Langley vet looks back on Second World War service

Bud Freeston’s war ended in northern Germany, just short of the North Sea city of Wilhelmshaven.

“Thank God,” was his thought when he heard Germany had surrendered. “Thank God we survived.”

Freeston, a 94-year-old Langley resident and member of Aldergrove’s Royal Canadian Legion, started his journey to Europe from a tiny town in Saskatchewan. He would travel across the Atlantic several times, through England and Scotland, North Africa, Juno Beach in Normandy, and through Belgium and Holland.

By the war’s end he had survived a serious wound that almost cost him his leg, met the woman he would marry, and lost many of his friends.

Freeston was born in 1920 in the small town of Saltcoats, where his father was a section man for the CPR. The family moved frequently, from Saskatchewan to Alberta and back, always working for the railroad. He spent much of his childhood in the small northern Saskatchewan town of Neilburg, playing hockey, baseball, and softball, and even joining the Battleford Beavers junior hockey team for a few games in 1935.

He worked hard as a young man, stooking and pitching wheat for farmers, or digging pits for duck hunters in the autumn.

“I got a dollar a pit,” Freeston remembered. “In those days, that was a lot of money.”

Freeston had two brothers and three sisters who survived infancy, and money was tight.

“My father died when I was 18,” Freeston said. After that, he was helping to support his mother and siblings.

At the age of 18, Freestone was slinging beer in a small town hotel – the local Mountie was ignoring the fact that he was underage – and making $15 a month.

“Fifteen dollars a month didn’t quite make it,” he said. His mother was cleaning houses, and he needed to make more money.

“I thought to hell with this, I’ve got to do better than this,” he said.

In June of 1940, he decided to join the Saskatchewan Light Infantry.

After basic training, Freeston was sent to England, one of the lucky soldiers who travelled on the Empress of Australia, a luxury steamship that had been pressed into use as a troop transport.

“When we went aboard, they had not converted it for wartime,” Freeston remembered.

Stewards were still working on the ship, and the soldiers from Canada sat down to eat at tables with tablecloths.

The only thing slightly unnerving was the fact that destroyers with the convoy would drop depth charges at suspected Nazi submarines.

“And we’d feel a bump, as these explosions went off,” Freeston said.

In England, Freeston began almost two years of training, and began to accumulate a series of promotions. From an enlisted man he rose to become a corporal, then a sergeant, then was recommended for a commission.

In the fall of 1942, he was sent for officer’s training in the south of England.

In the middle of the training, Freeston was suddenly told he had new orders. He was headed to the Scottish Highlands, where he was met by a sergeant.

“He said, ‘You’re going to take 2,500 prisoners of war to Canada,” Freeston said.

After some training, Freeston and 39 other NCOs escorted their POWs onto the RMS Andes, a converted mail carrier, and watched over the Germans during a quiet voyage across the Atlantic with a boat full of enemies captured in battle.

In Canada he was allowed to pick up his training again, first in Victoria – where he met and spent time with a young woman named Dorothy – and then in Shilo, Manitoba.

In between, he managed to get 10 days leave to see his mother and siblings. It was the first time in more than three years he had seen them. His little sister had grown tremendously.

“It was a brand new experience,” Freeston said.

Freeston headed back to England, and from there he followed his division to North Africa, east of Algiers. It was there that he almost lost his life to a training accident.

He was working with mortar crews, firing into the Atlantic.

“One of them exploded,” Freeston said.

The man next to him died.

“I got it through my thigh and up my back,” he said. The wound left him bedridden until he was sent to a convalescent hospital near Algiers, where he was billeted in a small villa with a fellow Lieutenant named Joel Brooks. “He had been wounded in the buttocks,” Freeston recalled.

Freeston was the only Canadian among the British soldiers in the hospital.

One day, he was called down to the mess where a parcel had arrived for him.

“There’s 12 bottles of Seagrams ‘83 rye whisky,” Freeston said.

The whisky kept showing up, every Friday, for the month he was there. The sender was apparently the Canadian ambassador in Algiers.

The British weren’t familiar with Canadian whiskey, but they soon acclimatized to it, Freeston said.

Though he was largely mobile and doing physiotherapy, the wound got worse.

