Gordon Primrose’s war began for real just after D-Day.
The Central Alberta farm kid was among tens of thousands of troops pouring into France following the massive invasion on June 6, 1944.
“All I can remember is an ocean full of boats — hundreds of ‘em,” recalls Primrose, who grew up in Scollard, Alta., an almost-forgotten rail stop town south of Stettler.
His unit landed on the coast not far from Caen, a key Canadian objective. The young soldiers knew little about what was going on beyond their immediate surroundings.
“The first day I was a little scared,” he recalls.
He and the other new arrivals were ordered to take cover as soon as they landed.
“That’s the first thing you had to do, was dig a slit trench.”
“I could hear the rifle fire,” says the 96-year-old, who now lives in Red Deer with his wife of 69 years, Joyce.
Seventy-three years ago, he was signalman Primrose, serial number 103314, a truck driver/mechanic in the Signal Corps, Fifth Canadian Armoured Division. His job would be transporting morse code equipment to the front lines or wherever it was needed.
Primrose, one of eight brothers and two sisters, enlisted in August 1942 and would do his basic training in Camrose and Kingston, Ont., before being sent to England.
An older brother, Jack, and his twin brother, Glenn, both joined up as well.
Jack remained in Canada but Gordon and Glenn would meet up a few times when they were based in England. Gordon remembers going to a movie with his brother when the whole building began shaking and dust and dirt showered the audience.
They got out of there as fast as they could. It turned out a bomb had landed a block away.
After landing in France, Primrose spent the war behind the wheel of his truck. By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, he had travelled through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.
Most of the time, he and his truck were not too close to the action. “At times we were, but not too often.”
Every night after a day of driving he would dig a trench, put up a “dog tent” over it and then bed down until it was time to hit the road again.
The trucks would often find themselves in massive convoys, snaking slowly towards the front.
“The driving was awful slow in convoy,” he says. “It would take half a day to go a few miles.”
For army truck drivers, landmines posed a constant, unseen danger. Primrose said he often parked overnight in orchards, popular locations for landmines.
But the army had an answer. Primrose drove with sandbags stacked up on the floorboards under his legs for protection.
“It probably wouldn’t have helped much,” he says with a chuckle. As luck would have it, he and the other signalman drivers in his unit never hit a landmine. All would return home safely after the war.
Most of the days blended together, but Primrose recalls a few incidents. He remembers watching a bomber from a raid to Germany jettison its payload of bombs nearby and then the crew taking to their parachutes. The plane hit the ground not far away with a huge explosion.
Primrose said the troops on the ground were encouraged by the long streams of bombers heading towards Germany.
His drives took him through many destroyed towns and he saw many corpses both human and animal.
“You just went through it,” he says.
On the ground, he had little inkling that the war was drawing to a close in the spring of 1945.
“It seemed like it just ended,” he says.
He remained in the army in until 1946.
A report attached to his discharge papers predicts a promising future for the 24-year-old returning soldier.
“Primrose seems to be a stable reliable farm youth whose background has been helping his father on the farm,” says the April 1946 document.
“He seems to be the strong and vigorous type able to withstand farm work.”
On returning home, Primrose went on to hold a wide variety of jobs. He had a store in Calgary at one point, worked on the railways, drove a truck and then spent many years in the oilpatch.
He married Joyce in 1948 and they raised five daughters.
While he downplayed his war service it affected him for years.
“For a while, I used to do a lot of hollering at night.” He doesn’t remember now what the nightmares were about that haunted him.
Primrose has regularly attended Remembrance Day ceremonies and plans to be there this year in Red Deer.
For his service, Primrose was awarded the 1939-45 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal, and the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and clasp.