Crossing the Atlantic
Canadian troops were transported to England on the luxury ships of the day, which had been outfitted for moving soldiers and supplies.  Ships that previously carried about 2,000 civilian passengers now carried as many as 16,000 troops and crew on a single voyage.
Queen Mary outfitted as a troop ship, 1943

The RCAF No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre Band was one of several bands that were part of the war effort both at home and overseas. Their mission was to help keep spirits up by entertaining the troops, officers and civilians at concerts, dances, and parades.

                         *          *          *
Harry tossed and turned on the tiny bottom bunk. They were stacked four high and three across in the pool on the stern deck. On his left were snoring men, on his right were cold and mildewed tiles that smelled of the ocean. Earlier that day, after two weeks in Halifax, they boarded the RMS Queen Mary, the very boat his parents had travelled and performed on as duo pianists six years earlier en route to South Africa. Now, there was not much luxury in evidence - it was so crammed with servicemen he could hardly move or think. How could they pack 15,000 people into a vessel meant to carry 2,000? And the ship kept veering off course. It was all he could do not to throw up.
“Why are we zigzagging so much?” Harry whispered to Smitty, who was reading his book with a tiny flashlight across from him.
“I think we’re dodging the Gerry subs, or at least trying to – it would be our luck to get blown up at sea,” Smitty said, flicking his cigarette ash as he calmly turned the page.
“You’re always full of comforting remarks.” Harry tried to settle back down. Their first day at sea had been a long one, and there would be at least three more before they reached Scotland.
The next day they had morning and afternoon rehearsals in the state room for an evening concert in the officer’s mess. At least he had his old clarinet that was sent up to him before they left Halifax. It was the one that his grandmother bought him from Eaton’s for $50 - the instrument that set him up as a working musician. It had a clearer, purer tone than the newer one that was the standard issue.
“C’mon guys – you can do better than that. Put a little more swing into it.” Their bandleader Steve Vowden was pretty hard on them, considering that the rough waters made it difficult for them to hold their instruments, never mind play together in rhythm. “You know what Winston Churchill said, ‘Bands are necessary to the war effort, we have to keep everyone’s morale up by dancing’.”
When practice was finally over, Harry rushed several levels below deck to the telegraph office. He knew he couldn’t tell her much because of the censors, but he wanted Helen to know they were okay and finally on their way.

SEPT 3 SANS ORIGINE [without origin*]

*as a military operation, their location could not be revealed

Not long after, he received her reply.

Ottawa, Sept. 9, 1943
My Darling Harry,
Your long awaited cable came last night about 9:45 and it was so good to hear that you were well. I felt so happy. I suppose there were thousands of others ahead of you all sending word home. You likely have bigger line-ups than we have here. Your Mother will be relieved too, I’m expecting to hear from her any day now. It was funny, but last night every time the doorbell rang I seemed to think it would be for me. You never disappoint me for long, do you darling?
    I hope you feel a bit settled. Have you had much to do yet? I suppose there are so many Canadians around that you almost feel as though you’re back home. You want to tell me all you can about life over there, etc., and what you do with yourself. Have you seen any English lassies? I guess they are mostly in uniform, aren’t they?
    Robert Donnell [Harry’s friend, the carilloneur] played a program on the Peace Tower Carillon yesterday. The Russian Anthem “Internationale” was played for the first time in Canada. There is to be a big Air Cadets parade on Sunday led by the Central Band. I don’t expect I’ll see it unless it comes down Bank Street, but if you were in it – well –
I won’t forget our good times, there’s always something reminding me of them and of you, sweetheart.
Goodbye now. Please take care of yourself, and we all hope you won’t be away too long. Please write lots. My love always, 
 Helen xxx