“One morning I woke up, and my bed was wet, the whole of my leg was wet, and there was pus running out of my leg,” Freeston said. He had contracted gangrene in the wound.

The local surgeons seriously considered simply amputating his leg, but he was saved by the arrival of a hospital ship.

The doctors on board were also doubtful that the leg could be saved, but they wanted to try some new drugs first.

“One of the drugs was penicillin, and the other was sulfa,” said Freeston.

By the time the hospital ship reached England nine days later, the infection had largely subsided.

He finished recuperating at Cliveden, the estate donated by Viscount and Lady Astor to be turned into a hospital for Canadian soldiers.

Because of the seriousness of his wounds, Freeston was recommended for a discharge, but by May of 1944 he was recovered, and back at work again training other soldiers with mortars.

“I went to the CO and said, when can I get back to Sicily?” Freeston said. He wanted to join up with his old unit.

He was told no one was going to Sicily. Something big was coming.

Days later, the Allies invaded Normandy.

Freeston asked to go to France, and fought to get out of his training assignment. That summer he walked onto the man-made dock that had been towed to the shore of Juno Beach, the landing site for Canadian forces in France.

Having been with units of prairie men during his whole military career, Freeston was now bounced into a unit that he knew nothing about – the Black Watch. Freeston was initially worried that he wouldn’t be able to speak to them, as all he knew about the Black Watch was that they were from Quebec. He was assured they were an English-speaking unit, and was sent to join them as a platoon commander.

Freeston does not like to speak much about the experiences he had in combat with the Black Watch, as they moved through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and into Northern Germany through the latter half of 1944 and into early 1945.

He recalled the incident that saw him gain his promotion to captain, in St. Leonard in Belgium.

He and two other soldiers, a runner and a signaller, went forward to restore communications.

“During the night, Jerry brought up a self-propelled cannon,” Freeston remembered. “A hell of a battle, all night.”

He and his runner sprinted across an alley to avoid sniper fire, and once across sent messages back to the other building by tying them onto rocks and throwing them back.

He was happy to get the promotion, as it meant his mother was now getting $123 of his monthly salary, a big improvement for her life back home in Saskatchewan.

Shortly after that, the Black Watch became part of the massive attack on the Scheldt.

The battle involved a series of attacks across dikes and onto a highly fortified island, in early October. The goal was to open up the port of Antwerp to allow valuable war material and reinforcements to be shipped in to northern Europe. The battle was successful, but it cost the lives of many Canadians, along with British and Polish soldiers who took part in the assaults.

Freeston is mentioned a few times in the official Black Watch War Diary.

On Dec. 7, along with several other artillery officers “Capt. D.H. Freeston of our 3” mortars” was ordered to bombard a German position as part of a lightning raid by the Black Watch.

Freeston and his men fired tens of thousands of mortars over the course of their battles. In one 19-day period alone at the end of 1944 and early 1945, they fired 14,000 rounds.

“I was doing creeping barrages,” Freeston said.

A creeping barrage is when artillery lands just ahead of advancing troops. The idea is to time both the artillery and troop movements so that by the time any defending Germans could come out of cover, the footsoliders would be almost on top of them. Doing it properly requires good planning and constant communication to avoid hitting your own troops.

Over the years, Freeston said he’s found it harder to talk about the friends he lost in Europe.

“My battalion lost 2,000 men,” he said.

“We left all our heroes over there, in France and Holland,” Freeston said.

When they finally heard the war was over, there was a sense of relief more than celebration.

Because of his long service, Freeston was sent back to Canada by September. He married Dorothy two days after he arrived.

After doing various jobs, Freeston found himself back in the military in 1955 when he was offered a temporary commission. He found himself doing a lot of administrative work, and eventually got out of uniform only to be hired back as a civilian employee, with a long career working in various places across Canada until he retired in 1985.

He also went back to Europe, five times, tracing the path of the Black Watch and other Canadian military units, and laying wreaths at cemeteries of the war dead.

Freeston and his wife Dorothy have lived in Langley for the last 12 years, and he said he plans to attend this year’s Remembrance Day ceremonies at Aldergrove’s branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

He and Dorothy are getting a little too old to get out as much, but in the past he’s volunteered to sell poppies in November.

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