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A Wren’s Story: Dorothy Isabel Raguin

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Dorothy Raguin my mother, joined the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) known as the Wrens in April 1943. She left a job teaching grade three at Berthelet School in Montreal to help in the war effort and to look after her brothers, Robert and Arthur Raguin, both serving in the Navy.

She had graduated from The High School of Montreal Girls School in 1939 and then attended MacDonald College for teacher’s training and began her teaching career.

War was declared in September 1939, but it wasn’t until three years later that the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service was formed. Dorothy was one of over 6000 women who joined the navy, allowing the shore-based men to go to sea. The navy was the last of the forces to admit women. The first recruits were cooks, clerks and laundry maids but by the end of the war, women filled 39 trades including communication operators, signalman, coders and radar plotters. Their pay was also raised from two-thirds of a man’s to eighty percent. The Navy found women were useful.

The Wrens were inundated with applications even though the Army and Airforce had been recruiting women for two years. These women wanted to join the Navy. As the smallest of women’s services, it claimed to be the most selective. The Wrens were known to have recruited a “better type” of girl. They were ladies, not sailors and kept their hats on indoors.

There was a short three-week course at the WRCNS training centre HMCS Conestoga, in Galt Ontario. This facility which had been a girls reform school was referred to as a “stone frigate.” The women put on the Wren uniform and had a rapid transition into military life. They were given physical training, drill practice and learned about naval traditions and customs.“ They all seemed anxious to serve and do something constructive to help win the war. I found them very receptive to naval tradition and amenable to discipline, said Superintendent Carpenter. ”¹

Dorothy was drafted to HMCS Cornwallis September 1943. Mom’s first posting was to a hospital base, Stadacona in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A family friend, Miss Fellows was in charge of the women and had two sick berth attendant positions available. These were prime positions working in the laboratories. One was in haematology and the other in urinalysis. Mom chose blood and a friend got the other position.

 

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Lab in Halifax 1944

 

It wasn’t all work, marching and standing in lines. In their free time, they visited the scenic places around Halifax including Peggy’s Cove and Chester NS. There were always men coming and going from the ships and the Wrens used to take some of the patients rowing on the Arm. As innocent women, they were warned to be careful walking on Gottingen Street which had buildings right to the sidewalk, as they could be grabbed from the doorways! Dorothy celebrated her 21st birthday in the Navy with a lobster dinner at the Lord Nelson Hotel, a treat by her cousin Richard Scrivner who was then a Navy Commander. It was her first lobster and she never had another. There was also trip with other Wrens to New York City. They didn’t have to pay for their hotel and received meals for free as a thank you for their service.

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Doreen, Dorothy, Gwen

One of her teaching friends Mary Hawkins wrote in May 1943 from Halifax. “Dorothy Raguin and I met at the ANA (Army, Navy, Airforce) Club yesterday. She looks fit and is getting a kick out of the Wrens. She was in the School for Teachers the year before I was and was teaching at Berthelet. She left a month after I did – to join the Navy. I asked her if the Wrens get their tot of rum and she said, No, but apart from that everything is just the way Nelson left it. I know what she meant.”²

She finished her duty doing discharge physicals at the Royal Canadian Naval Hospital (RCNH) St Hyacinthe, Quebec. Her transfer was mentioned in the Tiddley Times, the Wrens newsletter. “Our hospital staff have been lucky in the acquisition of Dorothy Raguin, Aileen Fee and P.O. Anne Hawke, all lab. technicians with first-hand experience from Halifax.”³ The WRCNS disbanded in August of 1946 as women were not needed in peacetime.

Dorothy saw her brothers only once while she was in the Navy. She arranged dates for them when their ship came into Halifax. Happily, they managed to survive without her care and returned home safely.

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Dorothy Raguin in the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Corps before 1943.

 

My mother Dorothy Raguin Sutherland, died recently, at 95. She was proud of her service in the Navy and so to honour her and her service to Canada I am posting this story.