Sept. 4, 1943 [Arrival in Greenoch, Clyde, Scotland]
Dearest Helen,
Just a few lines to let you know that I’m well and am enjoying myself very much. I hope you received my cable and I also sent a post card. We are in a very beautiful city [Greenoch, Clyde, Scotland] as you will see if you get the card, but [we] do not expect to stay long here as we will be going to our own station [Bournemouth] to play. Everybody seems to think we’ll be travelling, but are not sure yet. 
Postcard from Greenock, Scotland sent by Harry
I certainly miss you honey, but I guess you must miss me even more, if possible. We are rehearsing like mad and we certainly need it. The boys are looking forward to hearing the brass bands over here as they are the best in the world. Nearly every time a plane goes by overhead, somebody is sure to look up (while we are rehearsing) and find out whether it’s one of ours or one of theirs. Rather interesting pastime when counting 16 bars rest. However, darling they feed and lodge us well here and we’re having a good time, so that’s the main thing. Will be looking for a letter.
All my love, Harry

Arrival in Bournemouth

In September 1943, the RCAF No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre Band travelled to Bournemouth, England by train, a more than eight hour trip south from Greenock, Scotland where the Queen Mary troop ship had landed. Located on the English Channel, Bournemouth was a relatively safe place to be and the air forces from Canada, Britain and the United States were all stationed there during the war, including 12,000 Canadians.ˡ
Allied air force fighter planes departed from Hurn, a large airfield just outside the city, in bombing raids across the English Channel to the continent.
Throughout the war, child evacuees, civil servants and residents also came to the seaside city to escape the dangers in London.² To accommodate the increase in population, many hotels, guest houses and private homes were commandeered for meeting spaces, mess halls, entertainment venues, and overnight lodgings. The RCAF officers’ mess was located in their headquarters at the Royal Bath Hotel (JC to check).
Bournemouth citizens dismantled their famous pier and cordoned off the 11 mile long beach with barbed wire in an effort to prevent potential enemy landings.
One of the most devastating raids on the city occurred on May 23, 1943, before the band arrived, when over twenty Luftwaffe planes hit the Central and Metropole Hotels resulting in the deaths of 77 civilians and 131 servicemen, many of them Canadian.
Over the course of World War II in Bournemouth, there were a total of 51 air raids with 2,271 bombs that resulted in the deaths of 168 civilians and182 servicemen, and 507 injuries.³

ˡ²³ M.A. Edgington, Bournemouth and the Second World War 1939 – 1945, Bournemouth, England: Bournemouth Local Studies Publication, 1994

Home at the Atherstone

Harry and fourteen other bandmembers were being billeted at a private hotel near the centre of downtown Bournemouth.
The Atherstone Hotel was a three-storey brick house, with dormer windows, at 15 Tregonwell Rd. The street was named after the founder of the city, Lewis Tregonwell, so Harry supposed the house had been there quite awhile. 
Harry & Smitty's room is marked with an "X"
The hotel was just a five minute walk to the Pavilion, a haven that offered entertainment for the airmen stationed nearby and where the RCAF presented many variety shows.
The old hotel had certainly seen better days. Faded velvet curtains, closed because of the blackout, enclosed the small, stuffy drawing room. The servicemen were greeted warmly at the front desk by an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, the proprietors.  
“Welcome to Bournemouth, boys! We hope you will find our humble lodgings comfortable. I wish it weren’t wartime so that you could see the full beauty of this lovely city. I’m afraid our nice, sandy beaches are all blocked by the barbed wire. Churchill’s worried about invasion channel-side, so I guess we can’t take any chances. There are tank traps all over the channel too. By the way, it’s a shilling per hour for a gas heater, and 6 p for a bath – just let us know what you need.”
Smitty and Harry lugged their kit bags and instruments up to their room on the second floor.
Harry in front of Atherstone
 “Wow, would you look at that big, fat, beautiful mattress,” Smitty remarked, as he sat down to test it out. “I get the left side.”
“Well, I guess we’ve seen the last of barracks life,” said Harry. “We’d better unpack our meagre belongings. We’ve got to be over for rehearsal before playing in the officer’s mess at 8 p.m.”
They each had a chest of drawers in which to stuff their underwear and socks, and they hung up their uniforms and overcoats in the huge wardrobe. Grabbing their instruments, they headed off down the road. 
“These damn reeds are like shingles – they keep squeaking at the worst times,” Harry complained to Ossie, who played second clarinet.
“I’ve got news for you – they are cut from shingles,” Ossie whispered.
“I’ve asked my mother to send a dozen new ones, medium-to-hard strength, in the next parcel – they’re impossible to get here for love or money.”
“Tell her to send us some new sheet music too. I’m tired of faking through these choruses. We sound pretty sad.”
“OK fellows – that’ll do for now. Make sure you’re at the mess hall no later than 7:45. We want to impress the officers with our talent, paltry as it is.” Steve’s sarcasm was hard to take sometimes.
Harry headed back to his room to start on a letter to Helen.
No. 3 PRC Band of the RCAF

