MEMOIRS

Love letters from a witness to war

May 9 1988
MEMOIRS

Love letters from a witness to war

May 9 1988

Love letters from a witness to war

MEMOIRS

The way you wear your hat,

The way you sip your tea,

The memory of all that,

No no, they can ’t take that away from me.

—Ira Gershwin, from one of band singer Dorothy Alt Whyte's featured numbers

Four years after the Second World War broke out in 1939, Winnipeg writer and broadcaster King Whyte joined the Canadian Army. In 191+1+ officials posted him overseas, where he worked as a London-based public relations officer in the department of psychological warfare and, later, as a war correspondent for Radio Luxembourg and the CBC before he returned to Canada in February, 191+6. While he was away, Whyte wrote to his wife, Dorothy, almost every other day—often concealing where he was by heading his letters “Somewhere in Germany, ” “Somewhere in France "or similar locations, on censors ' orders.

Long before he died—of a heart attack on June 26, 1962, at 51—the letters had been packed away and all but forgotten. But 20 years after her husband 's death, Dorothy Whyte found a trunk in the basement of her east-end Toronto home that contained the letters and other material relating to Whyte 's wartime experiences. Since then, one of the Whytes'

daughters, Maureen Ivans, a 37-year-old Toronto secretary, has devoted much of her spare time to organizing and editing the 361 pieces of correspondence—along with poems, pictures, articles and briefs—in order to publish a book.

Whyte 's vivid, meticulous accounts of his experiences often evoke a palpable sense of horror. But the tender expressions of yearning and affection that weave through his narratives also tell a moving love story. Three of Whyte 's letters are published here for the first time. The first, written from London, describes a vicious attack by German bombers in 191+1+—and the hideous aftermath:

June 16,

Dear Dodie:

Jerry has been having a good go at us. I was lying in bed last night reading a book called The British Infantrymen when the sirens went. A few moments later I heard ack ack and rockets in the distance, and then they opened up quite close. They make a hell racket. I went to the window to watch the show and saw what I thought was a plane, very low, and coned by the searchlights.

The ack ack was bursting all about it, but I don’t know whether or not it was hit. The ack ack fire was terrific, and the

windows were rattling like dice in a box. Then it quieted down, and I went back to bed and to sleep. I was awakened several times during the night by explosions and the ack ack fire. Once I got up half asleep to take another look. I opened what I thought was the window (it swings like a door) and was somewhat surprised to find that I had my head in the clothes closet. I laughed and cussed a bit and thought what a stupid dope I was.

The all clear didn’t sound until about 10:30 this morning, and the sirens and guns have been going at intervals all day. It was the longest alert since 1940. Jerry has finally sprung his secret weapon. I don’t imagine that there is censorship on it, so think I can tell you. It is a rocket-propelled glider bomb. Have been told that they are guided from France—there is no crew aboard. There were 58 of them sent over last night and the devastation from just one of them is terrific.

I took a camera crew out to Camden, about 15 minutes’ drive from the office, to photograph the damage. One of these bombs had dropped at an intersection, and for blocks and blocks there was death and ruin. Windows were blasted out nearly a half-mile away. In the section we visited, about 25 people had been killed and 80 injured.

As we stepped onto the scene, the workers were just digging out a body. All the rubble has to be moved by hand, and it is a trying business. The most miserable scene I saw was a young boy— he had been asleep in his bed when the blast came. The blankets were still over him and he had his pants under the bed, pressing them. From the same ruins,

one of the workers _

brought out a jet-black cat, very much alive but stunned. While we were taking our photographs, the sirens went again— but nobody stopped work. There was a woman sitting on the debris in front of what had been her home. She was waiting for the men to dig out her five children who were under the ruins.

Scenes like that were going on all over London today, and we expect that the same thing will go on again tonight. These English people have a lot of guts, darling. Don’t worry about me, my darling.

Your old man has a lucky star.

I’m glad that your programs have been going well, my dear. And I do want you to take such good care of yourself. I want to find the same good girl when I get home —standing up

straight, skin clear and eyes bright.

There go those damn sirens again. I’m carrying a tin hat around with me—the falling shrapnel from our ack ack is dangerous. Picked up a few pieces on the sidewalk this morning. Will save them for souvenirs. Gordon and I must go out to Merton Park and record a newsreel so will have to break this off. Have just had

_ a cup of tea and a couple

of biscuits. I’m getting to like tea. The ack ack has been banging at it, but the all clear has just sounded.

Will write again tomorrow, honey. Again, don’t worry about me. I’m really glad to be on active service. My little Saint Christopher medal will really be my guide. Say that little prayer every night, darling, and remember that I love you always.

Your loving husband, King.

