Ken and Freda Armstrong exemplify that romantic tradition in which a young man, sent overseas to fight for his country, finds love in the midst of danger, challenge and hardship. And when he returns home at war's end, the girl of his dreams soon follows, to begin a new life in Canada.
But like most war brides of the 1939-45 conflict, Freda was not just sitting at home, waiting for some knight in shining armour to arrive. Instead, she was actively engaged in defending her country, both before and after her marriage to Kenneth. Their story bears witness to the fundamental human impulse to reach out, build up, and nurture, rather than destroy.
Kenneth G. Armstrong
Kenneth George Armstrong was born October 10, 1920 in Toronto, to Kenneth Franklin Armstrong and Vera Emily (née Evans).
By the time war clouds loomed, young Kenneth had already served two years in the Military Reserves of the Royal Regiment of Toronto Grenadiers. Back then, Reserve members’ pay for each drill session was a sandwich, a cup of cocoa and two tram tickets. Reservists also received a small cheque toward their boots and uniforms each year, but usually signed it back.
Shortly before WW II was declared, the Toronto Grenadiers became the "Royal Regiment of Canada", a full fledged Infantry regiment in the Canadian Army. Ken enlisted in it September 2, 1939, just a few weeks shy of his 19th birthday. His brother Harry, two years younger, had added 2 years to his age to get into the Royal Regiment, but was reported by his parents.
However, six months later, Harry did gain admission to the 48th Highlanders Regiment.
"We didn't give it much thought," Ken relates. A colonel gave a speech about the war and invited anyone who wanted to go on active service, to cross to the other side of the armoury. Ken remembers, "I think everybody did or at least 99% of the regiment. We just marched across the floor."
Ken reported to the Toronto Exhibition Grounds which had been turned into a big army camp. There he stayed until March, 1940, at which point he was transferred to Camp Borden, where battalions were forming up to go overseas. Instead of being sent directly to Europe, Ken by then a Corporal, was sent on patrol duty in Iceland in May, 1940. Some British forces were already stationed in Iceland due to concerns the Germans might try to occupy the air base there, as well as deploy submarines out of ports in those Northern waters.
There was already a German military presence in Norway, so defense of Iceland was a tense waiting game. Allied servicemen were assigned "two weeks on, two weeks off", armed with binoculars and machine guns, to scan the frigid waters of the North Atlantic for signs of German U boats or landing parties. Ken recalls going on patrol in an Icelandic fishing boat that was being used to carry mail, ammunition and whiskey to the Royal Navy, stationed on the East coast of Iceland.
A Tense Moment
One day a German plane flew over the 40 foot fishing boat carrying Ken and a six man crew. Although known to be pro-German, the Icelanders were anti-Nazi, says Ken, so it was a tense moment when the 2-engine Dornier bomber flew over the boat, which as usual, was sailing under the Icelandic flag. These small Allied sea patrols were all the more vulnerable because at the time, the RAF was keeping a low profile in the area.
"They were flying so low over us that if they had spit on us they could have sunk us!", laughs Ken. Luckily all six men aboard were wearing ordinary sailors’ oilskins, so when someone asked "What should we do?" Ken yelled, "Wave at them!" Cordial waves were exchanged on both sides, and the German bomber flew away. However, the fear of invasion was well founded, and while stationed in Iceland, Ken's unit rounded up German engineers mapping territory for possible airfields.
Les Fusiliers de Montréal were stationed in Iceland at the same time as Kenneth's Royal Regiment of Canada. Later, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa took over that function.
Interestingly, while in Iceland, Ken's regiment was attached to the 49th Division of the British Army. As such, they wore the same shoulder patch as the Brits, namely a polar bear standing on an iceberg. Wearers of that patch were dubbed "blubber eaters", but although they did not actually eat whale blubber, there was a steady diet of mutton so much of it that Ken has never
been able to enjoy it since... Other staples were cod, bread, cheese and jam, washed down with plenty of tea.
On His Way to Europe
In November, 1940, Ken Armstrong sailed for England on the Empress of Australia, the same ocean liner that had taken him to Iceland. For the Iceland voyage, Corporal Ken was entitled to share a luxurious 2nd Class stateroom. But the second time around, the Empress had been turned into a troop ship and it was bunks for everybody.
In England, Cpl. Armstrong (although still a member of the Royal Regiment), was transferred to a reconnaissance role with the 4th Cdn. RECCE Squadron. At first, this involved patrolling the South coast of Britain by motorcycle. By 1941, 4th Cdn. RECCE Squad was amalgamated into the 8th Cdn. Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Hussars), and for the most part, motorbikes were replaced by armoured cars.
Still, barbed wire continued to get tangled up in the wheels, and there were many shouting matches between Ken,seated in the turret, and his Norwegian driver, Johnny down below... "Go ahead! Back up!, Go ahead, back, go! Break through!", Ken would yell. Frustrated, Johnny's accent would get thicker as he retorted, "How the hell can I yump when I ain't got room to stood?"
Girl Meets Boy
1939, Freda Birch-Johnson, after making a slight adjustment in her age, joined the City of London Civil Defence as a telephonist. Shemet Ken Armstrong in November, 1940 when he was on his first military leave in England
One night, when Freda was on duty during an air raid, the building next door was severely bombed. One bomb landed just outside the window of the Civil Defence post but did not explode. It was a common practice to drop delayed action bombs, timed to detonate minutes or hours after hitting their target so that rescuers and firemen would be injured. The bomb sat there for many hours until it could safely be removed. The following day, His Majesty King George, along with Winston Churchill were inspecting the damage, and commended the telephonists for remaining at their posts. During this time the Germans dropped many incendiary bombs, and the girls frequently ran out to extinguish them.