Bournemouth, Sept. 6, 10, 13, & 22, 1943 (compilation) Opened by Examiner 4093
Dearest Helen,
Just a few lines to let you know that I’m well and am enjoying my stay here. One can really relax as it’s so great and sunny, in fact, you’d hardly realize there is a war on, even when Italy surrendered yesterday.* A lift operator whispered the news to me very confidentially on Wednesday as I was going up to Bobby’s Restaurant, as if it was a military secret. I can’t help but wish you were over here with me. It’s such a terrific place even in war time. I can just imagine what it would be with the lights on again.
[Smitty] was saying it would be perfect to come back here and retire in one of these towns, everything seems so peaceful and quiet. Until the bombs start dropping, of course.
I’m getting on to the money quite well, better than I thought at first. It’s hard for me to realize that I’m in England, even now. It’s just things like traffic driving on the left hand side of the road, blackouts that are really black, ancient lochs, looking for non-existent restaurants selling non-existent hot-beefs and respectable ladies drawing and serving beer, which, by the way, is so weak as to be almost tasteless. But, taking the good with the bad, it still is a swell country and not half as beaten down as we used to think at home.
You are practically overwhelming me with mail, but I love it. I guess I get more mail than anybody in the band and they are starting to tease me too. I got your letters of the 11th and 14th at noon. I don’t think you need to worry about me not getting them as Mr. Churchill has said that there hasn’t been a ship sunk in the North Atlantic for four months.
We played a banquet last night and after the officers cleared out we made a dive on the tables. There were big baskets of grapes, pears, and apples and we really went to town. Grapes are about $4.43 a pound. I’m still waiting for your parcel darling, so those cookies had better be good.
The band is improving immensely. I think I am too. Playing first clarinet makes you feel more important anyway. In a band of that size you have to work pretty hard to hold up your end.
Well darling, I’ll have to close for now. I am trying to write under a blackout lamp.
I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have you writing to me all the time.
All my love darling, Harry.

*On September 3, 1943 British and Canadian troops landed in Italy and an armistice was signed with the Allies in Sicily.

Even though Harry has been writing Helen regularly, she has not received any of his letters from Bournemouth. They might have been held up because they had to go through the censor.

Ottawa, Sept. 11, 1943
Dearest Harry,
How are you, darling? I’m still watching the mailman; should get word after ten days – that means around Wednesday I hope!! Even though your cable only contains eight words it has been read and repeated a dozen times. . .
I’m still a bit homesick and wish sometimes I’d stayed near at Saskatoon or Regina, but hope I’ll be glad I came back if I ever get settled. Guess I’ll be leaving here about the middle of October, but have nothing definite in mind. [Helen is planning on moving to Toronto to be closer to Harry’s family, as that is where they will be living when he returns.] There were no vacancies at my boss’s Toronto office but they may help me to get placed. Everything is just a chance anyway so guess I should show my initiative and go to it!
What’s the climate like there, Harry? Does it rain as much as here? It seems a bit like winter today; the wind is so cold. Hope it won’t be as bad as last year. Remember the time we walked to the Elgin Theatre [in Ottawa] and nearly froze to death? You can wear your earlaps [or earflaps] as much as you wish this year darling; I won’t be around to criticize! They didn’t look as bad as I said they did anyway.
I hope you are able to get around there and see things on your weekends. Saturday and Sunday always passed so quickly for us, even if we did just kill time together sometimes. I was happier then than I ever realized because you filled my life and there was nothing lacking at the present. Now there’s a missing link and it’s you, sweetheart, but at least I can feel close when I write and think about you. You never liked me to say “Goodbye” so I’ll say “Cheerio” for now darling. Write lots.
xxx All my love, Helen.