Dorothy Alt was born on Feb. 18, 1917, in Plum Coulee, Man., one of nine children of German-Canadian parents. Her talent for singing and piano playing—as well as her breathtaking good looks—swiftly catapulted her from small-town to z big-city life and into a 2 successful career as a

popular singer. When she was still in her early 20s, she had already sung with several well-known bands—including the Percy Faith Orchestra—on radio shows broadcast throughout Canada, Britain and the United States. In 1939 she met her future husband at a broadcasting studio in Winnipeg and, at first, she recalled last week, “I didn 't even like him.”

He was good-looking enough, she said, but his dashing self-confidence and unrelenting persistence overwhelmed her. “I thought to myself that I was crazy to bother with him,” declared Dorothy. What softened her attitude, she said, was a stunt that Whyte conducted on a bitterly cold day in 191+0: equipped with a CBC radio transmitter, he clambered out onto the roof of a government office tower, broadcast a show, then phoned Dorothy and told her to get the hot chocolate ready because he was freezing. After several more months, Dorothy finally accepted his proposal and they were married on Aug. 28, 191+0.

In stunning contrast to those carefree days of courtship, the second letter relates Whyte's experience at Belsen— shortly after the Allies had liberated the notorious concentration camp in northwest Germany in April, 191+5:

Somewhere in Germany,

Tuesday, April 23

My dear wife:

Tonight I am a different man. I have spent the last two days in the Belsen concentration camp—the most horrible festering scab there has ever been on the face of humanity. It was so horrible that

I am not going to tell you of it—I still cannot bring myself to write my reports to Radio Luxembourg. It makes me sick to my stomach to even imagine the smell, and I want to weep and go out in the streets and kill every Nazi I see when I think of what they have done to those countless thousands of people.

The Nazis aren’t even worthy of the name of beasts—very few beasts kill out of sheer wantonness and sadistic lust. You may have seen pictures in the paper, but they cannot tell the story. You have to smell it and feel it and keep a stern look on your face while your heart

tears itself into pieces and the tears of your compassion drench your soul. My God, that there should be such suffering on the face of this earth.

I have seen hundreds of people dying before my eyes. I have seen filthy green corpses used as pillows by the living. I have seen women trying to nurse babies dead for weeks. I have seen 40,000 people living and dying among their own fetid offal. They are dying faster than they can be buried. For most of them, food is absolutely of no use. Their stomachs will not take it—they vomit—or they have dysentery, and it goes right through them.

All over the camp, both men and women squat wherever they happen to be— there is not a latrine, and it is almost impossible to walk around without stepping in filth. An American medical officer, in charge of the Allied Typhus Commission, told me that any one of the cases in the camp would put any hospital in the United States into a flap. He is, incidentally, the only American in the

area. I had to be sprayed with powder, even in my hair and in my beret, before I could enter the place. It is a sinkhole of pestilence.

The SS guards were left behind at the camp when the Germans retreated. They are burying the dead. I leave it to your imagination—the love the Tommies have for them .... I could write you like this for hours, my darling, but I said I wasn’t going to tell you of the things I have seen. Only, in the years to come, if I am suddenly sick on the street it will be because some smell has wafted to my nostrils which my stom-

ach remembers from Belsen.

I expect that I will only be here for another week and then it will be back to Luxembourg for reassignment. I am writing this letter on a typewriter which I “liberated” in this town.

I do wish this letter wasn’t like this, darling, but you are the only one I can tell my thoughts to. I couldn’t help thinking of your mother and father. If they were living in Europe they would have been in such a place. An English officer came up from Lux with me. His grandmother and grandfather were German Jews and were expatriated from Germany to Holland. When the Germans took Holland they were put into concentration camps. The old man died two years ago at 82, the old lady died in Belsen last August at 73. The old man was gassed because he was too old to work. At Belsen there weren’t many Jews—just plain ordinary people who didn’t happen to be Nazis or in sympathy with the Germans. There were many Germans among them.

I wish I had a drink, but last night before I went to bed I finished the last of my whisky. I won’t get another bottle until Lord knows when, and I just had a couple of shots left anyway. A man needs a drink once in a while around these parts. If it wasn’t dark, I would go out and see if I could liberate a couple of bottles of schnapps; but it isn’t healthy walking around in the night air.

I don’t know what I am going to do about an anniversary present for you, honey. I just haven’t been able to buy anything. I feel hellish about it, but that’s the way it is. Please understand honey... Verstehen du, bitte.... How I would love to be home tonight beside you. I know that you would soothe this head of mine and my heart, too. But, I have to stick it, and I will. If I only weren’t such a softie, but no man except a Nazi could look on the things I have seen and not have it get him. There is always the comfort for me of knowing that you are waiting for me and that someday all will be well again. Think of me often, my darling. I love you so.

Your Loving Husband,

King.