Notes:

  1. Superintendent Carpenter on Navy Radio, Recorded10 June 1943 for broadcast 14 and 16 June on CBC. Library and Archives Canada: MG30 E 391 Volume 1.
  1. Buch, Mary Hawkins., and Carolyn Gossage. Props on Her Sleeve: The Wartime Letters of a Canadian Airwoman. Toronto: Dundurn, 1997. Print.
  1. Tiddly Times May – June 1945 Wrens Newsletter page 26.
  1. Huba, Diane., The Wrens 70th Anniversary 2012. Starshell Volume VII No. 58, Spring 2012.
  1. Dorothy Raguin Sutherland reminiscences as told to the author.
  1. www.navaireview.ca/wp-content/uploads/public/vol3num3/vol3num3art5.pdf
  1. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wmens-royal-canadian-naval-service/
  2. In the third picture, Dorothy Raguin is not wearing a Wren’s uniform but rather the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Corp (W.V.R.C.) uniform. The main goal of this organization was to fundraise for the war efforts and train women in war-related tasks.

The German Soldier – Wolfgang Kempff

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Wolfgang Kempff 1937

The last letter my father received from Wolfgang Kempff was dated Berlin, September 20, 1939. Canada had declared war on Germany ten days earlier.

We hear many stories about allied soldiers, their heroics in the war and how proud they and their ancestors are of the medals won. This past remembrance day there was a story about a couple who had found medals and were trying to reunite them with the recipient’s family. One person commented that his German father had burned all his medals, not wanting to remember his part in the war. This invoked other comments saying how we have never heard what the German soldiers really felt about Hitler and the war.

I have some letters written to my father from a German fellow, Wolfgang Kempff, who was just 22 in 1939. Wolfgang had followed in the footsteps of his older brother and spent four years in Canada, attending Westmount High School, Westmount Quebec. He enjoyed his time perfecting his english and living the Canadian life. When he graduated in June 1935 he returned to Germany.

He is pictured in the school year book with all the other graduates. His biography is very revealing of his thoughts and feelings about Hitler and the position of Germany at that time.

His Quote: “Nature might stand up and say……”

His Favourite Expression: Heil Hitler

Pet Aversion: The treaty of Versailles

Past Time: Boosting Hitler

Ambition: To be as like Hitler as possible

Activities: Sailing Team, Junior Basketball, Play, Lifesaving and Public Speaking.

Wolfgang corresponded with his school friends after he returned home. He was very anxious for them to come visit him, to enjoy German beer, wine, racing cars, skiing and opera. He lived in Berlin with his mother and their guest room was always available. He even suggested they try to win scholarships so they could study in Berlin.

In 1937 Wolfgang was in the German army. He loved it and thought he would have great success because of his knowledge of english. He was proud of being German and believed Hitler was doing great things for his country. “I really gave myself pains to do everything well, and one can only do that when one is “flesh and blood” for the idea.” Unfortunately because of his health, continual throat infections, he was dismissed from the army. He was very upset as he would have been promoted to the military school that October and become an officer 18 months later.

With his military career over, he decided to study engineering at the University in Berlin. He needed six months of practical experience working in a factory before he could begin his program. It would then take seven and a half years before he would obtain his degree, much longer than his friends in Canada. In the summer of 1938 he worked for the State Railway and found it a very interesting experience. That fall he started his second term in mechanical engineering.

Wolfgang was enjoying the typical student life, going out, drinking beer, ski trips in the Bavarian Alps and chatting up English girls. He was annoyed that his summer holidays were to be cut by five weeks, but in September 1939 he and his mother were to drive to Italy, with stops in Prague and Vienna.

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Wolfgang Ice Skating in Berlin 1938

He wrote about politics. He didn’t think what was reported in the west was the truth. Wolfgang thought German food rationing was a joke. Every person could still have a pound of butter per week and enough eggs for breakfast! Lobster and caviar were expensive but these luxuries were something people could do without. No one was starving as local meat and vegetables were still readily available and there was almost no unemployment. “In 6 years much has been achieved. Perhaps no country in history has undergone such a change in 6 years. Hitler said in one of his last speeches, that Germany would far rather spend cash on things than on an unproductive army but apparently other countries have different ideas.”

The final letter was from September 20, 1939. He said, unfortunately he and his mother had to cancel their trip to Italy. Wolfgang didn’t understand why Britain and Canada had declared war on Germany. “We fight our own battles and won’t stand other people sticking their fingers into things which are none of their business.” He felt the Allies had nothing to gain and everything to lose in fighting the very fine German forces. “I don’t suppose any of you fellows will ever get on French soil. My pity for the “Paile and Tommy” who is going to try to run in our fortresses.”

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Wolfgang Kempff 1937

He certainly didn’t think the war would last very long. “My invitation still holds good when the scuffle is over. Please give my regards to everybody and with best wishes to you and your family,

Wolfgang

Notes:

Letters and photographs from Wolfgang Kempff, Germany to Donald Sutherland, Westmount, Quebec, Canada. Aug 5, 1937, Aug 23, 1938, March 29, 1939 and September 20, 1939.  In the author’s possession.