Ottawa, Sept. 14, 1943
Dearest Harry,
I started a letter to you on Sunday but guess I’ll write this and finish the other tomorrow. You should know nearly everything I do every day. Do you want me to keep in writing as often?                      I feel so unsettled these days Harry. I told you in my last letter that I intended to leave here and trust to luck, but I was talking it over with the manager and he said if I stay he’d try to get something better for me. The only reason I want to go [i.e. move from Ottawa to Toronto] is to be nearer your folks and I’d like that, but the few friends I have are here and I feel quite at home except that I miss you terribly. If everything worked out well there I’d be happy but if I wasn’t satisfied I’d be wishing I had stayed. Would you be disappointed if I didn’t go up for awhile at least?    Darling, you must get so tired reading about my affairs, but I seem to have to tell you everything. I want you to tell me about your experiences too and what you think about, etc. etc. Everybody teases me about writing to you so often, but I say you may not receive all of them. Hope all is well with you darling and that your time is well occupied. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, that means I still love you.
Yours always, Helen.

Ottawa, Sept. 12 & 15, 1943
My Darling Harry,
How I wish I could talk to you! I’m a bit worried about things in general but will have to think them out for myself, then tell you about it.
Helen (left) & Lois
            I was just down to Lois’ place and we took a couple of pictures of each other in the house just experimenting. When we get talking the time seems to fly. Both Jimmy’s and your ears should be ringing when we get together!!! We ate at the Arcadia, then she went to church and I came home. I’m here alone but when I’m writing to you I don’t mind so much.
            What are you doing with yourself, Harry? Wonder if this week will pass without any word from you, I hope not!! I’m gradually learning to wait for things, especially when you are involved darling.
            I listened to the symphony program [on the radio] this afternoon; tried to pick out the pieces you would like. I enjoy them, but wish I could follow them and whistle like you used to do. You always sounded so contented when you did that. Charlie McCarthy [ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy puppet] is on now; I don’t think Fred Allen has started yet, at least I haven’t heard his program.
            Goodnight love.

Sept. 15, 1943 (same letter continued)
I hope you begin to receive my mail soon, Harry. Isn’t it terrible to go on from day to day without any letters? Maybe you don’t notice it as much as I do. When we used to enjoy ourselves so much, I kept thinking there might be a time when things would be a bit different – this is the time!        
            I see by the bulletin board that the biggest aerial assault in history has saved the bridgehead of Salerno for the Allies. There must be some terrific fighting going on there.  Wonder when and where the end will be.
            Love and kisses. Helen
Department of Munitions and Supply

“Miss Reeder, I’m ready for you now,” Mr. Lauson sprung to his feet and looked out at Helen from his corner office.
“Certainly, sir,” Helen said as she grabbed her steno pad, ink bottle, pen and blotting paper, and entered his large office.
Helen and managers at Dept. of Munitions and Supply
She could see the green roofs and light limestone of the Parliament Buildings outside his window.
He dictated, “This letter is to Mr. Percy Nightingale, Manager, United States Steel Export Company, and the address should be in your files.