Shortly after his return to Canada, Whyte, an avid sportsman and conservationist, took a job as the outdoors columnist for The Toronto Star, and he and Dorothy settled in Toronto. Their first child, Kathleen, was bom in 191+8; Maureen was bom in 1950. Dorothy continued to sing professionally until she was in her 1+Os, mostly on CBC Radio, where she was featured along with such relative newcomers as George Murray and Billy O’Connor. Along the way, Whyte emerged as a media star in his own right: from 1951+ until his death, he hosted The King Whyte Show, an outdoors TV show, which followed Saturday-night broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada.

Whyte also established a reputation as a philanthropist whose enterprises enriched the lives of many people, particularly veterans and native Canadians. Indeed, said Ivans, her father’s sensitive and compassionate nature made his life difficult to bear at times. “He wasn’t perfect, honey, ” said Dorothy, still vibrantly handsome at 71, despite the massive stroke that she suffered several years ago. “We fought about everything. But King always made a point of settling arguments before we went to bed. ” Still, she said, the key to keeping their mutual passion alive was their frequent separations. “He travelled a lot. I'd say, ‘Goodbye, enjoy yourself. ' And when he came back,

were we ever glad to see each other!” The final letter strikes an equally-jubilant note: in it, Whyte tells of the events of May U, 1915, when more than a million German soldiers surrendered to British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath—an incident that set the stage for Germany 's official surrender on May 7 and the declaration of Victory in Europe ( VE) Day on May 8.

The situation illustrates what Ivans has described as her father's uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time: Whyte was the only Canadian known to have witnessed the historic event.

May 5,

Somewhere in Germany

My darling Dodie:

Well, the war in the West is over. Yesterday I was the only Canadian present when Field Marshal Montgomery met with the German delegates and signed the papers of unconditional surrender. It was a wonderful sight. You will see it in the newsreels—I was standing beside the camera. None of the Canadian correspondents was on hand, so I was the only Canadian present.

The first indication I had that it was going to be an unusual day was when I stepped out in front of this little hotel in the early morning. Four lorry loads of German soldiers rolled up unescorted. An officer asked me if I knew where the prisoner-of-war compound was. I directed him, and on they went. As we drove along on our journey, we passed thousands and thousands of German soldiers. There were columns miles long. For mile after mile we drove through countryside and towns and were the first to carry the star insignia into those areas. Whole villages turned out—the children waved white

flags and the Boche stood sullenly by the roadside as we roared on. It was fantastic and unbelievable.

Then we ran into the German refugees fleeing before the Russian advance. Women and children bedded down in the fields with no shelter but a blanket— and it hailed and it rained and it was desperately cold. All that was needed to complete the picture of what the Ger-

mans visited on other countries were planes strafing the roads. Hundreds and hundreds of German military vehicles had been shot up the few days previously and they were almost bumper-tobumper for miles as they had been pushed off the highways. Dead horses were beginning to swell and some trucks were still burning.

When we made the linkup with the Russians, they could speak no English nor German and we knew only one word in Russian—tovarich [comrade]. So we laughed, shook hands, laughed some more, had a drink and started the long journey back. It was long past dark when we arrived at our camp, and the Germans were still shuffling along the highways in the rain. Then, yesterday morning, we were told to be on hand at four in the afternoon. We went in convoy to Monty’s HQ. A big tent had been pitched and the YMCA had set up tea for us. After we had had our tea, Monty came in and we all sat on the grass around him and he told us of the negotiations which had led to the surrender. He was superb.

After the briefing, we waited for a while and then were called on up to the tent in which the surrender would take place. The German officers showed up and General Admiral [H. G. von] Friedeburg [commander-in-chief of the

German fleet] walked up the steps of Monty’s caravan and knocked on the door. He went in and shortly afterwards emerged to walk towards the surrender tent with his colleagues. Monty followed them with his portfolio under his arm. He then read the terms, the paper was signed, and the whole thing was over. It was a thrilling moment, and I was proud to be there —

proud that I was a Canadian.

Last night I made a disc for the CBC. I hope it is used. RCAF public relations cut it. So, I’ve had a bit more excitement. Last night we all got a bit tight in the mess, and this morning I have taken things easy. After I have finished this letter, I’m going to Hamburg but will be back in time for supper. Have signalled for a vehicle to take me back to HQ and Luxembourg. Now that the war is over, there isn’t much for me to report, so I’ll probably be going back on the information control job. I really don’t know what the score will be, but I’m going to be adamant about being home for Christmas. I certainly heaved a sigh of relief yesterday when I realized that the war was over and I was still all in one piece. But I had a feeling I would be because of that lucky star of mine.

The hardest and longest part is over now, darling. All I have to do is finish up my job over here and then I’ll be on the way home again. It will be some months, but we know for sure it will happen. So, don’t let down now. I know you will be as impatient as I, but we won’t have to be apart much longer. I’ll be home as soon as it is possible for me to be. Must go now, darling. Will write tomorrow. All my love, my sweet.

Your Loving Husband,

King. □