I can think of no better way to commemorate this Remembrance Day than by giving you my late grandfather, William Guy Brissenden’s own words in a speech delivered to my cousin’s high school a number of years ago.
Good morning and thank you for your kind invitation to share with you this Remembrance Day, my 61st since the end of World War II.
What this day means to me, I will leave until later because first I want to share my World War II experiences with you. I just hope that these experiences may help motivate each and every one of you towards getting the best possible education that you can, because only by doing so will you be able to make, in civilian life or in military life, should that regretfully ever become necessary again, your maximum contribution to society and your country.
When World War II started in the fall of 1939, I was 24 years old and had graduated from university a year earlier with my Masters Degree in Engineering. I joined the Royal Canadian Navy in October 1940 as a Sub Lieutenant. By this time in the war, the navy had found itself entering fields that were largely or totally unfamiliar. The navy was compelled to employ specialists in many fields that were not immediately related to seamanship. Most of these specialists were entered into a special branch as I was.
One of the critical challenges facing the Canadian, British and later American navies was to keep the sea lanes open from North America to England. With out the men and material that were sent by ship from North America to England and Europe, it is very possible that the Allied nations would not have won the war against Nazi Germany. In order for the supply ships to make it to England, the Allied navies had to defeat the threat of German submarines or U-Boats as they were known. This battle against the German U-Boats became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.
Early in the war, the tactics and technology that eventually defeated the German U-Boats was in its infancy. After my initial training at the Anti Submarine Warfare School, I was assigned to devise and build the Anti Submarine Fixed Defenses at the entrance to Halifax Harbour. There were virtually no textbooks to learn from, most of the technology was unfamiliar to the navy and the project had to be completed as soon as possible. It was to become a colossal undertaking. As a boy living in Halifax during World War I, I lived through the famous Halifax Explosion, so I knew full well what a catastrophe it would be if a U-Boat managed to get into the harbour and attack the shipping there.
I was very fortunate to have a good team working with me and the system that we designed and built was fully operational by November 1941. As a result, the Port of Halifax became the safe haven it was meant to be for transatlantic shipping. Convoys on their way to and from Great Britain regularly formed in its inner harbour with supplies of all kinds, such as food, munitions and other Canadian and American material and of course troops. Halifax also became the major repair base for Canadian warships.
During the rest of the war, I continued to help develop and build anti submarine defenses for other harbours in Canada and England and after transfer to Naval Service Headquarters helped co-ordinate the development of advanced anti submarine detection devices. As the war continued we were able to improve our anti submarine tactics and technology to a point that the submarine threat was significantly reduced and ultimately the Battle of the Atlantic was won.
On a more personal level, Remembrance Day brings back memories of loved ones. I like most Canadians at that time faced the loss of family members and close friends. One of my brothers and one of my wife’s brothers did not return from the war. Friends with whom I had worked before the war also made the ultimate sacrifice. Over the past 61 years I look at what a wonderful country Canada has become and often think of the debt of honour all of us owe to these heroes that never returned home.
I retired from the navy at the end of the war as a Lieutenant Commander. It was a privilege serving my country and I was glad I did, but I was thankful that it was over. I was very proud that my education allowed me the opportunity to serve with so many special people and to make a significant contribution to the war effort. I hope that my experience will encourage you to pursue your education, not only for your own benefit, but also for the benefit of our society and our country.
William Guy Brissenden, 1915-2012