Dear Mr. Nightingale,

Thank you for your shipment of last Wednesday, which arrived without incident.
 Please send us another 50 tons of first grade steel by rail, as soon as possible. Please inform of amount due, which will be wired to your offices. The brokerage papers will arrive by separate mail. Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this order.
Yours sincerely,
John Lauson
Deputy Steel Controller
Department of Munitions and Supply
Ottawa, Canada
“When you’re finished typing the letter, you can put it on my desk for me to sign, then send it out in today’s mail. It’s hard to keep up with the shell and grenade production. The fighting overseas is escalating every day.”
“Yes, sir,” Helen said as she got up to leave.
“Oh, and Miss Reeder, I just got word that your release has gone through – we’re going to really miss you here. It’s not everyone who can type 60 words a minute and write 100 words a minute in shorthand with no mistakes.”
“Oh, you’re flattering me sir, I’m sure you’ll find another stenographer in no time. But, I’ll be sad to leave here too, everyone has been so good to me.”
“Don’t forget to remind me to write a reference letter for you. Whoever you work for next will be lucky to have you.”
“Thank you sir.”
As she left the temporary buildings that night, Helen headed south along O’Connor and turned right at Frank Street. It took a little over 20 minutes if she walked briskly. She had saved quite a bit of money on bus fare over the past year, money she was sending back home to her family. As she walked, Helen remembered the letter from her father which arrived the day before, pleading with her to come back home and help her mother, who wasn’t in good health. Well, who would be, after giving birth to 11 children over 18 years, she thought. That would wear anyone out.
To alleviate her guilt, she would continue to send them money out of her $25 a week pay, $5 of which went to her week’s room and board at Mrs. Nesbitt’s, another $2 for lunches at work, about $5 or $6 for clothes and other expenses, $5 for her savings account, leaving about $10 a week to help them out. They could buy more food so that her mother wouldn’t have to make everything from scratch, and maybe they could hire extra help. There were always teenage girls around needing work. Anyway, she was not going to give up her life to be a slave to her family anymore. 
Supper was just about ready when she got in the door.
“How was your day, Helen?” Mrs. Nesbitt asked, bustling around, laying out the cutlery and plates for dinner.
“Just fine, thanks, but I’m feeling pretty sad about leaving them all.  Oh, and before I forget, I picked up my ration books today, here are the coupons for sugar, butter, coffee and meat like you asked.”
“Thanks, I’ll use them tomorrow when I order the groceries. It’ll be hard to find another boarder as thoughtful as you.”
After supper, they all gathered around the RCA Victor Radiola in the living room.
“Ever since the war started, there are such interesting programs on,” said Mrs. Nesbitt.
“Harry’s parents are on tonight – they should be starting any minute,” Helen said.
“Shh,” Mrs. Nesbitt hushed the others who were talking in the background. Eleanor, Mabel and Dorrien had brought their knitting and were busy comparing patterns.
Claudette (Ida) & Harry Culley, CBS radio studio
“Tonight our show is brought to you by Lucky Strikes, the official cigarette of the Royal Canadian Air Force,” said the announcer. “Tonight, our duo piano team Harry and Claudette will play for you Sapphire, Begin the Beguine, The Dream, and Bing Crosby’s latest hit, Sunday, Monday or Always. This lovely couple have been rehearsing in the studio all day to present their polished program to you.”
Helen felt proud, thinking that she was going to be related to these famous people. Listening to the music, she wondered about her future and how she would fit into Harry’s family, considering her humble upbringing on the farm.
“Thank you Harry and Claudette for those sweet sounds,” said the announcer.  “And, now they would like to say a few words to their listeners.”
“We want to send out our greetings to our two sons, Harry Jr. in the RCAF and Ross in the Navy. Harry is now overseas, stationed in Bournemouth.”
“Are they musicians too?” asked the announcer.
“Yes, Harry Jr. plays clarinet and saxophone in the No. 3 Personnel Reception Band and Ross plays trombone in the first Navy band.”
“Well, I’m sure they’ll bring their swinging melodies to all of our troops in Canada and overseas. Thanks for your show tonight. Be sure to smoke Lucky Strikes, the smoothest taste ever. And now, here is the latest news: Allied forces continue their advance through Italy, following their landing at the beach at Salerno last month, supported by air attacks from Britain . . .”
Mrs. Nesbitt got up to turn down the volume.
“How exciting to hear Harry’s parents on the radio,” said Eleanor.
“Very impressive indeed,” said Dorrien. “Have you heard from him lately?”
“Yes, I finally got a letter yesterday, after not having one for a month.”
“They were probably held up by the censors,” said Mrs. Nesbitt. “They’re pretty careful about what news gets out.”
 “Well, I guess I’ll go up and write to him and my mother,” said Helen.
“Don’t forget there’s a big Victory Loan dance at the Triangle tomorrow night, the ladies from the church and I are making the sandwiches in the afternoon. We’ll need more volunteer servers than ever,” said Mrs. Nesbitt.
“I’ll be there – you going Helen?” asked Eleanor.
“I guess so,” she said, although her heart wasn’t in it.

