REGINALD ROY MILITARY HISTORIAN, 90

He preserved Canadian soldiers’ stories

VICTORIA — Special to The Globe and Mail

Reginald Roy was amn active participant in the Second World War before turning his talents to recoding it. (photo by J.J. Philion, University of Victoria Archives)

Reginald Roy enlisted in the army as a teenager before fighting the Nazis in Europe as a commissioned officer. After the war, he became an esteemed Canadian military historian.

In the six decades he spent in uniform and in studying the military, Mr. Roy’s most formidable weapon proved to be an unlikely one: the tape recorder. He interviewed enlisted men and Victoria Cross winners alike, preserving their accounts for future generations. These now comprise part of the Military Oral History Collection at the University of Victoria’s library, an invaluable resource for students and historians.

Story continues below ad

Mr. Roy, who has died in the Victoria suburb of Saanich at 90, wrote or edited a dozen books of biography and military history. Among these were well-received regimental histories of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s).

Perhaps his best known work was For Most Conspicuous Bravery, a biography of George Pearkes, whose bravery under fire after being wounded at Passchendaele in 1917 earned him the Victoria Cross. Mr. Pearkes later served as lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.

Mr. Roy worked as an archivist in Ottawa and Victoria before embarking on an academic career in British Columbia. His achievements were all the more remarkable for his having been a high-school dropout.

Reginald Herbert Roy was born at New Glasgow, N.S., on Dec. 11, 1922. His father had served in the First World War as a sniper before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps.

His mother’s relatives fought in the Crimea and in southern Africa. The boy grew up in Sydney, joining the Cape Breton Highlanders militia at the age of 16. He was ordered to report to his unit the day after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Soon after, the Canadian Parliament declared war on Germany.

He was issued a kilt, a sporran, a Glengarry cap and a tunic left from the Great War, Mr. Roy recounted in 1980 in his own reminiscences for the University of Victoria’s oral history collection. The Highlanders were provided neither socks, nor boots, nor shirts.

As a boy soldier, his pay was just 70 cents per day, barely more than half a private’s rate of $1.20. Boy Roy, as he was called, trained as a signaller with Morse code, heliograph and Lucas lamp – “the best Boer War equipment,” he quipped – before being assigned garrison duty at Saint John, N.B. After being transferred to Ontario in 1941, his assignments included a stint on sentry duty on Parliament Hill.

He crossed the Atlantic aboard the Aquitania, a luxury ocean liner converted into a troop ship, spending several days below deck confined to his bunk with seasickness.

He saw action in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In Italy, his tasks involved scouting and checking for booby traps as the Highlanders advanced. He knew never to step on the middle of a stair (more give allowed the enemy to plant a contact for a mine) and never to use an outhouse before thoroughly investigating it.

He spent Christmas Eve, 1944, on a reconnaissance patrol in northern Italy, coming within two metres of enemy soldiers. He returned safely at midnight, to be rewarded with hot tea, a tot of rum and slices of fruit cake.

Days later, he was ordered to scout an area near the town of Comacchio, south of Venice. He was unnerved by the sight of a severed soldier’s leg in a field. He crossed a partly destroyed bridge as machine-gun bullets binged off girders overhead and, while advancing up a road, sought cover alongside a rectangular metal box as shells began to land. Only after the firing stopped did he realize he had ducked beside a Riegel mine, a German anti-tank mine holding four kilograms of TNT and notorious for being easily detonated.

The reception in liberated Holland was more welcoming, as he told author Terry Copp for No Price Too High (1995). “The town went mad, completely mad with joy,” he said, “with foolish cheering, waving, kissing and crying.”

He began the war as Boy Roy and ended it as a lieutenant. Mr. Roy returned home, marrying a childhood sweetheart from Cape Breton and moving to the West Coast, where he completed his high-school education before attending Victoria College and then the University of British Columbia, where he completed a master’s degree. Another 14 years would pass before he earned a doctorate from the University of Washington in 1965. His thesis formed the basis for Sinews of Steel: The History of the British Columbia Dragoons, a regimental history of the province’s oldest cavalry unit.

For two years, Mr. Roy served as a writer with the historical section at Canadian Army headquarters in Ottawa before taking a position with the national archives. In 1954, he returned to Victoria to work at the provincial archives. He taught history at Victoria College and Royal Roads Military College (now Royal Roads University) in suburban Colwood before becoming a professor of military and strategic studies at the University of Victoria.

His official war histories were joined by such books for a general audience as 1944: The Canadians in Normandy (1984) and D-Day! The Canadians and the Normandy Landings, June 1944 (2001).

These were informed by his own experience in the war, especially his shock at the lack of preparedness even as Europe tilted toward what seemed to even a teenaged boy to be an inescapable conflagration.

“In the army, the permanent force was tiny, lacked equipment and was used primarily to train the militia,” he wrote. “None of the senior officers of the First Canadian Infantry Division, which landed in England in December, 1939, had even exercised a battalion on manoeuvres since 1918. Signallers lacked radio sets, few engineers had seen a mine detector – or a mine – and a modern field artillery gun was a rarity.”

Among his non-military volumes were biographies of the businessman David Lam, who became lieutenant-governor, and Sherwood Lett, a chief justice of the British Columbia Supreme Court. He also wrote a centennial history of the private Vancouver Club.

Mr. Roy, who died on Jan. 22, leaves Ardith, his wife of 67 years; a daughter, Franklyn Roy; a granddaughter; and two great-grandsons.

The military oral history collection established by Mr. Roy now comprises more than 700 interviews with veterans who fought in wars from the First World War to Afghanistan more recently. Those voices, including Mr. Roy’s own reminiscences, will never be stilled.

 

Follow on Twitter: @tomhawthorn