Veteran (89) recounts war memories on trip to Derry

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A youthful 89, Rolfe Monteith, has many memories of his time in the Canadian Navy - including many convoys he was involved in as part of the Battle of the Atlantic.

In Derry at the weekend as part of the Battle of the Atlantic commemorations, and the unveiling of the ‘International Sailor’ statue, Rolfe felt that being here to see the statue unveiled was “extremely important”.

“I am originally from Ontario, Canada, which is right in the middle of the country, yet despite not being from the coast I always wanted to be in the Navy. From as young as eight, it was my ambition, and I went to join up aged just 16. However, at that time the recruiting officer sent me back to finish my last year at school, advising me that I would be better joining with an education, so I joined a year later, in 1940.”

When asked if he had any reservations about joining amidst a world war, Rolfe was emphatic in his response. “No, not at all, and I left home aged just 17 to travel to the naval college in Britain. At that time, there were nationalities from all over the Commonwealth in training alongside me - from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India - but with the war going on in much of Europe we were joined by those from the occupied countries too, including France, Norway, Belguim and Poland. So the training had a very international feel to it.”

But it would be almost three years before Rolfe actually went to war. “I was trained to be an engineer and when I finally went to sea it was as part of the convoys going from Britain to Iceland, and in later years, down to Gibraltar.

“These would have been taking troops and supplies to where they were needed.”

And yet, despite the German U-boats claiming many casualties, Rolfe said he never felt a sense of fear. “It was what I was trained to do, and I just did it. It’s only retrospectively that I look back and see that it was a dangerous time. However, I sailed mostly on destroyers or crusiers. It’s when you speak to the veterans who sailed on the smaller corvettes that you sense how rough a time they had.

“The corvettes were much smaller and the living conditions would have been appalling, with water seeping onto the deck continually. And those sailing on them would have been there for years at a time. You can imagine their elation when they would have come into ports like Derry. To see green fields, eat proper food and sleep on a decent bed, they are all things that the veterans speak of.”

Rolfe himself had little sense of the danger he was facing on a daily basis. “I was a mid-ship worker and would have known little about the details of our convoys. But the bottom line is that U-boat attacks were a very real prospect. In fact, just two weeks after I had disembarked from HMS Hardy, it was attacked and ultimately run aground. Forty two men lost their lives that day and the incident got nothing more than one paragraph in the national newspapers.”

Having returned home, aged 21, with a British bride in tow, Rolfe remained in the Canadian Army for 25 years following the end of World War Two. He eventually moved back to Britain with his wife Peggy in 1970, but she sadly passed away three years later. He took up engineering work within the strong British industry but it is now, some 40 years later that he is determined to see the Battle of the Atlantic get the recognition he believes it deserves.

“So many people are aware of the Battle of Britain, and its significance in the war, but very few would say the same about the Battle of the Atlantic. Yet, it was the longest-running campaign of the war, and without it there is no doubt that we would have struggled against the Germans.”

And that is why Rolfe made the trip over to Derry last weekend to see the unveiling of the ‘International Sailor’.

“We’ve visited the statue in Canada, and I’ve always loved it and when I heard five years ago that there was talk of getting an identical one made for Derry I always said I would be here for its unveiling.

“It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’s positioned so that it’s looking back towards Nova Scotia, and the other statue. Although I believe the one in Derry has a more weathered look about him, which is apt, given that he has spent years at sea in battle.”

Now, Rolfe hopes to fulfil an ambition, and persuade the BBC to produce a documentary about the Battle of the Atlantic.

“I lost four school friends and a cousin during the war, and I have marched on every Armistice Day for almost thirty years. Now, I think they, and countless other seafarers should be recognised with a programme about their fight on the high seas so that people today understand the significance of the war at sea.”