Westmount High School Annual, Westmount, Quebec, Canada. 1935

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I assume Wolfgang was accepted back into the German army and didn’t survive the war. As yet, I haven’t been able to find any more information about him.

Difficult holiday for two families

The plane crashed just after one in the afternoon Eastern Time on December 22, 1944. He probably died right then, or soon after.

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James Frederick (Fredrick or Federic) Devitt left at least two families mourning for him, one in the United Kingdom and his own in Ontario.

His service file shows that the man was 22 years old when he died. His birth had been a Valentine’s Day gift for his parents. Prior to joining the Air Force, he worked for the Canada Bread Company in Peterborough as a driver and route manager. He played hockey and softball and owned a motor boat.[1]

His last trip as a flight engineer/pilot officer left from Gransden Lodge just prior to 4 p.m. in the afternoon, December 22, 1944, exactly 71 years ago yesterday.

His Lancaster and 13 others were on a Pathfinder mission to mark a small railway freight yard in Germany’s Rhine Valley. He was in Lancaster 405/D, which was seen crashing about three hours later by four pathfinders at 50:02 N. 06:25 E., southwest of Leimbach.

Blind Sky Marker failed to return from this operation and nothing has been heard from any member of the crew since time of take-off. This was F/O Tite’s 35th operation.” [2]

His mother’s notes to the Air Force show how difficult these situations were for families.

The telegram and letter reporting him going missing within a month of the crash was the only official news, but she still had hope that he had lived in May.

Can nothing be done to locate my son Fred? I have waited for days thinking some message would come through. I had word from two of the fathers from two of his crew saying their sons were prisoners of war. This was some time ago. Try and help a heart-broken mother please.”

Henrietta was 65 when her Devitt died, but she had already known great loss. His father Robert Campbell Devitt had already died of complications following a stomach ulcer operation when he was three years old, his older brothers were  five, 15 and 21 and his five sisters were eight, 11, 14, 17 and 19.

When she got news about her youngest son going missing, she was already dealing with the death of his elder brother Alexander, who had died the previous January in the Battle of Ortano, Italy.[3]

She wrote the Royal Air Force a second note three months later:

I have not heard any further word about my son Jas Fredric Devitt except what the three members of his crew who came back told me by letter. They said the plane burst into flames. One bailed out and two were blown out and what happened the rest is not known. Surely some identification marks were found. If he was killed and buried like my other son I wouldn’t take it so hard.

Two of the boys were taken as prisoners and the other wounded and put in a German hospital. All any one says is missing.”

A month later she wrote again.

Surely you can tell me something of my son Pilot Officer Jas Fud shot down over Germany December 22…If I know he was died and his body found my mind would be at rest—as it is I’m afraid of results.”

Another woman who loved him also worried. Eight months after his plane went down, a Mrs. S. Hitchings wrote the Royal Air Force from 111 Connaught Road, Roath Park, Cardiff. She too had heard that two airmen from his plane were taken prisoner and she hoped that perhaps they provided the Red Cross with information about Devitt.

I feel sure that if he was alive we would have heard from him, since he became part of our family whilst he was stationed in this country.”[4]

It would take another three years to be sure about what happened to the Lancaster, but Devitt’s service record indicates that:

This 4 engined aircraft fell 60 or 70 yards behind the fam of MARTIN STOMMES in WIERSDORF (L.0357). It was shot down by a German night fighter and was burning in the air, it hit the ground, turned on its back and burned for 3 hours. One engine and the tail unit fell off before it crashed.”

Three bodies and the remains of a fourth were buried in an unmarked grave.[5]

Devitt’s remains have since been moved to Rheinberg War Cemetery in Germany. For more information, refer to his Veterans Affairs Canada memorial page.

Sources:

[1] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, General Information.

[2] No. 405 R.C.A.F. Squadron (P.E.F.) Operations Record Book, Gransden Lodge, photocopies of secret book, December 22, 1944, Appendix 212.

[3] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, National Estates Branch, form C92768FD269, October 29, 1945.

[4] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, report from Officer Commanding No 2, MR&E Unit RAF, dated January 17, 1947.

[5] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, letter from S. Hitchings, received August 25, 1945.

Note: This article was also published on http://www.Arialview.ca today.

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