The romance between Freda and Ken blossomed, and they were married October 12th, 1941. After her marriage, Freda transferred from Civil Defense to the Fire Service, which coordinated civilian response to air raids and other fire emergencies. She coordinated dispatching at Tottenham, North London, right in the thick of the Blitz.
The couple's son, Kenneth John Armstrong, was born in London November 11, 1942. At one point, Ken convinced Freda to move with the baby from London to a village not targeted by the bombing. But, she recalls with a smile, "It was too quiet!" So she returned to her former post where, when she turned 20 had to lie about her age and say she was 21.
Freda's mother looked after baby Kenneth while Freda was on duty; eventually, when her mother was called up to work in a munitions plant, Freda left the Fire Service to care for her baby.
Allied Invasion of Normandy
Now with a wife and small child in England, Sgt. Ken was part of the massive Allied invasion of Europe which started on D Day, 6th of June, 1944. But because the armoured cars were no match for the razor wire and other German fortifications, Ken actually landed at Juno Beach June 10th, after the first wave of Allied landing craft, troops and tanks had secured the beach. He remembers there was a lot of shale at Juno Beach, and the tanks ground it down so the armoured cars could get a grip. The vehicle of choice provided to Ken and the other RECCEs
(pronounced "rekkies"), was the Staghound Armoured Car, a cramped, uncomfortable vehicle the Germans called "Tommy Cookers".
Technically, these Staghounds could carry a five-man crew although four men were the usual complement. Weapons onboard included a 37 mm gun, two .50 calibre machine guns (one down in the bow, the other in the turret) and one 303 machine gun.
Once established in Europe, the reconnaissance people were always out in front. One day, Ken's squad got REALLY too far ahead. They rounded a corner and saw what looked like the whole German army just up the line. The Canadians swung off into a wooded grove in their heavy armoured cars, finally stopping to take a breather. They were sitting there catching their breath when they heard the roar and revving of a heavy motor, headed straight toward them along a wooded trail. Training their guns in that direction, they waited. Then, rounding the bend, "Blow me down if it wasn't a blue GM truck kind of like a canteen from the (British) Navy Army Air Force Institute, or ‘NAAFI’.”
Ken's face lights up as he recounts, "There we were, facing them with all we've got", and the NAAFI truck had been carrying nothing more lethal than some sweet buns and coffee. The Brit at the wheel asked “Where the hell did YOU come from?” The NAAFI people then explained they had been feeding German troops ten minutes earlier, adding, “They let us go. We ain't got anything left but tea – but you're welcome to it!”
In Normandy about the 18th of July, near the town/village of Louvigny, Ken and L/Sgt. Hill and were on a RECCE. At a crossroad, he sent Hill’s car off to the left and he took the right. The last radio message Ken received from him, was that he was under fire. Then silence. Later that day Ken struck a land-mine, became a casualty and was evacuated to England. Sgt ken was advised later that Hill and his crew were listed as Missing in action...
Meanwhile, back in England, Freda was still on alert with the Fire Service. By that time, the main threat was from unmanned V1 doodle bugs as well as the V2s that zoomed in with their explosive charges at rapid intervals.
Heroism was an everyday fact as the British defended their homeland tooth and nail. Freda's brother, John, had lost a leg in his youth so was not eligible for military service. Instead, he dug air raid shelters day after day, despite the harm it did to his amputation. One night, John replaced a friend on Fire Watch, and was killed in an air raid.
Return to Canada
Victory in Europe meant that Ken and Freda's life together could begin anew. Ken's regiment came home to Canada early in 1945, and through a stroke of good luck, Freda and 2-year-old Kenneth Jr. were able to follow just six weeks later. The usual waiting period for spouses emigrating to Canada was more like six months. Leaving London in March, 1945, the Australian warship carrying Freda and little Ken had to travel under escort because some German submarines were still in the Atlantic. She remembers having to stay below decks for 11 days with other mothers with babies. Everyone was seasick.
Kenneth's mother and father sponsored Freda into Canada, and the young couple settled in York Mills, at the time, a Toronto suburb consisting of just a few houses quite a shock after life in London. With their shared interest in military service, Ken and Freda both joined the Reserves, where Ken got his old rank back and Freda served in the paymaster's office for eight years.
Like Parents, like Son
Kenneth John Armstrong followed in his parents footsteps when he grew up, by enlisting in the Armed Forces. For 30 years, Kenneth Jr. was a Canadian Peacekeeper in many parts of the world including the Congo, Iraq, Iran and Cyprus. He was 2nd in Command, serving with the 88th Cdn. Signal Regiment during the first Iraq Iran conflict, and retired from the Army
with the rank of Major in 1989.
Ken Jr. then went to work for Communications Security Establishment (a branch of CSIS), Department of National Defence. He bought a farm in Dunvegan and bred and trained racing quarter horses. Kenneth John died in 1993 as the result of an auto accident near his home.
At that time Ken Senior and Freda were still living in Toronto, but were planning to move to Eastern Ontario to be closer to their son's home base.
She and her husband kept active in their church and with the Vankleek Hill & District Horticultural Society. They enjoyed Sunday brunches with church friends and Freda attended many luncheons held by the Brits' Club, whose members included more than one war bride like herself.
Even though they met during the chaos of war, Freda and Ken managed to build a life that has brought them much happiness.