Ottawa, Oct. 24 or so [date not on it] & Oct. 16, 1943
Darling Harry,
I wasn’t going to write you until tomorrow, but I couldn’t wait to tell you that I heard your Mother and Father’s broadcast tonight at 7:15. I was so surprised when their names were announced and the program was marvellous. They played Sapphire, Begin the Beguine, one of Count Basie’s swing tunes, the Dreamer, and Sunday, Monday or Always. They will probably tell you about it but I had to tell you too. Their style of playing seemed different than any I’ve heard.
I’ve had a couple of letters from firms in Toronto and they don’t offer a position as good as here. Prospects aren’t very good in any respect, but I’m going [to Toronto] anyway at 3 p.m. on Oct. 31st. I’ll go through with it now.
          Thanks for the nice air mail received yesterday, written on October 16th. There is always something in your letters to tell people, and I’m really getting an idea of what it’s like there from the little interesting things you tell me. How I’d like to go up and put my arms around you sometime when you are pretending to be waiting for me! All we can do is dream about it – yes, I still dream about you once in awhile, but not quite as exciting as that night I told you about. My, but you have a good memory for “some” things. I hope there was some mail waiting for you as you expected. Yes, I forgive you if you don’t answer promptly but oh I love to get them. I get so excited no kidding!
            There is limited space so can’t ramble on tonight. Will try and write again before I leave [for Toronto] darling – are you back home [in Bournemouth] now? My love always, Helen.

Glasgow, Belgrove Hotel, Garrowgate St., Oct. 16, 1943
Dearest Helen,
Arrived up here from London early this morning after playing a dance at Linton-on-Ouse near York and expect to leave to-morrow night to go back to London for a week. We do most of our travelling at night but I guess that eases the traffic during the day.
          Little boys seem to roam the streets in droves laying for us because they think we still have chewing gum and candy. The people here are very generous and helpful and can’t do enough for you but it’s very hard for us to understand what they say as they talk so fast and have such a brogue.
The women carry their babies in large shawls wrapped completely around themselves and the baby. It almost makes my heart skip a beat when I see them making a grab for a street car just as it’s pulling away. Believe me they have a terrific take off. I did it once and just made it. When I recovered my senses, Smitty was still standing on the corner waving like mad a half block back. I guess I told you about the women conductors: boy, do they have to be tough, especially on a Saturday night, it keeps them busy throwing drunks off the car.
            You must know how much I miss you darling. If I could see you for only a little while. I like to imagine when I’m in Trafalgar Square that I’m waiting for you because they say it’s like Times Square in New York – everybody at one time or another during their lifetime comes to Trafalgar Square.
            Another fellow and I were puzzled about which street to follow home from Trafalgar Square in the blackout when we ran into Smitty and another bandsman so you see the odds aren’t so big after all! Smitty keeps asking strangers the way downtown and it’s so funny because it’s really all downtown as we know it. I don’t think I’ll get lost anymore as I have a small map to consult and also the tubes are easy to travel on and are very direct.
 Of course there’s no heating until next month but we retire very early as a rule due to the blackout and poor light in our room. The old man lights a grate every night for us from about six to about eight in the lounge so it’s quite comfortable there.
Well darling, I’ve rambled on as long as I can after a very tedious day so will close for now. I should write Mother tonight, but won’t. Do you still dream of me? I think that’s the sweetest thing you’ve told me. All my love, Harry.

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