. Hogg’s Hollow remains steep to this very day. I used to train for cross-country races by running up and down York Mills Road into and out of the Hollow. Today there’s a subway station at the bottom, surrounded by office buildings and condominiums. My own boyhood home – which seemed impossibly distant from the city when I was young – is about a mile and a half to the east, in what is now regarded as almost an in-city neighborhood.
Here, finally, is the background to the ice cream story with which this Bookshelf opened.
Roberts graduated from high school just as the Depression hit. University was out of the question for him, even if he had been academically inclined, which he was not. He managed to find a job at an insurance company. The job was impossibly boring and very poorly paid, and it did not improve much over a decade of toil. So Roberts was very ready for a change when his more entrepreneurial brother returned home from Britain for a family visit in the summer of 1937. The two men visited the Canadian National Exhibition together – now basically a summer amusement park, but then also an important trade show. In the Food Hall, a visiting American businessman was dispensing a new treat from an amazing machine: dairy solids mixed with air to form “soft” ice cream. Roberts’ brother and the American got into conversation. The American explained the machine and described the chain of restaurants he was planning to launch. He thought he might call them “Dairy Queen.”
The brother liked the idea – and asked the American how much he would want for British Empire rights to his patented machine. A deal was struck, and soon afterward, Roberts and his brother were sailing back to England to sell soft ice cream on the beach at Blackpool.
They had a hugely successful summer in 1938. (Here’s a detail from a vanished world: one of Roberts’ responsibilities was hauling the heavy leather bags full of pennies to the night depository at the banks.) They invested heavily in additional machinery to prepare to serve more locations in the summer of 1939. That summer’s war tensions – and fear of a surprise German invasion – emptied the beaches and ruined them.
The brother moved to California and flourished in business. Roberts joined the forces. There must have been a story behind that separation – although the brother lived for 30 more years, he and Roberts only saw each other once again in their lives, very briefly. But if there is a story, Roberts again quietly opted not to tell it.
Reader and military expert Stuart Koehl questions the accuracy of Roberts’ recollection of US destroyers escorting his convoy across the Atlantic. I’ll reproduce Roberts’ exact story here:
About mid-October [of 1941], … our regiment boarded a troop train at Camp Borden [near Barrie, Ontario], and commenced the first stage of movement to Europe.
At Halifax, we boarded the liner Rene del Pacifico, part of a huge convoy consisting of several liners, carrying the entire 5th Canadian Armored Division, a big RCAF group of reinforcements, and various independent units – in all, the biggest convoy of the war to leave Halifax. In the last days of October the convoy moved out of Halifax harbour, formed up in formation, and drove, at maximum speed, into the Atlantic. …
One day, outward bound from Halifax, the convoy made rendezvous with a large American battle fleet … destroyers, cruisers, and airplane-carrying battleships. This formidable fleet guarded us nearly all the way across. It will be remembered that the United States was, at this time, a neutral nation!
Again, only one day out from the Irish coast, the American fleet signalled our convoy, turned about, and disapppeared, en route back to the United States. We all wondered why, considering we were now approaching the most dangerous part of our entire voyage. It was common knowledge that the German U-boats always clustered at the narrow entrance to the Irish Sea. We had our answer shortly as three weather-beaten British destroyers took over from the departing US fleet. We watched these little destroyers, decks awash in the heavy, rolling sea. It must have been hell for the crews on board. But the convoy entered the Irish Sea safely and soon docked in the harbour of Liverpool – a great relief to all on board!