From our archives - Medals and Memories from a D-Day vet

Brodie Thomas
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The Late Alex Knee helped storm the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago today.

Alex Knee served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. He helped land troops at Normandy and survived the sinking of a ship by clinging to a door from the wreckage.

Editor's Note: Seventy years ago today, the late Alex Knee was piloting boatloads of soldiers to the beaches of Normandy as part of the D-Day operations.

A little less than three years ago, I sat down with Mr. Knee at his home and listened to his story. I was unprepared for what I was about to hear, as all I really knew was that he was a Second World War Veteran.

I remember how a radio call-in show was blaring in the next room. I had to lean in to make out what he was saying over the noise. The juxtaposition between the banality of the call-in show and the importance of what he was telling me almost angered me.

Here was a witness to the largest military operation in history. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of cogs in the machine that defeated the Nazis and restored democracy to Europe.

I tried in vain to do some justice to what he had told me by putting it on paper. There is - of course - no way to relay the reality of what happened on that day. That is why it was so important to listen and record what he had to say.

Mr. Knee is no longer with us. All we have now is this imperfect facsimile of what he went through. That is why I have brought it forward again today. It is important we revisit the stories of our veterans again and again, and think about what they must have gone through to defend our freedom.

 

Eleazer "Alex" Knee's memory isn't quite what's it used to be.

At 93 years of age, the Second World War veteran has a bit of trouble with names. But the stories of his time in the war are still fresh in his mind.

"I was on a ship this one time. And this old ... old whatsisname, the chief man over there for all the troops."

"It wasn't Churchill, was it?"

"Churchill. Yes. He came aboard the ship. I don't know what he came aboard for. He was smoking a cigar, anyway."

Mr. Knee said he was on duty at the time. He stopped to see what the prime minister was doing and then continued on about his business.

It was just one of two brushes with legendary figures Mr. Knee had during his time overseas.

He signed up at the very beginning of the war, in the fall of 1939. He stayed until the end and a bit beyond, returning to Newfoundland in 1946. He stayed on after VE day to help with the reconstruction efforts.

Besides being there from the beginning to end, he had a front row seat for the climax of the war in Europe. Mr. Knee, who served in the Royal Navy, ferried men to the beaches of Normandy for five days beginning on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

"I was engineer on the small boats. We could take 50 people. We landed and we'd go back again. We'd get shot at by Gerry there - up in the cliffs someplace shooting at you. I got clear but lots of fellers got killed there."

Mr. Knee wasn't able to join the military right away in 1939. He left from his home in Badger's Quay and joined the forestry service in Scotland instead as part of the war effort. About a year later he signed up with the Royal Navy in Dundee.

His letter of discharge has a long list of ships he served on. At least one ship, he can't recall the name now, was sunk.

"Most of the crew went down on her. But I got out. I got on a piece of wood. I got picked up the next day. I spent all night on a door."

He was brought to a hospital. He said for about a week he couldn't speak and he had no identification on him.

"They didn't know if I was a Gerry or a Newfie," he said with a laugh.

While in London, Mr. Knee saw the blitz personally. He was billeted to a home with another Newfoundlander from Greenspond. They had both returned from a night on the town and climbed into their beds when the bombing started.

"By God the glass started flying! And this was where they dropped a bomb right down through the house. Out where I was to, I was clear of it - but the old man and the woman who owned the place they got lost. And their daughter."

Mr. Knee found his boots in the rubble. His roommate from Greenspond escaped barefoot.

Mr. Knee said the Newfoundland contingent stuck together while in London. He said there was a building where Newfoundlanders could go to get three meals a day, a place to sleep, and even cigarettes.

While there he ran into his current neighbour, Mrs. Joyce Samms, past president with the Royal Canadian Legion Channel Branch 11. Mrs. Samms is still heavily involved with the legion. (Editor's Note: Joyce Samms has since passed away.)

He remembers seeing Princess Elizabeth coming to greet the soldiers. He didn't get to shake her hand, but the fellow standing next to him did.

Mr. Knee said while in England he learned to drive a vehicle. It was a skill that served him later in life because few outports had cars or even roads. It enabled him to get a job with the Department of Highways.

Throughout the war, he still managed a social life too.

"Any time you wanted to take a girl out, it was no problem to find one," said Mr. Knee with a grin.

He said he had a curfew of midnight, but on Saturday evenings they would head out to the dance halls.

Mr. Knee was wounded several times, taking bullets through his wrist and in his back and "backside." One chunk of metal remains there to this day.

That isn't the only piece of metal he still caries with him. His five medals for service in different theatres are now framed in a shadowbox. He admits they could use a little polish but he still holds them proudly.

Mr. Knee won't be donning his medals for Remembrance Day ceremonies this coming Friday in Port aux Basques. His knees are getting bad and he prefers to stay inside except for the odd car trip with his daughter.

While he won't be at the cenotaph, he will certainly be thinking of his comrades and his service on the eleventh.

Organizations: Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Legion Channel Branch, Department of Highways

Geographic location: Normandy, Europe, Newfoundland London Greenspond Badger Scotland Dundee England Port aux Basques

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